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Volume 1 of classic history. One of the world's foremost historians chronicles the major forces and events in the history of the Western and Byzantine Empires from the death of Theodosius (A.D. 395) to the death of Justinian (A.D. 565).
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE MONARCHY
The continuity of history, which means the control of the present and future by the past, has become a commonplace, and chronological limits, which used to be considered important, are now recognised to have little significance except as convenient landmarks in a historical survey. Yet there are what we may call culminating epochs, in which the accumulating tendencies of the past, reaching a certain point, suddenly effect a visible transformation which seems to turn the world in a new direction. Such a culminating epoch occurred in the history of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. The reign of Constantine the Great inaugurated a new age in a much fuller sense than the reign of Augustus, the founder of the Empire. The anarchy of the third century, when it almost seemed that the days of the Roman Empire were numbered, had displayed the defects of the irregular and heterogeneous system of government which Augustus had established to administer his immense dominion. His successors had introduced modifications and improvements here and there, but events made it clearer and clearer that a new system, more centralised and more uniform, was required, if the Empire was to be held together. To Diocletian, who rescued the Roman world at the brink of the abyss, belongs the credit of having framed a new system of administrative machinery. Constantine developed and completed the work of Diocletian by measures which were more radical and more far-reaching. The foundation of Constantinople as a second Rome inaugurated a permanent division between the Eastern and Western, the Greek and the Latin, halves of the Empire—a division to which events had already pointed—and affected decisively the whole subsequent history of Europe. Still more evidently and notoriously did Constantine mould the future by accepting Christianity as the State religion.
In the present work the history of the Roman Empire is taken up at a point about sixty years after Constantine's death, when the fundamental changes which he introduced have been firmly established and their consequences have emerged into full evidence. The new system of government has been elaborated in detail, and the Christian Church has become so strong that no enemies could prevail against it. Constantinople, created in the likeness of Rome, has become her peer and will soon be fully equipped for the great role which she is to play in Europe and Hither Asia for more than a thousand years. She definitely assumes now her historical position. For after the death of Theodosius the Great, who had ruled alone for a short time over a dominion extending from Scotland to Mesopotamia, the division of the Empire into two geographical portions, an eastern and a western, under two Emperors, a division which had been common during the past century, was finally established. This dual system lasted for eighty-five years, and but for the dismemberment of the western provinces by the Germans might have lasted indefinitely. In the constitutional unity of the Empire this arrangement caused no breach.
Again, the death of Theodosius marks the point at which the German danger, long imminent over the Empire, begins to move rapidly towards its culmination. We are on the eve of the great dismemberment of Roman dominion which, within seventy years, converted the western provinces into Teutonic kingdoms. The fourth century had witnessed the settlement of German peoples, as foederati, bound to military service, on Roman lands in the Balkan peninsula and in Gaul. Through the policy of Constantine Germans had become a predominant element in the Roman army, and German officers had risen to the highest military posts and had exercised commanding political influence. Outside, German peoples were pressing on the frontiers, waiting for opportunities to grasp at a share of the coveted wealth of the Roman world. The Empire was exposed to the double danger of losing provinces to these unwelcome claimants who desired to be taken within its border, and of the growing ascendancy of the German element in the army. The East was menaced as well as the West, and the great outstanding fact in the history of the fifth century is that the East survived and the West succumbed. The success of the Eastern government in steering through these perils was partly due to the fact that during this critical time it was on good terms, only seldom and briefly interrupted, with Persia, its formidable neighbour.
