Crisis of the Third Century
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The Crisis of the Third Century, also known as Military Anarchy or the Imperial Crisis (235–284 AD), was a period in which the
Roman Empire The Roman Empire ( la, Imperium Rōmānum ; grc-gre, Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων, Basileía tôn Rhōmaíōn) was the post-Roman Republic, Republican period of ancient Rome. As a polity it included large territorial holdings aro ...

Roman Empire
nearly collapsed. It ended due to the military victories of
Aurelian Aurelian ( la, Lucius Domitius Aurelianus; 9 September 214c. October 275) was Roman emperor from 270 to 275. As emperor, he won an unprecedented series of military victories which reunited the Roman Empire after it had practically disintegrated ...

Aurelian
and with the ascension of
Diocletian Diocletian (; la, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus; born Diocles; 22 December c. 244 – 3 December 311) was Roman emperor from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in Dalmatia (Roman province), Dalmatia, Diocletian rose through the ...
and his implementation of reforms in 284, including the
Tetrarchy The Tetrarchy is the term adopted to describe the system of government of the ancient Roman Empire instituted by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 293, marking the end of the Crisis of the Third Century and the recovery of the Roman Empire. The gov ...
. The crisis began in 235 with the
assassination Assassination is the act of deliberately killing a prominent or important person, such as heads of state, heads of government, politicians, royalty, celebrities, journalists, or CEOs. An assassination may be prompted by political and mil ...
of Emperor
Severus Alexander Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander (1 October 208 – 19 March 235) was the last Roman emperor The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the History of the Roman Empire, imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a ...

Severus Alexander
by his own troops. During the following 50-year period, the Empire saw the combined pressures of
barbarian A barbarian is a human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most populous and widespread species of primates, characterized by bipedality, opposable thumbs, hairlessness, and intelligence allowing the use of culture, language and tools. They ...
invasion An invasion is a military offensive in which large numbers of combatants of one geopolitical entity aggressively enter territory owned by another such entity, generally with the objective of either conquering; liberating or re-establishing ...
s and
migration Migration, migratory, or migrate may refer to: Human migration * Human migration, physical movement by humans from one region to another ** International migration, when peoples cross state boundaries and stay in the host state for some minimum len ...

migration
s into the Roman territory,
civil war A civil war, also known as an intrastate war in polemology, is a war between organized groups within the same state or country A country is a distinct territory, territorial body or political entity. It is often referred to as the ...
s, peasant rebellions and
political instability A failed state is a political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign Sovereign is a title which can be applied to the highest leader in various categories. The word is borrowed from Old ...
, with multiple usurpers competing for power. This led to the
Plague of Cyprian The Plague of Cyprian was a pandemic A pandemic (from Greek , , "all" and , , "local people" the 'crowd') is an epidemic of an infectious disease that has spread across a large region, for instance multiple continents or worldwide, affecting ...
,
debasement A debasement of coinage is the practice of lowering the intrinsic value of coin A coin is a small, flat, (usually, depending on the country or value) round piece of metal A metal (from Ancient Greek, Greek μέταλλον ''métallon'' ...
of
currency A currency, "in circulation", from la, currens, -entis, literally meaning "running" or "traversing" in the most specific sense is money Image:National-Debt-Gillray.jpeg, In a 1786 James Gillray caricature, the plentiful money bags handed t ...
and
economic collapse Economic collapse is any of a broad range of bad economic conditions, ranging from a severe, prolonged depression with high bankruptcy rates and high unemployment Unemployment, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and ...
. Roman troops became more reliant over time on the growing influence of the barbarian mercenaries known as
foederati ''Foederati'' (, singular: ''foederatus'' ) were peoples and cities bound by a treaty, known as ''foedus'', with Rome. During the Roman Republic, the term identified the ''socii'', but during the Roman Empire, it was used to describe foreign sta ...
. Roman commanders in the field, although nominally working for Rome, became increasingly independent. By 268, the empire had split into three competing states: the
Gallic Empire The Gallic Empire or the Gallic Roman Empire are names used in modern historiography for a breakaway part of the Roman Empire that functioned ''de facto'' as a separate state from 260 to 274. It originated during the Crisis of the Third Century, w ...
(including the
Roman province The Roman provinces (Latin: ''provincia'', pl. ''provinciae'') were the administrative regions of Ancient Rome outside Roman Italy that were controlled by the Romans under the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. Each province was ruled ...
s of
Gaul Gaul ( la, Gallia) was a region of Western Europe Western Europe is the region of Europe Europe is a continent A continent is one of several large landmasses. Generally identified by convention (norm), convention rather than a ...

Gaul
,
Britannia Britannia () is the national personification of United Kingdom, Britain as a helmeted female warrior holding a trident and shield. An image first used in classical antiquity, the Latin ''Britannia'' was the name variously applied to the Britis ...

Britannia
and, briefly,
Hispania Hispania ( ; ) was the Ancient Rome, Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula and its provinces. Under the Roman Republic, Hispania was divided into two Roman province, provinces: Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior. During the Principate, Hispa ...

