Ep. 25 The Ancient Superpower and its Decline
As you will recall from our last episode, Gallia largely passes out of history after the rise of Vespasian until the Crisis of the Third Century. There are occasional references to it in the Roman histories and a few stories from church histories, but our knowledge of Gallia over this two century period is extremely limited. There are few records and many historical buildings were destroyed, something which I covered in the last episode. Also, relatively little construction occurred after the late 2nd century, which is something I will talk about in this episode.
In today’s episode I am going to talk about broad changes in the Roman Empire from the years 69, when Vespasian came to power and the Flavian dynasty replaced the Julio-Claudian dynasty, to 235, the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century. These changes will bridge the gap between these two centuries and help explain why Gallia and the empire developed as they did. There are some references to Gallia along the way and I will give specific updates whenever possible. However, even when there isn’t an official record, historians of the Roman Empire have been able to fill in some gaps and make some educated speculations on Gallia’s development. So the Lost Centuries isn’t so much a black night, as it is a fog, through which we can see shapes in the distance and try to guess what they are. I’m going to skip over a lot of Roman history, while focusing on those changes that affect Gallia; if you want to know more about what happened in Rome, I suggest listening to Mike Duncan’s classic “The History of Rome” since we are going to be blazing through quite a bit of history. With that said, let’s begin.
The death of Emperor Nero, the Year of the Four Emperors and the triumph of Vespasian was a pivotal change in the Roman Empire. For just under a century, Rome was ruled by the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The members of this dynasty claimed they were divine and sponsored an imperial cult. This union of religion and politics meant that the Caesars were the foundation and ultimate authority of the Roman state. While Vespasian clearly won the throne through military might, ideologically, he needed to cement his legitimacy. This is incredibly important because as we shall see, Rome will have numerous dynasties and claimants to power, and each had to prove their right to rule.
Vespasian created the lex de imperior Vespasiani, or law of emperor Vespasian which codified the principate and officially gave the Emperor unlimited power over Roman cultural, political and religious life. Furthermore, Vespasian officially took on the title Emperor, or in Latin ‘Imperator,’ which is why some scholars refer to this as the beginning of the empire, and the reigns of Augustus to Nero as the Principate. Importantly, the Roman Senate had to verify this, which showed that emperors still depended on the Senate to legitimize their reign.
Furthermore, Vespasian implemented a new mode of control over Roman civic life when he removed many freedmen from the higher political ranks and replaced them with senators and equites. Vespasian wanted to get rid of Nero’s cronyism, in which any person who pleased him would gain political power. Instead, Vespasian wanted to create a semi-meritocratic system in which those in the lower classes had to prove their worth, at which point he could raise them up to the next class. The result of this was that the Roman Empire became a much more organized and codified organization. Gone were the semi-formal precedents that the Julio-Claudians relied on. Instead, the Flavian dynasty would rule through the law…backed up by swords of course.
Vespasian was an incredibly important emperor because he increased the development of a Roman system. This system was an economic, political, spatial and legal connection between individuals, groups and across the empire. This system is one of the reasons why Rome developed into the superpower of the classical period. Yet, this system worked so well under the Flavians and the Five Good Emperors that when the system faced incredible new challenges, future emperors refused to change with the times. Rome’s inability to change its structure helped bring about the Crisis of the Third Century, which nearly destroyed the empire.
One final note before I talk about this system: I’m not giving Vespasian credit for all of this; most of these trends were occurring long before he came into power. But while the Roman economic, legal and spatial elements were naturally developing, Rome’s political atmosphere under Caligula and Nero kind of went off the rails. Perhaps Vespasian’s greatest contribution to the Roman Empire was that he allowed it to naturally develop without bankrupting the treasury in a costly war against the ocean or something crazy like that.
The first part of the Roman system we need to talk about is its urbanization. Rome had a fondness for cities. Everywhere they went they tried to create little Romes with the same amenities that their capitol city had. The very word ‘Civilization’ comes the Latin ‘Civ’ meaning ‘city.’ When someone says one is ‘civilized’ it means they are a city-dweller, whereas ‘uncivilized’ means non-city dweller. Romans believed that living in a city gave one wisdom since city-dwellers had access to education, culture and a political sphere that was less developed in the countryside.
