Talk:Crisis of the Third Century

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old talk[edit]

I'd like to see some discussion on possible causes of the crisis. But I'm not a scholar, and most of the google hits are either mirrors of this article or class syllabus.

I remember some mention somewhere that slavery might be an underlying cause, but I can't find it now. Here's the rationale, as best I can remember:

From the Punic Wars to this Crisis, slavery was a major factor in the economy of the Roman world. Unlike more modern forms of slavery (antebellum American South), slaves were prisoners of war, and their offspring were born free. As the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under Marcus Aurelius, the Pax Romana settled down. With no more major conflicts, the source of slaves dried up. Allow a few years of attrition in the existing supply, under the reign of Commidus, and BAM, Crisis of the Third Century.

Slavery also had a hand in transforming the Republic into the Empire. Before and during the Punic Wars, the Roman army consisted of levies of men, mostly farmers or estate holders, wealthy enough to afford the upkeep on their arms. Following the Punic Wars, lengthy tours of duty, on the borders of Rome's expanded sphere of influence, caused the land owning soldiers estates to go bankrupt. Their estates were bought out by even wealthier magnates, who ran large estates with the now vast number of slaves, captured in the wars.

This caused a depletion in the number of men who qualified for military service. In response, Marius reformed the army. The new army consisted of impoverished Roman citizens. These citizens had their arms, plus a salary, provided for out of the State's funds. In addition, they were given a retirement package in the form of land grants, given out of newly conquered territories. These new soldiers were dependent on victorious generals for these land grants. Because of this, generals, such as Julius Caesar, became even more politically powerful.


Economic power migrated away from Rome to large, slave run estates in the provinces. Again, this weakened the Republic in favor of governors responsible to the central goverment.

I've also noticed that some scholars, such as Toynbee, remark on a "depopulation" in the late Empire, which caused a vacuum which allowed the barbarians to move in and set themselves up as foederati. But I haven't heard of any famine or plague that might cause such a depopulation. It seems to me that a radical shift in the economy might cause an apparent "depopulation" - a sudden need for peasants. This would be the opposite of "overpopulation" - where a nation has a boom in the non-farming population, causing massive unemployment. crazyeddie 22:57, 19 Jan 2005 (UTC)

There should be books on this, but I don't know of any offhand (sometimes searching Amazon is a good way to turn up titles). I don't know if I find the reduction in available slaves plausible, because the tribes continually warred with each other, and were more than happy to make a few bucks selling their captures. One possibility to keep in mind is that life for the average Roman might have been mostly unaffected, and that the "crisis" involved just a handful of would-be rulers jockeying for position. Another thing to keep in mind is that barbarian and Roman weren't that different from each other - Roman soldiers helped themselves to food from barbarian farms, and barbarians took food from Roman farms. (Roman writers of the time weren't especially committed to NPOV. :-) ) Stan 03:35, 20 Jan 2005 (UTC)

And that is why I'm not a historian - too much of a techie, always looking for the simple answers. crazyeddie 06:58, 20 Jan 2005 (UTC)

But, even so, what were the root causes? I mean, it looks like the Empire had been fairly stable for the last 200 years. And then 40 years of chaos. After that, it seems like the Empire was never the same. Even though it was the same size, or even smaller, it sounds like they had troubles with internal communications. There's all that business with subdividing the empire between different rulers. I'll grant you might have been just the big boys seeing who's top dog, but why did the fight go on for over 40 years? Why did the scuffle start in the first place? crazyeddie 08:58, 20 Jan 2005 (UTC)

Come to think of it, the timing is off on that theory. Marcus Aurelius died in 180. 180 to 235 is too big of a gap. crazyeddie 09:07, 20 Jan 2005 (UTC)

I added refs to a couple recent books I found by poking around on Amazon. Should be some journal articles too, somebody with a university database account should find those. Stan 20:23, 20 Jan 2005 (UTC)

Aurelian or Diocletian?[edit]

I have multiple sources that say this period of crisis (which goes by various names) lasted up till the time of Diocletian in 284, and did not end with Aurelian. Dioclecian makes more sense as the logical end-point since he is the start-point of the second phase of the Roman Empire. My sources include this article (w/ bibliography) and a class taught by William and Mary professor Philip Daileader PhD Early Medieval History.

