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The Fall of the Roman Empire

In the year 476, the last Roman emperor was deposed. Over the previous two centuries, Barbarian invasions had brought the once-mighty Rome to its knees, and this is taken as the final fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. There are certainly political, economical, and social implications of this event, and to a great extent, it constitutes a true turning point in history.

In the period immediately after 476, it is possible to see the structure of medieval Europe emerging. Most obviously, the empire was quite quickly replaced by nation-states, vaguely resembling those Europe consists of now: the Frankish Kingdom that would become Spain, and the Ostrogothic Kingdom that would split into Italy, Greece, and Balkans. There would be much movement of borders and struggles for superiority before the countries we now recognize would appear. But the pattern of a diverse continent with numerous small states was quickly established.

A clear consequence of the birth of these nation-states was the beginning of modern monarchies. Late Roman leadership had fluctuated between elected, appointed, and hereditary emperors; in the new Barbarian kingdoms, the hereditary principle became the standard. Educated statesmen were replaced by hardened warriors who earned their positions of power by warfare. Furthermore, elected institutions such as Senates were abandoned, kings ruling by decree, with appointed advisors but no elected officials. Democracy in any form was not to return for several centuries.

Furthermore, the Church began to separate from the state. Unlike in the East, where the emperor lay claim to control of the Church as well as government, God’s representative in Medieval Europe was deemed to be the Bishop of Rome, who soon became the only bishop to be known as ‘Pope’. Kings, on the other hand, ruled by ownership of land and by being the chief employer of their populace. The Barbarians were warriors above all, and the new countries ran along military lines. The powers of a king were those of landlord, employer, and commanding officer. There was no pretension to divine authority; many kings were new to Christianity themselves.

In the early years of the Barbarian era, we can also see the roots of Feudalism. A Barbarian king’s land was his estate: he owned them, rather than just holding a charge over them. Under Frankish custom, the possessions of a man were divided evenly between his sons at his death, not all passed to the elder son as later became the norm. Subsequently, Frankish lands gradually got split up, generation after generation, into ever-smaller domains. Although various dynasties held the throne, peasants were more beholden to their landlord. This arrangement enabled the bonded service that Feudalism depended on to emerge.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire also began the decline of Latin as the first language of Europe. Germanic tongues that would evolve into modern European languages became more commonly used. When Justinian became Byzantine Emperor in 527, his claim that Latin was his native tongue was a significant boost. (Roberts 92) The Barbarian kings also brought with them a new system of law, based on very old customs: rather than written law, these patterns were generally adhered to, and, in the event of a dispute, a blood feud settled the matter. However, kings did begin to write these customs down, and the notion of a body of ‘common law’ evolved: “In this Germanic world lie the origins of Jurisprudence one day to be carried across oceans to new cultures of European stock.”

I have spoken of how the Church and state began to separate in the wake of the Barbarian invasions. In a similar process, the Catholic and what would become the Greek Orthodox Churches would also grow more separate. It was their relations to the state that first divided them; the East’s adoption of Iconoclasm (a ban on the use of images in Christian worship) by Byzantine Emperor Leo III in the sixth century increased the tension, the West being very fond of religious images. By the time Gregory became Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople was using the title ‘Universal’ – implying a claim to supremacy over Rome. Since he had no authority in the West, this was really an admission that separate churches were functioning in the Byzantine East and the Roman Catholic West. (Kagan 143)

This separation has persisted until the present day. The idea of imperial control over the church persisted right up to the twentieth century and the Russian Revolution, the Tsars following a Byzantine model of rule. Furthermore, the instability of the post-Roman period helped contribute to the development of monasticism. Their emphasis on isolation would have been incompatible with the role of the church in the Roman Empire, but in the new kingdoms, the idea of Church communities existing outside society seemed less perverse.

The existence of monasteries was also a key factor in the spread of literacy, which is another characteristic of the post-Roman period. Monks gradually abandoned their isolated role and began accepting children of noble families for teaching. Literacy eventually grew much more widespread in the medieval period than it was in Roman times; while the Barbarian governments were ostensibly less administrative than that of the Romans, they were greater record-keepers, and Bible-based Catholicism was much more literary than the old Roman paganism or even early Roman Christianity.

