Decline of the Roman Empire

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This article is about the historiography of the decline of the Roman Empire. For a description of events see Roman Empire. For the book see The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For the movie see The Fall of the Roman Empire (film).
Romulus Augustus was deposed as Western Roman Emperor in 476 while still young. Julius Nepos however continued to claim the title of Western Emperor after his deposition.
Romulus Augustus was deposed as Western Roman Emperor in 476 while still young. Julius Nepos however continued to claim the title of Western Emperor after his deposition.

The Decline of the Roman Empire, also called the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the Fall of Rome, is a historical term of periodization for the end of the Western Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon in his famous study The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) was the first to use this terminology, but he was neither the first nor the last to speculate on why and when the Empire collapsed. It remains one of the greatest historical questions, and has a tradition rich in scholarly interest. In 1984, German professor Alexander Demandt published a collection of 210 theories on why Rome fell[1].

The traditional date of the fall of the Roman Empire is September 4, 476 when Romulus Augustus, the de facto Emperor of the Western Roman Empire was deposed by Odoacer. Many historians question this date, noting that the Eastern Roman Empire continued until the Fall of Constantinople in 29 May 1453. Some other notable dates are the death of Theodosius I in 395, that last time the Roman Empire was unified, the crossing of the Rhine in 406 by Germanic tribes, after the withdrawal of the legions in order to defend Italy against Alaric I, and the death of Stilicho in 408, followed by the disintegration of the western legions. Many scholars maintain that rather than a simplistic "fall", the changes can more accurately be described as a complex transformation. [2] Over time many theories have been proposed on why the Empire fell, or whether indeed it fell at all.

The Western and Eastern Roman Empires by 476
The Western and Eastern Roman Empires by 476


[edit] Theories about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire

Media:Example.ogg===Vegetius=== The military historian Vegetius theorized, and also recently been supported by the historian Arthur Ferrill, that the Roman Empire - particularly the military - declined partially as a result of an influx of Germanic mercenaries into the ranks of the Legion. This "Germanization" and the resultant cultural dilution or "barbarization", led to lethargy, complacency and loyalty to the Roman commanders among #3 the legions and a surge in decadence amongst Roman citizenry.

[edit] Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon famously placed the blame on a loss of civic virtue among the Roman citizens. They gradually outsourced their duties to defend the Empire to barbarian mercenaries who eventually turned on them. Gibbon considered that Christianity had contributed to this, making the populace less interested in the worldly here-and-now and more willing to wait for the rewards of heaven. "[T]he decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight," he wrote. "In discussing Barbarism and Christianity I have actually been discussing the Fall of Rome."

Gibbon's work is notable for its erratic, but exhaustively documented, notes and research. Interestingly, since he was writing in the eighteenth century, Gibbon also mentioned the climate, while reserving naming it as a cause of the decline, saying "the climate (whatsoever may be its influence) was no longer the same." While judging the loss of civic virtue and the rise of Christianity to be a lethal combination, Gibbon did find other factors possibly contributing in the decline.

[edit] Henri Pirenne

In the second half of the 19th century some historians started to promote a continuity between the Roman world and the barbarian world. Fustel de Coulanges in Histoire des institutiones politiques de l'ancienne France (1875-1889) argued the barbarians simply accelerated a running process and they continued the transforming Roman institutions.

Henri Pirenne continued this idea in "Pirenne Thesis", published in the 1920s, which remains influential to this day. It holds that the Empire continued, in some form, up until the time of the Muslim conquests in the 7th century, which disrupted Mediterranean trade routes, leading to a decline in the European economy. This theory stipulates the rise of the Frankish realm in Europe as a continuation of the Roman Empire, and thus legitimizes the crowning of Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor as a continuation of the Imperial Roman state.

Pirenne's view on the continuity of the Roman Empire before and after the Germanic invasion was supported by recent historians such as François Masai, Karl-Ferdinand Werner and Peter Brown.

However, some critics maintain the "Pirenne Thesis" erred in claiming the Carolingian realm as a Roman state, and mainly dealt with the Islamic conquests and their effect on the Byzantine or Eastern Empire.

