Why Rome Fell . . . and why it doesn't matter
When people talk about the "fall of the Roman Empire", they usually envision some sort of event: a particular year, perhaps, or at least a particular generation. A little bit of study might yield some specific dates: 476, or 455, or 410. All such ideas are fundamentally misleading because they over-simplify what the Roman Empire was, and they overlook social and economic developments in favor of strictly political developments.
The very notion of a fall implies that something was standing, and that this
something was a cohesive entity. In fact, Rome was always a patchwork, held
together only at the very top. Much of the Roman Empire was governed at a very
local level; the civitas (city-state) was the fundamental unit of
governing and Rome gave these a great deal of autonomy. Above this stood the
provincial government and the Roman army. As the tax base dwindled, and the army
was called away or was distracted by civil wars, the provincial government
vanished, but the local civitas went on. As the barbarians invaded, they
often took over the old Roman provincial titles, so that Roman authority
continued in a new guise.
A different way of considering matters is to leave aside entirely the idea of a "fall" and to talk instead about the transition from the ancient world to the medieval world. At some point we are clearly in the ancient world. At some later date, we are clearly in the medieval world. How did this transformation come about? The history of the Roman Empire figures into this story, but so do the Arabs and the Germans and the Slavs. Religion plays a prominent role, as do economic forces.
With this point of view, it is more practical to ask: when did central Roman
authority decline and disappear from this region or that one? This being a survey class, we can only trace the broadest of outlines, but it will be enough to change the focus away from the Roman Empire.
You may have noticed the running header for these pages: Late Antiquity. Historians have not settled on a good name for the centuries between Diocletian and Charlemagne, but this phrase is at least serviceable. The older term, the Dark Ages, has long been in disfavor as misleading and pejorative. I still have some trouble thinking of the Merovingian kings of the 8th century as belonging to Late Antiquity, but no term is without compromise. I'll stick with this one for a while longer.
Some Key Events and Trends
In a sense, the Roman Empire fell during the 200s, during the so-called Crisis of the Third Century, for the Empire that was re-constituted by Diocletian and Constantine was significantly different from the original. The fifty years covered by these two emperors marks our first watershed, for they created what is called the Late Empire. By the end of Constantine's rule, all of the Augustan foundations of the Empire had changed profoundly. The army was largely Germanic. Imperial authority was now split between military functions and civil functions, the two chains of command uniting only in the person of the Emperor himself. The imperial office itself was now split between an eastern and a western ruler. The capital had moved from Rome to Constantinople. Workers were bound by heredity to their trade or to the land itself. Christianity had replaced paganism as the official religion of the state.
The second turning point comes in the 500s. This is the great century of loss and devastation, in many parts of the Roman world. During this century, Arianism was almost completely conquered by Catholicism in the West, bringing about religious unity. This is the century of Justinian, the devastation of Italy and the ruin of the city of Rome itself (conquered five times during a thirty-year span and losing most of its population). Clovis founded the Kingdom of the Franks in Gaul. The Avars and the Slavs both invaded the eastern Empire. Terrible earthquakes, Persian invasions, and the Black Death ravaged the wealthiest provinces and cities of the East. The Lombards conquered northern Italy. Latin all but died out in the eastern Empire, while Greek faded to a memory in the West.
The third and final turning point I wish to emphasize here is the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. When the Arabs conquered Egypt, the Near East, North Africa, and Spain, they completed the transformation of the ancient world to the medieval world. While there were still contacts between East and West, they were sporadic at best. The ancient world was centered on the Mediterranean; the medieval world was centered on Europe.
Throughout this period, and well beyond, there was something called the "Roman Empire". Its capital was in Constantinople, but it regarded itself as Roman. By 800, there was even a Roman Emperor again in the West. In both cases, the political entity and the culture it ruled bore little resemblance to the Roman civilization of Augustus or Trajan, but the point is that no one thought for a moment that the Roman Empire had vanished, since it not only continued to exist but was in fact still the single most powerful state in Europe or the Near East.
At the beginning of the above outline (around 285), the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world was still dominant. By the end (around 700), that world had changed in so many respects that we are clearly in a new civilization. Thinking in terms of "the fall of the Roman Empire" conceals the fact that these centuries were not about the ending of a civilization, but of its transformation into something new. Don't think in terms of rise and fall, but of re-birth.
That's the broad overview. We turn now to a consideration of particular developments during these centuries.
