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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-Republican Republican can refer to: Political ideology * An advocate of a republic, a type of governme ...

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 from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in , Diocletian rose through the ranks of the military to become a commander of ...
and his implementation of reforms in 284, including the
Tetrarchy The Tetrarchy was the system instituted by 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 throughout history. Often when ...
. The crisis began in 235 with the
assassination Assassination is the act of murder, deliberately killing a prominent or important person, such as heads of state, head of government, heads of government, politicians, Monarchy, royalty, celebrity, celebrities, journalists, or CEOs. An assassin ...

assassination
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 abundant and widespread species In biology Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their anatomy, physical structure, Bioc ...

barbarian
invasion An invasion is a military offensive An offensive is a military operation A military operation is the coordinated military action War is an intense armed conflict between State (polity), states, governments, Society, societies, or par ...
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 Sovereign state, state (or country). The aim of one side may be to take control of the country or a region, to achieve independen ...
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 A treaty is a formal, legally binding written agreement between actors in international law International law, also known as public international law ...
. 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 The Roman Empire ( la, Imperium Rōmānum ; grc-gre, Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων, Basileía tôn Rh ...
(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 western region of Europe Europe is a continent A continent is any of several large landmasses. Generally identified by convention (norm), convention rat ...

Gaul
,
Britannia Britannia () is the national personification upright=0.9, An early example of National personification in a gospel book dated 990: Germania.html"_;"title="Sclavinia,_Germania">Sclavinia,_Germania,_Sclavinia,_Germania,_Gallia">Germania.ht ...

Britannia
and, briefly,
Hispania Hispania ( ; ) was the Roman Roman or Romans most often refers to: *, the capital city of Italy *, Roman civilization from 8th century BC to 5th century AD *, the people of ancient Rome *', shortened to ''Romans'', a letter in the New Testame ...

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 s originally told by the , and a of . These stories concern the and , the lives and activities of , , and , and the origins and significance of the ancient Greeks' own and practices. Mode ...
); 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 A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to be in ...

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
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 from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in , Diocletian rose through the ranks of the military to become a commander of ...
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 History (from Greek#REDIRECT Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( el, ...
and
late antiquity Late antiquity is a periodization Periodization is the process or study of categorizing the past into discrete, quantified named blocks of time.Adam Rabinowitz. It’s about time: historical periodization and Linked Ancient World Data'. Inst ...
.


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 imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a variety of different ...

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 thro ...
, the later
Severan dynasty The Severan dynasty was a Roman Roman or Romans usually refers to: *Rome, the capital city of Italy *Ancient Rome, Roman civilization from 8th century BC to 5th century AD *Roman people, the people of ancient Rome *''Epistle to the Romans'', s ...
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 so ...
His son
Caracalla Caracalla ( ; 4 April 188 – 8 April 217), formally known as Antoninus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), was Roman emperor from 198 to 217. He was a member of the Severan dynasty, the elder son of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. Co-ruler ...

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. She was born in Emesa (present-day Homs) in Roman Syria to an Arab family of priests of the deity Elagabalus (deity), Elagabalus. In 187, s ...

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 The Roman army (: ) was the armed forces deployed by the Romans throughout the duration of , from the (to c. 500 BC) to the (500–31 BC) and the (31 BC– ...

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 Central Europe is an area of Europe Europe is a which is also recognised as part of , located entirely in the and mostly in the . It comprises the wester ...

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 Herodian or Herodianus ( el, Ἡρωδιανός) of Syria Syria ( ar, سُورِيَا or ar, سُورِيَة, ''Sūriyā''), officially the Syrian Arab Republic ( ar, ٱلْجُمْهُورِيَّةُ ٱلْعَرَبِيَّةُ ...

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 The Thracians (; grc, Θρᾷκες ''Thrāikes''; la, Thraci) were an Indo-European speaking people who inhabited large parts of Eastern and Southeastern Europe in ancient history.. " ...

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 hi ...
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 made claims to be emperors of Rome. This was an early symptom of what historians now call the Crisis of the Third Century#REDIRECT Crisis of the Third Century {{Redirect c ...
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
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 The Germanic peoples were a historical group of people living in Central Europe Central Europe is an area of Europe between West ...
,
Vandals The Vandals were a Germanic peoples, Germanic people who first inhabited what is now southern Poland. They established Vandal Kingdom, Vandal kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula, Mediterranean islands, and North Africa in the fifth century. The ...
, 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 (, '), and also called the Neo-Persian Empire by historians, was the last before the in the mid-7th century AD. Named after the , it endured for over four centuri ...
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 Mean sea level (MSL) (often shortened to sea level) is an average In colloqu ...

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 ...
, 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 ...

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 western region of Europe Europe is a continent A continent is any of several large landmasses. Generally identified by convention (norm), convention rat ...

Gaul
,
Britain Britain usually refers to: * United Kingdom The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain,Usage is mixed. The Guardian' and Telegraph' use Britain as a synonym for the United ...

