II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > E. Rome > 5. The Later Empire, 284–527 C.E.
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
5. The Later Empire, 284–527 C.E.
a. Economy, Society, and Culture
The economy of the Empire continued to be troubled. Land went out of cultivation because of war, the flight or revolt of hard-pressed peasants, and an overall decline in population. In an effort to maintain agricultural production, the settling of barbarians inside the Empire, which had become regular in the 3rd century, assumed a grand scale in the 4th century. The number of slaves continued to decline, but slavery by no means disappeared. In agriculture, the labor of slaves tended to be replaced by that of coloni (tenant-farmers), whose status was originally free but fell over time to that of being tied to the land. By 400, the legal codes refer to coloni as servi terrae (slaves of the land). The power of landowners grew correspondingly, and those in the west became independent of the imperial government, even raising private armies. In the east, where the imperial presence in Constantinople assured a strong central administration, wealthy landholders were less independent. Another reflection of the decreasing need for slaves is the dramatic decline in freedmen, both in and outside of the imperial service. In the late Empire, freedmen were replaced by freeborn bureaucrats, as the imperial bureaucracy, together with the army, became the principal avenue of social mobility. The economic focus, and increasingly the cultural focus, of the Empire shifted from cities to large estates, particularly in the west. Municipal office had lost most of its authority and independence to imperial officials, and from the time of Diocletian and Constantine it was a hereditary duty. Laws forbidding municipal aristocrats to escape the ruinous burdens of office were regularly circumvented or ignored, and many of the urban elite retreated to their countryside estates, which had always been their sources of wealth. In the east, however, where the institution of the city-state had a longer tradition, and where proximity to Constantinople and imperial armies afforded protection, cities remained prosperous until the 6th century. Not all areas of the Empire were equally affected by economic decline. The Danubian provinces and large parts of Gaul suffered from foreign invasion (See Foreign Invasion and Internal Disarray), but Sicily enjoyed continuing prosperity, and Africa remained prosperous until it was taken by the Vandals (429–39) (See 429–534). The eastern provinces, which were less affected by foreign invasion, remained relatively prosperous. Interprovincial trade in grain and other articles of mass consumption revived under Diocletian and lasted, though at a reduced rate, through the 4th century. It was the invasions of the 5th century that brought about irreversible decline.  1
Trade was to a great degree subordinated to imperial needs. By the end of the 3rd century, members of collegia, who had originally been partners in independent business associations, were legally tied to their occupations. By the 4th century all trades and occupations were organized into hereditary collegia, which were bound to provide services for the state. Compensation was paid at a fixed rate, which became lower over time, and was accompanied by increased regulations. The economic troubles of the 3rd century had led to a severe debasement of the coinage, but although the monetary element of the economy was severely curtailed, it never disappeared. Diocletian's attempt to reestablish the currency with the issuing of the new gold aureus and silver argenteus failed, and bronze and silver coins continued to decline in value; silver coins ceased to be minted altogether by the 5th century. Stability was established by Constantine's new gold coin—the solidus—which remained the standard coinage of the Eastern Empire until 1070.  2
The emperor was now the sole source of Roman law. But the extension of the Roman citizenship to virtually all free inhabitants of the Empire had affected the practice of law in the provinces, which became a mixture of debased Roman law and local practice. An example of this “vulgar law” is the lex Romana Visigothorum issued in 506 by Alaric II, king of the Visigoths (See 419–507). Classical Roman law was continued in the east by the law schools of Beirut and Constantinople. The problem of codifying the enormous body of earlier law was met by the publication of the codex Theodosianus in 438, which continued to be used in the west. The greatest work of legal compilation was carried out under Justinian (See 527–65) by the jurist Tribonian and encompassed the publication (between 530 and 534) of the Digest (or Pandects), the Institutes, the Codex Justinianus, and the Novellae Constitutiones (the Novels), which together make up the Corpus Iuris Civilis, as it was later called.  3
As a function of urbanism, literacy, together with schools and the production of books, underwent a general if uneven decline beginning in the mid-third century. A cultural disjuncture grew up among the governing classes between administrators who continued to be highly educated and less-literate military men. It was for the latter that the numerous epitomes of the lengthier works of classical literature were now produced. The rise of Christianity affected a change in the pattern of literacy but did not cause an overall increase. For while literacy was important for church leaders, most Christians heard rather than read holy scripture. Christians were in the forefront of the replacement of the book scroll by the codex. The majority of non-Christian texts began to be affected by the change only in the 4th and 5th centuries.  4
The relative peace established by Diocletian and Constantine led to a revival of literature, but with a number of significant changes. As the Empire had been administratively divided between east and west, so too was its culture. Knowledge of Greek became rarer in the west, and Latin literature no longer drew so heavily on Greek models. The focus of Latin literature moved away from Rome, as centers of literary patronage shifted to other imperial capitals. To varying degrees authors began to use the classical tradition in writing about Christian themes. Latin poetry was continued by Decimus Magnus Ausonius (310–394), who became tutor to young Gratian and composed a great number of poems in a variety of genres. Claudius Claudianus (Claudian, c. 370–404) was born in Alexandria and became court poet at Milan, where he wrote panegyric and historical and mythological epics. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348–405), born in Spain, wrote lyric poems on Christian themes. Gaius Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius (c. 431–486), who eventually became a bishop, was from a Gallic family of distinguished imperial officials. Dividing his life and his work between politics and leisured retirement, he wrote light poems (nugae), verse panegyrics, and letters, which give a vivid description of Romans and barbarians in fifth-century Gaul. Latin biography was continued in the form of the 4th-century collection of imperial lives (Hadrian to Numerianus) called the Historia Augusta. Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330–395), an army officer from Syria, wrote the last great history in Latin (Res Gestae), which treated the years 96–378 (only the parts covering 353–378 survive). The letters and speeches of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus portray the life of a distinguished Roman senator who revived and fought for classical literature and traditional culture. The antiquarian Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (fl. 430) preserved a vast amount of earlier learning in his Saturnalia, while Martianus Capella (fl. 420) wrote The Marriage of Mercury and Philosophy, an allegorical potpourri of classical learning.  5
Concrete and brick architecture reached truly grandiose proportions. In Rome, Diocletian surpassed the great thermae of Caracalla, with his own enormous bath complex, while Maxentius began, and Constantine completed, the equally enormous Basilica Nova on the Via Sacra. Imperial complexes which combined palaces and circuses, and sometimes mausolea, were built in or near most imperial capitals—Rome, Milan, Thessalonica, Antioch, and Trier, while Diocletian built a grand palace at Salona (Split) on the Dalmatian coast. With Constantine's conversion to Christianity, imperial largess went to building great churches. Public and private buildings were decorated with varieties of imported marbles, wall paintings, and mosaic work (e.g., Santa Costanza in Rome). The sculptural programs of late Roman imperial monuments witness not a degeneration of technique, but an expansion of the repertoire of styles to include the traditional and new (the arches of Diocletian and Constantine in Rome). In official portraiture, the tetrachs continued to be presented in the style of third-century military emperors (the Venice Tetrarchs). After 312 Constantine, wishing to distance himself from his predecessors, adopted a new image which was civilian and youthful. After 324 the diadem and the upward gaze were added, evoking both contemporary religiosity and the image of Hellenistic kingship.  6
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.