By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
There was a time when the Roman Empire had established a prosperous civilization with a robust economy, effective ruling and legal systems, a formidable army, and a rich and unique culture. They just had it all in the 2nd century AD. But things were not supposed to remain the same.
The Roman Empire was at its finest in the 2nd century AD. However, after a few centuries, this ancient superpower weakened, collapsed, and finally disappeared. Left behind in the dark squalor of the Middle Ages, the world seemed to have nothing remaining from that glory and sophistication. It seemed like the Roman Empire had taken with it all those golden achievements and civilization.
It would be surprising to see the collapse of one of the most powerful empires in history is so mysterious that no historian seems to be quite sure about it.
This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Proposed Dates for the End of the Roman Empire
The earliest date suggested for the collapse of the Roman Empire is 31 BC, when the Battle of Actium happened. The advocates of this date believe that the defeat of Mark Antony by Octavian was the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. It was at this point that things started to unravel for the Roman Empire. Another suggested date is 27 BC when the Principate was established. However, there is a consensus among historians that the switch from Republic to Empire did not hurt Roman civilization. Quite contrary, it continued to thrive and reached its peak one century later when the Five Good Emperors reigned.
It is the end of the reign of the Five Good Emperors that marks the most agreed-upon date for the Roman collapse. In 180 AD, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius died, and his son Commodus took his place. The reign of this mentally unable emperor is a clear departure from the golden age of Rome, as it brought about many disastrous changes in the empire.
A few decades after the death of Marcus Aurelius, the famous Crisis of the Third Century hit the empire. A succession of civil wars, incompetent governments, economic crises, inflation, devaluation of the currency, and repeated barbarian invasions plagued the empire.
The empire did stumble through the following years, but the irreversible downward movement of the empire started in 180 AD. Most historians agree on this date; even the ancient Romans were aware that this date was a significant historical moment in the fate of their empire. About this major turning point, the Roman historian Cassius Dio said, “Our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”
This downward movement was temporarily halted with the reign of Diocletian and other military emperors who were able to end the chaos, drive the barbarians out, and bring stability to the empire.
Learn more about the Roman Empire’s crisis of the third century.
Constantine and His Conversion to Christianity
The 4th century AD is the next frequently suggested date for the demise of the Roman Empire. At that time, civil wars broke out again. In 312, Constantine ended these civil wars and converted to Christianity as the first emperor ever to do so.
Constantine had significant influences throughout Roman history in at least two aspects. Christianity had a personal and inward-looking nature that was in sharp contrast with the outward and public focus of Roman civilization. Constantine’s conversion led to the demise of the Roman Empire because the values of Christianity replaced those of classical paganism.
Learn more about the Five Good Emperors.
Barbarian Invasions: A Significant Factor
Another factor used as a focus of suggested dates is the invasion of barbarian tribes that gained more intensity during the 4th century. One of the most critical events proposed as the possible date of the Roman collapse is 378 AD. In that year, Goths defeated and killed Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. At this time, it became clear that the empire could not deal with the threat of barbarians. The Battle of Adrianople debunked the invincibility of the Roman Army.
The next possible date of the demise of Rome is 410 AD. King Alaric of the Visigoths attacked Italy and captured and sacked the city of Rome. The physical damage might have been insignificant, but the capture of the capital shattered the image of Rome, which was a turning point in the history of the empire. Another significant looting of Rome happened in 455 AD by Gaiseric and the Vandals. There was a third significant barbarian attack in 476 AD. During this invasion, Odoacer defeated Romulus Augustulus and declared himself as the King of Italy.
Common Questions about the Roman Empire’s Collapse
A few decades after the death of Marcus Aurelius, the famous Crisis of the Third Century hit the Roman Empire and a succession of civil wars, incompetent government, economic crisis, inflation, devaluation of the currency, and repeated barbarian invasions plagued the empire.
The death of Marcus Aurelius had a severe impact on the Roman Empire when his mentally unstable son Commodus took his place. But Diocletian and other military emperors managed to temporarily put off the fall of Rome.
Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 and ended civil wars plaguing the Roman Empire. He was the first emperor who converted to Christianity and contributed to its spread.
The Goths defeated and killed Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. It marks the moment when it became clear that the Roman Empire could not deal with the threat of barbarians. The Battle of Adrianople debunked the invincibility of the Roman Army.