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The Crisis of the Third Century — redux?


The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America’s deep space probes . . .

Whoops! Wrong opening. I was fondly remembering the early 80s — the TV show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. A defining moment of my pre-adolescent life of space nerdiness and nascent raging hormones for Erin Gray and Pamela Hensley.  And to think that I was shy in seeing Pam’s cleavage!

But, I digress. Lemme start again . . .

The year is AD 235. Alexander Severus, a Syrian who would later become Emperor of all of Rome, found himself in a prickly situation. The Germans had invaded Gaul in 234 and Rome had to do something about it. As was custom, it was time to send the legions into the frontier to deal with the barbarians and do to them what they did to the forts and towns in the countryside along the Rhine. Severus, at the urging of his mother, tried to buy the Germans off instead of giving them a good thrashing. This was to gain time. However, the legions didn’t look favorably on this action, inferring that Alexander was a coward and preferred a life of ease instead of that of a soldier. In short, they saw him as being soft on the Germans. The legions demanded a new emperor, and they found one in Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus (later, Maximinus I). At Moguntiacum (present-day Mainz in Germany), the 22nd legion assassinated Alexander and installed Maximinus, who then ruled for three years before his troops assassinated him while trying to put down a Senatorial revolt.

Alexander’s death set in motion what historians now call the Crisis of the Third Century in Roman history.

Hallmarks of the Crisis were the following:

  1. Roman generals began to fight each other for control of the empire. This left the provincial citizenry vulnerable to attacks from Carpians, Goths, Vandals, and the Alemanni in the west, and the Sassanid Persians in the east.
  2. In 251, a plague broke out and caused many deaths. It was thought to be smallpox.
  3. The empire had broken up into three competing states: the Gallic Empire, the Palmyrene Empire, and the empire in the middle, with Rome still the capital city.
  4. Many cities, which had hitherto not needed any external defenses, began to surround themselves with high walls. The cities had been devastated in the attacks from the Goths, Vandals, Gauls, etc. running amok in the empire.
  5. The empire, because of its increasing size, proved to be ever more uncontrollable. One emperor, with his legions and local representatives, couldn’t rule the empire himself — not when it took days and weeks to get message and supplies to where they were needed the most.
  6. There was runaway inflation, caused by years of the Severan emperors, of which Alexander was a part, devaluating the coinage.
  7.  Along with how unwieldy the empire was becoming, the internal trade network had been breaking down, spurred by the increasingly dangerous conditions for merchants traveling to and from cities and the problems with trading with debased coinage. The large landowners began to grow crops for their own consumption and for more localized barter. They became increasingly self-sufficient.
  8. The common free people of Roman cities, out of desperate economic necessity, began to leave the cities and go out into the countryside in search of food. To find food, and to protect themselves from brigands, they struck a bargain with the large landowners to give up some of their rights in exchange for protection. They became half-free, but it was for their own survival.
  9. Because the western half of the empire suffered more attacks than the east, the shift of power gradually made its way east, towards Byzantium (later Constantinople).

Diocletian became emperor in 285 CE. He’s known for moving the Roman capital to Nicomedia (near modern-day İzmit in Turkey), leaving Mediolanum (Milan) as the capital of the Western half, and co-ruling with Maximian in what came to be known as the Tetrarchy. Two co-emperors, and two sub-emperors in other administrative regions: Antioch and Augusta Treverorum (Trier). With this move, Diocletian preserved the Roman Empire for another century, before fresh challenges set it on the course to its sunset in the 5th century.

I mention this little piece of nevertheless important Roman history because I wonder sometimes about possible parallels in our own time, especially with the US. It can be fun to speculate, but maybe it’s time to pay closer attention to what might come from this.

Specifically, what would happen if the whole nexus were to come crashing down? Centralization becomes decentralization. Maybe we’re already seeing this with more local efforts for food, education, culture, commerce, etc.

History repeating itself?

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