The Chronology of Europe from the Reign of Septimius Severus to that of Maurice, according to Sources from the Fourth to the Ninth Centuries Trevor Palmer 1. The Chronology of the Roman Emperors during this Period 1.1 Introduction It is generally believed that, during the third century AD, the Roman Empire suffered a prolonged period of chaos. Emperor after emperor met violent deaths after brief reigns, and one civil war followed another. Was this just a time of social and historical confusion, or was it the origin of a major chronological anomaly? One who has argued for the latter scenario is Gunnar Heinsohn, who maintains that events at this time may have resulted in three phantom centuries being added to history. He has pointed out that Elagabalus, who died around AD 222, was the last Roman emperor to have constructed a new building on Palatine Hill. Furthermore, the last emperor to have been buried in Rome was Caracalla in AD 218, which was supposedly 258 years before the end of the empire in western Europe. Heinsohn noted that remains of the Theatre of Balbus had been found under a layer of mud around 10 metres thick on the Campus Martius in Rome, and suggested that this widespread mud layer could be evidence of a tsunami which wiped out imperial Rome, going on to draw attention to archaeological evidence from other countries, including Britain, which indicated catastrophic destructions of Roman cities. He suggested that this major catastrophic event during the 230s was the same as another which had supposedly occurred 300 years later, during the 530s. He went on to propose that the emperors who had reigned in Rome from AD 1 to AD 230 were in fact contemporaries of emperors who had reigned in the east, supposedly from AD 290 to AD 520. So, for example, Augustus was a contemporary of Diocletian, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius of Constantine the Great, Vespasian of Julian, Nerva of Theodosius I, Hadrian of Theodosius II, Marcus Aurelius of Marcian, Septimius Severus of Zeno and Caracalla, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus of Anastasius. In this scenario, the years between AD 230 and AD 290 were chaotic ones, marking the beginning of the Medieval period (http://www.q-mag.org/_media/gunnar-creation-of-the-1st-millennium-new16-11-2013.pdf).
In the conventional view of the third century AD, there is a similar period of social and political turmoil, although this is believed to have started well before AD 230. It is also considered to have been a period when the empire was under serious threat from both the north and the east. The situation was then stabilised in AD 285 by Diocletian, who rose through the ranks of the army to become a strong emperor. Although hated by Christians because of his religious persecutions, Diocletian was highly regarded by other Romans, particularly those from the eastern part of the empire. Diocletian himself was from the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, the Dalmatian region of Croatia, and shortly after becoming emperor, he established Milan and Nicomedia, in Turkey, as the twin capitals of the empire. He based himself in Nicomedia, and appointed Maximian, from Pannonia (north of Dalmatia) as co-emperor to rule the western half of the empire from Milan. Later, Diocletian continued the process of devolution, appointing junior emperors to govern the northwest and northeast regions, from Trier on the Moselle and Sirmium in Pannonia. During his reign, Diocletian built a magnificent palace in Split, and he was eventually buried in a tomb within its precincts.
When Diocletian had been on the throne for two decades, in AD 305, he had a serious illness and decided to abdicate, forcing Maximian to do likewise. Galerius was then appointed eastern emperor and Constantius I Chlorus emperor in the west, both of these individuals coming from the Balkans region. Almost immediately, Constantinius led an army to Britain, to deal with problems being caused by the Picts and, although the campaign was a success, Constantius died in York. His son, Constantine, an experienced military officer who was with him when he died, was immediately acclaimed as his successor by the army. However, Galerius appointed Severus II, yet another army commander from the Balkans region, to succeed Constantius as western emperor and, to complicate matters further, Maxentius, son of Maximian, set himself up as emperor in Rome. Galerius ordered Severus to march from Milan and deal with Maxentius, but Severus was defeated and eventually killed. Licinius, who came from the same region as Severus, was appointed to succeed him, but Maxentius remained in control of most of Italy and also north Africa, for several years. Galerius then died in Nicomedia, and his eastern empire was divided between Licinius and Maximinus Daia, the former taking the Balkans and neighbouring areas, and the latter the regions south and east of the Bosporus. Shortly afterwards, Constantine, who had been allowed to govern territories in Britain, Spain and Gaul from Trier as a junior emperor, led his troops over the Cottian Alps to confront Maxentius. He was welcomed by the people of Milan, and then continued south. A great battle took place just outside Rome, with the victory going to Constantine, and as Maxentius and his defeated troops tried to escape back into the city across the Milvian bridge, its structure collapsed and Maxentius died in the Tiber. Thus, six years after first being acclaimed by his troops, Constantine I (the Great) had established himself by force as the western emperor, but he counted his regnal years from the death of his father Constantius I.
