Rome in Late Antiquity

In this post I tackle issues relating to the city of Rome in Late Antiquity, and how the emperors continued to improve and innovate, and what factors motivated them to do so.

To begin, I am going to tackle some of the issues regarding the archaeology of Late Antique Rome, in an effort to demonstrate the difficulties in trying to discover how the emperors wanted to be presented. Rome was no longer the capital of the empire,[2] not in any sense that mattered. The emperor moved to Milan in order to be closer to the legions, and the senate was side-lined; it only regained prominence due the rise of Christianity and being the seat of Pope. This was a way of attracting revenue from pilgrims, but this was directed into religious buildings and wasn’t directly under the control of the emperor.[3] This direction of spending is an issue to the archaeologist, since a large amount of these churches are still in use, meaning that it can be very difficult to get excavation data from them. Building surveys, were the architectural styles and the different ages of extensions are considered, are useful, but it in cases of highly decorated churches it may be difficult to gain a full picture without damaging later features. Another issue with late antique archaeology is that in areas such as the forum, late 19th and early 20th century archaeologists ignored the later layers in a bid to get down to the earlier layers beneath them,[4] leaving us with a reduced understanding of the what the city looked like in Late Antiquity. One reason for this digression is that the lay of the archaeological land effects how the question is answered, since both the spread of the evidence and the types of evidence that survive are different to earlier periods. As the emperors headed North and East to tackle the threat of invasion, the ideas of Rome moved with them, and these other cities (Trier, Nicomedia, Milan, Constantinople etc.) gained much more from the emperor’s benefaction than Rome itself.[5] What this means is that the monuments that can be dated to Late Antiquity in Rome have to have an important symbolic or practical meaning, each of the monuments discussed below are full of potent symbolism, whether intentional or not.

Aurelian, Cyzicus, Billon Antoninanus 272-273; RIC V 349. Inscription reads “Imperator Caesar Aurelianus Augustus” “Restorer of the World” (with permission from )

The society of the third century was different to that of earlier periods of Roman history, with large incursions from Germania and Persia, an unstable political environment where some emperors’ reigns are best measured in days, and breakaway empires. This period is sometimes (and controversially) called the Crisis of the Third Century; this topic is beyond the scope the of the current post,[6] but is important background for how the later emperors were to interact with Rome. Aurelian was one of the most successful Soldier-Emperors of this period and his reign saw the restoration of the eastern-half of the empire and the defeat of the tribes along the northern frontier. During his five-year reign (270-275) he instituted a wall building programme across the empire in order to help against barbarian attacks.[7] Rome was one of the cities that was fortified, as the Servian Walls, built in the third century BC, had become obsolete as the city expanded through the centuries. Aurelius Victor says that this was to prevent Rome from being sacked, and a direct consequence of the barbarian invasions.[8] Although this would appear as a sign of strength and part of his persona as “Restitutor Orbis” or restorer of the world,[9] they also show Aurelian’s fear of invasion reaching as far as the capital, and it also shows he has a lack of faith in the strength of the legions.[10] This unintentional image making of the walls shows that the emperors had to develop new strategies in order to combat the threat of invasion, recognising that Rome was an important target, especially since the emperor was now based away from Rome, the walls allowed time to act and time to reconvene against the invaders.[11] The walls were a symbol of how the empire was now in a much weaker position, they were an emperor’s attempt at change, and a sign of things to come. Since the emperors after Aurelian developed new strategies to help stabilise the empire, and often this strategies were centre stage on the monuments they erected in Rome.

North-eastern frieze from the arch of Constantine, showing the prominence the Decennalia monument within the forum. I suggest that the prominence of them in the background of the frieze is an effort to portray himself as following in the tetrarches footsteps.

After the events of the third century, the tetrarchy (a form of rule with four emperors, two senior, two junior) was a novel attempt to create stability within the empire, with emphasis on unity and strength. During this period the tetrarchy were restoring the city of Rome after a fire in 283, buildings such as the Curia in the forum were restored.[12] There was also an interest in keeping Rome happy, so Diocletian built a large bathing complex, which was built on land he had purchased rather than acquisitioned.[13] This is interesting, since the tetrarchy has been categorised as the beginning of a much more autocratic system,[14] but this inscription shows that one of them went to great lengths to show that he was adhering to the laws of the land he was restoring, the inscription feels as though it is there as insurance to demonstrate that this group of rulers was doing things differently, whilst also showing their respect for laws, and therefore tradition. This idea of doing things differently but also respecting tradition is demonstrated in the monument celebrating the tenth year of the tetrarchy. This monument is no longer extant, but representations of it survive on the arch of Constantine (see figure 2).

Portrait of the Tetrarchs now attached to St Marks in Venice. This sculpture shows how the image the tetrarchs wanted to portray was one of unity and mutual support.

It was a series of five columns that held the four tetrarchs, and the central one holding Jupiter. Like other tetrarchic monuments, the members of the tetrarchy are portrayed as identical (see figure 2 and 3), this meant to create a feeling of uniformity and unity between the figures, and the fact that this imagery is repeated throughout the empire (figure 3 was originally from Constantinople and is likely to have been moved from else prior to that) is meant to reaffirm the strength of the tetrarchy. The placement of the monument is also symbolic, since it was placed in the Forum, and was one of the most significant new monuments built in the forum since the time of Septimius Severus. The fact that this disruption in the building of the forum was over was message in of itself, the tetrarchy had restored the forum to a place of importance, a place of unity. This monument is part of a wider programme of building by the tetrarchs that is meant to show that Rome was not being neglected by the new order.[15]

Primary Sources

Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, trans. Bird, H.W. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1994).



Secondary Sources

Christie, N. (2000) ‘Rome in the Late Empire’ in Ancient Rome: the archaeology of the Eternal City, eds. Coulston, J.C. and Dodge, H. (Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology). Chapter 11.

Corcoran, S. (2012, revised) ‘Before Constantine’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, ed. Lenski, N. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Chapter 2.

Krautheimer, R. (1965) Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. (Boston: Achaeological Institute of America).

Lançon, B. (2000, English edition) Rome in Late Antiquity: Everyday life and Urban Change, AD 312-609, trans. Nevill, A. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Rees, R. (2004) Diocletian and the Tetrarchy. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).


Figure 1: Coin of Aurelian, with permission from  (

Figure 2: Northeast Freize of the Arch of Constantine, from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Figure 3: The Four Tetrachs, from Wikimedia Commons (Photographer: Carole Raddato) (CC BY-SA 2.0)


[1] Herodian, 1.6.5.

[2] Christie (2000) 306; Mayer (2005) 108; Marlowe (2010) 199.

[3] Christie (2000) 307.

[4] Krautheimer (1965) xxii-xxv; Christie (2000) 307.

[5] Christie (2000) 306; Marlowe (2010) 199.

[6] For further reading see De Blois, L. (2002) ‘The crisis of the third century AD in the Roman Empire: a modern

myth?’ in L. de Blois & J. Rich (eds), The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire, Amsterdam, Gieben, pp. 204-217

[7] Lançon (2000) 5.

[8] Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, 35.7.

[9] A common title on his coinage, see figure 1.

[10] Christie (2000) 310.

[11] Rees (2004) 28.

[12] Rees (2004) 29.

[13] CIL 6.1130 = Mayer (2005) 109.

[14] Corcoran (2012 revised) 43.

[15] Rees (2004) 29.


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