Brief History of the World Wiki
Crisis of the Roman Empire
Period Classical Antiquity
Dates 180-305 AD
Preceded by
Early Roman Empire
Followed by
Christian Roman Empire
One person's "barbarian", is another person's "just doing what everybody else is doing.”

–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

The Crisis of the Roman Empire lasted from about 180 AD until 305 AD. It began with the accession of Emperor Commodus, that ushered in a period of crisis during which the Empire almost collapsed completely. It then ended with the reign of Emperor Diocletian, whose passion for stability and order would lead him to overhaul the entire imperial regime.

In the view of the ancient historian Cassius Dio, the reign of Commodus marked the transition of the Roman Empire from, "a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust". In the view of some modern historians, the years after 180 AD were one three-century-long period of decline, briefly halted by Diocletian and Constantine, that ended with the fall of the Western Empire. Commodus did not cause the so-called Crisis of the 3rd-Century, and most of the seeds of Rome's troubles had already taken root even before his reign. The migration and consolidation of the Germanic tribes beyond the northern frontier were now putting pressure on the legions as never before, while at the same time the Antonine Plague was sapping the strength of both the army and civilian population. Perhaps these threat could have been surmounted by effective leadership, but Commodus was just the first of a series of wretched Emperors, whose reigns routinely ended in their murder. Thus Rome's problems were allowed to multiply; in the east Persia was revitalised under the Sassanid dynasty, while in the north the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine and Danube began to coalesce into a larger super-tribe such as the Goths, Franks, Vandals, and Alemanni. Because of the foreign threats now present on several frontiers at once, the army had to be enlarged and pampered. From 193 AD, the Severan Dynasty established the more fully developed military dictatorship that would characterise the late Roman Empire; the legions no longer existed to meet the needs of the state, the state existed to meet the needs of the legions. And their loyalty could turn on a dime, with imperial usurpers popping-up with alarming frequency. This aggravated another problem, the economic crisis that the Empire was showing, and particularly the major ill of the 3rd-century AD, inflation. Its sources are complex, but in part derived from an official debasement of the coinage in order to keep paying the army.

By the time Alexander Severus was assassination by his own troops in 235 AD, the political and social bonds of the Empire were clearly degrading. Then in 260 AD, the bonds seemed to snap completely, with the Roman Empire fracturing into three independent and competing states: the Western Empire of Gaul, Britain, and briefly Spain; the Eastern Empire of Syria, Palestine and later Egypt; and the Italian-centered Roman Empire proper. This was rock-bottom for the crisis years, because the Empire would be pulled back from the brink by a series of Emperors notable for all coming from the same part of the Empire, Illyria. The golden age of Rome was long dead, this was an age of iron, and these were soldier Emperors of iron. The crisis began to recede during the reigns of Claudius Gothicus whose victories over the Goths allowed his successor Aurelian to finally reunite the Empire. The crisis was finally overcome during the reign of the forth of these Illyrians, Diocletian. His passion for stability and order would lead him to overhaul the entire administrative structure of the Empire – political, military, economic, and social – transforming it in ways that no man since Augustus had even dreamed of attempting. The heart of the reforms was a new form of government known as the Tetrarchy, in which the Empire was ruled by not one Emperors but four. There also explicitly emerged a new conception of the imperial office, with the legitimacy of his new regime couched in religious terms. Gone was the quasi-republican dictatorship of Augustus; in its place was a semi-divine monarchy. Diocletian's reign also saw the Empire's most concerted effort against the perceived threat of Christianity; the Great Persecution of 303 AD. In the end, it failed to check the rise of the Church; indeed under Constantine the Great, Christianity became the Empire's preferred religion after 324 AD.


Commodus (180-192 AD)[]

Bust of Commodus from the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Historians conveniently point to Commodus as marking the transition from the golden age of Rome in the 2nd-century AD, to the so called Crisis of the Third Century. But the fact is that most of the seeds of the crisis had already taken root even before his reign. The migration and consolidation of the Germanic tribes beyond the northern frontier was putting pressure on the legions as never before felt. At the same time, the Antonine Plague had sapped the strength of the army and civilian population resulting in everything from manpower and food shortages to reduced tax revenue and increased tax burden. Commodus did not cause any of this, but his disastrous reign certainly exacerbated the situation. He was the first Roman Emperor who had been “born to the purple”; the natural son of Marcus Aurelius, raised from childhood in the palace, surrounded by all the pleasures that indulgent sycophants could dream up. Of course, the Emperors Titus and Domitian had also the sons of an Emperor, but they had both been adults by the time Vespasian ascended to the throne. Historians have long criticised Marcus Aurelius for his decision to break with recent tradition of adopting a worthy heir, and instead handed the Empire over to a son, who even he himself worried could become another Nero. In fairness, Marcus probably had little choice; the risk of civil war was ever present in the Roman Empire, and a bypassed prince would be a potent rallying point for any ambitious usurpers.

Commodus devalued the Roman coinage more than any other emperor since Nero; minting coins with less precious metals, by mixing them with cheaper metals such as lead. Even in his lifetime, inflation began to harm the economy. The problems created by Nero had been quickly reverse by Domitian, but this time they were allowed to run uncheck, eventually leading to hyper-inflation and the virtual breakdown of the economy. Although partially address by Diocletian and others, only in the early Byzantine era was a stable currency fully reestablished.