When Rome conquered a territory they did so with the city. These cities created spheres of influence that brought in people from the countryside. Any time a harvest went bad, more poor agriculturalists went to the cities where they became laborers or depended on public welfare. Meanwhile successful farmers came to the cities because they could sell their stock at much higher prices and purchase goods from manufacturies, which were often superior to homemade crafts. Cities served as the religious and cultural centers of a region, so that even people in the countryside came to them on a regular basis. Finally, Romans forced conquered nobles to work their administrative functions in cities, which brought them under Roman surveillance while encouraging them to Romanize.
Roman cities did three incredible things: first, they Romanized local populations. Second, they subjected the countryside to the city. Cities’ immense size and wealth meant that the countryside came under their administrative control. Finally, cities generated wealth for the empire at large. We’ve already covered the first point quite a bit in our episodes on the Romanization of Gallia. Today I want us to focus on the last two.
Vespasian raised taxes and restructured the Roman taxation system so that taxes were collected less arbitrarily. Furthermore, he restored communal lands, including in Gallia, while subjecting these lands to taxation. This was only possible because cities had become so powerful that administrators could collect taxes from the countryside. This expansion in the tax system meant that Vespasian was able to make up for Nero’s extravagant spending and left Rome with a stable economy Which, is pretty incredible, because at the same time Vespasian was spending like crazy. Vespasian enacted a series of welfare programs which included care for destitute children. He sponsored massive building projects in cities across the empire. But while this may seem extravagant at a time when Rome was struggling under debt, these projects actually helped the economy. Most of his spending furthered the development of a system which further urbanized the Roman Empire, which meant more people could be easily taxed, which meant more money was raised, creating a prosperity snowball effect. In his ten-year reign, Vespasian undid Nero’s damage to the imperial coffers and even had enough money left over to sponsor Agricola’s invasion of Britannia, which consolidated Roman rule there, and opened up more markets to Roman goods.
Vespasian also standardized the judicial system as part of his project to make laws across the empire uniform. Furthermore, he expanded the bureaucracy while cutting down on corruption. When he died in the year 79 he left behind a well-organized empire that, barring a catastrophe, could run itself…But then catastrophe struck that year when Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii. Then a fire broke out in Rome. Then a plague. Just two years after ascending to power, Titus fell ill and died in 81.
His younger brother Domitian became emperor after him. Domitian continued many of his father’s political ideas, which strengthened the empire at large. Yet, he distrusted the Senate and the elite in general, who he viewed as conspiring against him and openly mocked them while asserting his own divine right to rule without their approval. He put Stoic philosophers to death. He held numerous treason trials and executed supposed political enemies. He named himself censor for life and tried to control the private morality of the Roman people. According to Suetonius, he was a sadist who killed his great nephew, wife and lover. In 96 CE he was assassinated and with him the Flavian dynasty ended.
Domitian was quickly replaced by the aged senator Nerva. 1300 years later, the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli dubbed the emperors Nerva through Marcus Aurelius “The Five Good Emperors.” Four hundred years after that, Edward Gibbon used this moniker in his book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and its stuck ever since. After the madness of the late Julio-Claudians, a civil war, and the heavy-handed Flavians, Rome would be ruled for 84 years by wise, even-tempered, moderately benevolent leaders, and it is during this period that the Roman Empire became the superpower of the classical world.
Nerva only ruled for a little over two years and is largely important for maintaining stability and setting a precedent for subsequent rulers. Nerva claimed immense authority, but he maintained the ceremonial functions of the Senate and worked with the elite class to develop policies, unlike the tyrant Domitian. Furthermore, Nerva named his successor, which put off assassination plots and established a peaceful transition of power.
When Nerva died in 98 CE the military commander Trajan succeeded him. Trajan continued Nerva’s practice of working with the Senate. He increased the size of the state bureaucracy, particularly concerning grain distribution, and he patronized numerous public works. But of course, Trajan is most known for his military conquests. The Roman Empire reached its maximum extent under Trajan, after he conquered Dacia and the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia. For so long, Persia had been Rome’s rival, but under Trajan the Parthian Empire was routed, and it went into a period of intense decline, before collapsing a century later. Trajan pushed the boundaries of Rome until it was a dominant power on three continents that had no serious rivals on any of its borders. Trajan’s successors wisely abandoned his most distant conquests rather than stretch the empire’s resources too thin. But even if Rome wasn’t rapidly expanding, it was smashing its external enemies, which secured its own borders.
