4 Reasons Why Third Century Rome Was in Crisis - And How it Was Fixed
4 Reasons Why Third Century Rome Was in Crisis – And How it Was Fixed

4 Reasons Why Third Century Rome Was in Crisis – And How it Was Fixed

Patrick Lynch - March 7, 2017

4 Reasons Why Third Century Rome Was in Crisis – And How it Was Fixed
Bust of Aurelian or Claudius II. Total War Center. Possible Confusion

4 – Disaster & Depopulation

There were already clear signs of depopulation in Italy by the second century AD and this ‘decay’ canceled out any progress made in provinces such as Gaul and Germany. The economic depression resulted in a greater degree of self-sufficiency amongst citizens of the Empire, and they began to cultivate large estates. The result was downsizing in the size of towns and cities, and this decentralization damaged the very structure of Rome.

Although the crisis had been decades or arguably centuries in the making, matters were not helped by the Plague of Cyprian that broke out in 251 AD. This pandemic, almost certainly smallpox, claimed millions of lives throughout the Empire. At its worst, the plague killed up to 5,000 people a day. It began in Ethiopia in 250 AD and reached Rome by 251. It ultimately spread all the way to Greece and Syria and lasted for approximately 20 years.

The series of attacks on the Empire’s frontiers only exacerbated the effect of the plague, and it led to spells of drought, famine, and floods which devastated the population. It was named after the Bishop of Carthage, Saint Cyprian, who said it was possibly a sign that the world was coming to an end. The plague even claimed the life of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus in 270 AD. Oddly enough, this event might have helped end the crisis in the long term because his successor, Quintillus, reigned for just a few months and was replaced by Aurelian who transformed the Empire’s fortunes.

Before the Plague of Cyprian, the Empire was suffering from a depopulation problem, and the issue got substantially worse as a significant percentage of its population was wiped out. As well as killing farmers, it weakened the army to the extent that it is remarkable that Aurelian achieved so many military successes.

4 Reasons Why Third Century Rome Was in Crisis – And How it Was Fixed
Diocletian. Pinterest

Diocletian & the End of the Crisis

Aurelian deserves much of the credit for helping to bring the crisis to an end, but it was Diocletian who ended it conclusively. He seized the throne in 284 AD and proceeded to restore efficient government to the Empire. Diocletian realized the problems Rome had faced in the previous half-century and took measures to ensure there was no repeat during his reign.

First and foremost, he moved to restore the supreme authority of the role of Emperor that was sorely lacking during the Third Century crisis. Aurelian had attempted the same by proclaiming himself as ‘Dominus et Deus’ (Lord and God). Diocletian assumed this title and also insisted on elaborate monarchial ceremonies, like those performed by rulers in the East, to ensure he was seen as ‘godlike.’ It was the end of the era of ‘the first citizen’ as Diocletian was determined that the Emperor could not have his authority questioned.

Rather than try to rule the vast Empire by himself, however, Diocletian was happy to share power and responsibility. During the Crisis, emperors had no trustworthy people around them, so power-sharing was virtually impossible. Diocletian had no such problems as he appointed his friend Maximian as co-Augustus. Another problem was the lack of heirs. Diocletian found a solution to this issue by appointing Galerius and Constantius as ‘Caesars’; they were groomed as successors.

It was a good idea in theory as there was one leader for each frontier (Rhine, Danube and the east) with another person in reserve. In 305 AD, Diocletian and Maximian stepped down and allowed both Caesars to assume power. It was a mistake as Maximian lusted after the throne and attempted to seize power the following year in what was the beginning of yet another vicious civil war.

Diocletian tried to build upon the economic reforms of Aurelian by introducing new, purer coins. The solidus became the Empire’s standard currency. Diocletian also created the Edict of Prices to try and curb inflation, established a land tax and a ‘head’ tax. The new tax system enabled the Empire to accurately calculate the amount of tax it should receive on an annual basis, and this allowed it to plan ahead. He reformed the military by increasing the amount of cavalry and creating faster-moving armies designed to react to trouble wherever it occurred.

Although the Third Century crisis began with the death of Alexander Severus, it was the Severan Dynasty that caused a lot of the problems in the first place. The increased presence of the military in politics coupled with vast salary increases gave soldiers a dangerous amount of power. They could, and often did, choose an emperor almost on a whim and kill the old one.

The increased level of military expenditure, coupled with the debasing of the currency, resulted in a severe economic crisis that damaged Rome’s trading network. Citizens started to barter, create large estates and move away from urban areas which led to depopulation. Frontier tribes and enemies such as the Sassanids began to advance as they saw a chance to capitalize on a weakening Rome and to cap everything off; a deadly plague came and killed millions of people over a 20 year period.

Although Diocletian is widely credited with bringing a halt to the crisis, the work of Aurelian should not go unnoticed. As well as defeating most of Rome’s enemies in a very short space of time, he initiated several reforms that Diocletian built on a decade later. The Empire survived but was changed forever.