Commodus became Emperor at the age of just eighteen, and inherited none of his father’s extraordinary work ethic. Indeed he seemed to find the affairs of state tedious, and happily left the practical running of the Empire to a series of imperial advisors, while he devote himself to more worldly pleasures. Commodus embraced the excitement of the gladiator games like no other emperor before, something that actually made him quite popular with the masses throughout most of his reign. It soon became clear that the Roman treasury could not support the Emperor's indulgent lifestyle and lavish games. So Commodus and his advisors turned to the old idea of property confiscate. Beginning in fits-and-starts but then more routinely, wealthy aristocrats were accused of treason and had their estates seized. His other revenue generating scheme was the regular sale of lucrative offices. Everything from membership of the Senate, to provincial governorships, to plum positions in the imperial bureaucracy had their price; creating political and bureaucratic chaos for fun and profit. It was during Commodus' reign that the Senate truly fell into irrelevance; it was no longer an assembly that could be ignore, but so full of reprobates that it should justifiably be ignored. The Empire was nevertheless lucky during these years, because the Germanic tribes and Parthians had been recently humbled, and the borders were relatively peaceful. The turning point in the reign of Commodus was an attempted assassination by his sister Lucilla in 182 AD. The reason behind the plot seems to have been petty; Lucilla as the daughter of Marcus and widow of Lucius Verus had enjoyed a very privileged position, that was increasingly now taken by the Emperor’s wife. After the attempt on his life, Commodus’ initiated the bloodiest round of executions for over a century. With his paranoia now raging unchecked, these purges would recur periodically every 3 years or so for the rest of his reign. Eventually all the more capable imperial advisors had been caught up in the purges, and the Empire began to fall into chaos with food shortages, financial meltdown, and internal unrest. Commodus himself meanwhile descended fully into a megalomaniacal fantasy-land: he fought as a gladiator in the arena himself against wounded opponents or amputees; claimed to be the reincarnation of the god Hercules; and even tried to rename the city of Rome, Commodiana. Towards the end of his reign, everybody recognised that the man was unhinged. After numerous failed attempts, in 192 AD members of Commodus' inner-circle finally managed to kill him, when his wrestling partner strangled him to death.

Year of the Five Emperors (193 AD)[]

As a nod to inflation since the Year of the Four Emperors of 69 AD, the years after 193 AD would see no less than five different men acclaimed Emperor. After the assassination of Commodus, the conspirators hurriedly proclaimed as Emperor an elderly Senator called Pertinax, a former general and governor with a long and distinguished career. Unfortunately, in months that followed the crass underpinnings of the Praetorian Guard's morality would be on full display. To secure their support, Pertinax promised the Praetorians a huge bonus but soon found that the imperial treasury was empty. 86 days into his reign, the tension finally boiled over when some 300 soldiers of the Guard stormed the imperial palace and stabbed Pertinax to death. This seems to have been the act of one overzealous soldier, but it left the Praetorian Guard in a difficult situation. The solution they came up with was one of the most notorious incidents in the history of imperial Rome; they auctioned the throne to the highest bidder. The winner was a general called Didius Julianus, who does not seem to have been entirely morally bankrupt; he was at least partly motivated by a desire to prevent civil war. But the population of Rome was scandalised by the dishonour brought upon Rome, and the public outrage quickly spread across the Empire. The three most powerful generals in the provinces all refused to recognise this counterfeit emperor: Pescennius Niger of Syria; Clodius Albinus of Britain; and Septimius Severus on the Danube. Septimius Severus was the closest to Rome, and as it turned out by far the most decisive. He immediately marched on Rome with three legions. By the time he reached the capital, the Praetorian Guard had murdered Julianus and proclaimed him Emperor. At the same time, Severus shrewdly took Albinus out of the civil war by promising to adopt the younger man as his heir, thus leaving him free to deal with his more formidable rival, Niger. In a campaign in the east, Severus won a series of battles across Thrace and Anatolia, and ultimately defeated Niger at the Battle of Issus (194 AD). Following the fall of Niger, Severus was finally confident enough of his hold on power to drop the pretence that Albinus would succeed him, instead announcing that his own son Caracalla as heir. This prompted the last phase of the civil war, with Albinus crossing over the English Channel into Gaul with his legions. The war culminated in the Battle of Lugdunum (197 AD), the largest legion-on-legion battle in the whole long history of Rome; over 75,000 men fought on eash side of the battle. After a bloody and drawn-out slug-feast, Albinus was defeated and killed, and Severus’ stood atop the Roman Empire, alone and unchallenged.

Septimius Severus (193-211 AD)[]

Septimius Severus at Glyptothek, Munich.

As Emperor, Septimius Severus had no illusions about where his power derived, and began his reign as he meant to go on; by almost doubling the pay of the legions. All previous Emperors had ruled as autocrats with the support of the Senate, the Praetorian Guard, and the legions, but Severus completely ignored the Senate, and disbanded the Praetorian Guard, who had murdered Pertinax and sold the throne to the highest bidder. In its place, he established a new Guard made up of veterans from the provincial legions; henceforth, the formerly pampered Praetorians became an elite force, membership of which was the ultimate reward for excellent service in the provinces. Severus thus established the more fully developed military dictatorship that would characterise the late Roman Empire; the legions no longer existed to meet the needs of the state, the state existed to meet the needs of the legions. He famously advised his sons, “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.” Severus seems to have found the minutia of civilian administration tedious, and handed over the practical running of the state to a series of imperial advisors. The Emperor himself meanwhile sought out any excuse to leave Rome on military campaign. He campaigned for two years against Parthian Persia from 198 AD, but achieved nothing lasting. He died campaigning in Britain in 211 AD, during a futile attempt to conquer the Picts of Scotland. After disastrous reign of Commodus, Severus' 18 years ruling Rome has generally been viewed favourably by historians, simply for running a relatively sane and honest administration, even if his large increase in military expenditure would come back to haunt the Empire.

Caracalla (211–217 AD)[]

Bust of Caracalla, marble, Staatliche Museen, Antikesammlung, Berlin. Historian Edward Gibbon described the debauched Emperor as the "common enemy of mankind".

