Roman Government’s Response to Crises A.D. 235-337

Roman Government’s Response to Crisis A.D. 235-337

Ramsay MacMullen

Vail-Ballou Press

Ramsay MacMullen is one of the foremost historians on Ancient Rome having written a significant number of books that includes: Corruption and the Decline of Rome, Constantine, and Christianizing the Roman Empire. A study of the Roman Empire shows many parallels to the present predicament of Western civilization. He examines the period in the title from various aspects such as defense, law, money, taxes and intelligence. He even analyzes the expressions on the faces of the busts and statues of the ruling emperors as clues to determine their statesof mind and the empire at the time of their rule. Anyone that studies Rome, or even history in general, has to come to the conclusion that, in thousands of years, humanity has learned not one damn thing.


“If the half century after 235 is approached in the manner of its contemporary historians and through the most salient and accessible facts, its chief features can be arranged in a comprehensible line. First, foreign wars. . . . . Such recurrent failure to restore political stability generated civil strife as much as attracted invasion . . . . . had therefore to arm themselves on two fronts. They needed money in unprecedented quantities, and laws and men somehow to produce it. Armies, bureaucracies, and taxes all grew suddenly, simultaneously. At the same time, the economy in the areas closest to the scenes of war became less able to meet the demands placed on it, because it was pillaged and fought over; and that combined mint master and paymaster, the desperate Emperor of whatever reign, accordingly stretched his supplies of silver over a larger and larger bulk of more and worse coinage. Inflation set in, to a degree unprecedented.” Page 1/2

“The study of every aspect of this period needs the nourishment of evidence that simply does not exist.” Page 2

“The diversity of their viewpoints supports the very obvious proposition that different groups judge the reign according to its effects upon themselves. If pagans saw Christianity’s “damned vices twining daily across the whole world,” and dealt with moral decline by persecution, the persecuted cursed the age for the opposite reason and expressed their reaction in terms and images drawn from their own special beliefs.” Page 4

”The empire, through plagues, rebellions, external wars, neglect of agriculture, anxiety, and misery, had fallen into ‘senescence’.” Page 22

“What is at fault here is the belief that common experiences – inflation, barbarian raids, political instability – will be seen in the same way by every group or person they touch, thus giving a common character to the age. Rorschach’s inkblots provide the simplest reminder that such is not the case. Common experiences must pass through different modes of perception, which will screen out or alter different parts, according to the degree of interest or the associations aroused in different people’s minds. It is no cause for surprise, then, that the ills that afflicted the Empire were not understood as one interconnected whole or that they cannot now be arranged as such by valid historical interpretation. Rather, they were confronted as if they were separate experiences by pagans, Christians, artists and philosophers, the rulers and the ruled. It is with Romans in these latter two roles that we are most concerned.” Page 22/23


“We must imagine a government confronting the gravest and most perplexing confusion of problems which it has neither the historical sense to arrange in a chain of causes and effects nor the individual analytical skills to divide into the man-made in the natural. Plagues and defeats, undifferentiated, are equally ascribed to the fault of a bad ruler, just as good harvest and victories are equally to the credit of a good one.” Page 30

“And external challenge must certainly have reminded people that they had more in common with each other under the aegis of Jupiter or Jove, then with the nations beyond their frontiers. To that extent, crisis defined more clearly than for many, many generations the center of Imperial civilization.” Page 40

“Life, had been better, once (as historians today would say, comparing the third with the first century). It had been better ‘once upon a time,’ as contemporaries of the crisis would have phrased it, more dreamingly. No one then or now could deny a downward turn in the empire’s fortunes. But recall of the past suggested nothing constructive. It was a retreat, pure and simple.” Page 46/47


“The mind of a government, including its officials altogether, in whatever period, is rarely studied. Page 48

“The state offered support to what we may call secondary schooling as preliminary to higher education. For the latter itself, the state provided scholarships and teachers’ salaries more generous yet, even in a time of financial troubles. . . . . It is true also that more abstract studies lumped under the term “philosophy’ fell out of favor, in science likewise, as we shall see.” Page 50

“. . . . On the face of it, there seems no reason why men with such training and mental habits should not have an intelligent, thoughtful, orderly analysts of their times. Yet, after all, in education in texts and talking is not the same as in the education in history, happening all around them, that they were required to understand.” Page 50

“. . . . Given the low esteem enjoyed by mathematics, it’s neglect is not surprising. The ruling classes, with their own fixed ideas of what constituted the right subjects of study for gentlemen, neither encouraged nor received much education in it. Presumably they left it to slaves, whose training for the central government and attendance on governors is well attested. But it seems reasonable to suppose that officials having the ultimate responsibility for tax yields, salary totals, army expenses, and the like could not think through their problems very well. They were handicapped by quite rudimentary skills and calculation. Once again, the focus of intellectual training of literature is to blame.

