The Third Century Crisis


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Lecture 2 from Later Roman Empire module at University of Liverpool.

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The Third Century Crisis

  1. 1. Third Century CrisisCLAH266 – The Later Roman Empire Lecture 2, 5th October 2012 Dr Jamie Wood
  2. 2. Today‟s lecture: aims Provide a narrative of the third century „crisis‟ in the Roman Empire Provide an overview of the key themes during the period Think about problems relating to 1. Source material for the period 2. Historiography of the period
  3. 3. Today‟s lecture: structure Early third century The year of 6 emperors (238 CE) and immediate aftermath Group work: reviewing De Blois reading Break The „crisis‟ (235-284): key themes and effects Historiography Some effects of the crisis: e.g. Bureaucracy Conclusions
  4. 4. Things to bear in mind The „crisis‟ lasts for less than 50 years (235- 284 CE)  NOT the entire century  AND some parts of the 50 years are peaceful (or at least not in crisis)  IT (whatever „it‟ is!) effects some geographical areas more than others The „crisis‟ is a historiographical construct  TODAY we are going to try to explore the historical events and processes that led to the construction of the idea of „crisis‟  THEN think about whether „crisis‟ is a fair descriptor for the period
  5. 5. Some key points from last week  Continuity of emperors – or at least the image of it  Gibbon‟s golden age – social conservatism of Antonines best way of keeping stability  Look after the army and you‟ll be ok  Succession – co-emperorship  Provincial emperors throughout period – cities in provinces had money poured back into them  Shift from philosopher to soldier in representation  Good emperors followed by bad ones (sources)
  6. 6. Cassius Dio, Roman History, Epitome of Book 74.11 (auction of the emperorship in praetorian camp in 193) When the fate of Pertinax was noised about, some ran to their homes and others to those of the soldiers, all taking thought for their own safety. But Sulpicianus, who had been sent by Pertinax to the camp to set matters in order there, remained on the spot, and intrigued to get himself appointed emperor. Meanwhile Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money- getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum [= Milan], now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, ‘Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?’ And to Sulpicianus in turn, ‘Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?’ Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.
  7. 7. Septimius Severus (d. 211) -deathbed advice to his sons “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men.” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, epitome of book 77.15)
  8. 8. Severus Alexander (222-235)
  9. 9. Who was Severus Alexander? Cousin of Elagabalus (218-222); Syrian origin Shares consulship and is given title of Caesar in 221; heir apparent Their grandmother Julia Maesa plotted to have SA take over Elagabalus sees that SA is (more) popular with the army and tries to eliminate him; Elagabalus is assassinated instead in 222 Only 13 years old when he replaces Elagabalus 26th Roman Emperor
  10. 10.  Government under the influence of his mother, Julia Mamaea, and jurist Ulpian (praetorian prefect) Building programme in Rome (last until Diocletian) Alienation of troops due to lack of funds – numerous mutinies Pressure from Sassanid Persians in east and Germans in west  Sassanid threat fought off; note raising of Taurinus as emperor by Syrian legions in 232 Aqua Alexandrina aqueduct, R The Reign of SA  Failure to deal militarily with German threat (diplomacy/ bribery used instead) caused his downfall “Alexander showed nohonourable intention to pursuethe war and preferred a life of ease, when he should have marched out to punish the Germans for their previous
  11. 11. Maximinus Thrax (235-238) Career soldier who had come up through the ranks; Thracian origin Declared emperor; troops mutiny and SA and his mother are killed Stressed his military skill from the start MT‟s reign: protracted warfare along Rhine and Danube frontiers
  12. 12. Maximinus Thrax:Military emperor or enemy of the Senate? SA: traditionally judged a pro-senatorial emperor MT: eventually deposed by rebels with the support of the senate  So, often seen as very anti-Senate MT: military origins; raised from the army, by the army Financial policy: MT accused of greed by his enemies (e.g. Herodian); it is more likely that he tried to find new sources of income because he needed to fund the military Even if MT was a military emperor „there is no reason to fully accept the strong accusation that he was especially anti- senatorial‟ (K. Haegemans, Imperial authority and dissent: the Roman empire in AD 235-238, Leuven: 2010, p. 110) 235-8 CE was not a period of discontinuity, but fitted with patterns which had been taking place since the end of the 2nd century
