Allegedly there is a traditional Chinese curse that goes, "May you live in interesting times."
It's certainly true that the periods in history that are the most engaging to read about are often the ones no one in their right mind would want to experience first-hand. For myself, I've always had a near-obsession with the western European "Dark Ages" -- between the collapse of Roman rule in Britain at the end of the fourth century C. E. and the consolidation of Frankish rule under Charlemagne in the middle of the eighth. Part of the reason for my fascination is that so little is known for certain about it. When people are fighting like hell just to stay alive, not too many of them are going to prioritize writing books about the experience, or (honestly) even bothering to learn how to read and write. Add to that the fact that during the turmoil, a great many of the books that had been written beforehand were destroyed, and it all adds up to a great big question mark.
I riffed on this idea in my recently-completed (not yet published) novel The Scattering Winds, in which a similar crisis in the modern world propels us into a new Dark Age -- and five hundred years later, when the surviving remnants of humanity have reverted to a non-literate agrarian culture, one man discovers what's left of a modern library that has somehow survived all the intervening chaos.
The effects such a discovery would have on a people was fascinating for someone like me -- a linguist and (very) amateur historian -- to explore. But to find out what happened, you'll need to wait till it's in print!
Anyhow, back to reality. Only a hundred years earlier than the onset of the canonical European Dark Ages, the Roman Empire went through its own Interesting Times -- the "Crisis of the Third Century." Things had been moving along rather nicely for the Romans (if not for all of the various people they conquered), but then a series of short-lived and completely incompetent emperors led to a period of about seventy years of utter chaos.
The spiral began with the emperor Elagabalus, who was only fourteen when he succeeded to the throne. Historians haven't been kind to the young man, largely because he was (1) a raging egotist, (2) completely uninterested in running the government, and (3) gay. Elagabalus seemed to look upon his position as being not much more than a golden opportunity to find large numbers of hot-looking young men to have sex with, and it's unsurprising that his reign didn't last long. Just under four years after he was crowned, he was assassinated by the members of his own Praetorian Guard, and was succeeded by his cousin, Severus Alexander.
Severus Alexander was only thirteen when he was crowned (222 C.E.), but for a while, it seemed like things were going to be okay. The "interesting times" started in earnest when Rome was invaded (for the umpteenth time) by Germanic tribes from the north and then from the Sassanid Empire from the east. Severus Alexander did a pretty good job meeting both of these threats, but there were members of the Roman army who didn't like the fact that he used both diplomacy and bribery in his peace efforts -- and in the year 235, they murdered the emperor and put one of their own, a man named Maximus Thrax, on the throne in his place.
Maximus Thrax was the first of the "barracks emperors" -- men who had been declared emperor by some faction of the military, despite having neither the skills to rule nor the hereditary claim to gain support of the people. 238 C.E. was called "the Year of Six Emperors," during which six men rose to the high throne and were one after another defeated and killed within weeks to months. The once-mighty Roman army became a fragmented mess, where different legions supported different claimants to the throne, and spent more time fighting each other than fighting the threats on the imperial borders.
Then, in mid-century, the Plague of Cyprian struck. No one is completely certain what the disease was, but whatever the cause, it was bad. Here's an account of the epidemic, by one Pontius of Carthage:
Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.
There are no good estimates of the death toll, but what is certain is that for the Roman Empire, it made a very bad situation a great deal worse. Fortunately, in around 270, there were a series of barracks emperors who at least were able to garner enough popular support (and to stay alive long enough) to fight back invasions from the Goths and the Vandals, and the whole miserable period finally ended when Diocletian was crowned in 284. While he was no one's idea of a nice guy -- Diocletian's known as the leader of the last and bloodiest persecution of the Christians the Roman Empire perpetrated -- there's no doubt that his reform of the government and military was a brilliant success. He also did something virtually unknown amongst crowned leaders; he ruled for twenty-one years then voluntarily abdicated, preferring to spend his final years gardening.
The reason all this comes up is that the chaos in Europe in the third century leaves historians having to piece together what happened from fragmentary records, and new discoveries can sometimes generate some surprises. Like the gold coin discovered in 1713 in Transylvania, long considered a fake, that was just demonstrated to be genuine by microscopic analysis of the material it was embedded in. And the image and inscription on that coin turned out to be of an emperor no one even knew about -- a man named Sponsian.
Sponsian seems to have been another of the barracks emperors, and ruled at least part of the Roman province of Dacia (now part of modern Romania) some time between 260 and perhaps 270. Given that he's only known from a single coin, we don't know much about him -- the likelihood is that he met the same end as most of the other mid-third century claimants to the Roman throne.
All of which makes me wonder why any of these people wanted to be emperor during this period. Did they really think, "Okay, the last fourteen guys have all been brutally murdered by howling mobs, but everyone is gonna love me!"? Myself, I think I'd pre-empt Diocletian and take up gardening from the get-go.
Be that as it may, this new analysis of an old discovery is pretty cool -- and points out that even the Dark Ages may have left behind enough traces that we can piece together what happened. Even if we never find an intact library, like in my novel, we can still know something about an era that until now has been largely a mystery.
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