The fall of the Roman Empire was a long – lasting process. To this day, scientists argue about when the fall of the Roman state began and what were its causes. The second we start to talk about the degeneration of the great empires, ancient Rome inevitably comes to mind. Edward Gibbon had no doubts: all the evil began at the end of Marcus Aurelius’ reign, and the main reason was the fall of ancient virtues caused by the spread of Christianity. Some of more traditionally thinking historians agreed with Gibbon, the others pointed to the political crises that plagued the Empire and the continuous barbarian invasions.
Currently, we distinguish various theories and explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. In general, they can be classified into four main groups :
I. General disintegration and weakening of the state
Historians take into account various aspects of this approach that contributed to the weakening of Rome’s political power.
- The fall of ancient Roman virtues was intensified by the spread of Christianity – the representative of this theory was Edward Gibbon – author of the book “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1766 – 88). The historian also emphasized the large influence of the barbarian tribes. In addition, he drew attention to the negative influence of Christianity on all aspects of the Empire, especially army.
Roman historian Vegetius, writing in the 5th century CE, literally begged for any reform of the Roman army, which was at the tragic level of training. Historian Arther Ferrill suggested that the weakening of the army was caused by the flow of the Germanic element to the prestigious legions. The “Germanization” of military structures led to the lack of discipline and rigor, as well as to a decrease in the level of loyalty towards headquarters. Ferrill also agrees with another historian, A. H. Jones, that the reduction of trade and industry was not the reason for the fall of the Empire. On the other hand, the regression in agriculture was of great importance, which resulted mostly from barbarian invasions and increasing taxes.
- Historians Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke, claim however, that the internal system of the Empire was “rotten” and required repair. Revolutionary reforms were needed, but none of the emperors was ready to carry them out. The Romans did not have any budget system, which led to the wasting of all resources. The economy was focused on exploitation, which was run on rich, conquered areas. High taxation was also introduced there, which led small farms either to poverty or to dependence on influential elites. Along with limiting the conquests ( which were the main source of financing the army) the state was forced to charge Roman citizens with taxes. With the increasing pressure of barbarian peoples on the Empire’s borders, the need to finance the army was also growing. The situation over time became so peculiar that barbarian armies were sometimes better equipped than the Romans themselves; not to mention a larger strength. With time, the population of Roman cities began to perceive the Romans as the occupiers exploiting their subjects and the barbarians as liberators.
- Historian Michael Rostovtzeff and economist Ludwig von Mises agreed that economics was crucial in the fall of the Empire. According to them, in the 2nd century CE the Roman Empire possessed a developed market with relatively free trade. The fees were low, and the regulations had little impact on turnover. However, the denomination of the currency in the 3rd century CE caused inflation. Recognizing the negative side of this situation, Constantine the Great decided to carry out a currency reform that was implemented before the Barbarian invasion in the 5th century CE – however, it did not affect the situation of the state. According to Rostovtzff and Mises, low prices led to the lack of food, mainly in cities whose inhabitants made their lives dependent on them. Despite legal regulations aimed at preventing the cities from depopulation, one could observe a gradual migration of people from urban areas to the countryside. People decided to change their occupation – from trade to agriculture. In this way (with high taxation) there was a decrease in the turnovers, innovation and state revenues.
- Bruce Bartlett looks for denomination during the reign of Nero. Bartlett believes that the rulers rulers, wanting to gain the troops’ loyalty, decided on extravagance and giving more and more money on soldiers’ pay. The climax was the 3rd century CE and the need to satisfy the exorbitant demands of soldiers at all costs. Lack of consent or prospects of future pays led to the emperor’s overthrow and proclamation of a new one in his place. The rulers avoided charging the population and decided on commandeering (wherever they could) physical goods – for example, food and cattle from farmers. As a result of such actions, there was a social chaos, which was intensified by forcing the people to hold their functions and professions. This way, farmers were tied to the land, and children of soldiers had to join the army. Large number of people migrated to the provinces, where they sought a chance to become independent and provide themselves with basic life opportunities. With time, separate estates began to form, which did not take part in state trade and created a kind of community. These were the beginnings of feudalism.
- British historian Adrian Goldsworthy saw the main reason for the fall of Rome in the military aspect. Endless civil wars for power, the weakening army, the reluctance of men to join the army, and the growing pressure of the barbarians on the borders led to the disintegration of the Empire. The progressive weakening of the central government, social and economic problems led to the weakening of the legions’ strength, which was extremely important for the stability of the state.
