The Problems with Scholars’ Roman Time Periods

By Bernardo Hasbach

            To make studying history easier, scholars label time periods so that the categorization, comparison, and context of events is less difficult. They are defined by something that is significant enough to have everything in that time period grouped together. Scholars mark those periods with a starting point and an end point, signifying when it is no longer that period of time. The era of the Roman Empire has many examples of a labeled period of time. One such example is the Pax Romana, a period of peace, and prosperity that lasted from 27 B.C.E. to 180 C.E.[1]Another is the Crisis of the Third Century, a 50-year period of time where Rome almost fell apart due to a constant abundance of problems, that lasted from 235 C.E. to 284 C.E. Defining periods like these help scholars view causes and effects of smaller incidents, like Assassination of Severus Alexander in 235 C.E. and all of its effects on Rome, like its effect on Rome’s economy, culture, and society. 

            I believe that scholars try to create starts and end of time periods that directly correlate to a big event, like the changing of Emperors, to make labeling easier. However, I propose that using Emperors to define the start or end of an era can lead to problems. The periods created, and their respective pieces of evidence, can conflict with other time periods or pieces of evidence, and can be misleading. Looking at the same examples as before will showcase some of these issues.

            The first example that illustrates the issues that come from the way scholars assign the starts and ends to time periods is the Pax Romana. Pax Romana, to reiterate, was a period of peace and stability that lasted a little over 200 years. Scholars use Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ death and the start of Emperor Commodus’ reign in 180 C.E. as a marker for when Pax Romana ends and when the kingdom began its shift “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”[2]This period of time being labeled as a time of peace and stability implies that overall, there were no large problems occurring in the empire, and that the issues began to arise afterwards. However, this is not the case. From 165 C.E. to 180 C.E., a sickness called the Antonine Plague ravaged Rome. Rome’s army suffered massive losses. Many in the empire died, with up to one-third of some cities’ populace dying. Overall, the disease claimed “an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population.”[3]The plague also heavily affected Indo-Roman trade relations.[4]Finally, the plague may have killed Lucius Verus, Rome’s, and Marcus Aurelius’, co-emperor. So, everything wasn’t completely stable during this time. That wasn’t the only problem occurring in Rome at the time. There were also the Marcomannic Wars that lasted from 166 C.E. to 180 C.E. Even though Rome was the victor, they still suffered losses and casualties, and combined with the plague, it cost Rome greatly. Yet this is a time scholars consider to be a period of peace and stability. I believe scholars attempt to use the start of a new reigning emperor to create a simple timeline, but this creates problems with the events contained within, and with what they imply. 

            Another example that shows problems with the way scholars designate starts and ends to time periods is the Crisis of the Third Century. The Crisis of the Third Century was a 50-year period of constant foreign invasions, civil wars and rebellions[5], and the decline and crisis of the monetary economy.[6]Scholars state it started in 235 C.E. after the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander, performed by his men[7]. This implies that these problems started after the assassination, or didn’t happen at the same time until then. However, looking at events before this crisis shows that these problems were already occurring. Before his assassination, Alexander was fighting off German foreign invaders. He bribed them, which led to the insubordination of his army, which led to a revolt, which then led to the assassination. Even before the crisis we have a combined effect of internal strife and foreign invaders. The monetary economy declining wasn’t a new problem either. Previous emperors had been debasing the currency to pay for the increasing cost of the army.[8]All the problems described in the definition of the Crisis of the Third Century were seen before Alexander’s assassination, and at the same time too. Yet this period of time is said to start after the assassination of Alexander. I believe that scholars attempt to use the death of an emperor to create an easy to understand start, but this creates conflicts with the events contained inside those time periods, and with what they imply.

            After conducting my research, I believe that scholars need to review the time periods created to check if the starts or the ends convey conflict with other pieces of information. There are issues that are being caused due to the inaccuracies created by scholars, and hopefully they eventually agree on a new, more precise definition for the start or end of a period. Scholars should still label time periods, because it does make studying them easier, but that’s only if it is done without errors that mislead, or don’t match other pieces of evidence.

[1]Aaron X. Fellmeth and Maurice Horwitz, ed., Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 2nded., (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2010).

[2]Cassius Dio, Vol. IXp11 Epitome of Book LXXII, Arch of Augustus,*.html(Accessed December 10, 2018).

[3]Michael Gagarin, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4]Raoul McLaughlin, Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India, and China, (London & New York: Continuum, 2010), p. 59-60.

[5]Paul Freedman, lecture for “The Early Middle Ages, 284-1000,” Yale University, 12 Apr. 2012.

[6]Jeff Desjardins, “This infographic shows how currency debasement contributed to the fall of Rome,” Business Insider 10, Dec. 2018).

[7]Richard Valentine Nind Hopkins, The Life of Alexander Severus, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1907), pg. 240.

[8]Kenneth W. Harl, Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, (Baltimore, MD, and London: H=Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pg. 125-136.