Crisis of the Third Century





Third-century Roman soldiers battling Gothic troops, as depicted on a
contemporary Roman sarcophagus, c. 250 AD - National Museum, Rome.




The Crisis of the Third Century - "Military Anarchy" or "Imperial Crisis" - refers to the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 284.

The changes in the institutions, society, economic life and eventually religion were so profound and fundamental, that the "Crisis of the Third Century" is increasingly seen as the watershed marking the difference between the classical world and the early medieval world, or world of late antiquity.

With the Crisis of the Third Century Rome's vast 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. This produced profound changes that, in many ways, would foreshadow the character of the coming Middle Ages.

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, 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 Manorialism.

The common free people of the cities, meanwhile, began to move out to the countryside in search of food and protection. Made desperate by economic necessity, many of these former city dwellers, as well as many small farmers, were forced to give up basic rights in order to receive protection from large land holders. The former became a half-free class of citizens known as coloni. They were tied to the land and, thanks to later Imperial reforms, their positions were made hereditary. This provided an early model for serfdom, which would form the basis of mediaeval feudal society.

After Augustus declared an end to the Civil Wars of the 1st century BC, the Empire had enjoyed a period of limited external invasion, internal peace and economic prosperity (the Pax Romana). In the 3rd century, however, the Empire underwent military, political and economic crises and began to collapse.

The troubles began in 235, when the emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by soldiers at the age of 27 after Roman legions were defeated in a campaign against Sassanid Persia. As general after general squabbled over control of the empire, the frontiers were neglected and subjected to frequent raids by Carpians, Goths, Vandals, and Alamanni, as well as attacks from Sassanids in the east.

Finally, by 258, the attacks were coming from within, when the Empire broke up in to three separate competing states. The Roman provinces of Gaul, Britain and Hispania broke off to form the Gallic Empire, and two years later in 260, the eastern provinces of Syria, Palestine and Aegyptus became independent as the Palmyrene Empire (with Sassanid backing), leaving the remaining Italian centered Roman empire proper in the middle.

There was constant barbarian invasion, civil war, and runaway hyperinflation. Part of the problem had its origins in the nature of the Augustan settlement. Augustus, intending to downplay his position, had not established rules for the succession of emperors. Already in the 1st and 2nd century disputes about the succession had led to short civil wars, but in the 3rd century these civil wars became a constant factor, as no single candidate succeeded in quickly overcoming his opponents or holding on to the Imperial position for very long.

Between 235 and 284 no fewer than 25 different emperors ruled Rome (the Soldier-Emperors). All but two of these emperors were either murdered or killed in battle. The organization of the Roman military, concentrated on the borders, could provide no remedy against foreign invasions once the invaders had broken through. A decline in citizens' participation in local administration forced the Emperors to step in, gradually increasing the central government's responsibility.

This period ended with the accession of Diocletian. Diocletian, either by skill or sheer luck, solved many of the acute problems experienced during this crisis. However, the core problems would remain and cause the eventual destruction of the western empire. The transitions of this period mark the beginnings of Late Antiquity and the end of Classical Antiquity.

The decline 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.




Types of Emperors


Barracks Emperors

A Barracks emperor (also called a "soldier emperor") was a Roman Emperor who seized power by virtue of his command of the army. Barracks emperors were especially common in the period from 235 through 284, during the Crisis of the Third Century. There were approximately fourteen barracks emperors in 33 years, producing an average reign of a little over two years apiece. The resulting instability in the imperial office and the near constant state of civil war and insurrection threatened to destroy the Roman Empire from within and left it vulnerable to attack from without.




Gordianan Dynasty (238 - 244)




Valerianan Dynasty (253 - 261)




Gallic Emperors

The Gallic Empire is the modern name for a breakaway realm of the Roman Empire that existed from 260 - 274. It originated during the Crisis of the Third Century. It was founded by Postumus in 260 in the wake of barbarian invasions and instability in Rome, and at its height included the territories of Germania, Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania. The Gallic Emperors are known primarily from the coins they minted. The political and military history of the Gallic Empire can be sketched through their careers. They include:




Illyrian Emperors (268 - 284)

The Illyriciani or Illyrian emperors were a group of Roman emperors during the Crisis of the Third Century who hailed from the region of Illyricum (the modern western Balkans), and were raised chiefly from the ranks of the Roman army (whence they are ranked among the so-called "barracks emperors").

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Illyricum and the other Danubian provinces (Raetia, Pannonia, Moesia) held the largest concentration of Roman forces (12 legions, up to a third of the total army), and were a major recruiting ground. The advance of these low-born provincials was facilitated by a major shift in imperial policy from the time of Gallienus (260-268) on, when higher military appointments ceased to be exclusively filled by senators. Instead, professional soldiers of humble origin who had risen through the ranks to the post of primus pilus (which also entailed admission to the equestrian order) were placed as heads of the legions and filled the army's command structure.

The historical period of the Illyrian emperors proper begins with Claudius Gothicus in 268 and ends in 284 with the rise of Diocletian and the institution of the Tetrarchy. This rather short period was very important in the history of the Empire, since it represents the recovery from the Crisis of the Third Century, a long period of usurpations and military difficulties. All of the Illyrian emperors were trained and able soldiers, and they recovered some of the provinces and positions lost by their predecessors, including Gaul and the eastern provinces. Men of Illyrian or Thraco-Dacian origin however continued to be prominent in the Empire throughout the 4th century and beyond.




Caran Dynasty (282 - 285)




Britannic Emperors (286 - 297)

The Britannic Empire was a short-lived breakaway state of the Roman empire in the late Roman Period. It was formed as a result of the revolt by the naval commander Carausius. It ended when Carausius's usurper, Allectus, was defeated by the Emperor Constantius I in 296.




Additional Backstory


The situation of the Roman Empire became dire in A.D. 235, when the emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by his own troops. Many Roman legions had been defeated during a campaign against Germanic peoples raiding across the borders, while the emperor was focused primarily on the dangers from the Sassanid Persian Empire. 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, Goths, Vandals, and Alamanni, 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 (possibly smallpox), 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 provinces of Gaul, Britain and Hispania broke off to form the Gallic Empire and, two years later in 260, the eastern provinces of Syria, Palestine and Aegyptus became independent as the Palmyrene Empire, 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 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 over the next two years drove back the Alamanni and recovered Hispania from the Gallic Empire. When Claudius died in 270 of the plague, Aurelian, 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, the Visigoths, the Palmyrenes, 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, 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 caused by years of coinage devaluation. This had started earlier under the Severan 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 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 coinage. Real values continued to be figured in gold coinage, but the nearly pure silver coin, the denarius, used for 300 years, was gone. 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 -- the long period of relative peace and minimal expansion by military force experienced by the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD lasting 207 years (27 BC to 180 AD) -- 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.




Breakdown of internal trade network


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.

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. 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. They were tied to the land, and in later Imperial law their status was made hereditary. This provided an early model for serfdom, the origins of medieval feudal society and of 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 (27 B.C. - A.D. 180) of the first century A.D.

While Imperial revenues fell, Imperial expenses rose sharply. More soldiers, greater proportions of cavalry, and the ruinous expense of walling in cities all added to the toll. Goods and services previously paid for by the government were now demanded in addition to monetary taxes. The steady exodus of both rich and poor from the cities and now-unremunerative professions forced Diocletian to use compulsion; most trades were made hereditary, and workers could not legally leave their jobs or travel elsewhere to seek better-paying ones.




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