The Oxford History of Medieval Europe

By George Holme | Go to book overview

I
The Transformation of the Roman Mediterranean 400-900

THOMAS BROWN


The Twilight of the Ancient Mediterranean

IN the late fourth century there was little sign of imminent upheaval in the Mediterranean heartlands of the Roman Empire. The disorders. of the third century had been overcome by soldier-emperors whose reforms had safeguarded the frontiers and created political stability. Following the conversion of Constantine Christianity had established a firm hold and lavish programmes of artistic and architectural patronage testified to the wealth and self-confidence of a revivified empire.

After the death of the Emperor Theodosius I in 395, however, divisions between the Latin and Greek halves of the empire became more evident. The east far outshone the west in intellectual achievement, prosperity, and the number and size of its cities; whereas Gaul and Britain could muster 114 civitates, more than 900 cities constituted the thriving centres, of political and economic life in the east. Not only the resources but the ideological backing for imperial authority were stronger in the east, where the Hellenistic heritage reinforced acceptance of the imperial cult and the trappings of autocratic power. Papyri from Egypt and excavations of Syrian villages suggest a level of agricultural prosperity in sharp contrast with the slave-run latifundia of Italy or the peasant hovels of Gaul.

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