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How 24 Roman emperors shared power during the crisis of the III century and what all this led to
How 24 Roman emperors shared power during the crisis of the III century and what all this led to

In the first half of the third century, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, the future Saint Cyprian, tried to refute the claims of a certain Demetrius that Christianity was the cause of the evil that persecuted the Roman Empire. While searching for answers to the question of what happened during the turbulent five decades between 235 and 284 AD, when the Roman Empire seemed to be teetering on the brink, the bishop gave an impressive answer about a world engulfed in a maelstrom of chaos in which there was a brutal political instability, enemies crossing shaky imperial borders and twenty-four emperors replaced in fifty years, leading the country to a global crisis.

"The shards of an aging world are falling apart … wars continue to occur with increasing frequency, sterility and hunger increase anxiety, terrible diseases destroy human health, the human race is devastated by rampant decay, and you should know that all this was foretold …"

Emperor Hadrian. \ Photo:

In modern historical science, the period from 235 to 284 AD is widely referred to as the crisis of the Third Century. This is a somewhat useless term, since its parameters are too broad and vague to accurately reflect historical events. However, these were the decades during which the Roman Empire suffered. Enemies have accumulated and rushed beyond its borders. In the centers of power, a succession of emperors and soldiers could not exercise any lasting control. The Roman state was destroyed inside and out. External burdens have increased the pressure on these people, while rivals, challengers and usurpers have declared themselves.

1. Beginning

Left to right: Portrait bust of Alexander Sever, 230-235 n. NS. \ Photo: \ Portrait-bust of Julia Avita Mammey, 192-235 n. NS. \ Photo:

The events of the third century crisis become even more surprising after considering the events of the second. The emperors who ruled the empire from 98-180 n. BC, have long been confident in their historical heritage as in the rule of the Golden Age of the Empire. Trajan expanded the empire to its greatest point, Hadrian helped the classical culture flourish, and Marcus Aurelius was a model of imperial virtue. Even Septimius Sever, despite his more variegated heritage, tried to keep the empire in full health.

Marcus Aurelius. \ Photo:

However, the decades following the death of the North were marked by new approaches to empire and imperialism, as well as new challenges to face. Attempts by his son Caracalla to rely solely on the support of the armies of the Empire were ultimately futile. The ensuing civil war led to the accession of Elagabalus (Heliogabalus). This young man from Syria, a priest of the cult of the sun and a famous lecher, was ordained on the basis of false dynastic claims. In the end, his reign was brief. In 222, he was succeeded by his cousin, Alexander Sever, and was tasked with rebuilding the Roman Empire once again.

Septimius Sever and Caracalla, Jean Baptiste Greuze. \ Photo:

For a while, Alexander succeeded. The young man returned to the traditional style of government, seeking the active participation of the Senate and relying on the experience of some prominent administrators to highlight his youth and somewhat inexperience. The administration also included the famous lawyer Ulpian. He was also reputedly influenced by his mother, Julia Mammea, whose influence was not well received by traditionally patriarchal Roman society.

Roses of Heliogabalus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. \ Photo:

Elagabalus' depravity was removed from the Roman map, including the destruction of his portraits and the erasure of his name, a practice now known as damnatio memoriae. Alexander was the "mirror of princes" presented in stark contrast to his cousin's flaws. However, even then, veiled hints of impending problems were visible.

Problems for Alexander grew in the following years. In the crisis that foreshadowed the upheaval of the third century, violence broke out in the east. The rise of the Sassanids in Persia under the leadership of Ardashir meant that Rome again faced a serious threat to its eastern border.

Alexander Sever. \ Photo:

The Roman emperors were obliged to defend the Empire with honor. So, with a heavy heart and tears in his eyes, Alexander set off from Rome to the east. Diplomacy failed, and the ensuing military campaign appears to have failed (at least according to Herodian, as accounts vary). In 234, he was forced to travel north to the German borders to meet the rebels from beyond the limes. His plans to buy off the German aggressors were met with contempt, which was further evidence that Alexander was completely unadapted to the harsh military conditions of running the empire.

