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Crisis of the Third Century


The year is 248 AD and you are a citizen of Rome, the eternal city. Like most other people in the city, you have a job that is boring, redundant, difficult, and probably in some way dangerous to your health. You get paid in these coins that someone said once had value, but you laugh bitterly at the thought of this because the only way you know how to survive is to steal the goods from your place of employment and hope the local butcher is willing to barter with you for food. If he's not, and you're a woman, you probably sleep with him to get what you want. If you're a man, you probably sleep with him too. Your spouse likely died of one of the various plagues that had struck Rome in recent years, so it's up to you and you alone to support the family. You don't really know who's in charge of the country anymore, and at this point, you really don't care all that much. Congratulations, citizen: you're living right in the middle of the Crisis of the Third Century.

There is one thing that keeps you going, though: public entertainment at the Colosseum. It's good fun to watch criminals get slaughtered by wild beasts and then in turn watch the wild beasts get slaughtered by professional killers. The games this year are going to be spectacular: it's the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome and the Emperor is promising great things. Incidentally, he will be dead by this time next year, killed in battle by one of his mutinous soldiers. As you leave the arena that day, you see the dilapidated buildings that bear inscriptions like "SPQR" or "M. AGRIPPA;" the city is resplendent with monuments to old glories and the temples stand like mausoleums to a past that died out long ago. Within five years, you yourself will probably be dead and nobody will ever know you existed as your children will probably also die in short order, forced to find employment for which they are ill-equipped. Eventually, your bones will crumble to dust and you will be nothing more than the pavement in a road.


What happened to make things this bad? Was there a cataclysmic disaster that destroyed the infrastructure of the Roman state? Yes and no. It's sort of inaccurate to refer to this time as the crisis because truly, there were multiple crises that led to this appalling state of affairs. The Crisis of the Third Century is what ushered in the period we might call Late Antiquity -- that is, the era directly preceding the Medieval Era and more specifically, the Dark Ages. There are no great works of art nor any cultural innovations coming from Rome in this period, which is said to have lasted from 235 to 284; the reason for this is that in the year 235, the last Emperor of the Severan Dynasty, Alexander Severus, was killed in a mutiny by his discontent soldiers and from that time forward, Rome was ruled by what are known as the "Barracks Emperors," namely a rapid succession of military leaders whose soldiers proclaimed them Emperor; indeed, there were more Emperors (or would-be Emperors) than there were years in the crisis. As a result, this time period is sometimes also known as the Military Anarchy (which I've always found sort of paradoxical).

In reality, though, the Crisis of the Third Century had its roots at least as far back as the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). During his tumultuous (though strangely idealized) reign, there were wars, revolts, assassination attempts, a major plague that lasted 15 years, and economic turmoil. Marcus Aurelius managed as best he could, but his son, Commodus, didn't manage at all. Upon the latter's assassination in 192, the next year saw Five Emperors vying for the throne (including one who actually basically bought the Empire through an auction for the loyalty of the army). The ultimate victor was a Berber military dictator named Septimius Severus and his family formed the Severan Dynasty. Septimius advised his successors to always take care of the army at the expense of the other competing interests in the state (the Senate and the common people) and his son Caracalla listened a little too well. Caracalla raised the salary of the army upon ascending to the throne, but in order to finance this, he tried to pull a fast one by devaluing the denarius by as much as 25%. As any first-year economics student can tell you, putting more currency in circulation is the easiest way to start a pattern of hyperinflation, which is exactly what happened. By the beginning of the Crisis, Roman money was considered practically worthless and the aforementioned barter system became the only really effective way of doing business. Nominal prices were a joke; a pound of pork cost twice the monthly wage of the average Roman. Plagues were also common as was the desertion of the city of Rome by its citizens. Sickness and economic turmoil were the two biggest things that affected the average Roman citizen during this period of time; those at the top had these problems in addition to others that had deeper ramifications for the Roman Empire as a state.