Since this is a question of periodization there is no single "right" answer, rather, we as Wikipedians should report on what the mainstream says. I would be interested in what others think about re-working this article to bring the crisis period up to 284 ending with Dioclecian. Stbalbach 16:39, 3 Apr 2005 (UTC)

How about doing it both ways? State that some people believe that it ended with Aurelian, that others believe it ended with Diocletian. crazyeddie 17:41, 5 Apr 2005 (UTC)

If there was some pedigree for the Aurelian view I would try to incorporate it in some way, to give some historiography, but I have not found it. Stbalbach 19:57, 5 Apr 2005 (UTC)

Fair enough. If somebody thinks otherwise, I'm sure they'll let us know. crazyeddie 20:23, 5 Apr 2005 (UTC)

I studied ancient history. A great book on the The Crisis of the Third Century is one out of print book by Ferdinand Lot. His book is a classic: "End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages" (Harper Torchbooks Printing, New York, 1961. First English printing by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1931). Another classic is Gibbon's The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire - Steve in NJ and someone who's studied a little history!

tidbits, seachange[edit]

I don't have source stuff in front of me now, but I've read so many of the academic summaries on this topic. Anyway here are two tidbits I picked up that I accepted at the time as authoritative, and really liked. One discussion on this Third Century crisis noted that some peasant villages ruined by the Germanic raiders of the times were moved, rebuilt, and reoccupied on nearby sites of old pre-Roman Celtic hillforts. More easily defended. Nice, huh?

The other, and it really is just a tidbit, but it goes to character, your honors: before the Crisis, the sculpted eyes of statuary were smooth sections of orb, right? Then, after the Crisis was more or less resolved militarily and politically - by the generalissimos leading up to Diocletian - anyway, after that the eyes in the statuary can be observed to be sculpted with symbolic little holes drilled in to the eyeballs to, well, to what? To simulate the pupil would be the obvious observation, but the guy I was reading had another take on it. He said that the prevailing worldview of classic antiquity - the high noon of, say, Hadrian or Trajan - presumed that when you looked at a man you saw his substance right there on the surface. You saw his class, his age, his wealth, maybe his ethnicity, maybe even presumably evidence of his accomplishments. And that's all he was. Ah, but in the latter case, the presumption was much stronger and more important that when you looked a man in the eye, you were in theory peering in at the portal to his interior life, and in fact into his immortal soul, the lasting and more valuable part of him. A change in worldview, I might add, that would lead to more monasteries and fewer aquaducts.

Interesting. Also starting with Constantine, statues and portraits were gazing upwards to the sky, towards heaven. Prior to this there was no "upward gaze" in classical art, as was so prevelant in Christian art throughout the middle ages. --Stbalbach 03:46, 6 December 2005 (UTC)

Substantive matters aside, the opening paragraphs of the article could use a purely mechanical edit for grammar, style, etc. Possibly the rest, too -- I haven't looked. 66.135.106.50 16:05, 23 May 2006 (UTC) Cy

A tale of multiple murderers[edit]

The Roman Empire was not murdered by anyone cause, it was the victim of multiple murderers, anyone of which would have given pause to any great empire. As written, the article focuses overmuch on three causes -- civil wars, external invasions, and economic collapse. There were at least two other causes.

There needs to be a section added about the decrease in population that first started with Marcus Aurelius due to the plague that was brought West from L. Avidius Cassius' successful invasion of Parthia in 170s. The plague was recurrent after that and supposedly Aurelius himself perished of the plague in 180 AD. While the plague was recurrent, there was another bad one in the middle of the 3rd century.

I think that the population decrease theory is supported by the difficulty the state had in recruiting citizens in the Army, as well as recruiting city governing boards, i.e. decurions, etc. There is also, I believe, archeological evidence of decline of trade and population caused by the retreat of the elite from the cities to the country. (However, to be fair, this decline is seen in the 2nd century, judging from archeological examinations of villas in southern France.) This decline in population and trade increased the tax burdens of the survivors. Complaints of increased taxation can be found throughout the 3rd century, starting from the rebellion that elevated the first two Gordiani to the purple against Maximinus Thrax.

