In this article I discuss the key historical factors contributing to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and what lessons we can learn from this pivotal historical event.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century is one of the pivotal events of world history. For over seven centuries the Romans had dominated the Mediterranean, spreading Graeco-Roman civilization throughout much of Western and Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. Much has been written in the succeeding centuries attempting to account for the collapse of such a powerful and long-lived empire. In this essay I want to consider this question from the perspective of what lessons might be pertinent from this period in informing our responses to political and social problems in the present. While I believe the past is a valuable source of wisdom for the present, care must be taken in what lessons we learn, and in particular it is critical we avoid the temptation to simply read current problems directly onto the past. Unfortunately many commentators have failed to exercise such caution, resulting in many alleged ‘lessons’ from the fall of Rome that relate more to the concerns and anxieties of the author than the social, political, and economic forces operating in the fifth century. My goal is therefore not to find simple one-to-one correspondences between social, economic, and political processes in the fifth century and similar processes in the twenty-first century. Rather, my aim is to identify some of the key problems that led to the fall of the western empire, and see whether any of these might prove useful for understanding problems we face in the present. I shall begin with a brief historical overview of the key events in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, followed by an analysis of some of the critical factors I believe account for these processes, and then conclude with a discussion of what we can learn from this analysis that is of potential relevance to the present day.
Before the beginning of the Empire, the Roman state was administered by the Senate, which was an elite group of primarily landowning aristocrats, many of whom also served as generals and public officials. During the first century BC, a series of civil wars took place between powerful Roman generals seeking to consolidate their power. These civil wars culminated in the victory of Augustus over Mark Antony in 31 BC, following which Augustus progressively consolidated his extensive powers over the Roman state, becoming the first Roman Emperor in a constitutional structure called the Principate. The next two and a half centuries were the golden age of the Roman Empire, a period in which the empire reached its maximum geographic extent, trade and the arts flourished, and despite regular frontier wars and two brief civil wars, overall the empire enjoyed an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity.
This golden age came to an end in the AD 230s, giving way to a period of near continual civil war and repeated foreign invasion that is now called the Crisis of the Third Century. During this period, most emperors were no longer drawn from the old Roman senatorial aristocracy, but instead were military generals, often provincials born to commoner parents who rose through the ranks of the army. This disastrous period saw the empire almost collapse, with unity and peace eventually being restored was by a series of energetic emperors in the 270s and early 280s. Owing to the many constitutional and administrative reforms he enacted, the beginning of the reign of Diocletian in 284 is generally seen as the beginning of a new phase of the Roman Empire called the Dominate. These reforms included increasing the size of the state bureaucracy, instituting price controls and other strict economic regulations, increasing the size of the army, separation of military and civilian functions in the provinces, and most famously, his division of the empire into Western and Eastern halves, each with its own emperor. Another critical transformation of the late Roman period was the rise of Christianity, which came to prominence following the conversation of Constantine in 312, and culminated in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, in which Christianity was made the official state religion. The reforms made by Diocletian and consolidated under Constantine helped to reinvigorate the empire, and led to a further century of relative peace and prosperity for most of the fourth century, at least in comparison to the disastrous third century.
The beginning of the end for the Western Empire came with a series of civil wars in the 380s and 390s between rival claimants to the throne. In addition to weakening the army, these wars also saw the rise of a series of Romanised but barbarian-born generals, who from the 390s to the end of the empire in the west were usually the power behind the throne, usurping real authority from a series of weak emperors, many of whom ascended to the throne as children. In the context of these military and political developments, the Western Empire faced a major catastrophe beginning in the winter of 405/406, when Vandals and other Germanic tribes crossed over the frozen Rhine and began to plunder Gaul (modern day France and Belgium), while at the same time the Goths invaded Italy from the east. With the Western Roman army unable to defend its frontiers, these barbarian groups were eventually placated by granting them land to settle in Spain and Gaul, nominally under Roman suzerainty but in practise largely independent. In the midst of this crisis, the Romans withdrew their legions from Britain, effectively abandoning the region. A further major blow came in 429, when the Vandals crossed into North Africa, attacking Roman settlements and pillaging the countryside. Gradually the Vandals expanded their territory, culminating in the 439 capture of the wealthy port city of Carthage. This was to prove disastrous for the faltering Western Roman Empire, which relied heavily on grain exports and tax revenue from its prosperous North African provinces.
