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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, with the Gallic Empire including the Roman provinces of Gaul, Britannia and Hispania; and the Palmyrene Empiremarker, including the eastern provinces of Syria Palaestina and Aegyptus; becoming independent from the Italian-centered Roman Empire proper between them. The Crisis ended with the ascension of Diocletian.

The Crisis resulted in such profound changes in the institutions, society, economic life, and eventually, religion, that it is increasingly seen by historians as the transition period between the historical periods of Classical antiquity and late antiquity.


The situation of the empire became dire in 235, when the emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by his own troops. Roman legions had been defeated during a campaign against Germanic peoples raiding across the borders, while the emperor was focused primarily on the dangers, which were minor at that time, 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 that 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 river 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.

The divided Empire in 271 A.D.
By 258, the 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 Empiremarker, 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 Naissusmarker in 268. 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 Naissusmarker, succeeded him as emperor and continued the restoration of the empire.

Aurelian reigned (270–275) through the worst of the crisis, defeating the Vandals, Visigoths, Palmyrenesmarker, Persians, and then the remainder of the Gallic Empire. By late 274, the Roman Empire was reunited, 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 West, had been ruined, their populations dispersed, and with the breakdown of the economic system, could not be rebuilt. Major towns, even Rome itself, had not needed fortifications for many centuries; many now surrounded themselves with thick walls.

Finally, although Aurelian had played a significant role in restoring the Empire's borders from external threat, more fundamental problems remained. In particular the right of succession had never been clearly defined in the Roman Empire, leading to continuous civil wars as competing factions in the military, senate and other parties put forward their favoured candidate for Emperor. Another issue was the sheer size of the Empire, which made it difficult for a single autocratic ruler to effectively manage multiple threats at the same time. These continuing problems would be radically addressed by Diocletian allowing the Empire to survive in the West for over a century, and in the East, for over a millennium.

Economic impact

Internally the empire faced hyperinflation caused by years of coinage devaluation. This had started earlier under the Severan emperors who enlarged the army by one quarter and doubled the 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. 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 almost solid silver coin, the denarius, used for 300 years, was gone (1 pound of gold = 40 gold aurei = 1000 denarii = 4000 sestertii). The currency had almost no value and trade was 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, Imperial Rome's economy depended in large part on trade between the Mediterranean ports and over Rome’s extensive road system. Merchants could travel from one end of the Empire to the other in relative safety in a few weeks, moving agricultural goods produced in the provinces, and manufactured goods produced by the great cities of the East. Large estates produced cash crops for export, and used the resulting revenues to import food and manufactured goods. This resulted in a great deal of interdependence between the Empire’s inhabitants. The historian Henry Moss describes the situation as it stood before the Crisis:

With the Crisis of the Third Century, however, this vast trade network broke down. The widespread civil unrest made it no longer safe for merchants to travel as they once had, and the financial crisis that struck made exchange very difficult. This produced profound changes that, in many ways, would foreshadow the character of the coming Middle Ages. Large landowners, no longer able to successfully export their crops over long distances, began producing food for subsistence and local barter. Rather than import manufactured goods, they began to manufacture many goods locally, often on their own estates, thus beginning the self-sufficient "house economy" that would become commonplace in later centuries, reaching its final form in Manorialism. The common free people of the cities, meanwhile, began to move out to the countryside in search of food and protection. Made desperate by economic necessity, many of these former city dwellers, as well as many small farmers, were forced to give up basic rights in order to receive protection from large land holders. In doing so, they became a half-free class of 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.

Even the cities themselves began to change in character. The large, open cities of 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 long periods of time, 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. The decrease in commerce between the 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 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. The common people lost economic and political power to the nobility, and the middle classes waned. The Crisis of the Third Century thus marked the beginning of a long evolutionary process that would transform the ancient world into the medieval one.

See also

Sources and notes

  • 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).

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