What was Rome’s Crisis in the 3rd Century? – Causes and Major Effects

The Crisis of the 3rd Century, also known as the Imperial Crisis, refers to a roughly 50-year period during which the Roman Empire faced a series of deep economic, military, and political challenges, from circa 235 AD to 284 AD.

The empire emerged from the crisis transformed. This event, riddled with political instability, foreign invasions, and social and economic problems, marked a significant turning point in the history of ancient Rome.

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The Crisis of the 3rd Century saw the Roman Empire’s shift from classical structures to a medieval, feudal system. With political changes like the Tetrarchy and rising Christian dominance, the empire was significantly transformed. This period paved the way for the Byzantine Empire’s rise and the Western Roman Empire’s eventual decline by the 5th century AD. Image: Map of the Roman Empire around the year of the consulship of Aurelianus and Bassus (271 AD), with the break away Gallic Empire in the West and the Palmyrene Empire in the East. Image: Red –Roman Empire; Green – Gallic Empire; and Gold – Palmyrene Empire

In the article below, World History Edu delves right into the major causes and outcome of the crisis. But first, here is a quick summary of the major events:

Summary

One of the most noticeable aspects of the crisis was the rapid turnover of emperors. In a mere span of 50 years, the empire saw over 25 claimants to the throne, most of whom were eventually assassinated. The political structure of Rome had become inherently unstable, with the Praetorian Guard and the legions often installing or toppling emperors at will.

The Roman Empire was under external threat on multiple fronts. In the East, the Sassanian Empire emerged as a formidable adversary, continuously challenging Rome’s eastern provinces. Meanwhile, in the North, various Germanic tribes and confederations, such as the Goths, began penetrating the frontiers of the empire. These invasions and incursions drained the empire’s resources and made maintaining the expansive borders increasingly challenging.

The empire’s vastness had always made trade and communication difficult, but during the 3rd century, this became more pronounced. A combination of military defeats, debased currency, and a lack of confidence in the central government’s ability to provide stability led to severe economic decline. Rampant inflation occurred as emperors continuously debased the currency to pay for their military campaigns and appease the legions. Trade networks were disrupted, leading to food shortages in various parts of the empire, particularly in urban centers.

The socio-economic landscape of the empire shifted dramatically during this period. As the economy collapsed, urban centers began to decline. The once-thriving cities of the empire, which had been centers of culture, administration, and commerce, started to shrink. Many inhabitants moved to the countryside, leading to a more rural and decentralized society. This ruralization made governing the vast territories of the empire even more challenging.

To add to the challenges, the empire faced natural disasters. A notable instance was the Cyprian Plague, which struck in the mid-3rd century. This pandemic, combined with the economic hardships, led to a significant decline in the population. Additionally, the empire encountered a series of famines, further exacerbating the situation.

During this period, the traditional Roman pantheon was challenged by the rising popularity of various Eastern mystery religions, and most notably, Christianity. The spread of Christianity provided a new source of community and solace for many in these troubled times, but it also created tensions. Various emperors perceived it as a threat to the traditional Roman way of life and responded with waves of persecutions.

By the latter part of the 3rd century, the empire began to fragment. At one point, there were separate Gallic and Palmyrene empires, each claiming autonomy from Rome. This fragmentation was a clear indication of the weakening central authority and the empire’s inability to maintain its vast territories under a singular rule.

Resolution of the crisis

The crisis would eventually see a form of resolution under Emperor Diocletian. His reign, beginning in 284 AD, introduced a series of reforms designed to address the various challenges the empire faced. Diocletian increased the military’s size, fortified frontiers, and introduced the ‘Tetrarchy’, a system where the empire would be ruled by four emperors (two senior, two junior) to ensure smoother transitions of power and more effective governance across the empire’s vast territories.

Furthermore, he attempted to control inflation through the “Edict on Maximum Prices” and initiated one of the most significant persecutions of Christians, aiming to restore the traditional Roman religious order.

After 299, under the Tetrarchy system, the map displays the dioceses and the designated zones of influence for each of the four tetrarchs, following the province exchange between Diocletian and Galerius.

However, it was Diocletian’s successor, Constantine the Great, who would take the most radical step in addressing the religious tensions within the empire. He converted to Christianity and, through the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, granted religious tolerance to Christians.

