The Fourth Century

The Fourth Century


Mildenhall Treasure

In the fourth century Rome changed from civilisation to barbarism – and it was a great success.  Outwardly at least, Rome flourished ,and regained some of its old optimism.  Here in Britain, in the outermost province, the fourth century left behind more pottery and more coins (even if worse coins) than the first three centuries put together.  In the East of Britain there are a number of very rich hoards, notably the Mildenhall Hoard of silver plate found in suspicious circumstances in 1943 and now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Someone must have been very rich to accumulate such a collection of plates, but there are a number of similar hoards such as those from Hoxne, Corbridge, Thetford and Water Newton. Quite what they mean is difficult to know. Was  the end of the century a time of insecurity, when hoards were buried and the people who buried them were killed and could not recover them? They certainly indicate a remarkable wealth in the fourth century.

But apart from the hoards, the east of the country generally declines in the fourth century, perhaps as a result of the barbarian raids of the Anglo-Saxons across the North Sea. But in the West, around the Cotswolds, there are a small number of very rich villas containing flamboyant if crude mosaics: Woodchester, Bignor, and North Leigh.  However many of the smaller villas such as Piddington go into decline or are abandoned, and one gets the impression that the very rich landowners flourished, but that the majority of the population was reduced to being farm labourers.  One must beware however of saying that the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer:  Certainly judging by the amount of pottery and the number of coins found even on rural sites, the poor may have been less free, but they were also becoming richer.

Perhaps typical is Piddington near Northampton where the villa came to an end at the end of the third century when it was in the middle of a rebuilding phase: did the owners support the wrong side of the rebel emperor Carausius, and as a result their villa was confiscated? But the demolished villa buildings are covered by a thick layer of black earth containing lots of coins and animal bones, and the excavators talk of a ‘soup kitchen’  being established where the labourers were fed.

The towns also tell a confused story. Many declined, though some, such as Cirencester and Caistor by Norwich, flourished: were these the new regional capitals?


The empire as a whole

This picture of Britain is perhaps not untypical of the Empire as a whole, where apart from Italy, the fourth century sees a considerable revival of prosperity.   Admittedly this is a fairly new story. The traditional account sees the fourth century as one of decline, but fieldwalking – picking up pottery and coins over an area of countryside – has revealed that there is rather a lot of fourth century pottery found lying around in fields throughout the Empire as a whole, and this must surely indicate that the fourth century was economically a considerable success. The reforms of the Diocletian, combined with the consolidation of Constantine, began to pay off. It was a different society no doubt, and probably a harsher one, but when a more rigid structure is bolted on to the under lying strengths of the Roman market economy, the system, for a time, worked. We should never underestimate the strengths of barbarism, of a command economy.

Moneywise, inflation appears to have been to some extent conquered; at least it was conquered in as much as gold became increasingly used as the main repository of value.  The troops and the senior bureaucracy insisted on being paid in gold and it is very difficult to debase gold. At the other end of the scale,  the debasement of the copper coinage continued as strongly as before: however the effects of inflation seem less noticeable: Had the peasants got used to the idea that copper coins would always be losing their value, and adapted their budgets accordingly? Large hoards of copper coins are regularly found at intervals in the fourth century.  Indeed the amount of debased copper coins found even in the most rural settlements has led some people to suggest that it was not until the fourth century that the economy was fully monetised and even the lower classes began using money.  Perhaps this is misleading, perhaps not.


The Barbarians

The Barbarians were a constant problem.  Whereas we tend to think that the Germans were the main problem, to the Romans it was the Persian Empire in the East that constantly posed the greater threat.  In the third century a new dynasty had arisen – the Sassanians – who under their great leader, Shapur I, achieved the ultimate success in capturing the Roman Emperor, Valentinian, and keeping him as a prisoner, forcing him to kneel down and act as a mounting block every time the Persian Emperor wanted to mount his horse.

However in the fourth century the Persian empire again became a major threat under a new emperor, Shapur II.  He had a very long reign (309-379).  On the death of the previous emperor, his elder brother was killed to prevent him becoming emperor, the second brother was blinded for the same reason — this barbaric behaviour is surely why the Persian Empire was only intermittently successful — and Shapur II was crowned Emperor in utero, a crown being placed over his mother’s belly to proclaim the unborn child as Emperor.  However when he eventually grew up he became very successful and the Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate died while fighting the Persians in AD363.

The Germans too gave a lot of trouble, though actually the problem was not the Germans but the Huns.  The Huns were fierce horsemen from central Asia who expanded in all directions,  giving trouble to the Chinese in the East and pushing down into Europe in the West where they reached the Hungarian plain, and the poor Goths, who lived in the plain, were pushed out and came down to the Danube and asked the Romans ‘please can we settle in Roman territory’.  At least that is the Roman version.  This was in AD 376,  but the Romans then behaved badly and would not sell them the food that they needed, because as refugees they had not brought enough food with them and had not had time to grow their own.   So the Goths then revolted,  and in AD 378 at the Battle of Adrianople roundly defeated the Romans – the worst defeat it was said since the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.  Panic followed, but four years later a new Emperor, Theodosius, eventually to be known as Theodosius the Great,  eventually made peace and allowed the Goths to settle — on condition that they served in the Roman army. It was another, crucial step in  what proved to be a long and slippery path.

