Crisis of the Third Century

Crisis of the Third Century

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The Crisis of the Third Century (also "Military Anarchy" or "Imperial Crisis") (235–284 AD) was a period in which the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion
Invasion
An invasion is a military offensive consisting of all, or large parts of the armed forces of one geopolitical entity aggressively entering territory controlled by another such entity, generally with the objective of either conquering, liberating or re-establishing control or authority over a...

, civil war
Civil war
A civil war is a war between organized groups within the same nation state or republic, or, less commonly, between two countries created from a formerly-united nation state....

, plague
Plague of Cyprian
The Plague of Cyprian is the name given to a pandemic, probably of smallpox, that afflicted the Roman Empire from AD 250 onwards. It was still raging in 270, when it claimed the life of emperor Claudius II Gothicus . The plague caused widespread manpower shortages in agriculture and the Roman army....

, and economic depression
Economic collapse
There is no precise definition of an economic collapse. While some might consider a a severe, prolonged depression with high bankruptcy rates and high unemployment an economic collapse, others would additionally look for a breakdown in normal commerce, such as hyperinfalation, or even a sharp...

. The Crisis began with the assassination
Assassination
To carry out an assassination is "to murder by a sudden and/or secret attack, often for political reasons." Alternatively, assassination may be defined as "the act of deliberately killing someone, especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons."An assassination may be...

 of Emperor Alexander Severus
Alexander Severus
Severus Alexander was Roman Emperor from 222 to 235. Alexander was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty. He succeeded his cousin Elagabalus upon the latter's assassination in 222, and was ultimately assassinated himself, marking the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century — nearly fifty...

 at the hands of his own troops, initiating a fifty-year period in which 20–25 claimants to the title of Emperor, mostly prominent Roman Army
Roman army
The Roman army is the generic term for the terrestrial armed forces deployed by the kingdom of Rome , the Roman Republic , the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine empire...

 general
General
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

s, assumed imperial power over all or part of the Empire. By 258–260, the Empire split into three competing states: the Gallic Empire
Gallic Empire
The Gallic Empire is the modern name for a breakaway realm that existed from 260 to 274. It originated during the Roman Empire's Crisis of the Third Century....

, including the Roman province
Roman province
In Ancient Rome, a province was the basic, and, until the Tetrarchy , largest territorial and administrative unit of the empire's territorial possessions outside of Italy...

s of Gaul
Gaul
Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. The Gauls were the speakers of...

, Britannia
Roman Britain
Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from AD 43 until ca. AD 410.The Romans referred to the imperial province as Britannia, which eventually comprised all of the island of Great Britain south of the fluid frontier with Caledonia...

 and Hispania
Hispania
Another theory holds that the name derives from Ezpanna, the Basque word for "border" or "edge", thus meaning the farthest area or place. Isidore of Sevilla considered Hispania derived from Hispalis....

; the Palmyrene Empire
Palmyrene Empire
The Palmyrene Empire was a splinter empire, that broke off of the Roman Empire during the Crisis of the Third Century. It encompassed the Roman provinces of Syria Palaestina, Egypt and large parts of Asia Minor....

, including the eastern provinces of Syria Palaestina
Syria (Roman province)
Syria was a Roman province, annexed in 64 BC by Pompey, as a consequence of his military presence after pursuing victory in the Third Mithridatic War. It remained under Roman, and subsequently Byzantine, rule for seven centuries, until 637 when it fell to the Islamic conquests.- Principate :The...

 and Aegyptus
Aegyptus (Roman province)
The Roman province of Egypt was established in 30 BC after Octavian defeated his rival Mark Antony, deposed his lover Queen Cleopatra VII and annexed the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt to the Roman Empire. The province encompassed most of modern-day Egypt except for the Sinai Peninsula...

; and the Italian-centered and independent Roman Empire, proper, between them. The Crisis ended with the ascension and reforms of Diocletian
Diocletian
Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

, although it was his predecessor Aurelian
Aurelian
Aurelian , was Roman Emperor from 270 to 275. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni after a devastating war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians, and Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces after his conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following...

 who reunited the empire.

