Crisis of the Third Century

gigatos | April 20, 2023


The crisis of the third century of the Roman Empire encompasses, according to contemporary historians, the years 235 (death of Severus Alexander and advent of Maximin) to 284 or 285 (death of Carin and advent of Diocletian). It occurs while the dynasty of the Severus is extinguished which, after the troubles of 193-195, had managed to give a certain stability to the empire.

Governed by the so-called “soldier-emperors”, the empire had to face internally a series of political, economic, social, religious and moral crises. Externally, many Germanic tribes threatened the Imperium Romanum, while the new Persian Empire of the Sassanids, adopting an aggressive policy, sought to expand at the expense of the Roman Empire. These new invasions to the north and east put a strain on the army’s ability to protect the borders. Moreover, numerous coups d’état, the temporary secession of certain territories (the “Gallic Empire” from 260 to 274 and the Empire of Palmyra around the same period), the paralysis of the means of transport, the fiscal pressure and the crisis of production affecting the provinces brought the empire to the brink of collapse. The crisis reached its peak in 260, but thanks to in-depth reforms of the army and the economy on the one hand, and the easing of barbarian pressure on the other, the Roman state managed to stabilize itself and the empire survived. This last phase of the principate ends with the arrival to power of Diocletian (284

The Roman history of the third century has been for many years the object of lively discussions between specialists who agree with the traditional opinion according to which one attends during this century to an ineluctable decline, result of a crisis of the system which extends to all the sectors of the empire. Others are much more cautious and, without calling into question the various crises which arise until 260, see in this period rather a phase of transition during which one passes from Antiquity to Late Antiquity, or from the High Empire to the Low Empire, period which carries in it many promises of regeneration, certain provinces, far from taking part in the general decline of the empire would have known on the contrary a remarkable development. Some scholars go so far as to question the use of the concept of “crisis” to describe the situation that prevailed in the third century.

From Maximin “the Thracian” to Valerian

In 192, the emperor Commodus was assassinated by the Praetorians. A period of civil war began and lasted until February 197, date of the victory of Lyon. This civil war opposed Italy to the provinces, the Senate to the army, the legions of Rome to those of the provinces, the East to the West. The year 193 alone saw five emperors succeed one another. Once got rid of the other pretenders, Septimius Severus succeeds in stabilizing the empire somewhat, but the army plays a role in the choice of the holder of the imperial office. This one, whose fidelity is ensured only by generous gifts in money, becomes more and more difficult to control. The young Severus Alexander (222-235), inexperienced and weak of character, was assassinated by the revolting troops in 235 near Mainz. To replace him, the army chose as emperor an officer, Maximin the Thracian (235-238). The information we have on this emperor is questionable, as the sources are biased. He was probably not a senator, but rather belonged, like Macrin before him, to the order of knights. Moreover, he was descended from a family that had only recently become Roman citizens, although his wife was probably a member of the nobility. His relations with the Senate were tense because he refused to go to Rome and showed only polite respect to this institution. Even if, in fact, the Senate did not have any more real power at the time of the emperors, the institution remained nevertheless haloed of a great prestige. When Maximin came to power, he had to deal with a discontent which was sometimes expressed very openly, because the sources mention an attempt of revolt on behalf of the troops stationed in Mainz as well as another in the East, attempts which, if they took place indeed, failed. Little by little, Maximin managed to consolidate his power thanks to, among other things, distributions of money to the soldiers as well as to the population of Rome. In 235 and 236, he led several extremely brutal but successful campaigns against the Germans on the Rhine. It is possible that a battlefield discovered in 2008 near Kalefeld in Lower Saxony was the scene of one of these battles. If this is true, Maximin’s troops would have advanced almost to the Elbe River.

In 238 a revolt broke out in the province of Africa against Maximin, whose relations with many senators had not improved in the meantime. Under the pressure of the events, Maximin had to increase the taxes to pay the legions, which caused the discontent of the provinces. The Senate also took a stand against Maximin, especially since a usurper, Gordian I (238), who was acclaimed emperor in Africa after having had Maximin’s local supporters, including the praetor and the prefect of the city, assassinated, promised to improve relations with Rome. Nearly half the province went over to the usurper, who appointed his son, who bore the same name, as co-emperor. This last however was assassinated in spring 238 by loyal troops. Shortly after, in despair, Gordian I committed suicide. The Senate, which had to face the measures of retaliation that Maximin already intended to take against him, hastened to elect two of its own, the senators Pupien and Balbin (238), that one will call from then on the “emperor-senators”. The process was more than questionable. However, Rome was in the grip of an agitation whose aim was to bring to power an emperor close to the Gordians. The young Gordian III, a grandson of Gordian I, was proclaimed Caesar while Pupien and Balbin conducted the affairs of state.

Pupian then marched against Maximin, who was laying siege to Aquileia. Maximin was eventually murdered along with his son by disgruntled soldiers. The death of Maximin was not to bring any respite, however, for a conflict broke out between Pupian and Balbin. Moreover the praetorian guard, which constituted an important element of the power in Rome, also threatened the authority of the government. Not only it did not agree with the appointment of the emperor-senators, but also it feared to be replaced by a new unit. On July 29, 238, the praetorians mounted a successful coup against Pupien and Balbin, following which they acclaimed Gordian III as Augustus. This last, a young man of thirteen years resulting from the senatorial aristocracy, tried to return gradually to the principles which had been those of the Severus in the conduct of the affairs of the State. The year 238 could thus be qualified as “year of the six emperors”.

The end of the political confusion which had marked the year 238 contributed only half to stabilize the situation: the wars against Maximin had exhausted the public treasury and the economic situation was precarious. To that were added the threats of outside. On the Rhine, the Alamanni were increasing their pressure, while the Goths were gathering on the border of the Danube and spreading unrest there. It is true that the situation was not new, as these borders had always been threatened; this time, however, the permanence and omnipresence of the pressure increased the danger. As they encircled the empire and ended up joining, the tribes who became aware of their common origins tended to group together in confederations (or gentes like the Alamanni or the Franks), which by reinforcing their military capacities increased the danger for Rome. In 238 also began the descent of the Goths on the Roman Empire. The Goths led their first attacks by seizing the city of Histros south of the Danube while the Carps infiltrated the province of Lower Mesia. The Greek historian Dexippus portrayed the battles against the Germanic invaders in his work (of which we have only fragments), The Scythians, the generic name by which Greek authors called all these nomadic tribes. According to Dexippus, the year 238 marked the beginning of the “Scythian wars”. Until 248, the Goths kept the peace while the Carps continued their offensive.

The defensive wars that Rome had to support on the Danube since the third decade of the third century constituted however a lesser danger than what was preparing at the same time in the east of the empire. The new Persian empire of the Sassanids constituted indeed a much greater danger than the joint attacks of the Germanic tribes. The Sassanids had risen against the domination of the Parthians in 226 and had replaced the rather loose empire of these by a powerful centralized state, equipped with an imposing army by its quality and whose principal element was the caparisoned cavalry. The Sassanid Empire, which could also boast a rich cultural heritage going back a long way, was to prove to be Rome’s powerful rival in the East for 400 years. The Persian king Ardashir I, who wanted to legitimize his power by military conquests, had already led first attacks at the time of Severus Alexander and had seized in 236 the important cities of Nisibis and Karrhai.

