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Old April 15th, 2010, 09:43 AM   #1

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The Crisis of the Third Century

The so-called "Crisis of the Third Century" was a dark phase of the history of the Roman Empire, spanning from the death of Severus Alexander in 235 AD to the ascension of Diocletianus as emperor in 284 AD.

It was an age of great change, turmoil, and brutal warfare throughout the Meditarrenean world. Germanic raids and successive invasions by a resurgent Persian Empire, not to mention at least one enormous outbreak of plague, depleted the Empire's population and caused an economic crisis.

A fear that prominent Romans had voiced for centuries came to be reality in this time period - the soldiers felt more loyalty to charismatic generals than they did to the Senate and the People of Rome. Civil war raged on and off for all of this time period; at least one emperor attempted to march on Rome herself, and all but two of the emperors of this era were assassinated, executed, or fell in battle - and one was captured by a "barbarian".

A bizarre assortment of people - including an illiterate peasant, an alleged Christian, several elderly men, and at least one woman - claimed the purple during the Third Century. Few of them lasted long, and many made no meaningful attempts to curb the anarchy that had engulfed their Empire. Others did attempt to do what they could with what they were given - but it wasn't much.

At the end of this age of anarchy and civil war, Diocletian reorganized both the government and military of the Empire, thus beginning the "Dominate" phase of Roman history. It was Diocletian who started the "Great Persecution" of Christianity, an Eastern cult that was rising in importance in the Third Century. During the Crisis, increasingly more people had lost faith in the Old Gods, and were tempted to look elswhere for divine aid for the riotous mess that was their Empire...

235 - Emperor Severus Alexander (M. Aurelius Severus Alexianus) and his influential mother Julia Mamea are murdered by soldiers during a campaign against the Alamanni along the Rhine. An officer holding the post "prefect of the recruits" is declared emperor - he is the Thracian peasant C. Julius Verus Maximinus. Maximinus ends the war against the Alamanni by crushing them in battle; he becomes infamous for being the first emperor to ever personally lead a charge and fight in battle. In this year a minor usurper against Alexander and Maximinus, Magnus, is put to death.

236-237 - Maximinus wages a campaign along the Danube frontier, fighting Sarmatians and Dacian Carpi. This may have been a poignant war for him to fight, in light of the fact that his mother was allegedly from one of the same Sarmatian tribes he defeated.

238 - The chaotic "Year of Six Emperors". In January the elderly proconsul of Africa, M. Antonius Gordianus, is declared emperor and sends his aide P. Licinius Valerianus to Rome to make his claim legitimate before the senate. Gordian is aided in his insurrection by his son by the same name. The younger Gordian is defeated in battle by the commander of the III Augusta Legion, Capellianus, and his father promptly commited suicide. The Senate, continuing to seek a replacement for Maximinus, elects two of its own number, Pupienus Maximius and Balbinus, to rule as joint emperors. Maximinus, returning from his Danube campaign, marches on Italy and besieges Aquilea. The Praetorians, under the guidance of the Senatorial emperors, besiege Albanum, home to the wives of the soldiers of Maximinus' II Parthica Legion. When they receive word of this, the legionaries of the Second butcher Maximinus and his son Maximus. Around the same time, however, Pupienus and Balbinus have a falling out. Disgusted by the bitter old men, the Praetorians cut them both down. The twelve year-old boy they had appointed to be their successor is hailed Caesar by the army. He is another Marcus Antonius Gordianus, grandson of the late African commander.

C. 240 - The new Sassanid Persian Empire, under Ardashir, takes control of the Roman province of Mesopotamia, as well as the Arabic client state of Hatra. Germanic, Sarmatian, and Dacian raiders pillage Rome's Danubian frontier. In the year 240, a Romano-Carthaginian nobleman named Marcus Asinius Sabianus starts a revolt against Gordian, but he is killed by the neighboring governor of Mauretania.