The Crisis resulted in such profound changes in the Empire's institutions, society, economic life and, eventually, religion, that it is increasingly seen by most historians as the transition period between the historical periods
Periodization
Periodization is the attempt to categorize or divide time into named blocks. The result is a descriptive abstraction that provides a useful handle on periods of time with relatively stable characteristics...

 of Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity is a broad term for a long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, collectively known as the Greco-Roman world...

 and late antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

.

History


The situation of the Roman Empire became dire in 235 A.D., when the emperor Alexander Severus
Alexander Severus
Severus Alexander was Roman Emperor from 222 to 235. Alexander was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty. He succeeded his cousin Elagabalus upon the latter's assassination in 222, and was ultimately assassinated himself, marking the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century — nearly fifty...

 was murdered by his own troops. Many Roman legion
Roman legion
A Roman legion normally indicates the basic ancient Roman army unit recruited specifically from Roman citizens. The organization of legions varied greatly over time but they were typically composed of perhaps 5,000 soldiers, divided into maniples and later into "cohorts"...

s had been defeated during a campaign against Germanic peoples
Germanic peoples
The Germanic peoples are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group of Northern European origin, identified by their use of the Indo-European Germanic languages which diversified out of Proto-Germanic during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.Originating about 1800 BCE from the Corded Ware Culture on the North...

 raiding across the borders, while the emperor was focused primarily on the dangers from the Sassanid Persian Empire
Sassanid Empire
The Sassanid Empire , known to its inhabitants as Ērānshahr and Ērān in Middle Persian and resulting in the New Persian terms Iranshahr and Iran , was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty from 224 to 651...

. Leading his troops personally, Alexander Severus resorted to diplomacy and paying tribute in an attempt to pacify the Germanic chieftains quickly. This may have cost him the respect of his troops, who may have felt they should be punishing the tribes who were intruding on Rome's territory.

In the years following the emperor's death, generals of the Roman army fought each other for control of the Empire and neglected their duties in preventing invasions from foreigners. Provincials became victims of frequent raids by foreign tribes, such as the Carpians
Carpians
The Carpi or Carpiani were an ancient people that resided, between not later than ca. AD 140 and until at least AD 318, in the former Principality of Moldavia ....

, Goths
Goths
The Goths were an East Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin whose two branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, played an important role in the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe....

, Vandals
Vandals
The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe that entered the late Roman Empire during the 5th century. The Vandals under king Genseric entered Africa in 429 and by 439 established a kingdom which included the Roman Africa province, besides the islands of Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearics....

, and Alamanni
Alamanni
The Alamanni, Allemanni, or Alemanni were originally an alliance of Germanic tribes located around the upper Rhine river . One of the earliest references to them is the cognomen Alamannicus assumed by Roman Emperor Caracalla, who ruled the Roman Empire from 211 to 217 and claimed thereby to be...

, along the Rhine and Danube Rivers in the western part of the Empire, as well as attacks from Sassanids in the eastern part of the Empire. Additionally, in 251, the Plague of Cyprian
Plague of Cyprian
The Plague of Cyprian is the name given to a pandemic, probably of smallpox, that afflicted the Roman Empire from AD 250 onwards. It was still raging in 270, when it claimed the life of emperor Claudius II Gothicus . The plague caused widespread manpower shortages in agriculture and the Roman army....

 (possibly smallpox
Smallpox
Smallpox was an infectious disease unique to humans, caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor. The disease is also known by the Latin names Variola or Variola vera, which is a derivative of the Latin varius, meaning "spotted", or varus, meaning "pimple"...

), broke out, causing large-scale mortality which may have seriously affected the ability of the Empire to defend itself.


By 258, the Roman Empire broke up into three competing states. The Roman province
Roman province
In Ancient Rome, a province was the basic, and, until the Tetrarchy , largest territorial and administrative unit of the empire's territorial possessions outside of Italy...

s of Gaul
Gaul
Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. The Gauls were the speakers of...