Septimius Severus was once quoted as condemning Marcus Aurelius for not smothering Commodus with a pillow, so it’s not without irony that his own son was Caracalla. Caracalla and his brother, Geta, jointly inherited the throne upon their father's death. But fear of their formidable father had been the only thing holding in check the feuding between the brothers. It was only a matter of time before one of them would wind up dead. When their mother tried to broker peace between the siblings, Caracalla had his brother assassinated in front of their distraught mother. But murdering his hated brother was not enough for Caracalla, and he then unleashed a bloody purge of Geta's friends and supporters that eventually consumed about 20,000 people; his purge in both breadth and depth far exceeded anything anyone had even contemplated. Having earned himself the fear and loathing of just about everyone in Rome, Caracalla decided to take his show on the road, in a debauched tour of the provinces. Stories of his cruelty and extravagance abound. It culminated in Alexandria, where a satirical play had been performed mocking the Emperor’s denial that he murdered his brother. When Caracalla arrived in 215 AD, he order a general slaughter of the citizens; it is reported that when it was over something like 20,000 civilians lay dead in the streets. Having tortured his own people enough for the time-being, he decided to look beyond the borders of the Empire for fresh victims, by starting a pointless war with Parthian Persia. In 216 AD, Caracalla offered to marry the daughter of the Parthian king to secure a lasting friendship between the two great empires. When the Persians refused this transparent attempt to bring Persia under Roman control, Caracalla launched a brief military campaign in the east that achieved almost nothing. A life of chilling sadism finally caught up with Caracalla in 217 AD, when the head of the Praetorian Guard arranged for him to be stabbed to death. Another notable event of Caracalla's reign was the granting of Roman citizenship to every freemen in the Empire. There was no noble reason behind this, it was simply a money grab; tax revenue on non-citizens stayed in the provinces, while taxes on citizens went straight to the imperial treasury.

Elagabalus (218-222 AD)[]

Bust of Elagabalus, from the Capitoline Museums

Macrinus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard who had arranged for Caracalla's murder, briefly ruled as Emperor himself. He was an able administrator, but in his efforts to cleanup the mess left behind by Caracalla made him many enemies; paying the Parthians for peace was particularly galling to the honour crazed Romans. The Severan family were far from ready to give up their privileged position, and managed to instigated a revolt to have Caracalla's fourteen years old cousin, Elagabalus, declared Emperor in his place. Elagabalus is usually considered Rome's first eastern Emperor, though obviously his ancestry was similar to Severus and Caracalla. The reason is that unlike any of his predecessors, this new Emperor was culturally eastern, steeped in the eastern idea of divine monarchy. He scandalised Rome with his disregard for Roman traditions: he dressed in eastern style, adorned with jewellery, perfume, and even eyeliner; lavished favours on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers; married at least five time with one of his wives being a former vestal virgin, claiming the union would produce "divine children"; and replaced Jupiter as the head of the Roman pantheon with his own eastern sun-god Sol Invictus. His eccentricities and sacrileges estranged the Praetorian Guard, the Senate, and the common people alike. Amidst growing opposition, Elagabalus, just 18 years old, was assassinated.

Alexander Severus (222–235 AD)[]

Bust of Severus Alexander from the Capitoline Museums in Rome

Even before Elagabalus' death, the Severan family had already lined up another young cousin to replace him. Alexander Severus was just thirteen, but unexpectedly ruled for over a decade with something approaching competence. He was a mild-tempered and serious young man. Thanks largely to his influential mother, a governing council was established of sixteen well-respected Senators, and thanks to their wise council the Empire prospered in many ways. Among these were two men of note: the great legal authority Domitius Ulpianus (d. 228 AD) whose work would influence Justinian's Law Code; and the renowned historian Cassius Dio (d. 235 AD). Unfortunately for young Alexander, his reign marked the point where Rome's luck finally ran out, when the problems of forty years of internal mismanagement were to be compounded by new foreign enemies. Even during the peaceful part of his reign prior to 231 AD, there were signs that the Empire was lapsing into dysfunction. The biggest problem was that the return of competent governance was a rude awakening the legions. Under the excesses of Caracalla and Elagabalus, the soldiers had been taught to expect salaries and bonuses far in excess of anything the imperial treasury could afford. Alexander's reign was characterised by a significant breakdown of military discipline, with the Praetorian Guard blaming his advisors: Ulpianus right in front of Alexander despite the Emperors impotent pleas in 223 AD; and Cassius Dio was forced into exile in 229 AD.

Ardashir receives the kingship's ring of Persia, after overthrewing the Parthian royal dynasty and founding Sassanid Persia (224-651). The conscious dynamism that the Sassanid monarchy brought to Persia, meant there was not a decade without war for the rest of the century.