Other modern critics stipulate that while Pirenne is correct in his assertion of the continuation of the Empire beyond the sack of Rome, the Arab conquests in the 7th century may not have disrupted Mediterranean trade routes to the degree that Pirenne suggests. Michael McCormick in particular notes that more recent sources, such as unearthed collective biographies, notate new trade routes through correspondences in communication. Moreover, records such as book-keepings and coins suggest the movement of Islamic currency into the Carolingian Empire. McCormick concludes that if money is coming in, some form of trade is going out - possibly European slaves to the Arabic states, as Islam forbid the use of their own as slaves.

[edit] J. B. Bury

John Bagnell Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire gives a multi-factored theory for the Fall of the Western Empire. He presents the classic "Christianity vs. pagan" theory, and debunks it, citing the relative success of the Eastern Empire, which was far more Christian.

He then examines Gibbon's "theory of moral decay," and without insulting Gibbon, finds that too simplistic, though a partial answer. He essentially presents what he called the "modern" theory, which he implicitly endorses, a combination of factors, primarily, (quoting directly from Bury, [2]:

"The Empire had come to depend on the enrollment of barbarians, in large numbers, in the army, and that it was necessary to render the service attractive to them by the prospect of power and wealth. This was, of course, a consequence of the decline in military spirit, and of depopulation, in the old civilised Mediterranean countries. The Germans in high command had been useful, but the dangers involved in the policy had been shown in the cases of Merobaudes and Arbogastes. Yet this policy need not have led to the dismemberment of the Empire, and but for that series of chances its western provinces would not have been converted, as and when they were, into German kingdoms. It may be said that a German penetration of western Europe must ultimately have come about. But even if that were certain, it might have happened in another way, at a later time, more gradually, and with less violence. The point of the present contention is that Rome's loss of her provinces in the fifth century was not an "inevitable effect of any of those features which have been rightly or wrongly described as causes or consequences of her general 'decline.'" The central fact that Rome could not dispense with the help of barbarians for her wars (gentium barbararum auxilio indigemus) may be held to be the cause of her calamities, but it was a weakness which might have continued to be far short of fatal but for the sequence of contingencies pointed out above.[3]"

In short, Bury held that a number of contingencies arose simultaneously: economic decline, Germanic expansion, depopulation of Italy, dependency on Germanic foederati for the military, the disastrous (though Bury believed unknowing) treason of Stilicho, loss of martial vigor, Aetius' murder, the lack of any leader to replace Aetius — a series of misfortunes which proved catastrophic in combination.

Bury noted that Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" was "amazing" in its research and detail. Bury's main differences from Gibbon lay in his interpretation of fact, rather than any dispute of fact. He made clear that he felt that Gibbon's conclusions as to the "moral decay" were viable — but not complete. Bury's judgement was that:

"the gradual collapse of the Roman power ...was the consequence of a series of contingent events. No general causes can be assigned that made it inevitable."

It is his theory that the decline and ultimate fall of Rome was not pre-ordained, but was brought on by contingent events, each of them separately endurable, but together and in conjunction ultimately destructive.

[edit] William Carroll Bark

William Carroll Bark argues in Origins of the Medieval World (1958) that the Empire fell due to the efforts of keeping it together. The roots of feudalism developed when the colonus (a pre-cursor of the serf) was legally bound to his role of tenant farming so that collection of taxes would be easier. The Imperial government collected fixed grain taxes from tenant farmers. Since it was impossible for the government to keep track of its large grain supply, the middle class was legally required to collect taxes. With citizens bound to certain local roles, feudalism began developing before the Middle Ages had even begun.

Bark also cites the scarcity of gold in the late empire as a reason for its decline. Currency inflated as it was no longer made of real gold. No longer wanting to be paid with money, soldiers and wealthy citizens chose instead to be paid with actual objects of value. It became difficult for the government to retain any money for itself, and it began to resort more and more to cheaper mercenaries to defend it.

[edit] Radovan Richta

On the other hand, some historians have argued that the collapse of Rome was outside the Romans' control. Radovan Richta holds that technology drives history. Thus, the invention of the horseshoe in Germania in the 200s would alter the military equation of pax romana, as would a borrowing of the compass from its inventors in China in the 300s.

