Stuff from Way Back #33: Roma, We Have a Problem

(This essay on the Anarchy follows Stuff from Way Back #32b: When Is a Republic Not a Republic?  These pieces have become much longer than I intended, and after the last in the series I will endeavor to leave these long lectures behind, not an easy task for me.)


The Anarchy, from 235 to 285, is the great watershed of the Roman Empire.  It separates the Principate from the Dominate, from an autocracy in which the Emperor was in theory a partner of the Senate and exercising the authority of the people to one in which the Emperor was a blatant oriental despot.  It separates a stable and reasonably prosperous Empire from one which had only moments of stability under a strong man and a rapidly declining economy of strangulating taxation.  It sees the replacement of the disciplined and loyal heavy infantry, whose weapons and tactics dated back to the fourth century BC, with a poorly trained rabble of light infantry and a revival of cavalry.  It ushered in a new Christian Roman Empire.

The aptly named Anarchy was essentially a fifty year long civil war, so chaotic that there is not complete agreement on who might be considered actual emperors.  I believe twenty-seven men (three in the separatist Gallo-Roman Empire) held the imperial purple long enough to be considered legitimate rulers, and of those thirteen were elevated by their own soldiers.  Two of them committed suicide, one was captured by the Persians, one died of plague, four were killed in battle and seventeen were assassinated, mostly by their soldiers or officers; only two died a natural death.  Barbarian incursions into the heart of the Empire would become commonplace, and at one point it would actually break into three separate states.  The astounding thing is that the Empire did not collapse completely.

C. Julius Verus Maximinus Thrax, who had become Emperor with the assassination of the last Severan in 235, spent two years dong useful work on the Rhine and Danube, quelling revolts and carrying on a war against the Senatorial class. In 238 M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus, proconsul in Africa, and his like-named son were accepted by the Senate as Emperors, but without serious military support they lasted only twenty-two days.  The Senate then chose two of its members, D. Caelius Calvinus Balbinus and M. Clodius Pupienus Maximus, as co-rulers.  Maximinus had already come south to deal with the Gordians, but while unsuccessfully besieging Aquileia he was murdered by his disgruntled troops.  Shortly thereafter the Praetorians, unhappy with the Senatorial candidates, killed Balbinus and Pupienus and proclaimed M. Antonius Gordianus, grandson of the first Gordian, Emperor.

Gordian III

Gordian III

Gordian III managed to keep the job for six years, engaged in continuous warfare in the north, followed in 243 with a war against the Persians, who had begun overrunning Roman territory during the reign of Maximinus.  The campaign was successful, but Gordian’s Praetorian Prefect, who had been the real ruler of the Empire since his appointment in 241, died during the winter, and in early 244 his replacement, M. Julius Philippus Arabus, incited the troops to murder Gordian and name him Emperor.  Philip, who named his son of the same name co-Emperor in 248, was actually a responsible ruler, restoring relations with the Senate and attempting to bring stability to the Empire.  But the job required someone of Herculean energy and talent to deal with the continuous barbarian pressures in the north, the sinking economy and the ever rebellious troops, who elevated at least three pretenders during Philip’s administration.

In 248 C. Messius Quintus Decius Traianus was able to restore order among the mutinous troops on the Danube and expel the barbarian invaders, but the soldiers decided to invest Decius with the purple despite his apparently sincere protests.  Decius attempted to remain loyal to Philip, but the latter did not trust him, and in 249 both Philip’s fell in battle and Decius became Emperor.  He lasted all of two years, betrayed in battle against the Goths in 251 by his lieutenant C. Vibius Trebonianus Gallus, who became Emperor along with his son C. Vibius Afinius Gallus Veldumnianus Volusianus.  They also lasted two years, defeated in battle in 253 by M. Aemilius Aemilianus, who was chosen by his troops after a victory against the now ever present Goths.  Three months later Aemilius was murdered by his own soldiers at the approach of P. Licinius Valerianus, who had been summoned by Gallus and proclaimed Emperor by his troops upon Gallus’ death.  In eighteen years Rome had enjoyed no less than a dozen rulers.

Valerian and King Shapur

Valerian and King Shapur





Valerian made his son P. Licinius Egantius Gallienus co-Emperor, and they immediately got about the job of restoring the frontiers.  Gallienus went to Gaul where the Franks had broken through and raided through Spain to Mauretania, and he defeated a group of Alamanni in northern Italy in 258.  He then moved to the Danube to crush a couple of usurpers, and returned to Gaul, where in 259 M. Cassianus Latinius Postumus had won the support of the legions in Germany, Spain and Britain.  Meanwhile, Valerian battled sundry barbarians around the Black Sea and Asia Minor, and with his army weakened by disease he attempted negotiations with the Persian king, Sapor, who had been pressing Syria.  The treacherous Sapor captured him, and a Roman emperor died in Persian captivity in 260.

