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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!


Also known as ‘The Crisis of the Third Century’, ‘the period of the Anarchy (235 CE—c. 270 CE) witnessed significant changes to the Empire’s governmental structure. However, the Anarchy, while often viewed as a period of ‘decline and partial renewal’, also saw some intriguing cultural developments in religion, social organization, philosophy and economy. The third century may be considered a vibrant bridge between the ‘classical’ structures of the Principate and the rebuilt social, cultural and political entities of the fourth century.

It is somewhat misleading to lump a widely varied set of trends into a single ‘crisis’; rather, underlying economic, social and political structures which were fairly well-suited to an Empire whose external enemies were relatively weak were found wanting when the Empire came under increasing pressure along a three thousand mile frontier.

For all the remarkable civic structures—aqueducts, temples, amphitheatres, libraries—that urban life enjoyed under the Empire, it is critical to recall that over 95% of the population lived in primitive agrarian conditions. The Empire’s financial base drew most of its income from urban taxation; though the rural population was some nineteen times that of the cities, the Empire’s rural tax revenues per capita were much smaller than that of the various urban centers. This implies that the urban areas, while providing a relative majority of the Empire’s tax base, also rendered the Empire quite vulnerable should any trends affect the cities. Especially in the West, which was far less urbanized than the Eastern provinces, tax revenues were critically dependant upon a healthy urban infrastructure.

Even under the Pax RomanaThe period 27 BCE-c. 180 CE, urban dwellers labored under a steadily increasing monetary burden. While the peace lasted and the frontiers were secure, internal trade was able to grow, and civic revenues grew as well. However, at the same time, expenditure on urban amenities tended to grow even more quickly (a phenomenon not unknown today), while cities whose budgets fell into chronic disarray saw the central government take on an increasing number of hitherto ‘local’ administrative functions. Already by the late first century cities were being forced to ask for Imperial aid.

A burgeoning civil service (another lesson for our time) and rising pay for the army imposed further increasing costs. By the mid second century, even in times of relative prosperity, the crucial component of the tax base—the cities—was under increasing strain in attempting to meet both local and imperial tax commitments. The Antonine Plague (165 CE-180 CE, named for Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, under whose reign it occurred; possibly smallpox?), resulted in the deaths of between 4 and 5 million from a total population estimated as, at most some 70 million; exact statistics are impossible to come by, but it is reasonable to assume that the urban centers were hit relatively harder than rural areas. Worse yet, Rome was fighting a resurgent Parthia at the time (161 CE-166 CE), followed in short order by large-scale barbarian incursions—the first in over two centuries—along the Danube, all of which required a greater than usual financial outlay—so much so that the Marcus Aureliusemperor 161 CE-180 CE resorted to selling the crown jewels to fund the effort.

For the time being, the linear defense strategy inaugurated by Hadrianemperor 117 CE-138 CE was able to contain the threat while Imperial ad hoc forces were gathered to meet the enemy in the field; however, both it and the Imperial budget were clearly under increasing strain at a time when the domestic tax base was suffering both from existing burdens and the effects of the plague.

Quite early on the government attempted to increase the amount of money in circulation in an attempt to create additional funds with which to address such costs (a phenomenon being repeated in at least two Western nations at this writing). Since no fiat currency existed, and since the precious metal content of each coin was its intrinsic value, the apparent solution lay in debasing the currency—at first by a small amount—while claiming that the coin retained its original value. Unfortunately, this simply led to devaluation of the currency, which translated into steadily rising prices (inflation). Thus, at the very time local, regional and Empire-wide economies were experiencing unprecedented strains, costs for every product were also rising.

In response, the government began to increase taxes, hoping thereby to offset the ever-more expensive outlay in which it was forced to engage.

By the end of Commodus’ reign (emperor 180 CE-193 CE) the coffers were depleted. The Severansdynasty founded by Septimius Severus (193 CE-211 CE), enduring to 235 CE managed to maintain the Empire’s stability, but the financial underpinnings continued to decay. The end of the Severan dynasty saw a state whose finances were now sorely tried—in many areas the inhabitants were reverting to a barter economy.

Absent any ruling dynasty—a concept which, under the structure of the Principate was difficult to implement in any case—the military began to take a more overt role in the contest for the Imperial title. Sassanid Persiaalso ‘Sassanian’; a native Persian dynasty which gained increasing power within the Parthian kingdom from 205 CE onward, overthrowing their nominal overlords in c. 224 CE, intent on dreams of reconstituting the old Persian Empire, and a far more centralized, formidable foe than Parthia had been, began to exert pressure on the eastern frontiers, presenting Rome with an unprecedented threat. For the first time since the beginning of the Principate Rome faced a potential enemy as determined and powerful as she herself. Nearly simultaneously, the German tribes beyond the Rhine and Danube began to raid on a scale larger than any before, and in larger confederations.

The linear defense system, as noted elsewhere, lacked a ‘central reserve’ capable of meeting and repelling regional or Empire-wide threats, for the simple reason that no such threat had existed in the second century. When troops were needed for large-scale operations elsewhere, it was customary for individual auxiliary cohorts or legionary detachmentssuch legionary ad-hoc detachments were known as ‘vexillationes’ (Lat s. vexillatio), so called from the flag (vexillum), bearing the emblem of the unit’s parent legion, under which such detachments fought. The legionary eagle itself remained with at the legion’s home base where the ‘legion’ was formally garrisoned to be transferred from quiet frontier zones to whatever ad-hoc army was to be employed (generally under the Emperor’s command). Such forces tended not to be returned to their former garrisons, leading by the third century to weakened frontier forces.

