By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
A wide range of controversial dates have been proposed as the possible dates of the Roman Empire’s collapse. The list starts as early as 31 and 27 BC through 1806 and 1917 AD. This long list is compelling to different people with various views and criteria. If the date of Rome’s end is so controversial, then why shouldn’t the reasons for its decline be contentious?
Did the Roman Empire Fall Because of Barbarian Incursions?
Among the myriad explanations put forth for the decline of Rome, many focus on the most prominent one: barbarians. A large number of barbarian groups repeatedly attacked both eastern and western empires. They included Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns, Franks, and Alans. This view that attributes the Roman collapse to external factors is best summarized in the words of Andre Piganiol: “Roman civilization did not die a natural death. It was murdered.”
This military interpretation holds that the Roman Empire was intrinsically powerful, but frequent external attacks chipped away at its power. Edward Gibbon said, “The Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.”
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Economic Crises Behind the Fall of the Roman Empire
Monetary issues is another factor put forth in this regard. Arable land or available workers grew scarce, so taxes had to be reduced, which resulted in economic problems. Other explanations include depleted soil due to over-cultivation, inequality between the rich and the poor, detachment of local elites from public life, and economic recession as a result of overreliance on slave labor.
During the 3rd century, and until the 6th century, several economic and political crises put considerable pressure on the empire. A combination of severe inflation, barbarian invasions, debasement of the currency, civil wars, and destruction of farms, crops and cities all forced administrators to get more taxes from people. That, in turn, put a lot of strain on people who couldn’t produce crops due to those problems.
This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Role of Christianity in the Fall of the Roman Empire
Another significant factor is Christianity. When Christianity became the state religion, the Church reduced the state resources by acquiring large pieces of land and keeping the income for itself. The society had to support various members of the Church hierarchy like monks, nuns, and hermits.
Valuable resources were spent on rivalries between different sects of Christianity and the Church’s effort to suppress paganism. Another impact of Christianity was a psychological one. It put a lot of emphasis on the next life and personal salvation, weakening traditional Roman values like service to the state and civic participation. The power structure, social hierarchy, and the value system of the society changed by Christianity.
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Biological Interpretations of the Roman Empire Collapse
Another interesting interpretation of the Roman Empire collapse is based on a biological model. According to this model, all nations are biologically like human beings. They are born, grow into maturity, diminish in strength, and finally die. Nothing can remain in the same state, and everything has to go through this natural progression. According to this theory, decay and decline are inevitable by-products of growth and prosperity. Gibbon has expressed it in this way:
“The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious.”
Environmental Reasons for the Fall of The Roman Empire
Recently, environmental factors have also been attributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. This theory attributes both the rise and fall of Rome to ecological factors. The growth of the Roman Empire coincided with the environmental prosperity of the Mediterranean basin from the 3rd century BC until the middle of the 2nd century AD. This period of suitable environmental conditions is called the “Roman Climate Optimum”, which led to population growth and economic prosperity.
The proponents of this theory state that environmental conditions started to deteriorate around 150 AD. The climate became cold and dry, which had adverse effects on agriculture. At the same time, epidemics like the plague had struck the empire, further reducing the size of the economy and population. The last straw was the increase in global volcanic activity from the 5th century to 8th century AD. It created the Roman “Little Ice Age”, which contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Common Questions about the Fall of the Roman Empire
Different factors contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. They include economic crises, barbarian attacks, farming issues from exhausted soil due to over-cultivation, inequality between the rich and the poor, detachment of local elites from public life, and economic recession as a result of overreliance on slave labor.
When Christianity became the state religion, the Church reduced the state resources by acquiring large pieces of land and keeping the income for itself. The society had to support various members of the Church hierarchy like monks, nuns, and hermits. Thus, probably leading to the fall of the Roman Empire.
The barbarian invasions are regarded as external factors that led to the fall of the Roman Empire. This military interpretation holds that the Roman Empire was sound, but frequent external attacks weakened its power.