Now it gets complicated.  Gallienus was busy in the west fighting Postumus, Sapor was again threatening Syria and one of Valerian’s generals named his two sons emperors of the east.  One was killed in battle by Gallienus’ troops and the other was executed; a third pretender was killed by his troops in 261.  Tied up in the west, Gallienus relied on the self-proclaimed king of the wealthy caravan city of Palmyra, Septimius Odenath, who in 262 defeated the Persians, only to be assassinated in 266/7.  His wife, Zenobia, took power, and with Gallienus too weak to oppose her she became ruler of all the eastern territories except Egypt and Asia Minor.





Meanwhile, in the west Postumus had solidified his position, but in 268 he was killed by his troops and M. Piavonius Victorinus became the ruler of Britain, Gaul and Spain.  Gallienus could do nothing about this and instead spent his time fighting off waves of Goths invading the Empire until the revolt of one of his generals called him back to Italy.  There in 268 he fell to a conspiracy of Illyrian officers, who resented his Hadrian-like Hellenizing and wanted an Emperor from Illyria, which had become the premier recruiting ground of the Empire and would produce numerous soldier-Emperors.

The Roman Empire had entered its most serious crisis.  It was exhausted, constantly overrun by barbarians and now divided into three parts.  But a string of three short-lived but capable Illyrian Emperors was able to put the imperial Humpty Dumpty back together again.  The conspirators chose M. Aurelius Claudius, who had risen from the ranks, and he promptly crushed an army of Alammani that had invaded Italy.  The Gallo-Roman Empire was meanwhile disintegrating, and Victorinus was killed in 270 and succeeded by C. Pius Esuvius Tetricus, who now controlled Britain and most of Gaul.  Claudius ignored him to deal with an invasion of the Aegean by some 300,000 Goths, whom he utterly crushed, earning the cognomen Gothicus, but while on his way back west to counter an incursion of Juthungi and Vandals in 270, he died of plague.  The Senate elevated Claudius’ brother, M. Aurelius Claudius Quintillus, but the troops chose his senior commander, L. Domitius Aurelianus, who had just finished off the Gothic War, and Quintillus committed suicide.

Aurelian was immediately confronted with an invasion of Vandals, which was quickly dealt with, but a coalition of Juthungi, Alammani and Marcomanni penetrated into Italy.  Fortunately for Rome, they split up to plunder and were defeated piecemeal by Aurelian, who also cleaned up a major disturbance in Rome itself.  With the Danube frontier now so porous he decided it was time to replace the old Servian wall, which had been built to protect Rome almost a half millennium earlier.  The Aurelian wall is still standing in Rome today.

Claudius Gothicus

Claudius Gothicus

Aurelian Wall

Aurelian Wall



It was also time to deal with Zenobia, who had added Egypt and eastern Asia Minor to her domains.  By 273 Palmyra was destroyed, Zenobia captured and the eastern provinces restored to Rome, and Aurelian then easily ended the Gallo-Roman Empire, where Tetricus had lost support because of the constant ravaging of Germans across the Rhine.  He spent most of 274 in Rome, reforming the currency and establishing the worship of Sol Invictus (the “unconquered sun”) as a new imperial cult, and decided to abandon Goth-decimated Dacia, which would otherwise have had to be reconquered.  In 275 he was on his way to the east to recover Mesopotamia, when as a result of an incredibly senseless and silly plot by a disgruntled secretary, he was murdered.

Aurelian was perhaps the greatest of the Anarchy Emperors, the Restitutor Orbis (Restorer of the World), and had he not been assassinated, he might well have anticipated Diocletian in returning the Empire to a measure of stability.  Instead, the Anarchy would go on for another decade.

The Aurelian troops in Rome were reluctant to name a successor lest they be associated with the conspirators, and with trouble looming on the Danube frontier the Senate named the seventy-five year old M. Claudius Tacitus, who was murdered in 276.  His half-brother, M. Annius Florianus, promptly named himself Emperor, but several weeks later he was killed by his troops when confronting the army of one of Aurelian’s officers, M. Aurelius Probus, another Illyrian.  Probus immediately attended to an invasion of Gaul by the Franks, Burgundians and others, and then in 278 repelled a Vandal descent into Illyria.  He spent the next two years dealing with disturbances in the east, suppressed a rebellious general on the Rhine and returned to Rome in 281.  In 282 he set out north to mobilize legions for an invasion of Persia, but when news arrived that M. Aurelius Carus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops, Probus’ own men, unhappy with the hard work and discipline, murdered him.  Another excellent ruler had been struck down.



