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The Roman Empire, AD 395
By Undevicesimus   |   Watch
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Published: July 8, 2014
© 2014 - 2019 Undevicesimus
The Roman Empire enjoyed approximately one hundred and sixty years of administrative and military excellence under the Principate of Augustus and his able successors. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates and from the North Sea to the Sahara Desert, the Romans had successfully imposed a state of peace and stability – Pax Romana – which local uprisings, foreign enemies, deranged emperors or succession crises never managed to discredit. However, troubles within and beyond Roman control began to darken the imperial horizons as the second century progressed. History teaches that even the fortunes of a mighty empire can take a turn for the worse in a heartbeat and Rome was no exception

At the death of emperor Hadrian in AD 138, Rome’s power stood at its zenith: the imperial frontiers had been thoroughly strengthened, peace abroad seemed secure and internal strife was trivial after Rome’s suppression of the Bar Kohkba Revolt in AD 136. Hadrian’s policies of consolidation and pacification were continued by his successor Antoninus Pius, whose two decade reign marked the most peaceful chapter in the empire’s history: the tranquillity before the storm. When Antoninus Pius died in AD 161, a dual Principate was formed by his successors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Under their leadership, Rome’s power and frontiers came under suddenly increasing pressure. Renewed aggressions from the Parthian Empire in the east led to full-scale war in AD 162 and a hard-fought Roman victory at the destruction of the Parthian capital Ctesiphon in AD 165. However, the Roman legions returned home with a devastating epidemic – the Antonine Plague – which swept over the empire as far east as the Rhine and is said to have claimed millions of lives  a demographic calamity. Among the countless dead was co-emperor Lucius Verus, who had just led the Romans to victory against Parthia. Hardly had the Parthian storm been tamed or the Romans were forced into war against the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians who crossed the Danube frontier en masse from AD 167 onward. Population growth in the Germanic heartland around the Baltic Sea had sparked migrations which brought the weight of much of the Germanic world down on Rome’s northern frontier. In this First Marcomannic War, the Roman legions under the command of Marcus Aurelius bitterly defended the entire length of the Danube, securing victory by AD 175. Marcus Aurelius also wrote his famous ‘Meditations’ (Greek: Τ ες αυτόν) – one of the great works of stoic philosophy – during these troubled times. The devastation caused by the Antonine Plague and the wars against Parthia and the Germanic tribes consumed Rome’s resources up to a point of near-irreversible exhaustion. Although the empire emerged victoriously and intact, the Pax Romana had at last lost its glory.

To worsen matters further, the Second Marcomannic War broke out in AD 177 and Marcus Aurelius made his worst mistake in appointing his son Commodus as co-emperor. When Marcus Aurelius died in AD 180, Commodus took power as emperor, concluded a disadvantageous peace with the Germanic tribes north of the Danube and isolated himself in Rome. Commodus’ megalomania, decadence and tyranny left the empire rotting for over a decade. His assassination in AD 192 and the subsequent internal power struggle made for a more than ominous finale of the second century.

But the Roman Empire did not fall apart so easily, having dealt with perilous times on more than one occasion in its history. Order was restored from AD 193 onward by Septimius Severus, a gifted administrator and commander who threw the entire weight of his power behind the army, believing that only the Roman military could restore the Pax Romana. Under Severus’ leadership, the Romans quickly turned the tide both internally and externally: pretenders were eliminated, monetary reforms enacted, the army enlarged, barbarian hordes halted and the Parthians driven back. Subsequently, the Roman legions launched a massive counter-offensive in the north, east and south, proving all the more how far the empire really was from imploding. The armies of Severus smashed the Parthians in a retaliatory war, culminating once again in the destruction of Ctesiphon in AD 197. Severus then annexed sizeable territories east of the Euphrates and reinforced the limites defending the empire against the Arabian tribes. Next, the Romans put an end to the continuous raids of the Garamantes, a Berber people living in the Sahara Desert. Never before had a Roman army advanced so far south, ending the war victoriously by razing the Berber capital Garama in AD 203. Severus’ subsequent war against the tribes of Caledonia (Scotland) was cut short when he fell ill and died in early AD 211.

