The Fall of the Roman Empire

What is the purpose of empire? How does power transition from one emperor to another? What happens when the framework of empire begins to dissolve?

I made these notes during my third year at university. They span the 3rd and 4th centuries CE from Caracalla and Geta (211 CE) to Constantine (377 CE), encompassing the crisis of the 3rd century. They're a bit of a mess but might be useful!

1. Introduction


· Looking at the third century AD

· Caracalla and Geta (211 AD) to Constantine (D. 337 AD)

· Why start and finish point?

§ ‘Cleanest’ way of doing the third century

§ Encompasses the third century crisis

· Period of political instability

· Rapid changeover of imperial power – difficult to hold onto power for very long

· No continued dynasties similar to those in 1st and 2nd century

· What counts as being emperor?

· Previously those recognised/ratified by senate as emperor

· Vespasian first emperor to be declared outside of Rome

· Starts to raise question of who gets on emperor list

· Unrecognised authority but in practise acting as emperor

· Lines between legitimate and illegitimate authority become blurred within the third century

· Even author of Historia Augusta challenged with who to include as emperor


· Gibbon saw the 2nd century as the highpoint of empire

· Myth of Golden Age questioned

· Period of crisis

· Political instability

· Diminution of office

· Military weakness and invasion

· Climate – poor harvests

· Plague

· Economic failure

· Religious corruption

· Gibbon’s narrative took two main aspects:

· Barbarism – influx of barbarians from outside the empire instilling a lack of discipline and virtues

· Spread of Christianity which changed Roman values and doctrinal disputes

· Traditional calibre of man who made it to office was no longer making it to the imperial throne

· Change in type of person who makes it to imperial office

· Diminution in office


· Gibbon established an influential model for third century crisis

· Scholars who still buy into the idea of a crisis in the third century

· Geza Alfoldy

· But could also be a later scholarly construct which doesn’t reflect the reality of the third century

· Much less material for the 3rd century

· Has it not survived because less literature was written

· More material from the viewpoint of Christians

· Does the 3rd c. look so bad because we have so many Christian sources looking at it through a rhetorical lens?

· Are these scholars just missing things? – intellectual culture blossoms in the third century – Longinus

§ Crisis in terms of mining production but does it really class as a crisis if it produces some of the finest philosophical minds?

· On the basis of methodology

· Are we using anachronistic standards?

2. The Severan Dynasty: (Caracalla, Geta, Macrinus)

Interrupted dynasty – between Caracalla and Elagabalus, there are non-Severans.


  • Plans

    • Geta 209-11

    • Caracalla 198-217

    • Both share power with their father Septimius before his death

      • In 198 Septimius makes Caracalla co-Augustus

      • Geta is made Caesar at the same time

        • Intended as the spare – younger of the two, exceeded to honours later than his brother

      • Intention for them to share power

      • Both consuls in 205 and 208

      • Geta gets honours equivalent to his brother (co-Augustus)

    • Septimius leaves Empire for joint rule between sons – why?

      • Stability?

      • Literary sources suggest Septimius was concerned about the behaviour of Caracalla

        • Herodian 3.10.3-4

          • Memory of early contention between two children

          • Later disagreements being read back into their childhood?

  • Practise

    • Brothers did not get on initially - public unity, private enmity

      • Each established independent admin apparatus

    • Dec 25 211 – Caracalla murders Geta

      • Justified by Caracalla as self defence

        • Herodian 4.4.3-6

        • Herodian 4.5.5-6

          • Common practice to include speeches that gave a sense of the sort of thing that would have been appropriate for that character to say in the situation

          • No idea what was actually said

          • Herodian imagining what Caracalla might have said to justify the act

      • Caracalla gets the Praetorian guard on board first – giving a large military bonus

        • Dio 78.3.2 – remembers the actions by which Caracalla went about solidifying his rule

        • Caracalla’s ability to rule is based on getting the military and Praetorians onside

        • N.B. Septimius Severus’ dying words to his sons – Dio 77.15.2

      • Goes to senate next day

        • Chronology interesting – military first, then ratify with senate

      • Massacre of Geta’s supporters – 20,000? Other claimants

      • Damnatio memoriae

        • Draws focus to the erased section

        • Deliberate attempt at publicly erasing someone’s identity as a warning


  • Constitutio Antoniniana

    • Most famous act (of 3rd century) – edict of universal citizenship

    • 212 AD

    • Ulpian – all those who are in the Roman world have been made Roman citizens as a result of the constitution of the emperor Antoninus

    • Edict exists in fragmentary form

    • Extraordinary thing for an empire to do

      • Already unusual for sharing citizenship – not normally what empires do

      • Rome shared citizenship with local elites

      • Giving citizenship to everybody in the empire was utterly unprecedented

      • Negates the point of having an empire?

      • Empire – rulers and rule, hierarchical relationship

      • If everybody in territory is made a citizen, then nobody is being rule

      • For such a surprising act, it seems to have elicited little surprise in antiquity – sources fairly quiet about it

    • So why did he do it?

      • Personal recognition – when a roman slave was freed, he took the nomen of his master as his own name – extreme way of establishing a tie between self and large number of people in the empire

      • Financial reasons – increase number of people who need to pay taxes

        • This is the view of Dio 77.9

        • Seems unlikely though – many different ways of raising income, and could create new taxes when needed, or extract money from provinces

      • Conspiracy? Establishes a link between sacrificial thanksgiving and the gift of universal citizenship

      • National identity – victory of the Roman people?

        • Everybody bought into an act of thanksgiving as a way to join people together

        • Uniting people as a response to the increasing fragmentation of the empire in the late 2nd century

    • Related question – how significant was this?

      • How many people did it actually affect?

      • Need to know how many people in the empire, and how many are already citizens

        • Incredibly difficult task to do

      • Is the reason that Dio and Ulpian don’t comment on this that it wasn’t that much of a deal because most people were already citizens?

  • Tyrant?

    • Viewed as a bad emperor in the list of ‘good/bad emperors’

    • Executions?

