3rd Century Crisis Essay
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Was there a crisis in the third century and did Diocletian solve it?
The mid-third century was by any standard a turbulent period in Roman history. From the murder of Alexander Severus in 235 to the accession of Diocletian in 284, turnover of emperors was rapid, the empire was in an almost constant state of warfare and an economic regression apparently took place. All of this has contributed to a perception of the period as an 'age of anarchy'. These problems were not, however, necessarily tantamount to a 'crisis'. The problem with the word is that it implies that the period can be thought of as a definable and distinct phase, and thus that the situation in the midthird century was markedly different from what had come before - that is, that the problems were not only exceptional but came about suddenly - and also that the situation changed radically and rapidly when the period supposedly came to an end with the accession of Diocletian - in other words, that he somehow 'solved' it. Hindsight, problematic sources and perhaps also the latent desire of historians to come up with punchy chapter headings, may, in short, have conspired to exaggerate the importance and difference of this half-century. So, we now need to grapple with two highly intertwined questions: firstly, how severe was the crisis in absolute terms: was the empire really brought to its knees by political, military and economic disaster?
Secondly, how much continuity can we detect with the preceding and following periods: did 235 mark the point at which a dramatic breakdown of control took place, to be rectified by Diocletian's reforms fifty years later, or is the period as a whole better seen as one in which the empire underwent a gradual evolution from one system of government to another? Since it is plain that the fortunes of the empire did improve under Diocletian and the tetrarchs, a conclusion that the third century 'crisis' was severe will allow us to credit Diocletian with solving it, whereas the opposite conclusion will force a re-evaluation of his reforms. Conversely, if we conclude that those reforms were not all that drastic or effective, this will support the conclusion that the 'crisis' they supposedly put paid to cannot have been quite as dismal a period for the empire as some historians have claimed. Our sources present us with a considerable problem. There is a striking lack of surviving literary, documentary and archaeological evidence for the period of 'crisis'. Historiography has therefore been reliant on later material that is at best unreliable and at worst misleading: fourth-century histories are brief and bare, while the only continuous account of the period, the Historia Augusta, has been roundly criticised by modern historians for its fanciful and trivializing take on the reigns of the emperors in the later part of the period, for which it is the only narrative source. Indeed, the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus noted the taste for frivolous and fictitious biographies with disdain. While we are better served from the reign of Diocletian onwards, the sources of the late third and early fourth century present their own problems: broadly, this is that writers of this age tended to write with an ideological agenda, either Christian or pagan. For the reign of Diocletian we are thus reliant to an extent on the history of Lactantius, the title of which - On the deaths of the persecutors - speaks volumes in itself. Written as an attack on the pagan predecessors of Constantine, Lactantius' work portrays Diocletian as a tyrannical oppressor of the Christian faith, and as such is a highly unreliable witness to his secular policies. Constantine's reign, meanwhile, is skewed in the opposite direction by our reliance on pro-Christian sources: Eusebius portrays the emperor as a perfect Christian ruler in his Life. Cameron makes the point that the contrast between the secular policies of
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