Hispania
); the
Palmyrene Empire The Palmyrene Empire was a short-lived Breakaway state, splinter state of the Roman Empire resulting from the Crisis of the Third Century. Named after its capital city, Palmyra, it encompassed the Roman provinces of Syria Palaestina, Arabia Petra ...

Palmyrene Empire
(including the eastern provinces of
Syria Palaestina Syria Palaestina (literally, "Palestinian Syria";Trevor Bryce, 2009, ''The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia''Roland de Vaux, 1978, ''The Early History of Israel'', Page 2: "After the revolt of Bar Cochba in A. ...
and
Aegyptus In Greek mythology Greek mythology is the body of myths originally told by the Ancient Greece, ancient Greeks, and a genre of Ancient Greek folklore. These stories concern the Cosmogony, origin and Cosmology#Metaphysical cosmology, nature of t ...
); and, between them, the Italian-centered Roman Empire proper. There were at least 26 claimants to the title of emperor, mostly prominent
Roman army The Roman army (Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power of the Rom ...

Roman army
general A general officer is an officer of high rank in the armies, and in some nations' air forces, space forces, or marines Marines or naval infantry, are typically a military force trained to operate on Littoral Zone, littoral zone in suppo ...

general
s, who assumed imperial power over all or part of the Empire. The same number of men became accepted by the Roman Senate as emperor during this period and so became legitimate emperors. Later,
Aurelian Aurelian ( la, Lucius Domitius Aurelianus; 9 September 214c. October 275) was Roman emperor from 270 to 275. As emperor, he won an unprecedented series of military victories which reunited the Roman Empire after it had practically disintegrated ...

Aurelian
(270–275 AD) reunited the empire militarily. The crisis ended with
Diocletian Diocletian (; la, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus; born Diocles; 22 December c. 244 – 3 December 311) was Roman emperor from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in Dalmatia (Roman province), Dalmatia, Diocletian rose through the ...
and his restructuring of Roman imperial government in 284. This helped to stabilize the Empire economically and militarily for another 150 years. The crisis resulted in such profound changes in the empire's institutions, society, economic life, and
religion Religion is a social Social organisms, including humans, live collectively in interacting populations. This interaction is considered social whether they are aware of it or not, and whether the exchange is voluntary/involuntary. Etymology ...
that it is increasingly seen by most historians as defining the transition between the historical periods of
classical antiquity Classical antiquity (also the classical era, classical period or classical age) is the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD centred on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ...
and late antiquity.


History

After the Roman Empire had been stabilized, once again, after the turmoil of the
Year of the Five Emperors The Year of the Five Emperors was 193 AD, in which five men claimed the title of Roman emperor The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the History of the Roman Empire, imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors ...

Year of the Five Emperors
(193) in the reign of
Septimius Severus Lucius Septimius Severus (; 11 April 145 – 4 February 211) was Roman emperor from 193 to 211. He was born in Leptis Magna (present day Al-Khums, Libya) in the Roman province of Africa (Roman province), Africa. As a young man he advanced throu ...
, the later Severan dynasty lost more and more control. The army required larger and larger bribes to remain loyal. Septimius Severus raised the pay of legionaries, and gave substantial ''
donativum ''Donativum'' (plural ''donativa'') was the name given to the gifts of money dispersed to the soldiers of the Roman legion The Roman legion ( la, legiō, ) was the largest military unit of the Roman army The Roman army (Latin Latin (, ...
'' to the troops. The large and ongoing increase in military expenditure caused problems for all of his successors. R.J. van der Spek, Lukas De Blois (2008)
''An Introduction to the Ancient World'', p. 272
,
Routledge Routledge () is a British multinational Multinational may refer to: * Multinational corporation, a corporate organization operating in multiple countries * Multinational force, a military body from multiple countries * Multinational state, a sov ...
His son
Caracalla Caracalla ( ; 4 April 188 – 8 April 217), formally known as Antoninus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), was Roman emperor The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the History of the Roman Empire, imperial period (star ...

Caracalla
raised the annual pay and lavished many benefits on the army in accordance with the advice of his father to keep their loyalty, and considered dividing the Empire into eastern and western sectors with his brother Geta to reduce the conflict in their co-rule. But with the major influence of their mother,
Julia Domna Julia Domna (; – 217 AD) was Roman empress from 193 to 211 as the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus Lucius Septimius Severus (; 9 April 145 – 4 February 211) was a Roman emperor from 193 to 211. He was born in Leptis Magna (present ...

Julia Domna
, this division of the empire was not possible. Instead of warring in foreign lands, the Roman empire was increasingly put on the defensive by marauding enemies and civil wars. This cut off the essential source of income gained from plundering enemy countries, while opening up the Roman countryside to economic devastation from looters both foreign and domestic. Frequent civil wars contributed to depletion of the army's manpower, and drafting replacement soldiers strained the labour force further. Fighting on multiple fronts, increasing size and pay of the army, increasing cost of transport, populist "bread and circuses" political campaigns, inefficient and corrupt tax collection, unorganised budgeting, and paying off foreign nations for peace all contributed to financial crisis. The emperors responded by confiscating assets and supplies to combat the deficit. The situation of the Roman Empire became dire in 235. Many
Roman legion The Roman legion ( la, legiō, ) was the largest military unit of the Roman army, composed of 4,200 infantry and 300 equites (cavalry) in the period of the Roman Republic (509 BC–27 BC); and was composed of 5,200 infantry and 120 auxilia in t ...