Gordian III tried to establish good relations with the Senate and to look after the wellbeing of the citizens of Rome. In 241, he appointed Timesitheus to the post of prefect of the praetorium, which allowed him to take the direction of the affairs of the state. Gordian married his daughter the same year. Outside, the Eastern border remained a burning issue. The Sassanids had succeeded in 240 to seize the city of Hatra, capital of the kingdom of the same name. However, research seems to contradict the assertions of some Western sources that the Sassanids actually conducted attacks against the territories of the former Achaemenid kingdom. On the one hand, it is not certain that the Sassanids had an accurate knowledge of ancient history, on the other hand, it may be only a Roman interpretation. The ruin of the kingdom of Hatra, which played an important role as a buffer state on the border between the two empires, provided the pretext for new battles between Rome and Persia, which took on an important symbolic value in Rome: Gordian left the door of the temple of Janus open to emphasize that Rome was at war. He implored the assistance of the goddess Athena Promachos, who had helped the Greeks in their own wars against the Persians, and instituted in Rome a cult of the goddess Minerva identified with Athena. Finally, he went in 242 with Timésithée on the Eastern border of the empire. After some initial successes, during which Timésithée was to lose his life, the Romans suffered a major defeat against the Persians led by the new king Sapor I at the battle of Mesiche or Misikhè (today Al-Anbar near Falloujah, Iraq), probably in February 244. Gordian lost his life during this battle, either as a result of wounds in battle, or of a machination of the new prefect of the praetorium, Philip the Arab.

Philip (244-249), Arab of origin and son of a sheik, succeeded Gordian. Its first priority was to conclude peace with Persians what it obtained it seems thanks to the payment of a strong tribute. Philip was very conscious of the need to legitimize his power and maintained according to all the appearances of excellent relations with the Senate. It allowed to raise Gordian with the row of the gods, trying in this way to join again with the traditions of the dynasty of the Severes. This did not prevent several uprisings from taking place during his reign which were repressed with force but relatively quickly until the last one in 249. The year 248 allowed him to celebrate at great expense the millennium of the foundation of Rome and to increase his popularity. It is probably in this context that Gaius Asinius Quadratus finished his work, History of the thousand years of Rome, of which only various fragments reached us. The foreign policy remained worrying, but remained under control. In 245 and 246, Philip made campaign against the Carps in the area of the Danube, which finally had to ask for peace. But this area continued to be the most threatened border zone of the empire, because after the defeat of the Carps, it was the turn of the Scythians, thus Goths, to invade the territory and to infiltrate in Thrace. They laid siege to Marcianopolis, a siege they eventually abandoned. Jordanes, who wrote 300 years later, based on a History of the Goths, now disappeared, maintains that the Romans would have paid a strong sum to the Goths so that they move away. The following year, Philip was to be overthrown by a military coup led by the general Decius who had led victorious campaigns against the Goths in this same region of the Danube. Acclaimed emperor by his troops, he confronted Philip whom he defeated and killed during a battle.

Decius (249-251), who took the ambitious nickname of Trajan at his accession, belonged to the senatorial aristocracy. Wanting to give new vigor to the ancestral traditions, he tried to preserve the cult of the gods and led a policy hostile to the Christians. An edict of 250 ordered all citizens of the empire to offer sacrifices to the gods. For Decius, religion was a matter of patriotism as much as a religious issue and he put the Christians in the position of choosing between their faith and death. This was the first real persecution of Christians on an empire-wide scale. In the eyes of the traditionalist that Decius was, a religion like that of the Christians, by opposing the cult of the gods, constituted a provocation. It should be remembered that in Rome the gods played an important role as protectors of the state. The Christians hardly expected such rigor. If there were many cases of apostasy, others, like the famous scholar Origen, preferred death. The course of events was however to relegate this question to the second plan: the situation in the area of the Danube soon forced Decius to leave in campaign against the Goths. In 251, he was defeated by King Kniva and lost his life in battle with his son, Herennius Etruscus.

Decius’ successor was Trebonianus Gallus (251-253), one of the few soldier-emperors to be from Italy. He had to make important concessions to the Goths while facing other more urgent problems. An epidemic that seems to have started in what is today Ethiopia spread to North Africa before spreading to the surrounding regions. In the east, the Sassanids continued their attacks on the Roman provinces; Persian troops advanced into Roman Mesopotamia in 252 and occupied Armenia. Meanwhile, the Alamanni remained active in the north. But Trebonianus Gallus had little time to deal with all these problems: he was killed during the military coup fomented by Aemilian in 253. Aemilian (253) himself kept the power only a few weeks. The commander Valerian, whom Aemilian had called for help, turned against him in Italy and Aemilian was assassinated by his own troops. The advent of the new emperor was to bring a respite which was only temporary. Indeed, the problems were to go in worsening and to lead the empire towards a deep crisis.

From Valerian to Claudius the Gothic: external perils and internal upheavals

Valerian (253-260), the new emperor, came from a prominent senatorial family. Yet little is known about his relationship with the Senate. He spent little time in Rome, devoting all his efforts to the defense of the borders. The Balkans remained one of the most threatened regions of the empire. The Goths had tried to penetrate there alone at first, then by allying themselves with the Boranes and by launching their operations from the sea. In 254, they appeared in the Aegean Sea and landed near Thessalonica. The Boranes had already tried without success in 254

The situation turned out to be even more dangerous in the East. The Sassanides who had launched since the years 230 of small offensives against the Romans began under the leadership of Sapor I in 252 or 253 to benefit from the disorders of the empire to launch an offensive of scale. These events are known to us thanks to a gesture in three languages entitled Res gestae divi Saporis that come to supplement various Western sources. The Persian troops succeeded in seizing for a while Antioch, one of the most important and extensive cities of the empire. Shortly afterwards, however, Sapor withdrew. Under the Persian attacks the Roman defense system in the East began to collapse. It had even become impossible for the Roman legions to organize a coordinated defense to such an extent that one of the local chiefs, the king-priest of Emesa, Uranius Antoninus, decided to organize himself the defense of his city against the Persians, thus competing in a more or less open way with the legitimate emperor. The episode had no repercussions, however, as Uranius Antoninus died shortly afterwards, but it played a catalytic role in the events that led to the creation of the separatist principality of Palmyra.

In 256, the same year that the Goths attacked the coasts of Asia Minor, a Persian army entered Mesopotamia. Not only did they seize the fortress of Circesium, but the Persians also took control of Dura Europos, which they destroyed. Now this city played a key role in the Roman defense system of the East. The Roman troops recovered and managed to prevent the Sassanids from going further, even forcing them to retreat. However, these pressures had serious consequences: more than one legion on the northern and eastern fronts were completely exhausted, even if a solution had been found in the constitution of a reserve intervention force on horseback that could intervene on the hot spots.

