The Roman Empire’s Crisis of the Third Century
The history of the Roman Republic, and subsequently, the Roman Empire, is vast and rich, full of intrigues, conflicts, and incredible conquests. But no empire is without weaknesses, and history is often unforgiving and unpredictable.
During the third century AD, the Roman Empire experienced its biggest crisis ever - inner instability, civil wars, and numerous barbarian invasions, all threatened to collapse what was the largest empire in the world. How does an empire of such size weather that crisis and can it emerge as strong as before?
Were the results of this troubling period a crucial milestone in the development of the world’s history? Today we answer this and more, digging deep into the crucial developments of the era and understanding just what contributed to this major crisis that brought the world’s most powerful empire to its knees.
One Assassination Too Many – The Start of the Crisis of the Third Century
The crisis began at a critical time for the Roman Empire. The young emperor Severus Alexander, was the fifth ruler of the Severan dynasty, which was at the head of the Roman Empire from 193 to 235 AD. He became the emperor when he was just 14 years old, making him the second youngest ruler in Roman history.
But it was not his rule that marked the start of the Roman crisis – it was his death. When the empire came under increased threat from the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes on its northern borders, Severus Alexander was forced to act in order to keep the empire secure. He launched a campaign with a fully assembled army, but instead of opting for conflict, the young emperor, with the advice of his mother, chose to avoid unnecessary violence, and instead pursued a diplomatic course of action, and resorted to open bribery.
Severus Alexander was emperor of the Roman Empire until 235 AD. (Internet Archive Book Images / Public Domain)
The legions disliked this course of action openly, considering it insulting, as many of their comrades were killed by the Germanic tribes in years prior. They wanted revenge and bloodshed. Thus, his actions caused growing critique and displeasure among his troops, which culminated with the mutiny of the Legio XXII Primigenia.
Emperor Severus Alexander was murdered, alongside his mother, while at a meeting in Moguntiacum (Mainz). The wider motive for his assassination possibly stems from the accumulated unrest among the troops and generals, which started with Severus’ predecessor – Emperor Elagabalus, who was widely detested and hated, and likewise assassinated at just 18 years old.
In his stead, the troops proclaimed one of their commanders as the new emperor – Maximinus Thrax. He would be the first in a line of the so called ‘barracks emperors’ – rulers elected by the troops. The barracks emperors had no experience as either politicians or rulers, and no ties or legitimate claims to the Imperial Throne.
Their rule and power rested solely on the army and their power over them. Born a simple Thracian peasant, Maximinus had no favor whatsoever in the Roman Senate. His rule began in 235 AD, and was marked as one of tyranny, neglectfulness, and in general – failure. It lasted – feebly – for only three years, when a revolt broke out in 238 AD – the chaotic, critical year that was called the Year of Six Emperors.
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Maximinus Thrax also known as Maximinus I, was Roman Emperor from 235 to 238. (Soerfm / Public Domain)
The revolt began in the province of Africa and was led by two regional governors, father and son – Gordian I and Gordian II. They had the support of the Senate, which clearly disliked Maximinus and wanted him removed. But even Maximinus had supporters.
One of his followers, regional governor of Numidia, Capelianus, raised an army and decisively defeated the Gordian army at the Battle of Carthage. The younger Gordian fell in combat, and his elderly father, Gordian I, upon hearing the news, hung himself. Their rule as emperors lasted merely 20 days.
In the ensuing chaotic events, Maximinus Thrax was proclaimed a public enemy of Rome by the Senate. In response, he gathered an army and began to march on Rome. In order to oppose his rule effectively, the Senate needed a different emperor, someone to oppose Maximinus.
Without any suitable candidates, they elected two senators, Pupienus Maximus and Balbinus, to rule as joint emperors. To make this entire charade even more chaotic, the people openly displayed their dislike of the new rulers. They gathered into mobs and greeted their new joint emperors with sticks and stones.