Carus made his sons, M. Aurelius Carinus and M. Aurelius Numerianus his co-rulers, and leaving Carinus to look after the west, he continued with Probus’ plans and easily occupied Mesopotamia.  There in 283 he was killed, probably by unknown conspirators, and the unwarlike Numerianus decided to return to Europe.  He was murdered on the way by his father-in-law, but the enraged troops, who did not trust Carinus, elevated another Illyrian soldier of humble birth, and in November 284 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus became Emperor.  In the following year he met Carinus, who had come east with an army, and might well have lost the battle had Carinus not been assassinated by a tribune whose wife he had seduced.  Diocletian was now sole Emperor, and the Anarchy had come to an end.



But so had the Principate.  The loyal, disciplined army, the relatively quiet frontiers and the prosperity of the first two centuries of the Empire were forever gone, and while Diocletian would restore a measure of stability, it would be a stability of repression, a political sine wave in which each effective soldier-Emperor was followed by a period of civil war that would produce the next.

The nature of the Roman military was profoundly affected by the Anarchy.   The weaponry, tactics and levels of discipline and training that had remained virtually constant since the adoption of the short sword and manipular legion in the fourth century BC were all swept away.  By the end of the Anarchy the “legions” were for the most part light infantry formations, short on body armor and equipped with spears, missile weapons and the spatha or long sword.  They no longer had the expertise and discipline to practice the combat engineering and complex formations and tactics that characterized the traditional army.

Further, the unending scramble for troops, which led to the breakdown in training and discipline by the pandering of ambitious generals and desperate Emperors, also resulted in a change in recruiting patterns.  The Principate had found its new soldiers primarily in the legionary camps and urban areas, where romanitas (Roman culture) was strongest, producing legionaries who already had some feeling of loyalty to the Empire.  During the Anarchy recruiting moved to the far less Romanized rural areas, producing a peasant army whose loyalty was to their commander, if even that.  This was aggravated by the spreading policy of employing barbarians as allies and settling entire tribes in depopulated frontier areas.  The Empire was becoming barbarized.

The infantry also began rapidly surrendering center stage to new cavalry units, as the conditions of the Anarchy forced Rome to remedy her traditional weakness in horse.  The excellent cavalry of the new Persian Empire played a role in this development, but far more important was the need for a strong mobile force that could be rushed to deal with competitors and invasions.  Gallienus created the first major cavalry corps, and by the time of Diocletian these cavalry units were the only truly trained and skilled formations in the Roman military.  A measure of their importance can be seen in the large number of cavalry commanders who became Emperor during the Anarchy and Dominate.

The grand strategy of the Empire had also changed.  The Principate’s policy of forward defense could not survive the new burdens placed upon the military in the middle of the third century: the internal struggles, the aggressive Persian Empire and the Germans, who were finally learning how to form larger and more threatening coalitions.  Rome had little choice but to adopt an elastic defense, in which static, poor quality frontier units dealt with minor threats, but major invading forces were met well inside the Empire by the more mobile central and regional reserves.  Damage to the provincial populations and infrastructure was thus traded for the time needed to concentrate the forces that would guarantee ultimate Roman victory.

The Senatorial class, which had originally governed the empire as an unequal partner of the Emperor, was already being excluded from military command under the Severans, and Gallienus’ reforms, which freed the legions from the control of the provincial governors, completed the exclusion of the onetime ruling class from the now all-important military and thus the stewardship of the empire.  Its place was taken by a new elite, which emerged from the ranks of the army to govern the Roman world with a talent, flexibility and boldness the old ruling families seemed no longer to have.  Mostly of humble origins and untutored, the new military aristocracy enthusiastically embraced classical learning as a sign of having arrived and consequently contributed to the historically critical revival of classical culture in the late third and fourth centuries.

Of course, the inhabitants of the Empire had little idea of the great changes taking place or that they were in fact enjoying a specific period called the Anarchy.  What they did understand was that life in the Roman Empire stank, and when Philip celebrated the thousand year anniversary of Rome in 247, many might have thought: Who the hell cares?