In 117 Trajan died and was replaced by Hadrian, whose overriding mission was the consolidation of the empire’s gains by securing its frontiers and through increased internal development. In 138 his successor Antoninus Pius continued Hadrian’s work, and it is under Antoninus that the Roman Empire reached its zenith. During his reign the population of the Roman Empire was somewhere between fifty to seventy million people. Rome’s population was roughly equal to its contemporary Han China. The fact that a Western Empire ever had a comparable population to China, is astounding; Europe has never been as agriculturally productive as the Chinese and Indian river basins and has naturally had smaller populations, yet under Antoninus the Roman Empire was Han China’s equal.
This was possible because Rome had developed a novel system of urban-based development that set them apart from previous empires. Nearly one-quarter of Rome’s population lived in cities, and many of those outside the cities were within its orbit. This allowed Rome to create a feedback loop of prosperity. Those in cities could be taxed, which brought in more revenue for the empire, which meant more local amenities, industry and production, which in turn spurred more taxation and so on and so forth. The Roman Empire was an interconnected world where goods from Europe, Africa and Asia were traded and manufactured across the finest roads on Earth. Aqueducts were built across the empire and were used for the public good. First, their water went to public fountains, then public baths, then public toilets, which increased hygiene and life expectancies. Different kinds of food moved across the empire, expanding the Roman diet, making Romans healthier. Education became increasingly available. During this period even girls could participate in publicly funded classes, learning the basics of reading, writing and grammar.
Another major thing to consider during this period was that for much of its history Rome experienced relative peace. Most people think of the Romans as warlike, and its true Rome fought many wars and conquered a lot. But most of Rome’s troops weren’t engaged in conquest, especially in this period, but in border defense. Even when Trajan went to war with Parthia it was only an incredibly small percentage of the overall Roman population. Whereas other, smaller nations were devastated by wars, Rome’s sheer size meant that most of its people, even the soldiers, experienced peace. Finally, because the Roman state subsidized grain production and distribution this meant that famines were less common, so while other societies frequently faced starvation, Rome was peculiarly well-fed. All this meant that Rome had a relatively healthy, secure population free from external conquest.
Edward Gibbon famously said that, “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” Gibbon was wrong. Before the advent of modern medicine half of all children didn’t live past ten. Ancient Rome, compared to today, was a pretty awful place to live. But compared to nearly any other society in the world at the time, the Romans enjoyed a higher standard of living, hygiene, had longer life expectancies, were better educated and had more access to entertainment.
Nowhere was this system more beneficial than in Rome itself. Around 160 CE Rome had a population of over 1 million people, with some estimates going as high as two million. To put that into perspective, Europe didn’t have a city that reached Rome’s population until 19th century London, roughly 1,700 years later. Rome’s largest chariot racecourse, the Circus Maximus, could seat a quarter of a million people; if it were still operating today it would be the second largest sporting venue in the world behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Under this period Gallia prospered and there were Roman circuses in Arelate, Lugdunum, Mediolanum Santonum (Saintes) and Vienne. Numerous aqueducts were built across the country; Lugdunum alone had four. At its height, Lugdunum’s population may have reached over 100,000. To put that in perspective, Lugdunum, later called Lyon, declined like most European cities as the Roman Empire faltered. Lyon’s population didn’t reach Lugdunum’s until the outbreak of the French Revolution, 1,600 years later.
Rome had accomplished a wonder. Its society’s population, military, science, culture all developed rapidly until it eclipsed all its neighbors and could only be compared with India and China. It was the undisputed superpower west of the Himalayan Mountains. Yet, this same system aided Rome’s decline when an all-new threat arrived in Rome from the far east. In 161, the same year that Emperor Antoninus Pius died and was replaced by Marcus Aurelius, scholars in Han China reported an outbreak of smallpox. This disease made its way westward, across India and Central Asia until it arrived in Persia. In the winter of 165 a Roman army was besieging the city of Seleucia in the western Persian Empire when they became infected. From there the troops spread the disease across the Roman world, and along the way it acquired the name ‘The Antonine Plague.’