“Literacy and “numeracy” in the empire at large are impossible to estimate in absolute terms, but in relative, they both declined during the third century. No one would deny this. It was characteristic of the values of the ruling elite that they should always have maintained support of liberal studies while allowing more basic education for the masses to deteriorate. The inevitable consequences followed.” Page 58/59

“. . . . . For common sense unassisted would draw such consequences from the political chaos of the 200s, the increasing poverty which would affect schools, and the decline of urban life. As fewer people could write and count, this lack of skills would cause a matching decline in the quality of information available to governors and central officials. No matter whether these men were well-equipped for their jobs intellectually, no matter how suited they were by experience, they can only act on the basis of what they knew; and the substructure of inventory that they relied on to form their policies grew weaker in just the decades of their greatest need.” Page 60

“. . . . So extended and complex was the unraveling of the empire’s power to defend itself, it strained every power of comprehension. The two powers were one: for defense required a planned response. And planning revealed at work the best and worst of the administrative mind.

“In communicating with its subjects, government should first have secured broad literacy and then have spoken the people’s language. It did neither (though in the intent to arouse and instruct is very much in evidence) because it would not betray, but rather placed ever higher value upon, rhetorical display.” Page 69

Chapter 5: MONEY

“As the objects of expenditure differed in these various decades, so did the means of extending the state’s ability to pay; but the easiest, the most tempting, and the first in sequence was adulteration of the basic silver coin. This was the denarius, up to the second quarter of the third century, when it gave way to the antoninianus (first minted in 215-219, revived in 238). . . . on losing its precious metal content just like its predecessor, and contained barely detectable amounts by the late 260s. The consequent saving was enormous, up to that date. The state had stretched the quantity of precious metal in its control many, many times without giving rise to inflation on anywhere near a corresponding scale. . . . . The procedures involved were relatively simple. Through taxation, coins of the old weight and purity flowed naturally to the mints, were there melted down with an admixture of cheaper copper, and were then brought forth again in new form for payment to the Army. People trusted the familiar, especially the handsome, coin. They were more easily deceived by an increase in base metal than by a loss in overall weight that they could measure by the feel of it.” Page 108/109

“. . . For a generation, quite radical tampering with currency had been going forward, the results of each previous decade being sucked up and a more worthless product spewed out by the mints with rising speed and in rising amounts. Along with their content, style and uniformity had been lost. At an ever faster rate of recirculation and deterioration, in a fever that threaten to kill off the very idea of money, gold and silver coins by Aurelian’s reign presented him with a disastrous proof that the debasement could be carried no further.” Page 109/110

“. . . . Government for its part reacted like a frightened child at the controls of a runaway express train, pushing all sorts of levers and knobs.” Page 116

“Rapid changes in value required other adjustments, however. . . . Over the space of a year, and agreed sum might lose half its meaning. For that reason the 6.5 percent surcharge on what the state deposited for expected deliveries of goods, representing the interest the money might otherwise have earned, was simply abandoned; for annual inflation rose at more than that rate. . . .” Page 118

Chapter 6: TAXES

“From what has been said so far of Roman administrative procedures, they cannot be imagined responding to a long drawn out emergency with much success. They suffered from loose connections – between theory and practice, between what was known and what was applied, between appearance and action, above all, between the grandeur of their responsibilities in the penny wise inadequacy of their staff.” Page 129

“. . . . . Could the Romans have exacted more profits without correspondingly heavy costs in administration? They did not think so. Their subjects certainly dinned into their ears the impossibility, the extortionate irrationality, the savage cruelty of tributes demanded; they live in their tax returns, forswore themselves solemnly, submitted to beating, adulterated their grain deliveries, or failed to make any delivery at all, . . . . . . The structure that grew up, then, combined long-established diversity, alternating strictness and relaxation, demand pressing upon resistance, and makeshifts responsive to temporary needs. Those last underlay the ‘annona militaris,’ by far the most important example of expedient become institution. What the entire structure of taxation lacked, of course, was logic. But empire’s founder on just that rock.” Page 132

“. . . . In Africa, people paid a poll tax and a land tax in kind, in various articles, especially grain; in the province of Asia, a land tax, perhaps recognizing differences in land use and probably paid in money, though evidence is slight; in Cilicia and Syria, 1 percent of assessed wealth plus a poll tax; in Bithynia perhaps a tithe; . . . . of the tribute exacted from the Frisii, in the form of so much leather for the army’s use, reminds us of the tribes and places with an economy too primitive to be fitted under the complicated machinery of exploitation that the Romans had inherited from the Carthaginians, from King Hiero in Sicily, or the Seleucids.” Page 133

“The dependence of the budget on cash flow, however, opened it wide to attack by inflation.” Page 135


“With needs increasing and the money to pay for them sapped of buying power, government was bound to turn to exactions of a new sort, or more accurately, to make much greater use of the old that suited the times better.

