The Roman Empire was formed in the 1st century by Emperor Augustus, and it enjoyed a brief period of economic and political prosperity before experiencing a decline that led to its eventual demise. The third-century crisis is considered by many historians to be a decisive period in the history of the Roman Empire. During this era, the Empire experienced events that weakened it greatly.
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The events led to the eventual fall of the empire in the 5th century. Historians have for many years tried to come up with possible reasons for the decline of Rome during the 3rd century. From an analysis of the most compelling opinions offered by historians over the centuries, this paper will demonstrate that the decline of the Roman Empire during the third century was caused by economic deterioration and political strife in Rome.
Brief Overview of the Roman Empire
Emperor Augustus established the Roman Empire in 27BC after a period of great political upheaval. The Empire replaced the declining Roman Republic that had existed for 500 years and brought about peace and prosperity for Romans during its initial years. Historians record that for the first century, the Empire witnessed high economic prosperity, peace, and stability all over the vast territories that made by the Empire.
During this period of prosperity, the government encouraged private enterprise and implemented liberal economic policies that favored businessmen. The economy of the Empire was, therefore, able to thrive due to the establishment and growth of a solid middle class. However, Rome experienced a series of military, political, and economic crises in the decades following the end of Augustus rule and these crises precipitated the collapse of the kingdom.
Causes of the Decline
The deteriorating economic conditions in Rome were a major cause of the decline experienced in the third century. By the second century, the Empire was facing a demand for more revenue. This demand was not accompanied by a significant expansion of the Roman Empire. As such, Rome was not able to gain additional sources of revenue that would have come from tribute given by conquered territories.
The Empire therefore had to generate its own revenue to finance State expenditure. The actions taken by the government to increase revenue led to the economic collapse of Rome. Instead of raising taxes to increase revenue, the State engaged in the practice of currency debasement.
Debasing led to the increase in circulation of many coins that were of an inferior value since they had lower precious metal content. The current debasement practice did not solve the revenue problems that the Empire was experiencing. Instead, it led to high inflation as the value of money decreased.
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High rates of inflation caused a marked decline in commodity supplies all over Rome. There was a notable decline in the food supplies to the cities. This caused food shortages and many Roman city dwellers were forced to go to the countryside. This Urban-Rural migration had an adverse effect on the Empire since it reduced the specialized labor that Rome had relied on for expansion.
Further attempts were made to improve the Empire’s fiscal position by increasing taxation. In the early years of the Roman Empire, the taxes imposed on the citizens were limited. Using the Augustinian system, the provinces paid a flat tax of about 1%, which did not put a strain on the general population. Due to the deteriorating economic conditions in the Empire, the State started to impose taxation on private wealth.
At the onset, State taxation was imposed on the wealthy members of the society. However, over time the private wealth of the Empire dwindled away and it became necessary to tax the lower classes. This tax burden made it impossible for most people to make a living.
Politics and the Military
The growing importance of the military in the Empire encouraged the decline experienced during the 3rd century. In the early days of the Roman Empire, the strength of the Emperor was derived primarily from the loyalty and support of the Senators. The Senatorial class had immense political power and it had played a part in the ruling of Rome for centuries.
However, successive emperors came to believe that the Senatorial class was a threat and that power came primarily from the support of the army. This belief was based on the fact that Senators could become emperors by either gaining significant public support to oust the current Emperor or by plotting the assassination of the present ruler.
Based on these perceived threats, emperors sought to destroy the Senatorial class starting from the second century. This destruction was mostly carried out by eliminating the wealth possessed by this class through excessive taxation or outright confiscation of property.
On the other hand, the position of the military in Roman society was greatly elevated. Historians reveal that Emperor Augustus began the trend of relying on the military to maintain his hold on power. He increased pay and offered superior privileges to a powerful body of guards who served as his bodyguards and remained ready to crush any rebellion from the citizens or the Senators.
Successive emperors made dedicated efforts to sustain the military at all cost. The state made the satisfaction of the army’s needs a priority over everything else leading to an additional strain on the state’s resources. In spite of a breakdown in the monetary economy in Rome, the military continued to make great demands on the state.
Even when the Empire was facing dire economic times, the emperor ensured that the army was well provided for. This came at a huge cost to the private economy, which was made to deteriorate even further.
The political stability enjoyed during the Augustus reign declined over the decades and by the 3rd century, there were major political upheavals. The most politically destructive action to occur during this period was the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus in 235AD. This murder was carried out by the military following a failed campaign against raiders in the Sassanid Persia territory. This event had a major destabilizing effect on the Empire.
Following the murder of Emperor Alexander Severus, it became clear to all aspiring rulers that the throne was not safe. A fight for the control of Rome by army generals followed the death of Severus. Different generals tried to gain support to take a claim on the throne.
There was a period of internal conflict leading to a weakening of the army. In a span of five decades following the death of Alexander Severus, 25 different emperors, most of who were military officers ruled Rome. This infighting among army leaders meant that the military was unable to concentrate on protecting the Empire from the frequent raids experienced from barbarians.
Outcomes of the 3rd Century Decline
The crisis of the Third Century led to many negative outcomes that led to the eventual fall of the Roman Empire. To begin with, the crisis broke down the vast trade network that had contributed to flourishing commerce in Rome. Due to the civil unrest in the Empire, merchants could no longer safely travel within Rome. The lack of economic growth led to government intervention in the form of currency devaluation and increased taxation.
Both of these measures stifled Rome’s economy and in the end, the revenue generated by Rome was negligible while the state expenses continued to grow as the Empire faced threats from barbarian invasions. By the fifth century, Rome did not have any money to sustain a large army or build the forts and ships that were required to protect the Empire. The barbarians were, therefore, able to successfully invade Rome, causing the fall of this once great Empire.
This paper set out to show that the political and economic crises faced by Rome during the 3rd century caused the decline of the Empire. It began by highlighting the birth of the Roman Empire and the initial success of the state. The paper noted that the prosperity of Rome was short-lived and by the second century of its existence, the State was facing significant economic hardships.
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The government handled this situation in a counterproductive manner further exacerbating the conditions of the empire. In addition to this, the military contributed to political and economic instability in Rome. These factors combined to cause the decline of Rome in the 3rd century and its eventual collapse in the 5th century.
Bartlett, Bruce. “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome.” Cato Journal 14, no, 2 (1994): 287-303.
Gibbon, Edward. History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Web.
Lukas De Blois, The crisis of the third century A.D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth? 2002. Web.
Severy, Beth. Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire. NY: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Von Mises, Ludwig. Politics & Ideas: The Rise and Decline of Civilization.