The following year saw a temporary return to calm on the borders. However, the situation of the empire continued to be precarious, even if the external threat on the Rhine, the Danube and in the East had receded. In the summer of 257 Valerian, continuing the policy of Decius, embarked on a new persecution against the Christians “to ensure the protection of the gods over Rome”. There followed a series of death sentences as well as exiles and confiscations which served the fiscal policy of the government. Among the victims of this new persecution was Cyprian of Carthage. This one did not manage however to repress the advance of Christianity. It was the son of Valerian, Gallien, who was to put an end to this persecution in 260 with the first edict of tolerance granted by the Roman authorities to Christianity.

Gallien (253-268), who had become co-emperor in 253, had received from Valerian the task of protecting the western part of the empire. There too the situation remained most tense as demonstrated by an invasion of Germanic tribes. In 257 or 259, the Franks reached the territory of the Upper Rhine and advanced as far as Spain. Meanwhile, the Alamanni crossed the border of the Upper Rhine

In Asia Minor, the Goths began to stir again. In 258, they seized several cities which they plundered, of which Chalcedon, Nicée and Nicomédie. Valerian went after them in northern Asia Minor in 259, but they had already retreated. Meanwhile, Valerian planned a great offensive against Persia, but Sapor preceded him in 260. At the beginning of the summer, the Roman army which Valerian commanded in person was exterminated at the time of the disaster of Edessa; Valerian himself was made prisoner and brought in captivity. For the first time, an emperor was captured, a profound humiliation for Roman pride. One can read on this subject in the gesture of Sapor:

“In the third campaign, as we were heading towards Karrhai and Edessa and were about to lay siege to these two cities, the emperor Valerian marched against us with an army of 70,000 men. On the battlefield on the other side of Karrhai and Edessa there was a great battle and we took the emperor Valerian prisoner with our own hands and what was left, the prefect of the praetorium, senators and commanders, all those who commanded troops, all of them we took prisoner and deported them to Persia.”

Valerian was deported along with many other Roman prisoners and died in captivity. This catastrophic defeat had terrible repercussions, since there was hardly any Roman army left to oppose the Persians in Mesopotamia, except for some small units. The Persians were free to invade the Eastern provinces. Obviously, Rome had temporarily lost control of this important part of the frontier. Many sources of late antiquity (except however the Historia Augusta close to the Senate), are very critical towards Valerian. The task which awaited his successor, Gallien, was colossal.

The period from 260 to 268 during which Gallien ruled alone marked the height of the crisis. His room for maneuver was extremely limited, as both the western and eastern borders of the empire were threatened almost simultaneously. After Valerian was taken prisoner, the defense of the eastern frontiers collapsed almost completely. Revolts led to coup attempts, which were however quickly suppressed. Macrian was acclaimed emperor by the eastern armies but was defeated in 261 by loyal troops. If one trusts the sources, Gallien did nothing to make release his father. This one ended his days in prison, emperor already forgotten. However calm did not return inside and of the uprisings took place: in 260, Ingenuus rose in the Balkans and Regalianus in the area of the Danube; these two attempts were repressed. These attempted coups, as well as others of a more local and less extensive character but which nonetheless monopolized the troops, highlighted one of the main problems of the regime of soldier-emperors, particularly from the 250s onwards: they remained at the mercy of the troops who had acclaimed them and could be overthrown as easily as they had been elected, so that few of them died a natural death. The system of acceptance on which the principate was based was proving increasingly problematic. Since the rules of succession were not defined by law, the legitimacy of each princeps was essentially based on the goodwill of the army, the Senate and the people of Rome. If the emperor of the moment lost a few battles, it was almost certain that a usurper would try to overthrow him. At a point where the army was practically the only decision-making body, the troops would compete with each other and put forward several candidates. The combat zones thus became an opportunity to seize the throne. All it took was for the emperor to be occupied elsewhere, and the troops would acclaim their victorious general as the new emperor, giving rise to civil wars that could only be taken advantage of by external enemies who were aware of the internal dissensions of the empire. The one who came out victorious in the civil war could in turn only deal with a certain number of problems and was forced to delegate a large authority to his commanders on the ground who, if they came out victorious in the conflicts in which they were engaged, did not cease to aspire to the supreme power. The danger thus came mainly from the legions located on the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates, even of Brittany. It is against these real threats as well as apprehended that Gallien had to fight to stabilize its capacity.

The attempts of Rome to push back the Persians who had again taken again the control of Antioch in 260, proved ineffective until the exarch (and later, prince) of Palmyra, Odénat, was entrusted the supreme command in the East. This one had already tried to reach an agreement with Sapor, but without success. Gallien invests it of the imperium majus for the east and, by creating it corrector totius Orientis, made in fact its representative in the area. Gallien did not have much choice, because he did not have the resources necessary to fight at the same time the Germans, the Gallic secessionist empire (see below) and the Persians. In fact, the forces of Palmyra had succeeded in pushing back the Persians weakened by the preceding fights and did not expect an attack from this direction; in 262

Already in 260, a great part of the Western provinces had made secession to constitute the “Gallic empire” or Imperium Galliarum, which was however only in name and which, during a certain time at least, will include in addition to the Gauls, Spain and Brittany. In the summer of 260, the military commander Postumus had won a victory over some Germanic tribes. But a quarrel about the division of the spoils arose between him and the Caesar Salonin, a son of Gallien, sent by this last one in Gaul like his representative. As a result, Postumus besieged Cologne where Salonin was staying. Salonin was finally handed over to Postumus with his advisor Silvanus and both were executed. Postumus was then acclaimed emperor by his troops and established his residence in Cologne or Trier. Postumus and his successor established until 274 their power on a significant part of the Occident and recorded various successes in the defense of the borders. Gallien retained by a succession of crises, could only act relatively late against Postumus. In 265 (some researchers even advance 266 or 267), it launched an offensive against the Gallic empire. From 269 onwards, however, Postumus’ authority began to be questioned in the Gallic empire itself and he was assassinated shortly after having stifled an attempted usurpation. Like him, his successor had to deal with similar attempts in which economic issues had to play an important role as indicated by the decrease in the fine metal content of coins.

The creation of the Imperium Galliarum followed a little later by that of the principality of Palmyra did not leave any more in 267

“The outcome of the war was decided as much by our calm as by the law of numbers. Our forces are far from being despicable. We have been able to gather two thousand of our own and our garrison is well protected. It is from this garrison that we must come out to defeat our enemies while we attack small groups and ambush them when they pass within our reach. Death indeed strikes all men, but to lose one’s life in battle for one’s homeland is a great honor: eternal Rome. Thus he spoke. The Athenians drew great courage from these words and left to the combat, the heart full of strength. “

Gallien, who had planned a campaign against Postumus and had stopped in Italy, gathered troops as soon as he learned of the Herulian attack and defeated them in a major battle in the spring of 268 near the river Nestos in the Balkans. The Roman Empire was de facto divided into three parts, each of which had to defend its river border (Rhine, Danube, Euphrates).