“Raw materials of many sorts floating from crown preserves and monopolies. There were big herds to provide meat, leather, wool; quarries to supply fine building stone and, by the second century, enormous productive capacity concentrated in a cluster of Imperial brick yards around Rome, with others in scattered provinces as well. . . . .We should mention, too, properties that produced such less important things as salt, papyrus, perfumes, timber, minium, and spices, .. . . ..” Page 153

“For labor, the state could use convicts (especially after 250, but perhaps the persecutions distort the record). In the Principate they are found in mines and quarries, rarely in other work. . . . . In Egypt, liturgists supplied teams of free workers for all kinds of short-term assignment besides the immemorial cleaning of irrigation ditches; but for quarries, only from the beginning of the Dominate. A great deal of work the army took over: large-scale projects like canals and roads, harbors and drainage and surveying.” Page 154

Egyptian clothing taxes could involve an alternative route to delivery, through guilds of weavers put under contract to weave the articles demanded of taxpayer groups. When the levee was laid on towns and villages, they might be given no choice but to produce the actual completed garments; and, themselves taking in the money from their citizens or, in the earlier history of taxes in kind, perhaps taking it in from the state as a requisition price, they negotiated with local craftsmen for the quantity they needed. The state strictly controlled the quality of its receipts.

The two methods seen here, of goods obtained direct from the taxpayer or indirectly through artisan’s associations, are very widely diffused across the empire in the wake of inflation.” Page 155/156

“. . . . . But they were bound to their occupation, bound by origio, the rebirth, and there landed possessions with them, so that there was henceforth assured to the state, a registered number and replacements to that number of men, ships, and supporting acres of land in pledge for their feeding of Rome.” Page 161

“Much has been made of the tyrannous cruelty of Roman government in the period from, let us say, 250. But if an emperor were before us to offer his own defense, he might say he was himself ‘obnoxious necessitate’. It would be no more than the truth. He too was a victim of crisis.” Page 170

Chapter 8: DEFENSE

“In the eyes of Rome’s governing classes, the peasant was – at a proper distance – the most admirable creature: so tough, sturdy, simple, strong, and sheltered from the debilitating concerns and temptations of a more refined life. The ideal army would’ve consisted solely of sons of the soil, the aristocracy supplying the officers.

“An ample pool of recruits was felt to be necessary. Augustus introduced famous legislation to discourage divorce and infidelity and to encourage large families with rewards of privileges and exemptions – families with full Roman citizenship, which of course changed meaning after 212. As late as Constantine, the father of five was excused from munera personalia, and in 363, the lucky father of thirteen could get out of the town’s Senate entirely. It was “in the public interest” that young women should have dowries so as to find husbands, and against the law to procure an abortion. Orphan relief set up by the state in the 90s in Italy, in Antinooplois in Egypt by Hadrian, invite numberless private benefactors throughout the empire to the end of the third century had the same purpose in mind, to increase the size of the citizen body; and when they all ceased their functions, Constantine stepped in with orders directing poor parents to apply for emergency food to the local authorities, rather than let their children starve. It was acknowledged as a good citizen’s duty to produce lots of babies, partly in the bank sense that a great nation needed them, more plainly in the recognition that they grew up to be soldiers.” Page 183

“And the third, heritability of function, was not neglected either. Soldiers’ sons, had carried on from their fathers, spontaneously and more and more regularly as time went on. A law in effect by 140 tended to steer auxiliaries’ sons toward enlistment. . . . . Government seems troubled not so much by shortage of volunteers as by lack of funds for the initial outfitting and enlistment bonus of new draftees, and by uncertain priorities: now the decurionate, now the army, is short of men, and laws tip toward one or the other, according to the times. With barbarians available in those provinces where the greatest forces and the greatest call for new men existed, and with the recruit tax, and finally, with compulsory enrollment in one’s father’s profession,the empires needs were well taken care of.” Page 185

“. . . . By his reign [Septimius Severus], legionary detachments (vexillationes) to any seat of war had also come into more significant and regular use, necessarily involving “barbarians,” that is, the less Romanized peoples within the frontier provinces. Traditional legionary cavalry was quite inadequate. . . . . . His successors in the next few years began to draw still more such units from true barbarians living beyond the borders. . . . . “ Page 186

“There was an obvious saving and practicality in putting contingents right in among the city population. They can be helpful to each other in defense and supply; and the walls were around them, ready to be manned by professionals. Ammianus, however, has some sour remarks to report about the effectiveness of the garrisons, and Vegetius later echos similar views, though he may only have picked them up from the second century writers like Tacitus and Fronto: city life corrupts. There is a hint that he is right, in the third century history of Dura-Europus. Papyrus fragments from the post contained complaints about soldiers straying off the base, and the need for ‘disciplina’.” The grand experiment, then, in resettling the nonmobile army group less than a complete success.” Page 191/192

