Was the crisis of the third century in Rome inevitable?

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by VVD0D95, Nov 14, 2017 at 5:50 AM.

  1. VVD0D95 Lemmy is God.

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    Was the crisis of the third century in the Roman Empire inevitable? If not, what could have prevented it? And what would be the consequences if it were averted?
     
  2. Salvador79 Well-Known Member

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    Let´s tackle some of the most important factors one by one:

    Political instability: Some people propose more explicit succession rules in order to avoid endless usurpations and civil wars. That amounts to stating the obvious, i.e. that the ROman state had become a monarchy. This, though, seems to have been a problem for Roman political culture. Nevertheless, setting the Principate on a solid constitutional foundation in the 1st or 2nd century CE is not impossible and could have reduced the likelihood of endless chains of usurpations.

    Very few soldiers for such a large empire: This is difficult to change within the framework of the Principate. Some people have proposed a reform similar to Byzantine "themata".

    Stronger forces beyond the borders: In Persia, the Sassanids built a much more centralised, urbanised, and militarised state than the Parthians had been. Across Rhine and Danube, Germanic groups were coagulating into greater units, had absorbed a lot of knowledge, were forging good swords, and were driven into ROman territory for raids by push factors, too (see below). While the former could have been sabotaged or failed somehow, it may well have happened a few decades later anyway; the latter is almost inevitable, regardless of how far North the ROmans would push their borders (actually that would make matters only worse).

    Monetary crisis: Usually overrated; imperial administration and military worked well with transfers in kind, too, and wider Roman economic crisis had other more important reasons (see below). Nothing to be done here, though, the ROmans couldn`t have developed the necessary economic theory to understand the problem they were in.

    Epidemics: Nothing to be done against them really; Romans already had the best sanitation of their times. Expansion of foreign trade inevitably brings in new germs. Bad for the taxbase and for recruitment. Of course, if recruitment were at levels of the Republic, the population base would still have carried a super-big imperial army, so maybe the epidemics aren`t the no.1 problem, either.

    Agricultural / ecological problems:
    Things got cooler and drier in Northern Europe and in the steppes; that pushed countless barbarians from the North against the Roman borders. Across the Mediterranean, home-made problems aggravated the situation: deforestation washed off fertile soil from mountain slopes and led to the silting of river deltas, damaging both fertile land in the valleys (through swamping) and trade (because ports became useless). Nothing realistic to be done about that, and that`s a major problem, because it is both the main reason why the North was so unsafe (which also destabilised overland trade in addition), and it is not only bad for the taxbase, but also for social stability. The 3rd century was a time of great social transformations, which undermined the way in which the Roman state worked even further. (Some people say Diocletian solved at least the latter by adapting the state to it; I disagree, but even if you tend to view things this way, I find it hard to imagine a Diocletian-like reform palatable to Roman politics without the prior mess of the Crisis.

    Maybe the Crisis wouldn`t have occurred if not all of these factors had come together; maybe it´s sufficient to solve just one or two of these issues - that is difficult to say.

    Overall, we shouldn`t call too many things inevitable. But there were deep-reaching causes for the C3c, not all of which I have explored here.
     
  3. VVD0D95 Lemmy is God.

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    Intriguing, in regards to the first issue of the succession, who could have consolidated the succession amongst their own dynasty?
     
  4. Salvador79 Well-Known Member

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    A Julio-Claudian would be best if you choose this option, since that was a dynasty indeed.
     
  5. VVD0D95 Lemmy is God.

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    Interesting
     
  6. Lalli Well-Known Member

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    Julio-Claudians indeed were able to create long lasting dynasty and keep things going despite that some emperors were mad, at least if we believe some biased historians. But major problem is how we stop them killing themselves to extinction.
     
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  7. starman Well-Known Member

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    Its interesting that the onset of the worst of the third century crisis, the time of Valerian, witnessed relative internal stability. Civil wars were a terrible issue but not decisive in weakening Roman power IMO. Look at Severus. At Lugdunum Albinus initially put up a good fight implying significant losses to the Severan army. Less than a year later Severus took Ctesiphon. Admittedly Verona gave the goths their first big chance but the worst factor was poor generalship 250-51 CE.

    I think Roman power was adequate to deal with foreign enemies. The problem was inept leadership--one reason why Gallienus excluded senators from military commands.

    As far back as the time of Tiberius, the Romans were well aware of the dangers of gold draining out of their empire to pay for imports like silk. They should've done more to curtail or prevent that. In the mid 200s, coinage had been severely debased.

    Of course not. It's very interesting and noteworthy, that even after the terrible midcentury plague and severe defeats, Roman military resources--under better leadership--still sufficed to crush foreign enemies in the East and in Europe.