      • Geta’s supporters – 20,000

      • 215 AD mass slaughter of citizens in Alexandria

    • Financial mismanagement

      • Dio 78.9.2-7

      • Dio slips into the first person – ‘we’

      • Reference to Dio’s own senatorial class

      • Financial mismanagement was a concern of those particularly hit by it – i.e. the senators and provincial elites

      • Probably doesn’t reflect the concerns of the masses in the empire

    • Poor foreign policy especially with Parthia

      • Septimius had exploited weak Parthia with unnecessary wars – 194/5 and 197/9

      • Caracalla made things worse – from 213, prepped eastern campaign

        • The ‘red wedding’

      • Parthian frontier had been relatively stable by mutual agreement on the Euphrates from the time of Augustus

      • Trajan had pushed boundary but given back by Hadrian

      • By gaining territory, they raise the question of where the border should be

      • All fine when Parthia is weak, but stirs trouble when Parthia becomes more powerful

      • Eastern power suddenly becomes a force to be reckoned with and pushes back

        • Would they have pushed back if Rome did not interfere with border with cheap and easy victories?


  • Death of Caracalla

    • Only emperor to die with his trousers down

    • While on a trip (pilgrimage) in the east, assassinated

    • Done by Martialis – minor soldier

      • Stooge of Macrinus

    • Sort of death the exact thing authors would have wanted to portray for Caracalla

    • KIV parallels with Caligula’s assassination

  • Interlopers

    • First period of usurpation

    • Brief reign of Macrinus 217-218 and his son Diadumenianus 218

    • Macrinus

      • North African equestrian – not an important individual

      • First non-senator to be emperor

      • Career as advocate and legal consultant

    • After death of Caracalla, Macrinus respons cautiously

      • 3 day period without an emperor Dio 79.11

      • 4 days after death (Severus’ birthday) assembles troops

      • Writes to senators - slow to respond? Eventually declared emperor

    • Troops unhappy by assassination

      • He takes Severus’ name

      • Distances himself from assassination

  • Policy

    • Reinforce centralising tendencies

      • Court bureaucracy

    • Trouble with Parthia – new kids in town

      • Artabnus uses instability as excuse to advance

      • 217 battle at Nisibis – Romans defeated

      • Crippling peace settlement to Roman empire – agrees to pay 200 million sesterces

      • 1/8 of annual budget of empire

3. Later Severans: (Elagabalus, Severus Alexander)

  • Return of the Severans

  • Plot of the Severan Women

    • Fall of Macrinus partly own agency

      • Line between usurper and legitimate emperor very fine

      • Unsettled army

      • Court – elite senators – unhappy with an equestrian being on the throne/equestrian bureaucracy

        • Macrinus starts to appoint other equestrians to office

      • Problems with finances

    • Partly caused by Julia Maesa

      • Orchestrates the return of Severans to power through her grandchild Elagabalus

      • Julia Maesa grandmother of Bassianus (Elagabalus) who resembles Caracalla

      • May 218 – takes Bassianus to camp and is declared emperor by troops, renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – attempt to bind with Caracalla and claim to legitimacy with image

    • Fall of Macrinus

      • Macrius sends Parthian legion, but they change sides once they arrive

        • Pays them before they go to declared Diadumenianus co-emperor

      • Macrinus had Praetorian and some auxiliary units

      • Macrinus flees, army surrenders

      • Macrinus killed by escort

  • Elagabalus

  • The Beast from the East

    • Reigned 218-222

    • From 217, held ancestral priesthood of ‘lh ‘gbl (Elagabal)

      • Very popular in Emesa, Syria

      • 13 years old when held priesthood; 15 when became emperor

    • Took priesthood seriously; no intention to cease the priesthood

      • Sends image of himself to senate so that they can get used to his unusual dress

      • Also on his public imagery

    • In 2020, makes Elagabalus chief god in Pantheon

  • Tyrannical Behaviour

    • Criticisms of Elagabalus encompass eastern, orientalised negativity on the part of Greco-Roman authors

      • Part of what they are insulting is the fact that he is an emperor who came from Syria

    • Series of graphic and erotic stories told about him

    • Exacerbated by eastern focus

    • Emperor supposed to be symbol of masculine value

    • Aided by imagery of emperor

      • Coinage contains disctinctive headband of Syrian priests

      • Chose to be represented in an unsual way in official coinage

  • Severus Alexander

  • Fall of Elagabalus

    • Behaviour becomes too much for everyone… even Maesa

    • June 26 221 – Elagabalus compelled to adopt younger cousin as Caesar

      • Gessius Alexianus Bassianus (Severus Alexander) 225-235

      • 12 years old at time

        • Leads to commentary on how ridiculous the imperial family had become, having emperors as young as 12

    • March 11 222 Alexander replaces Elagabalus as emperor

      • Circumstances not entirely clear

      • Alexander not seen in public, guard riot

      • Elagabalus goes to camp to placate; mother brings Alexander

      • Killed, together with mother (Julia Soaemias)

    • Alexander declared emperor at 13 years old

      • No pretence of gradually acquiring titles and office which had still persisted to this point into the third century

      • Simply voted all titles initially and immediately

        • Worked well in a period where they were limited claimants to power

        • Now multiple claimants and the longer you wait, the greater license that gives to other individuals to make a claim to power

        • Unclear who emperor is in moments of transition – army can claim an individual as emperor, the senate can ratify a different person, but the person who ends up emperor may be someone entirely different

        • Nature of office has to change because it’s becoming harder and harder to hold onto the office – necessity of conditions changing the rules

      • When authors reference women they often do so to cast an image on their associated male figures

        • Herodian commenting that affairs and controls of empire in the hands of women – Herodian 6.1.1

        • Herodian suggesting things were managed better by the women precisely because the Severan men were not in control

        • Out of this period of crisis, the question of genuine female agency comes to the foreground

  • Policy

    • ‘Traditional reign? Attempt to get back to how things were under Septimius Severus

      • Overtures to the senate

      • Many who were consuls under Septimius were made consul again under Alexander

        • Including CASSIUS DIO hence being understandably positive

      • Conventional approaches to finances

        • Attempt by behaviour and image to bind himself back into the Golden Age

        • Trajan and Marcus have become the touchpoints for the Golden Age – the best emperor and the philosophical emperor

    • Has to reckon with the rise of Sassanids beat Arsacids

      • 224: Ardashir of Sassanid family defeats Artabanus of Arsacids

      • King of Kings – unites previously separate Parthain tribes into a newly invigorated Persian empire

      • Puts up imagery of this in the same place of previous dominant Persian rulers – Darius, Cyrus etc.

