The Military and Political Reforms of Emperor Constantine I 'the Great'
After reading Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu's Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline last week, I was inspired to write an analysis based on the central arguments and central theses promoted by Montesquieu.
[I: The Barbarian Tribes]
The barbarian tribes that existed beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers did not form a centralized and expansive kingdom but an agglomeration of warring and inimical tribal groups that often limited their ambitions to the subjugation and reduction of nearby tribes and, individually, were puny compared to the might of Rome. The barbarian rabble of the Franks, Alemanni, Marcomanni, Siling Vandals, Asding Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Jutes, Angles and Saxons were pathetic compared to the opulence and majesty of the immortal city [Rome] and to the burgeoning power of Constantinople. The Roman policy of planting the seeds of discord in the Germanic tribes rendered them fissiparous and prevented the barbarians from coalescing around a single individual or a single group and prevented the establishment of a grand coalition of tribes. If the Germanic tribes were no longer politically divided or divisive in their affairs but instead formed together and made a concerted and massive assault on the exposed heartland of the Roman Empire, this political behemoth would have devoured the Roman state. Therefore, under the administration of benevolent and politically able sovereigns, the dense horde of barbarian tribes was kept divided. Powerful barbarian kingdoms and tribal confederations were either subdued through military force and military intervention or such kingdoms were pitted against other tribal kingdoms and groups in senseless and desperate struggles.
[II: The Military and Political Reforms of Emperor Constantine]
However, two major reforms in the military and political spheres of the Roman Empire led to increasing disorder that encouraged massive barbarian incursions that were able to pierce through the exposed areas alongside the poorly defended Rhine and Danube rivers as well as to the degradation of Rome's preeminence in the affairs of the Roman state through the loss of its status as the sovereign mistress of the civilized world. During the Principate as well as during the period of the soldier-emperors [Claudius II Gothicus, Aurelian, Marcus Claudius Tacitus and Probus], the Romans followed the policy of a "forward defense" and actively assaulted the strongholds of the barbarians. In the concerted and active policy of "forward defense", the Rhine and Danube Rivers were strengthened and fortified with a series of outposts and bastions. In addition, the limes or a collection of forts, outposts and garrisoned strongholds connected the Rhine River to the Danube River. The frontier or the border lands were always kept at full strength during the rule of sagacious and competent emperors. However, during periods of civil conflict with various claimants and usurpers competing for the imperial throne, the border lands were stripped of their defenses and manpower which emboldened the barbarian tribes and allowed them to wreak havoc on the frontier territories or provinces of the Empire. Then, the barbarians would easily penetrate into the fertile and exposed provinces of Rome whose defenses were laid bare in which its feeble and indolent armies were slow to action due to their growing lethargy, corruption and inactivity.
The military reforms of Emperor Constantine consisted of the creation of a new military system and a new military policy that reduced the border provinces in their military importance and instead concentrated on transporting and maintaining the Roman legions at key strategic points in major urban centers. The two point division of the Roman military through the reforms of Emperor Constantine consisted of the division between the soldiers assigned to the frontier provinces and military marches or military outposts who were classified as the limitanei and the soldiers that formed the main field armies of the Roman Empire who were classified as the comitatenses. Also, the pseudocomitatenses were the border soldiers [The limitanei] that were mixed together with the main field soldiers. This policy of "defense-in-depth" viewed the frontier soldiers as forces to temporarily bear the brunt or the full assault of the barbarian tribes until the arrival of the heavily armed and effective field forces composed of the comitatenses. The limitanei were not expected to repulse the savage assaults of the barbarians but were expected to merely contain the barbarians and to prevent a major breakthough until the arrival of the comitatenses. From the military reforms of Emperor Constantine sprung two evils: the weakening of the limes and the frontier defenses alongside the Rhine and Danube rivers with the decreasing reliance placed on the effectiveness of the soldiers stationed alongside the military marches and the border provinces. The second evil was the growing corruption of the main field armies that were stationed in the main cities and urban centers of the Empires as they became accustomed to the pleasures and idleness of city life. The Roman soldiers of the late period of the Roman Empire lost their ancient martial virtue, their diligence in maintaining Rome's defenses and their practice of a rigorous training program. As a result, the sedentary soldiers became indolent, corrupt and ineffective. The descent of the soldiers into effeminacy resulted from their unrestrained pursuit of pleasures and from the relaxing of previous military standards. The professional forces that under Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines brought Rome an immortal glory became, in effect, a collection of sybarites or a cluster of pleasure seekers and revellers who were often controlled by imperious and/or unworthy princes and sovereigns. Another error that arose from the reforms of Emperor Constantine was the foundation of a new city on the Bosporus that would eventually achieve the status of the "New Rome". Gradually, the "New Rome" usurped Rome's position as the main center of Roman administration and Roman power and it became the imperial seat of the Eastern emperors. Emperor Constantine promulgated that all the goods and resources of the Roman province of Aegyptus would be sent to the city of Constantinople while all the resources and goods of Roman Africa would be sent to the city of Rome.
