Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire: Political Corruption & Struggle between Senate, Army and Emperor

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Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Political Corruption & Struggle between Senate, Army and Emperor

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was political corruption and the struggle between the senate, the army and the Emperor. The Roman Emperor had the legal power to rule Rome’s religious, civil and military affairs with the Senate acting as an advisory body. The emperor had power over life and death. The powerful, spoilt, wealthy Roman Emperors inevitably became corrupt and many lived a debauched, deluded and immoral lifestyle. The Roman Empire saw many examples of antagonism between the Senators and the Emperors. Either the Senators didn't like the Emperor or the Emperors was at odds with the Senators.

One of the most difficult problems was choosing a new emperor. Unlike Greece where transition may not have been smooth but was at least consistent, the Romans never created an effective system to determine how new emperors would be selected. The choice was always open to debate between the old emperor, the Senate, the Praetorian Guard (the emperor's private army), and the army. Gradually, the Praetorian Guard gained complete authority to choose the new emperor, who rewarded the guard who then became more influential, perpetuating the cycle. Then in 186 A. D. the army strangled the new emperor, the practice began of selling the throne to the highest bidder. During the next 100 years, Rome had 37 different emperors - 25 of whom were removed from office by assassination. This contributed to the overall weaknesses, decline and fall of the empire.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Decline in Morals, Ethics and Values

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the Decline in Morals. The decline in morals, especially in the rich upper classes, nobility and the emperors, had a devastating impact on the Romans. There was widespread immoral and promiscuous sexual behaviour including adultery and orgies. Examples of this are Emperors such as Tiberius kept groups of young boys for his pleasure, incest by Nero who also had a male slave castrated so he could take him as his wife, and Elagabalus who forced a nun into marriage.

The decline in morals also affected the lower classes and slaves. At religious festivals such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, sacrifices, ribald songs, lewd acts and sexual promiscuity were practiced. Brothels and forced prostitution flourished as did widespread gambling on the chariot races and gladiatorial combats. Pleasure was found in displays of cruelty towards both man and beasts in the Colosseum to amuse the mobs of people. 
Even during PaxRomana “Roman Peace” (A long period from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius when the Roman empire was stable and relatively peaceful) there were 32,000 prostitutes in Rome. Emperors like Caligula and Nero became infamous for wasting money on lavish parties where guests drank and ate until they became sick. The drinking of excessive amounts of alcohol was also widespread amongst the poor Romans.

Life became cheap – blood-shed led to more blood shed and extreme cruelty. The values, the ideals, customs, traditions and institutions, of the Romans declined. The basic principles, standards and judgments about what was valuable or important in life declined. The total disregard for human and animal life resulted in a lack of ethics - a perverted view of what was right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Any conformity to acceptable rules or standards of human behaviour were being lost.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Fast expansion of the Empire

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the Fast expansion of the Empire. The rapid growth in the lands conquered by the Empire led to the need to defend the borders and territories of Rome. The people of the conquered lands were referred to as “barbarians” (people who were uncultured, brutish and not belonging to Roman or Greek civilization). The barbarians hated the Romans. Taxes on the non-Romans were high and constantly increased. Frequent rebellions arose.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Constant Wars and Heavy Military Spending

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the Constant Wars and Heavy Military Spending. Constant warfare required heavy military spending. The Roman army became over-stretched and needed more and more soldiers. Military spending left few resources for other vital activities, such as providing public housing and maintaining quality roads and aqueducts. The emperors were forced to raise taxes frequently which in turn led again to increased inflation.

Frustrated Romans lost their desire to defend the Empire. The empire had to begin hiring soldiers recruited from the unemployed city mobs or worse from foreign counties. The Barbarians, who had been conquered, and other foreign mercenaries were allowed to join the Roman army. Such an army was not only unreliable, but also very expensive. The knowledge that barbarian soldiers gained of the Roman style of warfare and military tactics by serving in the Roman army were eventually turned against the Empire. This eventually led to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths led by an ex-army soldier, Alaric.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Failing Economy and High Inflation

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the failing economy and high inflation. Inflation refers to the increase in price and the fall in the purchasing power of money. The Government was constantly threatened by bankruptcy due to the cost of defending the Empire. The majority of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire did not share in the incredible prosperity (riches) of Rome.

Once the Romans stopped conquering new lands, the flow of gold into the Roman economy decreased. Yet much gold was being spent by the Romans to pay for luxury items. This meant that there was less gold to use in coins. As the amount of gold used in coins decreased, the coins became less valuable. To make up for this loss in value, merchants raised the prices on the goods they sold. Many people stopped using coins and began to barter to get what they needed. Eventually, salaries had to be paid in food and clothing, and taxes were collected in fruits and vegetables.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Unemployment of the Working Classes

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the unemployment of the working classes. Cheap slave labor resulted in the unemployment of the Plebs in Rome who became dependent on handouts from the state. The Romans attempted a policy of unrestricted trade but this led to the Plebs being unable to compete with foreign trade. The government was therefore forced to subsidize the working class Romans to make up the differences in prices. This resulted in thousands of Romans choosing just to live on the subsidies sacrificing their standard of living with a lazy life of ease. The massive divide between the rich Romans and the poor Romans increased still further. 