      • Contrasts with obvious weakness of Rome’s ruling dynasty

      • 230 attacks Roman frontier

      • Alexander’s response neither quick nor successful

        • Disinclination to war?

        • Buys into an image of young, inexperienced emperor on the throne

      • Celebrates a triumph despite poor outcome

        • Out of touch with reality of what happened

      • Herodian remembers the defeat to be specifically the fault of Alexander

        • Ascribes to excessive feminine influence

        • Hint that his weakness opens the floodgates of what is to eventually come

    • Maximinus revolt in which Alexander and his mother are both killed in 235

  • Legacy

    • Positive legacy – why?

      • In part the lack of information – in general, when there is an absence of evidence, history is usually kinder than not – cf. Titus

      • Senate liked Alexander and in particular, Cassius Dio liked him

      • Calm before the storm

    • OR a passive observer on already escalating issues

      • Amusing that the last fact Dio tells us about his epic narrative is that he himself had to leave Rome

      • Dio sees the rise of Persia to be the real problem

      • Rome loses control of the narrative

      • 1st and 2nd century Rome is the dominant power in the Mediterranean but in the 3rd century Rome loses control of the narrative and Persia becomes dominant

      • Rome a passive recipient of the agency of others

      • Argument to be made that the 3rd century is then viewed through the control of the new Persian empire

      • Alexander the last emperor who can tell the story

4. Soldiers, Senators and Gordians: (Maximinus Thrax, Gordian I and II, Pupienus and Balbinus, Gordian III)


  • Herodian, Roman History 7-8 (up to start of Gordian III)

  • Historia Augusta – but Marius Maximus finishes with Elagabalus – should be used as secondary source with Herodian

  • Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle (Gordian c.263)

  • Byzantine sources:

    • Zosimus, New History (6th c)

    • Jon Zonaras, Epitome of the Histories

    • George, Selection of Chronology

    • John Malalas, Chronicle of Antioch

      • All of them using earlier Athenian Historian, Publius

      • Rhetorical set pieces

      • Pro-Aurelian

  • Res Gesta Divi Saporis


1. A barbarian emperor?

  • Slowly changing artistic style in 3rd century

  • Maximinus revolts in 235 – Alexander and mother killed

  • Voted normal honour and coopted priestly colleges within month

    • Senate don’t put up much conflict against this

  • Second equestrian emperor… worse than Macrinus?

    • Thrax – reference to Thracian

    • Thrace takes a key role in his identity because it is seen as being barbarian

    • Fighting constant Gothic invasions on northern frontier – where most battle=hardened troops are made and thus emperors originate

  • Constant usurpation continuously happening through 3rd century

  • Fabric of what it means to be emperor is constantly changing

  • Unclear how many usurpations are actual threats to empire or fabricated tales to create tension

  • In his 50s (based on coinage)

    • If so, entered under Septimius

  • Son named Caesar in early 236

2. Universally unpopular

  • Distant from Rome - stays on German frontier through winter 235/6

  • Sends images of himself ot senate – cf. Elagabalus

    • Evolving/changing question: to what extent is the capital still important, to what extent does the emperor have to be there?

    • If emperor constanly on campaign does it make sense for them to return to the capital?

  • Reign marked by military and financial woes

    • Ardashir attacks again… but Maximinus fights on northern frontier in 236/7

    • Warfare unremunerative

    • Necessary of type of warfare Rome has participated in during 3rd century

      • 2nd century wars of expansion – increased taxes, booty, territory

      • 3rd century wars are reactive, dealing with incursions, threats, invasions

        • Even if this warfare goes well, best hoping for is staying the same

        • Not changing nature of income

        • BUT still have to pay army – constantly in the red

        • Wars often go badly for Rome - losing tax revenue

        • Constantly trying to find money in the budget: budget cuts or increased taxes

        • Rhetoric of defending frontier can justify tax increases and budget cuts, but if the war is being lost then this will not slide

        • As military situation gets worse, becomes increasingly difficult for emperors to get away with financial burdens that wars inevitably create

  • Disliked on all fronts:

    • Plebs:reduces grain supplies, cash gifts and festival funds

    • Senate: cuts subsidy to cult deified emperors

      • Senate has few powers left – controlling cult of deified powers one of them – i.e. hamstringing minimal power that the senate has left

  • Too much of a soldier…but gets that wrong too

    • Army: fails to pay donative he promised when made emperor

      • Favouritism: Maximiniana only to rhine and danube frontiers

      • Own troops 2x revolts


1. Gordian I & II

  • Chronology for 238 very confused

  • Begins with revolt in Agrica Proconsularis

    • Wealthy landowners arm rural client and resist procurator… accidentally kill procurator

    • Panic and acclaim the elderly governor Gordians emperor

    • Even more bizarrely, Gordianus accepts

    • Sets up extraordinary seties of events

  • Moves to Carthage and appoints son co-ruler

  • Sends messenger to Rome (named Valerian (future emperor))

    • Promises donative and seeks support of senate

    • Privately urges assassination of Maximinus Thrax’s praetorian prefect Vitalianus

  • Senate does so!

    • Assassinates praetorian prefect

    • Declares maximinus Thrax and his son hostes publices

    • Appoints board of 20 in defense vs tyrant

    • Writes to all governors provinces

  • BUT revolt crushed by Capelianus, governor of Numidia

    • Gordianus has no military

    • Gordianus commits suicide

    • Gordianus III combined reign of 3 weeks

2. Return of the senate?

  • Senate now has a big problem! Extraordinary response

    • Appoints 2 of their own as emperors – Balbinus and Pupienus – as if they were consuls in the res publica

    • Elderly senators – 60-70?