Then from 231 AD, the Roman Empire was rocked by a series of foreign threats that almost led to its collapse. For 400 years, the Parthian Empire had ruled in Persia, which when united was more than a match for Rome. But the problems of governing this huge sprawl of territory and highly contested dynastic struggles, meant that more often than not, the Parthians were not united, especially after Trajan's Parthian War (115-117 AD). With the Parthian royal family embroiled in yet another dynastic struggle, Ardashir (d. 242 AD), a Persian noble from the southern province of Fars, the original homeland of the ancient Achaemenids, carved out an autonomous kingdom for himself, well-protected by high mountains. After establishing his rule over Pars, Ardashir rapidly extended his territory, demanding fealty from the neighbouring provinces of Kerman, Isfahan, Susiana and Mesene. This expansion eventually demanded a response from the Parthian shah. but Ardashir was not only victorious at the ensuing Battle of Hormozdgan (April 224), but the shah himself was slain. Ardashir went on to invade the western provinces of the now defunct Parthian Empire, and had himself crowned at Ctesiphon as the sole ruler of Persia, and beginning four-centuries of Sassanid Persia (224-651). This was the last reconstitution of this ancient Persian empire before the coming of Islam. The first Sassanid had a strong sense of continuing Persian tradition; he claimed all the lands once ruled by Darius, and took the ancient Achaemenid title "King of Kings". Geographical and ethnic variety always threatened this huge sprawl of territory with disintegration, with perpetual tension between centralised rule and the interests of a small number of great families who usually ruled in the satrapies (provinces). But for a long time the Sassanids solved the problems of governing it. There were three balancing forces against the dangerous weight of the great families. A bureaucratic tradition running all the way back to ancient Assyria to build upon. An imperial army, largely officered by members of the lesser nobility and directly dependent on the throne. And the other force was the priesthood, and royal claims to divine authority. Sassanid Persia was a religious as well as a political entity, with Zoroastrianism formally restored as the official state religion. Priests confirmed the legitimacy of the kingship based on their divine lineage, had important judicial duties, and were granted important privileges such as supervising the collection of the land-tax, which was the basis of Persian finance. There were two good signs of early Sassanid success: one was their ability to appoint their own men to the major offices of state and resist the claims on them of the great provincial families; and the other was their retention of control over the succession. For more than four hundred years, the Sassanid Empire would be Rome’s greatest antagonist, beginning under Ardashir, who by 231 AD felt secure enough at home to invade Syria. This forced a vigorous response from Alexander Severus. The young Emperor had no military experience, and his dithering leadership meant the eastern campaign was shambolic, though it did check the Sassanids for a time. The legions laid the blame firmly on Alexander. Compounding their fury was news from the Danube, that in their absence Germanic tribes had taken the opportunity to cross the frontier and raid Roman settlements. Over the next few years, the possibility of a revolt in the legions went from a secret desire to an open conspiracy. Finally in 235, Alexander Severus was personally leading his army on the Danube, when the legions under general Maximinus Thrax mutinied and assassinated him.

Maximinus Thrax to Decius (235-251 AD)[]

Even since the reign of Commodus, the political, economic and social bonds of the Roman Empire had been steadily degrading. With the assassination of Alexander Severus, they seemed to snap completely. For the next thirty years, the average reign of an Emperor punged from roughly 12 years to just 2, as usurpers popped-up with alarming frequency, and the loyalty of the legions turned on a dime. Even those provinces not directly ravaged by foreign invasion, would endure social strife, disease, plague, famine, economic depression, and hyper-inflation. People often ask why the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, but a more remarkable story is, how on earth it managed to survive these crisis years.

Gordian III emerged from the chaotic Year of the Six Emperors as the youngest ever Roman Emperor at just 13.

Setting the precedence for the next thirty years of military turmoil, the first thing Maximinus Thrax (235-238) did on becoming Emperor was to double of the pay for the legions yet again, paid for by an extreme hikes in provincial taxation. Operating essentially as a warlord reliant entirely on the army to maintain power, Maximinus struggled to exert his authority over the whole empire. In 238 AD, an revolt broke-out in North Africa under the governor Gordian I; this began the chaotic Year of the Six Emperors. The Roman Senate soon soon threw its weight behind the revolt, but it was quickly crushed. Now fearing imperial wrath, the Senate raised a three-man alliance in continued revolt: Pupienus a renowned general, Balbinus a well-respected senator, and young Gordian III the grandson of Gordian I. Maximinus attempted to march on Rome, but found himself thwarted when the city of Aquileia in the Po valley closed its gates against him. Unable to break the ensuing siege, Thrax began to take-out his frustration on his own army, who promptly assassinated him. But the glow of victory was short lived. Pupienus and Balbinus had been brought together in a crisis, and soon turned-on one another. With the risk of another civil war, the Praetorian Guard decided to intervene. They assassinated both men, and elevated the supposedly silent partner Gordian III (238-244 AD) as the sole-Emperor. The reign of young Gordian brought a brief period of uneasy peace, predominantly due to his well-respected step-father Timesitheus who was the power-behind-the-throne. But just as the Empire was uniting internally, it was suddenly presented with a renewed external threat. The Sassanids were now ruled by Ardashir's son Shapur I (d. 270), who would lead Persia with a martial vigour that would turn the eastern Roman Empire into a perpetual war-zone. In 243 AD, Timesitheus died campaigning in the east against Shapur, and the stability of Gordian's reign died with him; less than a year later he was dead. To illustrate how chaotic these crisis years were, none of the ancient source explain how and why he died.

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus (c. 260 AD), an example of Roman art during the Crisis of the Third Century, with its densely populated battle scene of writhing Romans and Goths.

In the aftermath, the head of the Praetorian Guard ascended to the throne as Emperor; Marcus Julius Philippus or Philip the Arab (244–249); he was actually born in modern southern Syria, in a province the Romans called Arabia Petraea. His short reign would prove to be a microcosm of the wider crisis years, defined by internal revolts and foreign invasions. The one high point for Philip was presiding over the magnificent Ludi Saeculare celebrations of 248 AD, commemorating one-thousand years since the founding of the city of Rome. It was during Philip's reign that there first emerged the great northern menace that would help make the Crisis of the 3rd Century the truly existential emergency that it was. The Goths were the first of the super-confederacies of Germanic tribes, no longer content with hit-and-run raiding. The exact origins of the Goths is disputed by historians, with competing theories that their original homeland was modern Sweden or Poland or the Ukraine. Wherever they actually came from, by the 240s they were poised on Rome's doorstep on the north banks of the Danube. In time the Goths would split into two main branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, the former would sack Rome in 410 AD and the latter would setup a kingdom in Italy following the fall of the Western Empire. For Philip, everything finally came to a head in late 248 AD, which simultaneously saw Gothic incursions into Dacia and Thrace on the lower Danube, and the beginning of a revolt in the legions on the upper Danube. Philip dispatched a trusted senator called Gaius Decius to the Upper Danube to quell the revolt. The legions gave Decius a choice; to join them or die. He promptly joined the revolt as their new leader, marched on Rome, and defeated and killed Philip near the city of Verona.