Roman legion
s had been defeated during a previous campaign against
Germanic peoples The Germanic peoples were a historical group of people living in Central Europe and Scandinavia. Since the 19th century, they have traditionally been defined by the use of ancient and early medieval Germanic languages and are thus equated at lea ...

Germanic peoples
raiding across the borders, while the emperor
Severus Alexander Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander (1 October 208 – 19 March 235) was the last Roman emperor The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the History of the Roman Empire, imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a ...

Severus Alexander
had been focused primarily on the dangers from the
Sassanid Empire The Sasanian () or Sassanid Empire, officially known as the Empire of Iranians ( Middle Persian: 𐭠𐭩𐭥𐭠𐭭𐭱𐭲𐭥𐭩 '' Ērānshahr''), and called the Neo-Persian Empire by historians, was the last Persian imperial dynasty bef ...
. Leading his troops personally, the emperor resorted to diplomacy and accepting tribute to pacify the
Germanic chieftain Germanic may refer to: * Germanic peoples The historical Germanic peoples (from lat, Germani) are a category of ancient northern European tribes, first mentioned by Graeco-Roman authors. They are also associated with Germanic languages, whic ...
s quickly, rather than military conquest. According to
Herodian :''For the grammarian, see Aelius Herodianus. For the dynasty, see Herodian Dynasty 260px, Coin of Herod the Great The Herodian dynasty was a royal dynasty of Idumea, Idumaean (Edomite) descent, ruling the Herodian Kingdom and later the Herodia ...

Herodian
this cost Severus Alexander the respect of his troops, who may have felt that more severe punishment was required for the tribes that had intruded on Rome's territory. The troops assassinated Severus Alexander and proclaimed the new emperor to be
Maximinus Thrax Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus "Thrax" ("the Thracian";  – May 238) was Roman emperor from 235 to 238. His father was an accountant in the governor's office and sprang from ancestors who were Carpi (a Dacians, Dacian tribe), a people who ...

Maximinus Thrax
, commander of one of the legions present. Maximinus was the first of the
barracks emperor A barracks emperor (also called a "soldier emperor") was a Roman Emperor The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the History of the Roman Empire, imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a variety of different ...
s – rulers who were elevated by the troops without having any political experience, a supporting faction, distinguished ancestors, or a hereditary claim to the imperial throne. As their rule rested on military might and generalship, they operated as
warlord A warlord is a person who exercises military, economic, and political control over a region in a country without a strong national government; largely because of coercive control over the armed forces. Warlords have existed throughout much of his ...
s reliant on the army to maintain power. Maximinus continued the campaigns in
Germania Germania ( , ), also called Magna Germania (English: ''Great Germania''), Germania Libera (English: ''Free Germania'') or Germanic Barbaricum Barbaricum (from the gr, Βαρβαρικόν, "foreign", "barbarian") is a geographical name used by ...

Germania
but struggled to exert his authority over the whole empire. The Senate was displeased at having to accept a peasant as Emperor. This precipitated the chaotic
Year of the Six Emperors The Year of the Six Emperors was the year 238 AD, during which six men were recognized as emperors of Rome. History Maximinus Thrax The emperor at the beginning of the year was Maximinus Thrax Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus "Thrax" ("the Thra ...
during which all of the original claimants were killed: in 238 a revolt broke out in Africa led by Gordian I and Gordian II, which was soon supported by the Roman Senate, but this was quickly defeated with Gordian II killed and Gordian I committing suicide. The Senate, fearing Imperial wrath, raised two of their own as co-Emperors, Pupienus and Balbinus with Gordian I's grandson Gordian III as ''Caesar''. Maximinus marched on Rome but was assassinated by his
Legio II Parthica Legio II Parthica ("Parthian-conquering Second Legion") was a legion Legion may refer to: Military * Roman legion The Roman legion ( la, legiō, ) was the largest military unit of the Roman army The Roman army (Latin Latin (, or , ...
, and subsequently Pupienus and Balbinus were murdered by the
Praetorian Guard The Praetorian Guard (Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power of th ...
. In the following years, numerous generals of the Roman army fought each other for control of the empire and neglected their duties of defending it from invasion. There were frequent raids across the Rhine and Danube frontier by foreign tribes, including the
Carpians The Carpi or Carpiani were an ancient people that resided in the eastern parts of modern Romania Romania ( ; ro, România ) is a country located at the crossroads of Central Europe, Central, Eastern Europe, Eastern, and Southeast Europe, S ...
,
Goths The Goths ( got, 𐌲𐌿𐍄𐌸𐌹𐌿𐌳𐌰, translit=''Gutþiuda''; la, Gothi) were a Germanic people who played a major role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of medieval Europe. In his book ''Getica'' (c. 551), ...
,
Vandals The Vandals were a Germanic people Germanic may refer to: * Germanic peoples The historical Germanic peoples (from lat, Germani) are a category of ancient northern European tribes, first mentioned by Graeco-Roman authors. They are also a ...
, and
Alamanni The Alemanni (also ''Alamanni''; ''Suebi'' "Swabians") were a confederation of Germanic peoples, Germanic tribes * * * on the Upper Rhine River. First mentioned by Cassius Dio in the context of the campaign of Caracalla of 213, the Alemanni captu ...
, and attacks from
Sassanids The Sasanian () or Sassanid Empire, officially known as the Empire of Iranians ( Middle Persian: 𐭠𐭩𐭥𐭠𐭭𐭱𐭲𐭥𐭩 '' Ērānshahr''), and called the Neo-Persian Empire by historians, was the last Persian imperial dynasty bef ...
in the east. Climate changes and a
sea level rise Tide gauge measurements show that the current global sea level rise began at the start of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 2017, the globally averaged sea level rose by . More precise data gathered from satellite radar measurements reveal an a ...