Constantine to Theodosius
Constantine's son, Constantius (337-361) continued the work of his father. By the end of his rule, the Goths were on the move in very significant numbers and were presenting a serious problem along the Danube border lands. They had been converted to Christianity during these years (Arian, not Orthodox), and they were seeking only their own lands within the Empire. They were granted this, but Roman officials exploited them and the Goths--that branch of them known as the Visigoths--rebelled under Emperor Valens.
In 378, a Visigoth army attacked regular Roman troops near Adrianople, north of Constantinople. The Emperor died on the battlefield and the Romans were soundly defeated. The Visigoths advanced to the gates of Constantinople, but the city was too strong for them and in any case they were not interested in sacking the capitol of the Empire. The Battle of Adrianople was significant in that the Romans were represented by the best troops the Empire had to offer, yet they were beaten badly. This did not bode well for the future; moreover, Adrianople turned out to be the first in a long series of battles and invasions that would become increasingly disruptive.
At first, though, things did not appear to be so grim. Valens was soon succeeded by Theodosius I (379-395), one of the strongest of the later Emperors, who drove the Visigoths back and then saw them settled around the Danube again. Theodosius also built a second set of walls around Constantinople (it had been a near thing with the Visigoths) and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. For most of his reign, order was restored.
Rome had been through this scenario more than once in the past: a crisis would blow up and the Empire seemed on the brink of disaster. Along would come a strong emperor who put things to right again, and the Empire survived, seemingly immortal. But this time was different. This time, the crisis returned, worsened, and persisted. The year after Theodosius died, the Visigoths again invaded, and the Empire was in for some very difficult times.
We will start with Rome itself. The city had long since ceased
to be the seat of Empire, even before the building of
Constantinople. In the chaos of the third century, Emperors had
resided in several places besides Rome. Once Constantine
constructed his city, the government officially moved east.
Yet, certain elements remained. The Senate, for example,
continued to meet, and it met in Rome; but it was a Senate that
governed little more than the city itself. Rome retained great
prestige throughout the Empire, but its political power was gone
and even its population was dwindling.
Rome was still Rome, though. At least until the Goths arrived.
They had ravaged Greece, then in 402, led by King Alaric, they
entered Italy. It is indicative of conditions in the West to
note that the Roman armies in Italy were commanded by a Vandal by
the name of Stilicho. This general defeated Alaric and forced
him to leave -- barbarians fighting barbarians.
Stilicho fell from favor and was murdered. Scarcely was he dead
before Alaric returned to Italy, in 409. There was no one to stop
him this time, and Rome saved itself only by an enormous bribe of
gold that impoverished the city.
Alaric came back the following year and threatened again, but
this time there was no gold left. So he entered Rome, nearly
unopposed, and looted it. No foreigner had taken the city since
the Gauls had done in in the 4th century BC -- a run of nearly
800 years. Rome indeed had seemed eternal to many, and when it
proved mortal, many people were dismayed. St. Augustine
certainly had the sack in mind when he was working on The City
of God, for he deliberately contrasted the city of man, which
no matter how glorious is destined to wither and fail, with the
city of God that is eternal and proof against all calamities.
Further Calamities at Rome
The fifth century was a hard one for the city. After the sack by
the Ostrogoths, there were a few good years, then hard times
again. The Goths were active up and down Italy. Worse, the
Vandals had entered into North Africa, cutting Rome off from its
supply of grain.
Then came the Huns, and Rome was saved only by the timely death
of Attila. But so weak was the city that the Vandals easily
crossed the Mediterranean and put Rome to a worse sack than in
410. The sack of 455 was malicious and destructive; the word
vandalism stems from this tribe of people.
For the next 20 years, Rome was ruled by Goths who chose men from
the local Roman nobility and installed them as Emperor (always
getting approval from Constantinople, however). This practice
lasted until 476, when Romulus Augustulus was simply not
The city itself persisted. The Goths generally left the local
population alone, and the old ways continued. True government of
the city was increasingly in the hands of the bishop. Leo I, in
the 5th century, and Gregory I, in the 6th century, were
especially effective and influential.
The sixth century was even worse for Italy and for Rome. The
population of Rome dropped below 100,000 (it had once exceeded
one million). In the sixth century we lose track of the Senate,
which had met regularly since the 8th century BC. The last known
public games in the Colosseum were held in 549.