  • Numismatics go back to traditional images – bound hands, identical issues for both emperors

    • No apparent hierarchy between the two

    • First 2 people to share the roel of pontifex maximus

    • Genuine shared imperial rule

  • People riot (supposedly orchestrates by friends of Gordianus)

    • To appease the mob, son of Gordian declared Caesar – aged 13

  • Maximinus invades Italy – senate raises own army

    • Maximinus had huge military disadvantage – not well resourced

    • Decides to besiege Aquileia on the way – bogged down in siege

  • Murdered by his own troops and they assassinated him

  • But Papienus and Balbinus killed by praetorian guard

    • Feared a repeat of Septimius Severus’ action of trucking the praetorian guard into assembling, taking their weapons, and then dismissing them all

    • Upset that they were emperors chosen not by the army but by the senate

  • 238: 5 months; 6 claimants to emperorship are dead.

    • Case study for where imperial power lies

    • Unhappiness visible when one factions acts against another

  • Erasure of Pupienus and Balbinus on inscriptions

  • When dust settles, Gordian III only person left and remains emperor


1. Child emperor

  • Gordian III rules for 6 years

  • Rule by committee? Did not become emperor of his own accord

  • Continued rise of equestrians

    • E,g, Timesitheus. Manage emperor’s property

    • Increase number of inscirptions to senior equestrians

  • Key players not so much the emperors but the Sassanid emperors

  • Sapor I, new king of kings, main driver - 240-272

    • Son of Ardashir

    • Stability gives Sapor legitimacy and agency to be key player in this period

  • Res Gestae Divi Saporis

    • Rome only one of many issues Sapor dealing with

    • Not even the most important – one territory out of many

    • Transition away from Rome-centric ideology

2. War with Persia

  • Ongoing trouble with Persia and Sapor I – main concern

    • Worry Persia want their old empire back

  • War declared in 241… troops only sent in 242

    • Takes 3 years to properly response to eastern threat

    • Gordianus weakness?

    • Dificulty in assuring power and control in this period?

  • Initial success in either 242 or 243; if 242, victory actually Timesthitheus, 243 Gordianus

  • Then goes very badly – 243; Gordianus defeated at Meshike

  • Then in early 244, Gordianus killed

  • Sapor suggests he killed Gordianus

    • Relief image of Sapor trampling Gordianus

    • Res Gestae Divi Saporis:

    • Suggestions his own army killed him – at the instruction of Philip the Arab?

  • Campaign remembered as success

  • Narrative conferred to senate is that after initial successes in battle, Gordian killed by Sapor

    • If army and Philip killed, good representation of memory vs reality

    • Nature of campaign dictated as the individual in the east sees fit

    • Sapor views it as defeat for Rome; but senate records it as a success

      • Cf. Alexander Severus’ ealier triumph

    • Limited mechanisms for recording history

5. Christianity: (Philip the Arab, Decius)


1. Accession

  • Marcus Julius Phillipus – of Syrian origin

  • Succession not clear – end of Herodian’s narrative

  • Not the obvious successor to Gordian III

    • Timethiseus had Philip and brother Julius Priscus on staff

    • Promoted Priscus to praetorian prefecture with self

    • When Timethiseus died Priscus promoted Philip

    • Example of imperial role passing to lesser men

2. Reign

  • Deification of Gordian III

  • Mechanisms for stability and power sharing

    • Nature of events in 3rd century meant that rule by a single individual was no longer viable

    • Makes son Caesar

    • Makes brother-in-law Severianus vice Caesaris in balkans

    • Makes brother governor Mesopotamia and Corrector totius orientis

      • Collects eastern tribute and acts as deputy emperor

      • New post; important for what follows

    • Problem of sharing power: if give significant imperium to another individual, essentially created a potential threat to own power

  • Recognises necessity of sharing power but keeps it within his own family

    • Attempt to solve problem of increasingly fragmented empire facing threats on multiple frontiers

    • Symptom of the 3rd century

  • Twin rule knitted into the initial framework of imperial rule – cf. Augustus and Agrippa

  • Doesn’t neglect Rome (cf. Maximinus)

    • There from 244 and celebrates millennium in 248

  • Later Christian sources (Eusebius) remember Philip as the first Christian emperor

3. War

  • Major concern again = Sapor

  • Philip makes a treaty

    • Gives away Armenia

    • Agrees to payment of 500,000 aurei – in gold, silver debased?

    • Major concession; Persia and Rome argued over border surrounding Euphrates for long time

    • Priscus’ role in the east is to raise the 500,000

  • Philip breaks the treaty

    • Narrative hard to reconstruct

    • Is it a reaction to Sapor’s aggression?

    • Or simply that war is better than payment – hard to raise funds

      • Also stops tribute to Gothic tribes in north

    • Produces a brutal reaction

  • Also fighting on northern frontier

II. DECIUS 249-251

1. Accession

  • During the millennial year of 248 – trouble east and west

    • Usurper Jotapianus in Syria – suppressed/killed

    • Rioting in Alexandria

    • Goths invade Lower Moesia

      • Troops declare Marinus Pacatianus emperor

      • Philip sends Decius, a Danubian senator

      • Ends revolt… but his troops proclaim him emperor instead

    • Sept 249: Philip launches attack against Decius & loses

2. Image

  • Image problem (like all usuprers – series of solutions)

    • Changes his name

      • Blatant attempt to buy into image of Rome’s optimus princeps; takes name of Trajan

      • Born C. Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus

      • Changes to C. Messius Quintius Traianus Decius

    • Emphasises Dacian origins

  • Associates self with past ‘good emperors’

    • Series of coins issued: Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Severus Alexander

    • Missing: Claudius, Pertinax, Gordians I, II and III

      • List of good/bad emperors clearly up for debate

      • Indication of changing memory

  • Philip’s name erased from inscriptions

    • Origins of story from Philips’ revolt?


1. Christianity on the Radar

  • Christianity’s gradual rise makes it noticeable movement

  • Later sources see Philip as the first Christian emperor

    • Moving im imperial circles under Severans?

  • And Decius as (first?) empire-wide persecutor

  • Certainly, Decius issued edict re religion

    • Actual edict didn’t surivce

2. An Edict of Universal Sacrifice

  • We have records of effect edict – libelli

  • Record act and statement of sacrifice, names and signatures of official witnesses

  • No Christian names… and some very un-christian behaviour (Christians should refuse to sacrifice)

  • Seems to have been for all citizens; edict of universal sacrifice cf. Caracalla’s edict of universal citizenship

  • What was the intention?