[III: The Military Strength and the Extent of the Political Sovereignty of the Western and Eastern Halves of the Roman Empire]
The economic and political division of the vast Roman Empire into two halves left the Western portion of the Roman Empire at a great disadvantage due to the greater prosperity and economic power of the Eastern Roman Empire and the superior fleets of the East while the numerous dissensions of government affected the western portion more than the eastern half of the Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire was exposed in the provinces and regions of Noricum, Pannonia and Dalmatia, the great host of barbarian tribes would have been checked by the mighty ramparts of Constantinople and by the great forces of the Eastern Romans that occupied the Eastern capital itself as well as Hellespontine Phrygia and other coastal regions in Western Anatolia. In addition, the great fleets of the Eastern Romans occupied the Aegean Sea, the Sea of Marmara or the Propontis Sea and the Euxine Sea/Black Sea in which the invading forces would have been prevented from crossing the Hellespont due to the patrolling fleets of the Romans while Constantinople would easily have been supplied by the trade routes that were located throughout the Aegean Sea and the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea as well as easily being reinforced by the field armies stationed in Hellespontine Phrygia, Ionia and other provinces in Anatolia. The western portion of the Roman Empire did not have the advantage of exerting complete naval mastery of their part of the Mediterranean Sea due to the encroachments and sea invasions made by the Vandalic Kingdom which maintained a stronghold in North Africa. Deprived of naval superiority in the western part of the Mediterranean, the Romans of the West were threatened in Sicily while the constant supply of resources and goods from North Africa shriveled until trade and contact with the military garrisons in Roman Africa were completely severed due to the Vandals' successful subjugation and occupation of Africa and the main African cities of Carthage, Hippo Regius and Utica. With the loss of North Africa and the constant threat of invasion on the Roman occupied islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, the barbarians were eventually able to form a stranglehold on Rome itself and the central province of Italia.
Last edited by Conrad_Jalowski; 08-12-2010 at 11:13 AM.
[IV: The Collapse of the Western Roman Empire]
While the Vandals pillaged and looted coastal cities and plundered and ravaged exposed regions alongside the coast, the Western Roman Empire was losing large amounts of territory to the Sueves in Northwestern Iberia, the Visigoths in the region of Aquitaine, the Burgundians and the Franks. Also, the authority of the Western Roman Emperors who resided in the city of Ravenna were mere pawns to powerful military figures and were easily swayed and influenced by the vast throng of sycophants that surrounded their thrones. With the loss of grain and resources from North Africa, the loss of effective control of the western portion of the Mediterranean Sea, the encroaching powers of the Sueves, Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks, the pusillanimous and weak emperors and the heavy saturation of the Western Roman armies with the foederati [The foederati were the barbarian contingents of Germanic soldiers that fought under their own war chieftains in the service of the Western Roman Empire] all contributed to the speedy decline of the Western Roman Empire. As the Eastern Roman Empire failed to lift the tottering Roman state in the West, the Western Romans who were besieged and assaulted on all fronts quickly succumbed to the leaden mass of barbarians that penetrated in every section of the decaying empire.
