The Fall of Rome

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The Fall of Rome

Few topics in Roman history stir the imagination as much as the question of the "fall" of Rome. From its sixth-century-BCE origins to the second century CE when the empire reached its greatest size, Rome seemed destined to last. Over the next few centuries, however, Rome experienced a slow but steady decline. Just as the Roman Empire did not fall in one calamitous event, but slowly transformed into new societies over the course of centuries, no single theory explains why Rome collapsed. A number of factors contributed to its demise.

There have been hundreds of theories for the fall of Rome. Some have become popular, but are without foundation, like lead pipes poisoning the empire. Each generation finds a new approach to the problem and develops its own theories. One of the most famous theories is that of the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon. He viewed the fall of Rome as an event, a moment in time in which Rome ceased to be Rome and became something else. Since Gibbon, many new theories have emerged, some of which have merit, each of which has its flaws. More importantly, each of those theories demonstrates the importance of defining Rome—one cannot talk about the end of Rome without defining what it was that ended.
Most present-day Roman historians look at the end of Rome as a process rather than an event, one in which the Roman Empire gradually transformed into new societies. These historians of late antiquity take a more fluid view of history: they do not see late Roman society as a debased form of the classical past; they attempt to understand the period on its own terms, how it related to Rome's past, and what Roman culture meant at the time. No one cause explains how Rome fell, but the various factors that contributed to its decline are important pointers to changes that chart the transformation of Rome into the cultures of the early Middle Ages. Those changes also help demonstrate how the three key heirs to Rome—the Germanic kingdoms of the west, the Byzantine Empire in the east, and Islam—each in their own way, looked to Rome for inspiration.

Question: What caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire?
Document #1

Source: Strayer, Gatzke, and Harbison, The Course of Civilization, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1961 (adapted)

The basic trouble was that very few inhabitants of the empire believed that the old civilization was worth saving . . . . The overwhelming majority of the population had been systematically excluded from political responsibilities. They could not organize to protect themselves; they could not serve in the army . . . . Their economic plight was hopeless. Most of them were serfs bound to the soil, and the small urban groups saw their cities slipping into uninterrupted decline

* According to the authors, what were the basic problems facing the Western Roman Empire?

Document #2

Source: Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-88 (adapted)

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness [large size] …. The introduction . . . . of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrine of patience; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the . . . . demands of charity and devotion . . . .

* According to the excerpt from Gibbon, what were two causes for the fall of Rome?
Document #3

Source: Indro Montanelli, Romans Without Laurels, Pantheon Books, 1962 (adapted)

Rome, like all great empires, was not overthrown by external enemies but undermined by internal decay . . . . The military crisis was the result of . . . proud old aristocracy’s . . . shortage of children. [Consequently,] foreigners poured into this void [lack of soldiers]. The Roman army [was] composed entirely of Germans.
* What did this author identify as the problems in the military?

Document #4

Source: Herbert J. Muller, Uses of the Past, Signet, 1967 (adapted)

First the economic factor . . . While the empire was expanding, its prosperity was fed by plundered wealth and by new markets in the semi-barbaric provinces. When the empire ceased to expand, however, economic progress soon ceased . . . .

The abundance of slaves led to the growth of the latifundia, the great estates that . . . came to dominate agriculture and ruin the free coloni [farmers], who drifted to the cities, to add to the unemployment there. The abundance of slaves likewise kept wages low.

*What economic issues did Muller identify as causes for decline?

*In what ways was slavery a cause for the decline of the Roman Empire?

Document # 5
*According to this map, what led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire?

Document # 6

Source: Peter Stearns, Micheal Adas, Stuart Schwartz, Marc Lason Gilbert, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, Pearson Education, 2000.

More important in initiating the process of decline was a series of plagues that swept over the empire . . . which brought diseases [from] southern Asia to new areas like the Mediterranean, where no resistance had been established even to contagions such as the measles. The resulting diseases decimated the population. The population of Rome decreased from a million people to 250,000. Economic life worsened in consequence. Recruitment of troops became more difficult, so the empire was increasingly reduced to hiring Germanic soldiers to guard its frontiers. The need to pay troops added to the demands on the state’s budget, just as declining production cut into tax revenues.

*According to the authors, what were consequences of plagues in the Roman Empire?

Document #7

Source: Salvian, Romans and Barbarians, c. 440 A.D. In James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History: Vol. I: (Boston:: Ginn and co., 1904), 28-30

[The Romans oppress each other with fees and exactions]…for the many are oppressed by the few, who regard public exactions as their own peculiar right, who carry on private [money making] under the guise of collecting the taxes.
[Nay, the state has fallen upon such evil days that a man cannot be safe unless he is wicked]. Even those in a position to protest against the [unfairness] which they see about them dare not speak lest they make matters worse than before. So the poor are despoiled, the widows sigh, the orphans are oppressed, until many of them, born of families not obscure, and liberally educated, flee to our enemies that they may no longer suffer the oppression of public persecution…And although they differ from the people to whom they flee in manner and in language; although they are unlike as regards the fetid odor of the barbarians' bodies and garments, yet they would rather endure a foreign civilization among the barbarians than cruel injustice among the Romans.
So they migrate to the Goths, or to the Bagaudes, or to some other tribe of the barbarians who are ruling everywhere, and do not regret their exile. For they would rather live free under an appearance of slavery than live as captives tinder an appearance of liberty. The name of Roman citizen, once so highly esteemed and so dearly bought, is now a thing that men repudiate and flee from…

*Is this a primary or secondary source?

*According to this document, what do the oppressed decide to do? Why?