  13. 13. 238 CE: A year of many emperors[Maximinus Thrax –> Gordian I & Gordian II –> Pupienus & Balbinus – > Gordian III] Revolt in Africa: proclamation of Gordian I and his son, Gordian II, as emperors. Probably pre-planned to attract support at Rome and elsewhere rapidly NOT a general „senatorial conspiracy‟ or a rebellion by African „nationalists‟ Senate raises Pupienus and Balbinus after Maximinus‟ forces defeat the Gordians (I and II) Maximinus tries to move his army from the Danube to Italy  Turning point: resistance at Aquileia, which leads troops to kill Maximinus
  14. 14. Gordian III (238-244) Acceptable to both Senate and army Young (13 years old) Gordian I and II and his grandfather and uncle respectively Starts as Caesar under B and P Rules under influence of his father-in- law, Timesitheus (Praetorian Prefect) Campaigns with some success against the Germans and the Persian Sassanids (where he dies and is replaced by Philip the Arab, the new Praetorian Prefect)
  15. 15. 235-238 – some thoughts Rather than initiating the „crisis‟ of the third century, the events of these 3 years illustrate processes which were already underway and which were to occur more frequently and with greater impact later in the century Intersection of private patronage relationships and expanding government networks had important impact on course and success of the insurrection against MT  i.e. expansion of government
  16. 16. Group work In groups of 4 or 5 Discuss the following questions, based on your reading of De Blois (2002), “The Crisis of the Third Century A.D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?”: 1. What are the key points that DB is trying to make? 2. What scholarly trends is DB reacting against? 3. What model(s) does DB propose in their place? You have 15 minutes, at which point you will
  17. 17. 1. What key points is DB trying tomake?  Not one key reason for crisis – smaller factors add up  Was it a crisis? Exaggeration?  Historiographical – many areas not affected. Depends where you are  Idea of crisis comes from senators – rather than average Romans  Not massively tumultuous period for everyone – continuity with Severans
  18. 18. 2. What scholarly trends is DBreacting against? People who say it is a general crisis Historians – this is convenient start/ end point – convenience Potter – crisis ascribed to Dio and Herodian – depends on sources
  19. 19. 3. What model(s) does DB proposein their place? Not big crisis Geography – some areas more than others Where military conflict happens – bigger crisis  E.g. Frontier zones  Long term = bigger impact
  20. 20. Key themes in the third centurycrisis: an overview  Politics  Military and external affairs  Economy  Social change  Religion
  21. 21. Politics Lack of means of securing the succession (evident throughout imperial history) 3rd century: usurpations, civil wars and breakaways became commonplace 235-284: more emperors than in previous 250 years Separate empires emerge in Gaul and Palmyra, questioning the unity of the empire Emperors spent much of their time fighting usurpers, increasing their reliance on the military Need to pay, supply and reward the
  22. 22. Maximinus ‘Thrax’ (the Thracian) 235-8Gordian I 238Gordian II (co-emp. with Gordian I) 238Pupienus and Balbinus 238 Emperors ofGordian III (Caesar to P. and B. 238) 238-44 the thirdPhilip 244- century crisis 49Decius 249- 51Gallus 251- 53Aemilianus 253 Claudius II Gothicus 268-Valerian 253- 70 60 (Vaballathus – ruler of Palmyrene EmpireGallienus (co-emp. with V. 253-60) 253- 269-71) 68 Aurelian 270-75(Postumus - ruler of Gallic Empire 260-8) Tacitus 275-(Odenathus - ruler of Palmyrene Empire 76 260-69) Probus 276-
  23. 23. Military and external affairs Frequent/ constant civil war Empire already under pressure from Germans/ Sassanids; but internal strife provides further opportunities  Germans:  Gothic invasions into Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor, in mid- century  Abandonment of Dacia in 265  Sassanid Persians: persistent and serious threat in the East: e.g. Valerian (253-260) captured
  24. 24. Valerian held captive by Shapur I (240/2-270/2)(Naghsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran)
  25. 25. Lugo YorkBarcelona Aurelian Walls, Rome
  26. 26. City walls: a symptom of crisis? At first sight, these constructions clearly respond to political and military troubles of mid 3rd century But maybe not... 1. Tendency to date archaeology according to the historical record is problematic – are these city walls all mid-3rd century in date?  [e.g. M. Kulikowski, Late Roman Spain and its Cities (Baltimore: 2004), pp. 39-64] 2. City walls serve other purposes than defence; e.g. as a symbol of prestige and power  [e.g. for an earlier period: W.E. Mierse, “Augustan city walls in the west”, Journal of Roman Archaeology, 3 (1990), pp. 358-360]