sea level rise
disrupted the agriculture of what is now the
Low Countries The term Low Countries, also known as the Low Lands ( nl, de Lage Landen, french: les Pays-Bas) and historically called the Netherlands ( nl, de Nederlanden), Flanders, or Belgica, refers to a coastal lowland region in Northwestern Europe forming ...
, forcing tribes residing in the region to migrate into Roman lands. Further disruption arose in 251, when the
Plague of Cyprian The Plague of Cyprian was a pandemic A pandemic (from Greek , , "all" and , , "local people" the 'crowd') is an epidemic of an infectious disease that has spread across a large region, for instance multiple continents or worldwide, affecting ...
(possibly
smallpox Smallpox was an infectious disease An infection is the invasion of an organism's body Tissue (biology), tissues by Pathogen, disease-causing agents, their multiplication, and the reaction of host (biology), host tissues to the infectious a ...

smallpox
) broke out. This plague caused large-scale death, severely weakening the empire. The situation was worsened in 260 when the emperor Valerian was captured in battle by the Sassanids (he later died in captivity). Throughout the period, numerous
usurper A usurper is an illegitimate or controversial claimant to power Power typically refers to: * Power (physics) In physics, power is the amount of energy transferred or converted per unit time. In the International System of Units, the unit of ...
s claimed the imperial throne. In the absence of a strong central authority, the empire broke into three competing states. The
Roman province The Roman provinces (Latin: ''provincia'', pl. ''provinciae'') were the administrative regions of Ancient Rome outside Roman Italy that were controlled by the Romans under the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. Each province was ruled ...
s of
Gaul Gaul ( la, Gallia) was a region of Western Europe Western Europe is the region of Europe Europe is a continent A continent is one of several large landmasses. Generally identified by convention (norm), convention rather than a ...

Gaul
,
Britain Britain usually refers to: * United Kingdom, a sovereign state in Europe comprising the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland and many smaller islands * Great Britain, the largest island in the United Kingdom * Ro ...

Britain
, and
Hispania Hispania ( ; ) was the Ancient Rome, Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula and its provinces. Under the Roman Republic, Hispania was divided into two Roman province, provinces: Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior. During the Principate, Hispa ...

Hispania
broke off to form the
Gallic Empire The Gallic Empire or the Gallic Roman Empire are names used in modern historiography for a breakaway part of the Roman Empire that functioned ''de facto'' as a separate state from 260 to 274. It originated during the Crisis of the Third Century, w ...
in 260. The eastern provinces of
Syria Syria ( ar, سُورِيَا, ''Sūriyā''), officially the Syrian Arab Republic ( ar, ٱلْجُمْهُورِيَّةُ ٱلْعَرَبِيَّةُ ٱلسُّورِيَّةُ, al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʻArabīyah as-Sūrīyah), is a country in ...
,
Palestine Palestine ( or ) most often refers to: * State of Palestine, a ''de jure'' sovereign state in the Middle East * Palestine (region), a geographical and historical region in the Middle East Palestine may also refer to: * Palestinian National Aut ...
, and
Aegyptus In Greek mythology Greek mythology is the body of myths originally told by the Ancient Greece, ancient Greeks, and a genre of Ancient Greek folklore. These stories concern the Cosmogony, origin and Cosmology#Metaphysical cosmology, nature of t ...
also became independent as the
Palmyrene Empire The Palmyrene Empire was a short-lived Breakaway state, splinter state of the Roman Empire resulting from the Crisis of the Third Century. Named after its capital city, Palmyra, it encompassed the Roman provinces of Syria Palaestina, Arabia Petra ...

Palmyrene Empire
in 267. The remaining provinces, centered on Italy, stayed under a single ruler but now faced threats on every side. An invasion of Macedonia and Greece by
Goths The Goths ( got, 𐌲𐌿𐍄𐌸𐌹𐌿𐌳𐌰, translit=''Gutþiuda''; la, Gothi) were a Germanic people who played a major role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of medieval Europe. In his book ''Getica'' (c. 551), ...
, who had been displaced from their lands on the
Black Sea , with the skyline of Batumi Batumi (; ka, ბათუმი ) is the second largest city of Georgia Georgia usually refers to: * Georgia (country) Georgia ( ka, საქართველო; ''Sakartvelo''; ) is a country locat ...