Military problems were not the only ones facing the empire, however. Structural problems were just as important. The rapid succession of rulers made it impossible to conduct a long-term policy. Moreover, the soldier-emperors were so dependent on the goodwill of their troops that it was impossible for them to maintain discipline. From 268 onwards, many of the last emperor-soldiers came from Illyria, a prime recruiting ground for the army, and were of modest social origin. From 260, parallel to an economic decline, one attends structural changes in the army as well as in the central and provincial administrations. Already under Gordian III, of the uprisings had taken place with the borders of the empire, like in Africa, while with the Senate and in the army, the discontent went while increasing and that the knights replaced the senators in the administration. However, the empire did not break up and, in its broad outlines, the civil and military administration remained intact in the West. It was not the same of the economy which had to face a major crisis. There was a sharp depreciation of the currency because the resources necessary to finance the army and the administration were no longer sufficient, so that from 270 onwards inflation continued to rise.

To face these difficulties, Gallien took various measures which already let foresee those of Diocletian and Constantine while constituting a rupture with what had been done since the beginning of the empire. Thus, he decided although he was himself one of the last emperors to belong to what can be called the nobility, to remove from the senators the command of the legions. In their place, the knights and the soldiers themselves could reach the highest posts until then reserved for the senators. Gallien undoubtedly hoped that those which owed their promotion to him thus would show a greater loyalty than that had been the case with the ambitious senators. His intention was presumably to give these positions to career military men. In effect, these measures sealed the erosion of the powers of the Senate and ended a period during which, since the end of the republic, the Senate had been the prestigious cenacle of the civil and military elite. In 260, Gallien created a unit of reserve formed of horsemen which was to be used as example for the mobile army of the future. It is thus that the legions of the Danube on which relied the emperor took more and more importance. In spite of all these measures, Gallien did not succeed in imposing his power to the size of the empire. In 267 or 268, Aureolus, one of his generals, revolted in the north of Italy: during the siege of Milan, in August or September 268, Gallien died assassinated.

The assessment of the reign of Gallien, the longest reign of the soldier-emperors, differs according to the sources consulted. The Latin written sources are rather negative whereas the Greek ones carry a much more positive judgment, reflecting undoubtedly the interest that Gallien always carried to the Greek culture which it tried to promote. In spite of a difficult situation, Gallien managed to gain some military successes and to implement a certain number of reforms which, although not very systematic, will constitute the first stages of a solution to the crisis which reaches its paroxysm during his reign. It is also true that a number of factors beyond his control, such as invasions and attempted usurpations, weighed heavily on his administration.

Efforts to overcome the crisis

Claudius the Gothic (268-270), successor of Gallien, was confronted as of his accession with the problem of the borders which was still not solved. His reign and that of his successor Aurelian, both of whom were numbered among the “Illyrian emperors”, constituted a turning point in the period of the soldier-emperors. While before them the empire had been continuously on the defensive, these two emperors succeeded in containing the Germanic peril and recovering the lost provinces both in the West and in the East. In 268, the Alamanni crossed the Danube again, obviously with the intention of attacking Italy. Claudius succeeded in stopping the invaders near Lake Garda. In the spring of the following year, the Scythians (meaning the Goths, Heruli and other groups) decided to launch a major offensive, this time by sea. The fleet left the Black Sea to go to the Aegean Sea; a part of the troops disembarked near Thessalonica in front of which one put the seat without success. This expedition seems to have met considerable difficulties. The repeated attacks did not make it possible to seize the cities. When Claude wanted to go to the meeting of the invaders, those evaded and beat in retreat. They were however stopped in the summer 269 near Niš. It is there that Claudius met his great success thanks especially to the cavalry and that he received the nickname of “the Gothic” (to hear “which overcame the Goths”). The second group was to be defeated at sea the following summer in various naval battles.

On the level of the internal policy, Claude made a broad place with the knights of which several owed him their fulgurating rise. If, until 268, the majority of the commanders were senators, it was already not any more the case. Claude and his successors will dispense even, it seems, to be formally given by the Senate the full powers which conferred them the imperium proconsulare maius and the potestas tribunicia, the acclamation by the troops being henceforth sufficient. He also seems not to have taken care of the two separatist territories of Gaul and Palmyra, both because they constituted a useful buffer zone against the enemies from outside and because he did not want to use his limited resources to mount an offensive against them. Similarly, after the death of Postumus, he was able to reannex Spain, which came back under imperial jurisdiction. The bulk of the efforts was rather devoted to the defense of the Danube region. However an epidemic of plague broke out in the Balkans in 270 and the emperor was among the victims. His relations with the Senate which awarded him the greatest honors seem to have been good. In the senatorial annals, he was classified among the heroes, to which we owe the fictitious genealogical connection between Claude and Constantine the Great. In spite of its brevity, this short reign is to be classified among the most remarkable of the time of the “soldier-emperors”.

After the death of Claudius, his younger brother Quintillus (270) was proclaimed emperor. But in September 270, the legions of the Danube acclaimed as emperor Aurelian (270-275), an experienced commander belonging to the order of knights. Soon Aurelian marched on Rome. Quintillus, whom his troops had abandoned, committed suicide or was killed by his own soldiers. It was up to Aurelian to overcome the crisis, at least in part, by using troops whose professionalism some emperors like Gallien had begun to improve. Aurelian had to push back a series of attacks of great scale on behalf of the barbarians. Thus, in the summer of 270 he succeeded in defeating the Jutes who had crossed the Danube. In the following spring, he had to face the invasions of the Vandals in Pannonia, who finally asked for peace and withdrew. Shortly afterwards he repelled, albeit with great difficulty, a joint attack by the Jutes and the Alamanni in Italy. An attempted coup by two usurpers, Septimius and Urbanus, was quickly suppressed. A revolt in Rome caused by the advance of the Jutes was bloodily suppressed, which many historians will later blame on him. Thereafter, Aurelian tried to maintain good relations with the Senate. He erected the wall that bears his name to protect Rome; this was the first time that serious consideration was given to the possibility of the capital being threatened by an enemy from outside. On the Danube front, the situation remained turbulent. In the second half of 271, Aurelian had to go to the eastern front in order to stop a mobilization of Goths, but he had to abandon the province of Dacia, located north of the Danube, which was too exposed to invasions.

In 272, Aurelian turned towards the east. In spring, he entered in campaign against Palmyra whose regime had tried in vain since 270 to obtain the official recognition of Rome. Offended, the son of Zenobia, Wahballat, had taken the title of emperor, thus making himself guilty of usurpation. In June or July 272, the ruler of Palmyra was defeated and the emperor was able to enter the city without fighting the following month. Contrary to what the Historia Augusta claims, there was no siege of the city; it is likely that a “peace party” had the upper hand in the oasis city. Zenobia found herself in prison. The emperor showed a policy of clemency towards the nobility of the country, whose cooperation he obtained. The execution of the philosopher Longinos, who had been one of the advisers of Zenobia, remained the exception. Aurelian thus succeeded in bringing the eastern part of the empire under the control of the central administration without much difficulty. An uprising in Palmyra, the following year, was quickly repressed. Soon after Aurelian also set out to regain control of the Gallic Empire. In the spring of 274, he defeated the Gallic troops at the Catalaunic Fields: this was the end of the Gallic Empire and the separatist provinces came back under the jurisdiction of Rome.