  27. 27. Economy General collapse in 3rd century  Population decline? Outbreak of plague (251-66)  Loss of agricultural productivity?  Political and military instability? Very high inflation and currency collapse; in places the empire almost reverts to a „natural economy‟ (barter; no coinage) Reduced taxation base (breakaways and invasions) Need to pay/ reward/ bribe the army to resist internal and external threats = vicious circle State frequently does not have the money to cover expenses = further instability Evidentiary gain: instability means
  28. 28. Debasement of coinage (i):weight
  29. 29. Debasement of coinage (ii):precious metal content
  30. 30. Debasement of coinage (iii):quality  antoninian us of Caracalla (217 CE)  antoninian us of Tetricius I (270-3 CE)
  31. 31. Social change and the epigraphichabit Increased in 1st C BCE and 1st CE, peaking at turn of 2/3rd C  About display and audience  Collectively: shows that new provinces are part of the empire: common culture; shows that local elites are people to work with; part of process of „Romanization‟  Individually: after grant of Roman citizenship it is a way to differentiate yourself from people who don‟t have citizenship Drastic decline in 3rd century  A symptom of crisis?  Or possible link to Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 CE – citizenship for all free inhabitants of the empire; means it is no longer necessary (or possible) to distinguish yourself by epigraphy
  32. 32. Religion: a drive for conformity Increasing move towards worship of one dominant god within Roman pantheon (e.g. worship of sol invictus) Disasters afflicting the empire (e.g. Plague/ invasion) interpreted as sign of divine displeasure = drive to re- establish favour of the gods by ensuring that the entire population conforms  E.g. Decian „persecution‟ (250)  Libelli: certificates/ tickets of sacrifice  Is this (a) a persecution targeted at Christians OR (b) an administrative process in which some Christians get John Rylands Library, Greek Papyrus 12, certificate of Pagan Sacrifice, AD 250 caught up by accident?  [Rives, J. B. „The Decree of Decius and the
  33. 33. The end of the crisis: factors Military  Diocletian defeats his rivals  Military reforms (field armies and frontier forces - limitanei)  Invasions cease (or are defeated) Government  Development of new system: the Tetrarchy (rule of 4)  Sharing of power  cf. earlier efforts to share power under Antonines and Severans (and during „crisis‟)  cf. regional empires during the „crisis‟  Reorganisation of bureaucracy and administration (e.g. smaller provinces)  Economic reforms (e.g. price fixing; labour/ status laws) We will look at the emergence of the Tetrarchy, especially the
  34. 34. A note on historiography Decline, fall and 3rd century „crisis‟:  Since Edward Gibbon, the enlightened despotism of Marcus Aurelius et al. seen as golden age of Rome in which philosophy and power were combined (see last week‟s slides)  Period afterwards seen as military dictatorship running amok  Both of these interpretations derive from the „senatorial‟ viewpoint of Cassius Dio and others AND the „Enlightenment‟ viewpoint of Gibbon  i.e. they are the result of the preoccupations of our historical sources and the historiographical tradition (see De Blois and others on bibliography for revisionist opinions) But – very interesting that the empire survives the „crisis‟
  35. 35. Conclusions: Crisis or Continuity? Depends what you mean by „crisis‟/ where you look (geographically and structurally) 3rd century extreme case that illustrates problems with the imperial system:  Lack of secure succession creates opportunities for challenges  Lack of military success (or financial means to get military on-side) means legitimacy of emperors is questioned  Pressure from outside empire/ elites in the provinces needs to be dealt with (either by victory or co-operation) Related to earlier tendencies:  Increasing military involvement in politics;  Increased bureaucratisation (already going on under Antonines and Severans) Paradox is that military/ bureaucratic reforms are the solution to the 3rd C
  36. 36. Homework: historical sources for thelate 2nd and 3rd centuriesIt‟s important that you have a grasp of the main sources for the early part of the period, so this week I‟d like you to spend a bit of time researching the following three sources (use reputable sources like the Oxford Classical Dictionary; don‟t use wikipedia etc. as anything other than a basic starting point)1. Cassius Dio‟s Roman History2. Historia Augusta3. HerodianHere‟s the information I‟d like you to collect on each source: Date of composition (esp. in relation to events described) Author(s) (who they are, where they are from) What it‟s about (e.g. recurrent themes/ topics) Issues (e.g. viewpoint or biases of the author/ history of the