Finally, the able general Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) of Pannonia (the Balkans) was acclaimed by his legions and defeated other claimants. Arriving in Rome, he held Pertinax's funeral, and then abolished the Praetorian Guard as a separate, independent force, and now selected his personal guard from out of his own legion troops. From this date, guard service in the palace was no longer reserved to men of Italian birth. After fruitless wars against the Parthians, Septimius ruled from Palmyra (Syria) and Carthage (N. Africa). He and his son Caracalla (211-17) disregarded senatorial prerogatives, and equalized citizenship status of all free men in Roman lands. Army supporters consented to rule of ineffective Severi relatives through to 235.

Major geopolitical changes from the 220s exerted transformative stresses on the Roman system. The Iranian Parthians had maintained an uneasy status quo with Rome in Mesopotamia; in 226, the Sassanid dynasty took over. Reviving ancient Achaemenid territorial claims as far west as Palestine, they ignited constant war in Rome's East. Removal of legions from the Danubian and Rhine borders (limes) to fight the Sassanid threat allowed violent barbarian incursions to begin in the 230s. Beginning with marauding Marcomanni and Alamanni in North-Central Rhineland, by 254 upper Germany fell. By 259 the Franks had occupied Belgium, and from 268 they and Alammani raided unopposed in Gaul for 11 years, interrupting agriculture, city life, and Imperial army supply as far as Iberia (Spain). Alamanni thrusts into N. Italy also occurred. Mauretenian tribal pressure in N. Africa was accompanied by havoc on the Danube limes. Sarmatians and Visigoths (Western Goths) attacked all along the Thracian and Moesian (Balkan) borders during the 250s and 260s, while Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) advanced from the Crimea to ravage northern Asia Minor, and continued into the Bosphorous region and to the Aegean coast. Farmland was desolated, inland cities shrank, and government income curtailed. Barbarians began to relocate within Roman territory.

Responding to the challenge was a succession of generals of peasant stock from Illyricum and Pannonia (the Balkans and Danube frontier), each elevated by their legions and ruling for a while until assassinated by rival generals. Maximinus Thrace (r. 235-238; of Gothic-Alan background) resisted Sassanid and Marcomanni forces. The child-emperor Gordian III was murdered by the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard (Palace Guard, 244). Valerian (r. 253-260) fought holding actions against the Goths, Quadi, and Sarmatians, and was taken captive in battle against the Sassanids, dying in the East. Gallienus (d. 268) reformed the army, establishing reserves and rapid-reaction cavalry, while Claudius II Gothicus scored major victories against Alamanni and Goths (268- 269). Aurelian (270-75) defeated break-away generals (Postumus and successors) in Gaul and local rulers in Syria, restoring unity to the Imperial core. Probus (276-282) finally secured the Rhine and Danube frontiers, employing armies of barbarian rank-and-file. Carus (283-284) pushed an Eastern offensive to the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon, but was killed, perhaps by lightning. His sons were elevated by prior arrangement to Augustus (emperor) and Caesar (junior emperor). The former was killed, whereupon the important general Diocletian had his troops acclaim him, and then defeated the remaining Caesar to take the throne.


While noting some changes within the constitution of the Roman state, a forecaster at the time of M. Aurelius' ascent to the throne would have been justified in predicting continued Imperial peace and prosperity. Marcus was extremely talented, as had been his recent predecessors. A smooth interaction had of late emerged between Emperor and Senate, with the latter still respected, even as the administration and executive powers became larger, more effective, and less needful of the Senators. Peace had been the dominant trend, though offensive wars had increased the treasury due to booty. Thus, taxes had been reduced somewhat. At the same time, laws had been regularized, and after uncertainty during the first-century CE, the method of imperial succession had been tacitly established through Emperors adopting qualified officials as sons. As far as changes in the system, close observers would have noticed a slight broadening of political enfranchisment at the top of society. Provincials with the necessary wealth or education were allowed into the Senate or Imperial service, as Emperors themselves now descended from Italian families that had settled outside of the peninsula. As well, a law proclaiming Latin Rights bestowed a status on not-Italians that edged ever-closer to full citizenship.

In this sense, then, the reign of Marcus Aurelius and its direct aftermath is the dividing point between the Roman zenith and decline. Key trends of fateful significance to later Roman rule emerged during his tenure. These include 1) large scale raiding by a shifting patchwork of Germanic Barbarian tribes as opposed to organized conflict with regular opposing armies; 2) tremendous fiscal challenges and burdensome government measures in order to financially support warfare; 3) military conflict on two frontiers separated by thousands of miles; 4) the emergence of the Palace Guard and field legions as king-makers; 5) destabilization in procedures of Imperial succession; and 5) the widening of the leadership class beyond those who grew up in a thoroughly Latinized milieu. It is thus ironic and sad that Marcus Aurelius was a superlative philosopher, Stoicist, and equitably-minded product of Roman culture, as he spent all of his career on horse-back fighting those who would overwhelm his state and culture three hundred years later.

Beyond Commodius' illustration that second-century emperors could be just as venal and ill-equipped as had been Caligula (r. 37-41) and Nero (r. 54-68), the period commencing with the Severan dynasty (193 CE) and ending with Constantine's death (337 CE) exhibits basic changes in the form of Roman state and society. These changes are essential to an understanding of the last decades of the Roman state in the West, the roots of Byzantium, and the first era of post-Roman Europe.

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