Procopius, Fourth Century AD Spy Who Became a Roman Emperor
Although its golden age had long passed, the Roman Empire was still a prosperous and militarily formidable state at the turn of the fourth century. The famed Pax Romana – the century between the reign of Trajan (98 - 117) and that of Severus Alexander (222 - 235), which corresponded to the apogee of Roman civilization – continued to evoke nostalgia in the collective memory of the Empire’s inhabitants. However, internal order was frequently disrupted by heated confrontations between Paganism and Christianity, as well as amongst the various nascent Christian factions themselves. The enemies of the Empire, such as the Germanic confederations and the Persians, who were undergoing a militaristic revival, were by now exerting a permanent and increasing pressure on the borders ( limes) of the Empire.
Internal order was frequently disrupted by heated confrontations between Paganism and Christianity, as well as amongst the various nascent Christian factions themselves ( R. Gino Santa Maria/ Adobe Stock)
The Empire Under New Management
To counter the increased threats, Emperor Diocletian (284 - 305) established the tetrarchy, which was a system of government where authority was shared between four emperors. In addition to facilitating the management of the Empire, this system was also an attempt to rationalize the succession process by avoiding the emergence of usurpers and internal armed conflicts; an affliction that plagued the Empire during the mid-third century. For a period of roughly 50 years – between 235 and 284 – a rapid succession of 20 emperors took place in a context of military anarchy.
Decline of the Roman Military
Further to the establishment of the tetrarchy and other important administrative reforms, military manpower was significantly increased. The resulting increase of military expenses had to be supported by a population that was considerably smaller compared to the century before. Essentially, the Empire’s population had emerged from the third century decimated by a long period of civil war and a pandemic. The Cyprian plague, which appeared in 251 and persisted until 270, is estimated to have caused widespread manpower shortages for food production and for the Roman army. Consequently, the population of the Empire assessed at 70 million in the middle of the second century is estimated to have fallen to around 50 million a century and a half later.
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Mario Bartolini has a master’s degree in political history from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada, and a second master’s degree in war studies, obtained at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author of Roman Emperors: A Guide to the Men Who Ruled the Empire.
By: Mario Bartolini