The same Roman system that caused the empire to blossom suddenly worked against it. Rome’s legendary roads meant that the disease travelled faster and farther. Frequent naval trade meant that every port city was threatened with a new outbreak. The plague flourished in Rome’s overcrowded cities, and transferred from person to person at its public baths, fountains, and toilets. Festivals and civic functions meant one person with the disease would rub shoulders with a thousand others. The army was particularly affected as men were rotated from one position to the next and the plague devastated Rome’s military. Even the countryside was impacted as rural people often visited towns to sell grain.
Death descended on the Roman Empire. The plague killed roughly 5 million Romans out of a population of 60 million. One out of twelve people were killed. Meanwhile, the disease had a mortality rate of 25%. This meant that one-third of the Roman people contracted the disease, so roughly 20 million out of 60 million. While only one-twelfth of all Romans died from it, the remaining 15 million who contracted it and lived still faced weeks of debilitating illness. 5 million dead, 15 million seriously ill.
Many cultures have faced epidemic disease and recovered. But for Rome, this disease dealt a massive blow to the Roman system. Increased taxable wealth in cities led to more government spending on urban development, which led to more tax revenue which led to more urban development. Within a few years the cities of the empire faced a massive population decline. Lower populations meant less taxable wealth, which meant less tax revenue, which in turn meant less government spending in cities. Less government spending meant there were less building projects and less festivals. The Roman system was going in reverse. Like a great machine, the mechanisms of Roman greatness turned in the opposite direction. The feedback-loop of prosperity turned into a feedback-loop of poverty and destitution. In the midst of this devastation a new German threat emerged, this time along the Danube. Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent the next fourteen years fighting the Marcomannic Wars. The wars meant the state raised taxes even while Romans were burying their loved ones. People were angry and looking for anyone to pin their blame on. It was in this context that new persecutions of Christians occurred, including the massacres at Lugdunum in 177, which I covered in the previous episode.
Yet, despite all of this chaos the Roman Empire was still surprisingly strong. Its population eclipsed every culture outside of China and India. It still had incredible wealth, trade routes and access to an incredible diversity of resources. Furthermore, its infrastructure was all still there. All those incredible roads and buildings were still in place. The Antonine Plague was a huge blow to Roman prosperity, but it did not mean that Rome had to decline. Rome could have possibly weathered this storm and come back stronger than ever. Its population would naturally rebound, given enough time. Furthermore, Marcus Aurelius defeated the German threat shortly before dying of old age, so Rome’s borders remained secure. If only Rome had a stable, competent political system in place to maintain order and facilitate economic expansion it could have rebounded.
But Rome did not have order, it had Commodus. When Marcus Aurelius died in 180 he did what none of the other Five Good Emperors did: rather than choosing a worthy successor who had proved his administrative wisdom and battlefield courage, Marcus Aurelius named his son as heir. Historians have debated why the philosopher-emperor abandoned a century’s long tradition of naming a worthy heir in favor of establishing a dynasty. Marcus Aurelius knew that Commodus was inexperienced, erratic and violent, yet he chose him anyway. This is near-universally recognized as his greatest mistake.
Historian Michael Peachin argues that our common conception that the Five Good Emperors weren’t trying to establish a dynasty is false. The emperors were all related to each other through blood and marriage and probably only chose to adopt their successors because none of them had male heirs until Marcus Aurelius had Commodus. Peachin argues that dynastic thinking was part of the Roman world, even if it wasn’t expressly stated. And it is this confusing, non-codified political structure that ruled Rome which will lead it to disaster. Ever since Augustus the Julio-Claudians ruled through semi-formal means, using a combination of personal wealth, the army’s loyalty, patronage and select powers. Vespasian had tried to formalize the office of emperor by declaring he had unlimited power. But the fact that he had to ask the Senate for power, even if they had no choice in the matter, meant that the Senate could still claim emperors depended on them for legitimate rule. The ultimate proof of this was when Domitian ignored the Senate he was killed and replaced by the old senator Nerva and all subsequent emperors ruled with the Senate.
