Throughout its entire life, the strength of the Roman Empire originated from its military prowess. Even though many Emperors had been loved by their subjects, their power always lay in the military’s backing. With the five good emperors passed and Commodus’s reign over, the army exercised its power less discretely. This period ranging from AD 180-284 is known as the “period of military despotism.” Emperors were set up by soldiers and subsequently cut down by their swords. During the one hundred and four year period, there were twenty-nine different rulers named. Some of these men were able and worthy men, most however were weak and despicable. Commodus’s successor was Pertinax, who was cut down by swords. The Empire was then put on offer to the one who would give the largest donation. This proved to be a rich senator by the name of Didius Julianus, who offered a sum equal to fifteen million. He ruled for a mere two months. At the same time Britain, Pannonia and Syria were in the process of proclaiming members of the army as emperor. A few noteworthy emperors follow.
Septimius Severus was the commander of the army in the neighbouring province of Pannonia. They campaigned to Rome during AD 193, where Septimius was able to secure the throne against his rivals. During his reign Septimius reformed the disbanded Praetorian Guard. Instead of the original size of nine thousand soldiers, he organised a garrison of forty thousand. These soldiers selected from the best of the legions, were intended to give the government increased military support. Since the government and military were essentially synchronous, the power of the military did much more than merely support. With this influence, Septimius was able to remove his enemies in the senate and was able to strip all of their authority. Septimius was an able soldier and embarked on many campaigns. He reached into the Parthian empire, Africa and into Britain, with Caledonia being his objective. Septimius fell ill in AD 211 and subsequently died, his son Caracalla acceded him.
Caracalla shared his reign with his younger brother Geta from AD 211. Unfortunately their relationship was fraught, and Caracalla murdered Geta later in that year. He is most known for the Edict of Caracalla, which granted Roman citizenship to all free men throughout the Roman Empire. The edict sounds generous but the real intention was to extend the reach of inheritance taxes. Which at the time only effected citizens. The rise in revenue was needed due to pay rises and benefits being conferred on the military. In AD 216 Caracalla initiated aggressive campaigns against the Parthians to grow Rome’s territory. The campaign began when Caracalla offered a marriage proposal to the king’s daughter. Upon his rejection Caracalla began the attack on Parthia. Caracalla died not long after in AD 217, when he was murdered by a disgruntled soldier.
Alexander Severus was the next notable emperor in the long list of emperors. His reign began in AD 222 after the reign of Elagabalus. He is said to be an excellent man. His reign was mostly peaceful and prosperous, with one glaring over sight. This was that Alexander was 13 at the time. Due to his inexperience and youth he was guided by his grandmother and mother. This unfortunately made Alexander their puppet, which was severely unpopular amongst the soldiers. The most noteworthy event of Alexander’s rule was his resistance to the Persians. The Persians had established a new monarchy on the ruins of the Parthian kingdom and were threatening an attack at the time. In AD 235 Alexander had to face German invaders in a confrontation. By the time he arrived though, the situation had abated. His mother then convinced him that violence wasn’t the proper retaliation and that bribery was. It’s believed that it was this tactic that caused the insubordination of his men, and the destruction of Alexander’s reputation. Alexander was murdered along with his mother, while attending a meeting with his generals. This secured the throne for Maximinus.
Rome was in a bad shape during this era, never before had it faced so many enemies at once. The newly formed Persian monarchy to the east had already laid claim to some of Rome’s provinces. The German barbarians were on the frontiers of the Rhine and Danube. On the lower Rhine several smaller tribes came together to form the “Franks”. On the upper Rhine near the Alps were various tribes which came together under the name of Alemanni (all men). Across the Danube and on the north shores of the Black Sea was the great nation of the Goths. The Goths were to become the Rome’s terror. In this era Rome was no longer waging war in conquest and expansion, rather in defense and for their very lives.
The Goths made their first move in AD 250 by invading Dacia, crossing the Danube, and overrunning the province of Moesia. The brave emperor Decius perished during the battle at Moesia. His successor, Gallus, subsequently bargained peace with the Goths. This was done by offering a yearly tribute. The Goths later made a more formidable invasion, this time by way of the Black sea and the Bosphorus. Using their ships they crossed the sea, besieged and plundered the cities of Asia Minor. They destroyed the temple of Diana at Ephesus, then crossed the Aegean Sea into Greece. After threatening Italy they retreated with their spoils back across the Danube.
While this was happening, the western provinces were invaded by the barbarians that lived across the Rhine. The Franks entered the western regions of Gaul, crossed the Pyreness, and sieged the cities of Spain. The Alemanni were also entering eastern Gaul and pushed into Italy as far as the walls of the Ravenna. The roman garrison, which had took the place of the old praetorian guard, proved their worth. They were able to repel the invaders and defend the city.
The Persian monarchy which was under its second king, Sapor, also made its move against Rome. Sapor first brought under his control Armenia, which had remained an independent kingdom since the time of Hadrian. He then invaded and overran the Roman provinces of Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia. Antioch and other cities along the coast were destroyed and pillaged, and the emperor Valerian was captured as a prisoner. Valerian’s name has passed into history with disgrace. It’s said that whenever Sapor mounted his horse, Valerian was used as a stepping stool.
To add to all of these assaults on Rome, there were also internal usurpers. This period is called the time of the “Thirty Tyrants”, as revolts occurred in every part of the empire, Asia, Egypt, Greece, Illyricum, and Gaul included. Rome was suffering, and to the horror of the empire they were to be gripped by famine and pestilence as well. For about fifteen years from the reign of Decius, the empire also fell victim to a vengeful plague. It’s said to have raged in every province and every city, and almost every family. With all of this destruction Rome seemed to be on the verge of demise. It had indeed faced and survived these odds before in the past, but not with so much internal fracturing. However, even in their precarious position, the Romans had not lost yet. In AD 268, a great man by the name of Claudius II entered the scene.