Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.


The epics of Homer, the wars of Caesar, and temples and palaces characterize the image of classic antiquity and the cultures of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. They are the sources from which the Western world draws the foundations of its philosophy, literature, and, not least of all, its state organization. The Greek city-states, above all Athens, were the birthplace of democracy. The regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and great parts of Northwest Europe were forged together into the Roman Empire, which survived until the time of the Great Migration of Peoples. Mighty empires also existed beyond the ancient Mediterranean world, however, such as those of the Mauryas in India and the Han in China.


Alexander the Great



The Rule of the Generals and Imperial Rome

74 B.C.-192 A.D.


The Dominate: Diocletian and the System of the Tetrarchy

Diocletian restored the strength of Rome. His dual reign with Maximian and eventually the system of the imperial tetrarchy effectively dealt with an empire that was gradually pulling itself apart.

In November 284, 1, 2, 4 Diocletian, a guard commander of humble origins, seized power and imbued the empire with a new order, thus ending the "crisis of the third century."

1 Portrait of the
Emperor Diocletian, coin

2 Diocletian

4 above left: Portrait of Diocletian
above: Jupiter with eagle and small
goddess of victory on the reverse
side of the same golden coin

As war broke out again in Gaul, he made his comrade-in-arms Maximian his co-regent (caesar) in 285 and, after he had successfully suppressed the rebellion in Gaul in 286, co-emperor (augustus). His rule was initially precarious; he had to simultaneously fight attacks on the Roman borders while stamping out civil unrest within the state.The two emperors divided their duties. Diocletian's main interests lay in an overall reform of the administration and the army. The tax system, the salaries of public officials, and the courts were all completely reorganized, and the provinces were granted greater authority, which contributed to the decentralization of the empire that began to emerge. In the meantime, Maximian rushed from one war to another.

When Britain separated itself from the empire under local usurpers in 286-287 and revolts broke out in the Near East, Diocletian recognized that the empire was no longer capable of being centrally governed and in 293 installed the system of 3 tetrarchy ("rule of four").

3 "The Tetrarchs," relief at San Marco, Venice, interpreted as
Diocletian, Valerius, Maximian and Constantinus

Both regents adopted successors, who were to reign as caesars (junior emperors) and, when the emperors retired, would take their place.

Diocletian and Maximian chose, respectively, 7 Galerius and Constantius I Chlorus as caesars, and the tetrarchs divided their authority regionally.

7 Galerius convincing Diocletian to make him caesar

Diocletian, as augustus of the East, ruled from Thrace to the Near East and Egypt, with his capital at Salona (modern Split); Galerius was given the Danube provinces and Greece; Maximian, as augustus of the West, controlled Italy, Spain, and North Africa from his capital in Milan; and Constantius received Gaul and Britain. In conflicts of interest, Diocletian as "senior augustus" had the final word. For 20 years, the system demonstrated an astounding stability, until Diocletian decided that he and Maximian would retire on May 1,305, and Galerius and Constantius would move up to the position of augusti.

The emperors held to the old Roman deity cult as state ideology and demanded veneration as divine rulers. The Christians' refusal to obey this demand led to their persecution in 299, which intensified between 303 and 305.

The Christians were forced to hide in the 5 catacombs of Rome, and 6 Diocletian's memory was thereafter reviled in Christian historiographv. Nevertheless, he had restored the power of Rome.


Depiction of the Apostle Paul
in a mural found in one
of the Roman catacombs
in which Christians hid

6 Reconstruction of Diocletian's palace,
which he built around 300 for his
retirement in Split near Salona,


Detail of the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki.


Collapse of the Tetrarchy and the Victory of Constantine and Licinius

The power struggle between the contenders resulted in the collapse of the tetrarchy after 306. With the victory of Constantine the Great and Licinius, the Christians gained their first recognition by the state, and the process by which Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire began.


From Galerius's Edict of Toleration of 311:

"Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their god for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes."



The tetrarchy was already teetering by 305 because Maximian, in contrast to Diocletian, was reluctant to give up power; furthermore, in addition to his adopted son Constantius, Maximian had a biological son, the ambitious Maxentius, who sought power. While the change of rule ran smoothly in the East and Galerius raised Maximinus Daia to caesar, in the West it came to bitter conflicts.

When Constantius, who had stopped the persecution of Christians in his realm, died in 306, his biological son 8 Constantine, supported by his father's army, seized the imperial throne. Maxentius protested and had himself declared emperor by the Praetorians in Rome.

The senior augustus Galerius sent his troops against him but 9 Maxentius was victorious, and thus a five-year struggle for control of the western Roman Empire began between Constantine and Maxentius.

The situation intensified in 308 when Galerius declared 9 Licinius augustus of the West.

Licinius recognized Constantine as his caesar and convinced Galerius, who had been a persecutor of Christians, to issue an edict of religious tolerance in 311 to bring the Christians to support him— the first official recognition of the Christians by a Roman emperor. Together, Licinius and Constantine were able to prevail against their enemies.

8 Portrait of Constantine
the Great on a coin

9 above: Maxentius on a coin;
Licinius on a coin


In 312 Constantine, who openly favored the Christians, moved with his legions against Rome and defeated Maxentius' troops at the 10 Milvian Bridge, although his troops were outnumbered by Maxentius's by at least two to one.

The next year, Licinius triumphed in the east against Maximinus Daia, also with the aid of Christian soldiers. The victors divided the empire among themselves, Constantine ruling the West and Licinius the East. A new era had begun in the Roman Empire; one which was much more favorable for the Christians.

10 The Battle at the Milvian Bridge, 312 a.d.



The Victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312

Constantine's politically calculated move to send his troops into battle wearing the Christogram XP—the initials of Christ—was glorified by the early Christian authors Lactanz and Eusebius of Caesarea.

Eusebius in his Vita Constantini reported that Constantine, whose troops were significantly outnumbered by those of Maxentius, dreamed before the battle that the sign of the cross appeared in the heavens before him and a voice called,

"In hoc signo vincisl" ("In this sign thou shalt triumph").




The Battle of the Milvian Bridge by Giulio Romano



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