There were economic effects to the fall of the Roman Empire in the West as well. As

The Roman civilization declined, Western Europe became more rural. By 500 the once great cities of the Empire – even Rome itself – were less crucial to Europe; new capitals such as Ravenna were smaller and less advanced. This is a marked difference to the East, where cities thrived as the old Roman institutions continued. As well as cities, roads, communication, and trade all dwindled, and active capitalism all but disappeared, not to return to Western Europe for around 700 years.

As Roman trade declined, the Mediterranean became less of a useful passageway. The Barbarian-dominated continent to the north-west of the Mediterranean developed its own culture and society, separating Western Europe from Eastern, as well as Asia and Africa for the first time and beginning the process of re-defining the structure of the world. This process was accelerated by the Islamic invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, which surrounded Europe with hostile nations and further weakened medieval trade. (Marvin 82)

As a result, and because of the Frankish domination of Europe in the early medieval period, Rome and its neighbors declined and newer north-western cities grew. While Ravenna in northern Italy (the last Roman capital) remained important, the greater seats of power were Frankish royal residencies. In a rural, subsistence society, most riches were in either the King’s hands or those of regional lords.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire ushered in a new phase in the history of European civilization. The urban, administrative and decidedly modern Roman government gave way to something in many respects much less advanced, but in other ways much more closely resembling modern Europe. The Barbarian kingdoms of medieval Europe had their own culture and institutions which would survive right up to the present day.

However, the fall of the Empire in the West is not quite the sea-change it appears to be. Many of the processes I have described as having occurred after the last Roman emperor fell in 476 were already well underway in the Empire itself.

For example, while it is true that the inheritance policies of the Franks created local landlords who bonded their people to the land, this process was begun in the fourth century when to avoid paying increasing taxes, Roman aristocrats fled the cities to set up manors, or villas, in the country. City peasants then followed, and accepted service on the villas to avoid being chased by the authorities; they accepted service on the villas in exchange for protection. These peasants were known as coloni and were perhaps the first true predecessors to the serfs of the Middle Ages.

This exodus from the cities helped them move from an urban, trade-based society to a feudal, rural one; indeed, the fall of the Empire in the West could be seen as a consequence, not a cause, of the ruralization of Europe. The end of Roman government in the West is a much more gradual process than it seemed. Though political power was only technically lost to the Barbarians in the fifth century, this is chiefly symbolic: Europe was already under their control. Henry Chadwick points out, “The establishment of Barbarian kingdoms formalized a take-over which had long been a reality.” (Chadwick 825)

In the few instances of Rome actively defending itself against Barbarian invasions, the ‘Roman’ forces were themselves largely made up of Barbarian mercenaries. When the Huns were finally turned away in 451, it was by an army consisting of Visigoths, Franks, Celts, and Barbarians, and commanded by a Visigothic king. Germanic settlers had also worked their way up into key positions in the Roman government. (Jones 129)

The carefully thought out structures and constitutions of Roman law had long degenerated into Autocracy; democracy had been a myth for two hundred years by the time of the Barbarian take-over. Under pressure from both invaders and internal turmoil, the general upkeep and control of the provinces had disintegrated. The autocratic monarchies, rural lifestyles, and barbarian societies were a continuation of, not a change from, the culture of the late Western Roman Empire. As J.M. Roberts puts it, “It is hard to say when the Western Empire ceased to exist. Names and symbols were, like the Cheshire cat’s smile, the last things to go.”

Furthermore, many aspects of the Roman Empire continued long after its supposed fall. A grander, more ceremonial Latin became the standard language for pomp and circumstance, a trend that continues today. Catholic clergy continued to wear Roman garb which, once normal dress, now has ceremonial value. The modern calendar, the dating of the year 0 at Jesus’ birth, and the Christian Sabbath on Sunday are all Roman institutions.