Too Many Cooks

Suetonius, the author of the famous biographical work the 12 Caesars, once wrote "too many rulers can be a bad thing." Indeed, this was nowhere more readily apparent than in Rome during the Crisis. To come up with a comprehensive list of Emperors for this time period would be pointless since many of them reigned for only a few months and were then killed by rival claimants (not to mention that it's sometimes not clear who the legitimate Emperor was at any given time). The general who led the final successful revolt against Alexander Severus was a Thracian named Maximinus. Maximinus was brought up by the army but brought down by the Senate, who disliked the fact that they were made to pay for his wars which lasted for all three years of his reign. They sponsored a revolt in Africa and named a local governor Emperor, and although Maximinus defeated him, he had to face two other Senatorial Emperors and was finally killed by some of his soldiers. These two Emperors were eventually killed and the grandson of the African governor, known as Gordian III, was eventually proclaimed the legitimate Emperor. In the year 238, then, there were at least five recognized Emperors, which really ought to tell you something about the stability of the situation. Gordian himself lasted until 244 when he was killed in Parthia (Persia) during a battle. Gordian was succeeded by the aforementioned Philip the Arab (who was in fact an Arab), who may have had a hand in his predecessor's death. Philip was killed in 249 and also had to contend with multiple revolts and would-be usurpers.

Philip's successor was Decius, a man who tried to regularize the succession by naming his son co-emperor in the second year of his reign. Both men were killed that year. I could go on, but really, the story is basically the same for the rest of the crisis: a military man is recognized as Emperor, deals with several revolts, and is ultimately killed within three years at the most. Given this situation, you might ask yourself why anyone would sit down and think "gee, I think it would be great to be Emperor right about now." Of course, some of these rulers and would-be Caesars were attracted by the notion of absolute power -- after all, who's not? But it wasn't just a simple case of too many ambitious generals trying to overstep their bounds. Calling this age the "Military Anarchy" is somewhat inaccurate; a more accurate term for it would be the Military Mobocracy. The tragicomic fact is that some of these guys really didn't want to be Emperor. To understand this, though, you need to understand a few things about the Roman army.

The Roman army was founded on a brave cadre of citizen soldiers; at first, only land-owning aristocrats could serve in the army. The idea was that if a soldier didn't have some vested interest in defending his land from attack, he would not be effective or trustworthy. A priori, a landless soldier would have no land to defend. Another issue was the fact that Roman soldiers originally had to pay for all of their own armor and weapons; most plebs couldn't afford to pay rent, nevermind buy 80 pounds of metal to wear and swing at other people. As time went on, however, it became obvious that the plebs were a massive, untapped resource for manpower, and they soon found their way into the military system. At first, they were given land from conquered territories as payment, but later, they began receiving hard currency in lieu of land, which was fine by most of them, since it was possible to become quite wealthy on a campaign (one of the benefits of being a soldier was the ability to plunder the treasure of whatever area you were invading and then keep it for yourself). These guys were professional mercenaries, but they too would be superseded in due time by another advent.

There is a misconception about the Germanic tribes of Europe during this time: that they were uncouth barbarians constantly rampaging against Rome for base purposes. In reality, these "barbarians" were thoroughly Romanized in many respects since it was common for the state to make deals with various tribes and grant them living space inside the Empire (and thus guaranteed access to lucrative Roman trade routes) in exchange for military service. As the Germans became more Romanized, so the military became more Germanized. When an opportunity arose, they would let out the warcries of their fathers and lift their commanders on their shields and proclaim them Emperor. Why? In the hope of finding a better deal, of course. Imagine you're a Roman general in this situation: the current Emperor has died with no successor and your men are itching for action. They were neglected in favor of the previous Emperor's army and they're ready for their fair share. Here are your choices: go along with your men or decline and be killed by them. You're dead any way you cut it: you can refuse and die, you can attempt to seize power and be defeated by a rival, or you can succeed and be killed by another rebellious general with antsy troops later on. Might as well go for the gold, right? You'd be a damn fool to think you could change everything and live a long, peaceful life, but you would buy yourself some time. It was an age of kill or be killed, and to display weakness was the surest way to do the second.

Territorial Disintegration

Militarily speaking, the Roman Empire had three great threats: first, Germanic invasions in the North and Northeast; second, attacks by the Persians and their client states in the East; and third, revolts in various provinces. All three of these problems were in evidence in the Crisis of the Third Century, quite frequently at the same time. The Germans were always a threat to Rome because they just never seemed to stop. They were particularly bad now because, as I mentioned earlier, there was such a heavy cultural exchange between the Romans and the Germanic tribes. For the most part, the German allies of the Romans were loyal to their commanders (and usually the state), so it's not like when they reached the battlefield, they joined their fellow Germans and killed all the Romans. There were some Germans, however, who specifically joined the Roman military to learn their tactics and their technology, and then desert so they could bring that information back to their people. Romans and Germans were fighting with the same strategies and the same weapons, so it should be no surprise that campaigns against the Germans stretched on interminably with no side gaining the upper edge. Many of the Barracks Emperors who died in battle did so on the Germanic frontier.