Black Sea
, was defeated by emperor Claudius II Gothicus at the
Battle of Naissus The Battle of Naissus (268 or 269 CE) was the defeat of a Gothic coalition by the Roman Empire under Emperor Gallienus Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus (; c. 218 – September 268) was Roman emperor The Roman Emperor was the ruler of t ...
in 268 or 269. Historians see this victory as the turning point of the crisis. In its aftermath, a series of tough, energetic barracks emperors were able to reassert central authority. Further victories by Claudius Gothicus drove back the
Alamanni The Alemanni (also ''Alamanni''; ''Suebi'' "Swabians") were a confederation of Germanic peoples, Germanic tribes * * * on the Upper Rhine River. First mentioned by Cassius Dio in the context of the campaign of Caracalla of 213, the Alemanni captu ...
and recovered Hispania from the Gallic Empire. He died of the plague in 270 and was succeeded by
Aurelian Aurelian ( la, Lucius Domitius Aurelianus; 9 September 214c. October 275) was Roman emperor from 270 to 275. As emperor, he won an unprecedented series of military victories which reunited the Roman Empire after it had practically disintegrated ...

Aurelian
, who had commanded the cavalry at Naissus. Aurelian reigned (270–275) through the worst of the crisis, gradually restoring the empire. He defeated the Vandals,
Visigoths The Visigoths (; la, Visigothi, Wisigothi, Vesi, Visi, Wesi, Wisi) were an early Germanic people Germanic may refer to: * Germanic peoples The historical Germanic peoples (from lat, Germani) are a category of ancient northern European tr ...
, Palmyrene Empire, and finally the remainder of the Gallic Empire. By late 274, the Roman Empire had been reunited into a single entity. However, Aurelian was assassinated in 275, sparking a further series of competing emperors with short reigns. The situation did not stabilize until
Diocletian Diocletian (; la, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus; born Diocles; 22 December c. 244 – 3 December 311) was Roman emperor from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in Dalmatia (Roman province), Dalmatia, Diocletian rose through the ...
, himself a barracks emperor, took power in 284. More than a century would pass 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 dead or dispersed, these cities could not be rebuilt, due to the economic breakdown caused by constant warfare. The economy was also crippled by the breakdown in trading networks and the debasement of the currency. Major cities and towns, including Rome itself, had not needed fortifications for many centuries, but now surrounded themselves with thick
walls
walls
. Fundamental problems with the empire still remained. The right of imperial succession had never been clearly defined, which was a factor in the continuous civil wars as competing factions in the military, Senate, and other parties put forward their favored candidate for emperor. The sheer size of the empire, which had been an issue since the late
Roman Republic The Roman Republic ( la, Rēs pūblica Rōmāna ) was a state of the ancient Rome, classical Roman civilization, run through res publica, public Representation (politics), representation of the Roman people. Beginning with the Overthrow of the ...
three centuries earlier, continued to make it difficult for a single ruler to effectively counter multiple threats at the same time. These continuing problems were addressed by the radical reforms of Diocletian, who broke the cycle of usurpation. He began by sharing his rule with a colleague, then formally established the
Tetrarchy The Tetrarchy is the term adopted to describe the system of government of the ancient Roman Empire instituted by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 293, marking the end of the Crisis of the Third Century and the recovery of the Roman Empire. The gov ...
of four co-emperors in 293. Historians regard this as the end of the crisis period, which had lasted 58 years. However the trend of civil war would continue after the abdication of Diocletian in the
Civil wars of the Tetrarchy The Civil wars of the Tetrarchy were a series of conflicts between the co-emperors of the Roman Empire, starting in 306 AD with the usurpation of Maxentius and the defeat of Severus and ending with the defeat of Licinius at the hands of Constan ...
(306–324) until the rise of
Constantine the Great Constantine I ( la, Flavius Valerius Constantinus; ; 27 February 22 May 337), also known as Constantine the Great, was a Roman emperor from 306 to 337. Born in Naissus, Dacia Mediterranea (now Niš, Serbia), he was the son of Constantius Chlor ...

Constantine the Great
as sole Emperor. The empire survived until 476 in the West and until 1453 in the East.


Causes


The problem of succession and civil war

From the beginning of the
Principate The Principate is the name sometimes given to the first period of the Roman Empire The Roman Empire ( la, Imperium Rōmānum ; grc-gre, Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων, Basileía tôn Rhōmaíōn) was the post-Roman Republic, Rep ...
there were no clear rules for the imperial succession, largely because the empire maintained the facade of a republic. During the early Principate, the process for becoming an emperor relied on a combination of proclamation by the Senate, popular approval, and acceptance by the army, in particular the
Praetorian Guard The Praetorian Guard (Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power of th ...
. A family connection to a previous emperor was beneficial, but it did not determine the issue in the way a formal system of
hereditary succession An order of succession or right of succession is the line of individuals entitled to hold a high office when it becomes vacated such as head of state A head of state (or chief of state) is the public persona who officially embodies a state ...
would. From the
Julio-Claudian dynasty , native_name_lang=Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power of the Rom ...
onwards there was sometimes tension between the Senate's preferred choice and the army. As the Senatorial class declined in political influence and more generals were recruited from the provinces this tension increased. Whenever the succession appeared uncertain, there was an incentive for any general with support of a sizable army to attempt to seize power, sparking civil war. The most recent example of this prior to the Crisis was the
Year of the Five Emperors The Year of the Five Emperors was 193 AD, in which five men claimed the title of Roman emperor The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the History of the Roman Empire, imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors ...