Diocletian, born Diocles in Dalmatia, was Roman emperor from 284 to 305. Originally from a low-status family, he quickly advanced in the military, becoming a cavalry commander under Emperor Carus. After Carus and his son Numerian died, the troops declared Diocles as emperor, adopting the name Diocletianus. He later defeated Carus’s other son, Carinus, consolidating his rule. Image: Laureate head of Diocletian

The Crisis of the 3rd Century was a pivotal moment in the history of the Roman Empire. It marked the transition from the classical model of the Roman world to a more medieval, feudal structure that would characterize the Late Antique period. The empire emerged transformed, both in its political structure with the Tetrarchy and religiously with the increasing dominance of Christianity. The crisis laid the foundations for the Byzantine Empire in the East and set the stage for the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.

The crisis only came to an end when Diocletian (reign: 284-305) came to power in 284, at which point he proceeded to divide the empire into the eastern and western part.

Frequently asked questions about the Crisis of the Third Century

Beginning with the assassination of Roman Emperor Severus Alexander in 235, the Crisis of the Third Century engulfed the Roman Empire with military upheavals, economic downturns, and political instability, pushing it to the edge of disintegration. Image: Portrait of Alexander Severus. Marble, Roman artwork, 222–235 AD

Here’s what you need to know about the Crisis:

How long did the crisis last for?

The Crisis of the Third Century, also known as the Imperial Crisis, lasted for approximately 50 years, from AD 235 to 284.

How many emperors came to the throne during Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century?

The Crisis of the Third Century engulfed the Roman Empire in chaos, marked by frequent changes in leadership, economic turmoil, and social instability. In under a century, the throne saw a staggering 24 emperors, compared to the 26 emperors over the preceding 250 years. Soldier emperors, often backed by their legions, rose to power, leading to incessant civil wars. At its climax, the empire fragmented into three parts. Emperor Aurelian’s determined efforts ultimately pulled the empire back from the brink of disintegration.

Did the Crisis embolden Rome’s enemies?

Yes, the Crisis of the Third Century did embolden Rome’s enemies. The internal strife, political instability, and recurring civil wars weakened the Roman military’s defensive capabilities and its ability to launch effective offensive campaigns. As a result, various external enemies took advantage of the situation:

  1. Germanic Tribes: Groups like the Goths, Alemanni, and Franks launched raids deeper into Roman territories, sometimes even penetrating as far as Italy itself.
  2. Persian Empire: The Sassanid Persians, who replaced the Parthians, became a formidable adversary during this time. They continuously harassed the eastern provinces and captured vital Roman territories, including the crucial city of Antioch.
  3. Palmyrene Empire: Within the Roman Empire, the city of Palmyra, initially a Roman ally against the Persians, declared its independence under its leader, Queen Zenobia, and carved out a significant eastern portion of the empire.
  4. Gallic Empire: In the western provinces, the Roman territories in Gaul, Hispania, and Britain broke away to form the so-called Gallic Empire under Postumus.
  5. Raids from Sea: Pirates, notably the Goths, took to the seas, disrupting trade and communication in the Mediterranean, further weakening the Roman economy.

The combined pressure from these external threats, along with the empire’s internal issues, intensified the crisis and made recovery challenging.

READ ALSO: The Rise and Fall of Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra

Who was the last Roman emperor before the start of the Crisis?

The Roman Empire, under the Severan dynasty, witnessed relative stability and growth. Founded by Septimius Severus (reigned: 193 – 211), this dynasty bolstered the military’s power, inadvertently setting the stage for future upheavals. The strengthened military played pivotal roles, even in the assassinations of emperors like Caracalla and the unpredictable Elagabalus.

By the time the last Severan emperor, Alexander Severus (reigned: 13 March 222 – 22 March 235), faced military defeat, the soldiers had amassed significant power. Their disillusionment with Alexander led to his assassination in 235 AD, marking the dynasty’s end. The assassination Alexander Severus is often considered the starting point of the Crisis of the Third Century. The soldiers then chose Maximinus Thrax (reigned: 235 – 238), a man of humble origins, as the new emperor.

The Crisis of the Third Century began towards the end of Emperor Alexander Severus’ reign. And his assassination in 235 AD pushed into full throttle a turbulent period in the history of the Roman Empire. Image: Aureus of Roman Emperor Severus Alexander

How did the murder of Emperor Maximinus Thrax make the crisis worse?

The reign of Maximinus Thrax was short and tumultuous. Backed by the army but opposed by the Senate, he faced financial strains. During the Siege of Aquileia in 238, disillusioned soldiers assassinated him. Concurrently, multiple claimants vied for the throne, and external foes, including Germanic tribes and the Sassanians, capitalized on the chaos, invading Roman lands.

