II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > E. Rome > 4. The Roman Empire, 14–284 C.E. > f. The Third Century
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
f. The Third Century
1. Civil War and the Severans
Augustus had created a system whereby a large empire was defended by a limited use of force, and at a relatively small cost to the upper classes. Soldiers, numbering about 300,000, were disposed judiciously along the frontiers and were moved to meet changing threats. A second element in the defense of the frontiers was client states—peoples living just outside the Empire whom the Romans controlled through diplomacy and money. These states helped protect the borders and provided soldiers for units of the Roman army. It was the movements of peoples from northern and eastern Europe beginning in the latter 2nd century which upset the balance. The Marcomannic War, which was a revolt of the client peoples along the Rhine and Danube, signaled the end of diplomacy as an effective and inexpensive method of defending the northern borders. The only alternative was more soldiers, but this entailed greater expense. As a “good emperor,” Marcus Aurelius was unwilling to tax the wealthy. The result was a drawn-out war which seriously strained the Empire's resources. Subsequent emperors felt less compunction about expropriating the wealth of the upper classes to pay for the armies. The civil war which followed the murder of Commodus exacerbated the trend, and its ultimate victor, Septimius Severus, ruthlessly exposed the military basis of imperial power and made the upper classes pay for it. The political reality of the 3rd century is summarized in the dying Septimius's advice to his sons—“Enrich the soldiers, despise everyone else.”  1
Publius Helvetius PERTINAX, a sixty-six-year-old senator, who had risen from obscurity as an officer under Marcus Aurelius, was chosen emperor by the senate. His strict and frugal rule led to his murder (Mar. 23) by the praetorian guard, who then auctioned off the Empire to M. Didius Julianus, who promised to pay them the highest donative. The provincial armies reacted by nominating their own candidates; the British legions proclaiming the legate D. Clodius Albinus; the Syrian army, C. Pescennius Niger; and the Pannonian legions, L. Septimius Severus. Severus marched to Rome, where the senate deposed and executed Julianus.  2
Lucius SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS (b. 146, at Leptis in Africa), emperor. He dissolved the existing praetorian cohorts, composed of recruits from Italy, and enrolled new ones from legionary veterans. He kept Albinus quiet by recognizing him as Caesar (i.e., heir). He then defeated Niger in Battles at Cyzicus and Nicaea and at Issus (the Cilician Gates) and put him to death near Antioch (194). Albinus, who now claimed full equality, was defeated and slain (197, Feb. 19) at Lugdunum (Lyons), which was also sacked and which never recovered its prosperity. Severus executed the supporters of Albinus in Gaul and Italy.  3
Severus created three new legions, one of which was quartered near the Alban Lake in Italy, hitherto free from the presence of legionary troops. He appointed equestrians to command these legions, contrary to the Augustan rule, and also put the new province of Mesopotamia under an equestrian. He thus initiated the replacement of senators by equestrians in military posts which culminated under Gallienus. Military marriages were recognized, auxiliaries were settled on public land in return for military service, and the legionary pay was raised. Severus gave the jurisdiction over Rome and the area within 100 miles to the prefect of the city and over the rest of Italy to the praetorian prefect, who also exercised jurisdiction on appeal from the provinces. The emperor began the subdivision of provinces into smaller units, which culminated under Diocletian, and extended the organization of municipalities as the basis of tax collecting even to Egypt, which shows how valueless municipal status had become. He created a new treasury in addition to the fiscus (the original imperial treasury) and the patrimonium Caesaris (originally the ruler's private property, then crown property), namely the res privata, his personal funds, which were swelled by confiscations. He reduced the state senatorial treasury (aerarium) to a municipal treasury of Rome. He depreciated the silver content of the denarius to below 60 percent. Extensive and magnificent building programs were carried out in Rome, Africa, and Syria.  4
In a successful Parthian war Severus advanced as far as Ctesiphon and reconstituted the province of Mesopotamia under an equestrian governor with two legions.  5
A recurrence of troubles in Britain required the presence of Septimius himself to fight the Caledonians. He definitely withdrew from the wall of Antoninus to that of Hadrian, which he rebuilt. He died at Eboracum (York) on Feb. 4, 211.  6
CARACALLA (properly Caracallus), so named from a Gallic cloak which he wore, began to rule. He was the oldest son of Septimius and had been associated with him as Augustus (198). To strengthen the bond between the Severi and the Antonines he had changed his name from Septimius Bassianus to Marcus Aurelius (Severus) Antoninus (197). Upon his accession, he murdered his colleague (since 209) and younger brother, P. (originally L.) Septimius (Antoninus) Geta (b. 189), along with the jurist Papinian and many others. He increased the pay of the troops. To meet the consequent deficit he issued a new coin, the antoninianus, with a face value of two denarii but a weight of only one and two-thirds. He erected at Rome the vast Baths of Caracalla (thermae Antoninianae).  7
The EDICT OF CARACALLA (constitutio Antoniniana) extended Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire save a limited group, perhaps including the Egyptians. Citizenship now meant so little that this step was a natural culmination of the leveling down of distinctions that had been continuous throughout the Empire. Caracalla's motive has been much disputed; he probably hoped to extend to all inhabitants the inheritance tax paid by Roman citizens.  8
Caracalla successfully defended the northern frontier against the Alamanni in southern Germany and the Goths on the lower Danube (214), and in the east he annexed Armenia (216). But as he was preparing an invasion of Parthia, he was murdered by a group of his officers (217, Apr. 8).  9
Marcus Opellius (Severus) MACRINUS (b. 164?), emperor. He was a Mauretanian who had risen from the ranks to be praetorian prefect and was the first equestrian emperor. He surrendered Caracalla's eastern gains and sought to reduce the pay of the troops, who set up as a rival (218, May 16) at Emesa in Syria Bassianus, a grandnephew of Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Septimius. Macrinus was assassinated on June 8, 218.  10
The young Bassianus, surnamed ELAGABALUS (Heliogabalus, b. c. 205), came to power. He derived his cognomen from the Emesa god, whose priest he was. To legitimize his rule, he changed his name from (Varius) Avitus to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and claimed to be a son of Caracalla. While Elagabalus surrendered himself to license and introduced the worship of his god to Rome, the Empire was really ruled by his forceful mother, Julia Maesa. She obliged him to adopt his cousin (Gessius) Bassianus (Alexianus?), son of her sister, Julia Mamaea. The praetorians murdered Elagabalus (222, March 11).  11
Marcus Aurelius SEVERUS ALEXANDER (b. c. 208), emperor. He was the adopted son of Elagabalus and was dominated by his mother, Mamaea. She established a regency committee of senators and used the advice of the jurists Paulus and Ulpian.  12
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.