The Twin Crises of the Third Century

In 235 AD with the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus by his own troops, following difficult and – it might be assumed- inept campaigning against the Persians, the Roman Empire entered a protracted crisis that, save for brief interludes, it would not emerge from until 284 AD with the proclamation of Diocletian as Emperor. Even then, the broad political stability and especially the economic prosperity that had characterised the Roman period between approximately 30 BC and 235 AD would never return. Indeed, it is arguable that western Europeans did not fully recover Roman standards of living until the late 17th Century, perhaps even beyond then.

These events, which are often forgotten or not even taught to westerners today, are unknown on the other side of the planet in East Asia where a crisis of similar magnitude was unfolding at approximately the same time. Equally, as the dramatic events in Europe are unknown and would excite almost no interest in Asians, so too are the following events unknown to and unlikely to excite the imagination of Europeans.

In 189 AD the Chinese Emperor Liu Ling of the Han dynasty – so named for the river in the area from which the Liu family came – died. He left two prospective heirs to the throne, two boys well below the age of 18. The Emperor was officially revered but by the time Emperor Ling died as Mark Edward Lewis notes with a quote from a contemporary observer “orders from the provincial and commandery governments arrive like thunderbolts. Imperial orders are put on the mantle.” The Han dynasty’s fiscal base had been eroded by powerful clan family networks refusing fiscal burdens. These were clan family networks the throne under weak leadership had dared not challenge. On the other side, courtiers had used the weakness of a succession of child emperors to accrue considerable power and had eroded the proper flow of the funds that did reach the Imperial Treasury. The most infamous group of courtiers were the maligned eunuchs.

In an attempt both to stamp out corruption and grab more power for themselves officials aligned with the powerful clan families attempted to murder the Eunuchs, and brought in military units to assert their power. In desperation, the Eunuchs murdered the ring leader of the clan families – He Jin – and kidnapped Emperor Ling’s two sons. They were slaughtered to a man, but in the chaos the frontier General Dong Zhuo found the two royal children and put the younger one on the throne. He began to act as a tyrannical regent. In response a coalition of notables assembled and through their strength defeated Dong Zhuo in eastern China. In response Dong Zhuo burned down the capital city of Luoyang and relocated with the Emperor to the former capital of Chang’an to the west. Bickering among themselves over who had cost them potentially unquestioned victories the leaders of the coalition split among themselves. While not acknowledged at the time, this effectively ended the Han Dynasty and ushered in a 90 year period of civil war.

The extraordinary, almost concurrent crises of the two great world civilisations is remarkable, and while distant, it is arguable that there are commonalities between our current era and the events which preceded the twin Crises of the Third Century.

In both our time and back then civic duties have become civic options. At the beginning of the Han there was universal military service based on small and medium sized farmers giving themselves over for military service, often for two years. However, as farmers became increasingly squeezed by encroaching largeholders and landlords the state, in an effort to not burden the people it depended on for most of its taxes – small and medium holding farmers – ended universal military service. From the beginning of the first century to the its end in 190 AD the Han armies would be made up of mercenaries, criminals, the unwanted, and barbarians. It was this army, under Dong Zhuo, that ended the Han. In the Roman world while there was an increase in the size of the military, it increasingly became an employment of the marginal, and even barbarians – even if the loyalty of ‘barbarian’ soldiers remained solid even when fighting their own kin. Nonetheless it was a duty that rulers of both empires did not want – for a variety of reasons – to bother their people with.

In our own era armies are becoming smaller but very much the preserve of the marginal and even in the case of the United States of non-citizens filling the ranks. In the case of the Han, criminals, the unwanted, and assorted professionals and barbarians filled the ranks. In the case of the Romans while, given that the armies of Emperor Majorian in 457 AD must have come considerably from the Italian peninsula, the military profession was not as marginal, there were consistent complaints about the number of non-Italians and even outright ‘barbarians’ in the ranks. It should be noted though that in the case of the Romans, more so than the Han, the ‘barbarians’ served Rome loyally unless – as in the 410s after the murder of Stilicho – they were badly mistreated. In our own era the military profession is unwanted and forgotten, as it was in both empires but especially under the Han. Even in China where the military forms an integral pillar of the ruling clique’s power structure, the military’s numbers are eroded and in a population of 1.4 billion China struggles to man a barely 2 million man military.