Britain
, and
Hispania Hispania ( ; ) was the Roman Roman or Romans most often refers to: *, the capital city of Italy *, Roman civilization from 8th century BC to 5th century AD *, the people of ancient Rome *', shortened to ''Romans'', a letter in the New Testame ...

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 The Roman Empire ( la, Imperium Rōmānum ; grc-gre, Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων, Basileía tôn Rh ...
in 260. The eastern provinces of
Syria Syria ( ar, سُورِيَا or ar, سُورِيَة, ''Sūriyā''), officially the Syrian Arab Republic ( ar, ٱلْجُمْهُورِيَّةُ ٱلْعَرَبِيَّةُ ٱلسُّورِيَّةُ, al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʻArabīyah as-S ...
,
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 s originally told by the , and a of . These stories concern the and , the lives and activities of , , and , and the origins and significance of the ancient Greeks' own and practices. Mode ...
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 The Germanic peoples were a historical group of people living in Central Europe Central Europe is an area of Europe between West ...
, 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 The Germanic peoples were a historical group of people living in Central Europe Central Europe is an area of Europe between Western Europe a ...
, 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 from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in , Diocletian rose through the ranks of the military to become a commander of ...
, 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 may refer to: *The plural of wall A wall is a structure and a surface that defines an area; carries a load; provides security Security is freedom from, or resilience against, potential Potential generally refers to a currently unr ...

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 classical Roman civilization, run through public In public relations Public relations (PR) is the practice of managing and disseminating information from an indiv ...
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 was the system instituted by 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 throughout history. Often when ...
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 Roman emperor The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire The Roman Empire ( la, Imperium Rōmānum ...

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-Republican Republ ...
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 imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a variety of different ...

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 thro ...
. 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 Agriculture is the practice of cultivating plants and livestock. Agriculture was the key development in the rise of sedentary Image:Family watching television 1958.jpg, ...
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 whose name was first mentioned in 3rd-century Roman sources, and associated with tribes between the and the , on the edge of the . Later the term was associated with Germanic dynasties within the ...

Franks
), or were pushed out of their former territories by more dangerous peoples such as the
Sarmatians The Sarmatians (; Ancient Greek, Greek: ; la, Sarmatae , ) were a large Iranian peoples, Iranian confederation that existed in classical antiquity, flourishing from about the fifth century BC to the fourth century AD. Originating in the centr ...
(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 s is an inventory of ancient Germanic cultures, tribal groupings and other alliances of Germanic tribes and civilisations in ancient times. The information comes from various ancient historical documents, beginning in the 2nd ...
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, نُصَيْبِيْن, translit=Nuṣaybīn; syr, ܢܨܝܒܝܢ, translit=Nṣībīn), historically known as Nisibis () or Nesbin, is a city in Mardin Province Mardin Province ( tr, Mardin ili, ku, Parêzgeha Mêrdînê, ...
and Carrhae.


Economic impact

Internally, the empire faced
hyperinflation In , hyperinflation is very high and typically accelerating . It quickly erodes the of the local , as the prices of all goods increase. This causes people to minimize their holdings in that currency as they usually switch to more stable forei ...

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, in ...
or
bronze Bronze is an alloy An alloy is an admixture of metal A metal (from Ancient Greek, Greek μέταλλον ''métallon'', "mine, quarry, metal") is a material that, when freshly prepared, polished, or fractured, shows a lustrous appear ...

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 Roman or Romans most often refers to: *, the capital city of Italy *, Roman civilization from 8th century BC to 5th century AD *, the people of ancient Rome *', shortened to ''Romans'', a ...
= 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
Pax Romana The ''Pax Romana'' (Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to ...
, 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 through ...

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 history of Europe concerns itself with the discovery and collection, the study, organization and presentation and the interpretation of past events and affairs of the people of Europe since the beginning of ...
. 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 "Land tenure, tenure") in parts of Europe, notably England, during the Middle Ages. Its defining features included a large, sometimes fortif ...
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 peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism, and similar systems. It was a condition of debt bondage and indentured servitude with similarities to and differences from slavery, which developed ...
, 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, is typically regarded by historians as lasting from the late 5th or early 6th century to the 10th century. They marked the start of the Middle Ages ...
. 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 city, walled cities 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
Pax Romana The ''Pax Romana'' (Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to ...
(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 in Asia Minor, putting his second in command, Maximian, in Milan. This would have a considerable impact on the later development of the empire with a richer, more stable Eastern Roman Empire, eastern empire surviving the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, 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 from 284 to 305. Born to a family of low status in , Diocletian rose through the ranks of the military to become a commander of ...
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 (title), Caesar'', 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

* Bagaudae * Sengoku period – a similar period in Japanese history * Warring States period and Three Kingdoms period – 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). * Ferdinand Lot, 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 Crisis of the Third Century, 3rd century in the Roman Empire