    • Persecution – to expose Christians?

    • Attempts to self-legitimisation?

    • Response to unease of millennium

  • Extension of Caracalla’s edict o religious sphere – centralisation

    • About harmony of empire? Consistency of worship

    • Note vagueness of ‘ancestral gods’

    • Response to empire’s difficulties?

  • Christians fell on wrong side of history

    • Local exploitation of new avenues in Roman law

    • Fear of persecution is own local community

    • Local communities taking advantage of new legal mechanisms

  • Scraps of non-Christian evidence seem to suggest a different narrative

6. Valerian vs Shapur: (Gallus, Aemilian, Valerian and Gallienus)


  1. Gallus and various sons

  • Decius on campaign north of Danube - Gothic invasion

    • Don’t really know who Gothic groups were - generic group for barbarian tribes

    • Ethnicity in antiquity a matter of stereotypes and teleology

    • Gothic groups generic term for foreigners - same for Scythians and Medes in Herodotus

    • Comparison between these groups and those who take over the empire in the 5th century

    • Viewed as initial members of groups which will eventually take over Rome

    • Search for continuity between groups discredited today - this scholarship originated in 18t/19th century - why?

    • Comparison between Medes in Herodotus and Gothic tribes in 3rd century Rome?

  • Faces major defeat in Thrace; trying to save face and kid killed with older son and co-ruler

  • 251: rest army proclaims governor Moesius Inferior emperor - Gallus

  • Sources for period heavily unreliable

    • e.g. Zosimus

    • Reason why the period starts to look so fragmented

  • Rumour Gallus conspired with Goths unlikely - cf. Philip, likely a literary trope

  • Makes own son Caesar AND remaining son of Decius

    • Part of affiliation with previous emperor (and deifies Decius)

  • Decius’ son dies very quickly (of plague?)

    • Zosimus hints at foul play, Historia Augusta thinks just plague

  • Gallus puts in place treaty with Goths but they come and go as they please over northern border WITHOUT response from central government

    • Rome’s resources so stretched that increasingly it is not even fielding armies to combat raiding parties

  • 252: Sapor’s second invasion (3 major invasions)

    • 5 years after Philips’ breaking of the treaty

    • Sapor’s narrative, written from the east, the time is condensed and therefore legitimate

    • Rhetorical construction in eastern sources - own narrative created to legitimise invasion

    • Second campaign devastates the eastern side of Roman Empire

    • Defence seems to come from local militia

      • Coins minted by local militia similar to those of Elagabalus

      • Failure of central response leading to local defence

      • Unspoken contract - taxes are paid in turn for defence from threat

      • If empire ceases to uphold its end of the bargain, then what use is the empire? If it can’t defend its own borders, can it hold its own provinces?

2.Aemilians and Valerianus

  • 253: Aemilianus declared emperor by troops

    • Ideology of buying into Herculean imagery, seen as successful despite literary sources mocking Commodus for it

  • Gallus and Volusianus die - own troops?

  • Aemilians dies - own troops?

  • Supposedly Gallus had called for reinforcements

    • True? Fits into Valerianus justification to state he was called to defend Gallus, puts him on the right side of history

  • Valerian prominent under Gordians - throwback emperor

    • Produces fairly traditional coinage - cf. Severans

    • Son Gallianus

  • Recognition that it is impossible for one emperor to be on both frontiers at once

    • Valerian tries to split the empire between himself and son


3. Sapor’s Third Invasion

  • Spring 260? New invasion of Sapor

    • Why only now? Because Rome not only concern of Sapor

    • Rome a major player for Sapor, but also dealing with internal threats on his frontiers

    • Rome-centric view not accurate

  • Major battle between Carrhae and Edessa

    • Valerian suffers heavy defeat - army thrashed trying to intercept invasion of “Scythians”

  • Having been defeated, Valerian attempts negotiation and fails

    • First Roman emperor to be captured

    • Emperor enslaved to foreign magnate; spends rest of life in captivity

  • Valerian attempts second empire wide persecution of Christians

    • Explains delight in later Christian sources in his fate?

    • Lactantius - imaginative stories of what Sapor did with Valerian for the rest of his life

      • Discussion of memory - misrepresentation of what’s going on, buried in a source which is almost definitely misrepresenting what happened

4. Sapor’s Defeat

  • Why is this not the end for the Roman Empire?

    • Not much evidence that Sapor was concerned with expanding for territory, only raiding for resources

  • Sapor defeated… but not by Roman empire; a new alliance of local magnates

    • Macrianus - fiscal official

    • Callistus/Ballista - naval officer

    • Odaenathus - Lord of Palmyra

  • Macrianus revolts against Roman emperor, who is at this point by default, Gallienus

  • Aug 260: revolts but doesn’t declare himself emperor, but his two young sons as co-Augusti

    • Macrianus Junior and Quietus

    • Seem to be recognised as emperors in various parts of empire

      • Locals on ground in Egypt aware of turbulent matters in the east

      • Why are they aware of it? Why does it matter who is emperor?

      • Matters because it determines what coins are accepted!

      • What happens to currency when emperor no longer emperor?

        • Difficult more so in this period because faster turnover of emperors

        • Nature of daily life in third century and how the crisis affected local populace


5. Gallienus’ inheritance

  • Gallienus had been co-emperor with Valerian almost immediately

  • Gallenius dies in 258 and replaced by Saloninus, Gallienus’ son

  • Large number of usurpations

  • Includes governor of lower Germany, Postumus

    • Defeats German raiding party

    • Postmus decides not to march on Rome, just stays in Gaul

    • Gallienus does nothing about it (can’t do anything about it; too many issues)

    • Postumus stays in power in Gaul with imperial command

    • Postumus is in practice emperor in the west

    • Does he count as an emperor? Never confirmed by senate or invades Rome

    • Structures of imperial authority breaking down

2.Tripartite Empire

  • Partially solves eastern problem

    • Macrianus moves west

    • Beaten by Aureoles

    • Gallienus writes to Odaenathus - offers corrector totes Orients

      • Gives de facto control in the east - cf. Philips’ position for Julius Priscus

    • Callistus and Quietus captured and killed by own troops

    • Gallienus lost 12 and a half provinces in 18 months and practically only has control of central third of empire

    • In East, Gallienus technically in charge but all authority delegated to local Palmyrene king Odaenathus

    • Postumus stays in power in Gaul

    • We’ve seen increase in threats on northern frontier, increase in problems surrounding raising funds to pay armies, and Rome starting to lose battles

    • Discontent among local elites in provinces growing

    • Point at which Rome is incapable of defence, what is the point in empire?

