The Baltimore Museum of Art’s fragments of the Antioch mosaics symbolize to me the fragmented nature of the Roman Empire from which they came. Researching the history and geopolitics at the time of Antioch leads to a repeated theme—conflict. Certainly, the Crisis of the Third Century—the Roman civil war to end all Roman civil wars—symbolizes this.
It all started because there was endemic corruption in the government and a very unstable line of succession to the imperial throne beginning with the assassination of Commodus in 192 AD and the subsequent Year of the Five Emperors. After Septimius Severus ended this by becoming emperor, he and his successors increased the size of the Roman Army to better be able to deal with external threats. Because of this, the army eventually asked for a 50% raise. In order to give the army its raise, the Imperial government had to debase and devalue the currency, which led to runaway inflation and an economic crisis. That crisis led to the army becoming more powerful than the Imperial government. This reawakened the problem of the army being more loyal to its generals than the state, which had plagued Rome since the Marian Reforms of the late Republic. Next, Emperor Severus Alexander went to war with the Sassanid Persian Empire for the first time and was assassinated after returning home from the war.
These combined problems led to many Roman provinces breaking away and many generals and provincial governors declaring themselves emperor or being declared emperor by their troops whether they wanted the throne or not. For example, Postumus, the governor of the provinces of Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. He went on to conquer all of Gaul, get Britannia to side with him and declare independence from Rome. Many peoples outside the Roman Empire, such as the Persians and so-called barbarians like the Goths, Vandals, Alemanni, Franks and Saxons, took advantage of the increasing fragmentation and invaded.
Most importantly for our project, the Persians managed to invade Syria and Capture Antioch. Later, a Roman client king of Palmyra named Odenathus drove the Persians out of Syria and crushed many Roman usurpers in the eastern provinces by annexing them into Palmyra. The Romans proclaimed him Governor of all the East, but he, too, was assassinated. He was succeeded by his wife Zenobia, who formally declared Palmyrene independence from Rome. Eventually Aurelian was proclaimed Emperor and he reunified the Roman Empire by reconquering both the break-away Palmyrene and Gallic Empires. However, he was also assassinated. The crisis did not finally end until Diocletian came to the throne and reformed the empire’s administrative structures to try to make it easier to run and prevent another civil war. But old habits die hard. Rome went on to have even more civil wars until it finally fell, but none nearly as destructive as the Crisis of the Third Century.
Some of the mosaics we are studying date back to this time of conflict in the 200s AD and onward.
Given all of this division, it is in many ways a miracle that the Empire didn’t tear itself apart prematurely.
As a postscript, when I was doing research on the topic, I noted Professor Paul Freedman of Yale’s comment on the pessimism of the Roman people during the crisis. He mentioned that when Diocletian came to the imperial throne and the crisis finally ended, the joy and relief of the Roman people was reflected in mosaics with messages like “joyful times everywhere” or “a world restored”.
The Crisis of the Third Century as Seen by Contemporaries by Geza Alfoldy https://grbs.library.duke.edu