Home > B. The Living Artifact > Realizing Human Potential: Crisis, Part 5

Realizing Human Potential: Crisis, Part 5

File:Actor slave Massimo.jpgDid Rome ever recover from the Crisis of the Third Century? The short answer is: not really.

The longer answer begins with: and maybe it shouldn’t have. Slavery was entrenched in the old system, which made no accommodation for the possibility of human spiritual equality. If you were down at the bottom of society, that was the place that the gods had assigned you. If you were a woman, well, you only nurtured the husband’s growing seed during gestation; you didn’t contribute anything to a child’s essential humanity. Your place was to serve your husband. And if you were a child, you had no rights until your father accepted you into the human community.

The choices facing the Roman world during the third century were greater than is often realized. The Empire had at least three main options: 1) the status quo; 2) Christianity; and 3) Manichaeism (offered via Persia and Palmyra).

1) The status quo was simply not sustainable. In the Roman Empire, thousands and thousands of people lived in slavery or dire poverty. The peace established by Augustus had soured. The cruelty and injustices of the system had to go.

2) Manichaeism offered escape from an evil existence to its adherents. The religion that Mani founded under Shapur I was undoubtedly a principal motivator behind Palmyra’s rebellion. Here was a religion that addressed many of the problems that ordinary people were struggling with. The death of Shapur in 270 (from illness) and subsequently of Mani (in 274), however, robbed the new movement of its leadership at a critical juncture. One has to wonder how things might have turned out if king and prophet had lived.

File:Raphael-Constantine at Milvian Bridge.jpg

3) Christianity carried the day. Aurelian founded no new Roman dynasty; his contribution to saving the empire was mainly military. Diocletian (r. 284-305), the emperor whose reign saw the official end of the Crisis and a full-scale persecution of Christians, was the last pagan emperor–save Julian the Philosopher–of note. But Diocletian was an autocrat–the Dominate was established during his rule–and while his reign saw notable improvements in government, it brought little help to the downtrodden. Constantine I, who converted to Christianity in 315, finally recognized the fundamental place in Roman society that Christianity had assumed. One of the reasons for Christianity’s eventual adoption as the state religion must have been its broad appeal–it spoke to the sufferings of ordinary people and the need for a single philosophical system among intellectuals. Eventually, under Justinian I (A.D. 537), slavery was replaced by serfdom, a system of modified slavery that offered certain rights and protections to serfs. It should be noted, however, that serfdom was a permanent condition that did not allow for the possibility of emancipation, as did the ancient Romans.


Slavery was hardly the only factor at play in the collapse of Roman society. The Empire had overseen a period of intense urbanization, when the city was both a symbol and the actual improvement offered by the Romans. With the withering of the Empire came a withering of the city; Rome’s population at its height was in excess of a million; in A.D. 400 it stood somewhere between 500 and 750 thousand; by the year 600 it had fallen to 250,000. Western Europe was moving towards a rural, more sustainable society. As RT has argued elsewhere, we might be at the beginning of a similar process.


RT’s final note on the great crisis: the map below prefigures a later religious and cultural conflict: the rise of Islam. While Christianity took deep root in Western Europe, the southeastern stretches of the Mediterranean remained disaffected. These tensions would be resolved only by the advent of a new world religion. And the Gallic Empire in the West hints at the entry of Germany and Eastern Europe into the civilized world. The importance of local, cultural realities should not be ignored in the quest for universal answers.    RT

File:Map of Ancient Rome 271 AD.svg


Photo: Actor slave massimo. Bronze statuette; early 3rd century AD. Source/ Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006).

WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Painting: Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge; Raphael. Vatican Rooms. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Map: The Mediterranean Seaboard, 271, A.D. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.

  1. aubrey
    October 24, 2013 at 12:36 am

    I’m wondering if a parallel could be drawn with Europe after the Plague in the 1340’s? With a workforce suddenly deteriorating below the ground, society – for the most part an agrarian one – was dazed, panicked, and very nearly collapsed.

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