    • Leads to problem of local magnates being proclaimed empire - which had always happened - but also capable of providing stable protection, and Rome not able/wanting to challenge claims

    • Valerian - imagery very powerful, but not the worst. Gallienus the real emperor who oversees breakdown of empire

    • How can empire recover from this fragmentation? Why did the Roman Empire not fall during this period? Interesting return to stability

7. Aurelian vs Zenobia: (Claudius II, Quintillus, Aurelian)


  1. Claudius II

  • Lack of coherent logic in politics; why are particular emperors chosen at particular points?

  • Obvious candidates passed over for less capable individuals; less easily to explain why/what is going on

  • Gallienus declared to be usurper

    • Historia Augusta: usurpation against Gallienus, new regime paid off soldiers and claimed Gallienus himself was a usurper (despite following on from his father)

    • Flexibility of memory; how easy is it to rewrite the legacy of previous emperors?

  • Claudius Gothicus comes to the throne

    • Numerous accounts of his accession

    • Remembered positively; coins with symbol of peace;

  • Claudius appears to be one of the better emperors of 3rd century, always with reference to Constantine’s father

    • Constantine plucks Claudius Gothicus from obscurity to legitimise his reintroduction of the principate and removal of tetrarchy

    • Only reason Claudius Gothicus is of interest?

  • Name suggests from family with recent citizenship (Caracalla’s edict) - Marcus Aurelius Claudicus

  • Deifies Gallienus - again, reversal of memory

    • Doesn’t reach all provinces - some areas where he receives damnatio memoriae and others where he is deified

    • Why deify? Difficult to get idea of Gallienus as usurper to stick, so change of motive?

  • Focuses on Danubian frontier - not unusual, being am military emperor

    • Ignores east; epigraphy of military officials from this year showing many come from Danubian frontier suggests this is why he was put in power and Gallienus was removed

    • Suggested Gallienus abandoned Danubian frontier to deal with other usurper, angering Danubian military officials and so LOCAL INTEREST put in an emperor who was willing to pay attention

  • Claims victory over the Goths

  • Death from plague - only soldier emperor to die in bed

2. Quintillus and Aurelian

  • Succession plan in place for Claudius’ brother (Marcus Aurelius Quintullus) to succeed

    • Quintillus minor figure; procurator in Sardinia

    • Only emperor for 17 days

    • Has time to mint coins

  • Army in Sirmium acclaim another individual, Marcus Aurelius Aurelianus, emperor (270-275)

    • Claudius’ own army support Aurelian, rather than Claudius’ brother Quintillus

    • Quintillus dies; murder or suicide unclear

  • 270/271- Aurelian cleans up northern frontier

  • Gothic invasion stemmed and seems to happen muchness in this period

    • Why? Aurelian more competent emperor? Building on success of his predecessor, Claudius Gothicus? Were the Goths themselves less interested in raiding in Rome if resistance was stronger?

  • Abandons Transdanubian Dacia,and creates a new province called Dacia to mask the lost of the first area

    • Manipulation of memory

  • Fortification of cities, including Rome

    • Aurelian Wall increases territory of city of Rome

    • Why? Raiding groups getting further into Roman territory

    • Roman refortifying suggest Rome itself was at threat; violent of frontier crept ever closer and the heartland of empire was at threat

    • Augustan period; conflict getting further and further from Rome

    • Reversal of this; conflict getting closer, city of Rome at threat

  • Fragmentation of empire - Gallic and Palymrene empires


  1. Postumus’ empire

  • Postumus established new state beyond Alps

  • Ten year reign, unchallenged and without conflict

    • Resources of central government had been spread to thin; local elites were able to provide for citizens that which central government could no longer

    • Roman ideology - titulature, coins, etc

    • No desire for independence?

  • Usurper can’t be put down, Gallienus just has to live with him

    • At what point does a continuous usurper become an emperor?

    • Seen as being so established that someone else wants to be in his place, and is usurped

    • Ulpius Cornelianus Laelianus (288) defeated in battle

      • This story rhetorical trope? Reign begins and ends with stories of military blunder

  • Central government was still unable to do anything, so we see succession the Gallic empire

    • Authority passes from one individual to another, thus becoming an empire in itself

  • Victorinus defeats Marius and becomes emperor in Gallic empire, who is then defeated by Tetricus

  • At point at which there is civil war, a number of regions declare authority to central Roman authority, Claudius Gothicus

    • Suggests it was precisely the political stability offered by Postumus that made him an attractive ruler to these regions

    • Postumus rules at a time where instability is centrla, some emperors reigning for only 17 days

    • Clear why this might be attractive to local magistrates; allows individuals to get on with local life, trading, etc without constant political disturbance

    • To what extent are individuals aware of central recognition?

      • What are the mechanisms by which individuals can check who has legitimately claimed power?

      • If nobody challenges Postumus for 10 years, what reason would one have for viewing him as illegitimate?

      • To what extent do individuals pay attention to the close details of central authority?


  1. Odaenathus’ role

  • De-facto control over Western side of empire

  • Claiming other titles

    • King of kings in; corrector totes Orients

  • Odaenathus’ accepted overture from Gallienus

  • A working relationship… that stopped working

  • Moments of succession which mean the basis of power and legitimacy are brought into light and questioned

  • Odaenathus dies

2. Zenobia’s empire

  • Wife of Odaenathus viewed his position as one which should be inherited, by his son Vaballathus, aged >10

  • Zenobia engineers succession of her son

    • Inscriptions indicate her own agency; claiming position that was given to the father; ‘mother of the king’

    • Attempt to claim magistracy for the son

  • Zenobia’s ambitions exceeded those of her husband; he was happy with bounds of power given to him in the position of corrector totius orientis

    • Envisages Palmyrene empire

    • Begins minting coins - something Odaenathus had never done

    • Coins claim authority over the Romans; claiming Vaballathus and Aurelian as co-emperors, uses language of emperors

    • Uses central imperial imagery - crowned and in style of Augustus

    • Coins of Vaballathus dressed as Hercules; cf. Commodus

    • Coinage also produced for Zenobia - indication for her own ambition?

