A. D. ,, the Roman empire began to weaken. ecological factors may have been responsible. In some of the longest settled parts of the Mediterranean, the number of settlements began to fall – maybe the land, was overused,and had started to show it affects. The climate seems to have been gradually getting worse. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius there could have been plagues. But mostly, the weakness of Rome was the weakness of its political system. The Roman citizen body was not what it used to be, a clearly identified group with a direct interest in the res publica. This change had begun before A. D. 200.Order now
Even before 100 B. C. , the affects of constant warfare and the amazing wealth it produced for a very few at the center of it had destroyed social agreements among the Romans and the government. Military dictatorship then under Caesar, 27 B. C. -A. D. 14 Only a tiny minority had a real political role in the res publica as a whole. For a century or more after Augustus, citizenship continued to be promoted, because it still, outside of Italy, marked one off from one’s neighbors, and showed that one was a person of importance. By the middle of the second century, so many people were citizens hat the privileges were gone.
Suddenly, the obligations of citizenship were much more clear than the privileges. Since the opportunities for conquest had fallen, those citizens ambitious for advancement or fearful of falling into the unprivileged mass of the poor had to compete mainly with each other for the shrinking profits of empire. Indicative of this situation is the way the Roman citizenry was divided, at first informally and then by law, into honestiores and humiliores, “more honorable” and “more humble” citizens. Only the “more honorable” were treated by the imperial authorities ith the respect that had once been due all citizens.
The “more humble” could be beaten, tortured, and executed with little ado. The division reflected the needs of imperial officials, who needed arbitrary powers to control what they saw as an over-privileged population. But the process of dividing the citizenry sharpened the struggle for places in the new elite. Such competition, and the growing poverty of the government, led to another great breakdown in orderly government after A. D. 196. Again, would-be military dictators fought for supreme power. Between 235 and 297 the civil wars ere constant.
The boundaries collapsed and Persian and barbarian armies added to the problems of the empire’s subjects. A blance of unity was restored only by a long and destructive reconquest of the empire, first by Aurelian 270-275, then by Diocletian and his colleagues 284-305. But the easy well being of the second century did not return. In many areas, especially in the west where cities were newer than in the east, urban life was damaged. Following the wars, and in the changed natural conditions, the economy of the empire, of the civilization as a whole, was not strong enough o allow all the wrecked cities to be rebuilt.
The passage of time would show that the urban network built before and during the Roman expansion was in a long slow decline. More apperaent to contemporaries was the damage sustained by Roman prestige. The rulers of the fourth century devoted themselves to restoring the honor of the Roman name and the unity that had once been based on it. But official efforts in this direction were less effective in creating a new social solidarity than unofficial ideologies that came boiling out of the cosmopolitan cities of the eastern Mediterranean.