241 - In Rome, the young emperor marries Tranquillina, the daughter of his Praetorian prefect and loyal advisor Caius Furius Timesitheus. This same year, Shapur becomes the new Persian emperor. He was destined to be Rome's most implacable foe in this age.

242 - Gordian goes to the East and conducts a successful Persian War through his father-in-law Timesitheus. Despite his great power and ability, Timesitheus appears to have been genuinely loyal to his weak-willed young son-in-law.

243 - Timesitheus defeats a powerful Persian army at Rhesiana using clever tactics. He dies, possibly of plague, shortly afterwards, and thus Gordian loses most of the power behind his throne. He appoints an Arab officer, Marcus Julius Philippus, to be his Praetorian prefect and favored general. Though a capable man, Philip proves to be much more ambitious than Timesitheus. Under his guidance a Roman army rashly invaded the heartland of Persia and attempted to take Ctesiphon. The army was destroyed, and Gordian was badly wounded during the battle. He died shortly afterwards - whether as a result of his wounds, or whether he was assasinated by Philip or by Shapur is unknown. Philip buys peace from Shapur, withdraws from Persia, and begins to march for Rome.

C. 244-246 - After being accepted by the Senate in Rome, Philip marches against the Dacians and Sarmatians along the Danube and is apparently met with some success. In 246 he also fights against Germanic tribes, though little is known of this conflict or its results.

247 - In April Philip celebrates Rome's 1000th Birthday with expensive games and spetacles, including some of the most appalling slaughters to yet take place in the Colusseum.

C. 248-249 - Two revolts take place; Pacatianus, in Moesia or Pannonia, and Jotapatianus in the East, both attempt to claim the purple. Philip - whose wife Otacilia had recently died - despairs of his life and volunteers to abdicate for the well-being of the state. The senator Caius Messius Decius vows that he will bring the rebels to justice and defend Philip's claim, and marches against Pacatianus. Pacatianus and Jotapatianus both died shortly afterwards - the former at Decius' hands - but the legions of Pannonia are so filled with admiration for Decius they declare him emperor, allegedly against his will. Philip and his son by the same name march against Decius but are defeated in a brutal battle fought at Verona. Decius returns to Rome and is acknowledged as Emperor, and begins a systematic cult of emperor-worship, that culminates in a persecution of the Christians.

250 - Goths under a great chieftain named Kniva invade the Balkan provinces; this was the greatest incursion of Germanic warriors Rome had suffered since the Marcomannic Wars almost a century before. Kniva and his forces pillage the cities of Thrace, but they suffer some minor defeats by local forces led by the Romano-Thracian nobleman Priscus. The latter is declared Caesar by the province of Thrace. Decius marches from Rome to Thrace where he smashes Priscus' insurrection, but wages war against the Goths with mixed results. He apparently also inflicted defeats on the Carpi, as he took the title of "Dacicius Maximus" in this year. In his absence, a man of influence living in Rome herself, Julius Valens Licinianus, briefly revolted but was put down.

251 - In June, Decius is defeated and killed by Kniva's Goths at the Battle of Abrittus. He is succeeded by the consular politician Caius Vibius Trebonianus Gallus, who bribes Kniva into withdrawing from Roman territory. Trebonianus declares his son Volusianus, and Decius' son Hostilianus, to be his joint heirs, but the latter dies in an outbreak of plague. This same plague sweeps across the Roman world, killing tens of thousands of people. It is modernly known as the Cyprianic Plague, because a Christian teacher named Cyprianus wrote about it.

252 - Another very dark year in the Roman Empire; more Gothic bands cross the Danube and Trebonianus is unable or refuses to pay tribute to Shapur of Persia, who is looking to expand his western borders into the "ancestral" territories of his people in Asia Minor. Shapur launches two assaults - one against Roman Mesopotamia and another against Armenia, both of which are ravaged by his forces. A huge force of Roman legionaries begin to muster at an Eastern city called Barbalissos, but they are butchered by a sudden Persian attack. Shapur then advances into Syria and takes Antioch.