Towards the end of the summer 274, Aurelian returned in triumph to Rome to implement a series of internal reforms. He established a new state religion, that of the sun god, who under the name of Sol Invictus was to be considered “the ruler of the Roman Empire” and the protector of the emperor. Undoubtedly, it was a theocratic tendency towards the legitimization of power. Aurelian was the first emperor to wear a diadem and gold clothes. His religious measures reflected a movement towards monotheism or henotheism (a form of belief neither properly monotheistic, nor properly polytheistic where a god plays a predominant role in relation to others, which is worth a preferential cult) that favored, especially in the East, the progress of Christianity. In the last months of his reign, Aurelian turned against the Christians whereas he had until then responded to their demands (see Paul of Samosate). The economy showed signs of clear recovery after the eastern and western provinces were reintegrated into the empire, but Aurelian failed in his attempt to achieve monetary reform.

Aurelian, who was then in Thrace, perished in September or October 275, victim of a conspiracy hemmed in by the imperial secretary Eros whose reprehensible behavior risked being severely punished. His death however did not put an end to the recovery which, gradually, was affirmed. The legacy of Aurelian was from then on constituted by the return of the provinces of the East and the West and the securing of the borders, legacy which, in the Epitome of Caesaribus, written in the late antiquity, was compared with that of Alexander and Caesar.

Aurelian’s successor, Marcus Claudius Tacitus (275-276), came from the old senatorial nobility. We have little information about him and some of it is not very credible. Most of the more or less reliable information comes to us from a History of the Emperors, favorable to the Senate. Tacitus, who had already reached an advanced age when he was proclaimed emperor, had probably been a candidate for this position in the past. He worked to consolidate his power through the distribution of money and the granting of posts. He was keen to secure the good graces of the Senate as evidenced by his coins which bear the exergue resitutor rei publicae, meaning restorer of the senatorial republic, although this was an illusion and not a reality. Tacitus was given the nickname of emperor-senator and, in fact, he attached great importance to a real cooperation with this institution, which probably explains his good reputation in pro-senatorial sources. However, shortly after his victory over Goth and Herulian invaders, he died in 276, probably the victim of a plot.

His brother, Florian (276) succeeded him against whom a conspiracy was quickly formed in the East. Probus (276-282), an experienced commander from Sirmium, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Florian went to the front of Probus with strong units, but the latter had the upper hand; Florian was assassinated in August of the same year in Tarsus in the southeast of Asia Minor and Probus succeeded him. Probus did not have much time to assert his power; already, like all the soldier-emperors, the problems recalled him to the borders. In Gaul, the Alamanni and the Franks had broken through the defense line of the Rhine and had launched a campaign of plunder on a large scale. Probus retaliated with campaigns in 277 and 278 where he achieved various successes. Although the sources exaggerate significantly, it is certain that he succeeded in stabilizing the Rhine border. In the spring of 278, he moved to the Danube and there too regained control of the situation. On his return, he defeated Burgundians and Vandals, a success to which various coins bear witness.

Almost at the same time, in Egypt, the Blemmyes who had come to threaten the southern border of the Nile region were defeated, thus helping to stabilize another border. Relations with the Sassanids on the other hand seem to have been tense, but no major conflict broke out. In Asia Minor, a band of thieves led by a man called Lydios was the law and could be eliminated even if, as in Egypt, the emperor did not take part in the expedition himself. It seems that Probus retired to Rome in the summer of 279. Several unsuccessful attempts at coups took place during his reign. In 280 or 281 a usurper whose name remained unknown rose in Brittany. At the same time took place the rise of Proculus and Bonosus in Gaul (probably in Cologne) as well as that of Julius Saturninus in Syria. All were quickly repressed, that of Saturnius having been it by its own troops without that Probus had to intervene. In 281, Probus celebrated his triumph over the Blemmyes and the Germans and made distributions of money to the people. He was assassinated by discontented troops in Sirmium in September or October 282. The reason for this discontent probably lay in the iron discipline he maintained among his troops. He seems to have been as good an administrator as a military commander. His reign is the object of eulogistic comments in the sources where he is described as a fair ruler who continued with rigor the policy of consolidation started by Aurelian.

The new emperor, Carus (282-283) came from the south of Gaul. Already acclaimed as emperor at the time of Probus, it remained to him in 282 only to make legitimize its authority. Shortly after, Carus raised his two sons Carin (283-285) and Numerian (283-284) to the dignity of co-emperors. In 283, he won the victory over the Sarmatians who had crossed the Rhine to invade the territories of empire. As a result, he appointed Carinus as his representative in the West, while he and Numerian launched a campaign against the Sassanids in the East. It is not known what the cause of this campaign was, but it may have been a Persian aggression that had taken place earlier. In any case, this invasion proves that the power of striking of the empire had improved to the point where one believed to be able to take again the offensive in the East. The opportunity seemed favorable: the Persian king Bahram II, held in alarm by a rebellion in his own kingdom, was taken completely by surprise by the attack of the Roman troops which were able to advance until the residence of the Sassanids, Seleukia-Ctesiphon. If they took the city, subsequent attacks did not have the same success. Carus died suddenly near Ctesiphon in late July 283. It is not clear that this was a violent death. The statement in several sources that he was struck by lightning merely reflects the surprise of an unexpected death attributed to divine intervention.

The army decided after the death of Carus to beat a retreat and elected Numerian as a matter of urgency, who died in November 284 on his way back home in circumstances which have not been clarified. The army then chose as new emperor the commander of the guard, Diocles, who took the name of Diocletian (284-305). On the way, he clashed with Carinus who had meanwhile fought successfully against the Germans. The meeting took place in the Balkans. Carin was finally defeated at the end of the summer or at the beginning of the autumn 285, victim of an intrigue where the conspirators sided with Diocletian. Diocletian was now the sole ruler and undertook a series of sweeping reforms, the details of which are the subject of controversy among scholars, but which transformed the empire. Diocletian imposed a new system of taxation (capitatio-iugatio) and divided the army into comitatenses or field armies and limitanei or border protection armies. The empire had finally managed to overcome the period of crisis that it had experienced for almost half a century, although many of the reforms implemented at this time had their origin in various measures taken by some of the “soldier-emperors” such as Gallien and Aurelian.