[edit] Lucien Musset and the clash of civilizations

In the spirit of "Pirenne thesis", a school of thought pictured a clash of civilizations between the Roman and the Germanic world, a process taking place roughly between 3rd and 8th century AD.

The French historian Lucien Musset studying the Barbarian invasions, argues the civilization of Medieval Europe emerged from a synthesis between the Graeco-Roman world and the Germanic civilizations penetrating the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not fall, did not decline, it just transformed but so did the Germanic populations which invaded it. To support this conclusion, beside the narrative of the events, he offers linguistic overviews of toponymy and anthroponymy, analyzes archaeological records, studies the urban and rural society, the institutions, the religion, the art, the technology.

[edit] Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke

In contrast with the "declining empire" theories, historians such as Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke argue that the Roman Empire itself was a rotten system from its inception, and that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in Republican times. In their view, the Empire could never have lasted without radical reforms. The Romans had no budgetary system and thus wasted whatever resources they had available. The Roman economy was basically Raubwirtschaft, plunder economy, which was based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new. The Empire relied on booty from conquered territories (this source of revenue ending, of course, with the end of Roman territorial expansion) or on a pattern of tax collection that drove small-scale farmers into destitution (and onto a dole that required even more exactions upon those who could not escape taxation), or into dependency upon a landed élite exempt from taxation.

An economy based upon slave labor precluded a middle class with purchasing power. The Roman Empire produced few exportable goods. Material innovation, whether through entrepreneurialism or technological advancement, all but ended long before the final dissolution of the Empire. Meanwhile the costs of military defense and the pomp of Emperors continued. Financial needs continued to increase, but the means of meeting them steadily eroded. By the late fifth century the barbarian conqueror Odoacer had no use for the formality of an Empire upon deposing Romulus Augustulus and chose neither to assume the title of Emperor himself nor to select a puppet. The formal end of the Roman Empire corresponds with the time in which the Empire and the title Emperor no longer had value.

In a somewhat similar vein, Joseph Tainter argues that the Empire's collapse was caused by a diminishing marginal return on investment in complexity, a limitation to which most complex societies are eventually subject.

[edit] Michael Rostovtzeff, Ludwig von Mises, and Bruce Bartlett

Historian Michael Rostovtzeff and economist Ludwig von Mises both argued that unsound economic policies played a key role in the impoverishment and decay of the Roman Empire. According to them, by the 2nd century A.D., the Roman Empire had developed a complex market economy in which trade was relatively free. Tariffs were low and laws controlling the prices of foodstuffs and other commodities had little impact because they did not fix the prices significantly below their market levels. After the 3rd century, however, debasement of the currency (i.e., the minting of coins with diminishing content of gold, silver, and bronze) led to inflation. The price control laws then resulted in prices that were significantly below their free-market equilibrium levels.

According to Rostovtzeff and Mises, artificially low prices led to the scarcity of foodstuffs, particularly in cities, whose inhabitants depended on trade in order to obtain them. Despite laws passed to prevent migration from the cities to the countryside, urban areas gradually became depopulated and many Roman citizens abandoned their specialized trades in order to practice subsistence agriculture. This, coupled with increasingly oppressive and arbitrary taxation, led to a severe net decrease in trade, technical innovation, and the overall wealth of the empire.[4]

Bruce Bartlett traces the beginning of debasement to the reign of Nero. By the third century the monetary economy had collapsed. Bartlett sees the end result as a form of statism. Monetary taxation was replaced with direct requisitioning, for example taking food and cattle from farmers. Individuals were forced to work at their given place of employment and remain in the same occupation. Farmers become tied to the land, as were their children, and similar demands were made on all other workers, producers, and artisans as well. Workers were organized into guilds and businesses into corporations called collegia. Both became de facto organs of the state, controlling and directing their members to work and produce for the state. In the countryside people attached themselves to the estates of the wealthy in order to gain some protection from state officials and tax collectors. These estates, the beginning of feudalism, operated as much as possible as closed systems, providing for all their own needs and not engaging in trade at all.[5]

[edit] William H. McNeill

William H. McNeill (b.1917), a world historian, noted in chapter three of his book Plagues and Peoples (1976) that the Roman Empire suffered a severe and protacted plague starting just before 200 A.D. For about twenty years, waves of one or more diseases, possibly smallpox and/or measles, swept through the Empire, ultimately killing about half the population. McNeill argues that the severe fall in population left the state apparatus and army too large for the population to support, leading to further economic and social decline that eventually killed the Western Empire. This theory in various forms, while not original to McNeill, remains very popular among modern historians. Archaeological evidence is showing the Roman Empire to have had a steady downward trend in population starting as early as the 2nd century and continuing through the 7th centuries. See also Medieval demography.

