Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Third-Century Soldier-Emperors

Steve Muhlberger
Between A.D. 69 and 180 Rome -- meaning the ruling class of Rome -- had it fairly easy.  The ruling class was quite secure and benefited from a period of over-all expansion, in population, exchange,
and agriculture.  It is less easy to generalize about the subject population, who constituted the vast majority.  Some surely benefited from the expansion, which provided them with new opportunities.  Others fought off the eternal scourges of the peasant:  debt and taxes.  But most subjects did not suffer the devastation that accompanies the incursion of a hostile army.

From the time of Marcus Aurelius, who began to reign in 161 and died in 180, there were ominous signs.  Marcus spent much of his reign on the long Danube frontier, fighting off attacks of the newly-hostile Quadi and Marcomanni.  There was a serious plague, the first in a very long time.
The proud and polite empire -- as Rome at its height has been recently called -- had to stir itself into action.

It had some problems doing so.  Besides the quite literal plague, there were some metaphorical diseases of the imperial structure.

Devaluation of the coinage -- a reduction in the silver content which gave it its value in contemporaries' eyes -- led to inflation.  Was this inflation merely a shortage of silver?  Or does it
indicate also an overheating of the long-expanding economy?  Or is the shortage of silver available to the imperial authorities reflect the common and necessary corruption of empires?  By "necessary corruption," I mean the process in which the leaders grant privileges to those who actually do the
work of tax collection and policing; these enforcers and officials do their best to intercept the profits of empire, and often have to pay off their own subordinates as well.  Thus the empire becomes increasingly difficult to govern.

There was a more immediate problem:  that of leadership.  For a long time, things had run smoothly in the empire because the senatorial elite had been able to supply a steady stream of
suitable rulers.  Lack of natural sons enabled emperors to choose their successors (often cousins), and these had all proved reasonably capable. There was no dissension in the ruling elite.

But when Marcus Aurelius died in 180, his successor, Commodus, proved most unsuitable, especially to the wealthy and politically active senators who were his most important partners in power.  Commodus was a new Nero or Caligula, who emphasized rather than effaced his absolute power, and flaunted his immunity from normal morality.  He is best known for fighting as a gladiator in the arena and having himself portrayed as Hercules in his portraits.  He became so arbitrary that he was eventually murdered -- his concubine Marcia, famous as a Christian sympathizer, and his chamberlain brought in a wrestler to strangle him.  This was on the last day of 192.

After his death, the state took long to settle down.  His first successor, elected by the senate, was killed by the praetorian guard because he was too strict.  The guards then auctioned off the emperorship to the man who would pay them the biggest bonus.

This sparked off a gold rush in the army:  the British legions, the Danubian legions, and the
Syrian legions all proclaimed their own emperors, and civil war resulted. In less than a year, the smoothly operating civilian government of a century had broken down, and once again the raw power of the army became the ultimate arbiter.

The winner of the civil war of 193 was the Danubian commander, an African named Septimius Severus.  He had been opposed by the Senate, and did his best to humiliate them while he ruled.  He emphasized the military basis of his rule rather than concealing it, as all previous emperors had.
He was tough and capable enough to survive anyway.  When he died in 211, he left two adult sons firmly in control of the state.  His advice to them is famous:  "Stick together, take care of the army, and forget about the rest."

 The Severan dynasty burned out rather quickly.  Despite the old man's advice, one son murdered the other, and was murdered himself a few years later.  Two of Severus's great-nephews ruled for a while.  One is the famous teenaged bad-boy Elagabalus.  He was a relative of Septimius
Severus's Syrian wife, and had originally been destined to be a priest of a Syrian fertility god named Elagabalus (that is where he got his name).  As emperor he had only two interests.  One was to get everyone at Rome to worship the god he himself was dedicated to; the other was to live it up.

According to a later and not very reliable history, Elagabalus was credited with inventing all sorts of frivolous luxuries still in use centuries later:  such as wine cocktails flavored with mastic and pennyroyal, or lobster stuffing for roast meats.  He also liked to play tricks, some deadly, some only mildly malicious:  he would invite to dinner eight bald men, eight one-eyed men, eight men with gout, or whatever.  You can guess how he ended up.