Battle of Abritus.jpg

As the new emperor, Decius (249-251 AD) had a new solution for all of Rome’s problems. He concluded that what was needed was the restoration of traditional Roman virtue and values. All the inhabitants of the Empire were required to sacrifice to the Roman gods, including the growing number of Christians; only the Jews had a legal right to refuse because the Romans respected the sheer ancientness of their religion. This became known as the Decian Persecution where thousands of Christians were put to death for refusing to sacrifice. On this occasion the gods were certainly not listening, because a second outbreak of the Antonine Plague swept across the Roman Empire from about 250 AD; it is usually referred to as the Cyprian Plague because its effect were described in detail by St. Cyprian of Cathage. It would continue to severely weakening the Empire for the next twenty years, causing widespread manpower shortages, not just for the legions but in the civilian population too; thus plague was followed by famine. That same year, the Goths became more daring, launching a series of massive incursions across the Danube deep into the Balkans to raid and plunder. Decius earned himself the dubious honour of becoming the first Roman Emperor to die on the battlefield at the Battle of Abritus (August, 251 AD), where three full legions were heavily defeated by the Goths; his body was never recovered.

Valerian and Gallienus (253–268)[]

Valerian became the first Emperor to be captured alive while campaigning against Sassanids. According to some accounts he was held captive for four years and used as a footstood by the Sassanid king.

After a series of short-lived barrack emperors, the general Valerian (253-260 AD) and his son eventually established a firmer grip on the throne. Despite more stable leadership at the top, the years between 253 and 268 AD were rock-bottom for the Crisis of the Third Century. The Cyprian Plague was sucking the life out of the Romean army and economy, while at the same time the Empire's frontiers were a sieve; wherever the Emperor or his son Gallienus wasn’t, foreign enemies would flood in. Despite efforts to bribe the Goths to end their raiding, they were a constant menace on the Danube, and were gradually becoming a power at sea having built a fleet to raid the coastal cities. In the east, Shapur of Sassanid Persia again began raiding Roman territory from 253 AD, sacking numerous important cities including the Syrian capital of Antioch, as well as threatening Egypt with its all important grain-supply. Meanwhile in the west, another confederacy of western Germanic tribes, the Franks, took the opportunity to pour across the River Rhine from 257 AD, raiding the wealth of Gaul, and on one occasion reaching as far as northern Spain. At this point in history, the Franks were just another collection of Germanic peoples, but in the 5th-century they would be the principle inheritors of the Western Empire: the name France comes from the Latin version of their name; the great Charlemagne (d. 814 AD) was a Frank; and the term "Franks" was used as a synonym for Western European as far away as China as late as the 16th century. In another dubious first, Valerian became the first Emperor to be captured alive on the battlefield, while campaigning against the Sassanids sometime between 258 and 260; this period of Roman history was so chaotic that we can be no more precise than that. Valerian's son Gallienus (260-268) was given no time to consider the sad fate of his father, for he immediately faces a revolt by the legions on the Danube. While he was crushed that, the Franks marauded across the lower Rhine, and worse still, another group the Alemanni crossed the upper Rhine and made straight for Italy itself. Gallienus' decision to focus on defending the home peninsula was entirely understandable, but it left all the other embattled frontiers of the Empire feeling abandoned by the Emperor.


The result was the fracturing of the Roman Empire. In 260 AD, an eminently capable general called Latinius Postumus (d. 269 AD) was proclaimed Emperor in Gaul; he was soon recognised by Britannia and Hispania too. However rather than marching on Rome as every other usurper had done, Postumus pledged instead to remain in the west and defend the Rhine frontier. He thus split from the Rome, establishing an independent Western Empire (260-274 AD). In that same year, Syria, Palestine and Egypt similarly ceded from Rome as an Eastern Empire (d. 260-273 AD) under the leadership of Septimius Odaenathus (d. 267 AD). Odaenathus was a unique individual in Roman history, because he was technically a foreign prince. He was the ruler of the allied city-state of Palmyra, an isolated but important trading city in the desert between Rome and Persia. Yet Odaenathus proved the only man capable of keeping Sassanid Persia at bay, organising a guerilla campaign to constantly harass Shapur's supply-lines. The ancient historians universally vilified Gallienus' reign as the absolute low-point of the Empire's history, portraying him as indifferent to the fracturing of the Empire into three independent rump-states, a situation that would remain for over a decade. Nevertheless, in many respects his reign was modestly successful. Indeed the division played an important role in the long-term survival of the Empire, for it left each rump-state with just one troublesome border to focus on: the Rhine River for the Western Empire; the River for the Central Empire proper; and the border with Sassanid Persia for the Eastern Empire. Despite numerous revolts against him, Gallienus gradually established his authority over the Central Empire. He then introduced two crucial military innovations that would prove vital to his successors in slowly dragging the Empire out of its terminal decline. The first was the establishment of large cavalry legions. Up to this point, Roman cavalry had always been an auxiliary unit of infantry legions. Gallienus' cavalry legions were entirely independent, capable of moving quickly from one threatened region to another. His other innovation was to completely excluded men of senatorial class from having anything to do with military affairs; from now on generals were all professional career military men. Gallienus was nevertheless assassinated by his own legions in 268 AD. As with so many events during the crisis years, there are differing accounts of the murder and the motive of the conspirators.