The situation in the west worsened further when in the early 450s, a central Asian nomadic people called the Huns, under the leadership of their king Attila, invaded the empire and devastated large regions throughout Gaul and northern Italy. Although the Huns were eventually defeated, the Western Empire was by then reliant almost entirely on allied barbarian tribes, who after the defeat of the Huns resumed fighting against the Romans. By the 460s, little was left of the Western Empire besides Italy and some isolated residual lands in Gaul and Spain. The Western Emperors of this period were mostly puppets of barbarian generals with no real power of their own, and little influence or legitimacy outside of Italy. In 476, the incumbent Western child emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by the barbarian General Odoacer, who instead of appointing a new puppet allowed the institution to lapse, and styled himself as the king of Italy. While this was not considered to be particularly important at the time, and Roman political institutions continued for about another century in Italy and for another millennium in the form of the Byzantine Empire in the east, this event is conventionally regarded as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire.
Analysis of Causes
Having presented the core historical narrative, I will now examine some of the fundamental reasons that explain the rapid decline and eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire over the course of the fifth century. In the most straightforward sense, Roman control over territories outside of Italy itself was predominantly lost as a result of granting lands to invading barbarian groups, which subsequently established their own independent nations and began conquering further territories for themselves. Previously barbarian peoples had been allowed into the empire, but until the late fourth century this had always meant dispersal and integration into Roman society, not gaining control over territories while retaining their own distinct political structure and independent military forces. Why did the Roman authorities agree to such an obviously problematic arrangement? Again, the direct reason is fairly straightforward: they did so because the Roman armies were unable to prevent the barbarian tribes from entering the Empire, or expel them after entry, thus the best the Romans could do was to attempt to exercise some minimal control over the invading tribes by granting specific lands, and then utilising them as military allies when fighting against other barbarians. This leads to the question as to why the Western Roman army of the fifth century was unable to defend its frontiers against barbarian invasions, as it had successfully managed to do for centuries beforehand.
The answer to this question is not so straightforward. Entire books have been written on these issues, and so here I can only briefly summarise some of the major factors that I believe were most important. Unlike the barbarian tribes they faced, the Romans possessed a professional standing army, with standardised, centrally-issued equipment, and soldiers who were formally trained, paid a salary, and who served for a specified period of time. The two main requirements to sustain such an army were a sufficient source of tax revenues to pay for everything, and enough able-bodied recruits to fill the ranks. Ensuring that enough tax revenues and recruits were extracted from the provinces to sustain an army large enough to defend its frontiers was effectively the single most important role of the Roman imperial government. What is clear is that in the fifth century in the Western Empire, the institutions underpinning this system progressively broke down. Tax revenues and recruitment proved insufficient, the army diminished in size and proficiency, and as such the Romans had to rely more and more on external barbarian soldiers to fight for them.
What contributed to the declining effectiveness of Roman institutions? One crucial factor appears to be the decline in prosperity of the Western Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries, when compared to the previous two centuries. Although evidence is limited, it appears that the upheavals of the third century, combined with rampant inflation and resulting disruption of the coinage system that occurred around the same time, significantly reduced commerce and trade, especially in the western part of the Empire. There was some revival during the fourth century, but not to the peak levels of the second century. Furthermore, major plagues in the second and third centuries significantly reduced the population of the empire, while some scholars also theorise that climactic changes reduced agricultural yields, both of which had the effect of reducing the tax base of the Roman economy. Furthermore, Diocletian’s reforms increased the size of both the bureaucracy and the military, which therefore required larger tax revenues to support. Overall the Roman economy became much more regulated, with the Edict on Maximum Prices of 301 attempting (unsuccessfully) to regulate prices and wages throughout the entire empire, and other legislation introduced attempted to force sons to follow the occupations of their fathers, effectively making a wide range of professions hereditary. The purpose of such regulations was to stabalise and regularise the Roman economy so that collection of tax revenues was made easier and more predictable. In the long term, however, such reforms likely contributed to the decline of commerce and reduced the vibrancy and efficiency of the economy.