Thus, the exact powers, limits and functions of a Roman emperor were never clearly defined. There were numerous overlapping, sometimes contradictory precedents, but few established law codes. Instead, ‘emperor’ was largely a title of awe and reverence. Everyone wanted to be emperor but no one knew what it meant, and until this was written into law each emperor had to rely on their relations with the (1) the Senate (2) the army (3) and the people to maintain their power. Losing any one of those three could mean death, and at times emperors played one off the other. This final point should explain much of the trouble that Rome will undergo. As Roman Emperors use their popularity with one group to rule the others, chaos will erupt. As I said before: the Roman Empire didn’t have to decline. The Roman Empire may have had the best-working society on Earth when Marcus Aurelius died, but it had one major exception: its political structure was a complete mess that propagated intrigue, conspiracies and civil war.
Commodus was everything his father feared. He was cruel and sadistic. He executed his sister and wife alongside other real and imagined enemies. Furthermore, he didn’t bother governing the empire. Instead, he spent much of his time fighting in the Colosseum against opponents who wouldn’t dare hurt him, or against exotic animals. This was disastrous for the Roman political system. Rome was still recovering and the emperor was the only one who had the authority to coordinate empire-wide affairs, such as taxation policy, building projects, the grain trade, and the relocation of troops.
Gallia was buckling under the effects of the plague and increased taxes used to fight the German threat. In 182 there was a revolt in Brittany which was suppressed by two legions from Britannia. Then in 187 a much more serious revolt took place. A Roman soldier named Maternus deserted the army, possibly because he was about to be tried for abusing his power. When he deserted he persuaded other soldiers to join him and he soon had a small bandit army. These bandits moved from village to village, pillaging and burning. More angry men joined him and soon Maternus had a real army and started to attack cities. They opened up the prisons and drafted convicts into their growing revolt. Maternus’ forces grew so much that he expanded his operations and started sending bandits into Iberia.
Maternus looked at his success and deduced it could only have been from divine favor. As the chosen one by the gods he decided he would assassinate Commodus and become Emperor. Maternus and his men travelled from Gallia to Italy in small bands until they met up in Rome. They waited for the festival of Cybele, mother of the gods, and dressed up as Praetorian guards where they would blend in and stab Commodus. But the plot was uncovered and Maternus was captured and beheaded. Commodus was safe, but Gallia was wracked by bandits and growing increasingly disillusioned with its leaders in Rome.
On New Years’ Eve 192 Commodus was poisoned and then strangled. But, without a clear successor, New Years’ Day 193 began the Year of the Five Emperors. The first two emperors were assassinated in Rome, which opened the door for the popular governor of Pannonia, Septimius Severus to declare himself emperor. Meanwhile, troops in Syria called for governor Pescennius Niger to seize power and he declared himself emperor. Simultaneously in Britannia, troops were demanding Clodius Albinus to do the same. Severus had more wealth and power, since he had the official backing of the Senate and Italy, but he knew that if he left the peninsula to deal with any one threat then the other general could march on Rome and suddenly Severus would be in danger. Severus took a page from Caesar’s book and decided to divide and conquer. He offered Albinus the position of junior Caesar with the right to rule Britannia, Gallia and Iberia, and Albinus would be Severus’ eventual successor. Albinus accepted and Severus marched east and fought Niger for two years before he eventually defeated him.
Now Severus was comfortably in control of the empire. Technically, he had seceded Gallia and Iberia to Albinus, but this was never a formal agreement. Albinus remained in Britannia and was largely isolated from the greater Roman world. In 197 Severus declared Albinus an enemy of the people, and he disinherited him. Seeing no other choice, Albinus amassed his armies and sailed to Gallia. Severus amassed his own army and met Albinus at the capitol, where they fought the Battle of Lugdunum on the 19th of February.
This was a truly incredible battle. Cassius Dio recounts that there were 300,000 people, with 150,000 on each side. Modern estimates say that this is actually a reasonable estimate if we assume half were camp followers, meaning that there were still 150,000 men fighting the battle. Europe wouldn’t see large-scale battles like this for another 1,600 years when the French Revolutionary government enacted the levée en masse, and conscripted enormous citizen armies. The fate of the empire was at stake and Albinus and Severus brought every man they could spare.