His cousin Alexander, who is portrayed as a paragon, succeeded him, but despite his virtues he lasted only a little longer, being murdered in 235.

After 235, chaos reigned.  For the next 50 years, one emperor followed another with dizzying speed.  Nearly all of them were generals; all of them took power with the support of one army and had to fight the others to get or keep it; and most of them lasted three years or less before being murdered.

At the same time as Rome was caught up in unending civil war, it was now threatened from outside its borders, from both the north and the east. While Rome's armies fought each other, or prepared to do so, or recovered from doing so, Goths, Franks, and other peoples from across the Rhine and
the Danube raided deep into the empire.  One group, called the Juthungi, made it nearly all the way to Rome.  The Goths, on the other hand, took to the sea and were able to sack many Greek and Anatolian cities.

But they were hardly the worst threat.  That honor belonged to the new Iranian dynasty, called the Sassanids or Sassanians.  In 227, they had taken over from the Parthians, and immediately assumed a more aggressive attitude to Rome.  They made a concerted push to annex Syria and renew the ancient boundaries of the Persian empire.  Antioch, the chief city of Syria, was seized and sacked twice during the third century.

Once these civil wars had started, they were exceedingly difficult to stop.  Civil wars had started as a competition between different armies on different fronts, seeking profit and influence by taking control of the source of all rank and honor, the emperorship.  The revolts were not nationalist in inspiration.  None of the regional armies marched to throw off Roman rule.  Yet the revolts did to some extent represent regional interests -- the interests of the provincial military-industrial complexes
that supported and were supported by the legions.

As the wars progressed, and chaos encouraged the attacks of Rome's neighbors, the armies found different reasons to fight each other.  Each front needed control of resources, needed strong, undoubted leadership to make the mobilization of resources possible.  The only undoubted source of authority in the Roman system at any time was an emperor.  Thus, just to survive, border districts
needed their own emperors, who would be on the spot to do the job an emperor was supposed to do.

So each front regularly put up its own candidate, sometimes forcing the purple imperial robes on a reluctant man who wished to avoid the hot-seat.  Ironically, the act of creating an emperor pulled the new leader away from the area he was wanted.  If one was an emperor, one's first task was to eliminate false claimants to the purple and restore legitimate rule.  In other words, the new regional emperor was almost forced to march off to fight a civil war, leaving his part of the frontier stripped of troops and vulnerable to attack.

In 259, however, the empire did split into pieces.  The current emperor, a man named Valerian, was captured by the Sassanids and dragged off to Persia in triumph.  He had a partner in rule, Gallienus, who took up the reins, but there were immediate revolts in the east and in Gaul.  The Gallic armies set up a ruler who controlled Gaul, Spain and Britain; while a client king based in Palmyra in Syria set up shop on the Persian frontier.  Both of these regional rulers, I'm sure, dreamed of being
emperor of the whole empire when conditions permitted, but both were forced to devote their attention to matters of immediate defense.

This situation went on for more than a decade:  three regional Roman empires instead of

Eventually the rulers of the central region were able to mount expeditions to eliminate the competition.  This central line of rulers deserves a little attention.  They are called the Illyrican or Danubian emperors:  they ruled by grace of the large armies that guarded (or used to
guard) Rome's largest boundary, in modern Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania and Bulgaria.  The Illyrican emperors, like many of their troops, were natives of the area, products of a Roman military-industrial complex.

I use that term for a good reason.  The Danubian provinces were among those where Roman conquest had produced a new Latin society.  As in Gaul, these provinces had been created by the army and were sustained by the army, both economically and socially.  Providing the army with goods was the raison d'être of the Danubian cities, and the best way for any individual to make
money.  Joining the army was the best route to social advancement, and one taken by many local boys.  It has been suggested that this Danubian army fought so hard for Rome and Roman unity because they were not economically self-sufficient.  They needed taxes and supplies from elsewhere in the empire, and so they had to fight to control the whole thing.

No doubt there was a psychological factor involved, too.  These products of the Roman army believed in the institution of Rome in the way that only a person whose well-being and security is entirely bound up with the survival of an institution can believe in it.  So we see the Danube regions throwing up the toughest and most fanatical emperors.