Year of the Five Emperors
which resulted in the victory of
Septimius Severus Lucius Septimius Severus (; 11 April 145 – 4 February 211) was Roman emperor from 193 to 211. He was born in Leptis Magna (present day Al-Khums, Libya) in the Roman province of Africa (Roman province), Africa. As a young man he advanced throu ...
. After the overthrow of the Severan dynasty, for the rest of the 3rd century, Rome was ruled by a series of generals, coming into power through frequent civil wars which devastated the empire.


Natural disasters

The first and most immediately disastrous of the natural disasters that the Roman Empire faced during the Third Century was the plague. The
Antonine Plague The Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD, also known as the Plague of Galen (after Galen Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus ( el, Κλαύδιος Γαληνός; September 129 CE – /), often Anglicization, Anglicized as Galen and sometimes known ...
that preceded the Crisis of the Third Century sapped manpower from Roman armies and proved disastrous for the Roman economy. From 249 AD to 262 AD, the
Plague of Cyprian The Plague of Cyprian was a pandemic A pandemic (from Greek , , "all" and , , "local people" the 'crowd') is an epidemic of an infectious disease that has spread across a large region, for instance multiple continents or worldwide, affecting ...
devastated the Roman Empire so much so that some cities, such as the
city of Alexandria
city of Alexandria
, experienced a 62% decline in population. These plagues greatly hindered the Roman Empire's ability to ward off barbarian invasions but also factored into problems such as
famine A famine is a widespread scarcity of food Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for an organism In biology, an organism (from Ancient Greek, Greek: ὀργανισμός, ''organismos'') is any individual con ...

famine
, with many farms becoming abandoned and unproductive. A second and longer-term natural disaster that took place during the third century was the increased variability of weather. Drier summers meant less
agricultural productivity Agricultural productivity is measured as the ratio of agricultural outputs to inputs. While individual products are usually measured by weight, which is known as crop yield, varying products make measuring overall agricultural output difficult ...
and more extreme weather events led to agricultural instability. This could also have contributed to the increased barbarian pressure on Roman borders, as they too would have experienced the detrimental effects of climate change and sought to push inward to more productive regions of the Mediterranean.


Foreign invasions

Barbarian invasions came in the wake of civil war, plague, and famine. Distress caused in part by the changing climate led various barbarian tribes to push into Roman territory. Other tribes coalesced into more formidable entities (notably the
Alamanni The Alemanni (also ''Alamanni''; ''Suebi'' "Swabians") were a confederation of Germanic peoples, Germanic tribes * * * on the Upper Rhine River. First mentioned by Cassius Dio in the context of the campaign of Caracalla of 213, the Alemanni captu ...
and
Franks The Franks ( la, Franci or ) were a group of Germanic peoples whose name was first mentioned in 3rd-century Roman sources, and associated with tribes between the Lower Rhine and the Ems River, on the edge of the Roman Empire. Later the term was ...

Franks
), or were pushed out of their former territories by more dangerous peoples such as the
Sarmatians The Sarmatians (; Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( el, Ελλάδα, , ), officially the Hellenic Republic, is a country located in Southeast Europe. Its population is approximately 10.7 mi ...
(the
Huns The Huns were a nomadic people A nomad ( frm, nomade "people without fixed habitation") is a member of a community without fixed habitation which regularly moves to and from the same areas. Such groups include hunter-gatherers, pastoral ...

Huns
did not appear west of the Volga for another century). Eventually, the frontiers were stabilized by the
Illyrian Emperors 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 ...
. However, barbarian migrations into the empire continued in greater and greater numbers. Though these migrants were initially closely monitored and assimilated, later tribes eventually entered the Roman Empire ''en masse'' with their weapons, giving only token recognition of Roman authority. The defensive battles that Rome had to endure on the Danube since the 230s, however, paled in comparison to the threat the empire faced in the East. There,
Sassanid Persia The Sasanian () or Sassanid Empire, officially known as the Empire of Iranians (Middle Persian: 𐭠𐭩𐭥𐭠𐭭𐭱𐭲𐭥𐭩 ''Iran (word), Ērānshahr''), and called the Neo-Persian Empire by historians, was the last Persian Empire, Pe ...
represented a far greater danger to Rome than the isolated attacks of
Germanic tribe This list of ancient Germanic peoples is a list of groups and alliances of ancient Germanic peoples in ancient times. These reports begin in the 2nd century BC and extend into late antiquity. Beginning with the states of the Early Middle Ages, the ...
s. The Sassanids had in 224 and 226 overthrown the Parthian Arsacids, and the Persian King Ardashir I, who also wanted to prove his legitimacy through military successes, had already penetrated into Roman territory at the time of Severus Alexander, probably taking the strategically important cities of
Nisibis Nusaybin (; '; ar, نصيبين; syr, ܢܨܝܒܝܢ, translit=Nṣībīn;), historically known as Nisibis (), is a city in Mardin Province, Turkey Turkey ( tr, Türkiye ), officially the Republic of Turkey, is a country straddling Sout ...
and Carrhae.


