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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 7: The Decline of the Roman System -- A.D. 100-300

Steven Muhlberger

Towards the end of the second century A.D., however, the Roman empire began to weaken. In part, ecological factors may have been responsible. In some of the longest settled parts of the Mediterranean, the number of rural settlements began to fall -- evidence perhaps that the land, overexploited, had begun to yield diminishing returns. The climate seems to have been gradually worsening. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius (dates), we hear of plagues. But to a great degree, the weakness of Rome was the weakness of its political system. The characteristic virtues of Rome, its inclusiveness and its republican patriotism, had been eroded by their very efficacy. The Roman citizen body was not what it once had been, a clearly identified group with a direct interest in the res publica.

This change had begun long before A.D. 200. Even before 100 B.C., the strains of constant warfare and the dazzling wealth it produced for a very few at the center of affairs had destroyed social consensus among the Romans and with it, orderly government. Military dictatorship and then divinely-ordained monarchy (under Augustus Caesar, 27 B.C.-A.D. 14) replaced the cohesion of a militarized citizen body as the glue of empire.

Only a tiny minority had a real political role in the res publica as a whole. For a century or more after Augustus, citizenship continued to be sought, because it still, outside of Italy, marked one off from one's neighbors, and showed that one was a person of importance, with connections on high. By the middle of the second century, however, so many people were citizens that the exclusivity and the privileges evaporated.

Suddenly, the obligations of citizenship were much more obvious than the privileges. Since the opportunities for conquest or internal colonization had diminished, those citizens ambitious for advancement or fearful of falling into the unprivileged mass of the poor had to compete mainly with each other for the shrinking profits of empire. Indicative of this situation is the way the Roman citizenry was divided, at first informally and then by law, into honestiores and humiliores, "more honorable" and "more humble" citizens. Only the "more honorable" were treated by the imperial authorities with the respect that had once been due all citizens. The "more humble" could be beaten, tortured, and executed with little ado. The division reflected the needs of imperial officials, who needed arbitrary powers to control what they saw as an over-privileged population. But the process of dividing the citizenry sharpened the struggle for places in the new elite. Such competition, and the growing poverty of the government, led to another great breakdown in orderly government after A.D. 196. Again, would-be military dictators fought for supreme power. Between 235 and 297 the civil wars were constant. The boundaries collapsed and Persian and barbarian armies added to the troubles of the empire's subjects.

A semblance of unity was restored only by a prolonged and destructive reconquest of the empire, first by Aurelian (270-275), then by Diocletian and his colleagues (284-305). But the easy prosperity of the second century did not return. In many areas, especially in the west where cities were newer than in the east, urban life was severely damaged. Following the wars, and in the changed natural conditions, the economy of the empire, of the civilized world as a whole, was not vibrant enough to allow all the wrecked cities to be rebuilt. The passage of time would show that the urban network built before and during the Roman expansion was in a long slow decline.

More obvious to contemporaries was the damage sustained by Roman prestige. The rulers of the fourth century devoted themselves to restoring the honor of the Roman name and the unity that had once been based on it. But official efforts in this direction were less effective in creating a new social solidarity than unofficial ideologies that came boiling out of the cosmopolitan cities of the eastern Mediterranean.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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