Maximinus Thrax, born around 173, reigned as Roman emperor from 235 to 238. Originating from a Dacian tribe, his father was an accountant. Rising through military ranks, Maximinus was commanding the Legio IV Italica when Severus Alexander was killed in 235, leading the Pannonian army to elect him emperor. . A barracks emperor, Maximinus’s reign is seen as initiating the Crisis of the Third Century. Notably, he was the first emperor outside the senatorial and equestrian classes.

While some emperors momentarily restored stability, the overarching crisis persisted. Unfortunately for Rome, many of those emperors were either murdered or perished in battle. Basically, Rome found itself with a revolving door of emperors, which in turn made the crisis worse as a bloody civil war ensued.

The situation even got so dire that Emperor Valerian would find himself captured during Rome’s disastrous Persian Campaign in 260.

It is often said that Emperor Decius (reigned: September 249 – June 251) was the first Roman emperor to die in a battle against a foreign enemy. The emperor and his son, co-emperor Herennius Etruscus, were killed by the Goths in the Battle of Abritus in 251. Image: Emperor Decius; Glyptothek – Munich – Germany

How did the plague that struck Rome in the 250s and 260s make things worse?

The Roman Empire faced not only external military threats but also the horrors of a lethal plague known as the Plague of Cyprian. This pandemic spread rapidly, devastating vast territories within the Empire. Urban areas, with their dense populations, were particularly hard hit. Millions perished, leading to significant societal and economic disruptions. The combination of military defeats and the plague severely tested the resilience and resourcefulness of the Roman state during this tumultuous period.

How did the crisis fragment the empire and almost bring it to an end?

It’s been recorded that during Gallienus’s reign, the Roman Empire experienced an unprecedented fragmentation. With the emperor away and Germanic invasions over the Rhine, Gaul’s army declared Postumus their emperor, gaining support from Spain and Gaul.

Concurrently, in the East, the army rallied behind Odaenathus, king of Palmyra, and later his ambitious daughter, Queen Zenobia.

Thus, the Empire split into three: the central Roman Empire under Gallienus covering Italy, the Balkans, and North Africa; the Gallic Empire in the West; and the Palmyrene Empire in the East, which held the vital province of Egypt. The unity and existence of the Roman Empire were gravely threatened.

READ ALSO: Significance of Palmyra in the Ancient World

What role did Emperor Aurelian play in mitigating the crisis?

The Roman Empire, amidst the chaos of the Crisis of the Third Century, saw a glimmer of hope in Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, who bravely halted the Gothic invasion at the Danubian frontier. Sadly, his untimely death in 270 left the Empire’s fate to his successor, Aurelian (reigned: 270–275).

Aurelian, born around 214, was Roman emperor from 270 to 275 during the Crisis of the Third Century. Originating from modest beginnings, he rose through the military ranks, notably serving under Gallienus. He achieved significant military victories, reunifying the fragmented Roman Empire. After Claudius Gothicus and Quintillus, Aurelian took the throne. Image: Bust of Roman Emperor Aurelian

Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270–275 AD) played a pivotal role in mitigating the Crisis of the Third Century and is often credited with restoring the Roman Empire’s boundaries and internal stability.

  1. Reunification of the Empire: Aurelian successfully defeated both the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Empire, thereby reunifying the Roman Empire under a single ruler.
  2. Defending the Borders: He took aggressive actions against external threats, particularly against the Germanic tribes and other barbarian groups, ensuring that the Empire’s borders were more secure.
  3. Reforms: Aurelian implemented significant reforms, particularly the strengthening of the Empire’s monetary system. He introduced a new silver coin known as the ‘antoninianus’, which helped stabilize the Roman economy.
  4. Construction of the Aurelian Walls: Recognizing the strategic importance of defending Rome, Aurelian began the construction of a massive fortification around the city known as the Aurelian Walls, which would serve to protect Rome for centuries to come.
  5. Religious Unity: He took steps to establish Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) as a primary deity in the Roman pantheon, which some historians believe was an attempt to create religious unity within the Empire.

Demonstrating unmatched prowess, Emperor Aurelian quelled the Palmyrene rebellion, capturing its audacious leader, Queen Zenobia, and parading her in chains through Rome. Not resting on these laurels, he turned his attention west, eradicating the Gallic Empire. For these monumental achievements, he was hailed as “Restitutor Orbis,” the Restorer of the World. Image: The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Through these achievements, Aurelian laid the groundwork for the Empire’s future stabilization and the reforms implemented by later emperors, like Diocletian and Constantine. As a result of his efforts, Aurelian earned the title “Restitutor Orbis” or “Restorer of the World.”

