Day 970: How One Woman’s Bad Advice Helped To Crumble An Empire

originally published August 27, 2014

A modicum of historical investigation, along with a smidge of fact-manipulation in order to build a semi-credible opening sentence has revealed a morsel of data heretofore unknown to me: the Roman Empire – the most mighty and triumphant political juggernaut of the early A.D.’s – was tipped over to a partial crumble, all because some guy listened to his mother.

That may seem like an exaggeration. A slight inflation of documented truth or the set-up for a bit of shtick. But history will back me up on this. By 476, the Roman Empire in the west had been sneezed into debris. It kept up appearances out east for another millennium, but the west had shuffled on to the Middle Ages, where the nightlife was more vibrant, despite the clothes being far less stylish.

History recalls the events of 235 AD as the start of the Crisis of the Third Century. Rome became a land with no leader, and with no one able to pick up a phone and coordinate their collective shit, the Europe-spanning Empire fell into troubled confusion. And the wheels were all set into motion by one guy’s mother, who passed on what could be viewed as some of the crappiest historic advice ever given.

The story begins with Mark Antony, that kook from all those wacky Shakespeare movies. When he was smited by Octavian in 31 BC, the table was set for what’s known as the Pax Romana – a 200 year period of unprecedented peace. The Roman Empire inflated to the Atlantic, deep into the Middle East, and south into Africa, all with relatively little military flexing. Then along came Emperor Alexander Severus.

In 235, Severus and his troops had been repelling a fleet of invading Germanic peoples – the Germanic types never hitched their horse to the Roman Empire’s wagon so these conflicts were fairly commonplace. Severus’s mother was with him, and she suggested he try some diplomacy (which is old-timey speak for ‘bribery’) with the Germanic chieftains so they could end the conflict and scoot back east to deal with the pushy Sasanian Empire in what we now call Iran.

Big mistake.

Severus’s troops weren’t pleased with the bribery of the people they’d really been hoping to slay. They turned on Severus with their swords and just like that, the Pax Romana period came to a swift close.

Nobody had counted on this. There was nothing in place to dictate who would take over driving duties for the mighty Empire, leaving a heap of would-be emperors battling for supremacy. Given that these aspiring leaders were also generals with armies backing them, it meant a serious lapse in border security while squabbles were fought internally. The Empire’s gates were left unguarded.

The Carpians, the Goths, the Vandals and Alamanni – all tribes who called the modern regions of Germany, Poland and Romania home – swept in for some prime pillaging. The Sasanids out east, whom Severus’s army never got around to fighting back, were also a problem. The Empire had a nasty leak.

The Roman Senate had no idea what to do. In 251, the Plague of Cyprian (which was probably smallpox) started creeping across the land, killing off as many as 5000 people a day. General after general was claiming to be the One True Emperor, and over the course of this fifty-year nightmare, the Senate officially accepted no less than 26 men as the guy in charge. For the sake of brevity I won’t list them all.

While the city of Rome was trying to get their mess in some kind of order, the outlying regions were getting fed up with their crumbling society. The internal trade network had all but collapsed, and the Roman economy was being completely abandoned in some areas as the value of their coinage plummeted. Eventually, a handful of industrious local leaders decided to forego the political mess in Rome and start their own solo act. In the late 250’s, the Empire officially split in three.

Out west, the provinces of Gaul, Britain and Hispania (essentially modern-day France, England and Spain/Portugal) formed the Gallic Empire in 258 AD. Two years later the eastern provinces of Palestine, Syria and Aegyptus (or ‘Egypt’ to us common-folk) became the Palmyrene Empire. It was probably the right move for the time, giving some sort of political structure to these regions and maybe a sliver of organization to their armed forces. The Rome-based portion of the Empire lay in the middle, still awash in political kvetching.

Then the Battle of Naissus happened in 269, and the game changed once again. The Goths were trying to elbow their way south into what is now Serbia. Emperor Gallienus (a.k.a Claudius II) led the Roman forces on the attack, and they so successfully repelled the horde of invaders – to the point of pursuing them into Macedonia and slaughtering every last one of them – that the entire self-perception of the Empire shifted immediately. They had someone to cheer for, a leader with genuine chutzpah and military know-how.

This was what the Empire needed. They had a hero in charge once again. Everything might have fallen right back into place immediately had Claudius II not died of that damn Plague of Cyprian the following year.

As cities tightened their urban sprawl and erected walls around their perimeters to stave off this new era of mass invasions, things continued to right themselves in Rome. Aurelian, who had headed up the cavalry during the Battle of Naissus, was appointed the new emperor, and slowly returned the Empire to its feet over his six-year reign. By the time Diocletian took over in 284, things were mostly back to normal – a plan of succession was put into place and Diocletian’s penchant for bureaucracy allowed for the Gallic and Palmyrene Empires to rejoin under the Roman flag.

In the western slab of the Empire, things were never quite the same. Not wholly confident that the state of political disarray wouldn’t return at some arbitrary future date, the locals began paying less attention to the central authority and more time toward handling things themselves. It was a gradual decline that would land in the swampy muck of the Early Middle Ages by the fifth century, while the Roman Empire would continue to thrive in the east for another thousand years.

All because some jackass emperor couldn’t make up his military mind, and decided instead to listen to his mother.

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