Elliot Fernandez

The crisis of the 3rd century and the collapse of the Roman Empire

During the third century, the Roman Empire suffered serious problems at its borders, which led to its military collapse. The control of the territory was being lost, and the State entered into a clear decadence.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2019-10-10 | Updated on 2022-09-14

There have been many speculations about the causes of the crisis of the 3rd century and the decline of the Western Roman Empire and its disappearance in 476 AD. Among historians, it remains a matter of study and research. Certainly, there was no single cause for its disappearance.

In the 18th century, the thesis of the British historian Edward Gibbon made a lot of fortune. His influential work “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (published between 1776 and 1788) established that among the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire there were two main reasons: the first, the Christianization of the Empire (a religion that preached a peaceful message that went against the traditional mentality and military structure of the Empire), and the second, the integration into the imperial army of a considerable contingent of barbarian soldiers, who never defended the Empire with sufficient patriotism.

Roman Empire 117 AD and the crisis of the 3rd century
The Roman Empire in 117 AD.
Source: Wikipedia.org

Gibbon's decadent thesis on the “end of the Western Roman Empire” is outdated and overtaken by current historiography. Below are the causes and motivations that led the Roman Empire to its disappearance.

The decadence of an Empire. Causes and motivations

Between 250 and 270 AD, the Roman Empire suffered serious troubles at its borders that led to its military collapse. During the second half of the third century, the figure of the tyrant appeared (a person who claimed political authority without any legitimacy with the aim to proclaim himself emperor). Between 260 and 268, areas of Gallia were outside Roman control.

In addition, between 260 and 273 AD, the Empire had to face the usurpation of power in the Roman province of Palmyra by Zenobia, which proclaimed itself queen of the Palmyrene Empire. These facts are explained by the climate of political and military instability within the Empire. After the death of Emperor Severus Alexander (222-234), who put an end to the Severan dynasty, the Empire fell into a state of chaos known as the third anarchy. In less than 50 years, 25 emperors were replaced by violent replacements. The appointment of political authority is a matter for the military.

The Palmyrene Empire in 271 AD (in yellow) and the crisis of the 3rd century
The Palmyrene Empire in 271 AD (in yellow).
Source : Wikipedia.org

Another important factor of instability during the 3rd century was the incursions into the territory of the Empire by the Germanic populations, the so-called “barbarians”. For these reasons, this period of Rome's history is known as “the crisis of the third century”.

Roman chroniclers of the time tended to exaggerate events and explain them apocalyptically. The reality is that the third century was a time of uncertainty and fear, which led to the loss of commercial tone, where the process of ruralization of the population accelerated, and the currency lost its use.

Beyond the stories of the Latin chronicles, the problems of the 3rd century were due to the crisis of political authority, but should not be seen as a global crisis.

The reforms of Emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305)

Towards the end of the Third Century, an important figure appears: Diocletian, proclaimed emperor by the army in Nicomedia (East). Under the government of Emperor Diocletian, a series of far-reaching reforms were undertaken that sought to bring order to the organization of this immense and decadent territory, to confront the serious problems it was suffering.

Bust of the statue of Emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) in the Istanbul Museum. Photo: G. Dall'Orto (Wikimedia.org)

Diocletian's reforms affected areas of civil and military administration. The imperial court reformed the ceremonial organization.

As for administrative reforms, the creation of the Tetrarchy stands out, which divided the government of the Empire in two:

Map showing the distribution of the Roman Empire among the four tetrarchs
Map showing the distribution of the Roman Empire among the four tetrarchs.
Source : Wikipedia.org

At the head of each territory was an Augustus (in the East was Diocletian, while in the West was Maximian).

The tetrarchy Treasure of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice
Tetrarchy. Treasure of the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice. Fountain: Wikimedia Commons

He also created the figure of two Caesars, which were below the two Augustuses. Caesar was a position associated with the Emperor and the person appointed to succeed each of the Augusts.

Below the Caesars were the Prefects, in front of the Prefectures. The Prefecture of Gaul included Gaul, Great Britain and Hispania. Within the Prefectures were the Dioceses. Finally, within the Dioceses were the Provinces. In Hispania there were: Beatica, Tarraconensis, Carthaginensis, Gallaecia and Mauretania Tingitana.

Tax collection: main activity of the empire

The purpose of these reforms was to organize the collection of taxes in a regular basis, as to guarantee the supply of food in the cities. The State must ensure that basic materials reach the cities, the place where civil servants and all those who work for the State live, since the city is the incarnation of the State.

The moment the State does not guarantee this supply to the cities, the State crumbles. The aim of the reforms was to guarantee the massive circulation of these foodstuffs. Prefects had fiscal and judicial responsibility and had to guarantee the circulation of materials to the cities. The State was very mobile. It moved from one place to another through its officials.

Without the physical presence of tax collectors or officials, there was no imperial authority. They were responsible for overseeing and enforcing all fiscal rules so that incidents did not occur.

The imperial army was organized into:

The court ceremonial in the Roman Empire

Rome Decadence

An omnipresent feature in ancient states was the tendency to make ceremonies more sophisticated when the state was well established. The Roman ceremonial showed the figure of the head of state as a notable presence. Before the emperor, prostatio had to be done (people had to put themselves on the ground). This ritual was part of an assignment of divine qualities.

All these rituals by the administration wanted to ensure that the flow of materials not produced by the State circulated throughout the territory normally. How did the State ensure that there were enough products for everyone? With regularity (a fundamental question), calculations (I needed some specialists) and a census (to know who you are asking for the products). This required a very complex organization and a constant updating of the data. Tax collection could not be improvised.