253 - Uranius Antoninus, the Romano-Syrian priest king of Emesa, revolts against Trebonianus' rule. In the meantime, Trebonianus dispatches the Mauretanian general Aemilius Aemilianus to fight against the Carpi, who continue to menace the Danube frontier. Aemilianus decisively defeats them, and his admiring soldiers hail him as emperor. Trebonianus sends Valerianus out to defeat Aemilianus, but Valerian also revolts. When they see the size of Aemilian's quickly approaching army, Trebonianus' men kill him and presumably his young son Volusianus. Aemilian's men in turn go mutinous and murder him when they see Valerian's approaching army. In this most confusing year, Valerian marches on Rome where the Senators declare him Caesar. He declares his son Gallienus to be his heir, and prepares to regain the lost eastern territory from Shapur. In the meantime, Goth pirates wreck havoc in the eastern Mediterranean.

254 - Goths are still pillaging Thrace and the Balkans. Marcomanni and other Germanic and Sarmatian peoples rampage across Pannonia before crossing the Alps with the intent of attacking Rome itself. They are defeated and dispersed at Ravenna. In the East, Shapur takes Nisibis but Valerian recaptures Antioch and puts the rebel Uranius Antoninus to death.

255-257 - Fighting in the East continues, but overall favors the Persians; Dura Europos is sacked and destroyed probably in 256. Gothic pirates raid Asia Minor. Late in 256 Valerian leaves the chaotic east in the hands of his best generals and returns to Rome. In 257 Valerian revives Decius' persecution of the Christians.

258-260 - Valerian is again campaigning in the East, and Gallienus campaigns along the Rhine. Though Gallienus inflicts defeats on the Alamanni, his son Saloninus is killed by the Roman usurper Postumus, who declares a "Gallic Empire" consisting of Gaul, Spain, Roman Germany, and Britain. In the East, Valerian is defeated and famously captured by Shapur and so goes done in history as the first and only Roman emperor to be taken alive in battle. The loss of Valerian is followed by a rash of rebellions by his eastern generals, including Macrianus the Elder and the Younger, Ballista, and Quietus. In Pannonia Ingenuus and Regalianus make their claims for the purple; the latter is a Romanized Dacian and an alleged descendant of Decebalus. Ingenuus is quickly defeated and killed by the Gallic general Aurelous. In Palmyra, Odenathus, husband of Zenobia and hateful enemy of Shapur, is also declared Caesar, and rules the breakaway "Palmyran Empire" that comes to consist of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and southern Asia Minor. Gallienus does manage to defeat the Alamanni at Mediolanum, and ends the persecution of Christians.

261 - Another ugly year for usurpations. Aurelous manages to defeat the Macriani. Odenathus takes Emesa from the Empire, but also puts down the usupers Quietus and Ballista; shortly before, Ballista had inflicted a minor defeat on Shapur and had famously captured his harem, near Pompeipolis. A Roman named Mussius Aemilianus revolts against Gallienus, as do two Romanized Greeks living in Thessalia, Piso and Valens.

262 - Gallienus' competent general Aurelous revolts briefly - probably at the demand of his soldiers - but is defeated and surrenders to Gallienus. Aemilianus is arrested and executed.

C. 263 - The Greek revolts of Piso and Valens were put down by this year at the latest.

264 - Gallienus tours Greece before going to war along the Danube. In addition to defeating Sarmatians, he also brings an end to the revolt of the Dacian general Regalianus.

265 - Gallienus is defeated trying to re-conquer Postumus' Gallic Empire

266-267 - Hard fighting against Germanic pirates in the Balkans and Greece; the Athenian leader Publius Herennius Dexippos inflicts defeats on the Goths and Heruli, but Athens is sacked by them as are Korinth and Argos. Gallienus destroys the pirates who sacked Athens, but Byzantium and cities in Asia Minor are pillaged by Heruli and Goths, respectively. In the East, Odenathus is killed and succeeded by his wife Zenobia, and their minor son Vaballathus.

