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The Fall of Rome: Historical Debates Essay

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2020

Introduction

The Roman Empire was established in 27 BC when Julius Caesar achieved the title of Augustus through a declaration by the Senate.1 He was the first of the three Julio-Claudian emperors who established and expanded the Roman Empire between 27 BC and 68 AD. By 117CE, the Roman Empire was the most successful and extensive socio-political organization in western civilization.2 The empire experienced a period of prosperity characterized by technological advancements, stable governance, trade boom, and immense contribution to art.

However, in the fifth century the empire’s fortunes dissipated due to a series of devastating attacks from barbarian forces and poor management/ leadership by the emperors. As a result, the empire lost its control over Western Europe by 476 CE. However, it continued in Eastern Europe until 1453. Historians are yet to agree on the factors that led to the decline of the Roman Empire and when it actually fell. In addition, some scholars believe that the empire evolved rather than fell. This paper will discuss the historical debates and factors that surrounded the perceived fall of the Roman Empire.

Historical Debates

The Arrival of the Barbarians

The fall of the Roman Empire is considered to have been an ongoing process that lasted for several years. This argument is based on the influence that immigrants had on the political and social structure of the empire. In late antiquity, the Romans allowed thousands of foreigners (barbarians) who had exerted a lot of pressure on the empire to grant them asylum.3 Foreigners wanted to live in Rome because it was much safer and offered better living conditions than other communities. As the number of immigrants increased, the empire became co-owned. The immigrants participated in the military and production centres, thereby influencing the empire’s culture and political power.

However, the immigrants were always mistreated and exploited through high taxation. The resulting increase in dissent led to violent confrontations, which eventually led to the end of the empire’s reign in Western Europe. For instance, in 378 CE, the Visigoths defeated the Romans in the Battle of Adrianople and killed Valens who was the emperor.4 The Visigoths further attacked the city of Rome in 410 CE under the leadership of Alaric.

This attack caused serious destruction and weakened the government of the empire. In 455 CE, the Vandals caused a severe physical ruin of the empire in a devastating and prolonged attack. By early 470 CE, the government was so weak that it could not withstand more attacks. As a result, the Germans under the leadership of Odovacar ousted the last Roman Emperor (Romulus Augustulus) in the Western Empire in 476 CE.5 In this respect, the arrival of the barbarians and their attacks led to the fall of the Roman Empire’s government in the west.

The Rise of Christianity

Edward Gibbon’s theory postulates that the rise of Christianity led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Christianity contradicted the traditional Roman religion, which promoted polytheism rather than monotheism.6 By 313 CE, Constantine had ended the persecution of Christians and adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. In the traditional religion, the emperor was considered as one of the gods. However, in Christianity the Romans were forced to believe in one God who was not their emperor. Since the emperor was no longer a god, his authority and credibility was seriously weakened. This made the empire vulnerable to attacks from the barbarian forces that overthrew several emperors.7

However, Gibbon’s theory is inadequate because it does not fully explain the fall of the empire. If Christianity led to the fall of the Western Empire, then it should have also weakened or caused the fall of the Eastern Empire where the Orthodox Church was very strong. Since this did not happen, it is difficult to conclude that the rise of Christianity alone caused the fall of the empire.8 Another argument against Gibbon’s theory is that Christianity only shifted the attention of the Romans away from the activities of their state. Thus, even though the political fortunes of the state might have declined because of Christianity, the civilization of the Romans was preserved. In this context, the empire did not fall because Christianity did not undermine its civilization.

Sexual Immorality

The Roman Empire was characterized by sexual immorality, especially, during the reign of the Julio-Claudians. Prostitution, homosexuality, and adultery were rampant during this era. Emperors such as Nero and the rich men in the empire spent fortunes on extra marital affairs. This led to extravagance and mismanagement of the empire’s economic resources.9 In addition, the population reduced as men and women focused on pleasure rather than raising their families. Consequently, the empire’s ability to establish a strong army declined.

This theory is often criticized due to the fact that the Roman Empire was very successful during the reign of the Julio-Claudians who were the main perpetrators of immorality. Following the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century, sexual immorality declined.10 Despite the adoption of Christianity as the main religion, the political and economic success of the empire still declined. Thus, immorality is not likely to have had a significant effect on the growth of the empire.

Modern Theories

Unlike the theories discussed in the foregoing paragraphs, modern theories attribute the fall of the Roman Empire to a combination of several factors that acted simultaneous. In this context, the historical issues that led to the decline of the empire include reduced population growth and military power, as well as, political and economic factors.

The Population

Historical data shows that the population of the Roman Empire declined steadily from the second century. During the Classical Age, the population of the empire was over one million people. However, in the subsequent centuries the population of the empire declined gradually. By the 500s, the population of the city of Rome was less than ten thousand people.11 The significant reduction in the population is attributed to the following factors.

