Soldier Emperor Maximinus I killed by his own troops before he made it to Rome

The Severan dynasty was a Roman imperial dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire between A.D. 193 and 235. The dynasty was founded by the general Septimius Severus, who rose to power as the victor of the 193–197 civil war. Although Septimius Severus successfully restored peace following a period of upheaval in the late A.D. 2nd century, the dynasty was characterized by highly unstable family relationships, as well as constant political turmoil that helped produce the Crisis of the Third Century. The Severans were one of the last lineages of the Principate founded by Augustus. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In 193 A.D., Septimius Severus seized Rome and established a new dynasty. He rested his authority more overtly on the support of the army and substituted equestrian officers for senators in key administrative positions, thereby broadening imperial power throughout the empire. The Severan dynasty gave rise to the imperial candidates of Syrian background. Caracalla abolished all distinctions between Italians and provincials. Following his reign, however, military anarchy led to a succession of short reigns and eventually the rule of the soldier-emperors (235–84 A.D.). In the age of the soldier-emperors, between the assassination of Alexander Severus, the last of the Severans, in 235 A.D. and the beginning of Diocletian's reign in 284, at least sixteen men bore the title of emperor. Most were fierce military men and none could hold the reins of power without the support of the army. Almost all, having taken power upon the murder of the preceding emperor, came to a premature and violent end. Social life declined in Roman towns and instead flourished among the country aristocracy, whose secure lifestyle in large fortified estates foreshadowed medieval feudalism. [Source: Christopher Lightfoot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

Soldier Emperors (235–284 A.D.)
Maximinus I (235–38 A.D.)
Gordian I and II (in Africa) (238 A.D.)
Balbinus and Pupienus (in Italy) (238 A.D.)
Gordian III (238–44 A.D.)
[Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Gordion I, defeated in Africa, committed suicide after the death of his son

Philip the Arab (244–49 A.D.)
Trajan Decius (249–51 A.D.)
Trebonianus Gallus (with Volusian) (251–53 A.D.)
Aemilianus (253 A.D.)
Gallienus (with Valerian, 253–60 A.D.) (253–68 A.D.)
Gallic Empire (West) Follows the death of Valerian)
Postumus (260–69 A.D.)
Laelian (268 A.D.)
Marius (268 A.D.)
Victorinus (268–70 A.D.)
Domitianus (271 A.D.)
Tetricus I and II (270–74 A.D.)

Palmyrene Empire
Odenathus (c. 250–67 A.D.)
Vaballathus (with Zenobia) (267–72 A.D.)
Claudius II Gothicus (268–70 A.D.)
Quintillus (270 A.D.)
Aurelian (270–75 A.D.)
Tacitus (275–76 A.D.)
Florianus (276 A.D.)
Probus (276–82 A.D.)
Carus (282–83 A.D.)
Carinus (283–84 A.D.)
Numerianus (283–84 A.D.)

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Military Anarchy During the Soldier-Emperor Period (A.D. 235-284)

A 50 year period of violence and chaos began in A.D. 235 when military leaders in the provinces killed Emperor Severis Alexander and replaced him with the military strongman Maximus. Most of the leaders during this time — known variously as the period of the Military Anarchy, the Imperial Crisis, or the Soldier-Emperors — tried to keep the Roman Empire together by force and spent more time in military camps than meeting rooms and had more extensive training in violence than statesmanship. The Roman Empire at this time was coming under pressure from competing empires and hostile tribes that occupied the land just outside the empire's borders. Rome's 30 or more legions fought almost constantly to defend the empire's borders. The Germans on the Rhine and the Goths on the Danube were particularly fierce and aggressive.