    Well I dunno....Heather wrote about thriving agriculture a century later.

    It certainly says something about Roman resiliency--down to that time-- that the Empire bounced back so admirably late in the century.
     
  8. Salvador79 Well-Known Member

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    @starman,
    so you`re saying poor military leadership was the main problem?

    Isn`t it weird then that the Romans, in the West, fell to comparatively much less organised attackers?
     
  9. Fabius Maximus Unus qui nobis cunctando restituit rem

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    Personally I think that the greater strength of Rome's enemies is overrated as a cause of the crisis. Foreign invasions only started to be a major problem once the crisis had already broken out, and stopped being a problem soon after the Romans managed to pull themselves together and stop slaughtering each other for five minutes. Sure the Germans and Sassanids were more dangerous than their predecessors, but a reasonably stable Roman Empire was strong enough to keep them at bay, at least during the third century.

    So I see a lot of modern historians claim that this was a necessary move due to the increased threats the Empire faced, but is there any actual evidence that the "professional" post-Gallienus commanders had a better track record than the "amateur" Senators?

    Incidentally, I've always thought that Goldsworthy's explanation for the crisis is quite interesting. Basically, in the early Empire important military commands all went to Senators. There were a few hundred Senators (numbers naturally tended to fluctuate over time), of whom only a dozen or so would be talented, well-born, rich, and experienced enough to make a plausible bid for the throne in the case of imperial instability. This meant it was generally quite easy for Emperors to keep an eye on potential rivals, especially since the standard career pattern meant that they'd come back to Rome every few years. Over time, however, Emperors started appointing equestrians to more and more important posts, since they were obviously too lowly to be considered Emperor material, and so the Emperor had nothing to fear from them rebelling. Then the first equestrian became Emperor (Macrinus). Suddenly, everybody of equestrian rank was now a potential candidate for the purple. This meant that there were now many more potential Emperors, and, as they often spent their entire careers in the provinces, they were much harder to keep an eye on. This led to a period of near-constant usurpation, until Diocletian (kinda) solved the problem by appointing several Emperors who could keep a closer eye on what their subordinates were up to.
     
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  10. Raferty Well-Known Member

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    The lack of a massive imperial bureaucracy did not help. The Principate was basically a massive collection of cities, colonies, tribes, and clients with a military superstructure imposed as a blanket led by the Emperor. This was not a cohesive state in the way that the post-Diocletian state was, with its massive bureaucracy that became a class unto themselves. Basically, post-Diocletian Rome was a lot like a Chinese dynastic empire, and before him, it was more of an uneasy alliance between a military dictator and an oligarchic senate with widespread prosperity tapering over the inherent contradictions and weaknesses within that structure.

    So I think to some extent it was, as when the prosperity ended, things were going to break down.

    The lack of interior depth in the defense structure and the renewed importance of the Generals in providing for troops did not help matters at all, and ensured that military anarchy was a lot worse than it should have been. The heavy infantry legionary model was not a bad one, but the legions should have acted as they were supposed to be, shock troops used for campaigns, rather than border guards who were endlessly split into vexillationes.
     
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  11. starman Well-Known Member

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    I was referring to the situation in the mid third century. It had been rectified by the time of Aurelian.
    In the fifth century western empire, the problem was the reverse. Western Roman leadership--Stilicho, Constantius, Aetius--wasn't bad but the regular army was chronically weak.
     
  12. starman Well-Known Member

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    In fact Roman military fortunes had already improved greatly before the period of rapid succession ceased. The Empire won a great victory over the goths before Aurelian came to power and he lasted only 5 years. Probus and Carus weren't renowned for duration of tenure either....
    As for a relation between foreign invasion and the start of the crisis, I note Maximinus I--who according to some inaugurated the era of "military anarchy"--did OK against invaders as did Gordian III and Philip. The invasion problem didn't get really bad until the reigns of Decius and Gallus.

    Properly led, Roman forces could keep the enemy at bay even at a time of maximum internal instability. Look at the offensives of Odainathus and the great victory of 269, both at a time of widespread usurpation.


    Lol, start with victories including Naissus 269 CE and continue through the period of Illyrian led recovery c 270-99.

    Diocletian solved the problem only briefly; 4rth century civil wars were awful. Internal rivalry or civil war was a serious problem but I don't think it was the decisive factor in the 3rd century crisis or the final fall of the West. Civil war had been at least an occasional problem since the late republic.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2017 at 1:49 PM
  13. trajen777 Member

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    This is prob one of the best summations i have read, nicely done.