Constantine soon met with Licinius in Milan. While they were there, Licinius married Constantine’s half-sister, and the two emperors agreed to follow a policy of religious tolerance. Not long afterwards, Maximinus Daia launched an attack on the territory of Licinius, but he was heavily defeated, and fled to Tarsus, where he died, leaving Licinius in control of the eastern empire. He and Constantine made a pact to respect each other’s territories, but war broke out between them within a few years. Licinius was defeated, and eventually executed, after which Constantine was undisputed ruler of a united empire. He set about building a new capital, Constantinople, on the site of the old Greek city of Byzantium, not far from Nicomedia. Thirty years after being acclaimed emperor in York, Constantine died in Nicomedia and was buried in Constantinople.
Constantine became a Christian after his victory over Maxentius, although the precise nature of his beliefs has remained uncertain. His immediate successors were also Christians, but there was growing hostility at this time between orthodox Christians, particularly in the west, who, taking their lead from the popes in Rome, maintained a strong belief in the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and members of the Arian sect, who believed that Jesus, the Son of God, was separate from, and subordinate to, God the Father. This may have played a part in some subsequent conflicts.
Constantine left the empire to be shared between his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans I, and some other relatives, who were quickly eliminated. Constantine, the eldest son, then took Britain, Spain and Gaul as his territories, Constans received Italy, Pannonia, Dalmatia and north Africa, and Constantius became ruler of the eastern territories. Constantine soon began to demand some of the regions which had been allocated to Constans, and, after negotiations had failed to resolve the matter, he invaded Italy, but was defeated and killed near Aquileia. Constans, now in control of the whole of the western empire, came to various agreements with his brother in the east about religious matters, but one issue they had to leave unresolved was that of Arianism, since Constantius was sympathetic towards this doctrine. As the reign of Constans progressed, he began to lose the support of his subjects and powerful elements of his army, because of his dissolute lifestyle, financial corruption and homosexuality. Eventually, when Constans had been on the throne for 13 years, general Magnentius led an army revolt and declared himself emperor. Constans tried to escape, but was captured in the region of the Pyrenees and killed. Constantius, who had been occupied fighting the Persians in the east, refused to accept Magnentius as emperor and directed his troops against him. Magnentius was soon defeated and killed, leaving Constantius as sole emperor. However, he soon decided that this situation was impractical, and appointed his cousin Julian to be junior emperor (Caesar) with responsibility for the west. Julian, born in Constantinople, was a remarkable character, being both a successful army officer and a highly-cultured man. He quickly became popular with both the civilian population and the military in the west, and when Constantius reacted to this by trying to reduce his authority, the army promoted Julian to having full emperor (Augustus) status for the western region. That resulted in civil war, which ended when Constantius died in AD 361, leaving Julian as ruler of the whole empire.
Although raised as a Christian, Julian had renounced this faith, believing that the empire would operate in a better way if it returned to the traditional religion of Rome. Individuals who wished to practise Christianity should be allowed to do so, but the religion should have no special status or privileges. When he became emperor, Julian began to take steps to bring this about, and he also launched philosophical attacks on Christianity. Not surprisingly, he was vilified in Christian writings of the time, and referred to as Julian the Apostate. However, Julian had little chance to introduce fundamental religious changes, or the administrative reforms he considered desirable, because he was killed fighting against the Persians in Mesopotamia after ruling for just 3 years. All his successors as emperor were to be Christians.
After the death of Julian, the army chose Jovian, one of the senior generals involved in the campaign against the Persians, as emperor. Jovian made a treaty with the Persians, but then died on his way back to Constantinople. As Jovian’s successor, the army selected another army officer, Valentinian I, who was from Pannonia. When Valentinian arrived in Constantinople, he announced that he would move to Milan and rule the west, with his younger brother, Valens, becoming the eastern emperor, on a subordinate basis. Valentinian was to prove the last strong western emperor.
Valenianian died from a stroke in Pannonia in the 11th year of his reign. He may have thought he had ensured a smooth succession by appointing his son Gratian as co-emperor before he died, but Gratian, although being full of religious fervour, had proved weak on more practical attributes, so the army raised his younger brother, Valentinian II, to imperial status when Valentian I died. In practice, however, that made little difference, because although Gratian’s formal responsibility was limited to governing the Gallic provinces from Trier, his brother was only four years old at the time, so Gratian was in effective control of the whole western empire. When Valens was killed in Thrace in AD 378, the entire empire was in Gratian’s hands, but he quickly appointed the Spanish-born military leader Theodosius as eastern emperor. Theodosius I proved to be a powerful and effective ruler, subsequently becoming known as Theodosius the Great. Gratian was killed trying to suppress a rebellion five years after the accession of Theodosius, leaving Valentinian II, now aged 17, as sole western emperor, but he operated as a subordinate to Theodosius. Valentinian was found hanged in uncertain circumstances nine years later, after which the military commander, Arbogast, appointed Eugenius as western emperor. That was unacceptable to Theodosius, who sent troops to kill both Arbogast and Eugenius.
