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.