Document #8

Source: Henry Haskell, The New Deal in Old Rome, A.A. Knopf, 1947 (adapted)

Part of the money went into . . . . the maintenance of the army and of the vast bureaucracy required by a centralized government . . . [T]he expense led to strangling taxation . . . . The heart was taken out of enterprising men . . . tenants fled from their farms and businessmen and workmen from their occupations. Private enterprise was crushed and the state was forced to take over many kinds of business to keep the machine running. People learned to expect something for nothing. The old Roman virtues of self-reliance and initiative were lost in that part of the population on relief [welfare] . . . . The central government undertook such far-reaching responsibility in affairs that the fiber of the citizens weakened.

* Why did the Roman government have large expenses?

* What was the effect of high taxation on the people?
* What effect did the establishment of a governmental welfare system have on the people?

Document #9rome fall.jpg

*According to this graphic, what led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire?

Document #10

Source: Anonymous, On Military Matters 368 A.D. In A Roman Reformer and Inventor, translated by E.A. Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 106-14, 122-23.

The Corruption of the Provincial Governors

Now in addition to these injuries, wherewith the arts of [greediness] afflict the provinces, comes the appalling greed of the provincial Governors, which is ruinous to the taxpayers’ interests. For these men, despising the respectable character of their office, think that they have been sent into the provinces as merchants…As for the Governors, the buying of recruits, the purchase of horses and grain, the monies intended for city walls – all these are regular sources of profit for them and are the pillage for which they long.

Methods of Economy in Military Expenditure

I have now described, as I intended, the distresses of the State, which should rightly be removed by Imperial measures. Let us turn now to the vast expenditure on the army which must be checked similarly, for this is what has thrown the entire system of tax payment into difficulties…

Military Machines

Above all it must be recognized that wild nations are pressing upon the Roman Empire and howling round about it everywhere, and treacherous barbarians, covered by natural positions, are assailing every frontier.

*According to this document, what are three problems of the Roman Empire?

Question: What caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire?
Organizing information

After analyzing the documents, list reasons given for the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Then write a thesis answering the question above.





Thesis: ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Transformation vs. Fall

The prevailing theory today does not view the end of the Roman Empire as a fall, but as a transformation. Unlike earlier theorists, most modern historians do not view the Roman Empire or its people as static and unchanging. They define Rome as dynamic, a constantly evolving state, but one that continued to celebrate its past and that despite changes had cultural continuity with that past. Over several centuries, cultural, economic, political, and religious changes all worked together to transform Rome and its people. New peoples, such as the Germanic tribes, altered the cultural make-up of the empire. New religions, like Christianity, at first challenged and then changed the spiritual outlook of Rome. By the early fifth century CE, there were Romans like Flavius Stilicho who were ethnically German, culturally Roman, and confessed Christianity as their faith.

The Roman Empire was perhaps too large to govern effectively. The cost of defense, coupled with economic inflation, political corruption, the influx of Germanic tribes, and periodic imperial instability often led to trouble. Maintaining an army that had to defend existing borders and fight wars of expansion put an enormous strain upon the empire. Taxation attempted to solve the problem, but those most able to help, the wealthy, put the burden of taxation on the poor. As a result, not only did the Roman government lack the financial help it needed, but there was also tension between rich and poor, which sometimes led to violence. Added to this was the burden of dealing with the influx of Germanic peoples. In the face of such problems, any government would struggle, but periodic trouble with dynastic succession made the problem worse. As the empire tried various strategies to deal with those problems, it gradually fragmented into new societies. Examining several of the factors in Rome's transformation helps illuminate this fragmentation.
Religious Theories and the Year 476 CE
Religion has sometimes been blamed for the fall of Rome. The Emperor Constantine I's adoption of Christianity in 312 has been viewed by some as the beginning of the end of old Roman values, many of which centered upon military glory. Others cite the official adoption of Christianity as the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius I in 380 as the date that traditional Roman values died. Each of those assumptions, however, fails to take into account not only that both emperors initiated several military campaigns, but also that life in the Roman Empire continued much as it had before either emperors became Christian. Far from spelling the doom of the empire, being Christian came to be part of what it meant to be Roman.

The most popular date for the fall of Rome is 476, when Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman emperor, was overthrown by the Germanic warrior Odoacer. That date suggests that the Roman Empire equals the Western Roman Empire. However, that theory ignores Romulus' tenuous claim to the throne, Odoacer's motivations, and the fact that the eastern half of the empire, centered in Constantinople, still had an emperor and continued to thrive for several centuries as the Byzantine Empire. Romulus' father had usurped the western throne, which hardly lent the young man much legitimacy. Moreover, Odoacer did not try to become emperor, but actually sent the imperial regalia back to Constantinople. Apart from the deposition of one usurper, something that had happened often enough before 476, little changed with the removal of Romulus. The citizens of Italy even enjoyed some measure of peace under Odoacer until his fall in 493.

Cultural Unity
One of the more modern theories was that of Henri Pirenne, a Belgian scholar who presented his theory in his book Mahomet et Charlemagne (Mohammed and Charlemagne), which was first published in Europe in 1937. For Pirenne, Rome meant the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, a unity that was broken in the seventh century when the spread of Islam disrupted trade routes and toppled Roman cities. Archaeological evidence has since disproved the idea that trade suffered so badly, but more than that, Pirenne's view of Islam was flawed. His perspective looked at Islam through the lens of the medieval Crusades, which vilified Muslims and established a lasting bias against them. In reality, the historical record shows that Islam was actually one of the main heirs of Rome.
Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

MLA Citation

"Why Did Rome Fall? (Overview)." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO,

2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

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