Restorer of The World
Alternative History tends to fall into two flavors – one is that what happened historically was fixed and unchangeable, or that every tiny contingency will lead to a huge divergence instantly. Viewed from the future, the Roman Empire appears to be a monolith that existed without change for centuries, until it came to its inevitable end. The reality shows that the end of the Western Empire was less clearly inevitable – despite its weakness, nobody wanted the empire to end. Rather, both the invading tribes and the current residents all wanted to find their place in an ongoing system, but the disruptions of the time were enough to make it impossible to support the overarching government on the scale of the Empire.
Centuries before this, when the Empire was far stronger, there was a huge crisis that nearly tore the entire Empire apart. In fact, for decades the Empire was divided into three separate entities, as the provinces of Britain, Gaul, and Spain broke away to defend themselves. In the East, in the midst of Persian invasions most of the East broke away under the domination of the city of Palmyra.
Elsewhere, the Goths first made an appearance, sweeping through the center of the Empire and overrunning and sacking parts of Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkans. One Emperor, Valerian was captured by Persia. His son, Gallienus, seemed unable to fight the combination of the Goths and the unruly troops that routinely created new Emperors,
While the Empire was down, it wasn’t out. In the central third, the army was developing a group of officers from the Illyrian provinces that would dominate for the next fifty years and more.
Signs of recovery started even before Gallienus’ murder in 268. The limited records of the time record a victory over the Goths, and there are signs that he created a reserve “reaction force” that was able to ride and respond to the raiders in a more timely manner than before. Gallienus’ murder led to the naming of Claudius II Gothicus,
Claudius, too, had success in breaking up the Gothic tribes keeping the central core of the Empire on the defensive, but he died of the plagues sweeping the land. In the West, the death of the Gallic “Emperor” led to Spain returning to the central core, while in the East, the death of the ruler of Palmyra led to changes in the reverse direction.
In our time, we think of states breaking away as being due to the desire of these lands and rulers wanting autonomy and independence. In Rome at this time, almost the opposite was true. Many usurpers and breakaway states were a response to the lack of central direction, and the locals trying to stand in for the absent Imperial authority, busy elsewhere for years at a time. There was no central state apparatus to manage the regions away from he physical presence of an emperor.
At first, Palmyra followed this scenario. With the Emperor captured and the Persians running wild, the city took over defense itself and managed to defeat the Persians. The leader was actually given Imperial office by Gallienus. With his death, his wife Zenobia began to take matters in a different direction, as she took steps to acquire and manage the entire East under Palmyra. The Illyrian officers nominated another of their own, Aurelian, over a relative of Claudius, to be the next Emperor.
Within two years, Aurelian had gotten his house in order. He ordered the construction of walls around Rome, fully defeated the Goths and adjusted the borders, abandoning the province of Dacia. Now he was ready to take on the “reconquest” of the East.
Given the desire of many districts to return to Rome, parts of the advance were easy, However, the fifty years of chaos made even the simplest thing difficult. It shows the skill of Aurelian that he managed to restore the East to central rule in a few years, and that the system lived on even beyond the fall of the West in 476. Turning to the West, the approach of the army led the emperor of the Gallic Empire to essentially abdicate in his favor and Gaul and Britain returned to the fold.
Aurelian then intended to turn on Persia, but he was murdered himself by dissident officers. But the Illyrian “line” of similar thinking Emperors lived on and continued to restore and reform the state, The Emperors Probus and Carinus got the state on track and defeated Persia, although their deaths by murder show that the army still was not under full control. Diocletian then took over for 20 years of strong rule, forming the Tetrarchy. After that Constantine, another Illyrian, made Christianity the official religion of the state.
Aurelian put the Empire back on course and gave it hundreds of years of life. The book is an excellent review of a hugely under documented period of the Empire.