First, sexual immorality coupled with the luxurious lifestyles that had been adopted by most Romans discouraged population growth. Most citizens increasingly became disinterested in raising children due to the time and economic resources that were needed to take care of large families. As urbanization increased, it became fashionable and economical to have few or no children to avoid congestion.

Second, the population was vulnerable to diseases such as malaria and diarrhea because of poor sanitation and lack of advanced treatment methods in various parts of the empire. As a result, thousands of lives were lost due to diseases that had no cure during the reign of the Romans. Third, lead poisoning is likely to have caused the death of several people in the empire.12 Archeological studies have revealed that human skeletons recovered in places such as Pompeii were exposed to a significantly high amount of lead. This suggests that lead poisoning was a cause of death in the affected regions. However, the extent of the poisoning remains unknown due to lack of hard statistics on the number of people who were affected. Finally, the empire lost most of its citizens due to the constant warfare that it was involved in with its enemies. The attacks by the Visigoths and the Vandals in 410 CE and 455 CE respectively are some of the major wars that led to a substantial loss of lives.

As the population reduced, the Roman Empire increasingly depended on immigrants to supply labour in the farms and other sectors of the economy. Similarly, the empire resorted to hiring the barbarians to protect itself from its enemies. Thus, the immigrants/ barbarians found it very easy to overthrow the government since they were the force behind its success for a very long time.

Political and Military Problems

Lack of adequate leadership is one of the major factors that contributed to the fall of the empire. Poor leadership was attributed to the incompetence of several emperors who were corrupt and oppressed the public through excessive taxation. Emperors such as Arcadius, Honorius, and Romulus ascended to the throne in their teens. Thus, they were feeble minded and ill-prepared to lead the empire. Their inferiority and inability to offer effective leadership made the empire vulnerable to attacks from outsiders.

The decision by Diocletian to divide the empire into two is another political act that contributed to its decline. Indeed some historians believe that the division marked the beginning of the fall of the empire. The division caused administrative challenges because each empire had its own ruler. In this respect, taxes had to be increased to establish a larger military to protect the two empires. This led to an increase in dissent among the citizens, especially, the Germans who worked in the military. Moreover, the government failed to establish a strong alliance with the immigrants who constituted a large proportion of the population.

The pursuit of personal interests among the generals was one of the major military problems that weakened the empire.13 Several generals had the ambition of becoming emperors or the main leaders of the military. The army was divided into several units to protect the empire in various parts of Western Europe. However, the units fought each other for power instead of uniting to protect the empire. As a result, the empire had twenty-three soldier emperors between AD 211 and AD 284. Most of the soldier emperors were assassinated by their rivals. This shows that lack of law and order within the military undermined the political system of the empire.

Economic Factors

In the third century, the empire suffered a prolonged period of economic crisis due to several factors. To begin with, the empire had engaged in a series of military invasions in Africa and Europe in the first and second centuries. These invasions were expensive and caused a severe financial constraint in the empire. As the empire lost its grip on Western Europe, its economy became very weak.14 Specifically, the reduction in the flow of slaves limited the empire’s access to cheap labour that was required for mass production in the agricultural sector.

The resulting reduction in output led to a substantial reduction in the empire’s earnings. This situation was made worse by the Vandals who perpetrated piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. In particular, piracy prevented the empire from shipping its merchandise and trading with other nations across the Mediterranean Sea.

In the fifth century, the emperors had to pay huge amounts of money to their soldiers to protect the empire due to increased attacks. However, sustaining this strategy was very difficult due to declining tax revenue. Thus, the Roman coinage was debased, thereby causing a severe inflation. The resulting rise in apathy and suffering motivated the citizens to retreat to the countryside.15 The economy in the city of Rome collapsed and the emperors found it difficult to finance their government.

When Rome Fell

The question of when Rome fell remains a subject of debate mainly due to the ambiguity in defining ‘Rome’. Historically, the word Rome has been used interchangeably in reference to the city of Rome, the Roman Empire, the government of the Roman Empire, and the People of Rome. Thus, when all these aspects are taken into account Rome can be considered to have fallen at different times.

If Rome is used in reference to the city, historical evidence indicates that it fell several times before the widely accepted date of 476 CE. Specifically, it was conquered by the Visigoths in 410 CE and the Vandals in 455 CE. These attacks were more serious and destructive than the 476 CE attack.16 Nevertheless, the city of Rome still exists today. Thus, some historians argue that it did not fall.

The Roman Empire and its government are believed to have fallen gradually. The fall began in AD 284 when the empire was divided into the western and eastern halves. However, this perspective is often criticized due to the fact that the two empires still shared some cultural practices and had a common tax system. The Western Empire fell when Odovacar overthrew its government in 476 CE.17 However, the demise of the western half was just a partial fall since the eastern half remained for nearly a millennium in the form of the Byzantine Empire.