In both empires the tax base of the empire had been eroded. In both cases land taxes were often pitifully assessed or not assessed at all on those of the powerful. The Romans could have endured this but as small and medium farmers were squeezed out, it started a fiscal death spiral for the Han. As the Imperial court received less revenue it delegated more power to influential clan family networks, that in turn gave them increased power to accumulate more land or refuse paying taxes in return for providing loyalty to the court. The result was that the Han were obeyed less and less. For the Romans the need of the Severan Emperors to increase the size of the Army and increase the meager salaries soldiers received led them to reducing silver content in their coins. The crucial mistake they made was issuing lower valued silver coins, but then not accepting these same coins as sufficient specie to pay taxes with, resulting in money progressively losing its value and leading to ever increasing inflation.

Broadly speaking though, in both empires, the same thing happened. The lower and middle classes were squeezed to the benefit of the rich, who then refused to pay taxes. In our time tax evasion by the wealthy has become a persistent and increasing problem.

Both empires and our own period are characterised largely by a sense of enduring complacency. As Bryan Ward Perkins notes in his book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation the Romans thought their world would go on forever. Indeed in a lecture delivered in India he specifically states that he entitled his book in part ‘the End of Civilisation’ as opposed to ‘the End of a Civilisation’ because the process of societal collapse that followed Rome’s fall shows us what would happen, only on an inconceivably more vast and horrific scale, if our civilisation were to end. Despite all our many problems, a collapse would be so much worse than the status quo and we need to have a certain care for our civilisation.

Equally despite the dislocation of the Guangwu interregnum as Wicky Tse argues in The Collapse of China’s Later Han Dynasty the Chinese of the time thought of what is sometimes called the Eastern Han (because of the move of the capital east from Chang’an to Luoyang) or Later Han as being the same Han dynasty since 202 BC. The Han had unified and held onto China. The prosperity, wealth and culture of China were great indeed, arguably exceeded only by Rome. The empire had brought the troublesome Xiongnu barbarians to heel, and had even brought what had been considered the barely Chinese south into its domain. Its writ extended to the Korean peninsula. That it, in its wealth, splendour, and peace for most, could end was a nightmarish and inconceivable prospect. And yet the Han Empire ended more readily than the Roman Empire which had an agonising, drawn out death. And even then, under Justinian in the East in the 6th century, it refused to die for several decades after the end. The Han simply splintered, imperial authority was smashed to pieces. Cao Cao – the greatest, most able, and most competent of all the warlords who emerged – invoked imperial authority in vain. The only thing that mattered were the numbers of swords, spears, bows, and the capabilities of the men who wielded them and the men who commanded them. In the Han, power had become completely privatised. State structures and power had been privatised. Thus the regime did not merely fall, the entire state – having no real institutions of any kind of independence – collapsed. Though it may be embarrassing to certain sensibilities the end of the Han shares as much in common with the end of Rome as it does with state collapse in Liberia and Somalia in the early 1990s.

In our own time public functions are increasingly privatised. Even world development goals are no longer expected to be met by governments, but by the private sector. Governing itself is being completely privatised and people are expected to look to local grandees, not governments for help. A new kind of feudalism could be said to emerge.

In the end, we have bear in mind that our world, which is already undergoing wrenching and often unpleasant changes, could go through a new crisis. Things do not always turn out for the better as the people of Rome and China found out in the 3rd century AD. That things turned out, ultimately, for the better, as a result of WWII, was not foreordained. Our forebears had to fight harder than we can imagine to stem the tide of darkness, and then make sure the aftermath brought peace instead of still greater strife. If the time comes that we ourselves are so challenged, we should remember the fate that befell the Han and Roman Empires, and vow not to let ourselves suffer the same fate. For the sake of those to come after us, for the sake of ourselves, should we be so challenged, we must not falter.

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