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Fall of Rome



Generals murdered emperors, intimidated all opposition, and put themselves or their puppets on the imperial throne.
German tribes went past the imperial frontiers.
The Franks devastated Gaul and Spain.
The Saxons attacked Britain.
The Goths occupied Dacia (Romania)
A wall 20 feet high and 12 feet wide was built to protect Rome.
ECONOMIC DECLINE   The Empire was no longer expanding. The ECONOMY HAD BECOME STATIC.
Wars were now defensive so the army was a financial liability rather than an asset.
Gold and silver were being drained away (one-sided trade with India and China).
Small farmers abandoned their lands.
Large landowners bought it up cheaply .
Emperors added to their vast estates by confiscating lands.
The number of tenant farmers (coloni) increased as men fled the insecurity of city life to find jobs and protection on the large estates with fortified villas.
They cultivated their patches of land, paying rent to the landowner and providing him with free labor.
When the coloni fell behind in their rents and taxes, they were bound to their tenancies by imperial order.
This was the first step toward serfdom and the social and economic pattern of the Middle Ages.
To meet military and administrative expenses, the emperors repeatedly devalued the coinage, reducing its silver content.
Ultimately, the amount of alloy reached 98 percent and prices soared as people lost confidence in the debased currency.
Even the government refused to accept its own money for taxes and required payment in goods and services.
CIVIL WAR DISTURBED TRADE and helped undermine the prosperity of the cities, whose population decreased correspondingly.
REFORM MEASURES   Weakened by economic, social, and political decline, Rome turned to the most extreme forms of ABSOLUTISM in an effort to ride out the storm.

DIOCLETIAN (285-305)

Relegated the Senate to the status of a city council.
Divided the Empire into East and West with two Augustuses and two Caesars.
Increased the number of administrative units.
Set up a separate hierarchy of military officials.
Created a large secret service to keep close watch over this bureaucracy.
Persecuted Christians ruthlessly.
Established fixed maximum prices for all essential goods and services (ranging from peas to beer and from haircuts to freight rates).


Solved the Christian problem by legalizing Christianity.
Issued a series of decrees which froze people to their occupations and places of origin.
Coloni could not leave the soil and their children had to accept the same status as that of their father.
In the cities, the same restrictions applied to members of guilds whose activities were essential to the state.
DIVISION OF EMPIRE   ROME CEASED TO BE A SEAT OF IMPERIAL AUTHORITY. Constantine selected the old Greek colony of Byzantium for a new capital.
This foreshadowed the division of the Empire into two completely separate states, the East and the West. After 395, the Empire was never gain governed as a single unit.
Henceforth, we can speak of a western Roman empire, which soon fell, and of an eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, which endured for another thousand years.
  Rome's internal crisis was compounded by mounting external pressures. The greatest danger lay in the north, the home of restless bands of FIERCE BARBARIANS -- the Germans.
Germanic Tribes  
Each German warrior leader had a group of followers who were linked to him by personal loyalty.
This war band -- called COMITATUS in Latin -- had an important bearing on the origin of medieval feudalism, which was based on the personal bond between knights and their feudal lords.
The heroic virtues associated with the comitatus also continued into the Middle Ages where they formed the basis of the value system of the feudal nobility.
The Germanic system of justice was based on the PRINCIPLE OF COMPENSATION.
For the infliction of specific injuries a stipulated payment termed a bot was required.
If a crime was so grave that compensation could not be paid, a person had to stand trial and produce oath-helpers who would swear to his innocence.
If unable to obtain oath-helpers, he was subjected to trial by ordeal.
There were three kinds of TRIAL BY ORDEAL adopted by Medieval society and used until the 13th century.
In the first, the defendant had to life a small stone out of a vessel of boiling water. Unless his scaled arm had healed within a prescribed number of days, he was judged guilty.
In the second, he had to walk blindfolded and barefooted across a floor on which lay pieces of red-hot metal. Success in avoiding the metal was a sign of innocence.
In the third, the bound defendant was thrown into a stream that had been blessed. Only if the holy water accepted him and he sank was he believed innocent.
Roman-German Contacts  
There was PEACEFUL CONTACT between the Romans and the Germans.
Roman trade reached into Germany.
Germans entered the Empire as slaves.
During the troubled third century, many Germans were invited to settle on vacated lands within the Empire or to serve in the Roman legions.
The Germans beyond the frontiers were kept in check by force of arms, frontier walls, diplomacy and gifts, or playing off one tribe against the next.
Barbarian Invasions  
In the last decades of the 4th century, methods proved insufficient to prevent a series of great new invasions.
A basic factor behind Germanic restlessness seems to have been land hunger.
Their number were increasing, much of their land was forest and swamp, and their methods of tillage were inefficient.
Fearful of the advancing Huns, the Visigoths petitioned the Romans to allow them to settle as allies inside the Empire.
Granted permission, they crossed the Danube into Roman territory in 376, but after corrupt roman officials cheated and mistreated them, they went on a rampage.
In 378, the Romans were defeated by the Visigoths in the battle of Adrianople -- one of history's decisive battles because it destroyed the legend of the invincibility of the Roman legions and ushered in a century and a half of chaos.
  The year 476 SYMBOLIZES THE END OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE IN THE WEST. In this year the long line of emperors inaugurated by Augustus ended and the undisguised rule of Italy by Germanic leaders began.

