The Ages of the Roman Empire

Last updated: 2 January 2012.

Having explored the ups and downs of the Roman Empire over 18 centuries, one is understandably tempted to order this information by coarse graining this history. That is to say, by dividing the 18 centuries into different ages each of which can be understood fairly much in itself. Unfortunately, the more one explores this the more one finds that there are numerous mutually incompatible ways of defining these ages, depending upon what feature one considers. Below I will give a few examples. Nevertheless, I also have a suggested synthesis.
 

Status of Rome

from to description
338 BC 284 Rome as the capital of the Empire
284 536 Rome as seat of the Senate, but no longer the administrative capital. 
536 800 Rome as provincial city, not even nominally within the Empire after 772
800 1278 Rome usually part of the Holy Roman Empire, with the Papal coronation of Emperors
1278 1417 Rome independent, Pope in Avignon for most of the time.

 

Political Organization of the Empire

from to description
338 BC 30 BC Republic and Provinces.
30 BC 284  Principate: Senatorial and Imperial Provinces
284 535 Dominate: Prefectures>Dioceses>Provinces.
535 658 Prefectures/Exarchates>Provinces/Duchies
658 800 Themes/Exarchates/Archonates
800 1071 Themes etc. in the East, Kingdoms etc. in the West
1071 1282 Ad hoc in the East, Kingdoms etc. in the West
1282 1453 Ad hoc in the East

 

Adversaries to the East

from to description
281 BC 64 BC Hellenistic kingdoms
64 BC 226 Parthian Empire
226 636 Persian (Sassanid) Empire
636 1060 Arab Caliphates or Emirates
1060 1280 Seljuk Sultanate
1280 1453 Ottoman Sultanate

 

Number of "Legitimate" Emperors

from to description
338 BC 30 BC None.
30 BC 284 One, almost always.
284 476 Varying, usually two
476 800 One, almost always.
800 1282 Usually two.
1282 1453 One, almost always.

 

Religion

from to description
338 BC 324 Polytheistic
324 636 Christian, many variants
636 1054 Fairly unified Christian
1054 1282 Orthodox and Catholic
1282 1453 Orthodox

 

To Significant Minima

from to description
338 BC 269 3rd century crisis
269 480 Loss of West
480 755 Losses everywhere
755 925 Loss of West
925 1100 Loss of Anatolia
1100 1204/82 Loss of East/West
1204/82 1453 End of Empire

 

It is impossible to find a single scheme that incorporates all, or even most, of the above identified schemes. Nevertheless, by considering the approximate dates that appear commonly, and by trying to find a fairly even division into periods, one can come up with a reasonable synthesis. My suggestion is given below.

Synthesis

from to duration suggested name
338 BC 30 BC 308 yrs Hellenistic Period
30 BC 270 299 yrs Principate
270 536 266 yrs Dominate
536 800 264 yrs "Basilate"
800 1060 260 yrs Early Mediaeval Period
1060 1280 220 yrs High Mediaeval Period
1280 1453 173 yrs Late Mediaeval Period

The Hellenistic period began in 338 BC. In this year the Roman Empire began. More importantly as justification for the name of the period, it was when Philip of Macedon imposed his rule upon all of Greece except Sparta. His son Alexander (336-323) went on to conquer the Persian Empire, spreading Greek-derived (i.e. Hellenistic) culture throughout the Near East. After Alexander's death at age 33, his Empire was divided amongst his generals. The last of these successor kingdoms, the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, was annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 BC by Octavian. Having absorbed much of Alexander's Empire, Rome now faced in the east the Parthian Empire which had conquered the rest.

The Principate can be dated from 30 BC, when Octavian (30 BC - 14 AD) became sole ruler of the Roman Empire. The name comes from the title Princeps (first man) which Octavian adopted in 27 BC. His successors continued to use it, and maintain the fiction of the Res publica (rule by the people), until 274. The Empire was divided into provinces, some ruled directly by the Emperor and some nominally by the Senate.

