The 3rd century was dominated by a change in the established norms in both Europe and Asia. The Roman Empire, becoming too large with too many poor rulers in quick succession, was entering its first real crisis and the beginning of its end. In China, meanwhile, the Han Dynasty came crashing to an end, bringing forth centuries of turmoil and countless successors to try and take their place. In this article, we will look at 7 key events that took place during the 3rd Century.
The reign and murder of Emperor Caracalla (211-217)
First named co-ruler with his father Septimius Severus from 198, Caracalla was one of Rome’s cruelest emperors, murdering his own brother in 211 to secure his own power. His reign was one of a tyrannical psychopath, and after following similarly incompetent rulers, it only hastened the instability of the Roman Empire. Caracalla waged a costly campaign against Parthia after suppressing the growing Germanic threat, but in 217, stopping his troops so he could urinate, one of his own stabbed in the back and killed him. His chaotic reign questioned the validity of a single emperor, strengthened foreign enemies, and his enactment of the Edict of Caracalla only aided to the moral degradation of the state, as the unwieldy empire began to question its own identity.
China’s Han dynasty comes to an end (220)
China’s second imperial dynasty, and ruling family (in two forms, with one short interlude) from 202 BC, the Han dynasty came to define what it was to be Chinese, and their rule is often considered a golden age in the country’s history. But by the late 2nd century, the Han dynasty had grown weak and the opportunity arose for rivals to make a grab for power. Because the Han possessed the Mandate of Heaven, they could not be ousted at once, so their final emperors were mere puppets while various warlords ran a quickly disintegrating country in their name. Rival families vying for power clashed at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208, considered the largest naval battle in the world at the time, and with the chief power defeated, and three dynasties unable to outmatch the other, the final Han Emperor was forced to abdicate his powerless thrown in 220, starting the era of the Three Kingdoms.
Battle of Hormozdgan (224)
Following the brief war with Rome’s Caracalla and peace after his murder, the Parthian Empire began an internal tug of war between two brothers that allowed a new power to challenge their dominance. The Sasanians rose to prominence in Persia, conquering neighboring regions, and alarming the Parthians, who had ruled the area of Iran and Iraq since 247 BC. The two sides agreed to meet in Hormozdgan, where the Sasanian prince Ardashir I had earlier dug a trench and occupied an advantageous location next to a spring. In April 224, the battle was fought, and the reigning Parthian king was defeated and killed. Ardashir assumed the title ‘King of Kings’ after victory and his Sasanian Empire would go on to rule the region for four centuries.
Crisis in the Roman Empire (235-284)
After a series of troublesome emperors, the Roman Empire was proving impossible to govern and almost collapsed during 50 years of 3rd-century struggles. It began in 235 when Emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated by his own troops. This murder, while not unique in Rome, coincided with barbarian invasions by migrating Germanic tribes, rebellions in their own borders, multiple usurpers competing for the throne, and economic collapse. Three states emerged in the chaos: one focused around Italy, another on Western Europe and Britannia, and a third on the eastern provinces. One of the competing emperors was Aurelian, who crushed the barbarians who threatened Rome, then pushed to reunify the entire empire between 270 and 275, before being murdered himself. The empire fell apart again, but Emperor Diocletian brought the turbulent era to a close, recognizing that joint rule was needed for stability, splitting the empire between four rulers, known as the Tetrarchy.
Roman persecution of the Christians (250-313)
In the middle of the crisis, Emperor Decius sought to restore traditional Roman values and began an empire-wide persecution of Christians in 250 that resulted in around 3500 being killed. Emperor Valerian picked up where he left off, and in 257, he began demanding the Christian clergy make sacrifices to Roman Gods or face punishment. A year later, he sentenced Christian officials to death, including the Pope, while top-ranking Roman officials who were Christian were stripped of their power. Once Diocletian had restored order to the empire in 284, he purged the army of Christians, condemned many to death, and carried out what is known as the Great Persecution in 303. Future emperors grew more tolerant, finally accepting Christianity in 313, and the era of persecution came to an end.
China is reunited by the Jin dynasty (280)
During the Three Kingdoms, China’s internal borders were in a constant tug of war. The Shu, Wei, and Wu dynasties all controlled portions of the country following the fall of the Han in 220, with the Wei the strongest. They defeated the Shu around 263, making it a fight between two, but even within the Wei, there was division, as the families of Sima and Cao fought for control. In 266, the Sima won this struggle, and the Wei dynasty became the Jin. They pushed into the territory of the final remaining power, the Wu, and defeated them in 280, unifying all of China again. But this period was short-lived, lasting just a few years into the 4th century before internal conflict within the Jin brought China into chaos again.
China’s War of the Eight Princes begins (291)
While initial rule under the Jin had seemed promising, their unity was, quite predictably for the era, only brief. When their first emperor died, his disabled son was his successor, but was considered too weak to rule, and was instead manipulated by various parties seeking power for themselves. This sparked what is known as the War of the Eight Princes. While this ‘war’ was initially just political maneuvering between the sides, it soon broke into a civil war that left all but one of the princes dead and the country in ruins. Worst of all, it left China itself weak, which migrating barbarians took full advantage of, beginning the most tumultuous of eras: the Sixteen Kingdoms. China wouldn’t be unified again until the end of the 6th century.
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