Emperor Justinian invaded Italy and after a long struggle drove
out or destroyed the Goths. Italy was back within the rule of the
Empire, but the peninsula paid a heavy price with 20 years of
war. In 542 bubonic plague ravaged Italy. In 568 the Lombards
invaded, a people even more wantonly destructive than the
Rome had entered long centuries of decline and neglect.
Western Provinces: Britain and Spain
Britain Britain was a thoroughly Romanized province,
or at least the southern portions were. There were beautiful
public baths, estates, even bookstores. The Roman legions brought peace and
prosperity, at least most of the time.
But the troubles of the late 4th century caused the legions of
the outlying provinces to be recalled. The last Roman legion left
in 407. Across the North Sea, new Germanic tribes were settling:
Angles, Jutes, Saxons. By the later 400s, they were crossing over
to England and driving the Britons back into Cornwall and
The King Arthur legends preserve some memory of this. If there
was an Arthur, he probably lived in the early 500s, just when the
Celtic Britons were making their last stands against the Saxons.
Perhaps Arthur somehow represented a memory of the days when
Roman troops kept the peace, Roman law kept order, and Roman
merchants brought wealth.
Spain The story was different here. The Visigoths
moved across Europe in the later 300s, after their victory at
Adrianople, coming to settle finally in Spain in the early 400s.
There they set up a kingdom that retained much of the old Roman
In fact, Visigothic Spain was a haven of order in a chaotic
world. They retained Roman titles and Roman practices. We have some modest literary works from here, most notably
that of Isidore of Seville. This kingdom lasted until the arrival
of the Moslems at the beginning of the 700s.
Africa North Africa had long been the granary of Italy, and it continued in this role
until the Vandals swept through in the 5th century. They thoroughly disrupted
the Roman administrative systems and the grain vanished so abruptly that it
caused famine more than once in Rome.
The Vandals were defeated by the Byzantines during Justinian's reign and enjoyed
a late though modest prosperity in the later 6th and early 7th centuries. But
this Roman backwater vanished forever with the coming of Islamic armies in the
later 7th century.
Gaul and Germany
Germany was lost in yet a different way. In a real sense, Rome
never ruled in Germany. There were certain areas east of the
Rhine and north of the Danube that had Roman colonies, but the
territory never was Romanized in the thorough fashion that
The Roman troops stationed along this frontier were from the
beginning heavily reinforced with native German troops.
Gradually, the Germanic element grew stronger and stronger, until
one German tribe faced another across the frontier, with one
fighting on the side of Rome.
This region saw the blending of Roman and Germanic cultures
early, even while the Empire was yet strong. These frontier
communities show clearly that the barbarians were not savages
howling at the walls of Rome, but were peoples seeking a place
within the Empire.
This was the land conquered by Caesar. It was thoroughly
Romanized, especially in southern Gaul. The Franks moved into
Gaul in the 5th century and eventually took over its rule. The
most significant figure is that of Clovis, around 500 AD.
But the Frankish lands show yet another dynamic: a vigorous
native culture that moved into an area of strong Roman
traditions. This happened in Spain under the Visigoths and in
Italy under the Ostrogoths, but both those kingdoms were swept
away. The Franks remained, as did the peculiar alchemy between
the Empire and the barbarians.
In Germany and Britain, the Roman past fell away and was lost. In
Spain it was taken over by the Moors. It Italy it was never
wholly lost, even in Lombardy. But in Gaul the Empire and the
barbarians were about evenly matched, and out of the mixing came
a new culture, the core of what would become Europe.
Here the Empire did not fall. Constantinople continued to be the
capitol city, as it had been since the 320s. Its rulers called
themselves Roman emperors and its subjects were Roman citizens
subject to Roman law. True, the western portion of the Empire
was in disarray, but all through the fifth and sixth centuries
the people of the east could say without blinking that the Roman
Empire had not fallen.
By the reign of Justinian, though, in the early sixth century,
modern historians begin speaking of the Byzantine Empire instead
of the Roman Empire. For the world had changed, and the
surviving empire had new boundaries. Greece and Asia were under
the rule of Constantinople, as were Egypt and Syria. Other
provinces were won and lost over the course of years, as they
ever had been.
The Byzantine Empire had Greek for its official language, not
Latin. It was Greek Orthodox in religion, not Roman Catholic,
though this break comes later, in the 700s.
