Systemic Problems that Led to the Crisis of the Third Century

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to The Fall of Rome: The Crisis of the Third Century

By: Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.,University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The Roman Empire underwent a series of serious problems in the third century, so much so that an entire period in its history, approximately after the year 238 A.D., is referred to by the historians as ‘The Crisis of the Third Century’. This crisis was rife with political and social instability, and can be characterized by certain broader, systemic problems. 

Colorized depiction of Roman warriors along with their generals being led into a war.
The crisis of the third century in the Roman Empire brought about with it a series of internal and external wars, economic instability, frequently changing emperors, and a flurry of natural disasters, all of which culminated to bring the empire very close to its demise in the 260s. (Image: Vuk Kostic/Shutterstock)

Incessant Civil Wars in the Roman Empire 

The assassination of Maximinus Thrax is seen to be a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire, as it was seen as a culmination of the dissent and chaos of many years of haphazard rule. The first major problem that arose after Thrax’s assassination was that the empire fell into a cycle of nearly incessant civil war. By now, most legions were concentrated in a few provinces that were most threatened. As a result, more than three-quarters of the Roman army was stationed in three key zones: the German border along the Rhine, the central European border along the Danube, and Syria and other eastern provinces serving to protect the Eastern frontier from the Parthians and later the Sassanians. There was a fourth smaller group of legions that was assigned to Britain that sometimes also got involved in these civil wars.

When governors of such provinces realized their proportionate hold over the army, they would try to bribe their way to power with the legions, and often, more than one region would simultaneously acclaim a new emperor. The respective generals and their legions would then fight it out with the current emperor, and each other, in Rome. Such multi-party civil wars paralyzed the system since no one could be sure who the legitimate emperor was at any given moment.

Barbarian Invasions in the Roman Empire

A second problem was that of barbarian invasions. Barbarian groups had always lurked on the perimeter of the empire, looking to invade and plunder Roman territories. But most of the time, the army had been standing guard to respond quickly. Now, however, with the high frequency of civil wars, armies would often abandon their posts to fight each other, and the barbarians were quick to take advantage, raiding farms and ravaging cities left unattended. A swarm of different tribes, such as Goths, Sarmatians, Marcomanni, Juthungi, and Saxons, all launched assaults during the mid-third century.

Even when a contender managed to emerge triumphant and become an emperor, he often had to deal with the barbarians, with a depleted an an exhausted army. In 251 A.D., for example, a horde of Goths entered across the Danube, and the recently crowned emperor, Decius, in a bid to defend his empire, let himself be trapped in swamps near Abritus, modern-day Bulgaria, and subsequently was killed along with his entire army. This was an unprecedented calamity, not only for the proportion of the army that was wiped out, but also as it was the first time an emperor had been slain on the battlefield. Unrelated, but equally interesting is the fact that it was Decius who mandated sacrificial killings and led to the first wave of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire.

Learn more about the Barbarians and the Roman Empire.

Roman Empire: Crisis in the East

Giant relief in Nashq-e-Rustam, depicting the triumph of Shapur over Valerian, the Roman emperor.
Shapur, the son of Ardashir, was even more aggressive a warrior than his father. During one his invasions, he managed to capture the Roman emperor Valerian, and make him his slave.
(Image: LukaKikina/Shutterstock)

The threat was not simply in the north; it was perhaps even more serious in the east, where the Sassanians had renewed their attacks. With the passing of Ardashir, founder of the Sassanid dynasty, his son, Shapur I, had taken over far more aggressively. He invaded provinces in Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Syria. In 260 A.D., the then Roman emperor, Valerian, had his army crushed by Shapur, and Valerian himself was captured, and spent the rest of his life as a slave at Shapur’s court. 

Shapur celebrated his achievement by having a giant stone relief carved that depicted a triumphant Shapur on his horse, with Valerian groveling at his feet.

The once-dominant Roman army was now routinely being humiliated.