Famous among them are Decius and Aurelian, who extended their efforts to save Rome to saving its religion.  Convinced that the proper worship of the gods was being neglected, they initiated organized persecutions of the unreliable Christians.

The Danubians were the most successful emperors and emperor-makers to emerge from the chaos following Alexander Severus's death.  Even they could not entirely end that chaos until the 280s.  By that time the Roman world had suffered from dissension and occasional invasion for half a century.  Why did this happen?  And what were the effects?

I have mentioned some problems the empire faced: external challenges, internal corruption, perhaps economic weakness.  But one thing must be added to it:  the purely political competition between equally powerful regions in the empire.  During the Good Emperors' time, the dominance of
Rome and Italy remained unquestioned, as it had for so many years before. The civil wars following Commodus showed that real power no longer rested in Italy.  The treasure was there, the monuments were there, the senators whose ancestors had built both were there.  But the army, and even much of the productive capability of the empire were far from Italy on the military frontier.

And the reign of Septimius Severus had shown that the armies were perhaps more likely to follow practical soldiers than men whose main qualification was a senatorial pedigree.  When this became obvious, when the old center had been shown to be powerless, the military regions were free to fight each other, and perhaps compelled by the ideology of imperial unity to fight each other to the death.  There could be only one emperor in Rome, after all.  And we have already seen why it was hard to
stop fighting once the fighting had begun.

What about the effects?  These were very extensive.  Some areas were subjected to the plundering and destruction of armies that had been absent so long from the interior provinces.  Some of these armies were barbarian or Sassanid Persian; but perhaps the most destructive were the Roman armies themselves.  For instance, northern Gaul, one of the worst hit areas, survived quite nicely through the early years of civil war and through the time of the separate Gallic Empire.  But when it was reconquered for the Central Empire by Aurelian, it was savagely treated.  The old Roman cities
of Gaul were wrecked by armies intent on fortifying them as strongholds of central authority.  Buildings, temples, monuments and tombs were pulled up to create walls for an army that acted and felt like an army of occupation. Northern Gaul never recovered its old prosperity as long as the empire lasted.

For a contrast, let us look at Britain.  Britain was too far from the center to compete very effectively for power, or to be of much concern for the other competitors.  Thus Roman armies were left there to take care of the province and themselves.  They seem to have done so quite well. Britain, despite the raids of Saxons, Picts, and Scots, maintained its prosperity.  The troops functioned, undisturbed by central command, for a long time.

Their distance from the political action can be symbolized by the state of one fort on the northern wall that has been recently excavated.  There were plenty of troops, a well-run camp, a flourishing
commercial suburb outside its walls.  But the headquarters of the high commanders were abandoned, filled in with junk, including the broken remains of an altar dedicated to "the spirit of imperial discipline."

In other words, these British troops were acting like a regional militia, forgotten by Rome and unconcerned about Rome themselves.  Perhaps this was the best of all possible situations -- just ask the Gauls.

Even though all areas did not suffer direct devastation, the whole imperial economy was very much shaken by this period of civil war.  We have seen before that the support of the armies by distant taxpayers was a vital component in the economies of many provinces.  This circulation of goods
and silver broke down badly when the government ceased to work and armies devoted their energies to fighting each other.  The armies stopped depending on taxes and began requisitioning goods in the areas immediately accessible to them.  It is easy to imagine how harsh and destructive this
method could be.

All the third century emperors were short of silver all the time, and debased the currency again and again, until silver coins had only 5% silver content.  Everyone who had participated in the older market economy was disturbed.  And we can see the effect in the cities of the empire, especially in the newer and more militarized western provinces.  In the second century, local aristocrats had been able to afford to build huge monuments, baths, forums, temples, to their personal glory and the glory of the town.  In the later third century, few new installations were built, and a good many of the old ones were abandoned.  In most places, the impoverishment of local society was long-lasting.  The old classical competitiveness to improve the  polis  was beaten out of the civic aristocrats.