While Germanic customs of common law still hold in European constitutions, so too do Roman statutes derived from Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), a mammoth codification of Roman law that promoted the opposite principle, of rulers defining law in clear terms. Intellectuals such as Boethius attempted to ensure classical knowledge remained intact, with some success. J.M. Roberts provides a neat summary of the reasons for the persistence of these traditions:

No Christian (or anybody else, for that matter) could have thought of an alternative to the empire, or to imperil government; it was simply the Empire, not even qualified as ‘Roman’, because nothing was comparable to it. Rome was all they knew. It was what civilization meant. That would continue to be true for a long time to come. (Roberts 88)

Above all, the idea of empire persisted in Europe for a long time. In the sixth century, Justinian made several attempts to retake Africa and Italy for the Empire, with some success, but destroyed much of Italy in the process. However, by the end of the century the Lombards, a new tribe, had taken over Italy and the African conquests were soon lost to Islam. The thought of Empire returned with Charlemagne, who ruled over most of Western Europe and was appointed Augustus, the old Roman term, by the Pope. His seal bore the inscription Renevato Romani Imperii, ‘The Renewal of the Roman Empire’. (Roberts 125)

Charlemagne’s empire was divided in 843 with the Treaty of Verdun, but again in 962, an emperor was appointed by Rome, this time Otto the Great. His Holy Roman Empire remained part of Europe until the 1800s. The story of Europe after the Roman Empire is one of valiant but failed attempts to bring it back. No one could really conceive of a world without the Empire and for centuries, people were to look around them, wondering where Rome had gone and looking for something to put in its place.

There is one final way in which the Fall of the Roman Empire made little difference, perhaps the most important reason of all: none of the changes I described made any real difference to the average poor family. The social effects of the political and economic changes were limited. It was not until much later – perhaps after the Black Death-that life began to improve for the majority of the population. Slavery persisted; while urban centers declined, much of the Roman population was farm-and village-based anyway. Even the spread of Catholicism made very little difference to the life of a peasant. The changes in government and the economy were significant, but government and economics meant very little to many.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire is an obvious turning point in the evolution of Western civilization. But it was not a sudden, dramatic change; rather, it is a symbolic event in the midst of a long, slow transformation. Roman culture, thought and administration did not suddenly collapse, it withered away over several centuries, and many aspects persist as part of our cultural heritage even now. While such factors as corruption and political instability contributed to the fall of Rome, the primary reason for its demise was its size and inability to effectively manage that size. Though many things contributed to the empire’s demise, those three things are the biggest factors. All of these three things together mixed with a lot of little things, caused the Roman Empire to fall. (Jones 294)

Corruption in Rome was widespread, both politically and socially. The rich ruled and the poor had no power. There was no middle class in Rome. Emperors and nobles threw huge, extravagant gladiator parties that were extremely wasteful. Politicians constantly plotted against each other and their own leaders. An example of this is when Caesar was assassinated. This is considered by many to be the death of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire, which began to decline 200 years after Augustus, the first Emperor took the throne.

Political instability came in the form of there being too clear a successor each time the emperor died. There was no clear established rule of a particular family or bloodline. Instead, a popular general, someone that the politicians or army picked, or sometimes a relative of the former emperor ruled. Because of this, a brief period of anarchy reigned each time an emperor died or was assassinated.

The major reason Rome fell was that its sheer size worked against it. The actual decline of Rome, in the literal sense, is thought to have begun with the reign of Commodus in 180A.D. Lanes of communication in military, food supplies, and cultural terms, were far too tortuous. Troops defending a particular point had to be withdrawn to fight another battle on the opposite side of the empire. Another thing that was instrumental in Rome’s fall that is directly related to its size is taxes and inflation. The larger the empire got the more money and goods it took to sustain it. When the revenues of the state remained inadequate to maintain national defense, taxes were increased further, such as the sales tax increase from 1 percent to 4.5 percent in 444 A.D. (Piganiol, 197).

This did not help the problem, however, as taxpayers invested increasing amounts of time, money, and effort into tax evasion schemes. So, even though taxes were going up, revenues were going down, hastening the decline of the Roman state. Wealthy landowners avoided the heavy taxes by withdrawing from society altogether and making their own little communities. At its height, Rome was a shining example for the whole world to follow.

