The Barbarians without

The Barbarians without

If inflation played a major role in destroying Roman stability in the third century, there is also the other more conventional causes to be considered, the part played by the attacks from without.

The barbarian attacks can be considered under two different headings: the attacks from the Germanic peoples in the north, and the attacks from the east; though these should not really be called barbarian because they were from peoples who were almost as sophisticated as the Romans themselves.

The major attacks from the east came from the newly emerging Sassanian Empire in Persia. Here a major new dynasty arose which lasted from 229 to 651. Persia had had its ups and downs ever since the great days when the Persian army almost overwhelmed the Greeks: but the Achaemenids were eventually conquered by Alexander the Great, and his successors in their turn were replaced by the Parthians.

However the big change came with the rise of the Sassanians, who under their great ruler Shapur (c.240 – 270) , expanded enormously. Military they were extremely successful and in 260 they even succeeded in conquering and capturing the Roman emperor Valerian, and held him captive for three years until his death, using him, according to a late Christian source, as a footstool for Shapur when mounting his horse.

The Sassanians continued to be a major force in the east until their conquest by the Islamic forces in 651: indeed, it can be argued that much of the Islamic art and culture came from the Sassanians. The original Islamic religion rose in the Arabian Desert, where the mobile tribesmen with little time for arts and culture. But when the Moslems conquered the Sassanians, they took over their sophisticated art and culture, and much of what we consider to be Moslem culture, is in fact Sassanian. But the powerful Sassanian empire was constantly a problem to the Rom ans in the east.

The other major barbarian attacks came in Europe, from the Germanic peoples on the other side of the Rhine.   Here the Germanic peoples were gradually evolving from simple tribal organizations into slightly more centralized bodies, centred around a chief. The process was the most sophisticated in the north around Denmark, in the areas that half a millennium later were to emerge as the Viking phenomenon.  However the situation is complicated by the arrival of tribes from further east, from the steppes of central Asia, where fierce horsemen living a mobile life, were always being attracted by the comparative wealth of the settled farmers in Germany. 

Already the Germanic tribes had shown their fighting abilities in their opposition to the attempt by Augustus to conquer Germany which resulted in their destruction of three German legions in AD 9, as a result of which the Rhine was established as the frontier.  Thereafter the Romans made an attempt to shorten the line between the Rhine and the Danube by constructing a fixed frontier line as shortcut across south west Germany, where a border was constructed as an inferior version of Hadrian’s Wall, running from the region of Mainz on the Rhine to the region Regensburg on the Danube, some 550 kilometers in all.

The situation was never very satisfactory but eventually in around 259 the Alamanni, whose name is preserved in the French name for Germany, Allemagne broke through and raided deep into France.  Their invasion caused a major panic:  France had become prosperous and rich and they had forgotten what war is like.  Eventually the Alamanni  were pushed back to the Rhine, but the triangle of territories between the Rhine and the Danube was given up for ever, and the two rivers became a very unsatisfactory frontier.

Further trouble came from the Goths, who in 267 raided across the Danube and reached down to the Balkans into Greece, where even Athens was sacked. Another group raided into Asia Minor, modern Turkey, where they became the Galatians to whom centuries later St Paul was to address an epistle. 

How the Roman empire nearly disintegrated. The Gallic empire is in green, the Palmyrene empire in yellow, and what remaíned of the Roman empire in red.

The Gallic Empire

With all these disasters, the Roman Empire began to split up.  The biggest breakaway came with the Gallic Empire, where a local commander carried out a notable victory over the Franks, and went on to found a Gallic Empire, bringing together the Germanies, Gaul and Britain to form an independent Empire, to which later Spain was added. His aim was not to set up a new system, but to perpetuate the old,  with annual consuls, and coins in the Roman style. However, after 10 years he was assassinated, and his successors only lasted a couple more years until a vigourous new emperor in Rome, Aurelian, defeated the rebels and bought the Gallic kingdom to an end.

At the same time there was another breakaway empire in the east, where a semi-independent  empire was set up by a Palmyran princess, Zenobia. And in Europe,  20 years later, Britain again broke away and Carausius ruled for seven years, minting coins, some of which it has been argued proclaimed their Romanitas by quoting the initials of a Virgilian tag. However, in 293 he was assassinated by his treasurer Allectus, who only lasted three year until a powerful new emperor, Constantine, finally brought Britain back within the Empire.

The insecurity began to lead to changes in the towns where defenses were made smaller but stronger, and a portion of the town became a citadel.  The countryside too saw the emergence of larger villas as peasants clustered around them for security, and we get the emergence of coloni, that is subservient peasant farmers who had lost much of their freedom. 

But all these military threats meant that more troops were needed, and more troops meant more money to pay them. Furthermore, the money paid as bribes to the barbarians drained the Roman empire of its gold. It is said that more Roman gold coins of the third century have been found in Denmark than have been found in Rome itself.
            The social structure that had given Rome its strength was changing. Whereas before, provinces were commanded by senators drawn from a largely hereditary senatorial class who were often administrators rather than soldiers,  in the third century they tended to be replaced by equestrians, that is knights, who tended to be professional soldiers who had risen from the ranks – or whose father had risen from the ranks. This in its turn meant that they were rather more inclined to rebel when things went wrong and had little of the loyalty of the old senatorial class to the concept of Rome and the Roman emperor.

The position of the soldiers too was changing. Previously being a soldier had been something of a good career move. The auxiliary soldiers served 20 years but at the end of the time you were demobbed with a formal diploma and became a Roman citizen. Thus the ranks of the Roman citizenship were constantly replenished by retired soldiers, often originally recruited as barbarians in other parts of the empire: indeed at the end of the third century, a succession of strong emperors (Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine) all came from the Balkans, clearly a breeding place for strong and competent men.

However in 212, Caracalla had declared that all free men in the Roman Empire were to be Roman citizens (the Constitutio Antoniniana). According to Dio, this was mainly done to increase the tax base, as only full citizens were liable for the whole range of taxes, but inevitably it also meant that service in the Roman army was not as valued as it was before and paradoxically this apparently benign improvement meant that Rome began to lose some of its cohesion. The Roman empire survived, indeed in some respects it was to become even richer in the fourth century. But inflation, and the social changes that were taking place, were beginning to sow the roots of its ultimate decline and fall.

On to Diocletian