Septimius Severus’ accomplishments were largely the result of his autocratic rule. The semi-republican facade of the Principate became increasingly irrelevant as the empire was put into a permanent state of emergency under the most militarised regime the Romans had known yet. This allowed Severus the freedom to efficiently sweep away Rome’s internal and external problems and leave a revitalised empire at his death. In some ways, history seemed to be repeating itself. When the Roman Republic proved no longer capable of managing an empire, it had been transformed into the semi-republican Principate by Augustus. At the dawn of the third century, it had become clear that the Principate itself was now no longer capable of dealing with the empire’s growing problems. Septimius Severus had understood this well, setting a precedent for his successors to transform the Roman government once more. However, given the difficult transition from Republic to Principate centuries earlier, it seemed likely that transforming the Principate would be equally tricky, not to say bloody. Moreover, the problems the Romans had conquered under Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus were only the overture to the even greater disasters of the third century.

Like Aurelius before him, Severus made a huge mistake in appointing his sons Caracalla and Geta as joint-successors. The Severan dynasty proved to be power-hungry and incompetent (unlike Severus himself), personified most of all in the rule of Caracalla who murdered his brother and was ultimately murdered himself in AD 217. The empire then came close to complete anarchy, initially under the continued mismanagement of Severan rulers. But when Alexander Severus was killed in AD 235, power passed to ‘soldier emperors’ – military commanders using their armies to compete for power. In approximately fifty years, no less than twenty-five emperors, anti-emperors and usurpers passed the revue, of which only one died peacefully. The empire had plunged into a permanent civil war which reduced the Roman government to near-impotence in managing even its basic affairs. The Roman economy collapsed under the weight of inflation, the heavy taxation imposed by pretenders and the resulting civil impoverishment, which in turn set the scene for widespread banditry and epidemics among the masses.

Meanwhile in Persia, the Parthian Empire had been overthrown by one Ardashir, who founded the new Sassanid dynasty in AD 224 and built a highly centralised regime with the goal of restoring the ancient empire of the Achaemenids. Though the Parthians had boasted a similar claim, the Sassanids actually found themselves in a position to try and make it a reality. The rise of the Sassanid Empire thus greatly increased the pressure on Rome’s crumbling eastern frontiers.

The civil unrest raging within the empire at last triggered a flood of external catastrophes when emperor Decius fell in battle against the Goths in AD 251. Shortly afterwards, the Franks invaded Gaul and threatened Spain, the Alamanni and Marcomanni crossed the Danube and advanced on Italy, the Goths ravaged Greece and the Black Sea region, and the Sassanids conquered vast swathes of the Middle East and even captured emperor Valerian in AD 260. The latter tragedy provoked several key regions of the empire to break away and form usurper empires: Gaul, Britain and Spain declared the Gallic Empire (Latin: Imperium Galliarum) and in the east the Kingdom of Palmyra (Latin: Regnum Palmyrae) was founded around the city of Palmyra, controlling Egypt, the Middle East and most of Asia Minor. The Roman Empire at last seemed to be facing its irreversible defeat, but the Romans were not about to let it happen like that. To them, their empire was still supreme and therefore superior to all others: there could be no empire besides that of the Romans and accepting its defeat was unthinkable even in the darkest of times. It must be noted that Rome’s trademark fanaticism and self-confidence ultimately not only saved the empire but also allowed for a powerful resurgence of the supremacy it had enjoyed while the Pax Romana lasted. Such a recovery could however only be realised if the Roman government reinvented itself and reasserted its authority without compromise.

Having come to this conclusion, Rome resorted to drastic measures in sweeping away the calamities piled up on its doorsteps and achieving the imperial revival. The first architect of this was undoubtedly emperor Aurelian, who came to power in AD 270. Like many before and after him, Aurelian was first of all a military commander, but indeed one of exceptional ability and dedication. By building upon the army reforms and renewed victories of his predecessors Gallienus and Claudius II, Aurelian set out to seize the initiative Rome needed. Roman forces decisively defeated the Alamanni within a year and drove them out of Italy before turning east to clear the Balkans of Gothic marauders. Aurelian decided not to reclaim Roman Dacia beyond the Danube, but instead marched against the Palmyrene realm of the usurper queen Zenobia in the east. Before the end of AD 272, the Romans stood victorious at Palmyra and Aurelian paraded Zenobia as a trophy in the streets of Rome. All the territories ruled from Palmyra were retaken by AD 273, culminating in the triumphant destruction of Palmyra itself after a renewed revolt. Having restored Roman authority in the east, Aurelian’s next objective was to dissolve the Gallic Empire in the west. His able predecessor Claudius II had managed to retake Spain for Rome, but all of Gaul and Britain were at this point under the wavering rule of one Tetricus and his son. The armies of Aurelian scored a crushing victory at the Battle of Châlons in AD 274 and thus secured Rome’s territorial restoration. Aurelian was hailed by the Romans as “Lord and God” and “Restorer of the World” (Latin: Dominus et Deus, Restitutor Orbis). Rome seemed poised to tame the storms of the third century once and for all…

Unfortunately, Aurelian was assassinated by the umpteenth Praetorian conspiracy and thus failed to truly rebuild the Roman governmental framework. His successors Tacitus (r. AD 275 – 276), Probus (r. AD 276 – 282) and Carus (AD 283 – 284) managed to maintain the momentum created by Aurelian, defend the Rhine-Danube frontier against the Germanic tribes and beat back renewed Sassanid incursions in the east, but none of them reigned long enough to impose the administrative reforms so urgently needed by the empire.