The historians of the second half of the fourth century who wrote the history of the previous century have, almost unanimously, carried a negative judgment on it. Their strongest criticism focused on the reigns of the emperors Valerian and Gallien. Eutropius for example speaks of this time as that “where the Roman Empire was destroyed”. Aurelius Victor and the anonymous author of the Historia Augusta express themselves in hardly different terms. The senatorial annals reflect with rigor the events of the middle of the IIIrd century, when the empire had to fight on all its borders and that inside the usurpers tried, one after the other, to overthrow the reigning emperors. The picture that emerges from the research of the previous centuries only repeats in good part what the sources themselves said. Contemporary research, on the other hand, is more nuanced and tends to reconsider several points that were previously accepted without discussion.

The first characteristic of the time lies in the rapid succession of the sovereigns. If it is true that under the Severans, as in late antiquity, there were many attempts to overthrow the established power, unlike the time of the “soldier-emperors”, these were mostly unsuccessful. Another dominant feature is that for the most part, the rulers of the time did not belong to the senatorial class. The soldier-emperors were often simple soldiers, without much education and of modest origin. The first emperor, Maximin, is a typical example. It is not surprising that the writers of the time, who belonged for the greater part to the senatorial class, saw without great pleasure the marginalization of the Senate and the little importance that certain emperors, Maximin in head, attached to maintaining good relations with this institution. However, the Senate did not play practically any more a role in the conduct of the affairs of the State and even its acceptance of the new emperors will end up disappearing. The period of the soldier-emperors corresponds to an institutional crisis where the stability and legitimacy of the regime are continuously at stake. Some emperors tried to resolve this dilemma by giving their regime a religious character (others tried to justify their seizure of power by invoking the principle of dynastic succession. It is only at the time of Diocletian and Constantine that the dilemma can be resolved. Even if there is no uniform portrait of the soldier-emperor, all of them will have in common to hold their power from the will of the armies and to ensure their legitimacy and their maintenance in power thanks to their military success.

A second characteristic of this era is the general and permanent danger posed by the threat from outside. At the same time, the enemy’s forces were considerably strengthened. In the regions of the Rhine and the Danube, new Germanic tribes form confederations giving them a much more considerable force of attack. In the east, the Sassanid Empire arose, which in many ways was the equal of Rome and which pursued an aggressive expansionist policy. Towards the middle of the third century, there was considerable pressure on the borders and the empire suffered defeat after defeat. The capture of Valerian by the Persians in 260 and the events which followed (the attacks more and more frequent of Syrtes, the secession of Palmyra and the Gallic empire), will mark the apogee of the crisis. But it is necessary at the same time to notice that this crisis does not extend to all the sectors of the daily life, nor to all the areas of the empire.

In spite of the symptoms of political and military crisis, especially during the time of Gordian III and his successors, the main causes of which must be sought in external threats, the economy of the empire seems to have remained in a better position than is generally claimed. Earlier research tended to suggest that by the third century whole provinces had become impoverished, that infrastructure had collapsed and that state pressure on ordinary citizens had increased considerably, leading to an impoverishment of the population and a flight from towns and villages. Bartering had made a comeback as the money economy declined. More recent research presents a somewhat different picture. It is true that the distress brought about by the invasions led to an increase in the state’s military expenditure, which was reflected in the devaluation of the currency and the increase in taxes, with military expenses reaching half of the state’s expenditure. However, the pressure of the taxes was felt only from the failure of the reforms of the monetary system under Aurelian, which led to a structural problem for the State and to an unprecedented increase in inflation. However, its appearance cannot be established before the 270s, according to the sources that come to us from Egypt, the main place of production of everyday items and industry. Scholars are also divided as to whether there was an actual decrease in population.

The same applies to the thorny question of whether slavery played the role for the economy of the empire that previous research has attributed to it, and whether the reduction of slavery really led, as has been believed until now, to an economic crisis. The study of the sources does not allow such a conclusion, so that one may wonder whether the productivity of slaves was really higher than that of free or semi-free men and whether, therefore, the reduction of slavery was a real cause of economic decline. It is true that taxes increased, especially for the decurions (the local elite of the cities) and in particular for the least favored strata of the population, but one cannot generalize this statement to the whole empire, especially since the standard of living varied from one region to another. It is also true that the economic situation suffered from the constant disputes between the military of the time and that the inflation of the 270s led to dramatic setbacks, but one cannot conclude that there was an economic collapse given the diversity of situations throughout the empire. On the contrary, recent research has shown that some regions, such as Egypt, Africa and Spain, experienced a certain prosperity. Even in Asia Minor, where the dangers of invasions had to be faced, there was no evidence of widespread economic malaise. While trade and industry flourished in many areas, particularly where they were not hampered by fighting, other provinces faced very serious difficulties, as can be seen from the stocks amassed in the northwestern provinces of the empire. It is therefore not possible to speak of an economic crisis either in the empire as a whole or for the entire period of the soldier-emperors. Other assertions accepted by ancient research on the basis of both pagan and Christian sources, and which lead one to believe that there was a generalized economic crisis, are today called into question. There can be no question of a generalized decline in the hopes of the people.

As for the cities, they continued to administer themselves and one cannot speak of a generalized decline, even if the construction was concentrated on the threatened regions and consisted mainly of defensive works. Certainly, the campaigns of plundering carried out by various invaders contributed here and there to a cultural decline which one notes even in the field of arts. One thus attends a cultural decline of Athens after the invasion of the Heruli in 267. However, the city remained, even during the crisis of the IIIrd century an important center of teaching, following the example of Rome, Carthage, Alexandria and Antioch.

Another transformation was that the developments of the third century also enabled people of modest origins to carve out prestigious careers in the military. These newcomers as well as a new generation of municipal leaders gradually replaced the old value system by giving a new importance to education. In the field of the philosophy where Plotinus, Porphyrios and Longinos were illustrated, the neo-platonism brought a new claiming current in conformity with the spirit of the time. In the religious field, Christianity gained in influence while the cults of the traditional gods tended to concentrate on a single deity (monotheism) or at least superior (henotheism). In addition, a new religion with universal claims, Manichaeism, spread from the west of the empire to Central Asia.

It is therefore important to avoid making hasty generalizations based on a few symptoms of crisis or to overestimate them. It is even questionable whether, at the height of the crisis, one could really speak of an existential crisis. Even though the empire was seriously weakened, the emperors succeeded each time in regaining control of the situation, going on the offensive and reuniting the parts of the empire which, both in the West and in the East, were seeking to separate. The different angles from which modern research has studied this period allow for a very different overall judgment. Thus, among other things, it is now better to take into consideration the fact that the beginnings of reforms undertaken under the emperor Gallien will bear fruit under subsequent emperors and into late antiquity.

The era of the “crisis of the empire” can thus be divided into three periods. The first includes the years from the end of the Severan dynasty (235) to 253, during which the emperor sought to preserve the traditions of the principate as established by the Severans. The second, which includes the reigns of Valerian and Gallien, shows various symptoms of a crisis which reached its peak in the middle of the third century. But it is necessary at the same time to consider that these two emperors understood these problems and endeavoured to remedy them. The third phase which begins in 268 is characterized by a gradual recovery which will find its culmination in the in-depth reforms of the time of Diocletian and Constantine. So that the time of the soldier-emperors was especially the time which will see the transformation of the principate of the High-Empire towards that of the hereditary empire of the Low-Empire.