The plague also affected the culture in demoralizing the survivors so that they believed that the gods were against them or the Roman state. This is reflected in the increased religiosity of the people in the 3rd century. People were looking for answers starting with Eliogabalus who wanted to elevate his Syrian god to the top of the Roman pantheon, Severus Alexander's syncretism, in which he included Jesus as one of the gods to be worshipped, to Aurelian's attempted imposition of the Unconquered Sun as the state religion, and ending with Constantine's religious conversion to Christianity. People also started to withdraw from Roman society, and did not want to bear the burdens of governorship but sought to contemplate infinity, which of course created even more burdens on the people who were still around and sought to engage in society. Monasticism can be seen around this time in Syria and Egypt.

The section on hyperinflation needs to be clarified about the debasement of the coinage. The Roman emperors did not just debase the coinage to pay for the Army. They had to anyway because there was a serious shortage of precious metals, gold and silver, in the first place. Pliny estimated in the late 1st century that every year, the Roman Empire sent 500 million sestertii in silver a year to pay for all the silk imported. After time, the lack of silver and gold began to have an impact on the economy. There just weren't enough silver and gold mines to pay for the deficit. The economic problem was so bad that Maximinus Thrax ordered that the gold and silver in temples be seized for coinage purposes (thus adding to the religious deficit as well, i.e., did the gods exist if they passively allowed their gold and treasures to be emptied out for secular purposes?).

During that time, social cohesion in the Empire decreased significantly. Rome and Italy started losing its primacy in the Empire. This process was started when Italy and Rome ceased providing the majority of the Empire's soldiers and administrators. Hadrian in the 2nd century recognized that when he downgraded Italy into a province although that was quickly reversed by his successors. With the decrease in soldiers and administrators from Rome and Italy came an increased dependence on local elites. Admittedly the Republic and the Empire had always had relationships with local elites which provided Rome with local citizens and other individuals who aspired to become Roman. During Vespasian, the web of patronage and family in the reins of power in the Roman state started extending from Roman families who had been there since the Republic, to Italian families who had barely acquired citizenship in the 1st century BCE, and to Spanish families. Trajan and Hadrian were two non-Italian emperors who got their start from the relatively new Flavian dynasty under Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, in the late 1st century. In turn, Hadrian in the 2d century sponsored a web of families through patronage extending to Noricum and Gallia Narbonensis. Hadrian also imposed a significant change in Roman bureaucracy; he said you did not need to serve in the Army to have a political/bureaucratic career. This increased divisions between the bureaucracy and the Roman Army that were exposed in the 3rd century and later. Sons of senators didn't need to enhance their political careers by serving in the Army. Quite possibly this deprived individuals on both sides of needed experience. For example, Maximinus Thrax, who served all his life in the Army, does not seem to have grasped that he was not popular in Rome until it was much too late. Hadrian also codified differences between the rich and the poor that quite possibly led to resentment and revolts by serfs and coloni in the 3rd century. See the Bagaudae in Gaul, for instance.

However, the 2nd century can be seen as a interlocking web of Spanish-Italian families governing Rome. Marcus Aurelius was of Spanish ancestry and was distantly related to Hadrian. However, the web of Spanish Italian aristocracy was shattered by the maladministration of Commodus. A new governing class came to place under Severus -- an African and Syrian political class. However, the usual rules were superseded when Caracalla issued the Constitutio Antoniana which granted citizenship to all free men in the entire Roman Empire. Practically speaking, this meant that all free individuals were Roman and did not need to aspire to Roman-ness. A critical lack of cultural cohesion was lost as well as a recruiting tool for the legions. The provinces in turn began to have a decreasing interest in participating in Roman society to uphold their position. Thus, the provincial elites had little interest in participating in the cultural and political contests in Rome and when Rome ceased providing any benefit, they did the rational thing and seceded. This resulted in the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Empire. From their perspective, it was much better to have someone who was elevated much closer to them so that they could allocate and apportion power according to their interest rather than an imperial viceroy of a distant and increasingly alien power making demands for valuable resources to address a crisis elsewhere.

In short, the 3rd century crisis had many causes, some interrelated and some not and some of which I omitted for now, and some of which had roots in the glorious 2d century. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by 152.216.11.5 (talkcontribs).

