The Crisis of the Third Century A.D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?
By Lukas De Blois
The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire, edited by L. de Blois and J. Rich (Brill, 2002)
Introduction: Until well into the seventies of the last century the third century A.D. was perceived as a period of crisis, a crisis which was already announced under the emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180), whose reign was characterised by warfare and epidemics.
Many observers saw the third century crisis as a decisive period of transition to Medieval History. In a highly rhetorical and suggestive passage in his Birth of the Western Economy, Robert Latouche describes the second and third quarters of the third century A.D. as “… a sinister age, the least known of the whole history of Rome…” and he tell us: “After the reign of the Severi we seem to plunge into a long tunnel, to emerge only at the beginning of the Late Empire under Diocletian, and when we step out again into daylight unfamiliar country lies all about us.”
In later decades the third century crisis was seen as a complex historical process, brought about by the interaction of many different factors. Geza Alfoldy summarises the various aspects of the crisis that dominated the history of the Roman Empire from 249 to 284 in nine points: the switching from the rule of an emperor to that of a military despot, the general instability, the growing power of the armies, the increasing influence of military provinces such as those along the Danube, social shifts, economic problems, the decrease in and unequal distribution of the population, a religious and moral crisis and invasions of foreign peoples in practically all border regions and even beyond, into the heartlands of the empire. He could have added the collapse of the existing monetary system, problems about the legitimacy and the ideological basis of imperial power, the decay of small and medium-size towns and the decay of the local euergesia and public services.