Crisis of the Third Century

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The Crisis of the Third Century (also "Military Anarchy" or "Imperial Crisis") (235–284 AD) was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression. The Crisis began with the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus at the hands of his own troops, initiating a fifty-year period in which 20–25 claimants to the title of Emperor, mostly prominent Roman Army generals, assumed imperial power over all or part of the Empire. By 258–260, the Empire split into three competing states, with the Gallic Empire including the Roman provinces of Gaul, Britannia and Hispania; and the Palmyrene Empire, including the eastern provinces of Syria Palaestina and Aegyptus; becoming independent from the Italian-centered Roman Empire proper between them. The Crisis ended with the ascension and reforms of Diocletian.

The Crisis resulted in such profound changes in the Empire's institutions, society, economic life, and eventually, religion, that it is increasingly seen by most historians as the transition period between the historical periods of Classical antiquity and late antiquity.[citation needed]



The situation of the Roman Empire became dire in 235 A.D., when the emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by his own troops. Roman legions had been defeated during a campaign against Germanic peoples raiding across the borders, while the emperor was focused primarily on the dangers from the Sassanid Persian Empire. Leading his troops personally, Alexander Severus resorted to diplomacy and paying tribute in an attempt to pacify the Germanic chieftains quickly. This may have cost him the respect of his troops, who may have felt that they should be punishing the tribes who were intruding on Rome's territory.[citation needed]

In the years following the emperor's death, generals of the Roman army fought each other for control of the Empire and neglected their duties in preventing invasions from foreigners. Provincials became victims of frequent raids by foreign tribes, such as the Carpians, Goths, Vandals, and Alamanni along the Rhine and Danube Rivers in the western part of the Empire, as well as attacks from Sassanids in the eastern part of the Empire. Additionally, in 251, the Plague of Cyprian (possibly smallpox), broke out, causing large-scale mortality which may have seriously affected the ability of the Empire to defend itself.

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