People often quote the saying, “Rome was not built in a day”. However, it is mentioned less often that Rome also did not fall in a day. The fall of Rome was not a sudden catastrophe that struck the nation, but rather a gradual process over hundreds of years.
Rome was once one of the greatest empires of ancient times. It lasted over a thousand years and reached its peak in the second century AD. The Roman culture was one of the most sophisticated and advanced at the time, coming up with adaptive technologies that many of our modern inventions still have their roots in. It was the epicenter of the newest innovations and advancements in research and technology, bringing rich lifestyles and art to all the regions under its rule. However, even a great empire has an ending.
Since the exact date of the fall of Rome is difficult to pinpoint, historians have placed many dates on a timeline proposing when Rome really ceased to be an empire. The historian Edward Gibbon suggested 476 AD, a date which is generally accepted amongst historians, as it was the date when Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, resigned his crown to the Germanic king Odoacer. Even so, the city of Rome was still in existence, leading other historians to believe that the Roman culture really collapsed with the rise of Christianity – or even the rise of Islam, which occurred much later in 1453. While not everyone may come to an agreement on the exact date of the fall of Rome, most would concur that these events all led to the collapse of this great culture.
How exactly Rome fell was not a straightforward process either. In fact, the empire actually expanded during its period of imperial decline, as Roman armies were still conquering other lands. These additions of peoples and cultures also radically affected the structure of the Roman government. In the late third century, the Emperor Diocletian split Rome into two halves, the east and the west, which were governed by separate emperors. The decision was meant to make the large empire more governable, but the two halves ended up being at odds. Roman emperors moved the capital of the empire, from Nicomedia to Constantinople in the east and also Rome to Milan in the west. The eastern empire and the western empire failed to work together, and were often quarreling over resources and military. This caused the gap between the two halves to widen. The eastern empire became richer while the western empire suffered, and Roman emperors sought to fortify the stronger eastern side while leaving the west vulnerable. The weak western side attracted the attention of invaders, who found it easy to conquer.
Some people believe that it was the introduction of foreign factors into Rome that led to the collapse of the great empire, such as Christianity, decadence, financial issues, military problems, imperial incompetence and even the water supply being contaminated with lead. Others think that the empire of Rome did not actually fall, but simply failed to adapt to the shifting times.
Rome had a history with Germanic tribes for centuries, but by the fourth century AD, the barbarians – a broad term regarded by the Romans that referred to a varied group of outsiders – had encroached into Rome, where they were conscripted into the military, became suppliers of tax revenue and were even promoted to positions of power, due to Rome’s difficulty in recruiting local soldiers. Although the barbarians were fierce warriors, they had little loyalty to Rome and would often turn against their Roman employers. Giving the barbarians control meant that Rome lost some of its territory and revenue, especially northern Africa which was lost to the Vandals in the fifth century AD. Concurrently, Rome also lost Spain to the Sueves, Alans and Visigoths, causing a loss of not just territory but also revenue and control. Rome spent several decades under constant threat by the barbarians before the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Germanic leader Odoacer. With a greatly decreased revenue, Rome was unable to maintain its military strength, which was crucial in establishing control over the territory it still owned.
With this loss of control over territory, military and populace, the governance of the Roman empire shrank while its lands and populace expanded. By the fourth century AD, Rome had become too big for its remaining authority to control easily. Additionally, the Roman military suffered decay – not from without, but within. While the military was at constant war before the second century, expansion ground to a halt soon after. A lack of warring in the later years caused the army to grow weak and they stopped wearing their protective armor. They were also more complacent on drills and their leaders became incompetent. As a result, the army was vulnerable to enemy weapons when attacked and had a greater motivation to flee from battle.
With the increase in foreign populace and outer territories, Roman citizens began to identify with Rome less and less, preferring to live outside Italy even if this meant they did not benefit from the wealth of the Roman empire. Some of them were driven by the increased taxes and inflation which they would be able to avoid once outside the borders of Rome. When they needed help, they turned to others outside the Roman empire, including Germans, Christians, Vandals and brigands.
It is believed that the water supply in Rome was contaminated with lead, leading to lead poisoning in the population. The lead probably came about from the water pipes, lead glazes on containers used for food and beverages and food preparation techniques. Lead at the time was known as a deadly poison and used for cosmetics and contraception.
The Roman empire also suffered financial stress towards its end. Most historians believe that economic factors were a major cause of the fall of Rome, including inflation, over-taxation and feudalism, which increased the difference in wealth between the rich and the poor. The constant attempts to conquer other lands resulted in overspending.
Rome was heavily reliant on slave labor to work its fields and craft its wares. While it was still conquering other lands, it was able to find a constant supply of people to enslave. However, with the decrease in military power and the loss of control over its conquered lands, Rome began to suffer a deficit of slaves, resulting in a decline in commercial and agricultural production.
A few other economic factors included the hoarding of bullion by Roman citizens, the looting of the Roman treasury by barbarians and the lack of trade with the eastern parts of the empire. Trade was heavily disrupted when the Vandals started to sail along the Mediterranean as pirates after conquering North Africa.
All of these issues are thought to have led to the decline in Rome’s wealth and its inevitable collapse. Although western Rome may have descended into its demise sometime in the fifth century, the eastern empire still endured for a thousand years until it was overwhelmed in the fifteenth century.
Jun 04, 2020