Economic Collapse in the Roman Empire

The third aspect of the ‘The Crisis of the Third Century’, economic collapse, was a direct effect of the previous two.

Since Augustus’ reign, the size of the army, and the pay of soldiers, had been steadily increasing, now reaching a point where the military simply became unsustainable. The internal and external warfare further stressed an already stressed economic system. With wars, plunderings, and invasions happening frequently, merchants stopped traveling for trade, and bandits and pirates proliferated their activities. 

Even worse, as soon as a contender for the throne had killed off his enemies and established himself as emperor, he increased taxes in order to get funds to rebuild his armies; but this happened at the very time when farmers and merchants could least afford to pay more. All of these developments formed a vicious circle.

Desperate to gain more income, emperors debased the coinage. They added less valuable metals to coins but kept the face value the same. People were not fooled by this, however, and the inevitable result was that everyone raised their prices. The problem was that no one trusted the coinage anymore, sparking terrible bouts of inflation.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Natural Disasters in the Roman Empire

If all this were not enough, the empire was devastated by a flurry of natural disasters. Earthquakes wreaked havoc in Italy and in the east, and another plague outbreak ravaged the kingdom for over a decade, killing millions, especially in large cities. Over five thousand were said to have perished in Rome alone, and Alexandria lost two-thirds of its population. 

Not only did the plague create manpower shortage to ward off the barbarians, it also harmed the economy terribly. 

Learn more about the crisis of the third century.

Size of the Roman Empire

A final issue was the sheer size of the empire. The limitations on communication capabilities, the sheer time it took to send a message from Rome to the borders, showed that the empire was too big to be managed single-handedly. In addition, geographic rivalries meant that legions from different regions were ready to split the empire and proclaim their own emperors.  

Under the collective pressure of all these problems, the empire began to disintegrate as rulers realized Rome’s inability to control them. 

In the west, a Roman general named Postumus was declared emperor, and he created the Gallic Empire, consisting of Gaul, Germany, Britain, and Spain. His rule lasted almost a decade, before his own troops murdered him.

In the east, the prosperous caravan city of Palmyra rebelled and established the Palmyrene Empire, which went on to conquer Arabia, Syria, Palaestina, Galatia, and sections of Asia Minor from Russian rule. As a direct contradiction to Roman patriarchy, it was a woman, Zenobia, who led Palmyra to this feat. In 270 A.D., she invaded and subdued Egypt, and awarded herself the title of Augusta, and her son, Augustus, indicating the allure still held by Rome. 

By the late 260s, when the Roman Empire seemed to have its end near, worn down by internal and external foes, disease, depopulation, and a flailing economy, a surprising series of tough military emperors came to power, granting it at least another hundred years of life. 

Ironically, one of the main causes of ‘The Crisis of the Third Century’, that of legionary commanders claiming the throne, ultimately resulted in forging leaders out of men who were most capable of defeating the barbarians and reestablishing order in the empire. It was this series of emperors that saved the Roman Empire from destruction and death. 

Common Questions about the Crisis of the Third Century

Q: Why was the Assassination of Maximinus Thrax important in the history of the Roman Empire?

The assassination of Maximinus Thrax in the year 238 A.D. was followed by a series of civil wars, dissent, and chaos. All this eventually ended the Roman Empire in the 260s.

Q: What were some of the systemic issues that plagued the Roman Empire during the crisis of the third century?

During the crisis of the third century, the Roman Empire had to witness a number of systemic problems, such as incessant civil wars, constant threats of barbarian invasions, and economic instability, that eventually pushed the empire toward its demise.

Q: Why did the position of emperor change hands so many times during the crisis of the third century in the Roman Empire?

During the crisis in the Roman Empire, the army was concentrated into a small number of legions, and multiple powerful legions would often decide to put up their leaders for the position of emperor simultaneously. This would then result in multi-party civil wars to decide who the next emperor would be. This dynamic of the army, combined with the penchant of civil war and the lack of formidable leadership, led to frequent changes in emperors.

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