Regarding only the inflationary question, there is an economic theory presumed in the discussion which does not fit all the facts. During the reign of Philip II of Spain, as detailed in Europe Divided: 1559-1598 by Elliot, surges in debasement of the money, which the monetarist theory says "predictably" leads to inflation, can not really be said to have done so. In the entire period both: the highest inflation was seen in Naples, were silver imports were the lowest, and some of the lowest inflation was seen somewhere the silver imports were highest. JoshNarins (talk) 19:57, 20 July 2013 (UTC)

Layout problem[edit]

Part of the text is obscured by some of the pictures. I tried to correct it, but alas... Homun 19:53, 27 June 2007 (UTC)

The layout problem is likely caused by limitations in the rendering of the markup language (HTML, XML, CSS) and usually can be temporarily fixed by either clicking Printable View or changing the display of your desktop to a size larger. It sucks but it does happen from time to time. --KeoniPhoenix 12:18, 17 October 2007 (UTC)

Diocletian image actually depicted another Emperor[edit]

I changed it to a known to be true one because the original statue image (diocletian.jpg) probably belongs to Trajan (I couldn't find a link with that image elsewhere but you may take a look at here and compare for yourself). The old image had nothing to do with the style of the Tetrarchic period and the known depictions of Diocletian. Dipa1965 (talk) 20:17, 14 April 2008 (UTC)

Ending[edit]

The ending of the History section leaves something to be desired. It ends with "These continuing problems would be radically addressed by Diocletian" without saying how. Is there a knowledgeable person out there who wants to add another sentence summarizing how the Crisis ended? --Doradus (talk) 05:45, 21 November 2008 (UTC)

Ιn my humble opionion, the WHOLE article leaves a lot to be desired. It is one-sided and outdated because the existence of that crisis is now heavily disputed (at least, that view should also be mentioned). Not to mention the lack of references to the intrinsic weaknesses of the roman political system which in turn may strongly contributed to the crisis. But, more specifically, you are right. A few words there would help, assuming that a more balanced view of the preceding emperors is maintained (afaik, current consensus is that those counter-measures had already started at least from the reign of Gallienus). Stabilization and transformation of the roman society and state was not an entirely diocletianic achievement Dipa1965 (talk) 12:10, 21 November 2008 (UTC)

Effect of the crisis on Christian religion[edit]

Wasn't this the time when Christianity transformed from an obscure sect to a notable factor of power? Please add info on this if you have it. -- 85.179.127.132 (talk) 12:57, 20 October 2009 (UTC)



Translation of the German wiki article on this subject[edit]

I have done a quick translation of the German article using google translate. I am wondering if anyone wants to upload content from that article?

The German article is very well researched and provided us with a fair number of sources and citation from reputable historians.

http://www.twcenter.net/forums/showthread.php?p=6829142#post6829142 —Preceding unsigned comment added by 203.123.23.135 (talk) 04:34, 10 March 2010 (UTC)

Article clean up[edit]

Because I have so much free time on my hands, I'm going to get back into wikipedia-ing, and to that end, I'm going to rework this article by making it more concise and to the point. Rough organization:

Background (Pre crisis background explaining) Crisis (Barracks emperors) Recovery (Aurelian etc) Legacy (Primarily discussing the transferal of power base from Rome, the growing militarization, splitting of the empire...this should be the longest section in my opinion).

I'll start laying out the text of the article in my spare time at home and make a large edit, including refernces, with the basic shell. A lot of the current article should be incorporated, at least, that which is cited/sourced.

Masamax (talk) 11:56, 19 June 2011 (UTC)

Did the Gallic Empire administrate/contain Hispania or not?[edit]

The map on this page contradicts the text of the page. The map shows Hispania as part of the main body of the Roman Empire, while the article states that the Gallic Empire administrated Gaul, Brittania, and Hispania. Which of these is correct? Either the map should be replaced or the text should be corrected. If I misunderstand, please let me know, such as if Hispania was reconquered by the Roman Empire by 271. — Preceding unsigned comment added by Rgleon9986 (talkcontribs) 03:48, 18 November 2012 (UTC)