The Byzantine emperors could and did fool themselves into
thinking there was more to their realm. They received tribute
payments from western kings and gave to those kings titles like
proconsul and Master of the Horse. They could and did claim that
Gaul or Spain or where was being ruled as a provincial tributary.
And so the fiction of the Empire, the legend, the ideal, which
had had a life of its own for centuries, continued and was
furthered. Indeed, the more shadowy the reality became, the
stronger the myth grew. Far into the 600s and 700s, and even
later, a barbarian king could reach no higher than in some manner
to associate his name and his house with the Roman Empire.
The Change in Religion
One of the most obvious and most significant differences between the ancient and the
medieval worlds is the difference in religion. The civilizations of Greece and Rome were
pagan, whereas the medieval world was Christian. In neither case did this mean that there
was religious unity, or complete consistency in ritual or belief, but in almost every
significant detail there were profound differences between the two world views.
The textbook talks about how this change came about: the slow spread of Christianity
through the Empire, the occasional persecutions culminating in severe persecutions under
Diocletian, followed by the conversion of Constantine that seemed to save the Church as if
by a miracle. After that, the Church held a special protected status that brought its own
difficulties, but which ensured that the religion would continue to spread throughout the
Roman world. Under Emperor Theodosius I (379-395), Christianity was made the official
state religion of Rome.
One development I wish to stress is the conversion of the Germanic barbarians to
Christianity as a result of the work of St. Ulfilas in the time of Constantiusnbsp;II
(337-361). Ulfilas was himself a Goth who converted, but he converted to Arian
Christianity, and it was the Arian heresy that spread throughout the Gothic tribes. It is
worth remembering that the vast majority of barbarians who invaded the Empire in the 5th
century were in fact Christians and not pagans.
The so-called Successor Kingdoms were therefore Christian kingdoms, but of a particular
kind. The kings and their tribesmen were Arian, while the Romano-Gallic natives in Italy,
Gaul, Spain and North Africa were all Roman Catholic.
There were, however, some pagan Germans around. The Saxons had invaded Britain, a
province that had never had deep Christian roots; it would be another century before that
country was converted. And in Gaul, the Franks were busy conquering everyone within reach,
and they too were pagan.
Clovis' conversion to Christianity around 496 was thus significant mainly because he
converted to Roman Catholicism and not to Arianism. Only then, at the very end of the 5th
century, did the Bishop of Rome have a king who might be called upon to defend the faith,
for the Arians were all heretics in the eyes of Rome (and of Constantinople, for that
Over the next two centuries, Roman Catholicism spread slowly through western Europe.
The British Isles converted and the Franks remained loyal, if weak. Arianism died out
completely in the course of the 6th century. Rome was again dominant in the West, but only
in matters of religion.
In the seventh century, too, Islam spread across the Near East, North Africa, and
Spain. At the same time, the Muslims took over the sea lanes of the Mediterranean. While
some trade persisted, most contact with Egypt and the Holy Land was lost, and even contact
with Constantinople was sporadic. The coming of Islam drove another deep wedge between
West and East.
In the eight century, the Christians engaged in a virulent and violent controversy over
the use of icons--religious paintings and statuary. While both the Latins and the Greeks
eventually agreed that this type of art was acceptable in churches, the Latins decided
this from the beginning while the Greeks for some decades forbade icons. This difference
was sort of the last in a long line of differences in practice and belief, and pope and
patriarch excommunicated one another. This was in essence a formal recognition that there
were two churches in the old Roman world: the Roman Catholic, and the Greek Orthodox.
In religion, therefore, as in nearly every other aspect of life, the Roman Empire had
broken in two. In truth, it had broken in thirds, for its wealthiest and most ancient
portion was now Islamic. And the ancient paganism was now buried under many layers of
Christian practice or else was gone altogether, to be found only in dusty books tucked
away in monasteries.
Three factors fed into the transformation of the Mediterranean economy of antiquity into the European economy of the Middle Ages. The Germanic invasions of the later Empire were one of these factors; the other two were the civil wars of the 3rd century, and the Islamic invasions of the 7th century.
With every watershed, we move further away from the Mediterranean, further away from contact with the East, further away from the towns. At the same time, we move further away from the great villas and estates of the Roman world and closer to the family farms of the Middle Ages. These centuries mark the invention of the peasantry and the general elimination of agricultural slavery. It also marks the almost total collapse of commerce, of cities, and of all that goes with them.