Though Rome’s territorial revival was orchestrated by Aurelian, the mastermind behind the empire’s new government was Diocletian. During his reign, the Romans at last did away with the outdated semi-republican facade imposed on the imperial monarchy by Augustus. From AD 284 onward, Diocletian worked tirelessly to establish a new form of government: the Dominate. Diocletian and his successors ceased to be called princeps, and openly emerged as dominus, a title already assumed by Aurelian but which was now given a two-way legitimate meaning. First of all, the Roman people were to be represented by the emperor alone. The ancient republican idea of the ‘Senate and People of Rome’ (Latin: Senatus Populusque Romanus), whereby the former represented the latter and which nominally existed during the Principate, disappeared forever. Secondly, Diocletian deified the imperial family and introduced a personality cult of religious proportions which borrowed liberally from the Hellenic kings of the past and Rome’s Sassanid nemesis in the east.

The deification of the Roman leadership was only part of Diocletian’s plan for the Dominate’s new governmental framework, which was founded on three pillars of reform. First of all, the imperial bureaucracy was expanded and given all administrative responsibilities. The Principate-era distinction between imperial and senatorial administration was thus swept away as inefficient, a move which allowed the emperor to portray himself as the only source of law and order. Even a deified ruler needed help however, to which end Diocletian relied on a newly formed ‘sacred council’ (Latin: sacrum consistorium) and eunuchs to advise and protect him. Secondly, the Dominate recreated the imperial administration itself by stressing the idea of complete uniformity: the entire empire was to be given an equal governmental status and no part favoured over the other. To increase the regime’s control, Diocletian divided the empire into an eastern and a western half, each headed by an Augustus. However, one of the Augusti – Diocletian himself – could intervene anywhere in the empire. By AD 293, this system had developed into the so-called Tetrarchy, the ‘rule of four’, and the two Augusti were joined by two Caesares who governed as co-rulers and were the designated successors to the office of Augustus. Diocletian also reformed the Roman provinces by dividing them up into smaller territories which were then grouped together into twelve dioceses, each governed by a vicarius. The dioceses themselves were then grouped together to form two praetorian prefectures. Lastly, the military and civil branches of the government were separated and the former favoured over the latter. Roman power was rebuilt around its military apparatus, upon which all policies and reforms now relied and focused. Himself a soldier emperor, Diocletian thought it useful to militarise his government to the greatest possible extent. Border fortifications and their garrisons, now known as limitatenei, were reinforced and made subordinate to the newly created position of dux. Diocletian also assembled the so-called comitatenses: mobile field armies which were not bound to a specific location and could thus quickly support threatened fronts or crush internal dissent. Unlike the limitatenei however, the comitatenses were not commanded by a dux but a magister and drew most of their strength from heavy cavalry  Rome’s answer to the growing threat of barbarian horse masters and the Sassanid cataphracts. Diocletian’s army reforms effectively deprived provincial governors of military responsibilities and vastly increased Rome’s defensive capability. However, huge numbers of personnel were needed to maintain these armies, which forced the Romans to hire more and more Germanic warriors from across the border. These so-called foederati triggered a slow but steady process of ‘barbarisation’ in the Roman military, especially in the west.

To finance his military and administrative reforms, Diocletian needed to revitalise and control the Roman economy. To this end, the Dominate required all citizens to pay a new imperial tax and directed an individual’s employment and social position, which future generations were also bound to. In other words, if someone’s father had been in the army, that person was to serve in the army too, regardless of personal ambitions or talents. These policies bear witness to the authoritarian nature of the Dominate but should not be overestimated: the Romans typically lacked the time, resources and knowledge to control the affairs and people of their empire down to a local level. Any comparison of the late Roman Empire to totalitarian states of the modern era is therefore irrelevant and wrong. In retrospect, the emergence of the Dominate may be called a mere delay of the empire’s disintegration but it was nonetheless a significant one. In the west, the Dominate allowed the Romans to stand their ground for another century. It was only after the empire’s final division in an eastern and western half (AD 395) that the west went down the road to final dissolution, triggered by renewed economic troubles and successive waves of barbarian invasions. In the east meanwhile, the Dominate became the foundation of another millennium of Roman imperial history.