    I think many of these are inevitable (plague, better armed opponents, and the emergence of a truly nation state to the east) and some were solvable (succession military adjustments). Now with that being said i think that the Romans could have solved their issues by the succession and military modifications. You are very correct in that the financial situation has been underrated. I think the person best situated to solve the succession would have been Augustus in the last 1/3 of his reign.

    As to military solutions the Byzantines (eastern Romans) solution was excellent.

    The constant succession and cvial wars resulted in the emperors seeing civil wars as being the greatest risk. In response to this they kept pulling units to be closer to them as a mega body guard often leaving the border troops under maned, trained, and poorly led. This in effect allowed endless pin prick attacks by war band raiders to penetrate the borders and disrupt the tax payer farmers. This reduced tax revenues which led to less well funded military forces (which impacted the borders not the central forces) which led to more porous borders. And on and on it goes. A respected government that was stable would have solved the problems of :
    1. Less / No civil wars which caused pourus borders and the slaughter of well trained Roman troops.
    2. More resources to border protection troops vs central gov forces.
    3. This led to more tax revenue

    An example of this is the Vandal conquest of N Africa. Their conquest took he major tax revenue stream from the Western Empire. Without this tax stream they could not pay for an effective army.

    So if the succession issue had been solved the crisis would have been avoided
     
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  14. Fabius Maximus Unus qui nobis cunctando restituit rem

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    Sed contra, there were plenty of periods where "amateur" Senatorial commanders had been successful (these were the guys who (a) conquered the Roman Empire, and (b) maintained it at its height for some two centuries, after all).
     
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  15. Salvador79 Well-Known Member

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    @Fabius Maximus sure Roman armies of the 3rd century could win battles against the "new threats" easily (although don't tell Decius in Abrittus that), but the frequent raids wreaked havoc on the thin layer of Romanitas (and on the economy etc.) on the periphery, and it created another factor benefiting usurpations: the periphery was scared shitless and repeatedly elevated leaders of their legions to the purple. (Who then went to Rome, abandoning them.) (yes, I know often the soldiers did these elevations, and they had good reasons of their own, but if you look at how fast and proactive municipal elites acknowledged them, i can't rid myself of the Impression that they all wanted an emperor who bore their peripheral province close to his heart.)

    @trajen777
    Thanks! And in addition to damaging the taxbase through raids directly, they also caused that through disrupting overland commerce. Rome's vibrant economy of the 1st and 2nd centuries had relied on specialisation, cash crop production, mechanisation; all that only worked with functioning overland or overseas trade. Trade breakdown because of insecurity and other reasons outlined above caused a re-localisation of production which led straight into the manorialism Europe was stuck with for a millennium.
     
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  16. Tom Colton Morituri te Salutant Donor

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    Are there solutions to the Military Anarchy that don't accelerate the rise of the Dominate?
     
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  17. Salvador79 Well-Known Member

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    When is your PoD limit?
     
  18. Tom Colton Morituri te Salutant Donor

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    Let's say the accession of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, to give time for Commodus to be less of a shit.
     
  19. Salvador79 Well-Known Member

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    Re Commodus, I think problems were structural rather than individual.

    But with a 2nd century PoD, you could still attempt to enshrine succession rules, perhaps in exchange for more senatorial provinces or some other compromise.

    Keeping the weird and hyprocritical construction of the Principate around much longer is really difficult because at some point, it's going to tip one of two ways: either open despotism (the Dominate), or a breakdown of Central power / a decentralisation. (A return to a Roman "republic" was a chimera.)
     
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  20. starman Well-Known Member

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    The division of the army into limitanei and comitatenses (apparently based on the lessons of the third century) was to improve defense. Some troops would always remain on the frontiers but a reserve would be available to deal with breakthroughs or usurpers.

    The idea of a continuous downward spiral is fallacious as the Empire recovered fairly well in the late third and early fourth centuries.


    Unfortunately nobody ever solved that problem. If Diocletian's careful reforms couldn't do it (actually there had ben efforts since the first century) I don't think anybody could. But again, serious as the problem could be at times, it wasn't the decisive factor which brought the empire down.


    In fact a policy of preclusive security (aided by construction of walls of which Hadrian's is the best known) had been the norm well before the third century crisis. Diocletian reestablished it but soon afterwards it was abandoned in favor of the limitanei/comitatenses system i.e. defense in depth. Evidently the Romans concluded it was unsatisfactory. They couldn't hope to keep enemies out of the empire--if they attacked in force--just try to beat them after they entered.

    :) ....Unfortunately, military weakness had become a chronic issue long before 429-39 CE, and was the reason North Africa was lost in the first place.



    I think that's a bit fallacious, and not only because of plague and inflation. Even political stability, as in the time of Valerian, did not prevent massive incursions and setbacks.