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Reasons for the Fall of Rome

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Varro, a Republican Roman antiquarian, dated the founding of Rome to the 21st of April 753 B.C. While canonical, the date is most likely wrong. The fall of Rome also has a traditional date -- about a millennium later, on September 4, A.D. 476, a date established by the historian Edward Gibbon. This date is a matter of opinion, for it was on this date that the last Roman emperor to rule the western Roman Empire -- a usurper, but only the last of many -- was kicked out of office. The Sack of Rome by the Goths on August 24, A.D. 410 is also popular as a date for Rome's fall. Some say the Roman Empire never fell. But assuming it did fall, why did it fall?

There are adherents to single factors, but more people think Rome fell because of a combination of such factors as Christianity, decadence, and military problems. Even the rise of Islam is proposed as the reason for Rome's fall, by some who think the Fall of Rome happened at Constantinople in the 15th Century. Here I am writing about a roughly fifth century fall of Rome (or the western division of the Roman Empire).

Why do you think Rome fell? | Why are you interested in the Fall of Rome?

1. Christianity

When the Roman Empire started, there was no such religion as Christianity, although by the time of the second emperor, Jesus had been executed for treasonous behavior. It took his followers a few centuries to gain enough clout that they were able to win over imperial support. This came in the early 4th century, with Constantine, who was actively involved in Christian policy-making. Over time, Church leaders became influential and took power away from the emperor; for example, the threat of withholding the sacraments compelled Emperor Theodosius to do the penance Bishop Ambrose required. Since Roman civic and religious life were the same -- priestesses controlled the fortune of Rome, prophetic books told leaders what they needed to win wars, emperors were deified, Christian religious beliefs and allegiances conflicted with the working of empire.

2. Barbarians and Vandals

Vandals Plundering
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Rome embraced the barbarians, a term covering a variety and changing group of outsiders, using them as suppliers of tax revenue and bodies for the military, even promoting them to positions of power, but Rome also lost territory and revenue to them, especially in northern Africa, which Rome lost to the Vandals at the time St. Augustine.

3. Decay

One can spot decay in many areas, going back to the crises of the Republic under the Gracchi, Sulla and Marius, but in the imperial period and in the military, it meant men were no longer trained right and the invincible Roman army was no longer, and there was corruption throughout.

4. Inflation

Right now, the price of an ounce of gold is $1535.17/ounce (EUR 1035.25). If you bought what you thought was an ounce of gold and took it to an appraiser who told you it was worth only $30, you'd be upset and probably take action against the gold seller, but if your government issued money that was inflated to that degree you would no more have recourse than you'd have the money to buy necessities. That was what inflation was like in the century before Constantine. By the time of Claudius II Gothicus (268-270 A.D.) the amount of silver in a supposedly 100% silver denarius was only .02%.

5. Lead

Roman Wigs and Makeup
CC Flickr User Sebastià Giralt
The presence of lead in the drinking water leached in from the water pipes, glazes on containers that came in contact with food and beverages, and food preparation techniques could have contributed to heavy metal poisoning. It was also absorbed through the pores, since it was used in cosmetics. Lead, associated with contraception, was recognized as a deadly poison.

6. Economic

Economic factors are cited as a major cause of the fall of Rome. Some of the major factors, like inflation, are discussed elsewhere. But there were also lesser problems with the economy of Rome that combined together to escalate financial stress. These include:
  • Poor management,
  • The dole (bread and circuses), and
  • Hoarding.

7. Division of the Empire

Map of Constantinople (1422) by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonte
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Roman Empire was split not just geographically, but culturally, with a Latin Empire and a Greek one, the latter of which may have survived because it had most of the population, a better military, more money, and more effective leadership.

8. Hoarding and Deficit

Causes of the fall of Rome include economic decay through hoarding of bullion, barbarian looting of the treasury, and trade deficit.

9. Want Even More?

The University of Texas has re-posted a German list ranging from the puzzling (like "useless eaters") to the obvious (like "stress") with a bunch of good ones in between (including "Nationalism of Rome's subjects" and "Lack of orderly imperial succession": "210 Reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire." Source: A. Demandt, Der Fall Roms (1984)

Do read the 21st century books The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather and The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins, which are summarized, reviewed and compared in the following review article:

"The Return of the Fall of Rome
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather; The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins,"
Review by: Jeanne Rutenburg and Arthur M. Eckstein
The International History Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 109-122.

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