Maximinus (Maximinus) Thrax. \ Photo:

As a result, the soldiers made their choice in favor of Maximin Trux, a professional soldier of low birth. Alexander's time is up. Panic-stricken, he could only mourn his fate in the imperial camp at Moguntiakum (present-day Mainz). Both he and his mother were killed in March 235 AD. The dynasty of the Severs is over.

2. The heyday of the Gordian dynasty

Maximin Trucks. \ Photo:

Maximinus (Maximinus) Thrax was not a typical emperor. Born on the Danube fringes of the Roman Empire - hence Thraxes (literally "Thracian") - he joined the Roman army and rose through the ranks. By all accounts, he was an excellent soldier, respected and renowned for his bravery, being the complete opposite of Alexander.

The Story of Augustus states that he was strong enough to pull the wagons on his own. Throughout his reign, Maximin was aware of his low origin. Several attempts at rebellion showed that his fears were not unfounded.

The emphasis in his reign was on the military. He suppressed uprisings on the borders, especially showing his courage in the fight against the Germanic tribes, and was also, apparently, responsible for trying to fortify the region, as evidenced by a number of milestones found there.

Portrait-bust of Emperor Gordian III. \ Photo:

However, Maximin's rule was never safe. Tensions arose in 238 AD, first in North Africa. An uprising of landowners in the city of Tisdrus (El Jem, modern Tunisia, a city famous for its impressive Roman amphitheater) led the rebels to proclaim the elderly governor of the province, Marcus Antony Gordian Sempronian, emperor and his son an assistant. Gordians I and II won't last long. The governor of Numidia, the Capelian, was loyal to Maximinus. He entered the city at the head of the only legion in the area. The rebels, mostly local militias, were killed along with Gordian II.

Gordian II. \ Photo:

Upon learning of the death of his son, Gordian I hanged himself. But the die was cast. The Roman Senate supported Gordian's rebellion in Africa and was now cornered. Maximinus showed no mercy. The Senate elected two elderly members, Pupienus and Balbinus, as emperors in place of Maximinus. The violent protest of the plebeians over the rise of two aristocrats also forced the Senate to nominate Gordian III (grandson of Gordian I) as a junior aide to Pupienus and Balbinus.

Bust of Balbinus. \ Photo:

From the north, Maximinus moved to Rome. He entered Italy almost without resistance, but soon he had to stop at the gates of Aquileia. The city was fortified in 168 by Marcus Aurelius, ostensibly to protect Italy from the raids of the northern barbarians.

The siege of the city dragged on and Maximinus's support dwindled in the face of this military setback. By the end of May 238, his soldiers, starving and tempted by promises of mercy from the defenders, killed Maximinus and his son.The head of the emperor was impaled on a spear and taken to Rome (this event is even noted on some rare coins). However, calm in the empire was not restored.

Bust of Pupien. \ Photo:

Despite the promise of brotherhood and cooperation given in the embracing coinage, mistrust arose between Pupien and Balbin. Discussions about the renewed military campaign turned violent when the Praetorian Guard assassinated the elderly emperors, leaving the young Gordian III as the sole emperor.

3. Reign of Emperor Decius

Holy Reparata before the Emperor Decius, Bernardo Daddi, 1338-40. \ Photo:

Gordian III ruled from 238 to 244, but his youth meant that in practice others were in power. A series of earthquakes destroyed a number of cities throughout the Roman Empire. At the same time, the Germanic tribes and the Sassanids intensified their attacks across the borders of the empire. Despite the first successes in the fight against the Sassanids, Gordian III, apparently, died in the battle of Misih in 244. The role of his successor, Philip the Arab, remains somewhat unclear. Philip's reign was notable for the celebration of the ludi saeculares (Secular Games) in 247, marking the millennium of Rome.

