For history buffs - fall of the Roman Empire

Discussion in 'Off Topic [BG]' started by hrodbert696, Dec 23, 2013.

  1. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Ok, somehow this topic started cropping up over in the White Santa thread :)confused:) and so rather than totally derail that, I thought I'd open a history-buff thread on it here. What caused the fall of the Roman Empire? I teach on this fairly often, and as a medievalist, the empire's breakup is the starting point for my own special interests, so I have firm opinions on it. Anyone with thoughts, questions, arguments, rotten fruit to throw, etc., is welcome to join in.

    The view one most often hears is what I call the "neo-Gibbonite" view, because it's based on the work of Edward Gibbon's massive masterwork, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published back at the end of the 18th century. Gibbon's view ran something like this: The empire finally collapsed in the 5th century because of a combination of internal decay (the "decline" part) and external pressure (the "fall" part). For internal decay, he believed moral corruption was largely to blame, along with Christianity teaching people to focus on otherworldly theology rather than this-worldly matters like law and military strategy. For external pressure, barbarians attacking the frontier and pushing into the empire proved to be too powerful for this increasingly weak empire to resist, finally leading it to be carved up among various barbarian chiefs.

    Gibbon was a genius and Decline and Fall is a true masterwork. He is to history what Isaac Newton is to physics. His work has set the paradigm for centuries since and continues to set the terms of discussion today. But just as Newton's physics have been superceded by relativity and quantum mechanics, Gibbon's interpretation is over 200 years old and new models cast it into serious doubt.

    Neo-Gibbonites usually (not always) discard the rise of Christianity as a factor, rightly. The eastern half of the empire was indisputably more thoroughly Christianized than the west, yet it was the west that broke up while the east survived the fifth century and carried on (we call it the "Byzantine Empire" once it no longer controls Rome, but it was still the continuing Roman Empire). As for general claims of immorality, luxurious living, corruption, etc., there is no real evidence that there was more of this in the late empire than there had been in the earlier empire. Roman moralists ALWAYS complained that people were less dutiful and virtuous than their ancestors, not because there was any real decline in morality but because that's the way moralists talk in every era.

    It's often claimed that the late empire's army was far weaker than the early empire's legions had been. This is also highly doubtful. If you look at the actual record of battles won and battles lost, the late empire's military had about the same batting average as the early empire's. It was unquestionably a larger and more expensive army than the early empire had. Its equipment was about the same. Military manuals from the early Byzantine period (there are several from the 6th-9th centuries) show a military establishment that was very adaptable and willing to adjust its tactics to meet new challenges, which doesn't seem like a sign of weakness.

    As for those barbarians - you run into a problem with the numbers. By most estimates, the empire had a population in the ballpark of 100 million. Now, one often hears language of "mounting pressure" and "barbarian tides" breaking down the empire's frontiers, but where did all this "pressure" come from? Reliable numbers are hard to come by in the ancient world, but the very largest groups seem to have had maybe 10,000-20,000 male warriors, plus women, children, and slaves - maybe 60-100,000 people on the move total. That would have been the handful of largest groups - Visigoths, Vandals, one or two others. One can come up with a couple dozen other groups on the move in the late empire but they were MUCH smaller, half that size at most. So how would an empire of 100 million be "overwhelmed" by pressure from maybe 500,000 barbarians (and not all at once), especially remembering those barbarians were poorer, lacked literacy, etc? These barbarian groups certainly were a factor in the world that arose out of the wreckage of the empire, but they don't work very well as an explanation for what broke it up in the first place.

    All in all, I'd argue that neither Gibbon's nor the neo-Gibbonites' take on how the empire broke up is really persuasive from our actual evidence. This is getting long so I'll post my view of what DID happen in a second post.
  2. Tony Flow MMMM

    Tony Flow MMMM

    Dec 4, 2012
    I wish I understood half the words in that post
  3. bkbirge


    Jun 25, 2000
    Houston, TX
    Endorsing Artist: Steak n Shake
    That's my favorite time of history but I'm no historian, just an interested lay person. I'd only ever heard Gibbon's take on things and the morality aspect of it always seemed archaic to me. I'd be interested to hear other takes on this fascinating era of history.
  4. bkbirge


    Jun 25, 2000
    Houston, TX
    Endorsing Artist: Steak n Shake
    But to answer your original question, all signs clearly point to...

  5. i'm no history buff, especially in this era, but it's such an interesting topic and thank you for that post!

    in what way, specifically, would moral corruption lead to this? is this corruption of the masses or of leadership we're talking about?

    where do you teach this stuff? i assume on the college level?
  6. knumbskull


    Jul 28, 2007
  7. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    OK, so what did happen? I would argue that the Roman Empire always had a fatal flaw, and that it nearly tore itself apart on several occasions before the final fall. That flaw was that it lacked civilian control of its military. Ever since Julius Caesar (indeed, before - one could go back to Sulla and the Marian reforms), controlling the army was the key to seizing power. A general who had the loyalty of the troops could impose himself on the Senate as ruler, and as a result, every general saw himself as a potential next emperor. If an emperor didn't make firm arrangements for his succession, civil war could (and did) break out.

