#13 The Crisis of the Third Century – Cologne’s Golden Age in Antiquity Draws to a Close

#13 The Crisis of the Third Century – Cologne's Golden Age in Antiquity Draws to a Close The History of Cologne

The Crisis of the Third Century was a period in which the Roman Empire went through many hardships. Foreign invasions into the Roman territory on many fronts, endless civil wars of rivaling emperors, diseases, and economic downfall. How did Cologne manage to get through these unsafe times? Find out more in this episode. Also, we learn a little bit more about Cologne's new germanic neighbors: the Franks.

Timetable of the events that lead to the Crisis of the 3rd Century

  • 161: Roman legion from Bonn near Cologne marches to the east of the empire to fight the Persians.
  • 166: When the war is won and the legion returns to the Rhineland, the Antonine Plague is brought with them. Many people died. It is estimated that 10% of the population died. Many Italian communities are completely wiped out by the Plague.
  • 173/174: Germanic tribes that want to settle in the still quite safe Roman Empire take their chance to raid and settle into Roman controlled Gaul and Germany.
  • 197: Many years of civil war have gone by in the Empire. Cologne’s important trading partner, the city of todays Lyon (latin: Lugdunum) is the place of one of the biggest battles in antiquity. 150,000 soldiers on both sides fight against each other. Rome loses a lot of manpower through these civil wars and the long lasting Antonine Plague.
  • 211: Emperor Septimius Severus dies. His Severan dynasty seems cursed. No emperor stays long in power or dies a violent death. In this time the size and pay of the military expands drastically. This is a big financial burden for the whole empire.
  • 235: The last Severan empire gets murdered in Mogontiacium (today’s Mainz), the capital of Cologne’s neighboring province of Upper Germania. The power vacuum and the inner instability of the empire starts the Crisis of the 3rd Century.
  • 238: So-called “Barracks Emperors” come and go like every second. Local military leaders proclaim themselves as emperors of the whole empire. This leads to a Year of Six (!) Emperors in the 238. None of these contestants dies a natural death.
  • 260: The peak of the Crisis of the 3rd Century. Roman Emperor Valerian gets captured in battle by the Persians. As a consequence the west of the Roman Empire, including Roman Germany, Gaul, Britain and Spain secede from the Empire under a Roman military leader of Postumus. Postumus and the legions on the Rhine rebell against the new emperor Gallienus. To gain control of Roman Germany, Postumus lays siege to Cologne where the emperor’s son is taking refuge. The crisis is now also being felt at first hand by the people of Cologne.

Incursions by Germanic tribes

The Franks

Situation on the Rhine in the 3rd century. In the west you can see the Roman provinces of both German provinces. In the East across the Rhine river you can see the different tribes that would soon form the germanic confederation of the Franks (in green) Click to enlarge picture. Source: By Odejea – Own work, d’après : Patrick Peron, Laurence Charlotte Feiffer, Les Francs (tome 1 – A la conquête de la Gaule), Armand Collon Editeur, Paris, 1987, isbn 2-200-37070-6, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8281962

The Alemanni

The Alemanni mainly attack in the southwestern part of today’s Germany, France and Switzerland. The numbers tell what year the Alemanni invaded places.

The Capture of the Roman emperor Valerian by the Persian (Parthians)

The Humiliation of the Emperor Valerian by the Persian King Sapor. Painted by the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger in 1521, so 1,200 years later. That’s why Persians and Romans wear clothes of the 16th century.
This was such a big deal to capture the emperor of the so powerful Roman Empire that you can still see it in today’s Middle East everywhere on ancient buildings. Here you can see how Valerian has to kneel in front of the Parthian king Shapur. At Naqsh-e Rostam in Iran.


A coin by hastily proclaimed emperor Saloninus. This coin was minted in Cologne in the year of 260.
By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32977008


Source: Von Sailko – Eigenes Werk, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77828780


Palmyrian Empire

Palmyra in modern day Syria. The borders displayed here are the modern-day borders of the eastern mediterran.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s