In the East, the Persians were ruled by a new dynasty called the Sassanids. Rome under Trajan had humiliated the Persians a century earlier by conquering vast swaths of their territory (including Mesopotamia) and dethroning their ruler and replacing him with a suppliant client king. The Sassanids rejuvenated Persia (or Parthia, whichever you'd like to call it) in the beginning of the third century and were happy to take advantage of the chaos that came later on. They sniped away at territories in the East and inflicted humiliating defeats on the Romans, first extracting a heavy tribute from Philip the Arab (although I guess the joke was on them since Roman money had little value) and eventually capturing and enslaving the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260. Scenes of Valerian grovelling before the Persian king Shapur are found in the remains of reliefs at Persepolis and it is known that Shapur used the disgraced Emperor as a stepping stone when mounting his horse. How Valerian died is unclear, although some people believe he was killed when Shapur tired of him and poured molten gold down his throat. If true, this would be ironic, since Valerian was a member of the Licinii gens, and a famous ancestor of his, Marcus Licinius Crassus, was killed in the exact same manner in Parthia more than 300 years earlier.

In 260, something else horrible happened. Valerian was still alive, but it was obvious he was never coming back, so his throne was considered vacated and his son Gallienus succeeded him. Gallienus was weak and as a result, several major provinces revolted against him. Throughout his reign, he had at least nine major rivals for the throne. Unable to do anything about it, he was soon faced with not one but two rival Empires carved out of the state's former territory. In the West, the provinces of Gaul, Hispania, Britannia, and Germania revolted and formed the Gallic Empire under Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus (known by the last name), a proconsul of the semi-imaginary territory called Germania Superior. In the East, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine formed the Palmyrene Empire under a so-called "Queen" of mixed Roman and Syrian heritage known as Zenobia. Zenobia's husband had been a client king and provincial governor of Syria and he too revolted against Gallineus in 260. When he was killed in 267, Zenobia took up the mantle of leadership in the name of their infant son and even called themselves Augusta and Augustus. Though Egypt had declared for her, she did not have complete control over it until 269, when she ejected or killed all remaining Romans who opposed her.

In 268, Gallienus was killed in battle against a former subordinate who had declared for Postumus and the Gallic Empire. He was succeeded by Claudius II, who had served as Gallienus' commanding general in Germania, successfully stopping the invasions for the time being. Claudius recaptured most of the Gallic Empire, with only northern France and Britannia still in revolt. Postumus was killed in this year as well, dealing a further blow to the fledgling state.

I'd like to go into a brief digression about the two different empires before detailing their implosions. The Gallic Empire was not, as might be supposed, a state in which wild Gaulish chieftains ruled the roost and people ran through the streets naked with blue paint all over their bodies. The territory of the Gallic Empire included some of the most populated and developed cities in Rome's domain and had a functioning infrastructure. It had its own army, its own Senate, its own consuls, its own territorial governors, even its own money (which generally seems to have been of higher quality than the true Roman denarius). The Gallic Empire was decidedly Roman in character, perhaps even moreso than the "real" Empire. And indeed, the thing to know about the Gallic Empire is that its leaders revolted not so much out of opportunism, but rather because they felt that Gallienus was too weak to deal with the Germanic threat posed to the provinces.

The West was a symbolic and cultural loss for the Romans, but the East was even more painful because by that time, that's where most of Rome's trade occurred. Zenobia alleged that she only seized power to protect the East from the Persians, but this seems unlikely as the Persians supported her to some extent. Claudius was never able to take back the Palmyrene Empire because he died from a plague in 270. His successor was Aurelian, a truly competent leader. Though his reign only lasted for five years, he reclaimed the Palmyrene provinces (largely bloodlessy when he demonstrated that he would not kill those who had stood against Gallienus and Claudius) as well as the rest of the Gallic rump state. Not only that, he dealt a crushing blow against the Persians and then successfully drove back the Alamanni in Italy. He allowed Zenobia and Tetricus (the final ruler of the Gallic Empire) to live, even appointing the latter to a position of minor authority in southern Italy. The Empire was reunited and in 274, Aurelian was given the title "Restitutor Orbis" - the Restorer of the World. The end of the crisis was in sight.