Theodosius died in the following year, AD 395, and, in accordance with his wishes, his eldest son Arcadius, then aged 17, became eastern emperor, with the western empire being placed in the hands of his other son, Honorius, who was just 10 years old. Six years after the accession of Honorius, the Visigoths invaded northern Italy and, although they were driven back, the capital of the western empire was then moved from Milan to Ravenna, which was considered easier to defend. Initially, as arranged by Theodosius, the young Honorius received guidance from Stilicho, a knowledgeable and perceptive military commander of Vandal-Roman descent. However, when emperor Arcadius died in AD 408, Stilicho travelled to Constantinople to help make arrangements for the reign of his son and successor, Theodosius II, and, while he was away, some rivals of Stilicho poisoned the mind of Honorius. On Stilicho’s return to Ravenna, Honorius had him arrested and executed. After that, Honorius had a succession of advisors, often giving him conflicting advice, so he became reluctant to make any clear decisions.
By this time, the Roman empire was clearly losing its grip on western Europe. For the Barbarian, i.e. non-Roman, races in and around the region, that presented a problem for some and an opportunity for others. A number of Roman allies were left abruptly to fend for themselves, without imperial support or protection. On the other hand, tribes who had retained a significant amount of independence now saw a chance to develop their own culture and extend their sphere of influence.
According to the generally-accepted account told by the 8th-century monk, Bede, in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (EHEP), the inhabitants of Britain, at least in the first instance, fitted into the former category. Bede writes that in AD 407, during the first half of the reign of Honorius, a cluster of Germanic Barbarian tribes, in particular the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, crossed the Rhine from the east and invaded Gaul. In the same year, someone called Gratian was promoted by a Roman faction in Britain as a claimant to the imperial throne and, although he was quickly killed, an alternative pretender, Constantine, was soon found, and he crossed to Gaul with some troops to make his bid for power. Not long afterwards, with the army of Honorius struggling to overcome the threat from the Germanic Barbarians, the Roman rebels, and also the Goths who had already staged an invasion of Italy, the Britons were informed that the Roman empire was no longer prepared to defend them against incursions from the Picts and the Irish. However, collapse was far from immediate. Bede reports that, after Valentinian III had succeeded Honorius (his uncle) to become emperor in the west, bishop Germanus of Auxerre was able to visit Britain to counter a flirtation with the Pelagian heresy (which denied the concept of original sin), and successfully restore the British church to the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, shortly after Marcian followed Theodosius II to become eastern emperor in AD 449, with Valentinian still remaining emperor in the west, the Britons felt obliged to invite Anglo-Saxons into their country, to defend them against the increasing threat from the Picts and the Irish (a story taken from a history, generally considered unreliable, by the monk, Gildas). As to matters elsewhere, Bede writes that in the fifth year of Marcian’s reign, Valentinian was murdered by supporters of the patrician Aëtius, whom he had executed, and adds that “with him fell the empire in the west”.
Those are the final words in chapter 21 of Bede’s book. Chapter 22 is a very brief one, just a single paragraph, telling of a descent into civil war and paganism. Chapter 23 begins with the statement that, in AD 582, Maurice became emperor in the east (there being by this time no empire in the west) and, in the 10th year of his reign, Gregory became pope in Rome (the first to be named Gregory). In AD 596, Augustine was sent by pope Gregory as a missionary to the English nation (no longer the nation of the Britons, as the Anglo-Saxon culture was now dominant). From that point onwards, Bede gives reign-by-reign accounts of the kings of Kent, the Northumbrians, the East Angles and the East Saxons, but of their antecedents he provides merely a few names, lacking precise detail about time, place or status. As to events in Britain between the times of Marcian and Maurice, Bede says little more than that Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was of Roman descent, led the Britons to a victory over Anglo-Saxon invaders at Badon Hill, 44 years after their first arrival in the country (an account again taken from Gildas); and that Columba came from Ireland and established a monastery on Iona in AD 565.
Written evidence from Britain during this period is almost completely lacking. That is generally regarded as being due to the chaotic circumstances described by Bede (and Gildas). However, it has been suggested that it might instead indicate a chronological anomaly between the times of Marcian and Maurice. Bede accepted that nothing much had been recorded of events in Britain during a period of about 140 years, but an alternative possibility is that the time-period has been artificially extended, with the true gap between the reigns of Marcian and Maurice being much less than generally supposed.
Can either the 300-year contraction, involving two parallel 230-year periods, as proposed by Heinsohn, or this shorter one, be considered plausible? Let us go on to examine the written evidence from Europe as a whole.