In the midst of these external perils, the Roman Empire was threatened on the inside by the appearance of usurpers in every part of the empire—in Asia, in Egypt, in Greece, in Illyricum, and in Gaul. This is called the time of the “thirty tyrants”; although Gibbon counts only nineteen of these so-called tyrants during the reign of Gallienus. If we should imagine another calamity in addition to those already mentioned, it would be famine and pestilence—and from these, too, Rome now suffered. From the reign of Decius to the reign of Gallienus, a period of about fifteen years, the empire was the victim of a furious plague, which is said to have raged in every province, in every city, and almost in every family. With invasions from without and revolts and pestilence within, Rome never before seemed so near to destruction. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Dr Jon Coulston of the University of St. Andrews wrote for the BBC: “Third century emperors relied on the army for their position more than on any other element of Roman society. This made them especially vulnerable to usurpation by successful regional generals. The rise of new external enemies, such as the Goths and the Sassanid Persians, exacerbated the problem by creating multiple crises on different frontiers. For significant periods, usurpers based at Trier in Germany and Palmyra in Syria hived off groups of provinces as independent 'empires'. [Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Under pressure on two frontiers, the Romans started to squabble among themselves. Civilians distrusted their own armies and the soldiers distrusted some of their commanders - even the emperor to whom they had sworn allegiance. So they proclaimed new emperors. The army had always been able to make or break emperors, but never in such quick succession as they did now. After the assassination of Severus Alexander in 235 AD, the soldiers in various parts of the empire proclaimed fifty emperors in about the same number of years. “Some of these emperors survived for only a few months, despatched by rival armies or even by the troops who had recently proclaimed them. To be declared emperor once marked the apogee of a man's career. In the third century it was a death sentence. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Emperors During Period of Military Anarchy (A.D. 235-284)

Philip the Arab

Maximus (ruled A.D. 235-238) never set foot in Rome. He was murdered on his way there in 238 while trying to put down a rebellion in northern Italy. He was succeeded by Gordian I and II (ruled A.D. 238); Gordian III (ruled A.D. 238-244); Philip (ruled A.D. 244-249); Decius (ruled A.D. 249-251); Trebonianus Gallus (ruled A.D. 251-253); Valerian, with son Gallienus (ruled A.D. 253-260); Gallienus (ruled A.D. 253-268); Claudius II (ruled A.D. 268-270); Aurelian (ruled A.D. 270-275); Probus (ruled A.D. 276-282); and Carninus and Numerian (ruled A.D. 283-284)

Describing Emperor Gordian (192-238), Gibbons wrote: "Twenty-two concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested to the variety of his inclinations...By each of his concubines the younger Gordian left three or four children. His literary productions, though less numerous, were by no means contemptible."

One of the few Roman emperors who never had a sculpture of himself commissioned was Plotinis, who abhorred the natural world so much he refused to have a sculpture made in his likeness.

The Petition to the Emperor Philip (Philip the Arab, r. A.D. 243-249):On Official & Military Extortion, A.D. 246 reads: “Most reverend and serene of all emperors, although in your most felicitous times all other persons enjoy an untroubled and calm existence, since all wickedness and oppression have ceased, we, alone experiencing a fortune most alien to these most fortunate times, present this supplication to you. We are unreasonably oppressed and we suffer extortion by those persons whose duty it is to maintain the public welfare. For although we live remotely and are without military protection, we suffer afflictions alien to your most felicitous times. Generals and soldiers and lordlings of prominent offices in the city and your Caesarians, coming to us, traversing the Appian district, leaving the highway, taking us from our tasks, requisitioning our plowing oxen, make exactions that are by no means their due. And it happens thus that we are wronged by extortions. Our possessions are spent on them, and our fields are stripped and laid waste....”

Decline and Disintegration of the Roman Empire in the A.D. 3nd Century

Some pinpoint the beginning of Rome's decline to death of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 180 when the Roman Empire was at its height. By the end of the third century A.D., the Roman Empire was being threatened by internal struggles, economic problem, external enemies and moral decay. Maintaining the huge empire had become increasing expensive as tax evasion and corruption were depriving the Roman treasury of money it needed. Faced with multiple problems and slow communications the emperors could do very little to help.

From A.D. 235 to the fall of the Western Empire in 476, there were few decades that were free of major civil conflicts. Between 235 and 285 over 60 men claimed imperial power — -more than one per years. Historian Diana Preston wrote in the Washington Post, “For successive emperors the priority became simple survival, with no time to consider their real responsibilities, Though the following century saw a period of greater stability, the price was such a centralization of power that one imperial orator said bureaucrats had grown “more numerous that flies on sheep in springtime."

