Middle East in Late Antiquity, after 150 CE
The Edict (decree) of Emperor Caracalla (Constitutio Antoniniana) in 212 CE gave most free males in the empire, including those in the Middle East, Roman citizenship while subjecting them to Roman taxation, Roman laws, and to the option and opportunities of using Roman legal process (courts, legal reasoning). The empire and more particularly the Roman Middle East temporarily experienced internal and external crises during the third century. The Parthian Empire that replaced part of the Persian Empire dissolved after unsuccessful wars with Rome in the early third century and in turn was replaced by the Sasanian Empire, centered on central Mesopotamia and Iran. Prosperity lured invaders from the periphery to raid, invade, and attempt to extort as well as engage in trade. The Roman Middle East suffered from Sasanian-Roman warfare and tribal raiding that ravaged its borderlands but it recovered. Crises as well as the relative economic strength of the Roman Middle East forced the Romans to concentrate more political and military resources on its eastern frontier and caused Roman administrative leadership to shift its headquarters from Rome and Italy eastward, culminating in the establishment of an imperial residence at Constantinople, the renamed port of Byzantium, strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Economic and demographic growth probably peaked between the fourth and sixth centuries in the Roman Middle East, after declines in western European provinces. The de-centering of the empire resulted from but reinforced the greater dynamism of the Middle East. It was not simply financial strength but also human talent in the form of political, religious, and intellectual leadership that emerged in the Middle East and was able to enjoy wider scope and prominence because of the existence of opportunities widely scattered in the vast empire.
Christianity spread from the Middle East to triumph throughout the empire by the fourth and fifth centuries. Very few pagans remained within the borders of the empire by 600 CE. Starting in the fourth century, some Christian ascetics created monastic communities in Egypt. These spread. Cults of saints and pilgrimages arose to celebrate notable Christians and for visiting and honoring biblical and other holy sites in Syria-Palestine. Romans continued to maintain and improve infrastructures until the seventh century. Christianity penetrated Arab tribes but only to an extent.
A flow of persons continued back and forth between the Middle East and Rome’s western provinces and the city of Rome itself. The Late Roman Middle East remained an interchange for lively trade and travel between the Mediterranean and Central and East Asia and East Africa. Superficial Hellenization and Romanization of peoples of the Middle East began to fade as some very old local cultures and languages and identities reemerged from under the deceptive Latin and Greek cultural veneer and aging institutional structures. Although many inhabitants of Middle East enjoyed benefits of security and a chance to participate in a wider Roman imperial economy and culture, their loyalties proved to be fragile and passive in the long term. Insufficient numbers of inhabitants of the showed themselves willing to organize, fight, and die to defend the Roman Empire against its enemies and to perpetuate its domination of the Middle East.
Walter E. Kaegi
Professor of History, University of Chicago
1. Explain the importance of large urban centers such as Alexandria and Antioch to the growth of the eastern Mediterranean region. Why are these urban centers so attractive?
2. Describe positive and negative social, economic, and political impact of the Romans on the populations of the Middle East.
3. Considering the history of the Romans in the Middle East, explain why some inhabitants of the Late Roman Middle East were unwilling to defend the Roman Empire.