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The crisis of the Empire in the third century: causes and reflection in ancient sources


dr Kyrylo Myzgin
dr Michał Baranowski
dr hab. Krystyna Stebnicka


In the third century. (235-284 after Chr.) the Roman Empire, seemingly unshaken in its power and grandeur, fell victim to a series of disasters from which it never fully recovered and which triggered irreversible changes in the structures of state and society, the result of which was not only what has been aptly termed the “new empire” but also a new historical epoch, late antiquity. While the main elements of this “third-century crisis of the Empire” are well known – the sudden collapse of the emperors’ legitimacy in the eyes of the army, hitherto the strongest support of the existing political system (first revealed in 235 by the first military coup d’état and the elevation of the first military emperor), and the equally sudden weakness of the hitherto invincible Roman army in the face of external enemies (first revealed in 251 by the first emperor’s death in battle) – their causes remain a subject of controversy.


The once universally shared image of a collapse, which by the end of the 2nd century at the latest was supposed to initiate a spiral of negative phenomena – demographic, economic, social, spiritual – with usurpations and military defeats treated as its symptoms, is today widely rejected, mainly as a result of the growth of archaeological data which show that before the outbreak of the crisis throughout the Empire things were similar to those in the previous “golden” century. As a result, admittedly, the causes of the crisis have become inexplicable. The difficulty of finding them flows largely from the dire state of our written sources. The earliest surviving historical texts, on which researchers’ reconstructions are based, were written a century after the crisis and are without exception full of obvious distortions and errors, and at the same time decidedly different from one another. It seems that the period of political and military crisis was also a period of crisis in historiography.


The project seeks to explain both crises. Its first aim is to show that the cause of the army’s taking power into its own hands was an external factor, European barbarians, whom the army suddenly began to perceive as a great danger to the Empire and whom it was determined to fight to the death, a task in which they were constrained by what they believed to be the existing system. This requires

the study of the archaeological material that makes it possible to determine the military potential of barbarian Europe in the century preceding the crisis, in order to check whether the army’s fears were justified and whether

sufficient to explain the second symptom of the crisis, the sudden inability of the army to face the barbarian threat. The second objective is to explain, first, why in the third century the Latin-speaking elite of the Empire abruptly ceased its historiography and why, when it resumed it in the following century, it described the crisis in such a fatuous manner, and, second, why its version of events managed to prevail in Greek historiography, despite the fact that we have fragments of third-century works in that language which depicted the crisis period in incomparably more truthful and detailed terms. The task here is to reconstruct the body of information (true and false) from which historians have chosen their own variants of the course of events, and especially to find the key to the motives behind the choice of such and not other information by individual authors.

Book Publications

  • Late Roman period gold foil pendants stamped with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ornaments from the Barbaricum, Autorzy: Kirill Myzgin
  • Gold foil figures in focus. A Scandinavian find group and related objects and images from ancient and medieval Europe (Schriften des Museums für Archäologie Schloss Gottorf Ergänzungsreihe. Band 12) (rok: 2019, tom: 1, strony: 255-278), Wydawca: Verlag Ph.D. . Friedrich Pfeil
  • Cultural influence or migrations? The Przeworsk culture model of military equipmwent in the European Barbaricum in the Roman Period, Autorzy: Bartosz Kontny
  • Przeworsk Culture. Transformation processes and external contacts. (rok: 2019, tom: 1, strony: 327-357), Wydawca: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego
  • Aureusy serediny III veka na territorii Barbarikuma i ikh kontekst (Ауреусы середины III века на территории Барбарикума и их контекст,), Autorzy: Kirill Myzgin, Aleksander Bursche
  • Numizmaticheskie chteniya Otdela numizmatiki Gosudarstvennogo istoricheskogo muzeya 2019 goda (Нумизматические чтения Отдела нумизматики Государственного исторического музея 2019 года) (rok: 2019, tom: 1, strony: 47-52), Wydawca: Gosudarstvennyj istoricheskij muzej (Государственный исторический музей)

Texts in post-conference publications

  • Rimskie monety perwych wekow naszej ery na territorii Centralnoj i Wostocznoj Ewropy: obszczaja i srawnitelnaja charakteristika (Римские монеты первых веков нашей эры на территории Центральной и Восточной Европы: общая и сравнительная характеристика [по материалам кладов]))
    Autorzy:Kirill Myzgin
  • Konferencja: Lesnaja i lesostepnaja zony Wostocznoj Ewropy w epochi rimskicjh wlijanij i Welikogo pereselenija narodow. Konferencyja 4. (Лесная и лесостепная зоны Восточной Европы в эпохи римских влияний и Великого переселения народов. Конференция 4.) (rok: 2019, ), Wydawca: Institut Archeologii RAN, Data: 2012-11-13-17

Publications in journals

  • „Novaesium Type Chape from the Area of Międzyrzecz”
    Authors: Bartosz Kontny, Czasopismo: Światowit (rok: 2018, tom: 57, strony: 83-88), Wydawca: Instytut Archeologii UW, link 
  • Mid-3rd century Gothic invasions: coins and archaeology in Barbaricum IF: ,217, Authors: Kirill Myzgin, Aleksander BurscheCzasopismo: Journal of Roman Archaeology (rok: 2020, tom: 33, strony: brak danych),

Publisher:John H. Humphrey,link

Newly Found Sacrificial Weapon Depositis from the Territory of Poland,

Authors:Bartosz Kontny, Czasopismo: Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies (rok: 2020, tom: 20, strony: brak danych),

Publisher:ARMES (The Association of Roman Military Equipment Studies), link

  • Not only Tisa Basin. The warlike activity of the Przeworsk Culture peoples and their allies in the Roman Period,

Authors: Bartosz Kontny, Czasopismo: Acta Archaeologica Carpathica (rok: 2020, ), Publisher: Polska Akademia Umiejętności, link