4th Century – 7 Historical Events that happened in the 4th Century

The 4th century is one where major cultural and geographical changes began. In Europe, the Roman Empire was split permanently from east to west, after a new capital was named, and the downfall of the empire in the west began. Christianity was accepted, and a natural disaster devastated a large portion of the continent. In the east, China fragmented into sixteen smaller kingdoms, and one of its most famous battles prevented a quick unification. In this article, we will look at 7 key events that took place during the 4th Century.

Armenia becomes the first state to adopt Christianity (301)

Although softening somewhat, Christian persecution was still rife in Europe at the end of the 3rd century. Working as a secretary to the Armenia king Tiridates the Great, the Christian Gregory the Illuminator was said to be tortured and thrown down a pit after refusing to participate in a Zoroastrianism ceremony. But some 13 years later, when Tiridates fell severely ill shortly and his sister had a dream about Gregory, who was presumed dead. The pit was checked, and he was miraculously still alive and well, sustained by the food a local woman threw down every day. Utterly convinced that this was a sign of divinity, Tiridates adopted Christianity as the state religion in 301, the first country to do so officially, and Gregory was named head of the church for his troubles.

The Sixteen Kingdoms era in China begins (304)

Since the middle of the 3rd century, the Western Jin dynasty had been the ruling power of China. But after being weakened by the War of the Eight Princes, Jin had their diminished authority challenged by various non-Han Chinese, who has migrated to Northern China over the proceeding centuries. The five different ethnic groups known as the Five Barbarians forged numerous dynasties, which came and went throughout the 4th century, along with the Western Jin who were snuffed out in the north by 316, but continued in the south as Eastern Jin. Try as they might, none of the new dynasties that took their place in the north could unify the country and stay in power long, hence the name of the era, which would last until 439 with the country in chaos. 

The reign of Constantine the Great (306-337)

The Roman Empire had been split between multiple emperors since 293, but by 306 when Constantine was proclaimed Roman emperor by his men, it was proving to be a short-lived concept. Then emperor only of Gaul, Britain, and Spain, Constantine’s 312 victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge proved pivotal, not simply became Constantine gained control of the western half of the empire as a result, but because he accepted Christianity in its aftermath, ending centuries of persecution in Roman borders. By 324 he had gained control over the whole empire and sought to found himself a new capital. Establishing his ‘New Rome’ in 330, at the site of the ancient Greek city Byzantium, Constantine named it Constantinople. The city would remain the empire’s base of operations for a thousand years, long after the Romans fell in the west. He died in 337, being baptized on his deathbed: the first Roman emperor to do so.

The emergence of the Huns in Europe (376)

A key player in the eventual fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the Huns emerged from Central Asia, heading west and terrorizing Germanic tribes outside Roman borders. Thousands of Goths were forced to flee and move into the Roman Empire, clashing with them as a result and rebelling against the Romans after abuse and a shortage of food. The arrival of these tribes, combined with the attacks of the Huns helped bring the destruction of the Western Roman Empire a century later. The Huns invaded the Eastern Roman Empire for the first time in 395, overrunning entire regions, but they had no plans at this stage to conquer and left of their own accord shortly after. They would remain a powerful thorn in both the Roman and Persian sides for a century.

The Crete earthquake devastates the eastern Mediterranean (365)

On 21 July 365, an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or higher destroyed much of the surrounding towns on the Mediterranean basin. The initial quake virtually wiped out all settlements on Crete itself, lifting a portion of the island 33 feet (10 meters) into the air, as well as destroying much of southern Greece, Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, Italy, and Spain. Occurring undersea, a tsunami followed, devastating the area, and in particular Alexandria, where ships were said to be lifted up and dropped onto the roofs of houses. Croplands throughout the region were region after being drenched in saltwater. Thousands of people were killed, and it was perhaps the most devastating natural disaster of the ancient world.

The Battle of Fei River (383)

With China fragmented and in chaos, the dynasty looking most likely to reunify the nation was the Former Qin, founded in 351 and conquering all of the north by 376. Setting their sites on the south, ruled by Eastern Jin (predecessors of the last major ruling dynasty: Western Jin), the Qin launched a massive invasion, culminating in the Battle of Fei River (or the Battle of Feishui) in 383. Although they were heavily outnumbered by at least three to one, Jin’s forces were organized, motivated, and knew their local terrain, while the Qin were untrained and made up of men from conquered territories. As a result, the Jin routed the Qin at the Fei in one of the most decisive routs in the history of warfare, and one of China’s most significant. The Former Qin fell into disarray and collapsed shortly after, while success for the Jin ensured Chinese independence in the south until 589. 

The Roman Empire is split permanently from East to West (395)

After Constantine began the 4th century by patching the divided empire up again, Theodosius ended the century having split it permanently. It had been rife with political instability for over a century (only quelled momentarily by Constantine), compounded by corruption, and pressures from the rising power of Germanic tribes across the empire. Theodosius aided his own downfall with his persecution of paganism, upsetting centuries of Roman culture and tradition in place of the newly adopted Christianity. His harsh treatment of Goths was motivation for the famous Gothic sacking of Rome in 410. But in 395, when Theodosius died, he left his two sons one half of the empire each, and it would never be whole again.

Did you enjoy this article on the 4th century and want to learn more? Be sure to check out more Centuries Articles!

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