    For most of the empire's history, though, Rome mattered. Rome was still the lynchpin of the empire, and if you wanted to make a bid for power, you marched for the capital. The provinces - in the west, at least - were too rural, poor, and underpopulated to be a permanent power base on their own - that's why Rome had been able to conquer them in the first place. As the generations rolled on, though, this changed. Cities grew in the provinces, Latin and literacy spread in the elites, trade and wealth increased. The provinces "romanized" until someone from Gaul or Spain was as "Roman" as someone from the capital. Constantine showed well enough that Rome had become irrelevant by shifting his own capital to Constantinople in the 4th century. Back in the west, other emperors made their residence at Trier, Milan, or Ravenna. In the "Anarchy" from 235-284 AD, you had whole sections of the empire break away on their own for extended periods of time, a "Gallic Empire" in NW Europe and many of the Middle Eastern provinces aligning with Palmyra.

    What happened in the fifth century was yet another round of civil wars between different political factions in the military. This time, though, there was no longer an obvious central prize that everyone was fighting for. Emperors were dying in battle or being assassinated; claiming the title put a target on your back but didn't bring a significant increase to your power. And if you were a warlord off in Britain or Gaul, it no longer seemed worth the risk of attempting a march on Rome, while if you had control of Italy, you could no longer assume you were strong enough to impose your will on rivals out in the provinces. Rome was no longer THAT big of a prize nor THAT strong of a power base. It wasn't that it had gotten weaker, but that everything else had gotten stronger. It had little to do with loyalty to some ideal of "Rome" - everyone still proudly called themselves "Romans" - but with sheer political (and military) calculation. So when the last emperor in the west was deposed in 476, no one wanted to make a bid to replace him, and no one warlord was strong enough to take over the others. This left Europe divided in a stalemate that, at the time, everyone assumed would be temporary. But as it happened, it turned out to be permanent.
  8. uOpt


    Jul 21, 2008
    Boston, MA, USA
    This is so complex that everybody has good reason to prominently feature their pet theories.

    My pet theory is military reactions. In the course of military history you always see new methods or new weapons having a drastic impact on history.

    What is often overlooked is that if you fight an enemy that communicated enough to retain organizational memory they will adapt. They will find a way to neutralize or at least diminish your new toy.

    You can't sit there for hundreds of years and expect that your superior organization, tactics, teaching and maybe weapons will always do the trick. Once you don't fight completely unorganized barbarians anymore you have every empire's commander's worst nightmare at your hands: a fair fight.
  9. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Darn it, you're right, I'd forgotten the obvious... :D

    That's by Peter Heather, one of the leading Neo-Gibbonites. He's a very smart guy, and knows his material, but (obviously) I disagree with the framework he reads it through. One of the things is that when one searches "fall of the Roman Empire" on the internet one usually only gets Neo-Gibbonite takes, because they are the ones who use that phrase; as Heather mentions, the more recent trend in scholarship (what he calls "revisionists") avoid the phrase as a distortion and prefer to talk about the "transformation of the Roman World." Here I'm talking about people like Herwig Wolfram, Walter Goffart, and others.

    Actually, I agree with a great deal of what he says here, except for the central "Fall of Rome" section: that the barbarian migrants stripped the empire of its tax base, expanded their territory at the point of the sword, etc. The thing is this; those migrants had been recruited into the Roman military system on Roman terms. They didn't demand to be made "federates" from a helpless Roman government who couldn't resist them (even after killing the foolish eastern Roman Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378, the Goths were rounded up and pacified by the western emperor Gratian, and settled on his terms). The Romans thought they saw an opportunity to use these guys to their advantage and exploited it. In the struggles of the fifth century, these migrants were playing the (very rough) game of Roman politics by Roman rules.
  10. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    There is definitely something in that, although it may not exactly be the way you think. The barbarians beyond the European frontiers definitely did become better-armed and better organized as a result of having the Romans breathing down their necks. A survey of "barbarian" Germany around the year 100 AD would show 30 or 40 quite small groups; by 300 AD or so they had consolidated into ten or twelve big groups. But it wasn't a matter of the barbarians then becoming simply too strong for the Romans to deal with. The Romans also were capable of reorganizing their forces and tactics to deal with changing threats (much more emphasis on cavalry and archery in the late empire than the early, for instance). And the Romans actually encouraged the process; they would channel wealth and weapons to friendly barbarian kings to beef up their power, figuring that it would be easier to control developments beyond the frontiers that way.

    Rather, the perception of an increased barbarian threat meant that the Romans beefed up their army more and more (in part by recruiting friendly barbarians, sometimes whole tribes of them), making the army even more powerful, and soldiers demanding even more money, all making the army even more important as a path to power for the ambitious, while ratcheting up the taxes on everyone else, making them ever-more ambivalent about being loyal to some distant emperor in whose name all these taxes were collected...
  11. DerHoggz

    DerHoggz I like cats :| Banned

    Feb 13, 2009
    Western Pennsylvania
  12. I had The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a kid, but we moved and discarded a lot of our books before I was old enough to fully comprehend a lot of history.