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Contemporaries who lived through the third century upheavals looked back on the previous age as one of peace and prosperity, but in reality it could be said that Rome had lurched from crisis to crisis ever since its foundation in 753 B.C. There had always been famines and plagues, military disasters, civil wars, attempts to seize supreme power, rebellions within the provinces, raids and invasions from beyond the frontier, and migrating tribes pressing on the edges of the Roman world. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The Romans had dealt with all of these in the past and survived. The trouble was that in the third century many problems surfaced at the same time, some of them on a grander scale than ever before, and they proved more difficult to eradicate. Two of the most serious threats to the empire in the third century were the developments taking place among the tribes of the northern frontiers beyond the Rhine and Danube, and the growth of a formidable centralising power in the east.”

During this period the provinces began conducted business and trade between themselves, bypassing Rome and its middlemen. Roman citizens seemed to more interested in attending gladiator battles and participating in other forms of recreation than in soldiering, working or building.

“Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon; “How Rome Fell” by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale University Press, 2009) has been described by the Washington Post as “meticulously researched. Complex and thought-provoking."

20120224-Egalibus Roses_of_Heliogabalus.jpg
Roses of Elagabulus

State Socialism in A.D. 3rd Century Rome

Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “Most emperors continued the policies of debasement and increasingly heavy taxes, levied mainly on the wealthy. The war against wealth was not simply due to purely fiscal requirements, but was also part of a conscious policy of exterminating the Senatorial class, which had ruled Rome since ancient times, in order to eliminate any potential rivals to the emperor. Increasingly, emperors came to believe that the army was the sole source of power and they concentrated their efforts on sustaining the army at all cost. [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, /=]

“As the private wealth of the Empire was gradually confiscated or taxed away, driven away or hidden, economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill. Moreover, once the wealthy were no longer able to pay the state’s bills, the burden inexorably fell onto the lower classes, so that average people suffered as well from the deteriorating economic conditions. In RostovtzefFs words, “The heavier the pressure of the state on the upper classes, the more intolerable became the condition of the lower”. /=\

“At this point, in the third century A.D., the money economy completely broke down. Yet the military demands of the state remained high. Rome’s borders were under continual pressure from Germanic tribes in the North and from the Persians in the East. Moreover, it was now explicitly understood by everyone that the emperor’s power and position depended entirely on the support of the army. Thus, the army’s needs required satisfaction above all else, regardless of the consequences to the private economy. /=\

With the collapse of the money economy, the normal system of taxation also broke down. This forced the state to directly appropriate whatever resources it needed wherever they could be found. Food and cattle, for example, were requisitioned directly from farmers. Other producers were similarly liable for whatever the army might need. The result, of course, was chaos, dubbed “permanent terrorism” by Rostovtzeff. Eventually, the state was forced to compel individuals to continue working and producing. /=\

“The result was a system in which individuals were forced to work at their given place of employment and remain in the same occupation, with little freedom to move or change jobs. Farmers were tied to the land, as were their children, and similar demands were made on all other workers, producers, and artisans as well. Even soldiers were required to remain soldiers for life, and their sons compelled to follow them. The remaining members of the upper classes were pressed into providing municipal services, such as tax collection, without pay. And should tax collections fall short of the state’s demands, they were required to make up the difference themselves. This led to further efforts to hide whatever wealth remained in the Empire, especially among those who still found ways of becoming rich. Ordinarily, they would have celebrated their new-found wealth; now they made every effort to appear as poor as everyone else, lest they become responsible for providing municipal services out of their own pocket. /=\ “The steady encroachment of the state into the intimate workings of the economy also eroded growth. The result was increasing feudalization of the economy and a total breakdown of the division of labor. People fled to the countryside and took up subsistence farming or attached themselves to the estates of the wealthy, which operated as much as possible as closed systems, providing for all their own needs and not engaging in trade at all. Meanwhile, much land was abandoned and remained fallow or fell into the hands of the state, whose mismanagement generally led to a decline in production.” /=\

Roman World AD 271

Foreign Enemies of Rome

In A.D. 220 the Goths invaded Asia Minor and the Balkan Peninsula. In 251,Emperor Decius was killed trying to halt a Gothic invasion of Dacia. Gothic tribes began threatening Rome's Black Sea ports in the third century. Between 250 and 270, crucial grain shipments from the Black Sea were disrupted by pirate raids at key ports. In the east the Parthians were overthrown by Sassanid Persians, who captured the emperor Valerian in Edessa in 260 and held him prisoner until his death.

