Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most pivotal events in Western history, marking the transition from the ancient to the medieval world

Why did the Roman Empire fall?
Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, "The Senate and the Roman People". Illustration: DALL-E

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most pivotal events in Western history, marking the transition from the ancient to the medieval world. While the Empire’s decline was gradual and occurred over centuries, historians typically cite 476 AD as its endpoint, when the last Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed. The reasons behind the fall are complex and multifaceted, involving a blend of internal weaknesses and external pressures that accumulated over time.

The decline of the Roman Empire is a complex topic with many layers. At its peak, the Roman Empire extended from the damp hills of northern England to the dry deserts of Saudi Arabia.

The specific moment when the Empire began to crumble is debated among historians. Some point to the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD as a significant marker of its end, while others believe the Empire continued until the Middle Ages. The Empire was formally divided in 395 AD into the Western Roman Empire, with Rome as its capital, and the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople (now Istanbul) as its capital. This division marks a significant shift in how the Empire was governed.

"We tend to think of the Byzantines as this separate people and state from the Romans, but they called themselves "Romanoi" and saw themselves as citizens of a Roman government", Kristina Sessa, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University 

The decline of the Western Roman Empire was characterized by a gradual loss of centralized control, influenced by various factors including invasions by non-Roman tribes and betrayals within the Roman establishment itself. Pinpointing an exact moment when Rome lost control over specific territories is challenging. Unlike the clear-cut decolonization events of the 20th century, the disintegration of Roman control was not typically marked by formal documents or declarations of independence.

Between AD 460 and AD 480, for example, the Visigoths successfully captured significant portions of what is now France. The decline was not a sudden collapse but a slow and indistinct process where local autonomous leaders gradually took over the governance of regions previously under the control of a Roman emperor.

So why did Rome fall? There are various reasons:

Political Instability and Corruption

The Roman Empire faced significant political challenges that contributed to its downfall. The frequent change of rulers, often through violence or assassination, led to political instability. From 235 AD, during the Crisis of the Third Century, the empire saw over 20 emperors in just 50 years, each struggling to maintain control and often leading to civil wars.

Corruption also plagued the Roman administration. The concentration of power among a few led to widespread abuse of authority, weakening the legal and governmental structures essential for the empire’s stability. This corruption undermined the effectiveness of the Roman government and eroded public trust.

Detail from a 9th-century Byzantine manuscript. Constantine defeats Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge
Detail from a 9th-century Byzantine manuscript. Constantine defeats Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge; the vision of Constantine is a Greek cross with ἐν τούτῳ νίκα written on it via Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public domain

Economic Troubles and Overextension

As Rome' faced assaults from external adversaries, it was simultaneously unraveling internally due to a profound financial crisis. Continuous warfare and extravagant government spending had depleted the empire's treasuries, while heavy taxation and rampant inflation exacerbated the divide between the wealthy and the poor. To escape the tax collector, numerous affluent individuals retreated to the countryside to establish autonomous estates.

Concurrently, the empire suffered from a significant labor shortage. Rome’s economy heavily relied on slave labor for agriculture and craftsmanship, with its military conquests traditionally ensuring a steady supply of enslaved individuals. However, this source dwindled when territorial expansions ceased in the second century.

The situation worsened in the fifth century when the Vandals seized North Africa and disrupted Mediterranean trade by raiding as pirates. This decline in economic stability and production capacities severely weakened Rome's control over its European territories.

Military Decline

Throughout its prime, the military prowess of Rome was unparalleled. However, as the empire began to falter, its legions underwent a significant transformation. The Roman military, once predominantly composed of Roman citizens, increasingly relied on foreign mercenaries due to recruitment challenges among the native population.

Emperors such as Diocletian and Constantine resorted to enlisting Germanic Goths and other non-Roman groups to bolster their forces. Over time, the term "barbarus," initially denoting "foreigner," became synonymous with "soldier" within the legions.

These mercenaries, though formidable in battle, lacked a strong allegiance to Rome. Their loyalty was often questionable, and their ambitious leaders frequently turned against the Romans. Notably, many of the barbarians who eventually sacked Rome and contributed to the downfall of the Western Empire had previously served as mercenaries in the Roman military.

This shift not only weakened the Roman legions from within but also sowed the seeds of the empire's ultimate disintegration.

Barbarian Invasions

The most straightforward theory for Western Rome’s collapse pins the fall on a string of military losses sustained against outside forces. Rome had tangled with Germanic tribes for centuries, but by the 300s “barbarian” groups like the Goths had encroached beyond the Empire’s borders. The Romans weathered a Germanic uprising in the late fourth century, but in 410 the Visigoth King Alaric successfully sacked the city of Rome.

Routes taken by barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire during the Migration Period

The Empire spent the next several decades under constant threat before “the Eternal City” was raided again in 455, this time by the Vandals. Finally, in 476, the Germanic leader Odoacer staged a revolt and deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus. From then on, no Roman emperor would ever again rule from a post in Italy, leading many to cite 476 as the year the Western Empire suffered its death blow.

Emperor Constantine.
Emperor Constantine. Illustration: DALL-E

Cultural and Social Decay

Rome also faced internal cultural and social decay that contributed to its downfall. The values that had underpinned Roman success, such as discipline and dedication to the state, gradually eroded over time. Public services decayed, and the gap between the rich and the poor widened, causing social strife and weakening the cohesive fabric of society.

Religious Changes and the Rise of Christianity

In 313 C.E., Roman emperor Constantine the Great ended all persecution and declared toleration for Christianity. Later that century, Christianity became the official state religion of the Empire. This drastic change in policy spread this relatively new religion to every corner of the Empire.

By approving Christianity, the Roman state directly undermined its religious traditions. Finally, by this time, Romans considered their emperor a god. But the Christian belief in one god — who was not the emperor — weakened the authority and credibility of the emperor.

Constantine enacted another change that helped accelerate the fall of the Roman Empire. In 330 C.E., he split the empire into two parts: the western half centered in Rome and the eastern half centered in Constantinople, a city he named after himself. Emperor's divine status but also shifted the societal focus from state to spiritual salvation.

Why 2 empires?

In 324 CE, Constantine emerged victorious against Licinius, the eastern emperor, effectively uniting the Roman Empire under his rule. He established a new capital in the eastern half of the empire, at Byzantium, which he rechristened as New Rome; the city later became known as Constantinople, in honor of its founder.

The strategic location of Constantinople on a defensible peninsula and near the empire's frontiers enabled quicker military responses to external threats. Additionally, some historians suggest that Constantine chose this site for his new capital to foster the growth of Christianity away from the perceived corruption of Rome, providing a nurturing environment for the burgeoning religion.

The increasing involvement of church leaders in political matters further complicated the governance of Rome. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon famously supported the theory that Christianity contributed to the decline of Roman civic and moral virtues, a stance that has since faced significant scrutiny.

Today, most scholars believe that while Christianity might have influenced some aspects of Roman culture, the major causes of the empire's decline were more related to military, economic, and administrative challenges rather than religious transformation.

The Western Roman Empire, where Latin was the primary language and Roman Catholicism the predominant faith, faced a steady decline, ultimately leading to its downfall. In contrast, the Eastern Roman Empire, which spoke Greek and practiced Eastern Orthodox Christianity, continued to flourish long after the west fell. This eastern continuation, known as the Byzantine Empire, thrived for centuries thereafter. Consequently, the term "fall of Rome" specifically refers to the collapse of the western half of the Empire.

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