But the tax system produced a great deal of organizational wear and tear. The two great invisible enemies of the Empire were time and distance. During the Tetrarchy, they tried to find solutions to these problems.

How was the backbone of the Empire organized?

There was an operation within the Empire that had to be repeated daily, and the State had to oversee that it was done effectively and continuously over time. It was the taxes.

In October of the year 301, Diocletian published the Edict called: “Edict on maximum prices,” in Latin “Edictum De Pretiis Rerum Venalium.” This document was a list of products of state interest. Next to the list we find the establishment of legal measures for all matters. This means that all subjects had an equivalence in units expressed in the form of money.

This was done because until then the measures were not universally recognized equally. The Empire could not deal with variable measures. Ways had to be found to find normalized standards. And so the edict of Diocletian was made. The other fundamental step was to set prices, which was a simple technical matter. The fact of fixing a price was done as to be able to add products in the same currency.

Prices and measurements

Example of a maximum price for a basic need product, the wheat:

The measures and coins were equivalent because a single language had to be used to manage the products. This was the backbone of the Empire.

As a tax on the manufacture of currency, the medieval states incorporated a tax on the cost of currency. A coin was never 100% silver, but only a part of it. Depending on the needs of the state, the proportion of silver increased or decreased. The coin has two values: the intrinsic value (the real value of the piece) and the nominal value (the value we give to the coin). This relationship is always arbitrary.

The great key to medieval political power was that the peasants paid taxes: to obtain the currency, they had to sell their products on the market.

Therefore, the money that the State paid to the civil servants in currency, served to make these civil servants able to pay the products of the farmers and therefore, when the peasants had to pay taxes to the State, the State received again the money that it had given to the civil servants.

The peasant had to go through a whole technical process before obtaining the grain. And once the grain was obtained, they had to store part of it for commercial exchanges. Another part was destined for their consumption. And a last part, the seed, was saved for the next harvest.

The mobility of political authority

Emperor Maximian organized an expedition, between 296 and 298, that involved his transfer from Rome through the Iberian Peninsula to the northern part of North Africa. This massive transfer of the court took place with the purpose of moving to an area where the imperial presence was almost non-existent. The Empire went there to bring some order.

Immediately after re-establishing order in the area, a new Roman circumscription was created, Mauretania Tingitana, attached to the diocese of Hispania. How was the Roman victory reflected in the territory?

A century before this victory, we have news of how the presence of Rome was organized in some sectors of North Africa. In Anatolia also, the Romans had problems of order. It is said that in some places the representatives of the Empire and the “principes” of some “gentes” met to affirm the authority of the State. These meetings were called “colloquium.”

Agreements with foreign peoples

In these colloquiums, there were exchanges of gifts, which served to sanction the achievement of an agreement. This agreement was called pax. In these meetings they talked about taxes: on what they had to pay, the quantities, the products they had to deliver… and on the contribution they had to make to the military organization of the Empire, and under what conditions the peoples were subject to the Romans.

The conditions of these pacts may vary. They were subject to continuous changes and the possibility of being broken. Different “statutes” were created for each area. In areas far from the Empire, the presence of the Romans was fluctuating. The map of the Roman Empire was a changing map, variable from year to year. The State, to make enforce these agreements, had to be physically present. Why was it forced to move its people?

It was easier to render accounts in flat spaces and to control the population in open spaces than in spaces that were difficult to access. How was the presence of the State organized in the central areas of the Empire? From the documentation issued by the Eastern Empire, we can find out how the Empire was organized at the end of the 4th century. They were imperial laws. In these laws it is said which are the problems that the Empire finds to organize the territory and how they were tried to solve. But in the medium term, these solutions became a big problem.

Chronology of the main imperial laws

AD 325

This law prohibited a practice known as “superexactione:” prohibiting anyone from illegally adding amounts of money to the legal charge. An attempt was made to prevent part of the income from not being controlled in the accounts. It prohibits fraudulent practices.

AD 332

This law reveals the beginning of the central problem of the functioning of the Empire. It recognizes who is the taxpayer and from whom taxes are claimed. This is called “colonus” (peasants). What is new is that the colon had to be fixed in a territory, the “origo.” Farmers could not move from their place of origin. The State's concern about where the colon was born is called “conditio nascendi.” The State began to have problems so that fiscal objects did not disappear. With this law he tried to keep the farmers forever in a fixed place.

AD 357

The law of 332 did not achieve its objectives. Another law was passed in 357: the obligation that any land transaction must include working settlers. With this law, they wanted to make the colon immovable. Until the second half of the 4th century, the colon could not be bought or sold.

AD 371

A new law introduced substantial changes. It allowed beginning to characterize what were the characteristics of the late ancient society. A legal equation of peasants and slaves “rustici censitique servus” was made.

There was no different legal treatment between peasants who could not be sold and those who could be sold. The state considered them all equal and decided that its fiscal interlocutors were not the colon. The colonus did not have to pay taxes. It considered that everyone should serve the land. Land had the right to be served.

The State decided to look for other people to pay taxes, the patronus, members of families related to the high hierarchies of the State, who were often large landowners.

The patronus had wide agrarian spaces scattered throughout the Empire. These possessions were being worked by farmers. The State already considered them attributed to the land. Now it made patronus taxable. And they had to do two things: pay taxes and collect taxes from their farmers.

What the State did, was to simplify procedures. It delegated the work of collecting taxes to the patronus.