[Archive April 1, 2006]
The traditional date for the founding of Rome is 753 B.C. The Roman Empire had a Regal Period of Seven Kings (753 B.C. – 509 B.C.), a Republic Period (509 B.C. – 31 B.C.) and an Imperial Period (31 B.C. – 476 A.D.) The date of 476 A.D. is generally considered to mark the end of the Roman Empire in the West when the last emperor Romulus Augustulus was disposed and replaced by the German chieftain Odoacer. However, the Eastern half of the Roman Empire continued until 1453 when the Turks conquered Constantinople.
There are many different and even popular explanations on the “Fall” of the Western Roman Empire. I hear, time and again, that the Roman Empire fell from within. How true is this? If so, what are we to make of the Barbarian invasions? Professor Garrett G. Fagan, Pennsylvania State University , talked about some of these ideas in his lectures, ”Thoughts on the ‘Fall’ of the Roman Empire” from The History of Ancient Rome series. I present some of his material here.
The idea of the “fall” of the Roman Empire seeks an explanation and is debated even today in scholarly circles.
As a broad rule the eastern half of the Empire remained relatively strong and stable the western half of the Empire showed the inverse experience, becoming increasingly weaker and unstable.
A well–known and popular idea for the “fall” is that of decadence. Did the Roman Empire fall because of decadence? Prof. Garrett G. Fagan answers “no.”
The Romans were as decadent when they were building the Empire as when they were loosing it.
What about the “undermining effects” of Christianity by way of a sort of pacifism?
First of all Christians in later eras showed no trouble when it came to fighting spirit whether it be among themselves or against foreign enemies. Within the 5th century itself there is no evidence that Christians failed to fight aggressively. Secondly, of course, the eastern half of the Empire was even more Christian than the western half of the Empire and that did not collapse in 476, in fact it continued to exist as the Byzantine Kingdom, the Byzantine Empire, into the 15th century of our era.
Some people approach this topic with a set theoretical position in mind like the “class warfare” of the Marxists. Prof. Fagan answers,
There is little or no evidence to support such a proposition. In fact, any theory of the “Fall” of the Roman Empire that superimposes modern prejudices on ancient conditions is usually always largely nonsense, for instance, the idea that was popular at the end on the 19th century and the 20th century that “the Empire fell because of racial miscegenation theories, the weak-blooded and lazy Orientals of the East mixing with the strong work-oriented Arian stock of the West undermined the Western Empire and it fell”, excuse me point of fact, the Eastern Empire full of lazy inferior Asiatic blood survived quite well for a thousand years beyond the fall of the West. That doesn’t seem to hold any water and is manifestly a product of eugenicist thinking.
What about corruption?
Corruption itself was rampant in the late Empire as was in the Republic and the early Empire as well. It is a sign of a society in decline.
Barbarian invasions killed the Roman Empire? Did divisions of rich/poor, elevated/humble, Christian/pagan, Barbarian/Roman, and so forth kill the Roman Empire?
All these characteristics are in the East. Any explanation has to take into account the success of the East.
Prof. Fagan notes the complexity of these arguments. One view of the “fall” of the Roman Empire is that there was no “fall” but rather, simply, a transformation. Basically this “transformationist school” views the Western Roman Empire as evolving into something different: Medieval Europe.
So people over the course of the period covered by the “transformationist school” evidently recognized that the Empire of the West was no longer in existence. So while certainly it’s worth looking at the continuities between the late Roman Empire and the early medieval period we’re still thrown back on the question of “Why did the Roman Empire Fall?” It seems to have fallen for sure but why did it fall? People at the time recognized that it had.
For my part, I believe in the basic dictum that complex events have complex explanations. In fact it is an interaction of events allied with historical contingency that brought the Roman empire of the West to its knees and allowed the Eastern Empire to survive. A broad “systems analysis” approach I think offers the best way forward, not only just in reference to the barbarian invasions which much have played a major part in the collapse of the Western Empire, but broadly speaking looking at the many of the characteristics of the Western Empire that not only have been identified but amplified as THE explanation for the Fall of the Empire. Let me just take some examples.
We have to as well remember the basic problem is always to explain why the East survived and the West didn’t. That has to be explained in any explanation for the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Several features I think do think stand out. Several explanations offer themselves. The East had much more defensible boarders than the West did. For as the Western Emperor was responsible for the entire length of the Rhine and most of the length of the Danube rivers against which Barbarians were pressing the whole time, the Eastern Emperor only had about 300 miles of frontier on the Danube to be concerned about. To be sure he had the problem of the Persians in the Eastern half of the Empire but more of that in a minute.
But in terms of the Barbarian invasions then, the Eastern Emperor only had a small section, a relatively small section of the Danube River to contend with. Furthermore, in terms of the geographic location of Constantinople and its virtually impregnable nature — it was extremely heavily fortified by the fifth century A.D. — it meant that any southward movement of Barbarians across the Danube toward Constantinople would first of all would hit the area of Constantinople and would be incapable of entering it and then almost naturally turn west because the alternative would be to go down into the Balkan peninsula and try to get seaborne to move over to Syria and Asia Minor and Egypt which were the heartlands of the eastern Empire. So it was natural for the Barbarians who initially invaded the East to be turned toward the West and that only increased pressure on the West. So, there are some geographic elements in the whole situation that allowed the East to survive.
The East also relied a lot less on Germanic troops than did the West and general military advisors were not nearly as powerful there and that may be a function of depopulation of the West than the East and so other explanations can feed in to help explain the collapse of the West even if they are not themselves individually determinative.
Although the Eastern Empire has the Sassnid Persians to contend with, the Persians were a civilized people and in fact after 363 there were no major Persian Wars between the eastern half of the Empire and Persia for the entire rest of the fourth and the entire 5th century. The next major Persian wars did not start until the 6th century. So at the very time the West was being assaulted, the Eastern Empire had a very secure boarder on its eastern front on the Euphrates. One could sign treaties with Persia and trust them to keep them in such a way you couldn’t do with loosely organized Barbarian tribes. So it was then that the Eastern Empire survived as the Byzantine Kingdom right into 1453 when the Turks finally captured Constantinople and brought the history of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Roman Empire as a whole to an end. Right up to the end the people of the Byzantine Kingdom called themselves “Romans.” In surviving so long they had preserved the heritage of the ancient world for the modern era.
So, while the Byzantine Kingdom survived, the West had dissolved into a series of barbarous kingdoms that stand at the root of the myriad nation-states of modern Europe.
For over 200 generations Rome had bestrode the “known world” like a colossus and the idea of “Rome never died” as we saw at the start of this course and the idea of unifying Europe once more under a single government is still alive and well and kicking although it is not being done under the auspices of military conquest.