Worse Plague of Cyprian and its Effects on the Crisis of the Third Century

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Crim, Aug 9, 2018.

  1. Crim Premium User

    Jun 19, 2016
    North Carolina
    The Crisis of the Third Century was a series of political, military, and natural upheavals in the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Severan Dynasty, the Empire fell into near-collapse as constant pressure on all frontiers from Germans and the new Sassanid Empire occupied the military. With the Severan reforms a few decades prior, the military enjoyed more prominence in the Empire than the politicians. This meant the Emperors of the day rose from the military, ergo the term 'Barracks Emperors.' They were prone to early demises, usually at the hands of their own men in mutinies or by rival claimants. Emperors lasting more than a few years was a rarity.

    At the same time, the Roman economy completely collapsed, leading to currency debasement and supplies shortages. Widespread famine and disease further crippled the Empire. The situation reached its height in 260 AD, when Emperor Valerian was captured by the Sassanids, leading to the Empire breaking into effectively three separate parts (Gallic, Roman, and Palmyrene Empires). They were eventually returned to the Roman fold after Aurelian secured both Empires, though the Crisis didn't end until 284 AD, with the rise of Diocletian.

    So let's talk about this widespread famine and disease. We have evidence of severe famine and drought hitting the eastern stretches of the Empire. This famine was caused by a lack of rain, Emperors raiding granaries and giving supplies to the troops, a lack of workers and distributors, and the collapse of the Nile as a breadbasket. According to Dionysius of Alexandria, at some point in the 250s, the Nile ran dry, at least near Alexandria. That meant the food that was generally grown in Egypt had stopped being produced, so the rest of the Empire began to starve. It got even worse when the Nile flooded again. As said by Dionysius, the flood was putrid, running with blood and carrying disease with it. Around the same time, an earthquake struck Asia, affecting this economic hub as well as Libya and Rome, as well as sparking a tsunami that devastated coastal cities. We don't have as much evidence of this aside from the Historia Augusta (Gallieni Duo, IV.II-VI).

    And, of course, we have Cyprian's Plague. There are a lot of different theories about what it was (some people think it was smallpox like the Antonine Plague while recent historiography by Kyle Harper suggests that Cyprian's Plague was more of a hemorrhagic virus. Upon reading Cyprian's description of the disease, I tend to agree with him.) The Historia Augusta and Historia Nova both suggest that the Goths introduced the plague near their invasion along the Danube. However, its most-well known description comes from early Christian writers in Egypt, largely the aforementioned St. Cyprian and Dionysius of Alexandria. We know that it affected Rome and Achia pretty badly as well, killing around 5k per day (Hist. Aug., V.V-XVIII).

    In summary, things got so bad that many early Christians just assumed the world was ending. There are letters by St. Cyprian stating that he believed God was punishing everyone for their sins and, because the chaos was getting worse, the punishments were getting worse. And the pagans thought this was all the Christians' fault. Naturally, the Christians were suuuuper pissed (if you want to read St. Cyprian casting some mad shade, read his letter to Demetrain 'Ad Demetriam, Chapter 3.'