[edit] Peter Heather

Peter Heather offers an alternate theory of the decline of the Roman Empire in the work The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005). Heather maintains the Roman imperial system with its sometimes violent imperial transitions and problematic communications notwithstanding, was in fairly good shape during the first, second, and part of the third centuries A.D. According to Heather, the first real indication of trouble was the emergence in Iran of the Sassanid Persian empire (226-651). Heather says:

"The Sassanids were sufficiently powerful and internally cohesive to push back Roman legions from the Euphrates and from much of Armenia and southeast Turkey. Much as modern readers tend to think of the "Huns" as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, for the entire period under discussion it was the Persians who held the attention and concern of Rome and Constantinople. Indeed, 20-25% of the military might of the Roman Army was addressing the Persian threat from the late third century onward ... and upwards of 40% of the troops under the Eastern Emperors." [3]

Heather goes on to state — and he is confirmed by Gibbon and Bury — that it took the Roman Empire about half a century to cope with the Sassanid threat, which it did by stripping the western provincial towns and cities of their regional taxation income. The resulting expansion of military forces in the Middle East was finally successful in stabilizing the frontiers with the Sassanids, but the reduction of real income in the provinces of the Empire led to two trends which, Heather says, had a negative long term impact. Firstly, the incentive for local officials to spend their time and money in the development of local infrastructure disappeared. Public buildings from the 4th century onward tended to be much more modest and funded from central budgets, as the regional taxes had dried up. Secondly, Heather says "the landowning provincial literati now shifted their attention to where the money was ... away from provincial and local politics to the imperial bureaucracies."

Having set the scene of an Empire stretched militarily by the Sassanid threat, Heather then suggests, using archaeological evidence, that the Germanic tribes on the Empire's northern border had altered in nature since the 1st century AD. Contact with the Empire had increased their material wealth, and that in turn had led to disparities of wealth sufficient to create a ruling class capable of maintaining control over far larger groupings than had previously been possible. Essentially they had become significantly more formidable foes.

Heather then posits what amounts to a domino theory — namely that pressure on peoples very far away from the Empire could result in sufficient pressure on peoples on the Empire's borders to make them contemplate the risk of full scale immigration to the empire. Thus he links the Gothic invasion of 376 directly to Hunnic movements around the Black Sea in the decade before. In the same way he sees the invasions across the Rhine in 406 as a direct consequence of further Hunnic incursions in Germania; as such he sees the Huns as deeply significant in the fall of the Western Empire long before they themselves became a military threat to the Empire.

An empire at maximum stretch due to the Sassanids, then, encountered, due to the Hunnic expansion, unprecedented immigration in 376 and 406 by barbarian groupings who had become significantly more politically and militarily capable than in previous eras. Essentially he argues that the external pressures of 376-470 could have brought the Western Empire down at any point in its history.

His theory is both modern and relevant in that he disputes Gibbon's contention that Christianity and moral decay led to the decline. He also rejects the political infighting of the Empire as a reason, considering it was a systemic recurring factor throughout the Empire's history which, while it might have contributed to an inability to respond to the circumstances of the 5th century, it consequently cannot be blamed for them. Instead he places its origin squarely on outside military factors, starting with the Great Sassanids. Like Bury, he does not believe the fall was inevitable, but rather a series of events which came together to shatter the Empire. He differs from Bury, however, in placing the onset of those events far earlier in the Empire's timeline, with the Sassanid rise.