Never before had the Roman Empire been beset by such an array of foreign enemies as it encountered during the third century. On the east was the new Persian monarchy established under a vigorous and ambitious line of kings, called the Sassanids. The founder of this line, Artaxares (Ardashir), laid claim to all the Asiatic provinces of Rome as properly belonging to Persia. The refusal of this demand gave rise to the war with Alexander Severus and to severe struggles with his successors. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

But the most formidable enemies of Rome were the Germanic groups on the frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube. On the lower Rhine near the North Sea were several tribes known as the Chatti, Chauci, and the Cherusci, who came to be united with other tribes under the common name of “Franks.” On the upper Rhine in the vicinity of the Alps were various tribes gathered together under the name of Alemanni (all men). Across the Danube and on the northern shores of the Black Sea was the great nation of the Goths, which came to be the terror of Rome. Under a succession of emperors whose names have little significance to us, the Romans engaged in wars with these various peoples—not now wars for the sake of conquest and glory as in the time of the republic, but wars of defense and for the sake of existence. \~\

The Romans often describes their enemies as barbarians. The word "barbarian" comes from a Greek word used to describe anyone who wasn't Greek. Most of the “barbarian” attacks on Rome came from the north, where tribes from Central Asia were moving into northern Europe, producing massive tribal displacements and migrations. People who had been driven off their land began looking more and more at land occupied by the Romans as new place to settle.

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Relations with the northern tribesmen had never been stable, nor were they continually hostile. Rome maintained the upper hand by a combination of diplomacy and warfare, promoting the elite groups among the various tribes and supporting them by means of gifts and subsidies. Sometimes food supplies and even military aid were offered. “Various emperors had settled migrating groups of peoples within the empire and had often recruited tribesmen into the Roman army, where they rendered good service. The very fact of the empire's existence influenced the way in which native society developed on the periphery. When all kinds of dangers threatened the tribes beyond the empire, it probably seemed safer and more lucrative to be on the other side of the Roman frontiers. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The ultimate aim of many of the tribes was not necessarily total conquest, but a wish for lands to farm and for protection. This became more necessary to some peoples in the first decades of the third century. Climate changes and a rise in sea levels ruined the agriculture of what is now the Low Countries, forcing tribes to relocate simply to find food. At about the same time, archaeological evidence shows that vigorous, warlike tribesmen moved into the more peaceful lands to the north-west of the empire, precipitating the abandonment of a wide area that was previously settled and agriculturally wealthy. |::|

“The northern world outside the Roman Empire was restless. Raids across the frontiers became more severe, especially in the 230s, when Roman forts and some civilian settlements were partially destroyed. As the power of the tribal federations grew, the Romans began to feel nervous and to think of defensive walls for their unprotected cities. |::|

Invasion of Goths, Franks and Alemanni


The Goths made their first appearance upon the Roman territory m the middle of the third century (A.D. 250). At this time they invaded Dacia, crossed the Danube, and overran the province of Moesia. In a great battle in Moesia perished the brave emperor Decius, descendant of the Decius Mus who devoted his life at Mt. Vesuvius in the heroic days of the republic. His successor, Gallus, purchased a peace of the Goths by the payment of an annual tribute. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

It was not many years after this that the same tribes, during the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus (A.D. 253-268), made a more formidable invasion, this time by way of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. With the aid of their ships they crossed the sea, besieged and plundered the cities of Asia Minor. They destroyed the splendid temple of Diana at Ephesus; they crossed the Aegean Sea into Greece, and threatened Italy; and finally retired with their spoils to their homes across the Danube.

In the meantime the western provinces were invaded by tribes who lived across the Rhine. The Franks entered the western regions of Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees, and sacked the cities of Spain; while the Alemanni entered eastern Gaul and invaded Italy as far as the walls of Ravenna. It was then that the Roman garrison, which took the place of the old praetorian guard, rendered a real service to Rome by preventing the destruction of the city. \~\

Attacks of the Persians in Asia

All the threats to Rome did not come from the north. The new Persian monarchy, the Sassanids, under its second great king, Shapur I (died A.D. 272), was attempting to expel the Romans from their Asiatic provinces. After Shapur brought under his control Armenia, which had remained an independent kingdom since the time of Hadrian, he overran the Roman provinces of Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia; Antioch and other cities of the coast were destroyed and pillaged.. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Shapur I