, Britain
Roman Britain
Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from AD 43 until ca. AD 410.The Romans referred to the imperial province as Britannia, which eventually comprised all of the island of Great Britain south of the fluid frontier with Caledonia...

 and Hispania
Hispania
Another theory holds that the name derives from Ezpanna, the Basque word for "border" or "edge", thus meaning the farthest area or place. Isidore of Sevilla considered Hispania derived from Hispalis....

 broke off to form the Gallic Empire
Gallic Empire
The Gallic Empire is the modern name for a breakaway realm that existed from 260 to 274. It originated during the Roman Empire's Crisis of the Third Century....

 and, two years later in 260, the eastern provinces of Syria
Syria (Roman province)
Syria was a Roman province, annexed in 64 BC by Pompey, as a consequence of his military presence after pursuing victory in the Third Mithridatic War. It remained under Roman, and subsequently Byzantine, rule for seven centuries, until 637 when it fell to the Islamic conquests.- Principate :The...

, Palestine
Palestine
Palestine is a conventional name, among others, used to describe the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands....

 and Aegyptus
Aegyptus (Roman province)
The Roman province of Egypt was established in 30 BC after Octavian defeated his rival Mark Antony, deposed his lover Queen Cleopatra VII and annexed the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt to the Roman Empire. The province encompassed most of modern-day Egypt except for the Sinai Peninsula...

 became independent as the Palmyrene Empire
Palmyrene Empire
The Palmyrene Empire was a splinter empire, that broke off of the Roman Empire during the Crisis of the Third Century. It encompassed the Roman provinces of Syria Palaestina, Egypt and large parts of Asia Minor....

, leaving the remaining Italian-centered Roman Empire-proper in the middle.

An invasion by a vast host of Goths was beaten back at the Battle of Naissus
Battle of Naissus
The Battle of Naissus was the defeat of a Gothic coalition by the Roman Empire under Emperor Gallienus near Naissus...

 in 269. This victory was significant as the turning point of the crisis, when a series of tough, energetic soldier-emperors took power. Victories by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus
Claudius II
Claudius II , commonly known as Claudius Gothicus, was Roman Emperor from 268 to 270. During his reign he fought successfully against the Alamanni and scored a crushing victory against the Goths at the Battle of Naissus. He died after succumbing to a smallpox plague that ravaged the provinces of...

 over the next two years drove back the Alamanni
Alamanni
The Alamanni, Allemanni, or Alemanni were originally an alliance of Germanic tribes located around the upper Rhine river . One of the earliest references to them is the cognomen Alamannicus assumed by Roman Emperor Caracalla, who ruled the Roman Empire from 211 to 217 and claimed thereby to be...

 and recovered Hispania from the Gallic Empire. When Claudius died in 270 of the plague, Aurelian
Aurelian
Aurelian , was Roman Emperor from 270 to 275. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni after a devastating war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians, and Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces after his conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following...

, who had commanded the cavalry at Naissus, succeeded him as the emperor and continued the restoration of the Empire.

Aurelian reigned (270–275) through the worst of the crisis, defeating the Vandals
Vandals
The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe that entered the late Roman Empire during the 5th century. The Vandals under king Genseric entered Africa in 429 and by 439 established a kingdom which included the Roman Africa province, besides the islands of Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearics....

, Visigoths, the Palmyrenes
Palmyrene Empire
The Palmyrene Empire was a splinter empire, that broke off of the Roman Empire during the Crisis of the Third Century. It encompassed the Roman provinces of Syria Palaestina, Egypt and large parts of Asia Minor....

, the Persians, and then the remainder of the Gallic Empire. By late 274, the Roman Empire was reunited into a single entity, and the frontier troops were back in place. More than a century passed before Rome again lost military ascendancy over its external enemies. However, dozens of formerly thriving cities, especially in the Western Empire, had been ruined, their populations dispersed and, with the breakdown of the economic system, could not be rebuilt. Major cities and towns, even Rome itself, had not needed fortifications for many centuries; many now surrounded themselves with thick walls.

Finally, although Aurelian had played a significant role in restoring the Empire's borders from external threat, more fundamental problems remained. In particular, the right of succession had never been clearly defined in the Roman Empire, leading to continuous civil wars as competing factions in the military, Senate and other parties put forward their favoured candidate for emperor. Another issue was the sheer size of the Empire, which made it difficult for a single autocratic ruler to effectively manage multiple threats at the same time. These continuing problems would be radically addressed by Diocletian
Diocletian
Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

, allowing the Empire to survive in the West for over a century, and in the East for over a millennium.