The Eastern Empire (Byzantine) was very strong and operated for several years in Eastern Europe until the eleventh century when its power began to decline. In 1071, the Turks invaded the empire and conquered Anatolia. This weakened the empire since it lost a major military recruiting ground. In 1204, the Byzantine Empire was attacked by the Crusaders who conquered Constantinople, which was the capital city of the empire.18

As a result, the empire temporarily ceased to exist. In particular, it crumbled into several small states. Fortunately, Constantinople was later recaptured by the Greeks who rebuilt the Empire. In this respect, the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 did not amount to the fall of the empire. However, the Greeks did not succeed in establishing a strong military and economic base to protect the empire from further attacks. Consequently, the Turks invaded the empire again in 1453 and conquered Constantinople.19 The Turks completely destroyed the empire and established the Ottoman Empire, which lasted up to the end of World War I.

The Ottoman Empire was not considered as a real European kingdom since the Turks were Muslims who arrived from Asia. Thus, the establishment of the Ottoman Empire is believed to have brought the Roman Empire to an end in 1453.20

However, the fall was only limited to the empire and its government. The Romans continued to live in the region. In the western territory, the Romans became serfs and much of their culture was preserved. In addition, most of their institutions and bureaucratic system of governance were preserved through the Church. In the contemporary world, the Romans continue to exist as Italians although their culture has evolved. This leads to the argument that Rome actually evolved rather than fell after being attacked by the Turks.

Conclusion

The discussions in the foraging paragraphs indicate that several theories have been developed to explain the causes of the fall of Rome. The single factor theories attribute the fall to different events such as the arrival of the barbarians, the rise of Christianity, and sexual immorality within the empire. These theories have serious weaknesses, which limit their ability to explain the causes of the fall. The multifactor theories attribute the fall to several factors/ issues that acted simultaneously to dissipate the fortunes of the empire. These include economic factors, declining population, politics, and military problems.

These factors have generally been accepted as the main causes of the fall of Rome since they are supported by historical facts. Determining the date when Rome actually fell remains an unsettled debate mainly because some scholars believe that the empire did not fall in the first place. However, the Roman Empire and its government fell in 1453 when its eastern half was conquered by the Turks and replaced by the Ottoman Empire.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

N, Roan, ‘History of Byzantium’, YouTube. 2014. Web.

P, Williams, ‘Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire Episode 13’, YouTube. 2014. Web.

Secondary Sources

J. Ferguson, The Division and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 2006). Web.

E. Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1845). Web.

W. Goffart, ‘Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians’, American Historical Review 86: 2 (2009), pp. 275-306. Web.

P. Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome (Oxford, 2007). Web.

L. Milton, ‘Lead and Lead Poisoning from Antiquity to Modern Times’, Ohio Journal of Science 88: 3 (1988). pp. 78-84. Web.

B. Olwen, ‘Trade between the Roman Empire and the Free Germans’, Journal of Roman Studies 26: 2 (2009), pp. 195-222. Web.

C. Oman, The Byzantine Empire (New York, 2011). Web.

J. Ott, ‘The Decline, and fall of the Western Roman Empire’ (Master’s Thesis: Iowa State University, 2009). Web.

B. Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005). Web.

D. Potter, A Companion to the Roman Empire (Chichester, 2009). Web.

J. Saunders, ‘The Debate on the Fall of Rome’, History 48:162 (2007), pp. 1-17. Web.

T. Venning, A Chronology of the Byzantine Empire (New York, 2006). Web.

Footnotes

  1. Potter, David. A Companion to the Roman Empire (Chichester, 2009) pp. 113-175.
  2. ibid. pp. 113-175.
  3. Perkins, Bryan. The fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005) pp. 25-120.
  4. Goffart, Walter. Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians, American Historical Review 86:2 (2009), pp. 275-306.
  5. ibid. pp. 275-306.
  6. Gibbon, Edward. History of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1845) pp. 10-430.
  7. ibid. pp. 10-430.
  8. Heather, Peter. The fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome (Oxford, 2007) pp. 251-353.
  9. Saunders, John. The Debate on the fall of Rome History 48: 162 (2007) pp. 1-17.
  10. Potter, pp. 541-607.
  11. Perkins, pp. 121-341.
  12. Milton, Lessler. Modern Times Ohio Journal of Science 88: 3 (1988) pp. 78-84.
  13. Ott, Justin. ‘The Decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire’ (Master’s Thesis: Iowa State University, 2009) pp. 2-60.
  14. Olwen, Brogan. Trade between the Roman Empire and the Free Germans Journal of Roman Studies 26: 2 (2009) pp. 195-222.
  15. Heather, pp. 351-353.
  16. Ferguson, James. The Division and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 2006) pp. 1-18.
  17. Williams, Paul. ‘Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire Episode 13’, YouTube.
  18. Oman Charles. The Byzantine Empire (New York, 2011) pp. 1-25.
  19. Venning, Timothy. A Chronology of the Byzantine Empire (New York, 2006). Pp. 10-120.
  20. Roan, Nile. ‘History of Byzantium’, YouTube.
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