  • Starts as king of kings, already disputed by central government, and then claims more and more, co-emperor with Aurelian

  • Backdating of Vaballathus 3 years; claiming he is the senior emperor with Aurelian - changing of memory

  • Instability creates space for individuals to push boundaries


  1. Defeat of the Palmyrene Empire

  • 273: Aurelian advances towards Palmyra

    • 2 quick defeats

    • Besieges Palmyra, Zenobia captured and taken as a prisoner to Rome

2. Defeat of Gallic Empire

  • 274 Aurelian approaches

  • Tetricus negotiates own surrender

  • Sacrifices army to need for a victory

  • Both victorie anti climactic

    • Discovering problems of original empire

    • Once they have to place the problem of succession -THE FUNDAMDENTLA PROBLEM OF TH E ROMAN EMPIRE WHICH IS NEVER FACE/RESOLVED - those empires themselves become too weak to continue

3. The image of victory

  • Double triumph; first in many years

  • Aurelian presenting as victory over foreign barbarians, rather than reclaiming of territories; cf. Flavian attitudes to Jewish War

  • Zenobia marries senator; Tetricus becomes senator

    • Interesting because you can see the distinction between reality of events and the image Aurelian attempts to present

8. Administrative Revolution: (Diocletian, Maximian)


  • Interregnum

  • 275 Aurelian dies at Caenophurium, nature of death unclear

  • No successor in places indicates this wasn’t an organised conspiracy/plan against Aurelian, but a one man attack on the emperor

    • Sources record him being killed by a low level administrator

  • No obvious factions contending for power - nobody wants the job

    • Clear that life expectancy not long for emperor

  • Sources remember an interregnum; period between rules, with no emperor

    • Degree to which there actually was an interregnum has been questioned

    • Coinage produced in this period; bust of Roman people, reverse SC with interregnum urbis?

    • Historia Augusta; world governed by collaboration of senate

      • Rosy image of a period of uncertain chaos

    • Long historical interregnum, or sources struggling to put together narrative?

  • NB from 272 narrative of Dexippus ends; historical narrative confusion

  • General choose Marcus Claudius Tacitus as emperor

    • Takes some action against the Goths

    • Possible that later sources are confused between ‘Claudius’ and Claudius Gothicus

    • Lasts only 6 months; murdered

  • Rapid succession

  • 275 Tacitus’ brother Florianus acclaimed army in Asia

  • Probus simultaneously acclaimed

  • Florianus killed by own soldiers - reign 60-88 days

    • Literary trope? Nature of succession similar to previous emperors

  • Probus reigned for 6 years

    • Constantly on campaign/dealing with usurpations

    • Celebrates a triumph in 281

    • One of the most important emperors of the third century about whom we know hardly anything

  • 282 Probus dies

    • Murdered by prefect, Carus?

  • Carus then declared emperor

    • NB. No evidence of senate recognition… or even asking for it

      • Power of senate had long been diminishing

      • Absence of evidence does not mean it didn’t happen

      • Normal for emperors to be ratified by the senate, even if they didn’t go to Rome

      • One way to distinguish between emperor/usurpers is to look at who the senate recognised

  • Carus elevates two sons, Carinus and Numerianus, by splitting territory between them

  • Carus dies; stuck by lightning, or illness

  • 283 Numerianus hailed by army; eye infection/assassination?

  • Carinus left as sole ruler


  • Accession

    • Nov 20 284: junior military officer ends up on imperial throne, chosen by senior imperial officers who didn’t want the role for themselves

      • Gaius Valerius Diocles

      • One of the very few emperors about whom we know nothing of his earlier life; shows he was not very important

    • First actions; addresses troops, calls on sun god to avenge Numerianus

    • Then stabs prefect Aper

    • Led forced to Illyricum, confronting Carinus at Maargus

    • Carinus killed before battle by own troops

    • Makes no sense for Diocles to march against the brother of the person he just claimed to avenge

      • Narrative to cover up the reality that Diocles was the usurper; common occurrence for the 3rd century

  • Stabilising power

    • One of the least promising emperors of the third century manages to do what no other emperor of the century has done, and stabilises his authority; he manages to retire from politics!

    • Everything against him being a successful emperor

      • Not important, in terms of family history

      • Dynastically weak; daughter but no son

    • Takes a series of measures to try and resolve both issues; quite conventional steps

      • Latinises his name; Diocletianus

      • Chooses a a Caesar: 285 Maximian

        • 4 years later, promotes Maximian to position of Augustus

    • Electing a Caesar has precedent, but electing two Augusti more unusual

      • Requires a degree of faith in co-ruler not to destabilise rule

      • Two Augusti, not of the same family (new situation), appearance of new ideology to understand this

      • Success bound not just in his actions but the way he presents it

    • Emergence of diarchy - rule by two

      • Two Augusti referred to as like Jupiter and Hercules; divine figures but ranked. Religious ideology to link new model of rule

      • Unified government, split between two courts; Diocletian based in Balkans, Maximian in Northern Gaul

        • Attempt to solve the problems of sole rule, and prevent further fragmentation

      • Image of unity AND superiority of one

        • Identical figures, but one emperor has a slightly more patriarchal stance than the other

      • Recognition that rule needs to be shared, but one emperor is to be superior to prevent usurpation; separate emperors working in unity

      • Through diarchy will be restoration

        • New imperial system that would enable the empire to be restored

        • Language of restoration goes back to the res publica

    • Rules for 25 years, retires; extraordinary transition


  • The tetrarchy

    • End 290:Diocletian and Maximian meet at Milan

    • Two emperors not sufficient- Carausis, the pirate king

      • 287 fleet protecting coast of Britain

      • Allowing pillage. Maximian orders death

      • Flees to Britain where he is declared emperor

        • cf. Postumus, Odeanathus

    • 293 command vsCarausis passed to Costantius - won

      • Divores wife and married Maximian’s daughter

    • Later 293 Galerius acclaimed Caesar, also made to divorce wife and made to marry Diocletian’s daughter

    • Bound into the framework of imperial rule

    • End up with tetrarchy - by design or accident?