The powerful resurgence of the empire in the late third century finally allowed Rome to settle a number of open accounts with external and internal enemies. Under Diocletian’s guidance, the Romans smashed the barbarian invaders of the Danube frontier, destroyed uprisings in Egypt, secured peace with the tribes of Nubia and organised the greatest anti-Christian persecutions yet. In the east, the Sassanids once again declared war on Rome in AD 295 but now found themselves face to face with the more than eager armies of a revived empire. The Romans ended the war victoriously after the destruction of the Sassanid capital at Ctesiphon in AD 299.

Diocletian abdicated in AD 305 (the only Roman emperor to do so willingly) and died in AD 311, leaving a restored Roman Empire. However, the Tetrarchic succession collapsed under the weight of dynastic factors and after the umpteenth civil war, Constantine emerged as the sole ruler of the empire by AD 324. Despite Diocletian having failed when it came to the succession, most of his reforms survived him and were continued or improved by Constantine: the two existing praetorian prefectures were divided to add another two and the fragile Roman economy was strengthened by the creation of a new coin  the golden solidus. To further emphasise the empire’s rebirth and the strength of the Dominate, Constantine also founded a new capital: Nova Roma Constantinopolitana (soon known as Constantinopolis – Constantinople), the New Rome which would become the empire’s beating heart for another thousand years. But unlike Rome itself, the new capital was Greco-Roman and ultimately Christian! Christianity had been brutally persecuted under the conservative Diocletian, who viewed its monotheistic doctrines as incompatible with the Dominate. Christianity was nevertheless officially tolerated by Diocletian’s successor Galerius in AD 311 and given the formal right to exist in AD 313. Constantine himself became the first Christian emperor, recognising the new faith’s usefulness in strengthening the Dominate. Christianity thus became the religion of the regime.

‘Of the regime’ indeed in a quite literal sense. Constantine worked hard to bring Christianity under his personal command by appointing his followers to prominent positions within the Church and interfering in its organisational structure and even in the Christian doctrine itself. To Constantine, there could be no doubt that the emperor of a Christian Roman Empire was still the dominus, albeit no longer as a god in human form. Instead, Constantine introduced the idea that the emperor was God’s chosen representative on earth and therefore no ordinary mortal, but a half-god who ruled the empire by the grace of the Lord. Constantine thus brilliantly used Christianity to strengthen both the unity of the empire and the imperial personality cult propagated by the Dominate. The Christians accepted these policies for now, in the idea that Christianity needed the Dominate too, if it was to survive and become the sole religion of the empire and its people. A smart move, for the Christian message spread ever more rapidly as its ties to the highest ranks of the Roman elite strengthened. Christianity’s dominance was ultimately secured when emperor Theodosius officially made it the imperial religion in AD 391, purged the imperial court of any remaining anti-Christian sentiments and banned the Greco-Roman polytheism. Within less than a century after the state-orchestrated persecutions of Christians under Diocletian, the tables had turned completely: Christians were no longer the hunted, but the hunters. Indeed, the very first thing they set out to do was to forcibly convert or murder the remaining pagan people and destroy any still active pagan temples and sanctuaries.

Aside from Christianity’s increasing power within the empire, there was little else the Romans could boast about as the fourth century progressed. After the death of Constantine in AD 337, the east and west drifted further apart. Constantine had largely focused his reign on the east and had neglected to ensure his succession, sparking a civil war between his three sons which left the western empire dangerously weakened. Rome now no longer had the power to either hold its borders against external enemies or enforce yet another revival of its collapsing supremacy. Without the stabilising influence of the east, the west saw its ailing economy crumble rapidly under the weight of infighting and mismanagement. Meanwhile, even greater catastrophes were brewing beyond the northern frontier. The Germanic world was suffering severe food shortages in these times and increasing numbers of Germanic people attempted to penetrate the fertile lands of the Mediterranean which belonged to Rome. More importantly, the violent westward journey of the Huns from the steppes of central Asia sparked massive migrations among the Germanic tribes. By AD 370, the Huns were ravaging the realm of the Ostrogoths near the Black Sea and drove the Visigoths across the Danube. The Goths received asylum from the Romans but ultimately betrayed their hosts: at the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378, a large Roman army under emperor Valens was massacred by the immigrants. Theodosius emerged as the new emperor and temporarily restored order, reuniting the Roman Empire one last time. However, another renewal of Rome’s power was out of the question and at his death in AD 395, the empire was formally divided among his two young sons, making the division between east and west an irreversible fact. Hardly fifteen years later in AD 410, the Eternal City of the Seven Hills – Rome itself – was besieged and sacked for the first time in nearly eight centuries

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Comments34
anonymous's avatar
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RomanBozorov's avatar
Nice map here a lot of good work put into it.

