The crisis of the third century

Political in-fighting, greedy factions seeking power, and threats from outside the borders – the Roman Empire of the third century had more than its share of troubles. Troubles enough to almost bring it down to destruction.

The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus by Carle Vernet

Hence, the crisis of the third century.

It is a story that not only teaches us about how Rome worked but, even 18 centuries later, it still holds lessons for us in our day.

So put on your best toga and spiffy up the chariot – we're headed into ancient Rome.

The cast of characters

The Roman crisis of the third century was the perfect storm of many different factors. We'll focus on three of them.

Uneasy is the head that wears the crown

When Rome began becoming a force in the world it did so as a republic. At the heart of the republic was an elected body known as the Senate. (guess where the United States got its congressional name from?)

The Senate was the ruling body; passing laws, agreeing on treatises, and so on.

And so it came to pass that Roman influence grew across the world.

And with its growth came the ambitious, such as Julius Caesar. He got himself put himself in as dictator for life and ended up getting himself killed because of it. His adopted son, Octavian, took up the cause and, after a series of civil wars, ended up the victor and in total charge of the army.

Rome was at his mercy.

The be sure, Octavian wanted total power just like Julius, but he also realized that Romans hated the idea of having a king; they had some bad experiences with them early in their history. That was Julius' mistake.

He had to be more subtle. So he and the Senate orchestrated a little political theater for the general public.

Octavian marched into the Senate hall to lay down his command of the army. He told them he wanted to return to normal, civilian life.

"No," the Senate would protest according to the prewritten script, "you must take on total political power!"

No!,” Octavian protested with the right amount of false indignation, “I want to withdraw from public life!”

You must, for the good of the republic,” The Senate responded.

And so after the right amount of going back and forth Octavian would "give in" to "save the republic." It was one of the great con jobs in the ancient world. Octavian got his complete power and the republic becomes an empire, all the while everybody still felt like they're in a republic, and Octavian is the hero of the day.

Octavian takes on the title “Augustus” and even changes his name to this – Augustus Caesar.

Historical correction: Roman emperors took on the title of Augustus, not Caesar. In time, the title Caesar was given to those the Emperor chose as his successor – something like today's crown prince.

There is an important point to our tale that must be made here. Legally, it was always the Senate that appointed the next Augustus. The current Augustus could choose who he wanted to replace him, the Caesar. But it was up to the Senate to make the actual appointment.

This is important!

The muscle

The Romans didn't carve out an empire by being nice guys. It was created with the sword.

But, as it says in scripture, “all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” This was certainly true for Rome.

It didn't take long for the army, and the generals who led them, to realize that they could remove any Augustus they wanted and can even put in someone else at their choosing. Thus, things got pretty bad for the empire.

How bad did it get?

On March 28, 193 Emperor Pertinax was killed by the soldiers over their not getting their promised pay. This same group then turned around and held an auction. An ancient eBay if you will. On the auction block was nothing less than the emperorship itself.

Incidentally, the winner was a man named Didius Julianus; not that it did him much good, however. He promised more than he could pay, and so the army ended up killing him and putting someone else in.

Really not a good way to run a government.

Guess who's coming for dinner?

It is in the nature of nations to have neighbors.

Some mean you well, others do not. For the Romans, their European neighbors were collectively called barbarians and they had a nasty habit of trying to invade Roman territory with the object of plundering the people and then taking over their land.

Preventing these unwanted guests was the task of the Roman army. The Roman frontier was lined with soldiers, forts, and even walls.

Ruins of Hadrian's Wall, England

The Roman peace and prosperity were therefore always in tension, resting on the strength of their legions keeping the frontier strong. It was a dike just waiting to spring a leak.

The perfect storm

On March 19, 235 the storm started to blow.

The Augustus Severus Alexander was murdered without a Caesar or anybody who had a solid claim for the job. So, three generals applied for the job.

Well, applying may be a nice way of saying this. Actually, they claimed to be the next emperor and set up their own empires. Civil war broke out and all chaos with it. Over the next 50 years, no less than 26 people were declared as Emperor by the Senate; in one year alone no less than 6 men were proclaimed Emperor.

As if all this weren't enough, the generals were so eager to gain control that they did not leave enough soldiers to hold out the barbarians. They started pouring into the Empire and wreaking havoc.

The Empire was blowing apart.

The storm blows over

The man who brought this crisis to an end was Emperor Diocletian.

Bust of the head of Diocletian, photo taken by Giovanni Dall'Orto

On the whole, I like Diocletian. (OK, as a Christian I cannot approve his persecution of Christians. But, I can at least appreciate that he may have been motivated by a need to create stability in the chaos.)

Huge tasks, no? But what is equally impressive to me about him is that he seems to put the interest of his people over his own ambition – a novelty in the world of the powerful.

The storm's aftermath

The Empire was saved, but not completely. It would never be the same again.

But also, something else happened to the Empire. People were getting tired of paying ever-increasing taxes to an Empire that couldn't protect them from barbarians or even other soldiers.

This crisis set the stage for the ultimate failure of the Empire. A century later the barbarians would come through the frontier and carve up the Western Empire. In the end, the empire would fall, as one historian put it, due to a lack of interest.

These seeds in the third century would produce bitter fruit in the centuries to come.

Indeed, all those who lived through all this are long since deceased, their buildings now in ruins and their Empire nothing more than the stuff of history books. But the lessons of the past still can teach us lessons. In the crisis of the third century we see what can come when people let their blind greed motivate them at the cost of all else – especially of those in positions of power or influence.

It is a somber reminder to us all.

Fun for the family

Asterix Comics

I fell in love with these comics as a youth. Originally a french comic series, it has been written in English as well as a host of other languages. They might be a bit weak in the historical, education value, but still are just a lot of fun.

The year is 50 B.C. Gaul (aka France) was completely conquered by Julius Caesar and his mighty legions – except for one small village. This village, usually called the indomitable Gauls, can hold out since their local druid, Getafix, has a potion that gives temporary super-human strength to whoever drinks it.

The main character, Asterix, is very short but the brains in all the adventures. His side-kick, Obelix, fell in a vat of potion as a child and has permanent super strength.

Each episode takes them on different adventures, which usually involves beating up on local Romans. Hey, I'm a Roman-phile and I love these.

You can view the comics online.

Great films

The Fall of the Roman Empire

(1964) This is a very entertaining classic movie. Here it combines many of the elements of the Roman Empire and how it was set in a direction towards its collapse in the end.

On the web

Crisis of the Third Century of the Roman Empire DOCUMENTARY

This video animation goes over the crisis. It does a very good job of helping the viewer appreciate the chaos of this time.

A List of the Roman Emperors and their Deeds

A quick tour of the Roman emperors and what they did.

Ancient Roman Music (118 Minutes)

Enjoyable music from Roman times.

Roman Battle Music & Epic Roman Music

More music.

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