      • The system which stabilises the empire

      • ‘Tetrarchy’ never used in antiquity; modern term, quite misleading

        • In antiquity, referred to formal splitting of territory for rule by four

          • Cf. Herod the Great, territory split between 4 children

        • Not ruling separate territories, 4 different holders of imperial office, based in separate areas of the empire, but no formal division of territory

        • Debated the extent to which this really was a new system of rule

          • Unusual example of what was actually fairly standard?

    • Response to difficulty of maintaining military command on multiple frontiers

  • The Dominate

    • Move from principate to dominate; rule by princeps to dominus

    • 2 Augustu, 2 Caesares

      • None assume central base in Rome; now impractical as a base for emperors who are involved in constant campaigning

      • New imperial capitals near frontiers, centres of military action

    • Distinctive ideology of new regime

      • Focus on collegiality and harmony

      • New military imagery; square jawed, stubbled beards, short hair

      • Statue on corner, looking out into multiple directions, guarding entire empire

    • Suggestion that with Diocletian that treating of emperors as gods rather than equals starts to happen

    • Sacralised figure; less likely to be assassinated? Not every man could be emperor, but divine individuals had been chosen

    • Having 4 emperors produced a much more bureaucratic administrative system

      • New provinces

      • Tetrarchy goes hand in hand with the reorganisations of the mechanisms of empire

9. Religious Revolution: (Constantine)


  1. Stage 1

  • 305 Maximian and Diocletian retire (die 310 and 312 respectively)

    • Private life after being emperor was unprecedented

    • Diocletian’s retirement seems to have been willing - possible pressure from Galerius?

    • Constantius and Galerius promoted to Augusti

    • 2 new Caesares promoted: Maximin Daia and Severus

  • Both close to Galerius: lends support to the Christian viewpoint that Galerius is the controlling agent

  • Constantius and Maximian both have adult sons: Constantius and Maxentius

    • Both overlooked: unusual for a biological son to be ignored in the succession

      • cf. Adoptive principle only worked in 2nd century because emperors had no biological sons

    • One of the only points in history where there was a genuine attempt to introduce a succession plan that overlooked biology in favour of merit

    • Vision only lasts for one generation; passing on of power falls apart after one generation

    • Roman world cannot cope with biological sons being omitted/biological sons cannot cope with being omitted

  • 306 Constantius, now Augustus in the West, dies; his troops proclaim Constantine as Augustus

    • Difficult to reconstruct the narrative of events; first Christian emperor, Christian sources dominate late antiquity, therefore the narrative is unanimously pro-Constantine

    • Acclamation engineered by Constantius; recognised by Galerius

    • Severus elevated to Augustus in the west

    • Constantine acclaimed as Caesar

  • This leads Maximian’s son Maxentius aggrieved… revolts

    • Maximian comes out of retirement to join sons’ revolt against Severus

    • Severus’ troops refuse to fight, Severus imprisoned

  • 307 Constantine allies himself with Maximian and Maxentius

    • Married daughter of Maximian

  • 308 Diocletian comes out of retirement to form new tetrarchy

    • Licinius appointed by Galerius as Augustus

    • Maximinus and Augustus named Caesar - junior position

    • Maximinus and Constantine demand elevation to Augustus

      • End up in situation with 4 co-emperors, rather than 2 senior and 2 junior

  • Diocletian’s system stabilises constant usurpation

  • Attempts to put down a stable succession falls apart almost immediately

    • Attempt to provide stability works for a generation but is a failure due to the inability to fix the main problem of the empire: the issue of succession

  1. Stage 2

  • 310 Maximian comes out of retirement… AGAIN (against own son)

    • Tells troops that Constantine is dead and retreats to Marseille… commits suicide

    • Problem for Constantine; draws his legitimacy from Maximian

      • Constantine has to look for a new basis/claim to legitimacy

    • New narrative: appropriation of Claudius Gothicus

      • Claim to imperial authority based on his father having been an emperor, and Claudius Gothicus

      • ‘third ruler after two rulers of your line’ based on familial dynasty rather than the tetrarchic system

      • No other tetrarchic rulers can make this claim

  • 311 Galerius dies - seems to have been holding things in check

    • When Galerius dies, things fall apart… possibility of civil war

    • Constantine and Licinus become allies and then each pick off another member of the tetrarchic college

      • Licinius goes agains Maximin Daia

      • Constantien goes against Maxentius

  • 312 Constantine defeats Maxentius

    • Night before the battle, Constantine converts to Christianity and is thus victorious

  • 313 Maximinus Daia defeated by Licintus

    • Both battles report having been aided by religious aid

  • Now 2 Augusti.. but no Caesars. Indication both emperors are looking to dynastic rule, and probably both have ambition for sole rule

  • 316 Fausta, Constantine’s second wife, daughter of Maximian, gives birth to Constantinus; catalyst for accelerating conflict between Licinus and Constantine

  • Christian sources recall this as having been motivated by Constantine’s desire to stop Licinus persecuting Christians in eastern provinces

  • More likely this is Constantine’s ambitions for dynastic rule being given a positive spin by later Christian authors

  • 317 Uneasy peace, 2 Augusti and 3 Caesars

    • Pretence of alliance continues

  • 324 Constantine defeats Licinus, surrenders and executed

    • Rome returns to having a single ruler

  • Political instability of the third century seems to have been ended temporarily by Diocletian’s tetrarchic reforms.

  • Constantine manages to rule the whole empire on his own, which no other emperor was able to due during the third century

  • Could be argued that he only managed to do this because the empire had been stabilised by the reforms of Diocletian

  • How successful actually was Constantine’s rule? Based entirely on later Christian sources - bias


  • Constantine takes an interest in church politics

  • Constantine calls church councils, first in 325