The Fall of the Roman Empire: Possible Dates and Theories

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The Roman Empire collapsed after centuries of prosperous civilization. The role of Roman civilization in the world was so significant that the collapse of such an empire is puzzling. People want to know how the civilization collapsed. Was it rapid or gradual? Could this collapse have been prevented?

An image of the Hagia Sophia in 1890.
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire that lasted until the 15th century. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

Over the years, scholars have proposed a host of different theories that try to explain the reasons for the Roman Empire’s fall. There are possible dates. But these possible dates of the collapse are one of the first problems that arise in analyzing the Roman collapse. There is no unanimous agreement regarding when the roman civilization fell. Reading history books seems to add to the confusion. The history books written on the Roman Empire have suggested a wide range of dates, from the 1st century BC to the 15th century AD. Interestingly, it is even more confusing to see that most of these sources have plausible reasons for the dates they suggest.

Learn more about the Roman Empire’s crisis of the third century.

Who were the Real Romans?

Marble statue of Trajan.
Trajan was the first of the Five Good Emperors to rule Rome. (Image: Ostia/Public domain)

A factor considered in determining the date of Roman collapse is when supposedly “legitimate” or “real” Romans stopped ruling the empire. Based on this view, many rulers were not legitimate Romans but barbarians masquerading as ones. The proponents of this approach point out that not every political entity can be considered the Roman Empire because real Romans were not running most of them. But the question here is, “who is a real Roman?” The place of origin cannot be a good marker because the Roman Army and the Senate had long had many members from places other than Italy. Perhaps the last time that all members of the Senate were Italians was the time of the Roman republic.

As early as the 2nd century AD, Trajan, the first of the Five Good Emperors, was from Spanish provinces. Also, in the 3rd century AD, a lot of emperors were from provinces. For the better part of the Roman empire, most of the emperors, senators, and army members were from other provinces in Europe, Africa, and even in the east. It is not easy to pick an exact date as the time when barbarians replaced Romans.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Eastern Part of the Roman Empire

The western part of the empire did indeed collapse by the end of the 5th century AD. But the eastern half continued to exist for many centuries. Also, even after the barbarians captured some parts of the eastern half, its core in Asia Minor and the capital city of Constantinople kept cruising along for the next 1000 years. So, the question of who counts as a real Roman cannot be answered that easily.

This eastern half, known as Byzantine, was ruled by a powerful series of Roman emperors until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. It might feel strange to exclude Rome and Italy from the Roman Empire, but the Byzantines, and almost everyone at that time, considered themselves real Romans. If the rulers of the the eastern emperors are regarded as Romans, then the Roman Empire did not fall until the 15 century. Many historians would prefer 1453 as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Learn more about early Christianity and the rise of Constantine

Modern Extensions of the Roman Empire

The Praetorians Relief showing aquilla from the Arch of Claudius.
Napoleon Bonaparte also used eagle standards for his soldiers that Roman legionaries used. (Image:
Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick/Public domain)

From other perspectives, the fall of the Roman Empire can be extended even further. The titles or self-proclaimed heirs to the Roman Empire can be seen until the near present. On Christmas Day, 800 AD, Charlemagne, the first great king of Europe in the Middle Ages, was inaugurated by the Pope with the title “Charles Augustus, Emperor of the Romans”. During the Middle Ages, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was so popular that a continuous succession of emperors with this title ruled until 1806 when Napoleon dethroned the last one.

Then, in Russia, the title “Caesar” turned into “tsar”. The tsars considered themselves the heirs to the Roman legacy, and the last tsar was dethroned in the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Some people claim to be revivals of the Roman Empire. For example, Napoleon introduced himself as the First Consul and then the Emperor. He also used eagle standards for his soldiers that Roman legionaries used. The Roman Republic was a model of government raved by the founding fathers of the United States. When they established the American Republic, they used many elements of the Roman Republic. The United States Senate and the architecture of Washington, DC, which look very similar to the architecture of ancient Rome, are among the many examples of such imitation. In this regard, the United States is the revival of the Roman Republic, and one can assume that Rome has not fallen.

Common Questions about the Fall of the Roman Empire: Possible Dates and Theories

Q: Who was Trajan?

Trajan was the first of the Five Good Emperors who had a significant influence on the preservation of the Roman Empire. He was from one of the Spanish provinces.

Q: Why did the Byzantine Empire fall?

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern part of the Roman Empire. It fell when the Ottoman Turks captured its capital city, Constantinople, in 1453.

Q: Was Napoleon influenced by the Roman Empire?

Napoleon was one of the people who claimed to be the revival of Romans and thus Roman Empire. He introduced himself as the First Consul and then the Emperor. He also used eagle standards for his soldiers that Roman legionaries used.

Keep Reading
How Did Constantine Alter the Course of the Roman Empire?
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Huns, Vandals, and the Collapse of the Roman Empire