The Barracks Emperors – Warlords in Disguise
Maximinus Thrax, in his military march on Rome, encountered a major obstacle – the city of Aquileia. They opposed him and denied passage. He was forced to besiege the town in February 238.
The siege dragged on until April, without success. His failure became obvious among the troops, supplies ran low and the general opposition to his rule from the entire empire began to show. This caused his troops to have doubts as to the emperor they appointed just three years before. They solved their doubts by murdering the emperor Maximinus Thrax, alongside his son Maximus.
This was done by the Legio Secunda Parthica. They decapitated their corpses and sent the heads to Rome. The co-emperors Pupienus and Balbinus accepted their surrender and pardoned them.
In the meanwhile, things in Rome were far from good. Pupienus and Balbinus, elderly senators turned emperors, were openly distrustful of each other. They quarreled openly and fiercely.
Furthermore, the populace of Rome was in open mutiny and caused destruction and fire throughout the town. After one such heated quarrel their elite bodyguard units – the Praetorian Guard – decided they had enough of these emperors and proceeded to strip them naked, drag them through the streets of Rome, torture them, and murder them both. They had ruled for only 99 days.
On that same day, a new emperor was chosen – the 13 year-old grandson of Gordian I, called Gordian III. He was the sixth emperor to be proclaimed in that chaotic year. The populace of Rome and the Senate held the Gordians in high regard. Gordian III would rule until 244 AD.
But all this was just a rough start of a downhill descent into which the Roman Empire was entering. Numerous crisis were coming and the chaos would last for 50 years.
After the child emperor Gordian III came to rule, he was immediately faced with increased incursions from hostile tribes. The barbarian Carpi tribe began invading into Roman territories of Moesia Inferior across the Danube in 238, the first year of his rule. They weren’t driven out until 239.
Bust of Gordian III, emperor of the Roman Empire. (Jastrow / Public Domain)
In 240, Gordian III’s rule faced the first revolt. A proconsul from the African province, Marcus Asinius Sabinianus revolted and proclaimed himself emperor. His revolt failed to gain support and he was quickly defeated.
Gordian focused on the East and the growing threat from the Sassanids. The young emperor personally led the campaign and gained a victory in 243, at the Battle of Reasena. In the next year though, the Romans were decisively defeated at the Battle of Misiche and the young emperor Gordian III was dead.
Phillip the Arab Gives It His Best Shot
He was succeeded by the new emperor, Phillip the Arab, who rose to power from the position of a Praetorian prefect. He managed to achieve a quick peace with the Sassanids, and promptly returned to Rome where he was officially proclaimed emperor. His short rule was marred by the renewed invasion of the Carpi, who became a major nuisance for the empire.
They laid waste to the provinces of Moesia and Pannonia. At the same time, with growing dissatisfaction in these provinces, a commander of one of the legions stationed there, Tiberius Pacatianus, usurped the throne and proclaimed himself the emperor, only adding to the growing instability. The chaos was used to the advantage of Goths, who invaded Moesia, alongside the Carpi.
Phillip the Arab was overwhelmed by the entire chaos, and offered to resign as emperor, but the senate stood behind him and backed him. He dispatched the senator Quintus Decius to deal with the revolt in these provinces. He managed to quell it after a short military campaign, but he didn’t manage to solve the growing unrest among the legions. The troops proclaimed Decius the new emperor, and he proceeded to betray Phillip the Arab, defeat him near Verona, and kill him.
Trajan Decius only ruled from 249 to 251. His reign was marked by persecutions of Christians and a campaign against the Goths, in which he died in battle. In the following years a host of emperors - most of them usurpers and rebellious commanders – took their places at the head of the turbulent Roman Empire. To put things in comparison, in those 50 years of what was termed the Crisis of the Third Century, over 20 emperors came to the throne, compared to 26 emperors that ruled during the preceding 250 years.
Marble sarcophagus from 250 AD. This unusually large Roman sarcophagus is decorated with a battle scene between Romans and the Goths. (Egisto Sani / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
But it wasn’t just restless legions and usurping commanders that brought on the instability of the empire. There were natural disasters and outside influences as well.