The Sassanids battled with Romans, Huns, Turks and Byzantines. Shapur I captured the Roman emperor Valerian in Edessa in A.D. 260 and made him a slave and held him prisoner until his death. The story of Sapor’s pride and of Valerian’s disgrace has passed into history; to humiliate his captive, it is said, whenever the Persian monarch mounted his horse, he placed his foot on the neck of the Roman emperor. The Sassanids were successful defending their homeland but lost most of their campaigns outside of Persia and were able only to hold on to Babylon and the lower Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “The east was also restless, but for different reasons. The Parthian empire, bordering on the eastern edges of the Roman world, had been weakened by civil war, but this changed in the first years of the third century when the Sassanid Persians expelled the Parthian rulers. By 226 AD, Ardashir, an Iranian prince descended from Sasan (from whom the Sassanids take their name) had established himself as Shahanshah, 'king of kings'. “His declared intention was to restore the ancient Persian empire to its former glory, pushing his borders westwards into Roman-controlled territories. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“His son and successor, Shapur, followed these aggressive expansionist policies, which meant trouble for Rome. The search for a stable frontier between these two rival empires had been a continual problem. (It must be acknowledged that the aggressors were nearly always the Romans, in response to perceived threats.) The Persians were determined to deal with Rome more firmly, and by the middle of the third century they had defeated the armies of three Roman emperors. |::|

Gallienus and the Third Century Crisis

During the reign of the Gallienus (ruled A.D. 253-268), the eastern provinces of present day Spain, France and England broke away under the rival emperor, Postumus (ruled from 260-269) and the eastern provinces of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt were annexed by the powerful but short-lived city-state of Palmyra.


Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: Few recognise the name Gallienus, but without him the Roman empire might have completely disintegrated in the years after 260 AD. This is the extraordinary story of one of Rome's darkest hours....The year 253 A.D. seemed to herald an end to the anarchy. Valerian and his son Gallienus were declared joint emperors, sharing power as some emperors had done in the past. It seemed possible to stem the raids from the north and also deal with the eastern question. Valerian departed for the Persian war, while Gallienus turned to the western provinces. But within seven years of their accession it had all gone wrong. |[Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“In the fateful year 260 AD, Valerian was captured by Shapur, leaving the eastern provinces unprotected. A Palmyrene nobleman called Odenathus gathered an army and fought off the Persians, temporarily stabilising the east. Gallienus acknowledged him because he was in no position to rescue his father or fight the Persians himself. At around the same time, the western provinces of Gaul (modern France) and Germany set up their own Gallic Empire (Imperium Galliarum) under their chosen emperor, Postumus. |::|

“The empire was in danger of splitting up. Gallienus was deprived of control of two large areas and of the bulk of the armies, but he adapted the resources at his disposal, actively fighting off usurpers and tribesmen, dashing back and forth to meet each new threat. He received no thanks for his efforts. Time was the one thing that he needed to reunite the empire, but he didn't get it. In 268 AD, Gallienus was assassinated.

Dr Jon Coulston of the University of St. Andrews wrote for the BBC: “Gallienus (ruled 253 - 268 AD) held onto the central third of the empire after his father was defeated and captured by the Persians in 260 AD. He had the advantage of controlling the Danubian provinces, which produced the best troops of the empire, and he maximised the impact of his cavalry resources by concentrating them in a single mobile army based in northern Italy, under the command of Aureolus. Institutionally, this cavalry force had been developing since the time of Severus, but Gallienus put a new emphasis on mobility which had implications for later emperors. Gallienus was assassinated after Aureolus rose against him.” [Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Devastation by the Goths in the Reign of Gallienus

Humiliation of Valerianus

William Stearns Davis wrote: “Under Gallienus, the Empire was in desperate straits and seemed on the eve of dissolution. Since A.D. 250 the Goths had been flinging their hordes over the Danube, and committing devastations which required decades of peace to repair. It is a tribute to the strength of the Empire that it did not perish in the third century. After continuing their havoc for a long time unchecked, they were at last expelled for more than a century, by the arms of Claudius II Gothicus, Aurelian, and Probus. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

Jordanes (fl.c.550 A.D.) wrote in “History of the Goths”: “While Gallienus was given over to luxurious living of every sort, Respa, Veduc, and Thuruar, leaders of the Goths, took ship and sailed across the strait of the Hellespont to Asia. There they laid waste many populous cities and set fire to the renowned temple of Diana at Ephesus, which, as we said before, the Amazons built. Being driven from the neighborhood of Bithynia they destroyed Chalcedon, which Cornelius Avitus afterward restored to some extent. [Source: Jordanes: History of the Goths, Chap. 20: The Devastation of the Goths in the Reign of Gallienus, William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West].