The Controlled Economy of the Late Empire
Of all of the Empire's great accomplishments, it was perhaps nowhere weaker than in its economy. The Romans took little interest in trade and by the time of the Empire were paying less and less attention to agriculture as well. In almost every area, other peoples were the bedrock of the Roman economy. So long as the Empire prospered, its weaknesses were not dangerous, but in the third century, when the Empire was devastated by crises, the economy simply fell apart.
Diocletian and his successors were able to rescue Rome, but only at the price of transforming it profoundly, and this was as true in economics as in other areas. Diocletian did not so much innovate in these areas as he seized upon certain developments that were in their formative stages and spread them widely and made them law. His actions touched every aspect of economics: coinage, taxes, interest rates, labor, agriculture, industry, trade. In every area, the key word is control, usually government control.
A couple of developments are worth special note. In the countryside we see in these years a rapid spread of the institution of coloni. This may have begun in Africa, in the areas that supplied grain to Rome, but even by Diocletian's time it had spread elsewhere. In order to ensure a steady supply of grain, the Empire decreed that the estates would be worked by families who were bound to the soil for life. Even before the Christian influence, emancipating slaves had become fashionable, and in some areas there was a distinct labor shortage. The Empire was able to compensate for this by use of coloni. At first, this may look like just another word for slavery, but a colonus was given a particular plot of land to farm. Although he could never leave it, likewise he could never be removed from it--could not be sold, as a slave could, nor would his family ever be broken apart.
This practice spread widely in the fifth century, and we begin to see instances of whole families entering into this condition voluntarily. As the barbarian invasions made life precarious in some areas, people sought the protection of a powerful local noble. He got essentially free labor for his estates, the coloni got land and at least some measure of safety. As often as not, especially in Gaul and Italy, the colonus sought protection not from bloodthirsty barbarians, but from Imperial tax collectors who were every bit as ruthless and more methodical. And the great lord who took them in might himself be a Goth or Burgundian. This system was general in western Europe (though there were significant local variations) by the seventh century and the essential economic order of the European countryside was set for the next thousand years.
The other area that should be emphasized also concerns fixing people in their place. Here again, the original impetus came from the Empire itself, only to spread generally in the West. In order to ensure regular collection of taxes, a steady supply of goods to the Army, and the production of certain key needs of government, Diocletian decreed that certain tradesmen and others must be tied forever to their trade, and that their sons must follow them in it. Not only were the farmers in Africa required to produce grain for the Army, but the captains of the ships that transported the grain were also bound to their trade. Similar laws were issued regarding armorers, masters of the Imperial mints, and so on.
As political authority in the West fragmented, the Gothic kings continued and extended this system, and their lordlings under them did likewise.
Diocletian and Constantine created a political system that was static and rigidly controlled. It is easy to condemn such a system, yet it was infinitely preferrable to the terrible chaos that had preceded it (ca. 230 to 285), and the system did in fact work. It was elaborated upon by the Byzantines, but in essence it was a system that endured for another millenium--far longer than the original Empire.
In the West, however, Diocletian's system worked for a time, but then fell apart in the face of the barbarian invasions. It was a system that depended above all on Imperial direction, and that melted away in the course of the fifth century.
Economic Effects of the Barbarian Invasions
The Germanic tribes were not nomads, they were farmers. As they moved into the Empire, they brought with them their own farming techniques, including a new type of plow well-suited for farming the heavy northern soils. They brought also their own style of land-holding, settlement patterns, and diet. Once they had fought their battles and won their land, they pretty much settled down to being farmers and lords of great estates.
They were new lords, of course, so there was a certain amount of displacement of the existing landowners. As I've already noted, at the lowest levels what we see is a slow but steady change from a countryside populated by slaves to one populated by peasants and serfs. The landowners themselves gradually inter-married, so that there was less and less distinction between the Romans and the Germans.
The barbarians affected the cities of the Empire only slightly. They might sack a town, and the immediate effect was traumatic, but the town existed for certain reasons, and the coming of the Germans did not change those reasons. Some towns were administrative centers, others trade or manufacturing. The need for trade and manufacture might decline, but it still existed. The administrative centers collapsed more quickly, but this had more to do with Imperial politics than with the movement of tribes. Most towns recovered quickly after being looted; indeed, certain town were looted many times over, attesting to their continued ability to generate wealth.
Mohammed and Charlemagne
The final phase in the transformation of the ancient economy was the coming of Islam. Until the seventh century, we still have strong evidence of commercial contacts between the West and the East.