II. One – reason approach
Theories suggesting only one aspect in the fall of the Roman Empire.
- Diseases – historian William H. McNeil mentions that c. 165 CE the Empire was affected by the terrible Antonine Plague, which came with the Roman army, returning from the east. For about 20 years a pandemic (smallpox or measles) has led to the death of almost half of the population. In the 3rd century CE the Empire was affected by another plague – the Plague of Cyprian. Pandemics led to depopulation of regions, which also affected the trade and military efficiency. It is believed that the Eastern Empire survived as it had a larger population. It is worth adding that epidemics had extremely easy ways to create new outbreaks of disease. The cities were very crowded. The poverty mixed with the aristocracy in public places. In addition, the cities were supplied with water, which was a great “guide” for the pathogens. Germans, unlike the Romans, were less susceptible to disease. They did not live in such a crush, they did not have such access to water, and they drank mainly boiled water. This way, fertility and population growth was much greater among the barbarians than in the Empire.
Archaeologists discovered that from the 2nd century CE, urbanized regions gradually decreased in strength, and legally regulated so – called uninhabited lands ( agri deserti dangerously covered further areas. Less people meant lower tax profits, which struck Rome’s finances.
- Environmental degradation – an approach that suggests the impact of deforestation and ecosystem degradation on population and the decline of income. Deforestation resulted from the territorial expansion, the enlargement of the Empire’s population, large – scale agriculture and rapid economic development. Rome y led Western Europe towards development, which brought also deforestation around the Mediterranean.
The influence on the ecosystem of the Mediterranean can be seen with the naked eye. A great example is macchia, which is a biome found in wetter habitats in the Mediterranean region. It occurred in the place of the deciduous, mainly oak forests, destroyed by Romans. Therefore, Italia is an area with low afforestation dominated by shrubs. Continuous cultivation of land caused the formation of wastelands and swamps. There were also natural disasters: floods (even Rome was affected, the first large flood was recorded in 241 BCE), mudslides, famines.
The Romans also had an influence on poisoning the air. A large number of industrial centers required a large supply of fuel (coal, wood), and thus poisoned the air with excrements from furnaces and steelworks. Of course, these effects of the Romans do not have the scale of today’s civilization. It should be noted, however, that at that time Roman civilization could be considered one of the least ecosystem – friendly in the world.
- Lead poisoning – Jerome Nriagu in 1983 stressed that lead poisoning could have a large impact on the fall of the Roman state. The lead pipes, pots and defrutumPliny the Elder or Vitruvius mentioned that in their works.
- J. B. Bury – criticized Gibbon, for his vision of the fall resulting from the expanding Christianity. As the Eastern Empire notes, it was strongly Christian, and it survived for many centuries. In addition, he believes that Gibbon’s approach is too one – dimensional and incomplete. Bury claims that the fall of Rome resulted from a series of complex events, which excludes general causes. Rome was troubled by many crises that occurred at the same time: economic decline, Germans’ invasion, depopulation of Italy, dependence of the army on Germanic foederati, betrayal of Stilicho, loss of will to fight, death of Flavius Aetius or lack of a leader equal to Aetius. It was a series of unfortunate fugitives and circumstances that led to a great disaster.
- Peter Heather – claimed that despite the internal problems of the Empire in the first, second and second half of the 3rd century, showed stability. The first serious threat was the formation of the Sassanids in today’s Iran (226 – 651 CE). Long wars with the eastern neighbor were finally successful for Rome. However, the conflict resulted in a decline of income in the provinces, which in turn was to have a bad (long – term) impact on the state. Heather, like Bury, believes that the fall of Rome was not inevitable. The death of the Western Roman Empire resulted from historical misfortune – the accumulation of negative events.
- Bryan Ward – Perkins – the “vicious circle” theory, including political instability, invasion from abroad, reduction of tax incomes.
In the 19th century, some historians focused on the continuity of the Roman Empire in post – Roman Germanic kingdoms.
- Fustel de Coulanges believed that the barbarians simply contributed to the transformation of Roman institutions.. Henri Pirenne in turn, stated that the barbarians had come to Rome not to destroy it, but to get some benefits – as a result Roman customs and traditions were preserved. In his theory, Pirenne also claims that the Frankish state can be regarded as an entity continuing the traditions of Rome.
