Eventually, the sun set on the Roman Empire in 476 AD when Odoacer entered Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Latin Emperor. Reasons for why Rome fell are still being debated today – but here are the most important factors for its dissolution.
Failure to defend its huge swathes of land caused Rome to fall susceptible to barbarian invaders. The Empire had rapidly expanded during the end of the Republican period and start of the Imperial, and at its peak, the Roman armies no longer matched its staggering size.
Without much consideration for the overall safety of the army, legions relentlessly recruited barbarians into auxiliary ranks, granting them citizenship after twenty-five years of service. Therefore the previously outside danger of enemy tribes had worked its way within the city.
Terribly, these soldiers were only loyal to the money that they were payed, not the city and Empire itself. If the Legatus failed to give them their gold on time, they’d rise up in revolt.
During the third century, more than 25 candidates for the throne became Emperor, and the Praetorian Guard, instead of defending the Imperial overlords, assassinated them and supported multiple different usurpers over many years of civil war and conflict. This left much of the army without any strong leading figures, so they had to depend on foreign mercenaries to lead them.
Also, Rome failed to operate a coordinated attack against its enemies. Multiple attempts to defend borders were made, but by securing newly conquered lands, more areas along the Empire’s borders were left vulnerable. This is because forces had to be shuffled all around to help defend areas that had been selected for upgrades.
These efforts to lock out barbarians mainly began around the time of the “Pax Romana” and continued as Rome declined from its peak to oblivion.
Awful communication certainly didn’t help either. The rise of the Hunnic Empire under Attila forced Germanic and Frankish tribes towards Italy, making the countryside dangerous, and so messaging between legions was dangerous and restricted. Additionally, resources took longer to arrive.
The Goths and Vandals had to take Roman land in North Africa when their previous homes were captured.
Lastly, too much money spent desperately defending and securing land prevented advances in military technology.
Trade and Inflation
As stated a few paragraphs back, travel throughout the countryside was very risky. This meant trading business for merchants suffered greatly and goods rarely reached different places at the speed they had previously done. Barbarian thieves and murderers patrolled the landscape, looking for Romans who they could assault. Revenge was a core value of Ancient European tribes.
Also, the Romans continuously produced more and more money so that they could pay off their debts. This caused coinage to become practically worthless and as the price of goods went up, it became extremely difficult for people to purchase them.
Small farms who hired workers instead of slaves suffered massively, as it was very hard to give them their pay. Due to this, many workers left the farms and there was a huge unemployment rate.
Contributing to the economic problem was the lack of gold in the mines. Roman miners had dug out much of the gold that was easily accessible, and as Rome failed to take more land to mine, gold production experienced a drop.
As they were being taxed constantly, the moral of Latins in Rome dropped quickly. These wars which they were paying excessive amounts for were almost always futile or unsuccessful.
Also, now that the Roman Army was begin to fall apart, there was a much more considerable risk of invasion by Barbarians.
Because of disease, filthy conditions and rich, cruel patricians, many folk left Rome and migrated to the countrysides where they couldn’t be hunted down.
Rise of Christianity
The increasing popularity of a new religion, Christianity, somewhat affected the Western Roman Empire and had undermined traditional Roman values ever since it was made the state religion in the Edict of Milan.
Christianity taught that there was only one god and therefore Roman Emperors were no longer made “gods” upon death. Consequently their authority was diminished.
It also taught that gladiatorial games were wrong and it was sinful to watch humans and animals tear each other apart. The changes of beliefs and values in Rome and its Empire harmed classical traditions.
East and West
When Emperor Constantine I , the “Great”, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, Rome essentially split, resulting in the creation of an Eastern half and a western half.
Eventually it became clear that the two couldn’t cooperate. The newly founded Byzantine empire (named after Constantinople which was called Byzantium by the Greeks) had a popularity and economic boom with a great culture thrive. Meanwhile, barbarians turned from attacking the East – which was now better defended – to the west, which was starting to collapse.
Finally, the Western half of the Roman Empire fell into the dust. Exactly when classical Roman civilization disintegrated is widely argued over. Although the Empire based in Constantinople didn’t own Rome, it’s people still identified as Romans – even though most of the population were Greek!
Western Europe rebuilt as a religious society, with new Emperors leading the “Holy Roman Empire” and the Catholic Church. Both powers fought for control over Christian affairs.
Some believe that Rome fell in 410 when King Alaric of the Visigoths launched a massive sack of Rome. Others say it was in the year of 476 when Romulus Augustus was overthrown by Odoacer’s forces.
Some remains of Roman culture continued throughout the Middle Ages in the Byzantine Empire, so others say that although the Western half fell, the Eastern half survived until Constantinople was sacked in 1453 by the Ottomans.
And finally, some believe the final end was when Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
Points to consider:
- The security of the Roman Empire led leading figures to believe that they controlled the most advanced civilisation. Consequently, any change in what barbarians outside Rome’s borders did would be ignored. Rome was so confident that it was always correct, which probably helped their downfall. They were mostly oblivious to the change from an Ancient world to an Early Medieval world.