Book Review: The Roman Empire in Crisis, 248–260: When the Gods Abandoned Rome

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by Paul N. Pearson

Barnsley: Yorkshire / Philadelphia, Pen & Sword, 2022. Pp. xxii, 312+. Illus., maps, notes, index. $42.95. ISBN: 1399090976

Rome's "Crisis of the Third Century"

I enjoy Pen & Sword's ancient military histories, which often center on one commanding individual. They are shaped to be more broadly readable than purely scholarly, but that is fine with me because they are well-supplied with maps, footnotes, illustrations, bibliographies, and indexes.

But I simply loved Prof. Pearson's latest P&S book, a more generalized narrative of a dozen particularly fraught years in a third-century Roman experience. It was a dark time when the Empire essentially broke apart – and might not have been able to reunite.

Pearson's work has all the aforementioned P&S virtues, plus something more . . . something scarce from a messy period when so many trustworthy sources are lost or silent.

I am referring to the relatively recent (2008) six-page translation of an original account that had gone missing for more than a thousand years. Perhaps not coincidentally, this find refers directly to the conflicts under the author's consideration. The fresh portion of Dexippus' Scythica was discovered under the re-purposed vellum of a medieval manuscript, and modern spectral imaging and image analysis were then used to decipher it.

Dexippus was a well-known historian, who was frequently referred to by later authors, but whose work, alas survives only in fragments. Moreover, the man also became a militia leader who successfully harassed the barbarian invaders of his beloved Greece, later writing about this era with the authority of someone who had been there.

These new pages supply fresh information about the first military disaster of this era, the Battle of Abritus (251 C.E.): at that occasion, an imperial army of around 15,000-20,000 was surprised on poor ground in Thrace. The Goths devastated the Romans. A sitting emperor and his heir were killed on the battlefield, thus creating a succession crisis, which unfortunately would not be the last.

A clear, brisk writer, Pearson is also quite thorough, taking a holistic attitude to the many facets of a confused, turbulent period. Of his method he writes, "The strategy here . . . is to develop a narrative that is as plausible as possible using a total evidence approach (history, archaeology, reasonable timings, and likely causes." Pearson also makes considerable use of coinage as a deductive tool to indicate governmental initiatives.

He applies his strategy well. Every data bit from this dimly lit period that can be gleaned is valuable. We know broadly that, over a relatively brief number of years, competent external enemies shattered three imperial field armies. They struck from two, or sometimes three, directions. Two emperors were lost after these defeats. These losses prompted enormous political insecurity because this had never happened at the hands of external enemies since Augustus dissolved the Republic, nor had the successful foreign invaders penetrated so deeply. Many concluded that it was the end times.

Widespread popular dread in turn created a terrorized environment where any semi-successful military commander could claim to be a savior and entertain colorful dreams of taking a shot at the purple, at least locally. (I am not even bothering with some of the other contemporary social pressures covered by the author, such as the raging plague of Cyprian [likely a filovirus], rampant price inflation, or vicious religious strife -- all of which added to feverish general anxiety.)

After Abritus, the Romans suffered two other devastating battlefield losses during the dozen years that Pearson highlights. Both were at the hands of the brilliant Persian ruler, Sapur, and his crack Sassanid army. The first engagement is somewhat obscure in detail: it occurred at a place called Barbalissos (253 C.E.), which was likely around 200 miles east of Antioch. A major Roman mobile force, assembled from the stripped garrisons of several legionary posts (estimated at 60,000), was shaken apart by a severe defeat. This reversal left the King of Kings free to mercilessly sack numerous Syrian towns, and even the great metropolis of Antioch, over the next several months.

The final military catastrophe of this period took place six years later (259 C.E.). While his son Gallienus looked after matters elsewhere, the then-emperor Valerian, reconstituted the eastern Roman army (again, around 60,000), intending to punish Sapur for new aggressions. However, the ever-virulent Plague of Cyprian devastated many of his gathered troops as he prepared. Nevertheless, he chose to move toward Edessa to counter the Persian incursion anyway.

Unfortunately for the Romans, the ensuing battles’ results were even worse than in 253 C.E. This time, the Emperor and most of his top subcommanders were either captured or killed. Again, the shock to the imperial system was staggering.

A Steaming Heap of Awful: The loss of so much trained manpower over a relatively short time was stunning. In addition, metastasizing civil wars among the remaining legions made the Empire's ranks thinner and its borders even more vulnerable.