Chapter 9: SUMMARY

“There are many stretches of history in which the surface events and dominant personalities are known in too little detail to be strung into a satisfactory narrative. They do not satisfy curiosity, they hardly arouse interest, because the inadequacy of the evidence is too obvious. Such a scratch that historian meets with him from the 230s up to the 280s.” Page 195

“The story offers one of the more obvious lines of continuity in a half-century noted for the opposite quality – noted or notorious for tumbling secession of emperors thrust up or struck down in never-ending conflicts; noted too for continual invasions. It was a time of wars. With these, however, planning at the center had to reckon in its own way, not by leading the troops to victory but in seeing that there were enough of them and that they were on the spot, paid, fed, and equipped.” Page 196/197

“Even in peacetime it is illuminating to look at government through the eyes of those subject to it. What did it do? It took one’s money away. That was the apparent object of its existence, that was certainly the bulk of its business. “What are kingdoms but great robberies?” Rulers rose and fell, taxes went on forever. In wartime, they were bound to become more oppressive and various, more loosely defined to include demands for more kinds of contributions. Government as taxation may be said to have followed out its destiny to a logical conclusion over the period of our study, at the end of which anything at all required for the saving of the state was flatly declared “canonic,” “regulation tribute.” Page 197

“At the beginning, the problems to be solved seemed and were familiar. No one can be blamed for not predicting the consequences or for not understanding as one whole, the layers of difficulty that were subsequently to unfold. Hard times there had been before. If some particular affliction roused fear that “the inhabited world” approached the hour of its death, there was little the emperors’ jurisconsults or chief accountants could do about it. They had troubles enough of their own. Rumors and visions they left to the masses, something a little more conventional remained for them. They had their national faith and their national history.

“Neither served pragmatic analysis of the contemporary scene. By belief in the power of the gods, the intelligibility of history in terms that one could act on in this world, this dying world, was diminished. Priceless energies were squandered on the persecution of the Christians, because their atheism, and divine wrath, and the defeat of the Imperial armies were seen as a chain of cause and effect;. . .. . “ Page 198/199

“The prestige, expense, and years of training involved in the acquisition of literary skills crowded out other skills that would have stood the governing aristocracy in better stead. They might better have learned how to evaluate the information spread before them by their subordinates: how many acres there were in the territory of a city, how many miles separating it from its nearest neighbor, how many its rural inhabitants, urban residents, slaves, Roman citizens, equestrians, and senators, and how much land each owned. They had this information before them, at least in the early third century; but it is clear in various ways that they could not make full use of it in military and economic planning, simply because the language of numbers had been so badly drilled into them. Their subordinates – imperial slaves, town accounts – knew more than they did.” Page 200/201

“No strength was more characteristic of Roman civilization than law. But here too, emergency exposed weakness. Law gave its best to civil matters, to the concern over contracts, bequests, leases, legitimate issue, and the like that most occupied the propertied classes. They spoke the same language as their judges, they were not unwashed rascals, they came to court of their own will. Page 201/202

“In a period of protracted emergency, naturally it went hard with civil law.” Page 202

“. . . . . Anology so clear and close to us makes it much easier to understand what the Roman Empire was really like, when, in its turn, it was confronted with European powers: Alamanni, Franks, Vandals, Goths, Capri, and so forth, to say nothing of African tribes to the south and a revived and vital Persia to the East.

“The shock of their attack induced a number of overdue changes. At long last, perhaps not much to anyone’s regret, senators were displaced from high commands by candidates chosen from a far larger, more deserving pool of candidates. Government in general grew steadily bigger. It narrowed units of responsibility. It separated the civil and military,. . . . .” Page 204

“One consequence of both the crisis in the government’s response to it was the eroding of the middle ranks of wealth. This, in an economy chiefly agrarian, meant the small landholder. He by no means disappeared from the scene, but in different regions with differing fortunes, he was less and less often to be met with. In Egypt, taxation was to blame. He surrendered his property to somebody better able to make it pay, enrolling himself as tenant.” Page 209

“The ability of the large landholder to rise above the times he owed in part to his self-sufficiency. Producing most of what he needed on his own property, and dealing with tenants and neighbors in terms of exchange in kind, he was to that extent not hurt by what was happening to currency and prices or dependent on links with the city.” Page 210

“An earlier government ineffectual enough to bring to mind comparison with Turkey, as it was no more than a few generations ago, had been braced up, made stronger, extended in the range of its demands, and justified in crisis. But experiment had barely hardened institutions before crisis passed and people began to look for a way out of the structure that had saved them. Evasion proved easy. . . . .” Page 213