    Certainly we cannot discount the infighting and civil wars inside the empire itself. However, wasn't Rome actually going broke? They had run out of easily-conquered lands to keep the money flowing in, and the overextended army was becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain. Plus each succeeding Emperor's desire to build large lavish projects--huge public baths, for example, plus the inevitable monuments to their own greatness--piled on the debt.
  13. knumbskull


    Jul 28, 2007
    thanks :) i'm going to do some more reading on this, i think! (not tonight though, too much beer...)
  14. I would place a lot on the fault on the unscrupulous lack of framework for inheritance of the throne. The rapidly changing leadership, and indeed changing framework of ascension led to long periods of instability, such as the triumvirate of Ceasar and his pals, and the Julio-claudians in the 1st century AD.
  15. burk48237

    burk48237 Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2004
    Oak Park, MI
    Actually Rome, as far as empires go had probably some of the smoothest transfers of power in early history. For great periods of time Rome actually had a mediocre form of parliamentary transfer of power. In fact the Ottoman Empire probably only had one or two bloodless transfers of power in the 6-700 years it existed, well into the 19th century while Rome had dozens.

    I would argue that the decline of the centrality of the Senate, the expansion of the political class, and the enrichment and empowerment of the political class brought Rome down by the shear weight of it's bureaucracy. In short, it's government became so entrenched and so concerned about enriching itself it no longer governed.

    I do agree that the devaluation of Rome itself certainly effected and sped up the decline. Rome was a bit of a backwater and not near as strategically important as Venice, Constantinople (the Bosporus ), Tyre, Alexandria, or Jerusalem in ancient times. Rome wasn't worth a whole lot of stratigic assets to save. This is the reason the empire existed so long in the East without Rome.
  16. MEKer

    MEKer Supporting member

    I think you have to add to the mix leading up to 476 A.D., besides politics,the fragmentation of command and thus diminished focus of effort and the resulting concomitant failure to apply concentration of force where it mattered. Leadership and all that implies.(All of that also would decline the morale of the military forces---which is always catastrophic.)
    I think the biggest winner after the dust settled was Theodoric.
  17. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    I think this raises a valuable point; we often ask what caused the breakup of the empire, as though it somehow "should" have lasted forever and its fall is an odd thing that needs explanation. But hardly any ancient empires lasted more than 100 years, 200 at the most. Holding together a vast state with the limited technology and economy of the ancient world was VERY hard to do. The real question we ought to be asking is not why did the empire fall, but why DIDN'T it fall for so long when other empires did?

    A quibble - Venice didn't exist until the empire was collapsing. The tradition, at least, was that it was founded in the 5th or 6th century by people taking refuge from the wars during the empire's breakup.

    I think you're right - the eastern half of the empire was wealthier and more urbanized, more densely populated. But by the same token, its regions might even more easily have broken away; they had been independent once too, and had long traditions of self-governance, and for that matter their own written languages. It had its armies, on the Danube and the Euphrates, that might also have created warlords to disrupt the center they way it happened in the west. But it didn't play out that way. I think the eastern emperors were unusually good at keeping political legitimacy focused on themselves, so that the imperial title didn't become irrelevant there the way it did in the west, and I think a large aspect of that was the east's more thoroughgoing Christianization, which made the emperor God's regent on earth.

    There WAS an effort to "save" Rome for the empire. Justinian sent his armies to invade Italy in 535 (after reconquering North Africa from the Vandals a few years earlier). That led to a long grinding war of attrition with the Ostrogoths that devastated Italy over nearly 20 years (a massive plague hitting in the middle of the war didn't help). What's interesting, though, is that East Roman sources don't even refer to the west as "lost" for DECADES after 476, indeed not until Justinian's reign. Formally, the barbarian kings were Roman federates, governing on the empire's behalf, and all that land was still "The Roman Empire." It's only with Justinian that this arrangement became unacceptable.

    The way I see it, any fragmentation of command WAS politics. The (western) empire was not conquered by outside forces it couldn't defeat; even Attila's Huns were beaten finally, by different commands - Roman regulars under Aetius, Frankish and Visigothic federates - operating together in 451. Rather, it was torn apart by its OWN forces setting up on their own. The Visigoths who (40 years before Attila) sacked Rome in 410 were Roman federates in a state of mutiny, not outside invaders.
  18. 1958Bassman


    Oct 20, 2007
    The Roman Empire may have included 100 million people, but that doesn't mean they were all in the Roman military, or that they were able to go where the invaders attacked before the attack ended.
  19. Bipslapper

    Bipslapper Well Ahoy, Paloi Supporting Member

    Sep 20, 2009
    Cape Cod, MA
    Great post. I will do my research. In the meantime, even with my limited knowledge on the topic, I have heard theories about the huge, bloated Roman government and it's inability to function properly with all the corruption and greed that helped sink the ship.
    Maybe I can spend my Amazon gift cards I'm inevitably going to get in my stocking on some great reads! 😄
  20. IncX


    Jul 23, 2007
    it might have had something to do with Spartacus