Times for the Roman empire were becoming dark indeed. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the “five good emperors” and was sadly succeeded by his unworthy son Commodus. Commodus is chiefly remembered for his great love for gladiatorial combat in which he himself often partook. He delighted in causing bloodshed himself and loved to be called “The Roman Hercules”.
The later Roman Emperors: from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine
With Marcus Aurelius, we have the end of the period known as “The Five Good Emperors“. He was succeeded by his infamous son Commodus (of Holywood fame in the film “Gladiator“). Commodus is said to have entered the arena more than 700 times and fought against wild beasts or opponents who were clearly given few means to fight back. Unsurprisingly he had little interest in the well being of his subjects.
By now the empire was becoming increasingly weak: partly because of the decrease in population and partly because of the remaining population’s love for wealth. A halt in the growth of the empire brought an end to the influx of slaves and wealth, whilst the existing wealth was being spent to purchase luxury goods from the east. This had great implications for the Roman economy. The cost of labour was increasing whilst land and wealth were held by a small elite. More on this subject can be read in the pages written about the economy of the Roman empire.
Roman Emperor Commodus’ rule was characterised by intrigue and his assassination brought great instability: “The year of the Five Emperors” ensued.
Pertinax followed Commodus as emperor. He intended to bring about many useful reforms but unfortunately for him, the Praetorian guard had other ideas in mind and they actually put the empire up for auction to the highest bidder. They had him murdered. A period of confusion followed and different generals put a claim to the throne. In the end, it was Septimius Severus who won rule of the empire whilst the highest bidder was slain.
Lucius Septimius Severus (193-211) was of Lybian birth, founder of the Severan dynasty. His move to take power involved several tactical moves, amongst which was an important battle at Lugdunum (now Lyon in France) in which he did away with his former ally Clodius Albinus. He brought reform to the army and renewed military success to the Empire, stretching it to fresh heights of conquest.
He disbanded the old Praetorian guard and had them replaced by a guard numbering 50,000 men, made of many nationalities. With this act, much power moved into foreign hands. In Rome he made enemies of the Senate, effectively turning Rome into a military dictatorship. So long as you had the soldiers on your side you could do pretty much as you chose.
Septimius Severus spent much of his reign on campaign fending off the barbarians from the empire’s frontiers or indeed extending the frontiers. He fought several successful campaigns stretching from the Parthian empire in the East (Syria/Iran/India), Africa to Britain in the west. Severus eventually passed away at Eboracum (York) in Britain after having reinforced Hadrian’s wall, moved forward to the Antonine wall and into Scotland. He was defeated by ill health, having brought the Roman Empire to the greatest geographical extent.
A triumphal arch was erected for Septimius Severus in the forum during the year 203AD to celebrate the first ten years of his reign. This arch is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved monuments in the forum.
Roman Emperor Severus was followed by his own sons Caracalla, best remembered for having allowed citizenship to all freeborn persons throughout the empire. The main reason for this was that this allowed him to extend taxes and increase state income. He is also remembered for the imposing public baths he built in Rome.
An “interesting” anecdote about Caracalla is that he began his rule of the empire together with his younger brother Geta. Having had Geta murdered he also removed his name from the inscription on the arch in the forum dedicated to his father Septimius Severus. The holes in the arch where Geta’s name was inscribed are still visible.
The Weakening of Command
The years to 270 AD were the worst in the history of the Roman Empire as the military chose one man after another to rule according to their own personal interest and gains. At one time the empire was ruled by thirty generals known as the “Thirty Tyrants”, each of whom claimed the right to rule. Emperors who looked like they might prove to be good and of common benefit to the people of Rome were quickly murdered. This sorry state of affairs meant that rule was extremely weak whilst the barbarians became increasingly strong, particularly the Germanic tribes of the north on the Rhine and Danube. The Persian empire to the east was also becoming very powerful.
Revival of Rome under the Good Emperors
Fortunately, there was a short spell where a further five good emperors ruled in succession until the year 284 AD. Aurelian was one of these and is particularly remembered for the extensive walls he built around the city of Rome which are still very prominent today. He captured and overran the wealthy city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert.
Palmyra had been ruled by a beautiful and wise queen called Zenobia who through her husband had won many victories against the Persians. This was clearly to the advantage of Rome. With the death of her husband, the Romans became worried that Zenobia planned to build an empire to rival that of Rome and so it was that they decided for Palmyra to be eliminated. Aurelius had Zenobia sumptuously dressed for his triumphal march, after which he gave her a luxurious villa to live in with her children not far from Rome.
By this time the city of Rome had become the most wonderful city in the world. The vast riches which had converged into Rome could be seen in the sumptuous and monumental buildings which successive Roman Emperors had built were renowned.
These five emperors were followed by emperor Diocletian (284-305AD). Diocletian promoted so many reforms that the empire was fundamentally different by the end of his reign. Amongst the most important of his reforms was the division of the huge Roman empire into four parts each of which would be easier to defend through a local commander.
In order to have stability it had become essential to protect the life of the emperor and so Diocletian drew up a new system of government whereby two emperors called “Augusti” would have two commanders under them called “Caesars”. If one emperor were to die the Caesar under him would be promoted. The idea was that it would be extremely difficult to murder all four persons across the empire in order to take over power. Unfortunately the weakness of this new system was that it was extremely expensive to run as the courts and bureaucrats were at least duplicated if not quadrupled and in so doing taxes had to be increased further. Meanwhile the economic difficulties of the empire continued.
One can see that the great Augustus, some 300 years earlier, had lived a life of relative simplicity amongst his fellow people while Diocletian and his peers loved to walk in utmost luxury and be treated like gods on earth, setting themselves above the common folk.
Christian Persecution under Diocletian
It is not surprising that it was not long before peasant revolts and rebellions began to make themselves felt throughout the empire. In spite of Diocletian’s own will, he was pushed by one of his Caesars, Galerian, to take action against the Christians which as in the time of Domitian meant horrible martyrdom for them as well as confiscation of their wealth and destruction of their meeting places. This violent persecution lasted a full seven years.
Whilst all this was happening, Diocletian and the other Augustus – Maximian – decided to retire to a more pleasant life and it is said that when Maximian suggested taking power again Diocletian retorted that nothing could be more pleasurable than his vegetable garden. The two Caesars under Diocletian and Maximian had in the meantime become Augusti. Their names were Galerian (who had persecuted the Christians) and Constantius.
Read more about Christian persecution in the Roman Empire
End of the Tetrarchy
Other than the heavy costs of all the bureaucracy and courts, Diocletian’s new system of rule seemed to be working well until Constantius died, leaving Galerian to rule alone.
As in the dreadful past, the military stepped in and pronounced their own general Constantine to be emperor. A rival claimant to the throne was a general called Maxentius and it was several years before a clear emperor emerged. Fortunately, the emperor who did emerge, Constantine the Great, was inspired and up to the job.