The question of sources concerning the “crisis of the empire” is one of the most complex in ancient history, in large part because there is no general history that links the facts together. The biography of the emperors written by Marius Maximus extends only as far as Elagabal and has not reached us. The work of Cassius Dion ends with the year 229 whereas that of Herodian, which depends in several places on Cassius Dion, History of the empire until Marcus goes only until 238 and is not very abundant in information. For the remainder of this century up to the period of Diocletian and Constantine, there is no general description of events written by a contemporary.

The Augustan History, written during late antiquity, is a Latin collection of biographies of emperors. Contrary to the indications it contains, it was not written by six different authors in the 300s, but by a single, anonymous pagan author writing around the year 400. Although it contains abundant details about the lives of the various soldier-emperors, much of it is either false or highly dubious. The description of some of the lives are, however, complete. Also in the Latin world, various historical summaries known as breviaries, written in the fourth century, are worthy of mention. Among these are the Caesares of Aurelius Victor, the Breviarum of Eutropius, the work of Rufius Festus as well as the anonymous work, Epitome of Caesaribus. The authors of these breviaries use as an important source, and sometimes the only one, a history of the emperors, now lost, the Enmanns Kaisergeschichte, in French Histoire impériale d’Enmann (from the name of the German linguist who demonstrated that these various fragments had indeed been written by a single author). This one seems to have dealt with various tyranni (usurpers) in great detail and contains relatively reliable information. Other Latin sources that would give us more information about the period of the soldier-emperors have been lost, such as the passages concerning this period by the last important historian of antiquity, Ammianus Marcellinus, who deals with the third century in different parts of his work, or the Annals of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus. One cannot therefore speak of an abundance of sources concerning the third century. Later Latin authors rely on Senate reports or works in Greek; various scholars argue that there were probably other historical works written in Latin.

In contrast to the Latin world, Greek historiography flourished during the time of the soldier-emperors. Nikostratos of Trebizond wrote a work that covers the period from 244 until the capture of Valerian by the Persians; the war with the Persians is also the subject of commentaries by Philostratus of Athens. Ephoros the Younger wrote with force details on the reign of Gallien and the History of the emperors of a certain Eusebios treated the period going until Carus. Only the names of the authors of these works are known; only fragments of the Histories of Philostratos and Eusebios have come down to us. The same is true of the millennial History of Rome and the History of the Parthians by Asinus Quadratus, of which only certain quotations by later authors have been preserved. The fragments of the historical works of Dexippus give some glimmer of hope; his Chronicle in twelve volumes covers the period until 270, whereas his Skythika, depicts the fights against the Germans from 238 to 270

Later historians could however rely on these works like Zozimus (around 500) or various Byzantine authors, who had at their disposal either the original works or intermediate sources. Among them we can mention the Anonymus post Dionnem (practically identical to the Histories of Petros Patrikios now lost), the chronist John Malalas, John of Antioch, George the Syncelle and John Zonaras. The quality of their writings varies although they give us abundant and partly trustworthy information, as does Anonymus post Dionnem and Zonaras; the latter also takes up the so-called Leoquelle. Mention should also be made of the works of ecclesiastical historians such as Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea, also called the father of church history, as well as later Christian authors such as Origen and Cyprian of Carthage. The Romanist JORDAN the Goth, who wrote in the sixth century, relying in his History of the Goths on sources that have disappeared, also relates events that belonged to the time of the soldier-emperors, even if he is not always reliable. Numerous other works in Latin and Greek, of course, but also in Syrian, Arabic, Armenian and Persian, provide us with other useful information for reconstructing the time of the soldier-emperors, even if they cannot compensate for the loss of a continuous historiography for the third century.

For this reason, non-literary sources are of considerable importance for this period, be it numismatics (if only as supporting documents for several emperors whose very existence might be in doubt), papyrology (to clarify certain questions of chronology), inscriptions (such as those on the Altar of Victory in Augsburg), or archaeological finds such as those at Neupotz and Hagenbach. The fact remains, however, that sources of this kind are often difficult to interpret or to place in the context of the history of the empire.

If it is difficult to make a general judgment on this time, it is as much it is to delimit it with exactitude. The majority of ancient historians appeal to the well-known verdict of Cassius Dion according to which a golden age would have ended with the death of Marcus Aurelius to give way to an era of iron and rust which would have begun with the advent of Septimius Severus and the soldier-emperors. As a result, there was hardly any difference between the period of the soldier-emperors and that of the real “crisis of the empire”. Nowadays, it is generally agreed that the period of the soldier-emperors and the period of the crisis of the empire (used here only to designate an era) begin respectively with the year 235 and end with the advent of Diocletian in 284

The era of the “crisis of the empire” had already been treated in classic works such as Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont’s Histoire d’empereurs et autres princes qui ont régné pendant les six premiers siècles de l’Église (History of the Emperors and Other Princes who Reigned during the First Six Centuries of the Church) at the end of the seventeenth century, or Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), which was published in the second half of the eighteenth century, with Gibbon often relying on Tillemont’s material. But it was not until the nineteenth century that research that could be described as truly scientific began to develop. Already Gibbon, relying on the judgment of Cassius Dion, characterized the period following the reign of Septimius Severus as a “military regime” and described the years from 248 to 268, during which the invasions of the empire multiplied and the Romans suffered more and more setbacks as “twenty years of shame and misfortune. Jacob Burckhardt in his classic The age of Constantine the Great (1853) dedicates the first chapter to “The Imperial Power in the Third Century”. Burckardt uses to characterize this period notions such as the empire of soldier-emperors and crisis, just as Gibbon considered the Illyrian emperor as the savior of the empire. The largely negative judgment of this period is thus the result of the biographies of the emperors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The development of research in the first half of the twentieth century is mainly due to three scholars: Michel Rostovtzeff, Andreas Alföldi and Franz Altheim. Their personalities were very different from each other. Rostovtzeff was marked by the aftermath of the Russian revolution of 1917, Alföldi by the period of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, while Altheim, who stood out for the originality of his thinking, allowed himself to be drawn into the National Socialist ideology; the first beginnings of their research were to be equally so. Rostovtzeff, who spoke of the period after 235 as a “military anarchy”, started from economic and social considerations to assert the existence of an antagonism between city dwellers and peasants of the time. He published numerous works on the period of the crisis of the empire, among them two imposing articles in the twelfth volume of the Cambridge Ancient History, which marked a decisive turning point in the research of the period and which is still useful today. Alföldi was of the opinion that the symptoms of crisis both internally and externally worsened in the course of the third century and that no one could be found to protect the state against them. Alföldi also saw the Illyrian emperor as the savior of the empire who introduced the reforms necessary for its recovery. Altheim also devoted several works to the soldier-emperors, a concept that he helped to make familiar to the public, and established the year 193 as the beginning of this period. In his book, Die Soldatenkaiser (1939), which was published with funding from the Das Ahnenerbe Institute, part of the RuSHA of the SS, Altheim put forward the thesis of the opposition between regions during the time of the soldier emperors, for example within the army between Illyrians and Germans. The concept of the concern for the empire lost more and more supporters until it became established again at the time of Gallien. This starting point based on the concept of race led Altheim to try to demonstrate the “Germanness” of Maximin the Thracian. This earned him the criticism of Wilhelm Enßlin, himself active in Germany during the Nazi period, who questioned the role that such a concept could play. Altheim, whose considerations, like those of Rostovtzeff, were strongly influenced by his time, wanted to see in the period of the soldier-emperors the culmination of a period of latent crisis in which Rome had allowed itself to be engulfed. However, it was only later, in revised editions of his work, that the concept of the “crisis of the empire” came into play. In spite of several problematic, even indefensible points, Altheim must be credited with having presented the role played by the regions bordering the empire more forcefully than was the case in the past.

