Home > B. The Living Artifact > The Crisis of the Third Century–Part 1, Rome

The Crisis of the Third Century–Part 1, Rome

File:Map of Ancient Rome 271 AD.svg


For a few years in the middle of the third century A.D., this is what the Mediterranean seaboard looked like. By 271 A.D., the Roman Empire had broken apart, but within a few years, it reconquered the two renegade empires. How could this have happened? What does the Crisis of the Third Century  (AD 235-284) mean?


RT has not gone exploring in so bold a fashion for some time; above all, the Crisis marks the end of the classical world that Alexander the Great (365-323 BC) had established with his conquests and the earliest beginnings of the Medieval Era. Though the Roman Empire eventually reconquered the break-away kingdoms, it never fully recovered its former strength and unity, Readers will encounter a good deal of old-fashioned history, with dates and whatnot, Team Leader RT (and he hasn’t worn this hat in a long time) will do his best to guide folks through the maze of information. The prize we’re seeking? Cultural transformation, one of the purest forms of magic.


The first question is perhaps easier to answer. The Principate, the form of government that Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, had established, reached its apogee under the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, which produced the Five Good Emperors and a period of peace and prosperity that lasted a century (AD 96-192). The emphasis of the dynasty was good government and adherence to Roman tradition, and each new emperor was chosen by his predecessor and adopted as heir to the Empire. The Roman Senate was respected and shared power with the emperor.

1) Slavery. The problem with this system was not the quality of the government, but the deterioration of the society that the government supported. Slavery was common, and though Roman law did not deny the basic humanity of a slave (a slave could buy his or her freedom and after manumission become a citizen with voting rights), the lower class of slaves performing hard manual labor on farms, in mines, and at mills, were treated brutally and often died at an early age. At the other end of the spectrum, some educated slaves rose to high positions of responsibility in society and government. And slave could be freed by his or her master.

But the law made clear that a slave was a person without rights, who could be treated as the owner wished, including the inflicting of sexual abuse and summary execution. Large slave rebellions occurred during both the Republic and the Empire. The Roman economy was heavily dependent on slave labor.

2) Roman Civilization. The ancient quest of Rome to impose its civilization on foreign countries failed in many places with cultures that were more ancient than Rome’s. The quest had made sense during the Punic Wars, when Romans could argue that they were stamping out the child sacrifice practiced by Carthage. But later, under the Empire, there was nothing inherently superior about Roman pagan society, which often resembled the cultures that it conquered. The existence of a large slave class at one end of the social spectrum and a small political and financial elite at the other created tensions that left large segments of the population disaffected with the Empire.

File:Ostia Antica Mithraeum.jpg

3) The Appearance of Alternative Religions. New alternative religions appeared and spread rapidly throughout the Empire: a) Christianity; b) Gnosticism (and in particular, Manicheism); and c) Mithraism, all claimed large numbers of adherents. These religions were not variations on old themes; each represented a distinct break with the culture that produced it. Notably, these religions shared some elements, most importantly, the exaltation and transformation of the worshiper. The notion of a transcendent God or Cosmos was also critical: these religions aimed to replace the old cosmological understanding with a more comprehensive and accurate view of the world. The old Roman religious reliance on nature and community were hard to defend against a rising sense of egalitarianism and the transitory human condition.


The result, in hindsight, seems inevitable: With the assassination of Commodus (AD 192), the last Nervan emperor, the Empire plunged into an extended period of instability under the Severan Dynasty (AD 192-235) , Only two Severan Emperor, the first and last of the dynasty, ruled longer than ten years. With the assassination of Alexander Severus, the great crisis at last broke out.

It should be pointed out that by any standard, Alexander Severus was a just and capable ruler, murdered by his own troops when he agreed to paid tribute to Germanic tribes to gain time in dealing with the Parthians. What ailed the Romans was not their government so much as the transformation of their culture.

It’s time for a breather. RT will be back soon with Part 2...   RT


Map: The Roman Empire, 271 A.D. WikiCmns; Public Domain. PhotoMithraeum of the Baths of Mithras; Author: Michelle Touton (Ailurophyle). WikiCmns; Public Domain.



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