Economic impact



Internally, the empire faced hyperinflation
Hyperinflation
In economics, hyperinflation is inflation that is very high or out of control. While the real values of the specific economic items generally stay the same in terms of relatively stable foreign currencies, in hyperinflationary conditions the general price level within a specific economy increases...

 caused by years of coinage devaluation. This had started earlier under the Severan emperors
Severan dynasty
The Severan dynasty was a Roman imperial dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire between 193 and 235. The dynasty was founded by the Roman general Septimius Severus, who rose to power during the civil war of 193, known as the Year of the Five Emperors....

 who enlarged the army by one quarter and doubled the legionaries' base pay. As each of the short-lived emperors took power they needed ways to raise money quickly to pay the military's "accession bonus" and the easiest way to do so was by simply cutting the silver in coins and adding less valuable metals like bronze or copper. This had the predictable effect of causing runaway inflation
Inflation
In economics, inflation is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services. Consequently, inflation also reflects an erosion in the purchasing power of money – a...

 and by the time Diocletian came to power, the old coinage of the Roman Empire had nearly collapsed. Some taxes were collected in kind and values were often notional in bullion or bronze
Bronze
Bronze is a metal alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with tin as the main additive. It is hard and brittle, and it was particularly significant in antiquity, so much so that the Bronze Age was named after the metal...

 coinage. Real values continued to be figured in gold coinage, but the nearly pure silver coin, the denarius, used for 300 years, was gone (1 pound of gold = 40 gold aurei
Aureus
The aureus was a gold coin of ancient Rome valued at 25 silver denarii. The aureus was regularly issued from the 1st century BC to the beginning of the 4th century, when it was replaced by the solidus...

 = 1000 denarii
Denarius
In the Roman currency system, the denarius was a small silver coin first minted in 211 BC. It was the most common coin produced for circulation but was slowly debased until its replacement by the antoninianus...

 = 4000 sestertii
Sestertius
The sestertius, or sesterce, was an ancient Roman coin. During the Roman Republic it was a small, silver coin issued only on rare occasions...

). This currency had almost no value by the end of the third century and trade was carried out by barter — every aspect of the Roman way of life was affected.

One of the most profound and lasting effects of the Crisis of the Third Century was the disruption of Rome's extensive internal trade network. Ever since the Pax Romana
Pax Romana
Pax Romana was the long period of relative peace and minimal expansion by military force experienced by the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Since it was established by Caesar Augustus it is sometimes called Pax Augusta...

 of the first century, the empire's economy depended in large part on trade between Mediterranean ports and across the extensive road systems to the Empire's interior. Merchants could travel from one end of the empire to the other in relative safety within a few weeks, moving agricultural goods produced in the provinces to the cities, and manufactured goods produced by the great cities of the East to the more rural provinces. Large estates produced cash crops for export, and used the resulting revenues to import food and urban manufactured goods. This resulted in a great deal of economic interdependence between the empire’s inhabitants. The historian Henry Moss describes the situation as it stood before the crisis:
With the onset of the Crisis of the Third Century, however, this vast internal trade network broke down. The widespread civil unrest made it no longer safe for merchants to travel as they once had, and the financial crisis that struck made exchange very difficult with the debased currency. This produced profound changes that, in many ways, would foreshadow the very decentralized economic character of the coming Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

. Large landowners, no longer able to successfully export their crops over long distances, began producing food for subsistence and local barter. Rather than import manufactured goods from the empire's great urban areas, they began to manufacture many goods locally, often on their own estates, thus beginning the self-sufficient "house economy" that would become commonplace in later centuries, reaching its final form in the Middle Ages' manorialism
Manorialism
Manorialism, an essential element of feudal society, was the organizing principle of rural economy that originated in the villa system of the Late Roman Empire, was widely practiced in medieval western and parts of central Europe, and was slowly replaced by the advent of a money-based market...