The diminished Roman Empire, now centering entirely in Constantinople, lasted for a thousand years, surrounded by enemies and frequently engaged in a struggle for life or death, but for the greater part of that long period the most powerful State in Europe. Its history is marked by distinct ages of expansion, decline, and resuscitation, which are easily remembered and help to simplify the long series of the annals of Byzantium. Having maintained itself in the fifth century and won its way through the German peril, it found itself strong enough in the sixth to take the offensive and to recover Africa and Italy. Overstrain led to a decline, of which Persia took advantage, and when this danger had been overcome, the Saracens appeared as a new and more formidable force and deprived the Empire of important provinces in Asia, while at the same time European territory was lost to the Bulgarians and the Slavs (seventh century). Then a period of resuscitation in the eighth and ninth centuries led to a new age of brilliance and expansion (ninth to eleventh centuries). When the Saracens had ceased to be formidable, the Seljuk Turks appeared, and the Empire found it difficult to hold its own against this foe as well as against the western powers of Europe, and the barbarians of the north. This period ends with the disaster of 1204, when Constantinople fell into the hands of the Crusaders, who treated the city with more barbarity than the barbarian Alaric had treated Eome eight hundred years before. After this the cycle begins anew; first, the period of revival at Nicaea, which became the temporary capital; then the recovery of Constantinople (1261), followed by a period in which the Empire could assert its power; finally, from the middle of the fourteenth century, the decline, and the last death-struggle with the Ottomans, ending in the capture of the city in 1453.
The State which maintained itself in unbroken continuity throughout the vicissitudes of more than a thousand years is proverbial for its conservative spirit. It was conservative in its constitution and institutions, in the principles and the fashions of its civilisation, in its religion, in its political and social machinery. It may be conjectured that this conservatism is partly to be attributed to the influence of the legal profession. Lawyers are always conservative and suspicious of change, and it would be difficult to exaggerate their importance and the power of their opinion in the later Empire. It was natural and just that their influence should be great, for it has well been observed that it was to the existence of a "judicial establishment, guided by a published code, and controlled by a body of lawyers educated in public schools, that the subjects of the Empire were chiefly indebted for the superiority in civilisation which they retained over the rest of the world." But the conservatism of Byzantium is often represented as more rigid than it actually was. The State could not have survived if it had not been constantly adapting its institutions to new circumstances. We have seen how its external history may be divided into periods. But its administrative organisation, its literature, its art display equally well-defined stages.
One more introductory remark. The civilisation of the later Empire, which we know under the name of Byzantine, had its roots deep in the part. It was simply the last phase of Hellenic culture. Alexandria, the chief city of the Hellenic world since the third century B.C., yielded the first place to Byzantium in the course of the fifth century. There was no breach in continuity; there was only a change of centre. And while the gradual ascendancy of Christianity distinguished and stamped the last phase, we must remember that Christian theology had been elaborated by the Greek mind into a system of metaphysics which Paul, the founder of the theology, would not have recognised, and which no longer seemed an alien product.
§ 1. The Autocracy
The Roman Empire was founded by Augustus, but for three centuries after its foundation the State was constitutionally a republic. The government was shared between the Emperor and the Senate; the Emperor, whose constitutional position was expressed by the title Princeps, was limited by the rights of the Senate. Hence it has been found convenient to distinguish this period as the Principate or the Dyarchy. From the very beginning the Princeps was the predominant partner, and the constitutional history of the Principate turns on his gradual and steady usurpation of nearly all the functions of government which Augustus had attributed to the Senate. The republican disguise fell away completely before the end of the third century. Aurelian adopted external fashions which marked a king, not a citizen; and Diocletian and Constantine definitely transformed the State from a republic to an autocracy. This change, accompanied by corresponding radical reforms, was, from a purely constitutional point of view, as great a break with the past as the change wrought by Augustus, and the transition was as smooth. Augustus preserved continuity with the past by maintaining republican forms; while Constantine and his predecessors simply established on a new footing the supreme Imperial power which already existed in fact, discarding the republican mask which had worn too thin.
The autocracy brought no change in the principle of succession to the throne. Down to its fall in the fifteenth century the Empire remained elective, and the election rested with the Senate and the army. Either the Senate or the army could proclaim an Emperor, and the act of proclamation constituted a legitimate title. As a rule, the choice of one body was acquiesced in by the other; if not, the question must be decided by a struggle. Any portion of the army was considered, for this purpose, as representing the whole army, and thus in elections at Constantinople it was the troops stationed there with whom the decision lay. But whether Senate or army took the initiative; the consent of the other body was required; and the inauguration of the new Emperor was not complete till he had been acclaimed by the people. Senate, army, and people, each had its place in the inaugural ceremonies.