The battle was a storm of chaos and death. Severus’ 75,000 men met Albinus’ equally-sized force in a long line between the hills. Albinus’ left flank collapsed and Severus’ men chased them to camp and slaughtered soldiers and possibly camp followers alike. Meanwhile Albinus’ right flank feigned retreat and pulled back behind hidden trenches filled with spears. The Severans charged after them and many fell into the trench. The Severans finally halted but now Albinus’ troops were hurling javelins at them, causing them to retreat. Some retreated too far and in their confusion they fell into a ravine. At that moment a subcommander in charge of Severus’ cavalry was waiting on the sidelines, seeing which side would win the day. He decided Severus’ held more ground and led his men to charge against Albinus, whose forces broke. Severus’ won, but at a great cost. Both armies were decimated. There were likely more dead bodies in the fields outside Lugdunum than there were people in the great city. Cassius Dio recounts that the blood pooled into rivulets and tainted nearby streams. Severus’ men discovered the body Albinus in a house just outside the battle. He had committed suicide. They told Severus and he ordered the body beheaded and put on a spike, which he took with him all the way to Rome as a warning to future challengers.
Severus turned Rome into a more meritocratic and militaristic state. His aim was to reduce the power of the old nobility and create an army-based administration loyal to him. He reduced the number of positions available to senators and favored the equites class, who made up almost all of the new positions. Furthermore, the city prefects and Praetorian Prefects gained far more military, administrative and judicial powers. Furthermore, Severus’ made three new legions all of which were commanded by equestrians rather than Senators. Finally, the equites were allowed to proceed through the ranks to any position, breaking the senatorial class’ monopoly on power. To legitimize his reign Severus claimed he was Marcus Aurelius’ son and, of course, also a divinity. I’m sure this turned a few heads, but no one questioned this obvious lie because they would lose their heads. By adopting himself into the Antonine family Severus also made his two sons and heirs divinities and legitimized their succession.
Septimius Severus ruled for 18 years and fought wars against Parthia and rebellions in North Africa. In 208 he led a force from Roman Britannia north and tried to conquer Caledonia, what we now call Scotland. In 211 he fell and died at Eboracum, modern-day York. Despite all his wars and the creation of three new legions, Severus actually left behind a budget surplus, showing that while Rome was tottering it was still a rich, productive, well-connected empire with a great bureaucracy. The foundations of Rome remained strong, though the weight placed upon it by cruel and incompetent leaders strained its ability to function.
Severus was succeeded by his sons, Caracella and Geta. The two brothers hated each other so much they divided the imperial palace between the two and never went anywhere without bodyguards. The only time they met was when their mother brought them together. Ultimately, Caracella turned out to be the more ruthless of the two and at the end of the year, during one of their rare meetings he had his bodyguards ambush Geta and stab him. Geta died in his mother’s arms.
Caracella knew he was unpopular so he decided to rule through the army. To accomplish this he raised their pay by a third, which was truly ridiculous since the army was already a massive drain on the treasury and Severus recently created three new legions. The emperor then issued the Edict of Caracella in 212, which granted citizenship to every free male in the empire. While this edict might seem like a huge change, most wealthy people across the empire already had citizenship. Meanwhile for the poor, citizenship was virtually meaningless because engaging in politics was time-consuming and expensive. By the time people gained citizenship it was more of a burden than a privilege as it meant more taxes. For Gallia, which was one of the poorest places in the empire and recently ravaged by uprisings and the war between Severus and Albinus, the edict was meaningless.
After six years Caracella’s cruelty and incompetence caught up with him and he was assassinated by a Praetorian prefect who claimed the title of Emperor. The Praetorian realized that the military budget was out of control and tried to lower incoming legionary pay. He was assassinated in a year and replaced by a fourteen year old boy named Elagabulus who claimed to be Caracella’s bastard son.
Elagabalus’ reign was as strange as his name. The young emperor wore make-up, made others call him a lady, or queen, and tried to find a surgeon who could turn him into a woman, making him possibly one of the first recorded transgender people in history. The emperor fell in love with a charioteer, married him, took up the title of ‘wife’ and even named him a junior Caesar. This was too much for the conservative senatorial class, particularly since Elagabalus showed no interest in political administration and instead spent his time prostituting himself to men in the royal palace. In 222 they assassinated Elagabalus and replaced him with his cousin, another 14 year old boy, Severus Alexander.