Rome had conquered almost a third of the world’s landmass, stretching across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Rome greatly spread the concept of Western philosophy because every conquered state would be influenced by this influx of Roman ideas. As you can imagine, the world was affected when the existing culture and beliefs were mixed with that of the Roman one. The Romans were great supporters of Art and Architecture, and the cities they built were reputed to be some of the greatest in history. (Lynn 417)

Rome was very successful because they were good at so many things. Master strategists, the smaller, better maneuvered Roman armies constantly fought and beat larger armies not as well commandeered as them. Such examples include the Punic wars, where the Romans, who were greatly outnumbered, beat the Persians in three wars. They did this by Being smarter during the battles than the Persians, tricking them and forcing them into a different position, one they did not want to be in.

They were also wise with their money. They used the resources that they gained from the conquering and further financed their operations. The Romans were wise with their money, and they got the best for their empire: the best teachers for their children, the best weapons for their soldiers, and well, the best of everything.

One other reason and maybe the biggest reason was that for an empire, they were pretty easy to get along with. They would accept and take in the culture of the state that they conquered. They would allow them to keep their religion and way of life. Al they would take is a tribute and soldiers. If the conquered states had no problem with you, and are content to be part of the empire and pay you tribute, they are not rebelling. If they aren’t rebelling, then you can spend those resources they give you on expanding and strengthening yourself instead of quelling rebellions. All things that rise must fall. At about 200 A.D., the Roman Empire started its decline. There was not just one reason that Rome fell, just as there was not the only reason it rose to the level it did.

Some of the reasons were political. The government that had kept Rome rolling on for 700 years had become corrupt and the rich no longer cared at all what happened to the rest of the populace. There was no clear line of succession, so when a ruler died, it was very hazy on the issue of who rules. This would tear people apart, and there was fighting. Later on, the armies would decide who would rule and picked out a leader from their own ranks.

The public support for the institution that was Rome had left during the fall. Rome had once counted on people’s civic pride to get recruits for the army. This civic pride no longer existed. People were more interested in feeding themselves, which was not easy, as many jobs had been taken by slaves. Slaves replaced small farmers in Latifundia and constantly rebelled. The unemployment and lack of food had gotten rid of the patriotism that many Romans had. Romans had been hard-working, honest, patriotic people.

The military in the western part of the empire could not hold off the consistent attacks from the barbarians. After the empire was split into two, the barbarians that lived north of the Western Roman Empire began to constantly attack the western troops. The Romans strengthened their border patrol but still could not stop the repeated attacks from the barbarians. (Harries, 15) The western empire kept getting pushed back towards Rome.

Until finally in 275 A.D., an emperor named Aurelianus pulled troops back to surround Rome, to ensure that it would not be defeated. One by one, many small barbaric tribes wedged their way into a section of the western empire. After a while, the barbarians decided to combine all their forces, attack with one unified force, and divide up the spoils afterward. The military began to get pushed further south until finally in 476 A.D. a German leader overthrew the last western emperor. (Harries, 18)

The political breakdown of the Roman Empire began in the Senate. The Senate had lost control of the empire. They were responsible for appointing and recognizing the promotion of an officer to a higher rank. There were imposters that posed themselves to be generals and colonels that the Senate had appointed or knew who they were. The generals that were promoted to general were being appointed by the men in their army.

The political problems of the empire were so bad that men were claiming themselves to be the emperor of Rome. (Harries, 120) At one point, there were so many “self-proclaimed” emperors that division inside the empire set in. Between the years of 235 and 284 A.D., there were over twenty different fake emperors claiming themselves to be the true ruler. People were making their own kingdom independent of Rome itself. (Harries, 123)

The economy of the Roman Empire was drastically falling. In most militaries, the soldiers are paid to serve their country. In Rome, it was an honor to serve in the military. Many of the men decided to join the army. The Roman army was so big and traveled so much that it became a burden to the economy. (Harries, 138) The army was using up more money than Rome could get in. Rome depended on the spoils of war to help pay for the costs of having a war.