The interest in the period of the crisis of the empire did not slacken in the second half of the 20th century. Important articles appeared following the work of Géza Alföldy, who was of the opinion that the awareness of a state of crisis could already be discerned in various contemporaries of this period as in the work of Herodian. David S. Potter, on the other hand, was of the opinion that large sectors of the population were only slightly affected by the crisis and that many of the reforms of the soldier-emperors foreshadowed those that would be adopted during the era of Diocletian and Constantine. Klaus-Peter Johne makes a distinction between the military crisis and a longer-term crisis. Karl Strobel and Christian Witschel followed the same path. The latter two do not agree with the traditional crisis model, which cannot explain the developments of the third century. It is not possible to speak of an all-encompassing crisis, let alone a “global crisis” as previously believed. They point to the fact that several regions of the empire prospered during this period and were hardly affected by military threats. Witschel, who sketched several models of crisis, supported the view that these were one-off crises, local in nature and limited in time, which were eventually overcome by appropriate reforms. In the end, they were only the temporary manifestations of a very long-lasting transformation. Strobel also denies, on the basis of the structural changes in the third century, the existence of a “crisis consciousness” in this period, in which many individual problems and regional catastrophes were brought together to form a comprehensive picture. However, there are still many scholars, among them Lukas de Blois, who assume that there was indeed a global crisis that reached its peak around 250.

The judgement made on the period of the soldier-emperors was most often negative and was presented as the parallel of a crisis of the empire. Many scholars considered the signs of decline within the empire to be fundamental, which were merely reinforced by threats from outside (Gibbon, Rostovtzeff), while others considered the external threat to be paramount (Altheim). Such a single-cause presentation, like the assumption held by many Marxist scholars that the problem within the empire could be reduced to a crisis in the “slave economy,” has since been abandoned as implausible. Since the 1990s, judgments have become much more nuanced. Contemporary research seems to show that proponents and opponents of the concept of crisis are no longer very far apart, as appearances suggest for the moment at least. There is little dispute that many regions prospered during the so-called crisis period of the empire, even though at the same time the empire was facing very serious difficulties. The difference ultimately lies in the weight given to each of these different factors.

List of the main events of this period

235: Death of the emperor Alexander Severus and end of the Severan dynasty; beginning of the reign of the first soldier-emperor, Maximin the Thracian.

238: Year of the six emperors and beginning of the invasion of the Scythians (Goths and other Germanic tribes active in the region of the Danube and the Black Sea).

244: Failure of the campaign of the emperor Gordian III against the Persians; defeat of the Romans during the battle of Mesiche and death of the emperor.

257: Beginning of the persecution of Valerian against the Christians which ends in 260 with the edict of tolerance of Gallien.

260: The Sassanids captured Valerian; the crisis reached its peak. In the 260s, the separatist states of Palmyra and Gaul were formed.

267: Looting campaign of the Heruli and other Germanic tribes in the Aegean Sea. Athens and many cities were ravaged.


270: Aurelian was proclaimed emperor. In the following years, he will put an end to the secession of Palmyra and the Gallic empire. However, the emperor abandons Dacia, too exposed to invasions.

285: The emperor Carinus is victim of a plot. The year before, the general Diocletian was acclaimed emperor. He soon became the sole ruler and initiated far-reaching reforms that would transform the empire.

List of emperors

Of the twenty-one emperors who succeeded each other from 235 to 284, only two, Claudius and Carus, died of natural causes; Decius was killed in a border battle and Valerian was taken prisoner and killed by the Sassanids; all the others were deposed by their soldiers or those of a rival.

Related articles


  1. Crise du troisième siècle
  2. Crisis of the Third Century
  3. Voir van Sickle, “Particularism in the Roman Empire during the Military Anarchy”. American Journal of Philology. 1930, 51 (4): pp. 343–357. doi:10.2307/289894. JSTOR 289894.
  4. Nommé César par Septime Sévère en 193, ce dernier ne revendiquera formellement le trône que trois ans plus tard.
  5. Pour mieux se rattacher à la dynastie des Antonins, Septime Sévère se fit appeler dans les inscriptions officielles L. Septimus Severus, fils de Marc Aurèle, frère de Commode, petit-fils d’Antonin, arrière-petit-fils d’Hadrien, descendant de Trajan au quatrième degré, de Nerva au cinquième degré (cité par Le Glay (2005) p. 338
  6. ^ E. Horst, Costantino il grande, Milano 1987, p. 20.
  7. ^ Franco Cardini, cit., pag. 24.
  8. ^ «L’Illiria era la Prussia dell’Impero romano. Le popolazioni illiriche coltivavano una lunga tradizione militare e avevano, inoltre, maturato una profonda deferenza verso una civiltà e un mito, quello di Roma, che non era il loro, ma che esse avevano assimilato fino a farlo proprio, considerandosene orgogliosi custodi. Proprio da questi contadini-soldati fu salvato l’Impero. L’Illiria era la prova migliore della capacità di Roma di suscitare il carattere romano nelle popolazioni vinte. L’Illiria romanizzata non produceva soltanto buoni soldati, ma anche ottimi generali» (Giorgio Ruffolo, Quando l’Italia era una superpotenza, Einaudi, 2004, p. 98).
  9. ^ Gordiano aveva infatti perso la vita in una campagna contro Sapore (244), in circostanze peraltro non chiare: i rilievi e le epigrafi sassanidi rappresentano una battaglia vittoriosa in cui Gordiano perse la vita. Le fonti romane, invece, non menzionano questo scontro.
  10. ^ Southern, p. 240.
  11. ^ van Sickle, C. E. (1930). “Particularism in the Roman Empire during the Military Anarchy”. American Journal of Philology. 51 (4): 343–357. doi:10.2307/289894. JSTOR 289894.
  12. Brown, Peter Robert Lamont (1971). The World of Late Antiquity. London: Thames and Hudson. σελ. 22. ISBN 978-0500320228.
  13. Potter, David Stone (2004). The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180–395 Routledge history of the ancient world. Psychology Press. σελίδες 85, 167. ISBN 978-0415100588.
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