After the brutal assassination of Majorian whose short reign [457-461 CE] was filled with great energy and activity, the fate of the western portion of the Roman Empire was nothing short of its utter destruction at the hands of the marauding barbarians. Perhaps, it could be stated that the pessundation of the western portion was inexorable after the final division and split of the Empire in 395 CE on the death of Theodosius I 'the Great' in which the western part of the Roman Empire went to Honorius and the eastern part of the Roman Empire went to Arcadius. The traditional version of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is dated to the year 476 CE in which the Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer of the Heruli tribe. However, Roman civilization did not dissolve or collapse in 476 CE as the Romans maintained a mighty empire in the East that lasted until the sack of Constantinople in 1453 CE that only fell after a bitter and hard fought siege in which the Romans valiantly resisted the invading forces of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II 'the Conqueror'. The last enclaves of Roman rule - the Trapezuntine Empire under the Megalokomnenoi Dynasty and the Despotate of the Morea - managed to remain politically autonomous or politically independent from Ottoman rule until these last two bastions and centers of Roman power were swept aside by the great, relentless and irresistable Ottoman tide in the 1460's.
Last edited by Conrad_Jalowski; 08-12-2010 at 01:49 AM.
Conrad, after reading this, I'm not sure if you are a big fan of Constantine 'the Great'. I know however that you are great fan of the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople, but not it's founding father. Or your just merely expressing the unfairness he brought to the West? Do you think that he believed that expansion in the north was much more difficult than in the East? Or was he trying to put a very strong grip on the Holy Land, seing as he would become a very spiritual Christian?. In addition, personally think that if the city of Constantinople was NOTcreated and pampered, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire would have fallen to Persians and local uprisings.
Perhaps I am just blind, and missed the section where you discussed this, but I feel it is important to stress one other thing.
While I understand the central point of this essay (or post) is on "The Military and Political Reforms of Emperor Constantine I 'the Great'", it is important to stress just how far Romes' military had fallen at this point.
The great disipline once showed, and heavily respected was all but gone at ths point. And not only that, the training was horrible, the soldiers moral little to non-existant, and the influx of poorly trained, not extremely well equipped, recruited as a last resort, Barbarian Military troops, huge. You referenced this a few times in your essay, but I feel it is important to stress just how big of an impact this had.
The combination of these aspects made a laughing poor Roman Army, which was little more then Barbarian Tribes with a few Romans at the end of Rome.
There was also one other point, that of lead poisoning. Lead poisoning lead to sterility amongst many of the Romans at this period of time, which, in many ways, hastened the use of Barbarians in the armies of Rome (as, once a Roman died, he was not easily replaced).
Over all a perfectly written essay, accurately reflecting the changes that took place over this period of time. Perfect marks, Mr. Conrad.
Last edited by John Adams; 08-16-2010 at 02:56 AM.
The recruitment of Barbarians was not a last resort, but a show of poor strategy. The civil wars caused a break in the outer shell that protected Rome from Barbarian raids, when the civil wars subsided, rather then repair the shell or train their own light cavalry, they turned to cheaper Barbarian mercenaries, recruited them into their main army and set them to chasing after the other Barbarians, lessening the raids and giving them an excuse not to replace the shell.
Then aggravating this problem, they let the Barbarians train their volunteers, and since the Barbarians made more money from the loot then the Legion made from their wages, almost nobody volunteered for the legions.
And this made nearly the entirety of the army Barbarous even the ones who weren't Barbarians.
But yeah, good job Comrade.
The only real power comes out of a long rifle.
- Joseph Stalin
A Kentucky Long Rifle