Economic impact

Internally, the empire faced
hyperinflation 400px, Hyperinflation in Venezuela represented by the time it would take for money to lose 90% of its value (301-day rolling average, inverted logarithmic scale). In economics, hyperinflation is very high and typically accelerating inflation. ...

hyperinflation
caused by years of coinage
devaluation In macroeconomics Macroeconomics (from the Greek prefix ''makro-'' meaning "large" + ''economics'') is a branch of economics Economics () is the social science that studies how people interact with value; in particular, the Production ( ...
. This had started earlier under the Severan emperors who enlarged the army by one quarter, and doubled the base pay of legionaries. 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 inflating the coinage severely, a process made possible by debasing the coinage with bronze and copper. This resulted in runaway rises in prices, 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 often were notional, in
bullion Bullion is non-ferrous metal In metallurgy Metallurgy is a domain of Materials science, materials science and engineering that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic Chemical element, elements, their Inter-metallic alloy, int ...
or
bronze Bronze is an alloy consisting primarily of copper, commonly with about 12–12.5% tin and often with the addition of other metals (such as aluminum, manganese, nickel or zinc) and sometimes non-metals or metalloids such as arsenic, phosphorus or ...

bronze
coinage. Real values continued to be figured in gold coinage, but the silver coin, the denarius, used for 300 years, was gone (1 pound of gold = 40 gold
aurei The ''aureus'' ( ''aurei'', 'golden', used as a noun) was a gold coin A gold coin is a coin that is made mostly or entirely of gold. Most gold coins minted since 1800 are 90–92% gold (22 fineness#Karat, karat), while most of today's gold bul ...

aurei
= 1,000
denarii The denarius (, dēnāriī ) was the standard Roman silver coin from its introduction in the Second Punic War to the reign of Gordian III (AD 238–244), when it was gradually replaced by the Antoninianus. It continued to be minted in very ...
= 4,000
sestertii The sestertius (plural sestertii), or sesterce (plural sesterces), was an Ancient Rome, ancient Roman Roman currency, coin. During the Roman Republic it was a small, silver coin issued only on rare occasions. During the Roman Empire it was a large ...
). This currency had almost no value by the end of the third century, and trade was carried out without retail coinage.


Breakdown of internal trade network

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
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, starting with
Augustus Caesar Augustus (23 September 63 BC19 August AD 14) was the first Roman emperor The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a variety of different titles througho ...

Augustus
, the empire's economy had 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 among the empire's inhabitants. The historian Henry St. Lawrence Beaufort 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, foreshadowed the very decentralized economic character of the coming
Middle Ages In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted approximately from the 5th to the late 15th centuries, similarly to the Post-classical, Post-classical period of global history. It began with the fall of the Western Roma ...
. 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
manorialism Manorialism, also known as the manor system or manorial system, was the method of land ownership (or "tenure Tenure is a category of academic appointment existing in some countries. A tenured post is an indefinite academic appointment that ...
of the Middle Ages. 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 Serfdom was the status of many peasant A peasant is a pre-industrial farmhand, agricultural laborer or a farmer with limited land-ownership, especially one living in the Middle Ages under feudalism and tenant farmer, paying rent, tax, fee ...
, the origins of medieval
feudal society Feudalism, also known as the feudal system, was a combination of the legal, economic, military, and cultural customs that flourished in Medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society arou ...
and of the medieval peasantry. The decline in commerce between the imperial provinces put them on a path toward increased self-sufficiency. 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 toward 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 gradual process that would transform the ancient world of classical antiquity into the medieval one of the
Early Middle Ages The Early Middle Ages or Early Medieval Period, sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages (historiography), Dark Ages, is typically regarded by historians as lasting from the late 5th or early 6th century to the 10th century. They marked the start ...
. However, although the burdens on the population increased, especially the lower strata of the population, this can not be generalized to the whole empire, especially since the living conditions were not uniform. Although the structural integrity of the economy suffered from the military conflicts of that time and the inflationary episode of the 270s, it did not collapse, especially because of the complex regional differences. Recent research has shown that there were regions that prospered even further, such as Egypt, Africa and Hispania. But even for Asia Minor, which was directly affected by attacks, no general decline can be observed. While commerce and the economy flourished in several regions, with several provinces not affected by hostilities, other provinces experienced some serious problems, as evidenced by personal
hoards A hoard or "wealth deposit" is an archaeology, archaeological term for a collection of valuable objects or artifact (archaeology), artifacts, sometimes purposely buried in the ground, in which case it is sometimes also known as a cache. This wou ...
in the northwestern provinces of the empire. However, there can be no talk of a general economic crisis throughout the whole of Empire. Even the Roman cities began to change in character. The large cities of classical antiquity slowly gave way to the smaller,
walled cities A defensive wall is a fortification A fortification is a military construction or building designed for the defense of territories in warfare, and is also used to establish rule in a region during peacetime. The term is derived from La ...
that became 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. In spite of extensive reforms by later emperors, however, the Roman trade network was never able to fully recover to what it had been during the
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(27 BCE – CE 180). This economic decline was far more noticeable and important in the western part of the empire, which was also invaded by barbarian tribes several times during the century. Hence, the balance of power clearly shifted eastward during this period, as evidenced by the choice of Diocletian to rule from
Nicomedia Nicomedia (; el, Νικομήδεια, ''Nikomedeia''; modern İzmit) was an ancient Greece, ancient Greek city located in what is now Turkey. In 286 Nicomedia became the eastern and most senior capital city of the Roman Empire (chosen by Dioclet ...
in
Asia Minor Anatolia,, tr, Anadolu Yarımadası), and the Anatolian plateau. also known as Asia Minor, is a large peninsula A peninsula ( la, paeninsula from ' "almost" and ' "island") is a landform surrounded by water on most of its border while be ...