235–285 Anarchy

                        235-238 C. Julius Verus Maximinus Thrax

                                     237-243 Persian war

238         M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronius I

                                       M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronius II                        

                                       D. Caelius Calvinus Balbinus

                                       M. Clodius Pupienus Maximus 

                        238-244 M. Antonius Gordianus III 

                        244-249 M. Julius Philippus Arabus 

                        248-249 M. Julius Philippus 

                        249-251 C. Messius Quintus Decius Traianus

251-253 C. Vibius Trebonius Gallus

                                       C. Vibius Afinius Gallus Veldumnianus Volusianus

250s Invasions of Goths, Samartae, etc. in east; Marcommani, Alammani, Franks in west

253        M. Aemilius Aemilianus 

                        253-260 P. Licinius Valerianus  

253-268 P. Licinius Gallienus 

                                    257-262 Persian war 

259-268 M. Cassianius Latinius Postumus (Gallo-Roman Empire)

259-273 Gallo-Roman Empire

267-273 Kingdom of Palmyra (267-272 Zenobia) 

                         268-270 M. Aurelius Claudius Gothicus

                                         M. Piavonius Victorinus (Gallo-Roman Empire)

268-269 Gothic war 

270        M. Aurelius Claudius Quintillus     

270-273 C. Pius Esuvius Tetricus (Gallo-Roman Empire) 

270-275 L. Domitius Aurelianus 

                                     274 Dacia abandoned 

275-276 M. Claudius Tacitus 

276         M. Annius Florianus 

276-282 M. Aurelius Probus 

276-277 Invasions into Gaul 

282-283 M. Aurelius Carus 

283-284 M. Aurelius Numerianus 

283-285 M. Aurelius Carinus 

284-305 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (retired)


Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying

(Three weeks ago I posted a piece on Albert Göring, who was being considered for inclusion in the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations for his work in rescuing Jews. Apparently he did not make it, presumably because of a rumor of a Jewish father, which would make him ineligible, and Israel avoids the embarrassment of having Reichsmarschall Göring’s brother among the honored.)

The Roman persecution of Christians is a well-known episode in the history of the religion, but inasmuch as these events occurred almost two millennia ago, there is no longer a Roman Empire and the Church was the winner, one might expect that some distortion has crept into the popular narrative. And it has, primarily because few people have any real knowledge of the Empire beyond what Christianity and Hollywood have suggested and even fewer understand the nature of traditional Roman religion. As a result a key fact has been lost: so long as you observed Roman tradition the state did not give a damn what gods you worshipped (at least until the state became Christian).

At first of course Rome did not even notice the new cult. Those with any knowledge of Judaea assumed it was yet another Jewish heresy, doomed to disappear, as in fact the sect of Christian Jews did. As the adherents of the new faith spread and multiplied, it was popular dislike that first caught the attention of the authorities. Like the Jews, Christians were monotheists, compelled by their beliefs to deny the existence of other gods, and they were doing this in a society that was completely polytheist. Polytheist societies are generally tolerant when it comes to religion, even in states with a religious establishment supporting a divinely connected kingship, as in the Sumerian city-states and Egypt. Inasmuch as deities were typically personifications of natural phenomenon, it was easy to identify gods across cultural lines, and in any case no one (excepting perhaps Akhenaten) was about to deny the existence of other gods and certainly not resort to violence in order to teach others a lesson.

Into this world come the Christians, telling their neighbors that the gods of their fathers do not exist and that they are wasting their time worshipping idols. Of course the Jews had been doing this for quite a while, but apart from small communities in some of the cities of the Empire, they were essentially a phenomenon localized in Judaea, and in any case they did not proselytize. Early Christians were in fact confused with Jews, but as their numbers grew, people realized this was something new – and very annoying. And if modern evangelicals are any indication, these early Christians likely often displayed a holier-than-thou attitude; they had the good news after all.

There was also a feeling that for all their professed love these people actually hated mankind. The first generation or so of Christians believed that the Christ would be returning soon, perhaps in their lifetimes, and there was consequently talk of what would happen then. And if Revelations is the guide, it would be unmitigated horror, suffering and death for non-believers, which was of course virtually all of humanity. There were also rumors of strange and disgusting rites, such as incest and cannibalism, the sort of things that are said of the despised and alien throughout history. Natural disasters and unexplained misfortunes were blamed on them. The Christians were strangers in a strange land and initially played the same role of the “other” that the Jews would play in medieval and modern Europe.

Capping it all off was the growing suspicion that they were disloyal as well as obnoxious. The traditional religion of Greece and Rome was primarily civic in nature, concerned with the cohesion and well-being of the community, and as such, it was closely connected to the idea of the state. The sacrifices and rituals were communal, designed to keep the community in the right relationship with heaven, and in the case of Rome this led to the emergence of priesthoods, such as the Pontifex Maximus, that were actually state offices. The holders of these positions were not “priests” in the familiar sense of the word, that is, representatives of a centralized church, as the priests of the temple of Amon-Re or the Catholic Church. Their job was not to intercede for or counsel the individual, but to conduct the rituals necessary for the survival and prosperity of the community.

