Alexander Severus’ reign ended with Germanic and Persian forces marching on the Roman Empire. His death marked the conclusion of the old Augustan Principate System. Chaos consumed the empire for the next five decades. The Crisis of the Third Century brought civil war, economic and political collapse, and constant foreign incursions. Diocletian finally ended the turmoil, but the empire never truly recovered.
Germanic tribes threatened Rome’s borders. Alexander Severus had recently defeated the Sassanid Empire in Persia and hoped to buy time. As a result, he resorted to bribery and diplomacy to placate the Germans. The Roman military disapproved of Severus’ tactics and assassinated him. Severus’ death initiated a crisis lasting fifty years.
Several pretenders claimed the Roman throne from 235-284 A.D. There might have been 50 or more emperors during this period. The political instability undermined the empire. The old Augustan system ended. Before the crisis, emperors rose to power and named their successor. At times, they adopted capable men to further the dynasty and ensure stability. After Severus, generals engaged in a free-for-all. Within 20 years, the empire split into three competing states. The Gallic Empire formed in the west, the Palmyrene Empire incorporated in the east, and the Roman Empire remained in the center.
The constant fighting left the imperial borders open to invasion. Roman armies seemed more content fighting each other than preserving the empire. On top of this, the Sassanid Empire struck occasionally against the weakened former superpower. In 251, a plague pandemic weakeded the empire decimating the population and further handicapping Roman forces.
The plague, civil wars, splintering of the empire, and external invasions ravaged the Roman economy. Generals and emperors continued to debase Roman currency. The resulting hyperinflation collapsed the economy and the value of Roman coins. By the end of the century, the economy devolved to barter. Additionally, old Roman trade networks disintegrated. The breakdown of authority, tribal raids, and even the Roman army made it too dangerous to trade. The Western European economy did not really recover until Charlemagne.
While the western economy never truly recovered for the Romans, the crisis began to abate in 269. The legions successfully repelled a Gothic invasion and a series of battle tested generals emerged. Victories continued and the empire reformed under Aurelian in 274. However, the empire itself was in shambles.
Aurelian restored the empire, but not the Principate. Diocletian assumed power in 284 and began radical reforms. The Diocletian system allowed the Western Roman Empire to survive for nearly 200 years and the eastern empire to survive until 1453. However, the crisis ruined Rome’s economy and decimated the populace. Neither truly recovered until the Middle Ages.
Power hungry Roman generals essentially destroyed the Roman Empire. The military murdered Alexander Severus and then plunged the empire into civil war. The turmoil lasted five decades. War, dislocation, plague, foreign invasions, and economic collapse ruined the Romans. Diocletian emerged in 284 to help stabilize the empire for another two centuries, but it was most likely too late. The Crisis of the Third Century created a mortal wound.