268 - Gallienus is again in the West. He defeats Goths and Heruli at Naissus, but then receives word of a second revolt headed by Aurelous, in northern Italy. Aurelous had previously been defeated by Gallienus, but had been mercifully pardoned. Aurelous set his headquarters up in Mediolanum, which was promptly besieged by Gallienus. A conspiracy against the latter was formed by several of his senior officers - including the elderly Marcus Aurelius Claudius and Lucius Domitius Aurelianus. Gallienus and his wife Salonina were both murdered, and Claudius became Emperor. His first act is to execute Aurelous.

269-270 - Claudius inflicts defeats on the Goths, Heruli, and Alamanni. He particularly hammers the Goths and wins the cognomen of Gothicus. He dies of a new outbreak of plague at Sirmium, and is succeeded by his heir Aurelianus. Claudius' brother Quintillus, also an elderly military man, briefly tried to establish himself as Claudius' rightful heir but was hung by his soldiers. Late in 270 the Palmyrenes occupy Egypt whilst Aurelian goes to Rome to make his claim legitimate.

271 - Aurelian defeats Vandals, Juthungi, and Sarmatians and orders that a new wall be built for Rome - a measure that no previous emperor had found necessary. The names of several minor military usurpers - Domitianus, Septimius, and Urbanus - date to about this year, but none of their revolts lasted long.

272 - Rome's fortunes began to significantly look up in this year. Shapur in Persia finally died and was succeeded by Hormizd the First. Aurelian evacuated Roman forces from Dacia, leaving it for the Goths and Heruli to take, but destroys the last of the Goths that remain in the Balkans. In his most famous campaign, Aurelian descends upon the Palmyran Empire. He defeats Zenobia at Immae before taking Palmyra and bringing Egypt and the East back under Roman rule.

273 - Another busy year for Aurelian, who effectively destroys the Dacian Carpi, visits Egypt, puts down the revolt of the Palmyrene nobleman Antiochus, and returns to Rome where he holds his triumph and makes a display of Zenobia, the captured Palmyrene empress. Some traditions hold that he executed her, others that he spared her.

274 - Aurelian brings the Gallic Empire back into the Roman Empire by winning a pyrrhic victory over its emperor Tectricus, whom he spares. The Roman Empire is finally completely reunited.

275 - Aurelian tours the Danube provinces whilst planning an invasion of Persia. Several of his Praetorian officers are wrongly told that he is planning to execute them, and in their panic and rage they kill Aurelian. A very old senator named Marcus Aurelius Tacitus is chosen to succeed him.

276 - Tacitus inflicts a defeat on the Goths and plans to go ahead with Aurelian's proposed invasion of Persia. He is murdered by his troops while on his way to the East. His brother and Praetorian prefect, Annius Florianus, is declared emperor but killed within a matter of days. The decorated military man Marcus Aurelius Probus is declared emperor with the enthusiatic support of the Eastern legions.

277 - Probus defeats yet more Gothic raiders into the Empire.

278 - Probus tours Gaul and the Rhine frontier, putting down local revolts and driving out Germanic raiding parties.

C. 279-282 - Probus continues to restore order in Europe, and puts down the revolts of Bonosus and Proculus in Gaul. Probus also holds a triumph in Rome before going East to defeat the Blemmyes in Africa and the Isaurians and bandits of Lydus in Asia minor. He also puts down the revolt of Saturninus of Antioch, but shortly thereafter is murdered by his soldiers in Egypt, apparently at the instigation of his Praetorian prefect Marcus Aurelius Carus.

283 - Carus and his son Carinus inflict defeats on the Sarmatians before going East. They launch an invasion of Persia, which was currently lacking in strong leadership, and remarkably manage to take and sack the capital of Ctesiphon. Legend has it that Carus was killed by a stroke of lightning as he prepared to march his army farther east.