Have a flag here:

Byzantine Empire / Eastern Roman Empire State Sign by RomanBozorov  
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thanks, and that's an awesome flag :)
romanov302's avatar
romanov302Hobbyist Photographer
Staring at the map reminds me of how vex a session in Attila Total War is when playing as the Western Roman Empire.
FalconGrey's avatar
Why isn't Mesopotamia part of the Roman Empire the Romans added it in 117ad
HeliosMegistos's avatar
They were not able to hold it or keep it for any stretch of memorable time, it was undefendable without conquering Persia itself.
Altair-Ezio's avatar
The best empire the world will ever know  in my opinion !

Such an amazing map ! Thanks :D
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thanks for your kind words! :bow:
Altair-Ezio's avatar
You are very welcome Monkeythumbplz 
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thank you :bow:
FridgePoetProject's avatar
FridgePoetProjectHobbyist Writer
This is beautiful (not to mention educational)!  Well done! 
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thank you very much! :bow:
saloniko's avatar
I love maps and yours are great.
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thank you :bow:
Wothasd's avatar
I love your maps. Ever so detailed, and your illustration of what was going on at the time only add to it, helping us position ourselves in time and place. Keep doing what you're doing.

On a somewhat related note, do you have any tips for someone wanting to get into cartography? Any books or comprehensive tutorials for the basics? Thanks.
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thank you :bow:

Yea sure, I have tips and hints regarding cartography, but the subject is simply too big to give a short answer to that. There are so many things you need to pay attention to.
I never used any books or tutorials to learn how to make maps, believe it or not. I literally started with crayons and pens (yea, it's funny now) and learned the craft as I went along the road of crayons to the PC. Of course I sometimes watch(ed) some tutorials on YouTube to learn how to do specific things (f. ex. how to edit arrows in Adobe Illustrator), but it in the end I figured out most of the 'procedure' by myself... Trial and error, live and learn - that sort of principle ^^
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thank you :bow:
K-Haderach's avatar
Aha! The next map is here! I was excited when I saw it in my message stack. :)

And, of course, it's brilliant as usual. I absolutely love the level of detail. Bravo!

I just wanted to say, however, that Constantine did not really intervene in Christian doctrine. He demanded that Christians sort out their disagreements and decide on a single doctrine, but he did not particularly care what that doctrine was. Even after the First Council of Nicaea, Constantine wavered between supporting the majority Nicaean faction or the minority Arian faction (declared heretical at the Council). One of his closest associates, Eusebius of Nicomedia, was an Arian.

Constantine's interference in the organizational structure of the Church also did not go much beyond simply ensuring that his supporters were appointed to key positions.
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Also, the idea of the emperor as a deified ruler and God's chosen representative was masterminded by Constantine. This goes against all Christian teachings so the fact that he enforced it anyway shows once again how the Dominate interfered in Christianity wherever it pleased. The Church could only accept it, because it needed the protection and help of the Roman gov't... The whole question of "who controls who" wouldn't be truly solved for centuries.
Undevicesimus's avatar
UndevicesimusStudent Digital Artist
Thank you! :bow:

Constantine's demand for a "single doctrine" and his doubt over which faction to support gives weight to interference, I think. It's important to remember that he was the emperor, the deified dominus, whose word was above everything. An important role of the emperor in the Church was to ensure orthodoxy, which couldn't be done if he just left the Church to do as it pleased. Constantine's pressure on the Church to get its doctrines 'right' is pretty serious imperial interference, I believe.

Same goes for Constantine's interference in the Church's organisation; Constantine using his power to make sure his supporters held key positions in the Church is pretty serious interference. He wouldn't allow the Church to appoint anyone he deemed unreliable. That way, the Church was in a direct way dependent on the Dominate.
IronBrony1981's avatar
IronBrony1981Professional Digital Artist
That's a remarkably-detailed map of the Roman Empire right there!Neko Emoji-37 (Yay) [V2] Neko Emoji-37 (Yay) [V2] Neko Emoji-37 (Yay) [V2] Neko Emoji-37 (Yay) [V2] Neko Emoji-37 (Yay) [V2] 
anonymous's avatar
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