The reason for the collapse of the Western Rome Empire, one of the most important empires in world history, cannot be explained in a single sentence.
Until the fall of the west; Let’s examine a few cases with commentary and outcome evaluation.
After Caesar’s murder, his adopted son Octavian gradually transformed Rome’s “aristocratic republic” structure into a constitutional monarchy so that what happened to him would not happen to him.
One-man power only; The quality of training prospective monarchs is good when it can be secured (and improved if necessary) by systems such as education (and, if necessary, health).
Octavian’s successors were, with exceptions, unqualified emperors who abolished the concept of deification; Among them were those with serious psychological disorders such as Nero, Caligula, Honorius. In Rome, there were no palace schools that could provide qualified administrative education that could eliminate the unqualified, and there were no competent health institutions that could treat psychological disorders. Thus, the decline started from the top.
A General Summary
To many historians, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE has always been viewed as the end of the ancient world and the onset of the Middle Ages, often improperly called the Dark Ages, despite Petrarch’s assertion. Since much of the west had already fallen by the middle of the 5th century CE, when a writer speaks of the fall of the empire, he or she generally refers to the fall of the city of Rome. Although historians generally agree on the year of the fall, 476 CE, and its consequences for western civilization, they often disagree on its causes. English historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote in the late 18th century CE, points to the rise of Christianity and its effect on the Roman psyche while others believe the decline and fall were due, in part, to the influx of ‘barbarians’ from the north and west.
Whatever the cause, whether it was religion, external attack, or the internal decay of the city itself, the debate continues to the present day; however, one significant point must be established before a discussion of the roots of the fall can continue: the decline and fall were only in the west. The eastern half – that which would eventually be called the Byzantine Empire – would continue for several centuries, and, in many ways, it retained a unique Roman identity.
One of the most widely accepted causes – the influx of a barbarian tribes – is discounted by some who feel that mighty Rome, the eternal city, could not have so easily fallen victim to a culture that possessed little or nothing in the way of a political, social or economic foundation. They believe the fall of Rome simply came because the barbarians took advantage of difficulties already existing in Rome – problems that included a decaying city (both physically and morally), little to no tax revenue, overpopulation, poor leadership, and, most importantly, inadequate defense. To some the fall was inevitable.
Unlike the fall of earlier empires such as the Assyrian and Persian, Rome did not succumb to either war or revolution. On the last day of the empire, a barbarian member of the Germanic tribe Siri and former commander in the Roman army entered the city unopposed. The one-time military and financial power of the Mediterranean was unable to resist. Odovacar easily dethroned the sixteen-year-old emperor Romulus Augustalus, a person he viewed as posing no threat. Romulus had recently been named emperor by his father, the Roman commander Orestes, who had overthrown the western emperor Julius Nepos. With his entrance into the city, Odovacar became the head of the only part that remained of the once great west: the peninsula of Italy. By the time he entered the city, the Roman control of Britain, Spain, Gaul, and North Africa had already been lost, in the latter three cases to the Goths and Vandals. Odovacar immediately contacted the eastern emperor Zeno and informed him that he would not accept that title of emperor. Zeno could do little but accept this decision. In fact, to ensure there would be no confusion, Odovacar returned to Constantinople the imperial vestments, diadem, and purple cloak of the emperor.
There are some who believe, like Gibbon, that the fall was due to the fabric of the Roman citizen. If one accepts the idea that the cause of the fall was due, in part, to the possible moral decay of the city, its fall is reminiscent of the “decline” of the Republic centuries earlier. Historian Polybius, a 2nd century BCE writer, pointed to a dying republic (years before it actually fell) – a victim of its declining moral virtue and the rise of vice within. Edward Gibbon reiterated this sentiment (he diminished the importance of the barbaric threat) when he claimed the rise of Christianity as a factor in the “tale of woe” for the empire. He held the religion sowed internal division and encouraged a “turn-the-other-cheek mentality” which ultimately condemned the war machine, leaving it in the hands of the invading barbarians. Those who discount Gibbon’s claim point to the existence of the same religious zealots in the east and the fact that many of the barbarians were Christian themselves.
A Divided Empire
Although Gibbon points to the rise of Christianity as a fundamental cause, the actual fall or decline could be seen decades earlier. By the 3rd century CE, the city of Rome was no longer the center of the empire – an empire that extended from the British Isles to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and into Africa. This massive size presented a problem and called for a quick solution, and it came with the reign of Emperor Diocletian. The empire was divided into two with one capital remaining at Rome and another in the Eastern Empire at Nicomedia; the eastern capital would later be moved to Constantinople, old Byzantium, by Emperor Constantine. The Senate, long-serving in an advisory capacity to the emperor, would be mostly ignored; instead, the power centered on a strong military. Some emperors would never step foot in Rome. In time Constantinople, Nova Roma or New Rome, would become the economic and cultural center that had once been Rome.
Despite the renewed strength that the division provided (the empire would be divided and united several times), the empire remained vulnerable to attack, especially on the Danube-Rhine border to the north. The presence of barbarians along the northern border of the empire was nothing new and had existed for years – the army had met with them on and off since the time of Julius Caesar. Some emperors had tried to buy them off, while others invited them to settle on Roman land and even join the army. However, many of these new settlers never truly became Roman even after citizenship was granted, retaining much of their old culture.
This vulnerability became more obvious as a significant number of Germanic tribes, the Goths, gathered along the northern border. They did not want to invade; they wanted to be part of the empire, not its conqueror. The empire’s great wealth was a draw to this diverse population. They sought a better life, and despite their numbers, they appeared to be no immediate threat, at first. However, as Rome failed to act to their requests, tensions grew. This anxiety on the part of the Goths was due to a new menace further to the east, the Huns.
Other reasons can be listed as follows;
- The Goth Invasion
- An Enemy from Within:Alaric
- Barbarian Invasions
- Conclusion: Multiple Factors
Article Author: Donald L. Wasson