Claudius Gothicus (268-270 AD)[]

Bust of Claudius Gothicus

Although no one knew it at the time, the assassination of Gallienus actually marked the beginning of the end for the Crisis of the 3rd-Century. The Emperors who would pull Rome out of her seemingly terminal decline, and put her back on top of the geopolitical food-chain, were notable for all coming from the same part of the Empire, the province of Illyria (modern day Croatia and Bosnia). For a man like Claudius Gothicus, from peasant-stock in a poor province like Illyria, the crisis years were a period when anything became possible. They were able to rise through the ranks of the army on merit right to the very top, in much the same way as non-Patricians had thrived during the Punic Wars. Claudius was courageous, discipline, and excelled everywhere he went, so slowly climbed up the military ladder. As he rose, he dragged up beneath him a cabal of fellow Illyrian officers, who by the reign of Gallienus had secured considerable control over the military apparatus throughout the Central Empire. When Gallienus was assassinate, Claudius Gothicus was his most trusted general, and the commander of the all-important cavalry legion. Naturally for these troubled times, he was promptly proclaimed Emperor; whether he was involved in the assassination is unknown, but it is difficult to imagine that he wasn't a least aware of the plot.


When Claudius Gothicus ascended to the throne, the Central Empire was in serious danger on several fronts from barbarian incursions. The most pressing was an huge army of Goths marauding across the Balkans. Claudius immediately took his cavalry legions east, and routed the Goths at the Battle of Naissus (269 AD). Naissus was one of the greatest victories in the history of Roman arms; nearly a century would pass before the Goths posed a serious threat again. While Claudius was in the Balkans, the Alemanni again crossed the upper Danube and made for northern Italy. But Claudius promptly turned the imperial army around, swept in, and crushed them in turn at the Battle of Lake Benacus (269 AD). These two great victories demonstrated to the world that the Roman Empire was still a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, the province of Spain and some of southern Gaul soon took the opportunity to reconcile with Rome, switching their allegiance from the Western Empire. But this was as far as Claudius got in fulfilling his dream of reuniting all the splintered Empire, for just eighteen months into his reign, he came down with the Cyprian Plague and died.

Aurelian (270-275 AD)[]

Bust of Aurelian

Claudius was almost seamlessly succeeded by another Illyrian, his second in command Aurelian. The Senate briefly tried to reassert itself by elevating Claudius’ younger brother to the purple, but by this stage the assembly was beyond irrelevant; neither Aurelian nor the legions paid them much mind. Aurelian would go down in Roman history as the great restorer of the Rome, gradually uniting the fragmented Empire. He was known for being tough, humourless, disciplined, and for tolerating no fools. He would likely have been the most hated officer in the legions, were he not also fantastically talented and virtually unbeatable in the field. He was the perfect man for the job that lay ahead. The Golden Age of Rome was long dead, this was an age of iron, and Aurelian was a man of iron. The Alemanni and yet another Germanic group, the Vandals, both tried to take advantage of the brief turmoil of the transition of power. The strategy that Aurelian devised for dealing with both threats was to order that all provisions be withdrawn into the towns and cities of the provinces, to leave the barbarians with nothing to plunder. Once the lack of provisions began to drag them down, Aurelian swept-in with his cavalry legion, and crushed the Vandals and the Alemanni in turn. This strategy would become standard imperial policy throughout the late Roman Empire. Gradually all the cities of the Empire became heavily defened walled-cities, with Aurelian overseeing the process in Rome itself, ordering the construction of great city-walls around the city known as Aurelian’s Wall; there were eventually 12 miles of walls 16 miles high, with 350 fortified towers, and 18 heavily defended main gates. It was also during his reign that the dangerously exposed province of Dacia on the north bank of the Danube was finally; its rich gold mines had anyway long-since been exhausted. Confident that he had set the Central Empire on the path to true security, Aurelian now turned to economic reform. The economic substrate of the Empire, agriculture and commerce, had suffered great disruption over the last decades of chaos, especially from the major ill of the 3rd-century AD, hyper-inflation. Its sources are complex, but in part derived from an official debasement of the coinage. As revenue failed to meet expenditures during the crisis, the imperial reaction was invariably to debased the currency, reducing the silver and gold content in coins, and thus produce more coins to pay what the state owed. In modern times, Central Banks are well aware of the over-printing currency, but in their long history the Romans never truly gained a strong grasp on economics. The results for the Romans were spiralling prices, savings being wiped-out, and even reversion back to primitive barter. When Aurelian announced plans to revalue and stabilise the currency, it prompted the Felicissimus' riots by mint workers; corruption that had run rife in the imperial mints for years, and the mint workers feared imperial reprisals when the formidable Aurelian found out. But the Emperor was unwavering, calling in regular troops to crush the riots. He then took the unprecedented step of closing-down the Rome mint for good, instead relying on provincial mints that were closer to the legions anyway. This had the effect of being one more nail in the coffin of Rome's political and economic relevance. When Aurelian did introduce his new purer coins, even they were only worth one twentieth of the old silver denarius, which illustrates well the severity of the economic situation that Rome faced. Nevertheless, inflation would continue almost unabated, with the Emperor struggling to withdraw enough of the old debased coinage; Diocletian (d. 311 AD), Constantine (d. 337 AD), and Anastasius (d. 518 AD) would all introduced further monetary reforms before the problem fully subsided.