Roman officials saw this and decided that they could not stop paying the soldiers, or they would leave or possibly turn on them. So they had to come up with a solution so that they could pay the men. They began issuing substitute money to the soldiers instead of the real thing. People began to recognize the fake money and started not to accept it. As a way to combat fake money, the Senate tried to raise the taxes by enforcing new laws. The laws did little good because the rich refused to pay it and that was where all the money was. The rich of Rome took the spoils of war and used it for their own satisfaction and pleasures. (Grant 391)

The social class controversy proved to be a complete downfall to the political system. In 212 A.D., a man named Septimus Severus was named emperor of Rome. He being named emperor was not the problem, where he came from was. Septimus was from North Africa. As soon as he was appointed emperor, he made it so that everyone in the Roman Empire was equal. This caused a stir because the previous emperors before Septimus were either from Rome/Italy or of a royal bloodline.

And when he made it a law that everyone would be equal, the Senate lost its power to guarantee members from the royal bloodlines positions in Rome. (Grant 392) In fact, most of the emperors in the 3rd century did not come from Italy but rather smaller provinces in the Roman Empire. Possibilities for the “average Joe” who was a good leader and soldier to become ruler were better than a rich boy of Roman nobility that stayed home all the time. (Grant 393)

Finally, the splitting of the Roman Empire into two separated but related empires was the most crucial mistake of all. Rome had been going back and forth on what religion was going to be the official religion. While Constantine was emperor, Christianity was the main religion. In 337 A.D. Constantine died, leaving his relative to fight over what would be the official religion. One of Constantine’s nephews, Julian, became emperor and continued the push for paganism. Even though he was brought up in a Christian home, he wanted the whole empire to worship the Roman gods. Julian fought with the Persians trying to wipe out all of Christianity around him.

Part of the empire wanted Christianity to be the religion while the other part wanted to worship their pagan Roman gods. So Julian separated from the empire, splitting it in half. He, being the emperor of the Western Roman Empire and Theodosius emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. The western empire gradually weakened until it was finally conquered in 476A.D by the barbarians from the North. The eastern part went on for another thousand years under the name of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire finally fell in 1453, when the Turks took over Constantinople.

The Roman Empire was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, empires ever known to man. Even though it was a magnificent empire; greatness is always followed by failure. An actor in a movie quoted, “Nothing great lasts forever.” Rome was conquered mainly by itself. With all the controversies, financial problems, and power struggles, it is a wonder that it lasted as long as it did. The empire fell apart because it left the principle upon which it was built upon, the people. Rome was a great empire, but the internal problems eventually lead to its downfall.

Works Cited

Chadwick, H. “Envoi: On taking leave of Antiquity” in J. Boardman, J. Griffin, O. Murray (eds.), The Oxford History of the Classical World, 1986, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p825.

Gibbon, E The decline and fall of the Roman Empire – An abridged version, 1981, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Grant, Michael. The History of Rome. Prentice Hall; 1 edition: New York, 1978, 389-93.

Harries, Jill, Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome AD 407-485. Oxford, 1994. 15-18, 120-38.

Jones, A.H.M. A General History of Europe: The Decline of the Ancient World. London: Longman Group Ltd. 1966, 119-30.

Jones, A.H.M. The Later Roman Empire 1964, Oxford, Blackwell: 284-302.

Kagan, D. S. Ozment, F. Turner, The Western Heritage Brief Edition, Combined Second Edition, 1999, London, Prentice-Hall, p143.

Lynn Hunt, Thomas Martin, Barbara Rosenwein, R.Hsia, and Bonnie Smith. The Challenge of the West: Peoples and Cultures from Stone Age to 1740.Toronto: D.C. Health and Company, 1995. 411-18.

Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James Jacob, Margaret Jacob, Theodore Von Laue. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics & Society. Boston: Houghton Miffln Company, 1996. 78-85.

Piganiol, Andre. “The Causes of the Ruin of the Roman Empire.” Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Why did it Collapse? Donald Kagan. ED. Donald Kagan. Massachusettes: D.C. Health and Company, 1962.

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of Europe, 1997, London, Penguin. 88-125.

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