Diocletian launches Great Persecution of Christians

Vandal General Stilicho and His Family This ivory diptych (“folding tablet”) from around 400 C.E. shows Stilicho, the top general in the Roman army in Europe and close adviser to the western Roman emperor, with Stilicho’s wife, Serena, and their son Eucherius. Born to a barbarian (non-Roman) father from the Vandal tribe in Germany and a Roman mother, Stilicho rose to prominence in Roman imperial government and society; he married the adoptive daughter of the emperor, and his daughter Maria married the emperor’s son. Stilicho’s parentage reveals the mixing of cultures in the later Roman Empire, while the depiction of the dual rulers points to the political and geographical fragmentation that also took place. Stilicho is shown dressed in the richly decorated clothing appropriate for a member of the Roman elite, and he wears a metal clasp to fasten his robe, a symbol of his father’s ethnicity. The images on his shield of the two emperors then ruling the divided Roman Empire proclaimed his loyalty. (Basilica di San Giovanni Battista, Monza, Italy/ The Bridgeman Art Library.)

Coin Portrait of Emperor Constantine Constantine had these special, extra- large coins minted to depict him for the first time as an overtly Christian emperor. The jewels on his helmet and crown, the fancy bridle on the horse, and the scepter indicate his status as emperor, while his armor and shield signify his military accomplishments. He proclaims his Christian rule with his scepter’s new design—a cross with a globe—and the round badge sticking up from his helmet that carries the monogram signifying “Christ” (see page 202) that he had his soldiers paint on their shields to win God’s favor in battle. (Staatliche Munzsammlung, Münich.)

relationship that the emperors had with the bar- barian peoples north and east of the Danube and Rhine rivers in Europe: for centuries, Rome’s rulers, recognizing the barbarians’ bravery, had hired them as soldiers and let them bring their families into the empire, while at the same time looking down on them for their non-Roman ways and often allowing imperial officials to exploit them so cruelly that they rebelled. This relation- ship had unintentional consequences that helped change the course of history by pushing the Ro- man Empire toward fragmentation into two halves with different destinies.

Competition between ambitious generals and would-be emperors had fueled the empire’s third- century crisis. The emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) finally stopped Romans from fighting one an- other. Tough enough to impose peace, he was also flexible enough to reorganize the administration by appointing a co-emperor and two assistant emperors. Regaining social stability proved more

difficult because of religious tensions between Christians and followers of traditional polytheis- tic cults concerning who was responsible for the divine anger that, they all believed, had sent the crisis. Diocletian pushed his co-rulers to persecute the Christians, whom he blamed. His successor Constantine (r. 306–337) ended this brutality by converting to Christianity and supporting it with imperial funds and a policy of religious toleration. Even with official support, however, it took nearly a hundred years more for the new faith to become the state religion, and the church from early on was rocked by fierce disagreements over doctrine. The social and cultural transformations produced by the Christianization of the Roman Empire settled in even more slowly because many Romans clung to their traditional beliefs; Christian emper- ors had to employ non-Christians if they wanted to get the best possible administrators and generals.

Diocletian’s rescue of the empire only post- poned the splintering of imperial territory: less than twenty years after the battle of Adrianople, Theodosius I split the empire in two, with one of his sons ruling the west and the other the east. The two emperors were supposed to cooperate, but in

the long run this system of divided rule could not cope with the different pressures affecting the two regions.

In the western empire, military and polit- ical events provoked social and cultural change when barbarian newcomers began liv- ing side by side with Romans. Both sides

changed, with the barbarians creating kingdoms and laws based on Roman traditions and adopt-

ing Christianity, while wealthy Romans increas- ingly fled from cities to seek safety in country estates when the western central government be- came ineffective. These changes in turn trans- formed the political landscape of western Europe