    Well, me being me, I want to crank this up to 10. What if the Plague was as bad as the Black Plague, if not worse? What if the famine was worse? Would the Romans still have been able to recover from the Crisis of the Third Century? How would such natural chaos affect early Christian and Pagan rhetoric? I'd like to bounce some ideas off you guys and maybe get some feedback before I start anything, however. My ideas are:
    1. Because of these natural disasters affecting Rome in such a way, the Empire is unable to keep itself together. I don't believe the Palmyran or Gallic Empires would have necessarily survived, but I do think that it would have led to larger fractures within the Empire. They weren't really independence movements, they were really just states that tried to take matters into their own hands. They sort of wanted the throne, but they really just wanted the constant fighting to stop. The Gallic Empire was fighting on all sides, so they couldn't really make an offensive OTL, while the Palmyrene Empire was only taken out when Zenobia tried to take the throne of Rome for her son, making her the most immediate threat. She was easily defeated because she did not have the numbers. In this ATL, the Palmyrene Empire and the proper Roman Empire would have fought for much longer. As far as the Gallic Empire goes, it began to crumble after Postumus was assassinated because he refused to let his troops sack a city. In this ATL, a desperate Postumus would have allowed this plunder and rapine. With Hispania still on his side, Postumus could have stood up to Claudius Gothicus, who ended up dying of the Cyprian Plague even in OTL. It's likely that the Gallic Empire could have stayed around at least until Postumus Junior (who might not have existed) to have reached adulthood or, at the very least, have existed in the first place. Aurelian would have likely raised an army to combat the Gallic Empire or Palmyrene Empire, be met in a stalemate, and fade into the rest of the Thirty Tyrants as his impatient troops assassinated him.
    2. With Aurelian dead, it's possible that Postumus could have secured the throne while the Palmyrene Empire would have had to fight the Sassanids. They reasonably stood up to them in OTL and likely spread the Cyprian Plague to the Sassanids in the first place. I would especially need pointers on Sassanid history, particularly the Zoroastrian faith and Persian attitudes towards natural disaster at the time.
    3. Palmyra could not have held on to Alexandria for very long. It was suffering, angry, and full of Christians. In this ATL, this would likely have yielded violence from the Christians. I could see a few aborted states rising in North Africa and maybe Iberia, with the Romans probably unable to do much to stop them. A cult of Sol Invictus probably would have been adopted in Rome itself. With the Christians sort of losing face in the Empire, Constantine (had he existed) would likely be more hesitant to make Christianity legal, much less convert to it. Diocletian and the Christians would have likely fought over Palmyra until the Sassanid Empire came back in full strength and tried to take Palmyra, Asia, and Egypt.
    4. Rome could barely withstand fifty years of fighting. Had these ATL pressures been applied and the chaos lasted longer, I don't think it could have ever recovered. At best, either Postumus or Diocletian would have ruled an Empire sans the Palmyrene Empire. At worst, Postumus and the other tyrants would have remained in a deadlock as both states got increasingly weak with each defeat and assassination. Gaul would become decidedly more 'barbarian' with the brutal tactics taken by Postumus while Hispania would likely eventually lose to the Christians in Seville after a few centuries. Rome could have survived as an entity in Italy, Greece, and Illyria for some time until it shattered into East and West, with the East significantly weaker than it was in OTL while the west becomes increasingly Germanic, existing as an anachronistic state for quite some time.
    5. Hellenic and Germanic paganism begin to somewhat merge as the 'traditional European religion' over the span of centuries. However, only an evangelical sect of paganism would have been able to withstand pressures by Christianity and Manichaeism. I would see Egyptian Christianity or Manichaeism making its way into the Arabian peninsula centuries before the rise of Islam.
    6. The disease would have affected the invading barbarians in quite a way as well, perhaps resulting in migration away from the Danube and Rhine borders. They would start to invade Roman Britain (earlier Anglo-Saxon invasion plus more). This migration would put the Goths into conflict with the Huns, resulting in a later wave of expansion towards the Black Sea, the center of the Sassanid Empire, and another invasion along the Danube, especially as it grew colder during the 5th century. The title of Roman Emperor, by this point, would be an honorary, passed to whatever Kingdom happened to hold Rome.
    These are my thoughts so far. If anyone has any other ideas or suggestions, please speak up. I would especially like critique from other people versed in this part of history, especially Sassanid and Roman politics and cultures during late Antiquity. Sorry I don't have a visual just yet; once I have a solid idea of what I want to do with this, I'll hit you guys with some maps.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2018
  2. Salvador79 Well-Known Member

    Mar 18, 2015
    Is Cyprian's plague the same as decius's?
    Why do you consider Postumus as particularly brutal?
    Otherwise, interesting idea (you might want to read my not-very-realistic TL Res Novae Romanae!), re Christian violence, that would be highly controversial and divide Christianity. Africa might be a place to look for such groups (see later Circumcelliones).
    No idea how Zoroastrianism saw natural disasters and Diseases, but it was just undergoing massive transformations under Kartir anyway, so a lot is possible here.
  3. starman Well-Known Member

    Dec 20, 2016
    I don't think the real time of crises began until about the time of Gallus.

    Debasement wasn't the result of "collapse" but a shortage of precious metals. There was an economic downturn, certainly, but no complete collapse.

    So the cyprian plague wasn't as bad as the black death? But suppose it was worse than in OTL. I think the most important factor was psychological. Rome had been resilient for centuries and this clearly persisted into the 200s, if not much longer. The Empire might've been finished IF foreign enemies like the Sassanids and goths were relatively unaffected and hence became relatively much stronger. Otherwise I think it would've still come back, albeit after a longer period maybe by 300-310 CE instead of in 270-75. The population would've come back, to some extent and so would agriculture.
  4. Crim Premium User

    Jun 19, 2016
    North Carolina
    I would absolutely call the situation with the Gordions onwards a crisis, but most historians tend to just mark the death of Alexander Severus as the beginning and the rise of Diocletion the end of the crisis respectively. They serve as somewhat anachronistic bookmarks. That said, you are right in that shit only started getting reeaaall bad in the 250s.

    Broad a term as collapse may be, the point is things were not getting where they needed to be, so settlements were suffering, which meant they couldn't really move their own goods, ergo the empire suffered from a larger Cascade failure from within.[/QUOTE]

    Short Answer: No, the Cyprian Plague was not as devastating as the Black Death.

    Long Answer: So this is where population comes into play, both in terms of the demographics and the urbanization of the Empire. The Romans recovered from the Antonine Plague fairly quickly. Bit more difficult to place how devastating the Cyprian Plague was, but we do know it wasn't black death levels of bad. BP killed ~1/3 of Europe, with higher estimates. If we place Cyprian Plague mortality around there, we have roughly a third of the population of the Empire dying, plus Europe. That's where urbanization come into play. Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch were the largest cities in the Empire by leaps and bounds. That level of population density is going to mean the cities are fucked. Those who can leave likely will, leading to dimishished importance in these cities. That means more people out on the fields, more people engaging in trade, and the places like Rome and Alexandria become less important. In fact, spreading out may even prolong the Empire. So population doesn't really have much to do with Rome surviving or not.

    I'm glad you mention a psychological factor because that's exactly how Rome doesn't collapse because of this: it's an idea that survived plague, warfare, and starvation in OTL. It survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in OTL and will certainly survive what happens in this TL; even if the true Empire doesn't get to hang on to this piece of territory or that.

    Thanks for the feedback!
    starman likes this.