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By 272, Aurelian was able to turn his attention to Rome's great obsession; reuniting the splintered Empire. The most pressing need was to recover her lost eastern provinces. In the east, Odaenathus had always maintained the subtle façade that his authority was somehow subordinate to the Emperor in Rome. But things changed when he died in 267 AD, and his formidable widow Zenobia (d. 274 AD) stepped into the power vacuum. Zenobia clearly dreamed of establishing a Palmyrene Empire, permanent independent of Rome. During the brief turmoil of Aurelian's ascension to the throne in 270 AD, she had taken the opportunity to formally annexed Egypt. From that point, there was no doubt that the two powers were headed for war. In 272 AD, Aurelian led his legions out of Italy on a journey that would eventually see them march all the way to the gates of Palmyra. As he advanced through Anatolia into Syria, city after city opened their gates without a fight. A few cities such as Tyana did did try to resist, out of fear of imperial retribution, but they soon fell before the legions. However contrary to his fearsome reputation, Aurelian treated them with considerable clemency. In proved a master-stroke, that laid the groundwork for an amicable return of the eastern provinces into the Roman fold. Battles were fought near Antioch and Emesa against Palmyrene forces with their formidable armoured cavalry, but Aurelian's masterful tactics defeated them with relative ease. Thus the war culminated at the city of Palmyra itself, which was put to siege. In desperation, Zenobia tried to flee to Sassanid Persia to seek an alliance against the Roman, but was captured en-route. She and her son were eventually marched through streets of Rome in golden chains at Aurelian's Triumph. The eastern half of the Empire was thus brought back under Roman control, although Aurelian was forced to return to the east a year later to deal with the revolt of a usurper. This time his fearsome reputation was put on full display, ordering the great city of Palmyra was razed to the ground.

The Porta Asinara gate in the Aurelian Walls.

Aurelian could now turn his full attention to the lost western territories. Settling matters in the west required no actual fighting. Postumus had died in 269 AD, and was followed by a series of short-lived and ineffectual rulers. In the end, all Aurelian had to do was march west and accept the surrender of Gaul and Britannia. His achievement in reuniting the Roman Empire after 14 years earned Aurelian the grandiose honourific of Invictus Restitutor Orbis; the Unconquered Restorer of the World. Aurelian's legacy was secure, but despite his five magnificent years as Emperor, he suffered an ignoble end, assassinated by a corrupt administrator who feared being exposed. Aurelian made one other important contribution to the late Roman Empire. He was a follower of the eastern cult of the Sol Invictus, an early form of monotheism. Throughout his reign, he credited his military victories to the divine aid of the sun-god, strengthened the position of the Sol Invictus within the Roman pantheon, and built a magnificent new Temple to the Sun in Rome with spoils of Palmyra. This gave all the inhabitants of the Empire, soldiers and civilians, easterners or westerners, a single deity that everyone could worship without betraying their own local gods. This was an important step in the ancient world's transition from polytheism towards monotheism, as well as from multiple pagan cults to one religion. It made the later transition to Christianity that much easier; indeed the feast of Sol Invictus of 25 December is the origin of Christmas.

Marcus Aurelius Probus (276-282 AD)[]

Bust of Probus

Aurelian’s death sent an emotional shockwave through the Roman Empire, and ushered in a rather bizarre succession crisis in which no one seemed to want to seize the throne. In the end, one of Aurelian's key lieutenants donned the purple, Marcus Aurelius Probus. This third in the series of Illyrian Emperors very much carried on the policies of Aurelian, and it was during his reign that the northern frontier finally settled down. In the east, Sassanid Persia was also a much less potent threat after the death of Shapur in 272 AD. After nearly five decades of near constant warfare, for the moment it seemed that the Empire was at something resembling peace. There were even reports of the legions once again engaging in peacetime infrastructure project. Some in the legions did not welcome this. It seems that uncertainty about the future and resentment at back-breaking labour, was behind the assassination of Probus in 282 AD; yet another Emperor to die of a pointless death. Probus was also one of the last men to hold the distinction of being sole master of the Roman Empire; except for Constantine the Great, all other sole Emperors were a brief anomaly.

Diocletian (284-305 AD)[]

Laureate head of Diocletian in Istanbul Archaeological Museum

There was another brief interlude of short-lived emperors, before yet another of the Illyrian cabal ascended to the throne; Diocletian. Diocletian had risen through the ranks of the legions alongside his Illyrian countrymen as they secured control of the state. But unlike Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, and Probus, he was not a renowned general, but merely an unusually well-connected and politically astute senior officer. Historians generally mark his reign as the end of the Crisis of the 3rd-Century. Diocletian's passion for stability and order would lead him to overhaul the entire administrative structure of the Roman Empire – political, military, economic, and social – transforming it in ways that no man since Augustus had even dreamed of attempting. The last 50 years of anarchy had seen some 26 Emperors gain the throne, and scores of unsuccessful usurpers. Diocletian came to power with the ideas firmly in mind of creating stability at the top of the imperial hierarchy. Shortly after securing the throne for himself, he made the unexpected decision to appoint as co-Emperor (Augustus), another Illyrian officer of his own age, Maximian (d. 310), recognising that one man could not govern the whole of the Mediterranean by himself. Then in 293, he extended and formalised the system of joint leadership that became known as the Tetrarchy. There would not be one or two Emperors but four, not rivals for power but colleagues, all men of practical experience and proven military service working in consort to ensure the safety, survival and prosperity of the renewed Empire. He and Maximian both adopted a junior-emperors (Caesar); Galerius (d. 311 AD) and Constantius (d. 306 AD) respectively. These were to be both their assistants and heirs, thus making possible an orderly transfer of power. Each younger man was furthermore prevailed upon to divorce his wife and become the son-in-law of his Augustus. The four men would each administer their own territory; Maximian assumed the general supervision over the Western Empire, with Constantius having special responsibility in Gaul and Britain; and Diocletian was in general control of the East, with Galerius having responsibility for the Balkans. They could nevertheless shift freely between spheres of influence as the situation required, and any victories on the battlefield were to be shared by all four men, lest rivalries develop. Diocletian further reinforced the legitimacy of his new regime, by couching it in religious terms. Rather than relying purely on support of the legions as had happened during the crisis years, he was styled as the special spokesman on earth for the god Jupiter, the head of the Roman pantheon, while Maximian was styled as the representative of Hercules, the semi-divine hero of mankind; this also subtly reinforced Diocletian as the senior of the two co-Emperors. Religious legitimisation was intended to elevate Diocletian and Maximian above potential rivals in a way military power and dynastic claims could not. Gone was the quasi-republican magisterial dictatorship of Augustus (known to historians as the Principate); in its place was a quasi-divine monarchy (the so-called Dominate).