 Julian the Apostate

But the major change in the fourth century was the steady advance of Christianity.  Constantine had led the way by granting Christians privileges in taxation and allowing them to stand for high office, and their wealth and influence steadily increased.  The one step-back came in AD 361 with the accession of the Emperor Julian, known as Julian the Apostate.  Julian was born into a Christian family, but he had a good classical education and came to believe that the greatness of Rome could only be restored by restoring Roman religion and Roman traditions.  Alas,  he was killed fighting the Persians after ruling for only eighteen months,  so his reforms were comparatively short lived.  However to Gibbon and many other historians,  Julian is something of a hero, and many have speculated what might have happened if only he had survived and restored the pagan gods.  Would perhaps today Europe be Muslim rather than Christian?

His major reform lay in preventing Christians becoming teachers, which not only set back the Christian propaganda movement but also economically deprived them of a major source of income.  However his financial and administrative reforms are also interesting, for he was virtually the only emperor after Diocletian who made any effort to cut back on the bureaucracy that was slowly but surely strangling Rome.  Every emperor had become surrounded by his comitatus - his domestic staff who formed the innermost bureaucracy, and which was extremely profitable as every member needed to be bribed.  He also cut back on the use of the cursus publicus – the public post, whereby local communities were expected to provide horses and accommodation for officials passing along the roads through their territories. This had become a terrible imposition as it was overused, particularly by bishops hurrying from one council to the next.

He also cut back on the elaborate clothing rituals that were meant to mark off emperors from ordinary mankind, and provided an elaborate evidence of rank. Gibbon tells a nice story of how Julian called for a barber. “An officer, magnificently dressed, immediately presented himself. “It is a barber”, exclaimed the prince, with affected surprise, “that I want, and not the Chancellor of the Exchequer”.  He questioned the man concerning the profits of his employment, and was informed that,  besides a large salary and some valuable perquisites,  he enjoyed a daily allowance for twenty servants and as many horses”. Multiply this by a thousand barbers, a thousand cupbearers and a thousand cooks, says Gibbon, and that is the problem.

Horror of horrors, Julian even took part in debates in the senate in Constantinople encouraging other senators to express their opinions and debating with them in public.  This was a throwback to the great days of Hadrian and not at all what was expected of the new style of emperor, or as I would say,  a Barbarian emperor.  It is indeed an interesting sidelight on Christianity that in practice, it  encouraged bureaucracy, it encouraged the misuse of the public post by the bishops and it encouraged the growth of ceremonial.  The usual criticism of Christianity is that it discouraged large families and discouraged people serving in the army.  But under Christianity, bureaucracy and ceremonial grew enormously, quite contrary to the teachings of the church on the pursuit of poverty – is perhaps the most significant comment on the realities of Christianity.


But after Julian,  the reaction was sharp and the triumph of Christianity came with the last Roman Emperor, Theodosius (379-395), who is sometimes called Theodosius  the Great, because he was the last emperor to be emperor of the combined Roman Empire, east and west.  It was Theodosius who changed Christianity from being a permitted if favoured religion, into being the only religion, so that all other religions became illegal.  It took less than a century for Christianity to change from being a persecuted religion to being a religion that persecuted all other religions.

Theodosius came from a distinguished family. His father, often known as Count Theodosius, had been a successful general in Britain and Africa, but he fell out of favour, and was executed.  His son lay low at the family home in Spain, but when the Goths began to give trouble, Theodosius was one of the few Romans with the ability and knowledge to retrieve the situation.  In AD 379 he was made Caesar  – that is a junior emperor – and in AD 382 he conducted a not unsatisfactory peace with the Goths.  His progress up the imperial scale from Caesar to Emperor was  convoluted, but soon his religious bigotry began to show itself.  The first problem was the heresy of Arianism which should have been solved in AD 325, at the Council of Nicaea, which debated the interesting question of whether God the Son is of the same substance as God the Father, or whether he was of a similar substance.  The official answer is that the two are made of the same substance — as is reaffirmed every Sunday by those who repeat the Nicene Creed.  Arianism was declared to be a heresy.

But the Arians, though defeated,  refused to lie down.  Theodosius however was a firm Catholic and in 380, only a year after his accession, he issued an edict against them, and when the Bishop of Constantinople refused to submit, he was driven out and a Catholic bishop installed under armed guard in his place.  The next ten years were spent fighting the remaining Arians and also Magnus Maximus, who, starting as a rebel emperor in Britain, took over the whole of Gaul and even established himself as the emperor of the west, until he was finally defeated and slain by Theodosius in 388.

