3rd Century Crisis and the fall of the Roman Empire

The starting point of the fall of the Roman Empire is with any doubt the 3rd century crisis. In fact, without the major reform of the emperors Diolectian and Constantine, the Roman empire will probably not survive. That said, the reforms have saved the Roman legacy in the east with the Byzantine empire, but the problem was too big for the west.

But what change causes this crisis ?

In the 3rd century, three major changes took place: Christianity spread fast, Germanic tribes increased their pressure on their border, and a few major plagues killed many influential Roman citizens. These three factors, combined with the incompetence of many emperors, rivalry between the senate and the army, and other flaws in the Roman political system, doomed the west roman empire.

Like everyone knows, roman frontier problems were the primary cause of this crisis and the fall of the empire.

In the Middle East, the newly formed Persian empire called the Sassanids had become a serious threat. This threat remained for the next four centuries. Despite the fall of the western empire, the sassanids would continue to fight against the Byzantines, the east roman empire. The rivalry ended in the 7th century when the Arab Umayyads conquered the Persians. As a matter of fact, the Umayyads took over almost all of the Roman territories in North Africa and the Middle East at the same time.

On the Rhine frontier in Gaul, the Franks, the Vandals, the Saxons, and other Germanic tribes periodically raided Roman territory. Because of the war against the Persians, the Roman army's presence was restricted in the region.

In the Balkan, mainly the goths crushed into the roman border and gave a hard time to the roman patrol. The goths were mainly from the north of the black sea and fleeing the Huns' terror.

There was also a threat from the local population, mostly the Berbers, in North Africa.

The battle on multiple fronts was obviously challenging. The emperors' response, however, exacerbated the problem by provoking an economic crisis.

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All of these military engagements were expensive and costly. Numerous emperors came up with solutions that defined any basic economic principle. Money was made in silver at this time. To refill the empire treasury, the emperor began making silver coins with less silver in them and pretending they were the same value. Basically, this is the same as printing money.

Obviously, this kind of policy always leads to high inflation. While the state had more money for a short period of time, the value of the resources rose so quickly that they are not any richer. Once again! Basic economic knowledge.

Therefore, the roman was not only broken, but also faced with an inflation problem. As a result, trust in the economy declined, and the black market grew. So the empire generated less tax revenue. Due to this, the army budget was reduced, and the frontier threat was greater.

The incompetence on the matter of the Roman emperor had been remarkable during all the 3rd century. Almost all of them lowered the quality of silver coins and made the problem worse each time. At the end of the 3rd century the silver coin contained only 5% of silver.

With Constantine's new money policy in 326, the problem was resolved. His policy of golden coinage has been used everywhere in Europe for centuries. He introduced the Solidus coin. This golden coin pressed with the face of the emperor or any rulers must contain precisely 4.5g of gold. Of course, at this time it was the value of gold that had the real value.

As a result of its limited gold supply, the empire created a limited number of gold coins. This ensures a reliable and stable money supply. For people not familiar with economic basics, a money supply stable means an inflation stable as well.

However, this economic crisis and the pressure at the borders was not enough to create the 3rd century crisis.

We need to remember that military dominance was a major factor in the prosperity of Roman society. The pax Romana, the famous Roman peace, came from a well-trained and well-paid army. Thus, a poor army with insufficient equipment and training will not bring peace to the empire.

However, giving too much power to the army created all sorts of problems. This had been another major factor of the 3rd century crisis. During this crisis, almost all emperors were killed by their own troops. This unbalanced military power was given by the Severan dynasty.

The year 235 is often used as the starting point of this crisis. In this year, the emperor Severus Alexander was killed by his own soldiers for his incompetence. Severus Alexander was the last representative of the Severan dynasty.

This dynasty's reforms were the essence of the 3rd century crisis and the fall of the Roman empire. The first emperor of this dynasty was Septimius Severus. Despite being a rich senator, he had no military experience. His motto to govern was ‘’ get along, enrich the troops and don't worry about everything else’’. Thus, he and his dynasty gave their soldiers many raises, almost triples, and many responsibilities, making them powerful and influential. It reached a point where the military power might overshadow senatorial power.

Augustus in 27BC, the first Roman emperor, had explicitly put the senatorial power above the military for this reason. It is rarely a wise idea for a government to use the army as a political instrument.

Severus was also from North Africa. Before him, almost every emperor was from the Italian peninsula. During the 2nd century, the Antoinie plague killed many wheatley people in Rome and everywhere else. As a result, some rich people from province areas became more influential in the empire. They even reached senator status in some cases. Prior to this, Rome's provinces had only a small influence on the empire's central power.

However, the Severan dynasty increased the autonomy of those provinces. As a culmination of this, the emperor Caracella in 212 gave citizenship to any freeman within the empire. Previously, a free man from the province did not have the same rights as a free man from the italian peninsula.

All those reforms increased both the power of the army and the autonomy of the provinces. In 235, the army murdered the emperor Severus Alexander and crowned Maximinus as Emperor. In the ranks of the army, he was highly respected. He, however, broke the mould of emperor origin forever. He was a thracian from a poor family. Unlike other imperial figures, he was truly an outsider of Rome. He was the first, but not the last in this regard.

Rich families and senators in Rome opposed the nomination of this Thracian soldier. Consequently, he was assassinated in 238. After this, the army, senators, and rich landowners in every province fought for imperial power.