Saint Reparata tortured with a red-hot iron by Bernardo Daddy. \ Photo:

Philip was killed in 249 AD. He was defeated in battle by the usurper and his successor Gaius the Messiah Quintius Decius, who enjoyed the support of the formidable Danube legions. Decius was active in the empire, being a provincial administrator under both Alexander North and Maximinus. Decius instigated attempts to restore normalcy throughout the empire. A symbol of this was the Baths of Decius, built in Rome on the Aventine Hill in 252 AD, which lasted until the 16th century.

Relief and details of the sarcophagus of the Battle of Ludovisi, depicting the battle between the Romans and the Goths, circa 250-260. n. NS. \ Photo:

Decius is most notorious for the so-called Decian persecution. During this period, Christians throughout the empire were persecuted and martyred for their faith. The persecution began in 250 AD, after the proclamation of the new emperor by a decree that ordered all inhabitants of the Empire to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and for the health of the emperor. In fact, it was a massive oath of allegiance to the Empire and the emperor. However, the sacrifice presented an insurmountable obstacle to the monotheistic beliefs of Christians. Given that the Jews were freed, it seems unlikely that the persecution was directed against Christians on purpose. Nonetheless, it had a profoundly traumatic effect on the nascent Christian faith. Many believers died, including Pope Fabian.

Guy the Messiah Quintus Traian Decius. \ Photo:

Others, including Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, went into hiding. Persecution began to subside from AD 251, but will repeat itself in Roman history. Like many of his immediate predecessors during the third century crisis, Decius' reign was characterized by both internal and external pressures. The plague spread to some provinces, especially in North Africa (sometimes called the Plague of Cyprian, named after the bishop of Carthage). At the same time, the northern borders of the empire were being tested by increasingly daring armies of the barbarians, especially the Goths. During the reign of Decius, historical records in particular feature Goths, who would have been so prominent in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Bronze statue identified as Emperor Trebonian Gallus, 251-3 BC. n. NS. \ Photo:

Decius's reign came to an end during these Gothic wars. Accompanied by his son Quintus Gerennius Etrusca and the general Trebonianius Gallus, Decius faced the Gothic invaders at the Battle of Abrit (near Razgad in present-day Bulgaria) in 251 AD. The Roman army was defeated in the swampy surroundings of Abrit, and the emperor and his son were killed in battle. Decius was the first Roman emperor to fall in battle with a foreign enemy. He was succeeded by Trebonian Gallus.

4. Emperor Valerian

Sardonyx cameo depicting Emperor Valerian and Shapur I, late 3rd century. \ Photo:

Imperial control remained elusive after Decius' death. There were three emperors in the years 251-253. The latter, Emilian, ruled for only a few short months in the summer of 253. He was replaced by Valerian I, who seemed like something of an apostate. He was an emperor from a traditional senatorial family, with a career in the imperial administration, including as a censor following the revival of the censorship by Decius in 251 AD.

Taking control of the empire, Valerian quickly consolidated power by naming his son Gallienus as his heir.However, Valerian's reign was also fleeting, as the military crises of the Roman Empire reached their climax.

On the borders of Northern Europe, the Goths continued to rage, while the Sassanid aggression continued in the east. Pressure on the empire led to a resurgence of persecution against Christians, as they were again ordered to make sacrifices to the Roman gods in AD 257. During Valerian's persecution, many prominent Christians who refused apostasy were martyred for their faith, including Cyprian in 258 AD.

The humiliation of Emperor Valerian by the Persian king Sapor, Hans Holbein the Elder, 1521. \ Photo:

However, Valerian's historical reputation was strengthened by events in the east. Father and son shared their powers. Gallienus was tasked with defending the Empire from the Goths, while his father traveled to the East to confront the Sassanids. Valerian enjoyed some success at first. He conquered the cosmopolitan city of Antioch and restored Roman order to the province of Syria by 257 AD. But by AD 259. NS. the situation has worsened. Valerian moved further east to the city of Edessa, but the outbreak of the plague there weakened the forces of the emperor, as the city was besieged by the Persians.

Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus. \ Photo:

In the spring of AD 260, two armies entered the field. Led by Shapur I, the Sassanid Shahanshah (King of Kings), the Sassanids completely destroyed the Roman troops. In one of the most famous events of the third century crisis, Valerian was captured and sentenced to a shameful life as a prisoner of the Sassanids. The later Christian author Lactantius records how Valerian lived out his days as a royal footstool. A less biased writer, Aurelius Victor, writes that the emperor was kept in a cage. Valerian's image was immortalized in monumental rock carvings at Naqsh-e-Rostam in northern Iran.

5. Gallienus, Postumus and the Gallic Empire

Portrait of the Emperor Gallienus, AD 261 NS. \ Photo:

The crisis of the third century is usually presented as a period of pronounced political instability, it is notable that Valerian and Gallienus, respectively, ruled for a significant period of time. However, a quarter of a century after the death of Decius in 251 AD. NS. the empire nearly collapsed as a political structure, with Gallienus' eight-year rule from 260 to 268 AD. e., military pressure and the fragmentation of the empire in places.

While his father was fighting in the East, Gallienus fought on the northern borders of the empire, near the Rhine and Danube. During a campaign there, one of the governors of the Pannonian provinces, a certain Ingenui, proclaimed himself emperor. His usurpation was short-lived, but an ominous sign of things to come. Gallienus with all haste crossed the Balkans and defeated Ingenue. But the enemy remaining in the Germanic region facilitated the invasion of the tribes through the Limes, spreading terror across the Western European provinces. The invaders even reached southern Spain, where they sacked the city of Tarraco (modern Tarrangona). This must have been the most turbulent period of the third century crisis.

Golden aureus of Postumus with an obverse portrait in a helmet and a reverse image of Hercules Deusonsky, 260-269. n. NS. \ Photo:

The collapse of Roman power was most acutely felt in Gaul. Here, when borders in Europe collapsed, the governor of Germany, Mark Cassian Latinus Postumus, defeated a group of raiders. Instead of giving the booty he won to Sylvanas, the man who oversaw Salonin (son of Gallienus and co-emperor), Postumus gave it to his soldiers instead. Following a pattern throughout the history of the Roman Empire, grateful soldiers immediately proclaimed Postumus emperor. However, where previous budding emperors may have gone to Rome, Postumus appeared to lack resources or even desire. Instead, he founded a separate state, the so-called Gallic Empire, which lasted from 260 to 274 AD.

The nature of the new empire of Postumus is difficult to understand. However, it enjoyed some success, spreading from Gaul to Britain and northern Spain.Moreover, as can be seen from the above coinage, culturally the Gallic Empire was completely Roman.

6. Aurelian: Conquest of the Roman Empire

Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1725-30 \ Photo:

The secession of the Gallic Empire during the reign of Gallienus was one of the many problems facing his successors. At the same time, it was becoming clear that the Roman Empire was also in the east, especially in Palmyra, a wealthy trading city in Syria. After the leader of Palmyra, Odenatus, was declared king, ostensibly to help the city defend itself against the Sassanids, it became clear that a new eastern state was emerging, reflecting the collapse of the western empire. Odenath was assassinated in AD 267. NS. and replaced by his ten-year-old son Waballat, whose regent was Queen Zenobia.

Zenobia emerges from this period as one of the most powerful and intriguing personalities in late Roman history. Its period of influence covers the reign of two Roman emperors: Claudius II of Gotha (268-270 AD) and Aurelian (270-275 AD). The first retaliatory strikes against the Sassanids were allegedly inflicted under Roman rule. However, territorial conquests, including those in Egypt, and the growing grandeur with which Zenobia introduced her son, heightened tensions and war was inevitable after Vaballat assumed the title of Augustus in 271 AD.