“Yet even today, though it is happily situated near the royal city [Constantinople], it still shows some traces of its ruin as a witness to posterity. After their success the Goths recrossed the strait of the Hellespont, laden with booty and spoil, and returned along the same route by which they had entered the lands of Asia, sacking Troy and Ilium on the way. These cities, which had scarce recovered a little from the famous war of Agamemnon, were thus devastated anew by the hostile sword. After the Goths had thus devastated Asia, Thrace next felt their ferocity.”

Partial Recovery of the Roman Empire Under Claudius II and Aurelian

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Gallienus was succeeded by Claudius II, called Gothicus after he fought off an invasion of the Goths. Claudius was one of the few who escaped assassination, dying of plague in 270 AD. The next emperor, Aurelian, self-proclaimed 'restorer of the world', brought the divergent parts of the empire back under his control. But the reunification did not halt the constant usurpations and rebellions. With the accession of Diocletian in 284 AD, the empire enjoyed greater stability for the next two decades, and some of the material and financial damage was repaired, although not entirely successfully. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

For a period of eighty-eight years—from the death of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 180) to the death of Gallienus (A.D. 268)—the imperial government had gradually been growing weaker until it now seemed that the empire was going to pieces for the want of a leader. Under the leadership of five able rulers—Claudius II, Aurelian, Tacitus, Probus, and Carus—they again recovered; and they maintained their existence for more than two hundred years in the West and for more than a thousand years in the East. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]


One of the reasons of the recent revolts in the provinces had been general distrust of the central authority at Rome. If the Roman emperor could not protect the provinces, the provinces were determined to protect themselves under their own rulers. When a man should appear able to defend the frontiers the cause of these revolts would disappear. Such a man was Claudius II., who came from Illyricum. He aroused the patriotism of his army and restored its discipline. Paying little attention to the independent governors, he pushed his army into Greece to meet the Goths, who had again crossed the Danube and had advanced into Macedonia. By a series of victories he succeeded in delivering the empire from these barbarians, and for this reason he received the name of Claudius Gothicus. The fruits of the victories of Claudius were reaped by his successor Aurelian, who became the real restorer of the empire. \~\

Aurelian (ruled A.D. 270-275), a general from the Balkans, rebuilt the empire that had splintered under Gallienus. He retook the eastern province and nearly all of the western provinces only to be murdered by his own guards. He first provided against a sudden descent upon the city by rebuilding the walls of Rome, which remain to this day and are known as the walls of Aurelian. He then followed the prudent policy of Augustus by withdrawing the Roman army from Dacia and making the Danube the frontier of the empire. He then turned his attention to the rebellious provinces; and recovered Gaul, Spain, and Britain from the hand of the usurper Tetricus. He finally restored the Roman authority in the East; and destroyed the city of Palmyra, which had been made the seat of an independent kingdom, where ruled the famous Queen Zenobia. \~\

After Aurelian died anarchy reigned for nine years. However, the successors of Aurelian—Tacitus, Probus, and Carus—preserved what he himself had achieved. The integrity of the empire was in general maintained against the enemies from without and the “tyrants” from within. The successful efforts of the last five rulers showed that the Roman Empire could still be preserved if properly organized and governed. In the hands of weak and vicious men, like Commodus and Elagabalus, the people were practically left without a government, and were exposed to the attacks of foreign enemies and to all the dangers of anarchy. But when ruled by such men as Claudius II. and Aurelian they were still able to resist foreign invasions and to repress internal revolts. The events of the third century made it clear that if the empire was to continue and the provinces were to be held together there must be some change in the imperial government. The decline of the early empire thus paved the way for a new form of imperialism. \~\