A famous example of this is the rise of Decius as emperor. A balkan army general named Trajan Decius led his soldiers to incredible victories during the 249 campaign against Germanic tribes. In order to put Trajan Decius in charge, his soldiers killed Philip I and his son and proclaimed him emperor. But the death on the battlefield of the newly crowned emperor Decius and his son occurred in 251. In response, Gallus was named emperor by the senators of Rome. The army did not like him, so they killed him in 253 and placed Aemilianus in charge. This kind of nonsense continued for almost five decades.

While emperors, usurpers, soldiers, senators and more fought each other in this perpetual civil war, nobody was really in charge. As a result, the borders became more vulnerable. For the protection of the border and management of the local population, local rulers rose to power and claimed greater autonomy. A famous example is the Gallic empire.

Various Germanic tribes made an incursion in 259 due to the lack of border control and soldiers in the north of Gaul. Those Germanic tribes sacked many cities in Gaul and Hispania. Postumus, an army commander in this region will rise up and kick out the intruder. After this, he is proclaimed Emperor by his troops. As a result, the Gallic empire became independent of the Roman empire between 260 and 274. The Gallic empire included Gaul, Hispania and Britannia.

In 270 , the persian emperor Shah Shapur died which created temporal instability in the persian empire. This lowered the pressure in the middle east border and gave the chance to Claudius II and Aurelian to reannex the Gallic empire and drive out the Goths from the Balkans.

Carus, in 283, was the first to try to change the tradition of assassination and constant fighting between the army and senators. He named himself the emperor senior the augustus but he also named his two sons emperor junior, the caesars.

It was envisioned that the caesars would succeed the augustus rather than the military elite after he died.The caesars was also given a prefecture within the territory of the emperor senior. In this way, imperial power is strengthened.

Future Emperors used part of this system. However, it had been upgraded by Diolectian and Constantine.

In 284, Diocletian became emperor. During his reign, he massively reformed the empire. However, his reforms were a mix of good and very bad decisions. This reform will be completed by Constantine in the early 4th century.

Just in case you are wondering, the question of Christianity will be the subject of the next video so we will ignore this subject for this one.

Diocletian took control of the empire, after the death of Carus in Persia and the murder of his two sons, the two Caesars. Diocletian had seen where the biggest problems were. In order to increase imperial authority and to decrease military and senatorial power , Diocletian in 293 divided the empire into four prefectures. This system was named the Tetrarchy.

He named himself Augustus, emperor senior if you prefer, of the east empire, and he named Maximian the Augustus of the empire of the west. As well as the two Caesars, emperor junior named for those two Augustus.

In order to understand the purpose of this system, we must first understand the term "Usurper".

It is historically the emperor's responsibility to command his troops where the conflict occurs, but many conflicts occur on multiple fronts at the same time. Therefore, when there is no emperor on the battlefield, an ambitious commander may proclaim himself emperor. Here's how a commander becomes a usurper, in most cases. Following this, the usurper and the emperor try to assassinate each other to become the sole emperor. In Roman history, there were probably over a hundred usurpers like this.

In the time of Diocletian, there were four major military tensions : the Balkans with the Goths, Gaul with the Franks and Alemanni, Middle East against the Sassanids, and North Africa against the Berbers. These four emperors , junior or senior, had been mainly assigned to at one of those conflit. This procured better stability.In the past, when an emperor was killed, the list of potential successors was very long. But under the tetrarchy system, when an emperor died, the three other emperors may continue to rule their region without change. They also can take control of the territory left without an emperor and nominate a new caesar to govern with them.

Two rebellions occur under this system. One in Britannia where the general Carausius rebel, the caesar Constantius, ended this rebellion in 296. A second rebellion occurs in Egypt, where Domitius Domitianus rebels. The emperor Diolectian ended it also in 296.

There was very little impact on the rest of the empire from those rebellions. This was proof that this system or a similar one works, or at least works better. From this time, Roman society was almost always governed by more than one emperor.

Moreover, Diolectian will double the number of provinces ruled by governors. There were approximately 100 provinces, which were regrouped by diocese, under the control of a new ruling class, the Vicarri, deputy Praetorian Prefect.

The Praetorian prefects were the high class of the army who had been responsible for the murder of many emperors. Under Diocletian, Diocletian to decrease their power on the imperial power and stop the emperor assasination tradition, he detached Praetorian to the Imperial power and assigned them to a administrative regional role, with no military responsabilty.

All those reforms are in majority attributed to Diocletian. However, Constantine, Galerius and Licinius had finished and completed the work of their predecessor.

In 305, Diocletian retired. Like said before, his reform was not perfect but better. Galerius replaced Diocletian as Augustin of the East Empire. There was, however, a conflict between usurpers and other emperors between the years 305 and 311. During this time, Constantine, Galerus, Severus, Maximian, Licinius and others were competing to become the emperor of the entire empire. It wasn't until 28 October 312 that Constantine became emperor of the West after defeating Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge battle. After the death of Maximin of illness in 313, Licinius became emperor of the east.

Between 313 and 323, Licinius and Constantin co-ruled until a war broke out between them. It was Constantine who won and became the sole emperor.

The move of the capital from Rome to Constantinople was concluded in 330 by Constantin. The East had more christian than Rome. So Constantin made a Christian capital. Also the economy of the East was much better and the threat from the Sassanids was much higher. It was just more efficient to put the administrative center there.

After Constantine's death in 337, the empire was divided among his three sons: Constantine II to the west, Constans to the middle, and Constantinus to the east.

This kind of incongruity and mostly arbitrary division between Augustus, Caesar and Usurper occurred again and again for the rest of the empire's history. However, the crisis of the 3rd century ended and a better stability and continuity was established by Diolectian and Constantin.

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