There is no one cause to the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not simply fall over night, rather the fall occurred as a consequence of a mixture of attacks from outside forces and other internal circumstances such as, their difficulties governing a massive empire, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the deterioration of the slave trade which had previously helped to keep things running smoothly (Fiero, 165). Many theories have been produced to explain the fall of Rome, some of the major theories to explain include the invasion of the Barbarian tribes and the later arrival of the Huns, economic troubles and overreliance on slave labor, the rise of the Eastern Empire, overexpansion, and government corruption and political instability (Andrews, 1).
The most straightforward theory for the empire’s collapse is that the series of military defeats weakened their armies, exhausted their resources, and left them vulnerable to the fall. The Romans fought many battles against Germanic tribes over the years, but by the 300s barbarian groups such as the Goths had occupied their borders (Andrews, 1). After years of attacks the Roman forces were severely weakened. It came to a head in 476, when the Germanic leader Odoacer led a revolt and conquered the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus. From this point on no Roman emperor has ever ruled from a post in Italy, which led many to cite 476 as the year the Western Empire ended (Andrews, 1).
The battles with the barbarians were in part caused by the Huns’ invasion of Europe, which pushed the tribes into the Roman Empire’s borders. While the Romans did allow some people to peaceably pass into their borders they treated them with extreme cruelty once they got into Roman territory (Andrews, 1). The Roman’s choice to abuse the barbarian tribes, meant that they had created a dangerous enemy within their own borders. The tribes eventually revolted against the Romans and succeeded in killing the Eastern Emperor Valens during the Battle of Adrianople in the year 378. Although, the Romans initially were able to negotiate a shaky peace with the barbarians, it was not to last. Their peace fell apart when the Goth King Alaric moved west and sacked Rome (Andrews, 1).
The outside forces attacking Rome had help weakening the empire from the internal problems it was currently facing. The current financial crisis in Rome had been caused by nonstop wars, which required so much funding. Also an issue was the harsh taxation and inflation that had increased the gap (Andrews, 1). Also weighing on the empire was an extreme labor deficit that resulted from the lack of slaves. Rome’s economy was heavily dependent on slave labor, which was used to cultivate fields in order to provide food for their massive empire among other things. The mighty Roman military had previously won battles that would provide conquered people to be turned into slaves, but their recent losses had depleted their supply. With the economy in shambles and their product creation in decline, the Empire began to fall (Andrews, 1).
At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River, but its magnificence may also have contributed to its downfall. Due to the vastness of the empire it is easy to see why it would be difficult to govern (Andrews, 1). The Romans were innovative, attempting to problem solve even when it seemed impossible. They created incredible road systems, which helped them to communicate over their vast expanse, but unfortunately it was not enough. Because their area was so large they struggled to protect their borders from outside forces. They were simply not able to communicate quickly or effectively enough to organize their troops. They spent so much money on their military that eventually they ceased trying to advance their technology and their civil infrastructure fell apart (Andrews, 1). Realizing that the empire may be too large to control the Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire in the late third century. The city of Milan was the center of the West and Byzantium, which was later known, as Constantinople was the center of the East. The short-term results were good. It definitely made the empire easier to govern, but over time the two halves stopped working together. East and West failed at fighting off their outside threats, and began to disagree over the use of resources and military aid. The divide was clear as the Eastern Empire gained wealth and the West fell deeper into economic disaster. This was important to the fall because the power of the Eastern Empire helped to direct the Barbarian invasions to the West and while Constantinople in the east was well fortified, the city of Rome was left exposed to attack (Andrews, 1).
Rome’s problems not only stemmed from the size of their empire, but from their unsuccessful leadership. Rome had difficulty keeping an emperor because in the second and third centuries it almost became comparable to a death sentence (Andrews, 1). In just 75 years over 20 men took the throne. Murder of the predecessor was the main cause for changing of the guard. In some cases the emperor’s personal protectors eliminated their rulers. They would then put someone else into the position as they saw fit (Andrews, 1). The Roman Senate was no exception to the political rot. They were unsuccessful in their attempts to squander the excesses of the emperors mostly due to the senate’s own widespread issues. The situation would only get worse and it was not long before many Roman’s lost trust in their leadership (Andrews, 1).
All of these factors contributed to the fall of Rome, however if one were to pick a single reason for the fall of Rome it would be poor leadership (Elton, 1). Critical failures in leadership included the fact that there was very little change in the leadership’s ideas. Emperor after Emperor tried to reuse the same ideas with little to no avail. Change was needed in order to have a more cohesive empire. Uniting the people and utilizing the resources properly could have been the answer, but they got greedy, and decided they needed more troops, more land, and more slaves. The only problem was that they had created an infrastructure that couldn’t possibly support it all. With the inflation and taxation that plagued the empire, the rich only got richer, the poor only got poorer. In addition the welfare system made it seem as though it were beneficial to just not do any work. It was during the Pax Romana that nearly one-half of Rome’s population received some form of public welfare (Fiero 165). All of this led some of the Roman people to welcome the fall because their leadership would be replaced. Their leaders could have slowed or prevented the fall by drawing back and focusing on the land and resources they had rather than conquering more. They could have relied less on slave labor and more on encouraging their own people to do the work necessary to keep the empire running. Without going out and conquering more land, funds normally attributed to the military troops fighting wars could have been spent fortifying their borders and helping their people.
In history it is said that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Several historians have placedthe beginning of the end of the Roman Empire at various dates between 395 and 461 and their analyses focus on the financial problems faced by the Empire (Elton, 1).When Rome was divided the West received fewer of the wealthy provinces, which resulted in a decrease of taxes that could be collected. This led to them not being able to pay for enough troops to defend themselves. This became a big problem for the West especially because they had longer border to defend and not enough troops to defend them (Elton, 1). When the money was there the Roman army was a force to be reckoned, but they lacked backing and funding from their leaders, which caused them to fail.I see several comparisons to our modern day situation, especially that of America. Some of these are overspending on the military, spreading the military too thin, and outsourcing work from other countries, but the modern day comparison that struck me the most was the reliance of the people on the welfare system and the inflation. A close parallel to the Roman Welfare System is our own system in America. Both have teams of beneficiaries, oppressive regulation, confiscatory taxation,and inflation (Reed, 1). Inflation is one of the biggest parallels as well as one of the biggest problems and it remains so because most people don’t understand it and our society has an attitude, which promotes inflation (Reed, 1).
Inflation is defined as the increase in money supply, but why does the government inflate the money supply? The main reason for inflation is that people are asking for more from government and expecting not to pay for it. This causes deficits, due to the expansion of money (Reed, 1). It makes sense, then, that inflation will not stop until values of self-responsibility and respect for private property are restored. The problems of the people then get blamed on the government when the real problem is the people’s reliance on the governments help. When the government is stretched too thin and can no longer help then the system falls apart and the people will be willing to replace the current government and may even welcome the change (Reed, 1).
Andrews, Evan. 8 Reasons Why Rome Fell.History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Jan. 2014, www.history.com/news/history-lists/8-reasons-why-rome-fell.
Elton, Hugh. The Collapse of the Roman Empire- Military Aspects .Lack of Leadership – NovaRoma, ORB Online Encyclopedia, 15 May 2007, www.novaroma.org/nr/Lack_of_leadership.
Reed, Lawrence W. The Fall of Rome and Modern Parallels | Lawrence W. Reed.FEE, Foundation for Economic Education, 1 Nov. 1979, fee.org/articles/the-fall-of-rome-and-modern-parallels/.
Rome: The Rise to Empire.The Humanistic Tradition, by Gloria K. Fiero, 6th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2011, pp. 165–165.
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