Barbarian incursions were now larger and more organized than before. The occasional ‘cross frontier cattle raid’ was being supplanted by more deliberate forays carried out by tribal groupings rather than by small bands of ‘local troublemakers’. They were often faced with less robust defenses than those of a few decades earlier, and when such incursions occurred in several regions at once, no centralized field force existed to repel them other than whatever the Emperor happened to have with him; and worse yet, the Emperor, no matter how capable, and no matter how strong his companion forces, could only attend to one incursion at a time.

The army, then, tended to elevate whatever local commander appeared capable of meeting a specific crisis, leading to multiple ‘Augusti’, generally raised up in response to some pressing military need. Unfortunately, these Augusti—whether legitimized at Rome or not—also spent precious time, treasure and manpower fighting one another. The throne became a dangerous office to hold, even for the most cunning, militarily adept emperor.

The middle decades of the third century present a picture of competing ‘Augusti’, generally doing their best to contain enemy incursion from the Rhine delta to the Euphrates. One (Decius, emperor 249 CE-251 CE) was killed in battle against the Germans; another (Valerian, emperor 253 CE-260 CE) captured and humiliated by the Persians. The economy, already in a parlous state, very nearly collapsed under rising taxation, rising inflation, and the dire effects on trade and productivity as a result of enemy plundering and general insecurity.

Thus the ‘Anarchy’—long-established systems of defense, taxation, government spending and social mores were all put under increasing and nearly impossible strain. Along a 3000 mile frontier, the Empire struggled to repel invaders, suppress usurpers, and maintain a tax structure which relied upon a primitive, mainly agrarian economy for its revenues. That the Empire succeeded magnificently is high tribute to the ruthless resolve of the emperors—‘legitimate’ or otherwise, to the army, whose resources were put to their most severe test since the Punic Warsthe three wars spanning the period 264 BCE-146 BCE against Carthage, held to be the most dangerous of all Rome’s opponents, and to the astonishing resiliency of the Empire’s multifaceted society, which saw remarkable religious, philosophical, social artistic and political developments, laying the foundations for the Dominate and the early Middle Ages.

Gallienus’son of Valerian; co-emperor 253 CE-260-CE; sole ruler 260 CE-268 CE reign may be considered as the chaotic beginnings of recovery. A centralized field force consisting mainly of cavalry plus various vexillationes of legionary and auxiliary infantry defeated a barbarian incursion at Mediolanum (Milan) and Augusta Rauricorum (Augsburg) in 259-260. Gallienus went on to quell a revolt in Illyricumprovince, very roughly covering the area of the former Yugoslavia. Nearly simultaneously, however, large-scale barbarian incursion along the Rhine led to the creation of the breakaway ‘Gallic Empire’, while the desert city of Palmyraa wealthy trading center located northeast of Damascus assumed leadership against the Persian threat, and soon after created its own ‘Palmyran Empire’.

In 268 a large-scale Gothic invasion flooded into the eastern Balkans; at the same time, sea-going Germans sallied from the Black Sea, passed the Bosporus, and proceeded to plunder the Aegean, Thrace and Macedonia, threatening cities as far south as Athens. Gallienus responded with his ‘New Model Army’: fast-moving cavalry, both heavy and light, and elite ‘companion’ infantry forces. At Naissus he utterly routed the Goths in what is accepted as the bloodiest battle of the third century. Gallienus then returned to Italy to put down yet another revolt (268), this one by none other than his own cavalry force commander, Aureolus, who had apparently decided to throw in with the ‘Gallic Empire’.

Assassinated by his own troops, Gallienus was succeeded by Claudius IIemperor 268 CE-270 CE, whose first move was to finish Aureolus. In late autumn of that year yet another large incursion, this time of AlemanniGerman tribal confederation; the name means ‘all men’, referring to the confederate nature of this group, was soundly defeated—reputedly fewer than half the invaders survived. In the following year Claudius’ generals invaded the ‘Gallic Empire’, recovering territory east of the Rhone, while talks with the Hispanic provinces brought them peacefully back to the central government. Meanwhile, Claudius moved into the Balkans, defeating still more Goths at Marcianopolis, a victory so complete that he was awarded the title ‘Gothicus’. Claudius’ naval commander in Egypt, meanwhile, overcame the marauding Heruli fleet, finally freeing the Aegean from barbarian harassment.

While preparing to deal with yet another in the apparently endless succession of barbarian incursions, Claudius fell ill—apparently of plague— and died (270) leaving effective command in the hands of Aurelianemperor 270 CE-275 CE, another highly capable Balkan general.

Aurelian defeated another invasion of Italy, and promptly moved to repel further incursions in the Balkans before returning to Italy to defeat another large invasion piecemeal. In 272 he moved east, destroying the Palmyrene Empire, wiping out yet more bands of invading Goths in passing as he crossed the Balkans. Asia Minor and Egypt returned to the Empire without a struggle, and Aurelian in two pitched battles defeated Palmyra. Returning west, he then proceeded to demolish the Gallic Empire. In the space of only five years Aurelian had punishingly defeated repeated invasions from Italy to the eastern Balkans, destroyed Palmyra, and recovered Gaul. In 275 Aurelian was assassinated in yet another ‘palace plot’, but his work was complete—the Empire was reunited, its enemies humbled for the moment, and even various aspects of the economy had been addressed by perhaps the most militarily successful emperor since the establishment of the Principate.

Succeeding emperors consolidated the recovery, though usurpations continued at a dizzying pace. The accession of Diocles—Diocletianemperor 284 CE-305 CE/ as he is commonly known—saw a radical reorganization of the Imperial structure; the Principate gave way to the Dominate. The ‘Balkan’ emperors had, in face of nearly insurmountable difficulties, managed to turn back multiple threats and to restore a degree of internal order—perhaps the single most remarkable recovery by any society of any period.

Page created by Eric Jacobson