All these changes notwithstanding, at the beginning of the fifth century the Western Roman Empire was still much larger and more prosperous than any of the barbarian tribes that would ultimately be the cause of its downfall. A crucial factor hampering the Empire from fully mobilising its available resources was the opposition of the wealthy Italian senatorial families, who by this time owned massive estates concentrated in Italy, Sicily, and the Mediterranean regions of Gaul and Spain. The senatorial aristocracy had always been powerful, with the process of consolidation of land ownership in the hands of fewer and fewer wealthy families dating back to the late Republic period. However this process seems to have accelerated in the third and fourth century, due to a combination of the decline in commerce which had previously supported regional cities, small landowners being forced to seek protection of larger landowners due to warfare, and taxation and economic restrictions forcing small independent farmers to sell out to larger estate owners. Large landholders were often able to gain exemptions from various kinds of taxes, and also had sufficient political power to restrict military recruitment from their estates, since the loss of able-bodied young men reduced the profitability of these estates. The problem of military recruitment in particular seems to have worsened over the course of the fourth century, with the minimum height of recruits being reduced in 367, and increasingly draconian punishments introduced for deserters and draft dodgers. Inability to raise and equip the required manpower seems therefore to be in large part due to the unwillingness of the Roman aristocracy to contribute their fair share of taxes and recruits.
Although it is easy enough to understand why landowners would attempt to avoid taxation and other restrictions on the profitability of their estates, it is also hard to imagine why the great estate holders did not do more to help oppose the barbarian invasions. After all, it is hardly profitable to have one’s estate confiscated, pillaged, or burned by invaders or raiding barbarian tribes, as occurred frequently during the fifth century. Unfortunately the evidence from this period is insufficient to provide any definitive resolutions to this puzzle, but one important factor appears to have been the loss of control of the Senatorial class over the army and imperial government during the Crisis of the Third Century. As noted previously, wealthy aristocrats from Italy were displaced from their traditional roles as generals and provincial governors, replaced by professional soldiers and educated administrators of common birth. While this contributed to an increase in professionalism of the roman military and bureaucracy, it also meant that the wealthy aristocrats who still exercised significant authority at a local level (particularly in the Western Empire) were increasingly ostracised from the imperial administration. Unlike during the Principate when the imperial government broadly served the interests of the Senatorial class, during the Dominate their interests increasingly diverged. By the late fifth century large landowners in Italy seem to have found it preferable to negotiate with the current barbarian invaders, rather than to cooperate with the rapidly disintegrating imperial administration. In short, it appears that the divergence of interests between the roman aristocracy and the imperial government during the fourth and fifth centuries resulted in the aristocrats ceasing to support the government when it needed them most.
Lessons for the Present
Having considered some of the major factors which may account for the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, I now want to address what we might learn from this that is of relevance to the contemporary world. Drawing lessons from history is always difficult, since one is tempted to project current problems onto very different past social and economic situations. Nevertheless, I believe there are some general lessons to be learned. First, I believe that we can learn from the results of Diocletian’s economic and administrative reforms. While these reforms were intended to strengthen the Empire and probably did contribute to the revival of the fortunes of the Empire during the fourth century, in the long term these policies likely weakened the Empire’s tax base and contributed to the accumulation of land by large estate holders. The imperial government came progressively to be seen by many of its citizens, especially in the west, as more of a burden than a benefit. The Roman state’s single most important function was to provide physical security and protection from barbarian raids. When it failed to fulfil this function, many peoples in the west saw little value in continuing to support the government. Today the functions of governments are far more extensive than anything imaginable in the ancient world, but nevertheless it is still essential for a government to consider the long-term implications of its laws and institutions, and ensure that on balance it is providing value to its citizens. Naturally this is more easily said than done, and predicting the long-term effects of policy changes is difficult. Nevertheless the experience of Diocletian’s reforms illustrates how policies designed to resolve problems in the short-term can have potentially disastrous long-term consequences.
