42 Rome’s Imperial Crisis and the Rise of Constantine

Rome’s Imperial Crisis and the Tetrarchy

The period also known as the Imperial Crisis, was characterized by constant civil war, as various military leaders fought for control of the empire. The crisis has been further noted by historians for widespread social unrest, economic instability (fostered, in part, by the devaluation of Roman currency by the Severans), and, finally, the dissolution of the empire which broke into three separate regions. The empire was reunited by Diocletian (ruled 284–305 CE) who established the Tetrarchy (the rule of four) to maintain order throughout the empire. Even so, the empire was still so vast that Diocletian divided it in half in 285 CE to facilitate more efficient administration.

In so doing, he created the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). Since a leading cause of the Imperial Crisis was a lack of clarity in succession, Diocletian decreed that successors must be chosen and approved from the outset of an individual’s rule. Two of these successors were the generals Maxentius and Constantine. Diocletian voluntarily retired from rule in 305 CE, and the tetrarchy dissolved as rival regions of the empire vied with each other for dominance. Following Diocletian’s death in 311 CE, Maxentius and Constantine plunged the empire again into civil war.

Art During the Imperial Crisis

Portraits of the Tetrarchs

Imperial portraiture of the Tetrarchs depicts the four emperors together and looking nearly identical. The portraiture symbolizes the concept of co-rule and cohesiveness instead of the power of the individual. The idea of the Tetrarchy, which is apparent in their portraits, is based on the ideal of four men working together to establish peace and stability throughout the empire.

The medium of the famous porphyry sculpture of the Tetrarchs, originally from the city of Constantinople, represents the permanence of the emperors. Furthermore,

This is a photo of the Portrait of the Tetrarchs. The Portrait of the Tetrarchs is originally from Constantinople, but since the Middle Ages it has been fixed to a corner of the facade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice, Italy.
The Portrait of the Tetrarchs by Nino Barbieri is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

the two pairs of rulers — a Caesar and an Augustus with arms around each other — form a solid, stable block that reinforces the stability the Tetrarchy brought to the Roman Empire. (8)

Stylistically, this portrait of the Tetrarchs is done in Late Antique style, which uses a distinct squat, formless bodies, square heads, and stylized clothing clearly seen in all four men. The Tetrarchs have almost no body.

As opposed to Classical sculptures, which acknowledge the body beneath the attire, the clothes of the Tetrarchs form their bodies into chunky rectangles. Details such as the cuirass (breastplate), skirt, armor, and cloak are highly stylized and based on simple shapes and the repetition of lines.

Despite the culmination of this artistic style, the rendering of the Tetrarchs in this manner seems to fit the connotations of Tetrarch rule and need for stability throughout the empire. (8)

The Rise of Constantine

In 312 CE Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and became sole emperor of both the Western and Eastern Empires (ruling from 306–337 CE).Believing that Jesus Christ was responsible for his victory, Constantine initiated a series of laws such as the Edict of Milan (317 CE) which mandated religious tolerance throughout the empire and, specifically, for which Christians benefitted greatly. In the same way that earlier Roman emperors had claimed a special relationship with a deity to augment their authority and standing (Caracalla with Serapis, for example, or Diocletian with Jupiter), Constantine chose the figure of Jesus Christ. At the First Council of Nicea (325 CE), he presided over the gathering to codify the faith and decide on important issues such as the divinity of Jesus and which manuscripts would be collected to form the book known today as The Bible. He stabilized the empire, revalued the currency, and reformed the military, as well as founding the city he called New Rome on the site of the former city of Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) which came to be known as Constantinople.He is known as Constantine the Great owing to later Christian writers who saw him as a mighty champion of their faith but, as has been noted by many historians, the honorific could as easily be attributed to his religious, cultural, and political reforms, as well as his skill in battle and his large-scale building projects. After his death, his sons inherited the empire and, fairly quickly, embarked on a series of conflicts with each other which threatened to undo all that Constantine had accomplished.(5)

Art During Constantine’s Reign

Putting It All Together

This chapter introduced a lot art and architecture from the Roman Empire. This 3-D digital model highlights a lot of those monuments and what they would have looked like in 320 CE. There is an extended, narrated version if you prefer.





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