Severus Alexander was a competent ruler, though much credit has to be given to his mother, who ran the empire during his youth. He was even-tempered and set about restoring the Roman economy. One major accomplishment was his revaluation of the denarius. During the reign of Antoninus Pius, denarii were 100% silver. Due to the crisis of the Antonine Plague Marcus Aurelius debased the coinage to 75% silver. Further crises meant continued debasement until they were around 45% silver when Severus Alexander came into power. Competent economic management and sustained peace meant he raised the coin’s value back to 50% silver.
By all accounts, Severus Alexander was on his way to reviving the Roman Empire to its former glory. But then two new crises emerged. In the east, The crumbling Parthian Empire collapsed and was replaced by the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanids brought new vigor to Persia. They created a far more effective civil service and military. Furthermore, they united the country with a zealous and militant form of Zoroastrianism. Meanwhile the planet was undergoing a cooling period. This made northern Europe less agriculturally productive and pushed more people south onto Rome’s borders. Furthermore, these largely Germanic populations were now developing into competent armies due to constant warfare against Rome.
Severus Alexander wisely recognized that Rome probably wouldn’t be able to fight a three-front war along the Rhine, the Danube and in the Levant so he tried to make peace treaties with the Sassanids and German tribes. Yet, even if this was the most practical decision it infuriated the legions. Under Caracella, Severus and his successors the military led the empire and even killed and replaced those leaders they didn’t like. Severus Alexander was bringing Rome back under the control of a civilian government, which they viewed as a slight and a threat. In 235 Severus Alexander was on the border with Germania negotiating a peace treaty when he and his mother were executed by the army. His death marked the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century, a period lasting between 235 and 284, during which Rome had at least 18 emperors in power, about one every 3 and a half years. During this time Rome was hit by numerous instances of plague, rebellions and constant large-scale threats on its borders.
We’ll end today by talking about the changes to Gallia. All of this chaos wore on the Gauls. The large, opulent cities shrank. Rebellions and raids from Germans made cities increasingly build walls. Tongres already had walls in the 2nd century, while frontier cities Treir and Agri Decumates built theirs at the turn of the 3rd century. Thus, cities became more congested and less open. Less state spending meant fewer festivals and building projects. Taxes increased, which hurt consumption. Furthermore there was a 2% to 5% tax on goods transferred between provinces. This tax had a minimal effect on trade when Rome was experiencing good times, but during economic recession this meant that Gallia bought less imports and exported less. Less trading meant less manufacturing for goods, which led to peasants abandoning the cities and living full time in the countryside. The city-country divide meant the collapse of the villa system, particularly as later raids made undefended villas dangerous. Finally, it had been a long time since Rome conquered new territory, which meant there were less slaves coming in. Less slaves meant that landowners had to rely on tenant farmers who they increasingly tried to control by tying them to the land. Gallia was looking a lot less like imperial Rome and a lot more like medieval Europe with its small, walled cities, lessened trade and with restricted movement on farmers.
Despite all of this, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Gallia. Many of these changes were necessarily bad, Gallia was simply adapting to the changing times. As the frontier fell apart, cities defended themselves. As trade decreased, peasants made their own living and their own local crafts. This period actually saw a revival of Celtic art styles and the Celtic language. There was very little construction during this period but the Gauls didn’t need to build much because all the buildings they needed were already standing.
Moreover, even though the populated, urban south and center of Gallia declined, the Atlantic coast and the Rhine frontier actually grew. The Roman city of Burdigala, which we call Bordeaux, flourished as a center for Atlantic trade. Brittany’s economy increased as well, since Gallia’s western coast was far from the dangerous frontier and isolated enough that it didn’t get many of the same plague outbreaks within the central Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the state was pouring an incredible amount of money into its military, which meant that the Rhine frontier grew. Well-paid soldiers could afford manufactured goods and food, which attracted more people to migrate and work there. In fact, the Rhine region became a major exporter to Germania, Britannia, Gallia proper and beyond. Gallia as a whole was probably doing much better than the empire at large when Severus Alexander was killed.
Everything changed with the Crisis of the Third Century. Gallia was one of the worst-hit during this period, and when Rome looked on the brink of collapse, Gallia decided it was time to make their own way.
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