Second, the experience of the fall of the Western Roman Empire illustrates how important it is for educated elites to remain engaged in a nation’s political process. As discussed early, over the course of the fourth century the old senatorial aristocracy became increasingly distanced from the army and the imperial bureaucracy, and in large part ceased to be engaged in or supportive of measures to defend and reinvigorate the state. Many senators still made impassioned speeches about the importance of the empire and of defending traditional Roman values, but concrete actions to preserve the Empire, such as paying of taxes, rallying of troops from their estates to defend the frontiers, or supporting reform efforts, were in general noticeably lacking. Although today the circumstances are different, I believe we can learn from these events the importance of those with the education and the means to make a difference actually taking concrete actions and continuing to engage in the political process, instead of moaning about how bad things are whilst spending most of one’s time engaged in private pursuits. In the case of the Senatorial aristocracy this mostly meant attending to their vast estates; in our day and age we have different preoccupations and distractions, but nevertheless the lesson of the importance of concrete political engagement is still highly pertinent.
Third, I believe we can also learn from the Roman experience a lesson about the importance of taking a broader view beyond the latest crisis of the moment, and spending time and effort thinking about the long-running trends that are occurring and what might happen in the future if present trends continue. This is so important because nearly everything that happened in the Western Empire in the fifth century, including civil war, weak emperors, corruption, barbarian invasion, economic upheaval, had all happened before. Although many people were concerned about the way things were going, there was seldom a widespread recognition that such things foreshadowed the end of the Empire. The process of decline was for the most part very gradual; each year the army became slightly less effective, administration became somewhat less competent, cities fell into marginally worse repair, such that for most people nothing felt particularly out of the ordinary. Events that would have been shocking to Romans two or three generations previously came to be considered as normal. Observers certainly noticed that things weren’t going well for the Western Empire, but the decay was so slow that few could see the extent of the underlying problems, nor was it clear when the Empire reached a point of no return from which it could never recover. Thus, at some point in the late fifth century there came a time when there was no Western Roman Empire anymore. Few mourned its passing at the time, since the process had been so gradual that few even realised what had happened. Applying this lesson to the present, we should be wary of falling into a similar trap of failing to perceive the longer term trends as a result of being too focused in the minutia of day to day crises, and failing to consider cumulative changes over long periods of time that is easy to become accustomed to. It is hard to effectively deal with problems that we aren’t even aware of, and failure to take a longer-term perspective can lead to an inability to recognise vital trends which, in retrospect, seem extremely obvious.
A fourth and final point, related to the previous two points, is the importance of avoiding short-term thinking when tackling social and economic problems. When costs must be borne in the present and benefits are uncertain and in the future, there is a natural temptation to avoid paying those costs and hoping things will work out, or someone else will solve the problem. This appears to have been part of the attitude of the Roman aristocratic class, as multiple times even when Italy was threatened by barbarian invasion, they failed to exert sufficient effort and make the personal sacrifices that would have been necessary to save the Empire. At the time Senators may have reasoned that such extreme measures were not necessary, or that barbarian rule was really little different from Imperial rule, so long as the Senatorial class was allowed to retain control over their estates and maintain their dominance over local affairs. For a time this was the case, since the first barbarian conquerors of Italy did allow the Senatorial classes continued influence over local politics and continued enjoyment of the revenues of their estates. In the longer-term, however, the Senatorial class only survived the Empire by about a century, with many of their estates devastated and local political arrangements massively disrupted by wars which ravaged the Italian peninsula during the sixth century. The Roman Senate, once the institutional basis of power for the entire Mediterranean, ceased to exist in the early seventh century. Whilst many things become obvious in hindsight, nevertheless it seems plausible that had the Roman aristocracy of the fifth century been more forward thinking, they could have realised that it would be difficult to sustain their privileged position without a Roman army to defend them and a Roman state to justify their existence. Short term thinking, it seems, is an age old problem that we would do well to learn from.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire was a seminal event in world history, and understanding what caused a once large and powerful state to fall into ruins has interested scholars ever since. In this essay I discusses some of the critical factors that I believe contributed to the decline and fall of the Empire in the west, including declining effectiveness of the Roman army, economic downturn due to increased warfare and short-sighted economic policies, accumulation of wealth and power by large landowners, and a growing schism between the Senatorial class and the imperial government. I then considered what lessons might be applicable from these events that are relevant to the present. I identified four key lessons: the importance of considering the long-term effects of economic and political reforms, the essential role played by continued engagement of educated elites in shaping political outcomes for the public good, the necessity of paying attention to longer term trends rather than getting lost in the minutia, and the critical importance of avoiding short-termism when considering situations when we have to pay present costs to accrue benefits in the future.
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