But while the principle of election was retained, it was in actual practice most often only a form. From the very beginning the principle of heredity was introduced indirectly. The reigning Emperor could designate his successor by appointing a co-regent. In this way Augustus designated his stepson Tiberius, Vespasian his son Titus. The Emperors naturally sought to secure the throne for their sons, and if they had no son, generally looked within their own family. From the end of the fourth century it became usual for an Emperor to confer the Imperial title on his eldest son, whether an adult or an infant. The usual forms of inauguration were always observed; but the right of the Emperor to appoint co-regents was never disputed. The consequence was that the succession of the Roman Emperors presents a series of dynasties, and that it was only at intervals, often considerable, that the Senate and army were called upon to exercise their right of election.
The co-regent was a sleeping partner. He enjoyed the Imperial honours, his name appeared in official documents; but he did not share in the actual government, except so far as he might be specially authorised by his older colleague. This, at least, was the rule. Under the Principate the senior Imperator distinguished his own position from that of his colleague by reserving to himself the title of Pontifex Maximus. Marcus Aurelius tried a new experiment and shared the full sovranty with Lucius Verus. This division of the sovranty was an essential part of the system of Diocletian, corresponding to the geographical partition of the Empire which he introduced. From his time down to A.D. 480, the Empire is governed by two (or even more) sovran colleagues, who have all equal rights and competence, and differ only in seniority. Sometimes the junior Emperor is appointed by the senior, sometimes he is elected independently and is recognised by the senior. Along with these there may be coregents, who exercise no sovran power, but are marked out as eventual successors. Thus the child Arcadius was for nine years co-regent with the Emperors Valentinian II. and Theodosius the Great. No formal title, however, raised the sovran above the co-regent, though the latter, for the sake of distinction, was often called "the second Emperor," or, if he was a child, "the little Emperor." When towards the end of the fifth century the territorial partition of the Empire came to an end, the system of joint sovranty ceased, and henceforward, whenever there is more than one Augustus, only one exercises the sovran power.
But the Emperor could also designate a successor, without elevating him to the position of co-regent, by conferring on him the title of Caesar. This practice, which since Hadrian was usual under the Principate, and was adopted by Constantine, is not frequent in the later Empire. If the Emperor has sons, he almost invariably creates his eldest son Augustus. If not, he may signify his will as to the succession by bestowing the dignity of Caesar. The Caesarship may be considered a provisional arrangement. The Emperor before his death might raise the Caesar to the co-regency. If he died without having done this, the Caesar had to be elected in the usual way by the Senate and army. This method of provisional and revocable designation was often convenient. An Emperor who had no male issue might wish to secure the throne to a son-in-law, for instance, in case of his own premature death. If he conferred the Caesarship and if a male child were afterwards born to him, that child would be created Augustus, and the Caesar's claim would fall into abeyance.
When the Emperor had more than one son, it was usual to confer the title of Caesar on the younger. Constitutionally this may be considered a provision for the contingency of the death of the co-regent. Practically it meant a title of dignity reserved for members of the Imperial family. Sometimes the co-regency was conferred on more than one son. Theodosius the Great raised Honorius to the rank of Augustus as well as his elder son Arcadius. But it is to be observed that this measure was not taken till after the death of the Western Emperor Valentinian II., and that its object was to provide two sovrans, one for the East and one for the West. If the division of the Empire had not been contemplated, Honorius would not have been created Augustus in A.D. 393. To avoid a struggle between brothers, the obvious policy was to confer the supreme rank on only one. Before the reign of Basil I. in the ninth century, there were few opportunities to depart from this rule of expediency, and it was only violated twice, in both cases with unfortunate consequences.
Excerpted from History of the Later Roman Empire by J. B. Bury. Copyright © 1958 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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