Conquest of Palmyra

William Stearns Davis wrote: “During the disasters of the middle of the third century A.D. the Asiatic provinces of the Empire were nearly torn away, first by the Persians, then by the rulers of Palmyra, a thriving and powerful city situated upon an oasis in the Syrian desert. From 266 to 273 CE. the sovereign of this city and the "Queen of the East" was Zenobia, a woman of courage and energy, who almost founded an Oriental empire to the detriment of Rome. From this dismemberment the Roman world was saved by the Emperor Aurelian, who among his other conquests overcame Zenobia and destroyed Palmyra (273 A.D.), after no puny struggle. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]


On the conquest of Palmyra by Aurelian (r.270-275 A.D.), Vopiscus wrote: “After taking Tyana and winning a small battle near Daphne, Aurelian took possession of Antioch, having promised to grant pardon to all the inhabitants, and — acting on the counsel of the venerable Apollonius — he showed himself most humane and merciful. Next, close by Emesa [Davis: a very sacred city, and the great seat of the worship of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus], he gave battle to Zenobia and to her ally Zaba — a great battle in which the very fate of the Empire hung in the issue. Already the cavalry of Aurelian were weary, wavering, and about to take flight, when, by divine assistance, a kind of celestial apparition renewed their courage, and the infantry coming to the aid of the cavalry, they rallied stoutly. Zenobia and Zaba were defeated, and the victory was complete. Aurelian, thus made master of the East, entered Emesa as conqueror. First of all he presented himself in the temple of Elagabalus, as if to discharge himself of an ordinary vow — but there he beheld the same divine figure which he had seen come to succor him during the battle. Therefore in that same place he consecrated some temples, with splendid presents; he also erected in Rome a temple to the Sun, and consecrated it with great pomp. [Source: Vopiscus, Aurelian's Conquest of Palmyra ( A.D. r.270-275), A.D. 273 William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. ?? [Introduction (adapted from Davis)]

“Afterward he marched on Palmyra, to end his labors by the taking of that city. The robber bands of Syria, however, made constant attacks while his army was on the march; aud during the siege he was in great danger by being wounded by an arrow. Finally, wearied and discouraged by his losses, Aurelian undertook to write to Zenobia, pledging her — if she would surrender, to preserve her life — in the following letter: "Aurelian, Emperor of Rome and Restorer of the Orient to Zenobia and those waging war on her side. You should have done what I commanded you in my [former] letter. I promise you life if you surrender. You, O Zenobia, can live with your family in the place which I will assign you upon the advice of the venerable Senate. You must deliver to the treasury of Rome your jewels, your silver, your gold, your robes of silk, your horses and your camels. The Palmyrenes, however, shall preserve their local rights."

“Zenobia replied to this letter with a pride and boldness, not at all in accord with her fortune. For she imagined that she could intimidate him. "Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. No one, saving you, has ever required of me what you have in your letter. One ought in war to harken only to the voice of courage. You demand that I surrender myself, as if you did not know that the Queen Cleopatra preferred to die rather than to live in any other save her station. The Persians do not abandon us, and we will wait their succors. The Saracens and the Armenians are on our side. The brigands of Syria have defeated your army, O Aurelian; what will it be when we have received the reinforcements which come to us from all sides? You will lower then that tone with which you — as if already full conqueror — now bid me to surrender."

“On the reading of this letter the Emperor did not blush, yet he was angered, and at once assembling his army with his generals, and surrounding Palmyra on all sides, the great Emperor devoted his attention to everything; for he cut off the succors from the Persians, and corrupted the hordes of Saracens and Armenians, winning them over sometimes by his severity, sometimes by his adroitness; in brief, after many attacks, the valiant Queen was vanquished. Although she fled on camels by which she strove to reach the Persians, the cavalrymen sent in pursuit captured her, and brought her to Aurelian.

“The tumult of the soldiers — requiring that Zenobia be given up for punishment — was very violent; but Aurelian conceived that it would be shameful to put to death a woman, so he contented himself with executing most of those men who had fomented, prepared, and conducted this war, reserving Zenobia to adorn his triumph and to feast the eye of the Roman People. It is grievous that he must need place in the number of those massacred the philosopher Longinus, who was — it is said — the master of Zenobia in the Greek tongue. It is alleged that Aurelian consented to his death because there was attributed to him that aforenamed letter so full of offensive pride.