As a result, honoring Jupiter Best and Greatest and his colleagues was more of a social act than a religious one, declaring ones good standing as a member of the community. If the worshipper had other more personal concerns regarding heaven, he would turn to gods more pertinent to his situation, especially traditional local deities among the provincials. As with most things, Rome had always had a laissez faire attitude regarding non-Roman religions, so long as there was no threat to public order and morals, such as led the Senate to ban certain Bacchanalian rites in 186 BC. She was even ready to tolerate an extremely intolerant religion, Judaism, because it was essentially local and no threat to the state. Nevertheless, denying the existence of the Olympic gods was in fact directly assaulting one of the foundations of the state and endangering the well-being of the society.

Even so, Christianity might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that they quickly became almost universally unpopular, even hated, and their vociferous rejection of the Roman gods struck people as disloyal. Constantly claiming that their god was their only true “king” and master also did not sit well in an autocratic society, and the ideas of their founder/prophet regarding the poor and the rich were absolutely revolutionary in a world always dominated by the propertied classes. So, there was in fact public disorder in the form of anti-Christian riots, which the authorities were compelled to deal with. All the evidence indicates that the Roman government was completely aware of the essentially innocent nature of the new religion, but Roman officials were hardly likely to defend an unpopular minority in the face of overwhelming public displeasure.

Apart from their refusal to pay even lip service to the imperial cults, there was actually a legal problem for the new church. Since the time of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first emperor, new clubs and associations were prohibited unless they were specifically granted imperial approval. The reason was clear: private associations could easily harbor conspiracies against the state (as they did during the collapse of the Republic), and autocrats tend to be very sensitive about this issue. And here was a new and offensive cult spreading throughout the cities of the Empire.
As it happened, the Empire was mellow about the whole issue, and generally confronted the issue only when it could not be avoided because of public clamor. This was certainly the case under Trajan (98-117), who when asked what to do with Christians by his governor in Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, instructed him not to search them out but only act when it was unavoidable. The typical procedure was to require the Christian to make a token sacrifice, a pinch of incense, to an imperial cult, generally that of Roma et Augustus. For the authorities this was far more a pledge of allegiance than a religious act; perform this one act and you would get your “ticket,” your libellus, and could go home and worship whatever gods you pleased. Of course, for a Christian this was apostasy, and though many took the plunge, many did not, which baffled the Romans, who could not fathom such religious fanaticism.

Decius: "Smoke 'em"

Decius: “Smoke ’em”

The result of all this was that violence against Christians was for two centuries limited to popular outbursts, such as blaming Christians for the fire in 64 (encouraged by Nero), and the odd official currying favor with the locals. Not until the third century was there an actual persecution in the sense of the central government taking Empire-wide action against the religion, and this would come during the Anarchy (235-285), a fifty year long civil war that essentially killed the Empire, even though it would stagger on for another century or so. During his short reign Decius (249-251) required that all Christians be put to the test and imprisoned if they refused, and this was repeated, with more severe penalties, by Valerian (253-60) in 257-258. Both of these men were ruling during a period of widespread instability coupled with serious barbarian invasions and internal military revolts and were desperately attempting to restore loyalty to the state. An obvious target was the Christian community, which was now highly organized and blatant in its rejection of the state religion, which now included deified emperors.

Diocletian (285-305) ended the Anarchy, but the Empire would never again come close to the stability and economic well-being it enjoyed before 235, and the history of the Late Empire was one of military autocracy alternating with periods of civil war. In 304 Diocletian launched the last anti-Christian crusade, destroying churches and sacred books and imprisoning priests, but it ended with his abdication the following year and seems to have petered out because of lack of popular support. His ultimate successor, Constantine the Great (305-337), legalized Christianity with the Edicts of Toleration (311-313), and with his conversion it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Valerian: "Crush 'em"

Valerian: “Crush ’em”

And then the real persecutions begin, as the government implements a continuous policy of crushing polytheism and eliminating the pagani (“rural folk”), so called because the old cults hung on the longest in the rural areas. Unlike those carried out against the Christians this persecution was moved by nothing other than simple religious intolerance.

Diocletian: "Eat 'em"

Diocletian: “Eat ’em”

In the end Christians themselves would slaughter tens of thousands more Christians than the Roman Empire ever did.

Paris 1572 - Christians killing Christians

Paris 1572 – Christians killing Christians