Asia Minor
, putting his second in command,
Maximian Maximian ( la, Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus; c. 250 – c. July 310), nicknamed Herculius, was Roman emperor The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a vari ...

Maximian
, in
Milan Milan (, , Milanese: ; it, Milano ) is a city in northern Italy, capital of Lombardy, and the List of cities in Italy, second-most populous city proper in Italy after Rome. The city proper has a population of about 1.4 million, while its ...

Milan
. This would have a considerable impact on the later development of the empire with a richer, more stable
eastern empire The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages ...

eastern empire
surviving the end of Roman rule in the west. 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 empire suffered from a crippling labour shortage. The steady exodus of both rich and poor from the cities and now-unprofitable professions forced
Diocletian Diocletian (; la, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus; born Diocles; 22 December c. 244 – 3 December 311) was Roman emperor from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in Dalmatia (Roman province), Dalmatia, Diocletian rose through the ...
to use compulsion; conscription was made universal, most trades were made hereditary, and workers could not legally leave their jobs or travel elsewhere to seek better-paying ones. This included the unwanted middle-class civil service positions and under Constantine, the military. Constantine also tried to provide social programs for the poor to reduce the labour shortage.


Increased militarization

All the Barracks Emperors based their power on the military and on the soldiers of the field armies, not on the Praetorians in Rome. Thus, Rome lost its role as the political center of the empire during the third century, although it remained ideologically important. In order to legitimize and secure their rule, the emperors of the third century needed above all military successes. The centre of decision-making shifted away from Rome and to wherever the emperor was with his armies, typically, in the east. This led to the transfer of the capital to the four cities Milan, Trier, Nicomedia, and Sirmium, and then to Constantinople. The Senate ceased to be the main governing organ and instead members of the equestrian class who filled the military officer corps became increasingly prominent.


Emperors

Several emperors who rose to power through acclamation of their troops attempted to create stability by appointing their descendants as ''
Caesar Gaius Julius Caesar (; 12 July 100 BC – 15 March 44 BC) was a Roman general and statesman who played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. In 60 BC, Caesar, Marcus Licin ...
'', resulting in several brief dynasties. These generally failed to maintain any form of coherence beyond one generation, although there were exceptions.


Gordian dynasty


Decian dynasty


Valerian dynasty


Gordian dynasty continued


Tacitus


Caran dynasty


See also

*
BagaudaeBagaudae (also spelled bacaudae) were groups of peasant A peasant is a pre-industrial farmhand, agricultural laborer or a farmer with limited land-ownership, especially one living in the Middle Ages under feudalism and tenant farmer, paying rent ...
*
Sengoku period The is a period in History of Japan, Japanese history of near-constant civil war, social upheaval, and intrigue from 1467 to 1615. The Sengoku period was initiated by the Ōnin War in 1467 which collapsed the Feudalism, feudal system of Japan u ...
– a similar period in Japanese history *
Warring States period The Warring States period () was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the Spring and Autumn period The Spring and Autumn period was a period i ...
and
Three Kingdoms period The Three Kingdoms () from 220 to 280 AD was the tripartite division of China among the states of Wei, Shu Shu may refer to: China * Sichuan, China, officially abbreviated as Shu (蜀) * Shu (state) (conquered by Qin in 316 BC), an ancie ...
– similar periods in Chinese history


Citations


General bibliography

* * * Olivier Hekster, ''Rome and Its Empire, AD 193–284'' (Edinburgh, 2008). . * Klaus-Peter Johne (ed.), ''Die Zeit der Soldatenkaiser'' (Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2008). * Lot, Ferdinand. ''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). * Moss, H. St. L. B
''The Birth of the Middle Ages''
(Clarendon Press, 1935, reprint Oxford University Press, January 2000). . * Watson, Alaric. ''Aurelian and the Third Century'' (Taylor & Francis, 2004) * White, John F. ''Restorer of the World: The Roman Emperor Aurelian'' (Spellmount, 2004)


Further reading



Hugh Kramer.

University of Calgary.

OSU. {{Authority control 3rd century in the Roman Empire