Page:Western Europe in the Middle Ages.djvu/31

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15
THE MAKING OF EUROPE

elected by the Senate, or he might be chosen by the most powerful section of the army. No one of these methods was followed exclusively, and the uncertainty about the principle of succession frequently led to civil war. Until the third century these wars did no great damage, but after 235 there was a period of fifty years in which it seemed impossible to create a stable government. Emperors were made by intrigues in the bureaucracy or by plots in the army, and were destroyed by their rivals almost as fast as they were made. The army was occupied almost exclusively with civil wars, and barbarians raided all the provinces of the Empire and even built pirate fleets on the shores of the Mediterranean. The great generals who emerged at the end of this period of disorder, such as Aurelian and Diocletian, were finally able to restore peace and unity, but only at the price of turning the Empire into a military despotism.

This accentuated another evil which had been growing steadily since the last years of the Republic — the great majority of the inhabitants of the Empire could not participate in the work of government. The poorer classes were completely debarred from political life during the first century A.D., but the early emperors left local government in the hands of the middle class and allowed the aristocratic Senate some voice in imperial affairs. But local governments ran into financial difficulties and were not as efficient or as honest as the emperors wished, so their powers were steadily curtailed. The Senate was often a center of intrigue against the emperor, and the military despots of the third and fourth centuries would not tolerate such a rival. Senators were given great social prestige and high-sounding titles, but they were deprived of all political responsibilities. By the fourth century all significant acts of government were the work of the emperor and his household, which had developed into a huge bureaucracy. This imperial absolutism was not deliberately tyrannical, nor was it especially corrupt or extravagant. It was often harsh and inflexible, and sometimes slow and inefficient. The emperors of the period were soldiers, terribly anxious to preserve the Empire, but apt to reduce all