. The common free people of the Roman cities, meanwhile, began to move out into the countryside in search of food and better protection. Made desperate by economic necessity, many of these former city dwellers, as well as many small farmers, were forced to give up hard-earned basic civil rights in order to receive protection from large land-holders. In doing so, they became a half-free class of Roman citizen known as coloni
Colonus (person)
A colonus was a type of Roman peasant farmer, a serf. This designation was carried into the Medieval period for much of Europe.Coloni worked on large Roman estates called "latifundia" and could never leave. Latifundia raised sheep and other types of cattle...

. They were tied to the land, and in later Imperial law their status was made hereditary. This provided an early model for serfdom
Serfdom
Serfdom is the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted to the mid-19th century...

, which would form the basis of medieval feudal society and the medieval peasantry.

Even the Roman cities themselves began to change in character. The large, open cities of Classical antiquity slowly gave way to the smaller, walled cities that were common in the Middle Ages. These changes were not restricted to the third century, but took place slowly over a long period, and were punctuated with many temporary reversals. However, in spite of extensive reforms by later emperors, the Roman trade network was never able to fully recover to what it had been during the Pax Romana of the first century A.D. The decrease in commerce between the Imperial provinces put them on a path towards increased insularity. Large landowners, who had become more self-sufficient, became less mindful of Rome’s central authority, particularly in the Western Empire, and were downright hostile towards its tax collectors. The measure of wealth at this time began to have less to do with wielding urban civil authority and more to do with controlling large agricultural estates in rural regions, since this guaranteed access to the only economic resource of real value—agricultural land and the crops it produced. The common people of the Empire lost economic and political status to the land-holding nobility, and the commercial middle classes waned along with their trade-derived livelihoods. The Crisis of the Third Century thus marked the beginning of a long evolutionary process that would transform the ancient world of Classical antiquity into the medieval one of the Early Middle Ages.

See also

  • Aurelian
    Aurelian
    Aurelian , was Roman Emperor from 270 to 275. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni after a devastating war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians, and Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces after his conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following...

  • Battle of Lake Benacus
    Battle of Lake Benacus
    The Battle of Lake Benacus was one of the decisive battles that marked the beginning of the Roman Empire's emergence from the Crisis of the Third Century...

  • Battle of Naissus
    Battle of Naissus
    The Battle of Naissus was the defeat of a Gothic coalition by the Roman Empire under Emperor Gallienus near Naissus...

  • Claudius II
    Claudius II
    Claudius II , commonly known as Claudius Gothicus, was Roman Emperor from 268 to 270. During his reign he fought successfully against the Alamanni and scored a crushing victory against the Goths at the Battle of Naissus. He died after succumbing to a smallpox plague that ravaged the provinces of...

  • Diocletian
    Diocletian
    Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

  • Gallienus
    Gallienus
    Gallienus was Roman Emperor with his father Valerian from 253 to 260, and alone from 260 to 268. He took control of the Empire at a time when it was undergoing great crisis...

  • Postumus
    Postumus
    Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus was a Roman emperor of Batavian origin. He usurped power from Gallienus in 260 and formed the so-called Gallic Empire...

  • Marcus Aurelius Probus
  • Roman Emperor (Crisis of the Third Century)
    Roman Emperor (Crisis of the Third Century)
    The role of the Roman Emperor changed during the Crisis of the Third Century , which marked the end of the Principate...

  • Zenobia
    Zenobia
    Zenobia was a 3rd-century Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Roman Syria. She led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire. The second wife of King Septimius Odaenathus, Zenobia became queen of the Palmyrene Empire following Odaenathus' death in 267...


Sources and notes



  • Klaus-Peter Johne (ed.), Die Zeit der Soldatenkaiser (Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2008).
  • Alaric Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (Taylor & Francis, 2004) ISBN 0-415-30187-4
  • John F. White, Restorer of the World: The Roman Emperor Aurelian (Spellmount, 2004) ISBN 1-86227-250-6
  • H. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages (Clarendon Press, 1935, reprint Oxford University Press, January, 2000) ISBN 0-19-500260-1
  • Ferdinand Lot
    Ferdinand Lot
    Ferdinand Victor Henri Lot was a French historian and medievalist....

    , End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages (Harper Torchbooks Printing, New York, 1961. First English printing by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1931).

Further reading