A plague spread throughout the empire from 249 to 262 AD, known as the Plague of Cyprian. This caused wide spread death and economic instability in the empire. On the other hand, gradual climate changes caused the sea levels to rise and flood the low countries, disrupting agriculture and forcing the tribes of the regions to migrate into Roman territory.
All of these circumstances were used by the barbarian tribes to cross the boundaries of the Roman Empire and pillage and lay waste to an already weakened state. Carpi, Goths, Vandals, and Alamanni crossed the Rhine and Danube rivers and migrated en-masse into the empire’s territories.
All of this combined caused great instability and nearly brought the empire to its breaking point. Internal trade network of the empire was greatly disrupted and a financial crisis crept in. This collapse had long lasting effects and would herald the decentralized economy of the coming Middle Ages.
The Crisis Deepens – The Roman Empire is on the Brink of Collapse
During the crisis, the empire, now lacking any centralized authority whatsoever, and with countless usurpers appearing and proclaiming themselves emperors, the empire broke into three separate and competing states. In the year 260 AD, the provinces of Hispania, Gallia, and Britannia broke off and became the so-called Gallic Empire. They were followed by the provinces of the east – Aegyptus, Syria, and Palestine – which broke off in 267, becoming the Palmyrene Empire. The remainder, centered in Italy, was the third faction.
The Roman Empire broke into three factions. (Ras67 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
In 268, the crisis heightened, when the Goths invaded deep into the Roman territory of Greece and Macedonia. They were successfully defeated at Naissus in 269 AD, by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, who ruled for only two years before dying of the plague.
His cavalry commander succeeded him, reigning for five years and fighting to restore stability to the empire. He managed to reunite the empire into a single unit. Alas, after his assassination, further emperors came to the throne, and the crisis was prolonged for 10 years, until the coming of Diocletian.
Diocletian was also one of the barracks emperors, being a cavalry commander before his reign. It was with his rule that the crisis was finally over and the empire once again stabilized. He proclaimed a co-emperor, Maximian, and two junior co-emperors, forming the so-called tetrarchy, or the rule of four.
Under his leadership the Roman Empire defeated the troublesome Carpi and the Sarmatians to the north, then the Alamanni tribes, and they success in campaigns against the Sassanids. His rule was also marked by bloody and fierce persecutions of Christians, known as the Diocletianic Persecution.
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The Diocletianic Persecution was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. (Soerfm / Public Domain)
During the roughly 58 years from the death of Severus Alexander, the Crisis of the Third Century brought many different emperors to the throne, almost all of them coming from the military ranks and without any political experience. These were: Maximinus Thrax, Gordian I & Gordian II, Pupienus and Balbinus, Gordian III, Phillip the Arab with Phillip II, Trajan Decius with Etruscus, Hostilian, Gallus with Volsianus, Aemilian, Valerian, Gallienus & Saloninus, Claudius II Gothicus, Quintillus, Aurelian, Ulpia Severina, Tacitus, Florianus, Probus, Carus, Carinus, and Numerian. Most of them ruled merely months or even days, with just a few having reigns of more than three or four years. Moreover, a vast majority of these emperors were assassinated.
Diocletian’s Iron Fist Removes the Greed
The Crisis of the Third Century left deep and defining marks on the Roman Empire, even after it was finished. Most historians today agree that the crisis was so profound that it is the defining factor that marks the transition between Classical Antiquity and Late Antiquity. It was only with the coming of a competent ruler such as was Diocletian, that the Roman Empire got another chance, and lived on in the West for another century and in the East for an entire millennium.
But even so, these five decades of internal instability give us perfect insight into the mechanisms of a vast and aged empire, displaying with perfect examples the chaos that results when greed and ambition overtake lesser men.
Top image: The Roman Empire’s Crisis of the Third Century. Source: Luis Louro / Adobe Stock.
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