During the latter years of the empire farming was done on large estates called latifundia that were owned by wealthy men who used slave labor. A farmer who had to pay workmen could not produce goods as cheaply. Many farmers could not compete with these low prices and lost or sold their farms. This not only undermined the citizen farmer who passed his values to his family, but also filled the cities with unemployed people. At one time, the emperor was importing grain to feed more than 100,000 people in Rome alone. These people were not only a burden but also had little to do but cause trouble and contribute to an ever-increasing crime rate.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

The 'Mob' and the cost of the Gladiatorial Games

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the 'Mob' and the cost of the Gladiatorial Games. If the thousands of unemployed Romans became bored this led to civil unrest and rioting in the streets. The 'Mob' needed to be amused - spectacular gladiatorial games had to be provided. The Emperors, and therefore the state paid for the cost of the gladiatorial games. Corrupt politicians who sponsored the games to try and gain favor and support with the 'Mob'. The cost of the gladiatorial games eventually came to one third of the total income of the Roman Empire.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Slave Labor
& Slow-down in Technological Innovation

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the Slave Labor. The number of slaves increased dramatically during the first 2 centuries of the Roman Empire. The Roman's dependency on slave labor led not only to the decline in morals, values and ethics but also to the stagnation of any new technology to produce goods more efficiently. Romans could rely on the slave manpower for all their needs but this reliance inhibited technological change and growth.

The treatment of slaves led to rebellion and several Servile (Slave) Wars, the most famous being the revolt led by the gladiator slave, Spartacus. In the later centuries of the Empire and the advent of Christianity the attitudes towards slaves changed. With manumission (the act of freeing a slave) the number of slaves declined together with the manpower that Rome was dependent upon.

During the last 400 years of the empire, the scientific achievements of the Romans were limited almost entirely to engineering and the organization of public services. They built marvelous roads, bridges, and aqueducts. They established the first system of medicine for the benefit of the poor. But since the Romans relied so much on human and animal labor, they failed to invent many new machines or find new technology to produce goods more efficiently. They could not provide enough goods for their growing population. They were no longer conquering other civilizations and adapting their technology, they were actually losing territory they could not longer maintain.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Natural Disasters

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was Natural Disasters. During the time of the Roman Empire there were not only foreign wars, civil wars, street fights, fires and revolts, there were also natural disasters such as plagues, famines and earthquakes. As in all periods and societies the people looked for someone to blame and different religions to turn to.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Rise of Christianity

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire was the rise of Christianity. Christianity is the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. In Rome, life and the future seemed hopeless for the millions of people who were ruled by harsh emperors where an early death was almost inevitable.

Christianity taught the belief in an afterlife, which gave hope and courage to the desperate. Eventually the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, proclaimed himself a Christian and issued an edict promising the Christians his favor and protection. Attitudes in the Roman Empire changed from being antagonistic to becoming pacifistic.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Barbarian Invasions

One of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire were the barbarian invasions. To the Romans barbarians were any people who were uncultured, brutish and not belonging to Roman, Greek, or Christian civilizations. There were great barbarian armies consisting of warriors such as the Visigoths, Huns and the Vandals.

For years, the well-disciplined Roman army held the barbarians of Germany back. Then in the third century A. D. the Roman soldiers were pulled back from the Rhine-Danube frontier to fight civil war in Italy. This left the Roman border open to attack. Gradually Germanic hunters and herders from the north began to overtake Roman lands in Greece and Gaul (later France).

These barbarians inflicted the final deathblow to the Roman Empire. The city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and again by the Vandals in 455. This signaled the disintegration of Roman authority and the fall of the Roman Empire. Then in 476 A. D. the Germanic general Odoacer or Odovacar overthrew the last of the Roman Emperors, Augustulus Romulus. From then on, the western part of the Empire was ruled by Germanic chiefs. Roads and bridges were left in disrepair and fields left untilled. Pirates and bandits made travel unsafe. Cities could not be maintained without goods from the farms, trade and business began to disappear. And Rome was no more in the West.

Causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire:

Urban Decay & Public Health

Two of the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire were urban decay and public health concerns. Wealthy Romans lived in a domus, or house, with marble walls, floors with intricate colored tiles, and windows made of small panes of glass. Most Romans, however, were not rich. They lived in small smelly rooms in apartment houses with six or more stories called islands. Each island covered an entire block. At one time there were 44,000 apartment houses within the city walls of Rome. The poor did not occupy first-floor apartments, since these living quarters rented for about $100 a year. The more shaky wooden stairs a family had to climb, the cheaper the rent became. The upper apartments that the poor rented for $40 a year were hot, dirty, crowed, and dangerous. Anyone who could not pay the rent was forced to move out and live on the crime-infested streets. Because of this cities began to decay.

Many of the wealthy had water brought to their homes through lead pipes. Lead is a metal that is now known to be poisonous. The death rate of wealthy Romans was very high. Another way that people spread disease to one another was at the Colosseum. Here the blood and death and interaction of thousands of people likely spread disease to large groups of people. Those who lived on the streets in continuous contact allowed for an uninterrupted strain of disease much like the homeless in the poorer run shelters of today. Alcohol use increased as well adding to the incompetency of the general public.


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