Silver antoninian of Aurelian, with a reverse image of the sun god Invincible and defeated enemies, 270-275. \ Photo:

The arrival of Aurelian to the east in 272 AD led to the rapid collapse of the Palmyrian Empire amid a series of historical events. There were two battles, in Immae near Antioch, and then in Emesa, when the emperor moved to Palmyra. The siege of Palmyra followed, and the Romans were unable to break through the walls. When the situation worsened for the defenders, Zenobia tried to escape. She sought support from the Persians when she was captured near the Euphrates and brought before the emperor.

The city itself was saved from destruction after his surrender. However, the second attempt at the uprising of the Palmyrans in 273 AD. e., again suppressed by Aurelian, led to the fact that the emperor's patience ran out. The city was destroyed, and its most precious treasures were taken out to decorate the temple of the Sun of Aurelian in Rome, the solar deity to whom he was devoted.

Roman antiquities, view of the walls of Aurelian, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, approx. 1750 \ Photo:

After the defeat of the Palmyrian Empire, Aurelian's attention again shifted to the west. Two problems had to be addressed here: the Gallic Empire and the weakness of Italy itself, demonstrated by the frequent German invasions in previous decades. To fortify the capital of the empire, Aurelian directed the construction of a colossal defensive wall around Rome, which stands high and imposing to this day.

The walls of Aurelius protected the city, but served as a reminder of the fallibility of Roman rule. Where once its inhabitants could boast that it did not need walls, they now lived in their shadow. In the north, the Gallic Empire was crumbling, crippled by the struggle for succession to the throne after the death of Postumus. The rise of Gaius Tetricus in 273 AD led to the collapse of the Gallic Empire. Although he managed to negotiate his own surrender, his army was defeated by the Romans. The double triumph that followed was a temporary return to the serene days of imperial glory. Zenobia, Tetricus, and his son paraded through the empire's capital as a testament to the empire's unbreakable strength.

7. Probe, Diocletian

Golden aureus Proba, with a reverse image of a winged victory, 276-82. n. NS. \ Photo:

Traditional narratives describe the reign of Aurelian as a turning point in the crisis of the third century. His victories in the east and west, the reunification of the empire, and the fortification of the capital attest to the restoration of Roman rule. However, in the reigns of his immediate successors, Tacitus and Florian, there is little to suggest that the empire was on its way to a final restoration. Indeed, the unfortunate Florian seems to have been emperor for less than a hundred days.

Then the empire came under the control of Probus, who spent almost his entire six-year reign in a state of war, and the borders were once again particularly porous.He enjoyed some success against the enemies of Rome and took the titles Gothic Maximus and Germanicus Maximus in AD 279 and celebrated his triumph in AD 281. But in AD 282. NS. he was killed while marching east.

Fragment of a statue of Emperor Diocletian, c. 295-300 BC n. NS. \ Photo:

The circumstances of Prob's death remain unclear. Its praetorian prefect, Marcus Aurelius Carus, was either an unwitting beneficiary or an active conspirator. Kar, from southern Gaul, tried to mitigate political instability by appointing his sons Karin and Numerian as his heirs.

Kara's reign was cut short by divine intervention when lightning struck him during a campaign in the east in 283 AD. Numerian, during the campaign with his father, was killed by the praetorian prefect Aper, who in turn was soon defeated, and the soldiers of the east gathered to choose a suitable leader.

Emperor Diocletian. \ Photo:

They settled on a junior officer, Diocles, whose past is largely unknown. Glorified in AD 284 BC, Diocles took a new name: Marcus Aurelius Guy Valerius Diocletian. Karin himself was devoted to Diocletian. The empire is back under the control of one man. However, Diocletian was not interested in having the same fate as many of his predecessors, and marked the beginning of a period of profound change. Under Diocletian, the curtain fell over the crisis of the third century, and imperial history passed from Principate to Dominion.

More detailed history about the savior of Rome - Aurelian, read in the next article.

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