Crisis of the Third Century
This article is part of the series on:
Military of ancient Rome (portal)
753 BC – AD 476
Structural history Roman army (unit types and ranks, legions, auxiliaries, generals) Roman navy (fleets, admirals) Campaign history Lists of wars and battles Decorations and punishments Technological history Military engineering (castra, siege engines, arches, roads) Political history Strategy and tactics Infantry tactics Frontiers and fortifications (limes, Hadrian's Wall)
The Crisis of the Third Century (also "Military Anarchy" or "Imperial Crisis") (235–284 AD) was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression. The Crisis began with the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus 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 generals, assumed imperial power over all or part of the Empire. By 258–260, the Empire split into three competing states: the Gallic Empire, including the Roman provinces of Gaul, Britannia and Hispania; the Palmyrene Empire, including the eastern provinces of Syria Palaestina and Aegyptus; and the Italian-centered and independent Roman Empire, proper, between them. The Crisis ended with the ascension and reforms of Diocletian, although it was his predecessor Aurelian 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 of Classical antiquity and late antiquity.
The situation of the Roman Empire became dire in 235 A.D., 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, 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.
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 (1 pound of gold = 40 gold aurei = 1000 denarii = 4000 sestertii). 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 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:Along these roads passed an ever-increasing traffic, not only of troops and officials, but of traders, merchandise and even tourists. An interchange of goods between the various provinces rapidly developed, which soon reached a scale unprecedented in previous history and not repeated until a few centuries ago. Metals mined in the uplands of Western Europe, hides, fleeces, and livestock from the pastoral districts of Britain, Spain, and the shores of the Black Sea, wine and oil from Provence and Aquitaine, timber, pitch and wax from South Russia and northern Anatolia, dried fruits from Syria, marble from the Aegean coasts, and – most important of all – grain from the wheat-growing districts of North Africa, Egypt, and the Danube Valley for the needs of the great cities; all these commodities, under the influence of a highly organized system of transport and marketing, moved freely from one corner of the Empire to the other.
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, 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.
- Battle of Lake Benacus
- Battle of Naissus
- Claudius II
- Marcus Aurelius Probus
- Roman Emperor (Crisis of the Third Century)
Sources and notes
- ^ H. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages, p. 1.
- 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, 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).
- Crisis of the Third Century (235–285), Boise State.
- Crisis of The Third Century, Hugh Kramer.
- Map, University of Calgary.
- The Crisis of The Third Century, OSU.
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
Look at other dictionaries:
Roman Emperor (Crisis of the Third Century) — The Crisis of the Third Century (also known as the Anarchy of the 3rd Century) marked the end of the Principate, the early phase of Imperial Roman government. A series of soldiers, the Barracks Emperors, assumed the highest office, leading to the … Wikipedia
Crisis of the Late Middle Ages — The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages refers to a series of events in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that brought centuries of European prosperity and growth to a halt. Three major crises would lead to radical changes in all areas of… … Wikipedia
Crisis in the Population Question — (Kris i befolkningsfrågan) is a 1934 book by Alva and Gunnar Myrdal. It discussed the declining birthrate in Sweden and proposed possible solutions. The book was influential in the debate which created the Swedish welfare model. Contents 1 Work… … Wikipedia
The Third Wave of Democratization — The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century is a 1991 book by Samuel P. Huntington which outlines the significance of a third wave of democratization to describe the global trend that has seen more than 60 countries experience… … Wikipedia
The Myth of the Twentieth Century — Alfred Rosenberg The Myth of the Twentieth Century (German: Der Mythus des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts) is a book by Alfred Rosenberg, one of the principal ideologues of the Nazi party and editor of the Nazi paper Völkischer Beobachter … Wikipedia
The Third Wave (book) — infobox Book | name = The Third Wave title orig = translator = image caption = author = Alvin Toffler illustrator = cover artist = country = United States language = English series = genre = Social Science, History, Futurology publisher = Bantam… … Wikipedia
Christianity in the 3rd century — Funerary stele of Licinia Amias on marble. One of the most ancient Christian inscriptions found, it is from the early 3rd century Vatican necropolis area, Rome. Upper tier: dedication to the Dis Manibus and Christian motto in Greek letters ΙΧΘΥC… … Wikipedia
Christianity in the 1st century — Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant. Depicted by 19th century Danish painter Carl Heinrich Bloch is his Sermon on the Mount (c. 30) in which he Expounds on the Law. Some scholars consider this to be … Wikipedia
France in the nineteenth century — The History of France from 1789 to 1914 (the long 19th century) extends from the French Revolution to World War I and includes:*French Revolution (1789–1792) *French First Republic (1792–1804) *First French Empire under Napoleon (1804–1814)… … Wikipedia
France in the twentieth century — For specific information on today s France, see France and Portal:France. The History of France from 1914 to the present includes: the later years of the Third Republic (1871–1941) World War I (1914–18) World War II (1939–45) the Fourth Republic… … Wikipedia