However once Maximus was out of the way, Theodosius could turn his full attention to the problem of the pagans, – and paganism was still strong among the aristocracy at Rome. A major motive force behind this was Ambrose, Bishop of Milan who was perhaps the most forceful and the most successful of all the truly bigoted Christians, and who has thus inevitably been made a Saint.  Ambrose began originally as a successful governor of northern Italy: his father had been high in the bureaucracy and he had inherited his father’s position. However to be a really successful bureaucrat you needed also to join the Christians who were busy hoovering up all the major sources of power.  The Bishopric of Milan became vacant and it was offered to Ambrose: ‘but I am not yet a Christian’ he replied ‘ I have not been baptised’.  ‘No problem’ they said, so he was baptised, consecrated as a priest and elected Bishop of Milan, all on the same day – or so goes the story. But having become bishop he soon began to exercise his power and influence. There was a riot in the circus at Thessalonica, Theodosius over reacted and his troops massacred 7,000 citizens in revenge.  Theodosius, who was prone to  fits of excess, soon realised that he had over-reacted, and Ambrose preyed on his remorse and threatened to excommunicate him.  Theodosius gave way and repented. Ambrose had charisma, and Theodosius did as Ambrose said.


Christians become the persecutors

It was perhaps because of Ambrose that Theodosius in the years 390 – 393 promulgated the notorious Theodosian decrees in which all other religions were outlawed. These came in three stages. In AD 391 sacrifice was prohibited and the temples were ordered to be closed: a second law forbad apostasy.   In an even more drastic law on 8th November AD 392, even domestic worship of the household gods – the lares and penates – was forbidden as was the lighting of lamps, the burning of incense or the hanging up of garlands. Informers were encouraged, and if anyone was caught,  his house or farm was confiscated, and if it was done in a public place, the man was fined 20 pounds of gold.  The Christians were persecuting with a vengeance.

Not only was the practice of the pagan religions forbidden, but the temples were destroyed too. The biggest dispute was over the Statue of Victory which had been installed in the Senate House by Augustus after the Battle of Actium, which was removed, restored and then removed again. The pagans, led by the amiable Symmachus, argued that if it was removed, Rome would fall. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan replied that the Roman empire was built on the might of the Roman legions, not the belief in its gods. Unfortunately no one could reply that in nineteen years’ time,  Rome would indeed fall to Alaric the Goth.

In Greece the last Olympic Games were held in AD 393 when they were closed down, not to be revived until 1896.  And it is around this time that archaeologists report that many temples were destroyed.  It is often difficult to tie this down, as archaeologists are often more interested in finding out when a temple is built rather than when it was destroyed. But in many cases the latest evidence for the use of the great classical temples comes at the end of the Fourth century.

The most dramatic destruction came in the East, in Alexandria.  A special law had been enacted specifically extending the prohibitions on heathen worship to Egypt, thus bringing to an end the Egyptian religion, which had survived for over 3,000 years – surely the longest lasting religion the world has ever seen.  The mob, enflamed by the Archbishop Theophilus attacked the Serapeum, the Temple of Serapis:  a huge and magnificently decorated edifice, which the historian Ammianus Marcellinus had described as one of the architectural wonders of the world, second only to the Capitol at Rome.  It had housed part of the great library at Alexandria, though the books had by now been removed.  It was too big to destroy all at once and the foundations survived,  but the attack was hugely symbolic and it is reported that many pagans were converted as a result of the rioting, deciding to join the winning side.

The position of Christianity at the end of the fourth century is convoluted.  Although the Christians had seized the levers of power, they were still probably still in a minority.  In the Senate at Rome, paganism was still strong.  In the countryside, the mass of the population was little affected by the new belief – indeed the word ‘pagan’ means countryside dwellers.  In far off Britannia, pagan temples were still being erected from scratch at Lydney and at Maiden Castle towards the very end of the Fourth Century.  The two great historians at the end of the Roman Empire, Ammianus Marcellinus, writing about the events that led up to the Battle of Adrianople in 378 was a pagan, and so was Zosimus, writing in the 490s.

Yet the very enthusiasm of Christianity carried all before it. A H M Jones quotes (p. 964) from Gregory of Nyssa in the final stage of the Arian controversy: ‘If you ask about your change, the shopkeeper philosophises to you about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you enquire the price of a loaf, the reply is: the Father is greater and the Son inferior: and if you say, ‘Is the bath ready?’ the attendant affirms that ‘the Son is of nothing’. Ordinary people, that is, at least learned the stock arguments and catchwords, and enjoyed argumentation. It was all rather like the Chinese communists quoting from Mao’s Little Red Book, or the modern Greens quoting from the United Nation’s Conventions.

The situation was not unlike that in the Communist countries, or indeed in Nazi Germany where there was a double system of command, with the official structure of rulers and the bureaucracy being shadowed by the enthusiasts of the ‘party’, with party members, or bishops,  being established at every stage to mirror and spy upon the activities of their civilian counterparts.

Theodosius died in AD 395 at the age of only forty-six. Conveniently for us he marks the end of the Fourth century.  He was succeeded by his son Gratian and AD 410 the Goths, whom he had allowed to settle just inside the Danube, broke out and came and conquered Rome itself and pillaged it for five days.  Rome had fallen. Despite the confidence of St Ambrose, and the later protestations of St Augustine, the final triumphant success of Christianity was followed almost immediately by the fall of Rome and the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.



23rd October 2012