Unfortunately for the quartet of co-emperors, peace in the empire could not be kept for long. There were many military challenges of their joint reign. In 287 AD, an enigmatic Roman general called Carausius revolted, and seized control of the province of Britain. As an capable administrator and exemplary general, with a navy far superior to anything the Tetrarchy could muster, he turned Roman Britain into an virtually impregnable little kingdom for himself. It would take nearly a decade and one disastrous failed invasion, before Constantius succeeded in returning Britain to the Empire in 296 AD, and then only after Carausius had met his death three years earlier at the hands of someone under his own command. Meanwhile in the east in 296 AD, war yet again broke out with Sassanid Persia, now under Shapur's son of Narseh (d. 302 AD). Diocletian's junior-emperor Galerius led the campaign in the east, but used poor judgment, and suffered an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Carrhae (296 AD). But as has been seen time and time again, the Romans only took defeat as a setback on the road to eventual victory. Two years later, at the Battle of Satala (298 AD), not only were the Sassanid army decisively defeated, but the royal treasury and the king's wives and harem were captured; the seizure of the royal household was said to have balanced the scales for the capture alive of Emperor Valerian some three decades earlier. In the aftermath, Diocletian was able to negotiate a new peace treaty in 299 AD, that would last nearly forty years.

Gold coin depicting Emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian saw his work as that of a restorer, a figure of authority whose duty it was to return the Empire to peace, to recreate stability and justice where barbarian hordes had destroyed it. His domestic reforms reorganised the Roman Empire on a massive scale. During the crisis years, many of the normal functions of state had fallen by the wayside. Diocletian effectively dismantled the Augustan illusion of imperial government as a cooperative affair among Emperor, legions, and Senate; indeed none of the co-Emperors resided in Rome itself. In its place, he established a rigidly-hierarchical and effective bureaucratic government, with a council of advisers overseeing separate departments for different tasks, from tax collection, to the administration of justice, and to maintenance of the infrastructure. Diocletian also completely restructured the divisions of the Empire, doubling the number of provinces from about fifty to almost one hundred. Around the frontiers were a ring of small militarised provinces, while the inner provinces were to act as the economic engine of the Empire. The administrative structure everywhere was the same, including those regions that had historically been treated differently such as Egypt and Italy itself. In military affairs, Diocletian reduced the number of legions under each general and thus hopefully discouraging large-scale revolts. He also formally split the legions into two distinct forces: a static militia tasked with monitoring the frontiers; and a number of highly mobile cavalry legions to envelop intruders, overwhelming them from all sides. When it came to economic reform, Diocletian performed the first proper census of the Empire's population and wealth in decades; a general census would occur thereafter every five-year. He then introduced a major overhaul of the taxation system, that managed to extract resources from his subjects on a scale never previously imaginable.

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

Not all of Diocletian's reforms were successful. Probus' attempt at currency reform had had little effect on inflation, and neither were Diocletian's efforts; there were simply too many of the old debased coins in circulation. He instead attempted to regulate wages and prices throughout the Empire by a freeze; the Edict on Maximum Prices (301). But the edict was widely resisted, with penalties applied unevenly across the Empire; it ultimately proved unenforceable and counter-productive. But the most damning stain on Diocletian's otherwise stellar reputation was for the Great Persecution of Christians (303-05 AD). Over the last two-centuries, Christianity had grown steadily throughout the Empire, and by Diocletian's day, may have made up about a tenth of the population of all classes. The reasons for the persecution are uncertain, but perhaps most troubling for Diocletian who always emphasised stability was just how structured the Christian Church was; its interconnected network of archbishops, bishops, and priest had an institutionalised authority that in the minds of many Christians was above the states. In 303 AD, Diocletian's edict ordered the Empire's largest, bloodiest, and last official persecution of Christianity. The Christians, like others, must sacrifice in the Roman tradition; to judge by the certificates issued to save them from persecution, many did but some did not and died. The books and buildings of the Church were also targetted. But the persecution ultimately failed to check the rise of the Church: the martyrs' sufferings strengthened the resolve of their fellow Christians; the edict was observed in a very uneven fashion, and only strictly enforced in Galerius' territories; and non-Christian were generally horrified at what the state was doing to a seemingly harmless cult, best known for caring for the poor and sick. In the end, it merely disrupted the peace and stability of the Empire that Diocletian had spent the last twenty years establishing.

From 303 AD, Diocletian's health began to fail, probably after suffering a stroke. So he began preparing to voluntarily give-up the throne; an almost unprecedented act, not seen in Roman history since Sulla in 79 BC. Two year later, in a carefully orchestrated succession, he abdicated in the east, and by prearrangement Maximian performed the same act simultaneously in the west, thus allowing both junior Emperors to be elevated to the head of the Tetrarchy at the same time. In an attempt to secure the future of his Tetrarchy, Diocletian very deliberately selected two eminently capable men to step-in as the new junior-emperors. But this was the one and only time that Diocletian’s arrangements for the peaceful transfer of power worked as he intended. He would live long enough in retirement at his huge palace-fortress in Spalatum, to see the Empire once again plunged into the kind of civil war, that he had strived so carefully to prevent.