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The Fall of the Roman Empire

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  • Category: Rome

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It remains one of history’s great questions: What caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire?

            The when of the question is also a matter of debate. The traditional date acknowledged is September 4, 476 when Romulus Augustus, Emperor of the Western Empire, was deposed by Odoacer. But the Eastern Empire continued until the fall of Constantinople nearly a century later in 1453.

Other dates in contention are 395, the year of the death of Theodosius, the last time the Empire was united; the crossing of the Rhine by Germanic tribes in 406 after the withdrawal of the legions to battle Alaric I; or the disintegration of the western legions following the death of Stilicho in 408. Many scholars disdain the term “fall”, preferring to describe what was happening as a “complex transformation”. But there seem to be as many theories as there are theorists.

            The military historian Vegetius blames “Germanization”, the process by which Germanic mercenaries infiltrated the Roman legion. The resultant cultural dilution led to lethargy and complacency among Roman commanders and an increased decadence among Roman citizenry.

            Edward Gibbon argues the Roman population lost its way by allowing the Germanic tribes and other barbarian mercenaries a greater role in defending its interests. Gibbon claims Christianity was a contributing factor as well, turning the populace’s attention to other-worldly as opposed to here-and-now events.

            In his “Pirenne Thesis”, Henri Pirenne argued the Empire continued until the Muslim conquests in the 7th century, which disrupted Mediterranean trade routes and depressed the European economy. Pirenne sees the crowning of the Frankish King Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 as a continuation of the Empire.

            It is J. B. Bury’s contention in his “History of the Later Roman Empire” that what amounted to a “perfect storm” of events combined to spell the downfall of the Empire:

            *Economic decline

            *Germanic expansion in the population and military

            *De-population of Italy

            *The treason of Stilicho

            *The murder of Aetius and the lack of a leader to replace him

            Bury says the Empire could have survived any of these events separately, but could not overcome the convergence of them.

            William Carroll Bark’s “Origins of the Medieval World” reasons that basic economics was the Empire’s undoing. As a pre-cursor to feudalism, the tenant farmer’s obligation was to pay a fixed assessment of taxes on his grain supply. The oppressive taxes kept the farmers impoverished and unlikely to move into the more prosperous middle class.

In fact, what middle class there was was forced to become collectors of the taxes for the inefficient central government. Government coffers suffered as a result. Also, the scarcity of gold late in the Empire made matters worse. Inflation of the currency in relation to its value in gold resulted in more people demanding payment in gold. The government’s cash-flow problems required them to seek cheaper mercenaries as defenders.

            Radovan Richta says technology contributed to the Empire’s demise. The Germanic invention of the horseshoe and use of the new Chinese compass allowed mercenaries quicker access to Roman defenses.

            Arnold Toynbee and James Burke also examine economic causes at the root of the Empire’s fall. The Romans had no budgetary system and wasted available resources as a result. The economy was basically based on plunder rather than production of new goods, and that declined along with territorial expansion. Landowners were exempt from taxation, making revenue production inefficient and unfair.

The middle-class, the backbone of any free economy, was nearly non-existent. Exports were scarce. Military and bureaucratic costs increased. In overthrowing Romulus Augustus, the barbarian conqueror Odoacer assumed neither the title nor the responsibility of governance.

            William H. McNeill in “Plagues and Peoples” notes a 20-year-long plague in the late second century killed half of Europe’s population. The reduced tax base was unable to support the government and military and the resultant economic and social decline also killed the Empire.

               The French historian Lucien Musset maintains the Empire did not fall as much as it transformed, as did the Germanic civilization penetrating it. Musset based his opinion on studies of the linguistics, archaeological records, urban and rural societies, religion, art and architecture.

            Unsound economic policies were the downfall of the Empire according to Michael Rostovteff and Ludwig von Mises. After the third century, devaluation of the currency in relation to gold led to rampant inflation. Price controls pegged significantly below market levels led to shortages of foodstuffs, especially in urban areas.  As a result, cities de-populated and many Romans changed careers from tradesmen to agriculture. Together with an oppressive system of taxation, the Roman economy suffered a decrease in trade, technological innovation and national wealth.

            The threat posed by the Sassanid Persian Empire has been overlooked as a cause, according to Peter Heather. He used archaeological evidence to suggest the Romans were stretched militarily by their preoccupation with the Persians, allowing a succession of Huns, Goths, and Germanic barbarians access to their territory.

            Bryan Ward-Perkins illustrates a vicious cycle of foreign invasion, reduced tax revenue, and political instability as a cause. Invasions were not only costly to the Romans, they also encouraged provincial rebellions, further draining the government treasury.

            Still another theory blames environmental degradation followed by economic and population decline for the end of the Empire. Deforestation and over-grazing caused soil erosion and the fertile land turned to desert. Incorrect irrigation efforts caused salinization of the land and the extinction of many animal species.

            The number of reasonable theories about the Empire’s decline and fall and the subsequent dawn of the Middle Ages, are due to a lack of surviving evidence; economic, military or social, from the fourth and fifth centuries. This causes historians to use previous, later, or current periods as references to what happened. Use of that much imagination and personal prejudices involving cultural, economic and political trends makes any period of time open for endless interpretation.


            The Fall of the Roman Empire. wikipedia.com. Retrieved from the Internet March 16, 20

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