- Lucien Musset – a French historian – stated that the medieval world was formed as a result of the collision of the Greco – Roman civilization with the Germanic one. The Roman Empire did not collapse, but only transformed – more precisely, the Germanic population accepted the values of the Roman world.
- Historians of the late period of antiquity, such as Peter Brown, believe that one can not speak of the fall of Rome as such. Romans values occurred in areas dominated by barbarians for the next decades, which leads to the conclusion that there is no separation between the antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was too long process to set an exact cesura for it.
Most academics agree that one of the main reasons for Rome’s weakening (which allowed the barbarians to cross the Rhine and the Danube, and then settle in various parts of the Empire) since the 3rd century CE was economic crisis.
Initially, Rome started with cattle and brown money, then it was just a poor settlement of refugees and outlaws from various surrounding kingdoms. When these people began organizing and conquering their neighbors, they adapted new higher standards.
The breakthrough was the introduction of a monetary system based on silver and gold coins, initially based the Greek standard. With time, the Romans developed their own system based on silver coins called denarius and gold coins called aureus. It was then that Rome from the republic transformed into the Empire and grew in strength.
Such prosperity infected everybody, every Roman wanted even more than he possessed, the army and administration grew to protect and enlarge the state and to take care of society. Cities were developing more and more dynamically, especially the capital, the emperors, who wanted to please the people erected enormous public buildings such as Circus Maximus or the Colosseum, they did not focused on expanding their headquarters.
For all this, more and more money was needed, while the gold and silver supplies were exhausted. Expenses grew and money was lacking. What did the emperors and the administration of the Empire deal with in this matter? It was decided to mix pure silver and gold with other worthless metals, mainly copper in a quite imperceptible way – as a result, twice as many coins were obtained.
Such practices began to appear sporadically even in the 1st century CE. A great example are the antoninians emitted by Caracalla in the beginning of the 3rd century CE, they were like double denarii, that is, one antoninian was an equivalent of two silver denarii, but the antoninian was only visually bigger because 60% of its value was copper. The more expenses grew, the Empire produced less and less valuable coins. Every day there were more and more of them, the supply of currency grew at an alarming rate, and there were less and less gold and silver. The reform was tried earlier by Septimius Severus. He began with the devaluation of the denarius, but the decline in the value of the Roman currency only undermined confidence in the Empire. It came to the fact that the bankers in Egypt and the Middle East refused to accept her. Military commanders also did not want to pay in the weakening currency, they preferred to give land. When they did not get them, they rebelled.
At the end of the 3rd century CE spoiling the money led the Roman Empire to a serious crisis. When in 284 CE Diocletian took over the throne, the crisis was raging for good. Trying to save the situation, the emperor issued the Edict on Maximum Prices in 301 CE, which imposed on the society the maximum prices of goods and services, for which they were punished with severe penalties. Most of the merchants and traders did not comply with the edict, because with increasing inflation it was unprofitable for them. They went to the black market.
Unemployment also increased, people lost their property and were starving. The government tried to solve the problem of hunger by means of social support, which had been used much earlier by making the citizens dependent on the Empire. The government tried to solve the issue of unemployment by employing people to build public buildings for which huge sums of money went. A lot of money also went to the army, which had to defend the Empire against the enemies.
Diocletian ordered to emit more and more copper coins to cover all these expenses, eventually leading to the first hyperinflation in history. To buy basic products, the Romans had to spend bags of copper worthless coins. The Empire was bound collapse. The rivals were just waiting for such a moment. Even before that a foreign population from conquered provinces and foreign lands came to the Empire, leading to the degeneration of society, destroying the Empire from the inside.
It should also be mentioned that with the final establishment of the Empire’s borders and the cessation of conquest, the slave – based latifundia lost a rich source of labor supply. There is no doubt that a powerful blow inflicted further waves of German invasions on Rome (also caused by economic factors – Germans fled into the Empire’s borders against the aggression of Asian nomads, who probably were driven out by the lack of food there). It is worth noting that Germans did not even dream of overthrowing the Empire. More dangerous for the existence of Rome, the effect of their actions was rather deepening economic regress.
