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300 years before the fall of Rome, the empire survived 50 years of chaos

The Martyrdom Of St. Sebastian, 16th century. Sebastian was a member Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guard sentenced to be executed by archers. When Diocletian discovered that Sebastian was still alive, he ordered that he be clubbed to death. (Photo: Art Media/Print Collector via Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Crisis of the third century

What it’s about: The Roman Empire lasted in some form for nearly 1,500 years (if you count the Byzantine Empire, which you should, because it began as the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, and people living there considered themselves Romans, not Byzantines), but it very nearly folded in A.D. 250. When Emperor Severus Alexander was killed by his own troops in 235, the empire was thrown into chaos, at one point splitting into three parts. Those factions eventually reunited, and Emperor Diocletian finally cleaned up the town when he took the throne in 284. But it was touch-and-go for a few decades there.


Biggest controversy: A Chinese hoax may have been a factor in the Roman crisis. Climate change—in this case naturally occurring, not man-made—caused a rise in sea levels, generating floods and ruining crops in the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, all with significant territory below sea level). The locals, who the Romans would have considered barbarians, migrated south, looking for greener pastures. As Severus was focused almost solely on the powerful neighboring Sassanid Persian Empire, northern peoples were able to move in on Rome’s territory with impunity.

A bust of the Roman Emperor Maximinus I, circa A.D. 238. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Strangest fact: There were 26 emperors in 50 years during the crisis, some of them ruling at the same time. Gordian I and his son Gordian II co-ruled in 238 for a whopping three weeks, until II died in the Battle Of Carthage, and Gordian I committed suicide upon hearing the news. That battle was fought against the previous emperor, Maximinus, who was replaced by the Gordians in the Senate while he was on vacation. He returned from vacation at the head of an army, as you do, but the Senate stood its ground, replacing the deceased Gordians with new co-Emperors Pupienus and Balbinus. The two men were patricians, not nobles, and the public refused to accept them. To placate the people, the Senate granted the ceremonial title of caesar to Gordian III, son and grandson of the previous Gordians.

The Pupienus-Balbinus administration managed to defeat and kill Maximinus, but the co-emperors were distrustful of each other, with each suspecting the other of an assassination plot. In the end, they were both right, as the Praetorian Guard burst in on a fight between the two men, and killed them both. (Wikipedia doesn’t make clear whether it was premeditated, and if so, on whose behest.) Gordian III became emperor in more than just name, and ruled for a positively Elizabethan five years and nine months. (His cause of death is unknown, but let’s face it, probably assassination.)


Thing we were happiest to learn: At least one Emperor of the period seems to have died of natural causes. Carus took the throne in 282, successfully fought off the Germanic tribes to the north, and began a successful campaign against the Persians. (While Eurocentric history generally portrays Rome as an unparalleled empire, the Sassanid Empire was at least as big, and Rome’s chief rival through most of its history.) Carus died while fighting a Sassanid army, but it’s believed he died of natural causes—possibly a lightning strike! Other candidates include disease, a lingering wound from battle, or—all together now—assassination. However, his son Numerian succeeded him without a struggle, which leads historians to name natural causes the likeliest candidate. Numerian’s cause of death a year later is also unclear, but Wikipedia’s leaning toward assassination in that case.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Romans during the crisis got a preview of the Dark Ages. Between civil unrest and foreign incursions, Rome’s famous network of roads was no longer safe for traders or travelers. The economy was crippled, and a continent-wide network of trade was replaced with landowners bartering their food with locals and manufacturing their own goods instead of importing them. Cities began building walls for protection. People fleeing now-dangerous city life, as well as small farmers fallen on hard times, began giving up basic freedoms in exchange for work and protection from a wealthy landowner, previewing the serfdom of post-Roman Europe.

St. George disputing with Diocletian. Fresco, Oratory of St George, Padua, Veneto. Italy, 14th century. (Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Also noteworthy: It took a commoner to set everything right. Diocletian was born to a modest family, but became Emperor Carus’ cavalry commander. After Carus’ and Numerian’s deaths, Diocletian was declared emperor, but Carus’ younger son, Carinus, also claimed the title. It took two years, but Diocletian defeated his rival in battle. Realizing the empire had grown too large for one man to govern, Diocletian appointed three other co-emperors over the next few years, each with sway over one-fourth of the country. But Diocletian seemed to remain at the head of the pack. As a military commander, he defeated several foreign enemies, including the Persians—he sacked their capital and forced them to accept a lasting peace. But Diocletian was also a strong domestic policymaker, expanding the civil service, and establishing administrative centers to rule over regions far from the capitol. By the end of his 21-year reign, Rome had returned to stability and prosperity.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Even as we took an earlier swipe at Eurocentrism, we’re guilty of the same thing. Rome was far from the only empire to survive internal struggle. China in the 300s B.C. saw the Warring States period, a similar tumult in which various military commanders named themselves king and the country split into multiple factions. The following century saw the Three Kingdoms period, in which each partition of the country was led by an emperor who claimed to be the legitimate heir to the Han dynasty.

Japan had its own “Age Of Warring States” in the 1500s, also called the Sengoku period. The feudal system collapsed, the emperor was a ceremonial figurehead, and the country experienced more than a century of social and political upheaval before the feudal system was restored. We’ll have to work our way back around to more Asian history over the next 550,000 weeks.


Further down the Wormhole: As tumultuous as the endless parade of emperors must have been for Romans, the empire must have felt most on the verge of collapse when it broke into three separate countries. In 260, an area comprising most of modern-day France and England broke away as the Gallic Empire. Seven years later, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt formed the Palmyrene Empire. The band got back together, but only after a five-year civil war. Civil wars have plagued countries throughout history, but historians studying their causes have found that the more a country invests in women’s rights, the less likely an internal struggle is.

One of the 20th century’s most visible champions for women’s rights in the U.S. was Eleanor Roosevelt. But while she was perhaps the most accomplished and respected first lady in American history, she wasn’t the first independent, outspoken Roosevelt woman to occupy the White House: her cousin Alice, daughter to Teddy (who was Eleanor’s uncle, and only a fifth cousin to Franklin). As teenage first daughter, Alice led a wild and colorful life that led her father to remark, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” We’ll see why even the Bull Moose himself couldn’t rein her in, next week.


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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.