[edit] Bryan Ward-Perkins

Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005) makes the more traditional and nuanced argument that the empire's demise was brought about through a vicious cycle of political instability, foreign invasion, and reduced tax revenue. Essentially, invasions caused long-term damage to the provincial tax base, which lessened the Empire's medium to long-term ability to pay and equip the legions, with predictable results. Likewise, constant invasions encouraged provincial rebellion as self-help, further depleting Imperial resources. Contrary to the trend among some historians of the "there was no fall" school, who view the fall of Rome as not necessarily a "bad thing" for the people involved, Ward-Perkins argues that in many parts of the former Empire the archaeological record indicates that the collapse was truly a disaster.

Ward-Perkins' theory, much like Bury's, and Heather's, identifies a series of cyclic events that came together to cause a definite decline and fall.

[edit] Environmental degradation

Another theory is that gradual environmental degradation caused population and economic decline. Deforestation and grazing led to erosion, for example in fertile land became desert. Irrigation caused salinization. Many animal species become extinct.[4] See also Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

[edit] Late Antiquity

Historians of Late Antiquity, a field pioneered by Peter Brown, have turned away from the idea that the Roman Empire "fell" refocusing on Pirenne's thesis. They see a "transformation" occurring over centuries, with the roots of Medieval culture contained in Roman culture and focus on the continuities between the classical and Medieval worlds. Thus, it was a gradual process with no clear break.

[edit] Historiography

Europe in 476, from Muir's Historical Atlas (1911).
Europe in 476, from Muir's Historical Atlas (1911).

Historiographically, the primary issue historians have looked at when analyzing any theory is the continued existence of the Eastern Empire or Byzantine Empire, which lasted for about a thousand years after the fall of the West. For example, Gibbon implicates Christianity in the fall of the Western Empire, yet the eastern half of the Empire, which was even more Christian than the west in geographic extent, fervor, penetration and sheer numbers continued on for a thousand years afterwards (although Gibbon did not consider the Eastern Empire to be much of a success). As another example, environmental or weather changes impacted the east as much as the west, yet the east did not "fall."

Theories will sometimes reflect the particular concerns that historians might have on cultural, political, or economic trends in their own times. Gibbon's criticism of Christianity reflects the values of the Enlightenment; his ideas on the decline in martial vigor could have been interpreted by some as a warning to the growing British Empire. In the 19th century socialist and anti-socialist theorists tended to blame decadence and other political problems. More recently, environmental concerns have become popular, with deforestation and soil erosion proposed as major factors, and destabilizing population decreases due to epidemics such as early cases of bubonic plague and malaria also cited. Global climate changes of 535-536 caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 535, as mentioned by David Keys and others, is another example. Ideas about transformation with no distinct fall mirror the rise of the postmodern tradition, which rejects periodization concepts (see metanarrative). What is not new are attempts to diagnose Rome's particular problems, with Satire X, written by Juvenal in the early 2nd century at the height of Roman power, criticizing the peoples' obsession with "bread and circuses" and rulers seeking only to gratify these obsessions.

One of the primary reasons for the sheer number of theories is the notable lack of surviving evidence from the 4th and 5th centuries. For example there are so few records of an economic nature it is difficult to arrive at even a generalization of the economic conditions. Thus, historians must quickly depart from available evidence and comment based on how things ought to have worked, or based on evidence from previous and later periods, on inductive reasoning. As in any field where available evidence is sparse, the historian's ability to imagine the 4th and 5th centuries will play as important a part in shaping our understanding as the available evidence, and thus be open for endless interpretation.

The end of the Western Roman Empire traditionally has been seen by historians to mark the end of the Ancient Era and beginning of the Middle Ages. More recent schools of history, such as Late Antiquity, offer a more nuanced view from the traditional historical narrative.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Alexander Demandt: 210 Theories, from Crooked Timber weblog entry August 25, 2003. Retrieved June 2005.
  2. ^ Hunt, Lynn; Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R. Po-chia Hsia, Bonnie G. Smith (2001). The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures, Volume A: To 1500. Bedford / St. Martins, 256. ISBN 0-312-18365-8. 
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ See, for instance, "How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome", by Bruce Bartlett, and "The Rise and Decline of Civilization", by Ludwig von Mises
  5. ^ "How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome", by Bruce Bartlett

[edit] References

[edit] Further reading

History of Ancient Rome edit </al