Romans felt an urgent need for on-the-spot regional generalissimos to restore control, so usurpers arose often, mostly to clash with one another, adding to the chaos. (As is well known, the Empire had never fashioned a straight- forward, peaceful method of succession to supreme leadership.) Consequently, central control from Rome was vitiated, and chunks of the Empire began spinning out into their separate ways by 260 C.E.

Fascinating characters arose, Pearson relates, to either initiate or stem these challenges. For instance, there are sharp portraits of the way-too-clever third-century enemies of Rome: Cniva, the Gothic chief, and especially Sapur, the mighty Persian Shah-in-Shah. We also learn about the brave, if contentious, bishops, who resisted the persecutions of Decius and Valerian. (Most Christians consequently believed that these doomed autocrats had gotten their just deserts on the battlefield.)

Then there were surprising heroes, like Odaenathus, a non-Roman who valiantly defended the Empire against the marauding Persian ruler with guerrilla tactics, like by ambushing wagon trains as plundered loot was hauled back home.

I particularly enjoyed Pearson's detailed (as much as possible) consideration of the many usurpers. In most treatments of the era, unfortunately, the failed ones are frequently minimized to mere mentions. He gives a more extensive accounting of these individuals, their circumstances, and their motivations than I have encountered in the literature of this period.

Footnotes and Further Reading. I found it very satisfying that Pearson's footnotes are often substantial and insightful. In them, he gets to express many of his educated guesses and sage suppositions while adding layers of detail that enrich his basic narrative. They are an arena where an author can freely conjecture and opine about other scholarship – or its lack – on his subject.

On top of this virtue, the "Literature Cited" section is quite extensive, running 19 pages long.

Both that section and those meaty footnotes are among the several reasons that I intend to re-read this fascinating narrative.

Of course, Pearson's chosen period of 248 C.E.-260 C.E. is "the end of the beginning," as Churchill would say, so I anticipate an equally absorbing sequel by the author. This will undoubtedly be a mighty work covering the following decade, when the Empire is restored against great odds and when glamorous world-shakers like Palmyran queen Zenobia and "Hand on Hilt" Aurelian stride on stage. (It is probably too much to hope that some new source material for their era will also be unearthed...but if anyone can locate it, I would put my money on Pearson).

Paul N. Pearson is an Honorary Professor of Geology at Cardiff University and a Professional Research Associate at University College London. Even though Roman studies are not his academic specialty, he has long been immersed in personal research on several of its foci. (e.g., see news story on coinage above) His last book addressed an earlier barracks usurper: Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome, also from Pen & Sword.

 

Breaking News: A news story involving this author and one of the usurpers he discusses came across the wires as I was writing this piece (Nov. 24, 2022), regarding a usurper long regarded as a "fake", Sponsian (pp. 225-228), whom Professor Pearson identifies as real: "An ancient gold coin proves that a third century Roman emperor written out of history as a fictional character really did exist, APA reports, citing BBC....The coin bearing the name of Sponsian and his portrait was found more than 300 years ago in Transylvania, once a far-flung outpost of the Roman empire.

"Believed to be fake, it had been locked away a museum cupboard. Now scientists say that scratch marks visible under a microscope prove that it was in circulation 2,000 years ago.
"Prof. Paul Pearson, University College London, who led the research, told BBC that he was astonished by the discovery..."What we have found is an Emperor....We think he was real and that he had a role in history."
Despite the news story, Prof. Pearson's conclusion is not fully accepted by most other scholars of the Roman Empire, who have marshaled considerable evidence to refute it. See, notably, Mary Beard, "When is a Roman emperor not a Roman emperor?," Times Literary Supplement -- https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/when-is-a-roman-emperor-not-an-emperor-sponsian-blog-post-mary-beard/

 

Our Reviewer: A former naval officer, Richard Jupa was a senior finance editor at a major credit rating agency for more than two decades. He is also the co-author of Gulf Wars, on the 1991-1992 Gulf War, and has published over a dozen articles on contemporary conflicts. His previous reviews include Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning, Pioneers of Irregular Warfare, Mars Adapting: Military Change During War, A Short History of War, Ancient Greeks at War: Warfare in the Classical World, from Agamemnon to Alexander, and Dreadnoughts and Super-Dreadnoughts.

 

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Note: The Roman Empire in Crisis is also available in e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

www.nymas.org

Reviewer: Richard Jupa   


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