The REASONS FOR THE FALL OF ROME have been debated for centuries.

Pagan writers attributed the sack of Rome to the abandonment of the ancient gods.
In The City of God, St. Augustine argued against this charge.
He put forth the theory that history unfolds according to God's design.
Thus Rome's fall was part of the divine plan -- "the necessary and fortunate preparation for the triumph of the heavenly city where man's destiny was to be attained."
This view was challenged in the 18th century by Edward Gibbon, author of the famous The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
He saw Rome's fall as the "triumph of barbarism and religion."
Christianity, he argued, had played an important role in undermining the imperial structure: "The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity [timidity]; . . . the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister."
In our time, some explanations of Rome's fall have been rooted in psychological theories.
For example, the basic cause has been attributed to a weakening of morale in the face of difficulties, to a "loss of nerve."
Or it has been argued that the ultimate failure of Rome came from its too complete success. The easy acquisition of power and wealth and the importing of ready-made cultures from conquered peoples led to indolence and self-gratification among the ruling classes.
Most historians account for Rome's decline in terms of a variety of interacting forces.
On the political side, the failure of civil power to control the army resulted in military anarchy, the disintegration of central authority, and the weakening of Rome's ability to withstand external pressures.
On the economic side:
The small farmer class disappeared, and more and more land was consolidated into huge latifundia.
Civil war and barbarian attacks disturbed trade relations.
A debased currency and a crushing tax burden undermined the confidence of the people.
Eventually, the rigid economic and social decrees of Diocletian and Constantine created a vast bureacracy which only aggravated the existing ils in the western half of the Empire, already far gone along the road to decline.
  In the West, the Empire was no more than a memory by the 6th century.  
In its place were NEW STATES that foreshadowed the major political divisions of modern Europe:
Visigothic Spain
Anglo-Saxon England
Frankish Gaul
A divided Italy ruled by Lombard dukes, the Eastern emperor, and the pope.
The ECONOMY was becoming progressively DECENTRALIZED:
Vast tracts of formerly cultivated land were left untilled.
There was a failure of communications and transportation.
the labor force fled from the cities to the country.
Industry was transferred  from cities to large country estates.
Medieval civilization was taking on its essentially RURAL CHARACTER.
Scores of once flourishing towns near the frontiers ceased to exist.
Towns closer to the Mediterranean shrunk in size and importance.
The general level of civilization was lowered.
In most areas the Germanic invaders still represented a minority of the population.
A gradual blending and fusing of the cultures and the blood of the two peoples began.
The barbarians in time lost their Germanic customs, religion, and speech.
The foundations for the spiritual and political power of the papacy, which would lead to the Church-state rivalry of the Middle Ages, had been laid.
Pope Leo the Great had acquired the moral leadership of the West by successfully protecting Italy from the Huns.
The Lombard conquests in Italy gave the papacy its opportunity to achieve independence.
Ready for future use was the doctrine of the supremacy of the Church over the state in spiritual matters, a doctrine implied by St. Augustine in his City of God and clearly expressed by St. Ambrose during his clash with the emperor Theodosius I.
The THREE ELEMENTS that were to create the pattern of western civilization in the Middle Ages were being interwoven:

Here were the MIND, SPIRIT, AND MUSCLE that were to work together in western man during the next thousand years.

The Luxury of the Rich in Rome, c. 400: A contemporary criticism of wealthy Romans for their shallowness.
Romans and Barbarians, c. 440:  An interesting primary source comparison of the two peoples by the Christian priest Salvian, who depicts the Romans as inferior in character to the barbarians.
A Civilized Barbarian and a Barbarous Roman:  In this primary source, Sidonius Apollinaris, a well-connected aristocrat from southwest Gaul,  describes a "civilised barbarian" (the Visigothic king, Theodoric II) and a "barbarous Roman" (Seronatus). See also "The Fall of the Roman Empire Revisited: Sidonius Apollinaris and His Crisis of Identity" by Eric J. Goldberg, an insightful interpretive essay showing how Sidonius Apollinaris re-defined his patriotic Roman identity and idea of proper Roman order by turning away from the Arian Goths and identifying with orthodox Christianity and the Catholic Church.
General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West: Edward Gibbon's famous interpretation of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the "triumph of barbarism and religion.
Explain the link between the decline of Rome and the rise of persecution of Christians up to and especially during the emperorship of Diocletian.
"The reforms undertaken by Diocletian and Constantine to save the empire hastened its collapse." Do you agree? Explain.
Set up a hierarchy of reasons for the "decline" of the Roman Empire. Be prepared to justify the position of each reason.
Suppose you were from an aristocratic Roman family and became a Roman Catholic bishop stationed in Gaul during the fifth century. What do you think would be the best way to deal with the decline of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions? Why?
What influence would the anti-Christian attitude of Edward Gibbon have in arguing that Rome declined through the influence of Christianity? Does this negate Gibbon's contributions to the study of Rome?


Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999