The Crisis of the Third Century in ancient Rome was also known as Military Anarchy or the Imperial Crisis, (AD 235–284). It was a period of time when the Roman Empire almost collapsed due to invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression. This crisis began when Emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated by his own troops in 235. This initiated a fifty-year period in which there were at least 26 claimants to the title of Emperor, mostly prominent Roman army generals, assuming imperial power over all or part of the Empire.
It was dire times in Roman Empire way back in 235 AD, when emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by his own troops. A scarlet deluge of Roman legions had fallen campaigning against Germanic peoples raiding across the borders, while the emperor was distracted by the Sassanid Persian Empire. Severus reasoned that diplomacy and paying tribute to pacify the Germanic chieftains would end the conflict quickly and efficiently, but this action cost him the respect of his troops who felt they should be punishing the tribes who were intruding on Rome’s territory. This perceived act of cowardice led to a mutiny in which Alexander’s own army murdered him.
Following the emperor’s death, top generals of the Roman army fought each other for control of the Empire while neglecting their duties. Locals on the outskirts of the Roman Empire thus were victims of frequent raids by foreign tribes, such as the Carpians, Goths, Vandals, and Alamanni, along the Rhine and Danube Rivers in the western part of the Empire, as well as attacks from Sassanids in the eastern part of the Empire. Climate changes and a rise in sea levels ruined the agriculture of what is now the Low Countries, and forced tribes to relocate in order to find food. The Plague of Cyprian (possibly smallpox) broke out in 251. Many people died which further affected the ability of the Empire to defend itself.
After the loss of Valerian in 260, the Roman Empire was plagued by usurpers, and broken up into three competing states. The Roman provinces of Gaul, Britain and Hispania broke off to form the Gallic Empire. After the death of Odaenathus in 267, the eastern provinces of Syria, Palestine and Aegyptus became independent as the Palmyrene Empire, leaving the remaining Italian-centered Roman Empire-proper in the middle.
By 268, a series of tough, energetic soldier-emperors had taken power leading to the pushing back of a major Goth invasion at the Battle of Naissus. 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 Naissus, succeeded him as the emperor and continued the restoration of the Empire.
Aurelian reigned (270–275) through the worst of the crisis, defeating the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Palmyrenes, the Persians, and then the remainder of the Gallic Empire. By late 274, the Roman Empire was reunited into a single entity, and the frontier troops were back in place. More than a century would pass before Rome again lost military dominance over its external enemies. Regardless, dozens of formerly thriving cities had been ruined, their populations dispersed and, with the breakdown of the economic system, could not be rebuilt. Major cities and towns, even Rome itself, which had not needed fortifications for many centuries began surrounding themselves with thick walls.
Although Aurelian managed to restore the Empire’s borders from external threat, more fundamental problems remained internally. Civil wars raged on as competing factions in the military, Senate, and other parties put forward their candidate for emperor. Add to that the sheer size of the Empire and it was nearly impossible for a single autocratic ruler to effectively manage multiple threats at the same time. These continuing problems would be radically addressed by Emperor Diocletian, who rose to power in 284, allowing the Empire to continue to survive in the West for over a century and in the East for over a millennium.
Internally, the empire faced hyperinflation caused by years of coinage devaluation initiated earlier under the Severan emperors who enlarged the army by one quarter and doubled the legionaries’ base pay. As each of the short-lived emperors took power, he needed ways to raise money quickly to pay the military’s “accession bonus” and the easiest way to do so was by inflating the coinage severely, a process made possible by debasing the coinage with bronze and copper.
This hyperinflation gave way to abrupt rises in prices, and by the time Diocletian came to power, the old coinage of the Roman Empire had nearly collapsed. Some taxes were collected in kind and values were often notional in bullion or bronze coinage. Real values continued to be figured in gold coinage, but the silver coin, the denarius, used for 300 years, was gone. This currency had almost no value by the end of the third century, giving rise to bartering systems and other forms of transactions.
Along with the military and financial impacts of the Crisis of the Third Century came the disruption of Rome’s extensive internal trade network. Ever since the Pax Romana, starting with Augustus, the empire’s economy had depended in large part on trade between Mediterranean ports and across the extensive interior infrastructure. Merchants could travel from one end of the empire to the other relatively safely, moving commodities from the provinces to the cities, and manufactured goods produced by the great cities of the East to the more rural provinces.
The fallout of the Crisis of the Third Century virtually destroyed this system. Civil unrest made it dangerous for merchants to travel as they once had, and debased currency made trade even more difficult to manage. Large landowners, no longer able to successfully export their crops over long distances, began producing food for sustenance and local barter. Rather than import manufactured goods from the empire’s great urban areas, they began to manufacture many goods locally, often on their own estates, thus beginning the self-sufficient “house economy” that would become commonplace in later centuries, reaching its highest ideal in the form of feudalism. The common free people of the Roman cities, meanwhile, began to move out into the countryside in search of food and better protection by these local ‘Lords.’
Made desperate by economic necessity, many of these former city folk, as well as many small farmers, gave up hard-earned basic civil rights in order to receive protection from large land-holders. In doing so, they became a half-free class of Roman citizen known as coloni. They were tied to the land, and in later Imperial law their status was made hereditary. This provided an early model for serfdom, the origins of medieval feudal society and of the medieval peasantry.
Roman cities which remained changed in character as well. The large, open cities of classical antiquity slowly gave way to the smaller, walled cities that became known as castles in the Middle Ages. These changes took place slowly over a long period of time, and were juxtaposed with many temporary reversals. Despite all efforts by subsequent emperors, the empire was never again able to return to its former glory.
While Imperial revenues fell, Imperial expenses rose sharply. Goods and services previously paid for by the government were now demanded in addition to monetary taxes. The steady exodus of both rich and poor from the cities and now-unprofitable professions forced Diocletian to use compulsion; most trades were made to be hereditary, and workers could not legally leave their jobs or travel elsewhere to seek better-paying ones. It could be argued that Emperor Constantine’s decision to forge a theocracy called the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and its 1000 year rule with a rod of iron, is the only reason the history of Rome survived at all.
The decline in trade between the Imperial provinces forced provinces to be self-sufficient. Large landowners became increasingly rebellious toward Rome’s central authority, particularly in the Western Empire, 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 in rural regions, since this guaranteed access to the only economic resource of real value: food. The common people of the Empire lost economic and political status to the land-holding nobility, and the middle class was all but destroyed. The Crisis of the Third Century thus marked the beginning of a long gradual process which reduced Roman citizenry to the serfs and penny-stinkers of the medieval times.