Dreaming of further conquests, he set his sights on Persia. Yet, fate had other plans; the very men he led, betrayed him. In 275, Aurelian was assassinated, ending his bid to restore Roman glory.

How did Emperor Diocletian nip the crisis in the bud?

Aurelian’s assassination in 275 AD ignited fresh civil strife, jeopardizing the Roman unity he had painstakingly rebuilt. The Empire was beleaguered by relentless barbarian invasions and ongoing conflict with the formidable Sassanid Empire.

Under Emperor Probus, a brief semblance of stability returned, but his demise while heading to the East opened the door for more turmoil.

Through a host of reforms, Emperor Diocletian sought to restore stability and prosperity to an empire riddled with economic decay, political chaos, and external threats. While not all of his reforms were long-lasting, his restructuring of the empire’s governance provided a much-needed respite and laid the groundwork for the later successes of Constantine the Great. Image: Aureus of Roman Emperor Diocletian, minted c. 288

In 284 AD, after another bout of civil unrest, Diocletian seized power. Emperor Diocletian recognized that the vast Roman Empire was too large and complex to be governed effectively by a single emperor, especially in the context of the ongoing Crisis of the Third Century. To address this, he implemented several pivotal reforms:

  • Tetrarchy: Diocletian introduced the system of the Tetrarchy, or “rule of four.” The empire was divided into the Western and Eastern halves, each governed by an Augustus (senior emperor) and a Caesar (junior emperor). This ensured smoother governance and a clearer line of succession.
  • Economic Reforms: He introduced the “Edict on Maximum Prices” in an attempt to curb rampant inflation. This edict set price ceilings on various goods and services, although it was only partially successful.
  • Defense Reforms: Diocletian bolstered the frontiers and increased the size of the Roman army. He also created a mobile reserve force that could rapidly respond to threats anywhere in the Empire.

  • Administrative Reforms: The empire was divided into smaller provinces, grouped into larger administrative units called “dioceses.” This allowed for more efficient governance and tax collection.
  • Religious Persecution: Diocletian believed that the Empire’s troubles were due in part to the gods’ displeasure. He therefore undertook some of the most severe persecutions of Christians in Roman history in an attempt to revive and strengthen the traditional Roman religion.
  • Retirement: In a move that was unprecedented in Roman history, Diocletian voluntarily abdicated the throne in 305 AD, setting a precedent for peaceful transition of power.

 

Maximian, nicknamed Herculius, was Roman emperor from 286 to 305. Initially Caesar in 285, he became Augustus the following year, co-ruling with Diocletian. While Diocletian provided political strategy, Maximian contributed military prowess. Residing in Trier, Maximian spent much time campaigning, quelling the Bagaudae rebels in Gaul in 285 and battling Germanic tribes till 288. He also bolstered the Rhine frontier defenses with Diocletian. Image: Colossal Head of Emperor Maximian

How exactly did Diocletian’s “rule of four” help save Rome from collapse?

Diocletian’s “rule of four,” known as the Tetrarchy, was an innovative administrative system aimed at resolving many of the issues that had plagued the Roman Empire during the Crisis of the Third Century. Here’s how it contributed to saving Rome from collapse:

  1. Decentralized Power: By dividing rule among four emperors (two senior emperors or “Augusti” and two junior emperors or “Caesares”), power was more evenly distributed. This decentralized approach ensured that no single region was neglected and reduced the chances of widespread rebellions.
  2. Quicker Responses to Threats: With rulers in different parts of the Empire, military and administrative responses could be quicker. If there was a barbarian invasion or a rebellion in a particular region, the nearby emperor could address the issue immediately.
  3. Succession Planning: The Tetrarchy provided a clear system for succession. Each Caesar was groomed to become an Augustus, reducing the power struggles and civil wars that previously arose from unclear or disputed successions.
  4. Shared Responsibility: The vast expanse of the Roman Empire made governance by a single ruler exceptionally challenging. With the Tetrarchy, the responsibilities were shared, allowing for more efficient administration, better fiscal policies, and a unified military strategy.
  5. Restoration of Stability: The presence of multiple rulers conveyed a sense of stability and continuity. With more emperors present to quell unrest or repel invasions, the chances of the Empire being overwhelmed by external or internal threats were reduced.
  6. Economic and Administrative Reforms: Alongside the Tetrarchy, Diocletian introduced reforms in taxation, monetary policies, and provincial administration. These reforms, backed by multiple rulers, helped stabilize the economy and streamline governance.

By effectively addressing the challenges of military threats, succession disputes, and administrative inefficiencies, the Tetrarchy played a pivotal role in saving the Roman Empire from imminent collapse and ushering in a period of relative stability.