A New Order

Aurelian, probably the best and most effective Emperor of the entire third century up to that point, was killed in Thrace by his personal secretary. There was major upheaval following his death, and within the next nine years, no fewer than nine Emperors were either recognized or declared. Then, in 284, a low-born Illyrian soldier named Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus attained the purple. Diocletian, as he was known, is the man who effectively fathered the essential social and economic characteristics of the Middle Ages. At first, there was little to indicate that Diocletian would fare any better than his predecessors; indeed, rebellion had broken out in Britannia again and there were revolts across the Empire. Diocletian realized that there were three major problems facing the Empire: first, there was no concrete method of succession; second, the economy had gotten way out of control; and third (and most significantly), the Empire was too large to govern effectively.

There was one final problem that Diocletian saw: the office of Princeps lent itself to revolts because it was no longer seen as sacred. Diocletian up to this time was by all accounts a relatively simple man who did not believe in ostentatious displays. He thus replaced the office of Princeps with that of Dominus -- meaning Lord or Master. At this point, the Principate ceased to exist, and Rome entered into what became known as the Dominate. Diocletian felt that all of the mystery had been taken out of the Principate, so he instituted a policy of regarding the Emperor as a sort of god among men. People were forbidden to look him directly in the eye and he established a type of proskynesis. To put it into more modern terms, think of the movie 300. In character, Diocletian was a lot like Leonidas -- a military man who took pleasure in the simple things in life and who liked to speak frankly. In his public presentation, however, Diocletian was more like Xerxes -- a towering, otherworldly figure who seemed self-assured of his Divine Power. Whether he wandered around semi-nude with piercings all over his body is not recorded by history.

To answer the other pressing issues, Diocletian issued an order that fixed prices for various goods and made it a crime punishable by death to raise them. He realized that the Roman Empire had a lot of shitty jobs, but that they needed to be done. Therefore, he made certain professions (skilled labor and agriculture) compulsorily inherited -- that is, if your father is a farmer, you can be damn sure that you're going to be one too. He then took the step of dividing the Empire into four separate administrative districts, with an Augustus in the West and the East and a Caesar serving under each Augustus in Gaul and Illyricum, resectively. Thus, when an Augustus left power, his Caesar would take his place and then name another Caesar, and the matter of succession would be resolved straight away. Under Diocletian's conception, the Roman Empire entered into a type of decentralized federalism rather than splitting into various states. Diocletian, as the senior Augustus, chose the East (Oriens) as his area of influence because it was the center of trade and he could respond quickly to any Persian aggression. The Empire was stabilized and both Diocletian and his Western companion Emperor, Maximian, retired from the Purple in 305. Both had ruled for more than 20 years. The Crisis of the Third Century was over and life got on as usual. When Diocletian was begged to return to power in 308, he responded by saying "if you could see what beautiful cabbages I have grown, you would never dream of something so venal."

The More Things Change...

Diocletian's reforms were bold and daring and, strangely enough, they actually worked -- for a while. The two Caesars became Augusti, but who their successors would be was a source of controversy, and of course civil war eventually broke out again. At the end of the day in 313, another Illyrian named Constantine was the ultimate victor, and Diocletian lived to see the death of his Tetrarchy, himself passing away three years later. In 324, Constantine defeated his rival Emperor Licinius and became the sole ruler of the Roman world.

The Roman Empire survived the Crisis of the Third Century, but it would never be the same again. The administrative division of the Roman Empire helped but eventually rendered the West irrelevant and weak. It's debatable as to when Rome fell in the West, but it survived in the East in some form until 1453. One reason Rome didn't "fall" in the Third Century was arguably as a result of the Barracks Emperors. Sure, they came and went very quickly, but they were technocrats with large bureaucracies able to ensure at least some form of continuity. There are three figures in the Crisis we can point to as exemplars of this: Claudius II, Aurelian, and the Gallic Emperor Postumus. The last choice might seem contradictory, but if you consider that he maintained the interests of Gaul when the rest of the Empire was too busy with the Persians, it makes sense to number him with the good and effective rulers of the Crisis. Any way you cut it, however, Rome's best days were behind it.

Severan Dynasty | Crisis of the Third Century | Constantinian Dynasty

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