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)