Called “a brilliant tour d’horizon of the West” by the New York Review of Books, Michael Kulikowski’s The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy is a sweeping political history of the turbulent two centuries that led to the demise of the Roman Empire. This excerpt introduces us to the changing political landscape in Constantinople in the 4th century, and the city’s increasingly fraught relationship to the wider Roman Empire. The Tragedy of Empire is out now in paperback.
The city of Rome, with its tempestuous Christian throngs and its super-rich senatorial aristocracy, was a challenging place to govern, but because Valentinian never once ventured there, he could keep some of its complexities at arm’s length. And from the court’s point of view, the politics of the western empire were difficult, but at least readily legible — Valentinian was a native of the Latin West, the factions within his court were mostly western, and the balance between the military high command, the palatine bureaucracy and the regional prefectures was one that could be maintained with careful management. In the East, Valens faced very much greater challenges, which were compounded by his lack of experience, an unimaginative character and a tendency to paranoia that was not always ill founded. He was also a Latin in a Greek-speaking world that was changing very fast. Those innate disadvantages were exposed still more cruelly by the need to divide his time between two large and highly charged urban settings, Antioch and Constantinople. By contrast, the frontier camps of the Rhineland and even major Gallic cities like Treveri were simple enough worlds to navigate.
Constantinople itself was one of the main reasons for the changing character of the eastern empire. In the course of just a generation, it had gone from existing solely in Constantine’s imagination to a city that was increasingly the capital of the eastern empire; and unlike Rome, which was a city that had conquered an empire long before it was ruled by emperors, Constantinople was an imperial creation and an ongoing imperial project. One of the new city’s greatest impacts on the elites of the eastern provinces was its Senate. Constantine had brought many senators with him when he moved east and he created many more, both deliberately and by a natural expansion of the ordo after senatorial rank could be gained by holding imperial office. But Constantine’s senators were Roman senators; they belonged to the city of Rome, even if they resided in the East. It was Constantius II who created the Constantinopolitan Senate, modelled on that of Rome — and it was this possession of its own Senate that would allow the eastern capital to alter the whole landscape of the Greek world.
As early as 340, the new city was where eastern senators were obliged to give the praetorian games that signalled entry into that rank. This was a sign of things to come. In 355, Constantius adlected the famed orator and philosopher Themistius to the Senate of Constantinople (that is, he ‘read him into’ the Senate, an imperial prerogative). Themistius was then tasked with recruiting new senators from around the East. According to Themistius himself, there were only three hundred senators of the city in 357, but that number rose to 2,000 over the next five years. Having functionally been a large but normal city council — like any Latin curia or Greek boule — when Themistius became a senator, the enlarged Constantinopolitan Senate now formed an eastern ordo senatorius that would be increasingly separate from that of the West. Its creation was an important step in inaugurating the Greek Roman empire that would flourish for many centuries longer than its western counterpart, and survive in one form or another to the dawn of the modern era.
It should come as no surprise, then, that already by the 360s there was mounting resentment of Constantine’s city on the Bosporus. It drew the rich, the talented and some of the well-born away from their native cities. This mattered a great deal in the Greek world, where the sense of identification with the polis (‘city-state’, plural poleis, already the characteristic Greek polity a thousand years earlier) was deeply inculcated in urban elites, and where a renaissance of polis culture, lovingly cultivated by generations, had followed the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic East. The upstart metropolis, with its looming imperial palace complex and its convenient equidistance between the Danubian and the Syrian frontiers, was a threat to a world that had developed according to its own internal, city-centred logic over hundreds of years. One can sense the regret this caused in the words of Libanius, the Antiochene sophist whose voluminous writings are suffused with a sorrow for a world that was passing — not just the old gods, for whose prospects Julian’s death was a final catastrophe, but also a world where young men still learned Greek oratory and philosophy instead of rushing off to law school and the forensic studies that would get them ahead in the capital.
The historian Eunapius of Sardis was likewise half aware that the world he inhabited was being changed for good by Christianity, and also by the new and ravenous city that Constantine had created. Like Ammianus Marcellinus and Libanius, Eunapius was a committed pagan and, like Ammianus, he wrote a history of the empire, though with a tiny fraction of the former’s skill and narrative talent. That history, which survives only in fragments and in the heavy use made of it by the sixth-century historian Zosimus, usefully supplements our other evidence, but it is in his Lives of the Sophists that Eunapius’ frame of mind leaps suddenly into view. Deliberately modelled on the work of the third-century sophist Philostratus, who had himself created the concept of the Second Sophistic and the renaissance of Greek learning and culture it was meant to signify, Eunapius’ Lives depict a half-imaginary Polis-Land similar to that of Philostratus. For Eunapius, though, that Polis-Land was palpably under threat from hostile alternatives — the imperial court with its Latin legal culture, and a Christianity that rejected the god-filled world of a romanticised Greek past. Christians, too, hated the challenge posed by Constantine’s new city, and none more so than the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch — the ceaseless religious controversy of the fourth century was fuelled as much by their mutual unwillingness to cede their authority to the bishops of upstart Constantinople as it was by their own rivalry.
Along with the construction of Constantinople, a subtler and less immediately visible change began to affect the ruling classes of the East, both pagan and Christian, in the middle and late fourth century. The Constantinopolitan Senate recruited by Themistius on Constantius’ orders drew from both the age-old landed families of the poleis and an ambitious petty bourgeoisie whose powers, such as they were, depended on their role in imperial government. The arrivisme of this group was one reason Libanius could combine his lament for the decline of his world with an ugly sneer: ambitious men of the lower middle class no longer aspired to enter the boule, they wanted to go into the imperial civil service, which nowadays lent them a trumped-up prestige because so many imperial posts turned those who held them into senators. If it was only the oldest of the ancient families that stayed loyal to the identity of their polis — or worse, if even some of them succumbed to the vogue for imperial service — then the old ruling class would wither and slowly die, submerged in a sea of its social inferiors. Libanius was exaggerating for effect, but his analysis was precise and acute. If anything, he underestimated the scale of the change being wrought on the social world of the Greek East at mid century. Its cause was gold.