Another extremely important effect of this long crisis was the replacement of the old ruling class on both the local and imperial level by a new one.  In the old days, each city had its group of notables or town councilors who ran the town, collected local and imperial taxes, and generally acted as a link between the town and the imperial court.  The ruling class at Rome was the senatorial aristocracy, a group that still bore some resemblance to its imperial predecessor.  They had a monopoly on
the high commands and offices, and vast wealth.

During the third century, these two groups were not destroyed, but they were shoved off center stage by another:  Practical soldiers who had risen through the ranks.  Men who were not necessarily from poor families -- though some were -- but men who certainly had no great line of ancestors or fabulous wealth behind them.

The new leaders of the empire, the emperors, their generals and their advisors, were men from the provinces, men who had not gone to fancy finishing schools, men who may never have seen Rome.  During the crisis they excluded senators from high army commands, and thus limited their
access to the post of ultimate power.  At the same time, the local aristocrats found themselves subject to men who had little in common with them, and who scarcely valued the kind of civic patriotism that had helped build and maintain the empire.  The entire tone of the imperial system
changed: from being a civilian-run empire with a big army, it became a military dictatorship in which all civilians were looked down upon by the rulers.

The chaos of the third century was ended by a man named Diocletian who took power in 284.  He was an Illyrian, and if later stories can be trusted, of quite humble stock.  His father had been a dependent, perhaps even a freedman, of a senator.  Somehow Diocletian got an army commission
and rose quite high.  In 284 he was on campaign with the emperor Numerian, who was fighting the Persians.  One day the emperor was found dead.  The troops elected Diocletian in his place.  The new emperor's first act was to call forward Numerian's praetorian prefect, a man named Aper, and declare that Aper was the man who had killed Numerian.  Then Diocletian whipped out his sword and killed Aper -- perhaps to forestall a counter-accusation. The army was not at all taken aback by this brutal procedure.  It just proved to them that Diocletian was the direct man of action needed to lead an empire still fragile and saddled with chronic dissension.  In fact, Numerian's brother Carinus was still alive and in charge of most of the empire.

Despite this obstacle and others, Diocletian took only a few years to establish his authority all over the empire.  And what's more, he was able to make it stick.

 The way he did this is interesting.  One of the chief problems of the empire is that it had and could not dispense with a number of separate frontier armies.  These armies were the chief source of disunity, because any of them could, and usually did, produce claimants to the throne. Diocletian dealt decisively with this problem by following a trend that had been emerging in recent decades:  emperors had dealt with the size of the empire by appointing partners, either full partners, full emperors, or junior partners called Caesars.  Usually these partners were their relatives.

Diocletian, too, found it necessary to have partners.  In 286, he appointed another Illyrian -- not a relative -- named Maximian, to be his partner.  Six years later, in 293, he appointed two junior partners, Constantius and Galerius, assigning one of them as Maximian's Caesar and the other as his own.  The accomplishment of Diocletian was to keep the peace between these four men for almost twenty years.  It has often been pointed out that Diocletian was not really much of a general.  He left the real fighting to others.  What he was was the perfect political general, a man who could organize an army and inspire respect in his closest associates.  The Tetrarchy, or "rule of four," was one of history's more successful military juntas.

Diocletian's success in beating rivals and dominating his associates gave Rome its first long stretch of civil and foreign peace since the time of Septimus Severus.  This left him free to work on what he saw was the chief task before him:  the restructuring and restoration of the Roman state.  This was surely necessary if an imperial system was to survive.

But in a way, the restructuring had already taken place.  The first empire, the one based on Rome and Italy, and founded by Augustus Caesar, was already gone.  The reunified empire of the third century was already something else.  It had the same territories as the old one -- except for Dacia, which had been abandoned -- the same name, the same ruling cultures, and the same army.  But it was not based on Italy, which was now treated just like the provinces, but on the frontier armies, and their continuing control of the wealth of the eastern provinces, the ones that had gotten off lightest in the previous half-century.

The culture, too, of the new empire was quite different from the old.  Indeed, the empire was now on the verge of a religious revolution, the official conversion to Christianity.


Cornell and Matthews,  Atlas of the Roman World.
King and Henig,  The Roman West in the Third Century. (Not at NU)

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.