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The Crisis of the Third Century ends

Coin featuring Diocletian. He restored stability to the Roman Empire.
Coin featuring Diocletian. He restored stability to the Roman Empire.

Lightning killed the Roman Emperor Carus. The emperor had promoted his sons, Numerian and Carinus, to Caesar before the incident. The emperor’s untimely demise left his sons in charge. Both brothers ruled in concert before Numerian died. Afterward, Carinus proved corrupt and unpopular. Diocletian removed the remaining brother in 285 to claim the empire and end the Crisis of the Third Century.

Emperor Carus' sons were a study in contrast. Numerian earned a reputation as a likeable poet and orator. On the other hand, Carinus was despised for living to excess. Allegedly, he married nine women and had his memory condemned by the Romans after Diocletian’s ascension. Carinus’ character made it easier for Diocletian to later subvert his rival.

Despite Carinus’ flaws, Numerian was well liked. Carus death left the Roman army deep within Persian borders. Carus defeated the enemy, sacked the capitol, and then died. Numerian organized a withdrawal, which the troops wholeheartedly supported. During the maneuver, the co-emperor developed an infection. He traveled with the army in a closed coach. No one saw the emperor for a time when an odor began to emanate. Eventually, the smell overwhelmed the coach, so his men checked for the smell. They found the emperor dead.

Numerian had died during the journey of natural causes. However, many blamed Praetorian Prefect Arrius Aper of killing the emperor. Commander of the Guard Diocletian murdered Aper in full view of the army for assassinating the emperor. The assassination theory was a ruse by Diocletian to eliminate a potential rival.

With Numerian and Aper dead, Diocletian turned his attention to the unpopular Carinus. The emperor had fought with distinction against the Germans, but still managed to alienate people with his uncontrolled inhibitions. As a result, the army proclaimed Diocletian the real emperor. The two fought an engagement at the Margus River in July 285. Diocletian emerged the last man standing. It appears Carinus was assassinated by his own men. According to tradition, the emperor seduced the wife of one of his officers and that man killed him. In the aftermath, Diocletian reorganized the empire and completed the task of restoring order and stability. His rule marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century.

A stray lightning bolt changed Roman history. It ended the life of the emperor and led to the ascension of the last emperors to rule during the Crisis of the Third Century. Numerian died of natural causes, but Diocletian used the death as a rallying point by declaring it an assassination. Numerian’s brother, Carinus, met Diocletian in battle, but seems to have been betrayed and murdered by his own men. In the end, Diocletian restored the Roman Empire to much of its former glory.