Recognizing the challenges of ruling a vast empire alone, Diocletian appointed Maximian as co-emperor. To enhance stability, they introduced the Tetrarchy by selecting two junior emperors. This system ended the Third Century Crisis, marking the late Roman Empire era or the Dominate. Even after the Tetrarchy’s fall, Diocletian’s reforms persisted under Constantine the Great. Image: Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian on an aureus (287 AD)

What were some of the major challenges of the crisis?

The rapid succession of emperors, often rising to power through military coups and then being overthrown or assassinated, led to a lack of consistent leadership. The high turnover weakened the central authority and eroded the legitimacy of the imperial office.

The Crisis of the Third Century nearly brought an end to the Roman Empire through a series of interconnected challenges that destabilized its very foundations:

  1. Economic Collapse: The Empire suffered from widespread inflation, partly caused by the over-minting of coins to pay for military expenses. Trade networks were disrupted due to external invasions and internal strife. Many cities declined or were abandoned as the urban economy collapsed.
  2. Military Pressures: Constant civil wars drained resources and attention from the frontiers, making the Empire vulnerable. Rome’s traditional enemies, like the Germanic tribes in the north and the Sassanid Persians in the east, became emboldened, leading to territorial losses.
  3. Social Strains: The deadly plagues, economic hardships, and constant warfare led to a decline in population. Many regions became depopulated, which reduced the available manpower for the Roman legions and agricultural production.
  4. Decentralization: As central authority weakened, peripheral regions began to assert their independence. At one point, the Empire effectively split into three parts: the Gallic Empire in the West, the Palmyrene Empire in the East, and the central Roman Empire.
  5. Religious Transformation: The period saw the rise of new religious movements, most notably Christianity. While this did not directly cause the crisis, it represented a significant shift in the cultural and religious landscape, causing tensions and divisions.
  6. Erosion of Traditional Values: Many Romans believed that the decline of traditional Roman values and virtues contributed to the Empire’s problems. This view is captured in some contemporary Roman literature.

READ ALSO: Notable Accomplishments of the Persian Empire

What are the other names of the crisis?

The Crisis of the Third Century saw the Roman Empire’s near-collapse. It ended with Aurelian’s victories and Diocletian’s reforms in 284, restoring stability. Image: Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, two porphyry sculptures looted from the Philadelphion of Constantinople after 1204, now standing at the southwest corner of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

The Crisis of the Third Century (235 – 284) has been termed as the Military Anarchy. And in some cases, some historians have termed it as the Imperial Crisis.

List of all the Roman emperors during the Crisis of the Third Century

The Crisis of the Third Century witnessed a rapid turnover in leadership, with numerous emperors taking the throne, many for brief periods. Without a shred of doubt, the Imperial Crisis transformed the Roman Empire’s institutions, society, economy, and religion, marking the shift from classical antiquity to late antiquity in historical perspectives.

Here is a chronological list of Roman emperors who ruled during the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284 AD):

  1. Maximinus Thrax (235-238 AD)
  2. Gordian I (238 AD)
  3. Gordian II (238 AD)
  4. Balbinus and Pupienus (co-emperors, 238 AD)
  5. Gordian III (238-244 AD)
  6. Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus) (244-249 AD)
  7. Decius (249-251 AD)
  8. Herennius Etruscus (co-emperor with Decius, 251 AD)
  9. Hostilian (251 AD)
  10. Trebonianus Gallus (251-253 AD)
  11. Volusianus (co-emperor with Trebonianus Gallus, 251-253 AD)
  12. Aemilian (253 AD)
  13. Valerian (253-260 AD)
  14. Gallienus (253-268 AD; co-emperor with Valerian until 260 AD)
  15. Saloninus (declared Augustus in the West by his father Gallienus, but never ruled independently)
  16. Claudius Gothicus (268-270 AD)
  17. Quintillus (270 AD)
  18. Aurelian (270-275 AD)
  19. Tacitus (275-276 AD)
  20. Florianus (276 AD)
  21. Probus (276-282 AD)
  22. Carus (283-285 AD)
  23. Carinus (283-285 AD; co-emperor with Carus and then sole emperor after Carus’ death)
  24. Numerian (283-284 AD; co-emperor with his brother Carinus)

Finally, Diocletian took the throne in 284 AD, marking the end of the Crisis. He introduced significant reforms, including the Tetrarchy, which greatly stabilized the empire.

Note: Some emperors ruled simultaneously with others, either as co-emperors or in opposition to each other. The number of emperors and their chronology can vary slightly depending on the sources and criteria used.

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