“It is seldom and even difficult that Syrians remain faithful. The Palmyrenes, who had been defeated and conquered, seeing that Aurelian had gone away and was busy with the affairs of Europe, wished to give the power to one Achilleus, a kinsman of Zenobia, and stirred up a great revolt. They slew six hundred archers and Sandrion, whom Aurelian had left as governor in their region; but the Emperor, ever in arms, hastened back from Europe, and destroyed Palmyra, even as it deserved.

“In his magnificent triumph, celebrated in Rome after Aurelian had conquered Tetricius, the usurping "Emperor of Gaul," and other enemies, Zenobia was led in procession exposed to public view, adorned with jewels, and loaded with chains of gold so heavy that some of her guards had to hold them up for her. Later, however, she was treated with great humanity, granted a palace near Rome, and spent her last days in peace and luxury.

Zenobia and Aurelian

Barbarians Become Citizens in the 3rd Century

With the Constitutio Antoniniana, or Edict of Caracalla (A.D. 212), the Roman franchise, which had been gradually extended by the previous emperors, was now conferred to all the free inhabitants of the Roman world. The edict was issued primarily to increase tax revenue. Even so, the edict was in the line of earlier reforms and effaced the last distinction between Romans and provincials. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

In the A.D. 3rd century a conciliatory policy toward the tribal people (“barbarians”) was adopted, by granting to them peaceful settlements in the frontier provinces. Not only the Roman territory, but the army and the offices of the state, military and civil, were gradually opened to Germans and other tribe members who were willing to become Roman subjects.

It became a serious question what to do with all the newcomers who were now admitted into the provinces. The most able of the barbarian chiefs were sometimes made Roman generals. Many persons were admitted to the ranks of the army. Sometimes whole tribes were allowed to settle upon lands assigned to them. But a great many persons, especially those who had been captured in war, were treated in a somewhat novel manner. Instead of being sold as slaves they were given over to the large landed proprietors, and attached to the estates as permanent tenants. They could not be sold off from these estates like slaves; but if the land was sold they were sold with it. This class of persons came to be called coloni. They were really serfs bound to the soil. The colonus had a little plot of ground which he could cultivate for himself, and for which he paid a rent to his landlord. But the class of coloni came to be made up not only of barbarian captives, but of manumitted slaves, and even of Roman freemen, who were not able to support themselves and who gave themselves up to become the serfs of some landlord. The coloni thus came to form a large part of the population in the provinces. \~\

This new class of persons, which held such a peculiar position in the Roman empire, has a special interest to the general historical student; because from them were descended, in great part, the class of serfs which formed a large element of European society after the fall of Rome, during the middle ages. \~\

Changes in the Roman Empire in A.D. the 3rd Century

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: ““Roman society was increasingly divided in the third century. Class distinction was accentuated, impoverishment of the middle classes created a reluctance or inability to play any part in local government, which was expensive to the point of annihilation. Internal law and order broke down. Soldiers bullied and exploited civilians. Foreign peoples invaded Roman provinces, killing and destroying, carrying off people and plunder. Fear escalated. Provincials passed on their grievances to the emperors, but faced with multiple problems, vast distances and slow communications the emperors could do very little to help. Endemic insecurity bred its own problems. Any population that feels threatened, but cannot rely on the normal authorities to protect itself, usually ends by taking the law into its own hands. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The proclamation by the army of so many emperors is one aspect of this insecurity. There may have been power-crazed individuals who simply wanted to be emperor. In many cases the prime motive was not the desire to topple the whole Empire but to organise regional self-help. Faith in the emperors declined in direct proportion to their inability to protect the provinces, so the soldiers and the provincials turned to other leaders who could provide protection and security.

“The tragedy of the third century is that the chosen leader had to usurp imperial powers to assume the necessary authority instead of acting on behalf of a legitimate emperor who had lost all his credibility. That the empire recovered is a tribute to the various emperors who put an end to the chaos. The result was constant disunity, forcing the Romans to spend valuable time and resources fighting each other, instead of working together to devote all their energies to solving the social, religious, financial and military issues that beset the empire in this time of crisis. |::|

“The fact that the empire came so close to disintegration, and yet recovered, is a tribute to the various emperors who put an end to the chaos. But in doing so, they created a different world. The Roman empire entered the third century in a form that would have been recognisable to Augustus and his successors, but it emerged into the fourth century with all its administrative and military institutions changed, bureaucratic, rigid, and constantly geared for war, with its capital no longer at Rome but in Constantinople. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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