284-285 - Carinus and Numerianus, the sons of Carus, lead their father's army out of Persia, but Carinus dies, probably murdered, on the way. Numerianus puts down the revolt of one Julianus, who commits suicide by immolation. But immediately afterwards, the prefect Aurelius Diocles kills him and is declared emperor. He becomes known as Diocletian, and with his colleague Maximianus was among the first to guide Rome out of the carnage of the Third Century Crisis.
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Old April 15th, 2010, 10:39 AM   #2

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Re: The Crisis of the Third Century

Very interesting.

I personally don't think Rome ever recovered from the crisis of the third century, the Rome that emerged was no-longer an empire, more isolated regions clinging together out of fear of what's outside.
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Old April 15th, 2010, 11:34 AM   #3
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Re: The Crisis of the Third Century

This period was far more complex than commonly thought; I will highly recommend Aurelian and the Third Century, by Alaric Watson (1999); a couple of extracts:
The lack of reliable information on the period has had two important effects. On the one hand it has, at least until recently, discouraged serious study. In this way the period has effectively been skipped over, thereby foreshortening the tunnel and throwing the periods at either end into even starker contrast.
On the other hand, the portrayal of the third century as a Roman Dark Age has inevitably encouraged the attribution of observable changes in the empire to this period about which in fact very little is known. Both of these effects have tended to heighten the sense of catastrophe and to obscure continuity, allowing gradual developments and long-term trends to become easily overlooked.
The phenomenon of the ‘tunnel’ has thus helped to foster the characterization of the age in which Aurelian lived as one in which the Roman world was plunged into a crisis which precipitated the collapse of the classical world and out of which emerged the very different world of late antiquity. The label ‘crisis’ is, however, rather misleading.
In trying to make sense of this pivotal period of Roman history it is vital to retain a sense of proportion. In the first place, it is difficult to defend the application of the term ‘crisis’ to a period of half a century or more.
Second, the term is usually applied genetically, and somewhat indiscriminately, to a number of different developments in the military, political, social and economic spheres, the timings of which do not precisely coincide…

The mid-third century is often portrayed as an artistic Dark Age, heralding the death of classical culture. This is much too simplistic.
Largely due to the changes in the economic climate discussed above, the era of extravagant municipal building programmes that characterized the Severan age did indeed grind to a halt and monumental architecture is therefore very much less abundant than in the preceding period. Conversely, some other arts were at their peak in this period: the mosaics of the mid-to-late third century are especially fine and the art of coin design and die-cutting reached unsurpassed heights in the 260s.
Rhetoric and philosophy also flourished. One of the greatest cultural achievements of the third century was the emergence of Neoplatonism, a religious philosophy expounded by the Greek philosopher Plotinus in Rome in the midthird century. Championed by his pupil, Porphyry, and counting the fourth-century emperor Julian among its followers, Neoplatonism came to exert a profound influence on the subsequent development
of pagan thought in the fourth century.
Religion in the Roman world embraced a wide variety of beliefs and cultic practices and had a number of social, political and cultural dimensions.
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Old April 16th, 2010, 12:55 AM   #4

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Re: The Crisis of the Third Century

Originally Posted by Toltec View Post
Very interesting.

I personally don't think Rome ever recovered from the crisis of the third century, the Rome that emerged was no-longer an empire, more isolated regions clinging together out of fear of what's outside.
Really? I'd disagree. The Dominate was a far more centralised empire then the Principate had ever been or even tried to be. The post-Diocletian empire was certainly an empire and a very centralised one at that. However it hadn't solved the problem that tore down the Principate from within and against a background of various other factors (a permanently declined economy, etc) the civil wars kept wrecking the structure of the empire. I'm inclined to think that despite all this the Dominate preserved the empire, or at least stopped it from declining any faster. The Principate in essence was a sharade, a monarchy in disguise and it had run its course, the Dominate never pretended to be not a monarchy, on the contrary it was closer to Hellenistic kingship then any other Roman regime up until then.
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Old April 17th, 2010, 05:04 PM   #5

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Re: The Crisis of the Third Century

I am not knowladgeable about the "Crisis" at all, but here is an article that popped into my bin while looking for something else.

Mapping the Crisis of the Third Century
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