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Division of the Roman Empire: Diocletian & the 3rd Century Crisis

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  • 0:58 Feuding & Factions
  • 2:27 Funding
  • 3:21 Foreign Invasion and…
  • 4:28 Claudius and Aurelian
  • 5:24 Diocletian
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the 3rd Century Crisis of the Roman Empire. It will focus on the political, civil and economic problems that caused the crisis, and will also highlight the role of Diocletian in the resolution of the crisis.

Intro to Crisis

The 3rd Century Crisis was a period in which the Roman Empire came very close to collapsing. It was a time when the position of emperor lost its power, and, to put it in modern-day terms, the inmates began running the asylum. With this collapse of authority, things like civil war, foreign invasion, economic depression and even a plague brought the Roman Empire to its knees.

To help us remember the causes of the crisis, we're going to call them The Five Fs: feuding, factions, funding, foreigners, and a freaky disease. Fortunately for the Empire, a man named Diocletian would step in to save the day. Before we get to the hero of the story, let's take a look at how the crisis began. Then, we'll delve into our Five Fs. When we're finished, we'll get to our hero, Diocletian.

Feuding & Factions

The 3rd Century Crisis began with the end of the Severan Dynasty of emperors. The Severan Emperors, while being rather violent and a bit nuts, maintained control of Rome for several generations. Their strength as rulers kept the military and the people from open rebellion. However, when Severus Alexander, the last of the Severans, was assassinated, the title of Emperor went up for grabs. Soon dozens of wealthy military leaders fought for the throne, creating chaos, and throwing the Empire into civil war. These civil wars give us our first F: feuding

Our second F is factions. Seeing the Empire in chaos, the conquered territories of Rome decided to add to the melee by breaking from the Empire and creating their own factions. The territories of Gaul, Spain, and Britain declared their independence and named themselves the Gallic Empire. They even went as far as crowning their own emperors.

Witnessing the rebellion of these territories, the eastern provinces, comprised of Syria Palaestina and Egypt, also decided to try their hands at revolution. Making matters worse, the territories that did remain loyal to Rome were burdened with warring generals trying to assert their power. These generals, who were mostly killed in battle or assassinated, are known to history as the Barracks Emperors.

Funding

As if civil war wasn't enough, the 3rd Century Crisis was a period of economic depression. From this we get our third F: funding. In order to try to gain or keep power, Rome's rulers began bribing soldiers to play on their team. To come up with the extra funds, those in power started decreasing the amount of precious metals in the currency. In other words, they made the coins worth less and less. In doing this, the buying power of Roman currency plummeted and inflation spread like bad news. Also, since currency meant so little, people began trading and bartering, rather than paying and purchasing. Since no money was trading hands, tax revenue was scarce and the economy of the Empire fell further into a pit.

Foreign Invasion and Freaky Disease

With little money, the Empire found itself going from the frying pan into the fire. Since money was barely flowing, Rome had little with which to defend itself from our fourth F: foreigners. Add to this that the Roman armies were busy fighting each other, and attacking Rome became as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Before long, Germanic tribes were allying with one another and ransacking prosperous Roman cities. While the Germanic tribes were wreaking havoc in the North, Persians were attacking from the East, pillaging cities and even capturing one of the acting emperors.

Adding complete insult to injury, our fifth F, a freaky disease, hit the Empire. This freaky disease, known as the Plague of Cyprian hit the Empire in the midst of all these other troubles. Unfortunately for Rome, the plague was as capricious as the warring generals. Having no respect for rank or position, it devastated towns and villages, killing farmers, soldiers and whomever it saw fit.

Claudius and Aurelian

Fortunately for Rome, the sun began to come out with the rise of a few competent emperors. First, Emperor Claudius II began shoring up the borders around 270 CE. He did this by running the Gauls out of the Empire. Unfortunately for Rome, the darn plague set its sights on Claudius and he died before being able to gain complete control.

Next to take the throne was an aggressive and smart military man known to history as Aurelian. Upon taking the throne, Aurelian saw victory against the Goths, the Gallic Empire, Syria Palaestina, and Egypt. For this he earned the title, 'Restorer of the World.' Unfortunately for Rome, his body guards, who must not have been too impressed with his restorations, assassinated him in the year 275 CE; yet another kick in the shins for the Roman Empire.

Diocletian

Fortunately for the Empire, their prince was about to come. In the year 284 CE, Diocletian came onto the scene, claimed power and began to pull the Empire from the pit of despair. Picking up where Aurelian left off, he instituted several reforms. Also, in order to let people know he was boss, he took a page from Aurelian's book and began calling himself Lord and God. This move set him up as a deity, not to be messed with.

In the matter of the economy, Diocletian also took the bull by the horns. He introduced coins with purer metal content. These coins became known as the gold solidus, the Latin word for solid, and soon became the standard currency of the Empire. To battle inflation, he instituted an Edict on Maximum Prices, which was basically a comprehensive list, telling suppliers what they could and could not charge for an item. In other words, the edict, not the market, determined price.

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