The mid 3rd century crisis was precipitated in part by attacks from the Sassanid Empire, which had replaced the Parthian Empire in 226. The crisis was resolved by the Emperor Aurelian (270-275). Seeing a need to strengthen the institution of the Emperor, he founded the Dominate. The name comes from the title Dominus et Deus (Lord and God) which Aurelian adopted in 274. He was also the first Emperor to promote monotheism (his God was Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whose rebirth was celebrated on the 25th of December), and he also ordered the fortification of cities within the Empire, allowing for a policy of defence in depth. This beginning was soon followed by many important developments, under two great Emperors, Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine (306-337; sole Emperor from 324). The former divided the Empire into two halves in 285, and divided each into two Prefectures, containing several Dioceses which in turn contained several Provinces. He also created permanent large mobile armies, reducing the role of most legions to border guards. Constantine also promoted monotheism, combining symbols of Sol Invictus with those of Christ, with the latter eventually winning out. In 330 he founded a New (Christian) Rome at Byzantium. Many of the institutions established in the first two generations of the Dominate continued even after the "fall" of the Western Empire in 476, such as the existence of a Senate in Rome and in New Rome, and the appointment of one Consul by each (a last vestige of the republican tradition), and the Province-Diocese-Prefecture hierarchy.

The Dominate can be argued to have ended in 536, when Justinian reconquered Rome, but then reorganised Italy as a Prefecture ruled by an appointee from Constantinople (Justinian had abolished the Dioceses of Diocletian in 535). The Senate in the West became little more than a city council for Rome, in which form it lingered on until the early 7th century. The office of Consul had been vacant since 534 in the West, and after 541 Justinian abolished it in both East and West. For want of a better name, I have called the subsequent period, when Constantinople was the sole capital of Empire, the Basilate. This name I chose because from this time on Greek started to replace Latin as the language of the Empire, with Heraclius (610-641) adopting the Greek title Basileus in place of the Latin Imperator. Two other great changes that characterized the Basilate were: (i) the replacement of the Parthians by the Arabs as the enemy to the east around 636 and the consequent loss of all lands south of Anatolia (with the many Christian heretics that inhabited them); and (ii) the complete abandonment of Diocletian's administrative structure --- the Emperor Maurice (582-602) abolished Prefectures in the east and turned what remained of them into Exarchs in the west, and Emperor Constans replaced Provinces by Themes around 658. This last reform probably accompanied the partial substitution of land for salaries for most of the Empire's armies.

In 800 a new Emperor in Rome (Charlemagne) was anointed, starting a tradition that would continue through most of the next half-millennium. This is is a convenient marker for the beginning of the Middle Ages. The Early Middle Ages ended around 1060, when a number of changes took place. In 1054 the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches excommunicated each other. The Norman conquest in 1066 saw the end of the Viking Age in Western Europe. In 1060 the Arab emirates on the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire were replaced by the powerful Seljuk Sultanate. This was a prelude to the devastating defeat of the Empire's armies at Manzikert in 1071.

Following Manzikert, the Empire disintegrated in Asia Minor. Although parts were recovered in the 12th century, the organization of the Empire was ad hoc, and mercenaries had largely replaced the citizen armies which had been the backbone of the military since the beginning of the Empire. In this period, the High Middle Ages, Constantinople fell to western Crusaders in 1204, but was restored in 1261. A number of important developments occurred shortly after this, marking the end of this period. The Western Roman Empire ended in 1278 (when the Pope declared Rome independent of the Empire) or 1282 (when the Emperor recognized this). In 1284 the Venetians minted their own gold coin, the ducat, taking the gold standard for Christendom out of the hands of the Empire for the first time. Also from 1280 the Seljuk Sultanate lost control of north-western Anatolia, to Osman, founder of the Ottoman Sultanate, which was to be the Empire's new adversary in the east.

The final period of Empire, from about 1280, was the Late Middle Ages. This ended when the Empire finally fell to the Ottoman Sultanate in 1453. This was one of the first decisive uses of cannons in battle. Within two generations, Western Europeans were using gunpowder weapons to colonize America and India. The Middle Ages were well and truly over.


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