The costs of maintaining the armed forces exceeded the ability of the state budget. The
inflation appeared, followed by the economic crisis, rising food prices and social unrest. Meanwhile, the borders of the Empire were attacked by barbaric peoples.
The Roman Empire in western Europe finally collapsed in the 5th century CE And again, it is worth noting that the final blow that led to it was largely economic in nature. The Western Empire was able to expose new armies, defend itself, ransom from invasions, and pacify the barbarian invaders only as long as it had its last safe economic base in North Africa. However, it was the last source of grain, people and money that dried out suddenly in 429 CE, when the North African provinces were occupied by the Vandals. If we look for the real cause that ended the life of the Roman Empire, it was precisely the economic blow caused by the loss of Africa .
Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire
What did the year 476 CE mean really?
The disappearance of the imperial institution in the West can be perceived as a restoration of the old state of affairs in favor of the aristocracy, in a situation of political superiority. This restoration of the old order was the deliberate act of the barbarian king who ruled in Rome – Odoacer. For this fact they did not realize their contemporaries, just as they did not notice the disappearance of the institution of the Empire in its western part. This happened due to the relatively common periods of interregnum and the growing importance of barbarian patricians who were often entrusted with the office of magister militum. Thus, the year 476 CE passed practically unnoticed. This date remains the main border separating antiquity from the Middle Ages. In fact, this only confirmed the existing for years fall of the Empire, which was a consequence of a long political and constitutional crisis. One should also note the widespread pessimism and stagnation of Roman society, which could be noted in every aspect of the life.
The dethronement of the last western emperor Romulusa Augustulus was first noriced by the rhetoric and official Marcellinus Comes, who in his book “Chronicle” (VI century CE) wrote that “the Roman Empire in the west […] experienced death together with Augustulus”. Contemporary historiography, or rather a part of it, for some time questioned the validity of the assertion that this situation should mark the border between historical eras. The most famous researcher who denies the division into periods include the specialist of the ancient period, Arnoldo Momigliano, who is the author of the phrase “fall without noise” – thus defining the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
From the 18th century onwards, we are obsessed with the fall of the Roman Empire: this collapse has became an archetype of every fall, and at the same time, a symbol of our fears. The first paradox is that the basic book, like the one by Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776 – 88), only spread this obsession. The second paradox is that not many contemporary people (as far as we can deduce from sources) realized that the dethronement of Romulus Augustulus also meant the end of the Roman Empire in the west. The Roman Empire in the west collapsed, making no noise in September 476. In antiquity violent falls took place, and considered as such, occurring without moderation and often without mercy on the part of contemporaries. And so the concept of succession of empires was created […].
When Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Macedonia ceased to exist one day, it was possible to realize it immediately. Also in the history of the Greek Thalassocracy, from Cretan to Athenian, and comparable, but not identical, series of hegemony (Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Macedonia) created historical periods recognized and identified by contemporary and their successors.
Rome was said to be unbelievably quick about the decrepit of the state. Less unexpectedly in the 4th century CE such Christians as Saint Ambrose and Saint Hieronymus pressed strongly on this fall […].
However, it is about the arrival of the true distribution of the Western Empire, when in 476 CE the Roman emperor “disappeared”, there is no dramatic moment – military conquest, murder of the ruler, physical destruction – which would cause an echo comparable to those of Nineveh, Babylon, Persepolis, and finally Athens, Sparta and Thebes. If you can find an event comparable to the fall of Nineveh, it was the capture and plunder of Rome in 410 CE, which so strongly inspired Saint Augustine. Nevertheless, the same capture and plunder of Rome, seen retrospectively, seemed like an indecisive clash, perhaps discouraging drama, in any event the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in September 476 CE concerned only Italy, for the residents of which, if they were not witnesses of events it was not a matter of law or political question. Relations between Odoacer and the Emperor of the Eastern Empire remained uncertain.
The Empire was never separated in a formal way, and the most obvious manifestation of the dethronement of the Roman Emperor had to draw the attention of Constantinople as the true center of the Empire. Its contribution to the dramatic deprivation of this photo from the office adds the fact that Romulus Augustulus, still young and personally insignificant, was generously sent by Odoacer to live in Campania with his mother and received a proper payment.
– Momigliano Arnoldo, La Caputa senza rumore di un impero nel 476 d. C., [in:] Sesto contributo alla storia degli studi classici e del mondo antico, Roma 1980, p. 159 – 161