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12: The Fall of Rome

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    The fall of Rome, conventionally dated to 476 CE, is one of the most iconic events in the history of the western world. For centuries, people have tried to draw lessons from Rome’s decline and fall about their own societies, a practice inspired by the question of how so mighty and, at one time, stable a civilization could so utterly disintegrate. The answers have varied considerably: Rome grew corrupt and weak over time, Rome was infiltrated by “barbarian” cultures, Rome was simply overcome by overwhelming odds, or perhaps Rome was simply transformed into a different, more diverse set of societies rather than destroyed in so many words. However the events of the period are interpreted, the simple fact remains: the political unity of the Roman Empire was shattered by the end of the fifth century CE.

    While the debate as to the causes of Rome’s fall will probably never be definitively answered, an important caveat should be noted: Rome did not "really" fall for another thousand years, even though the city of Rome itself, along with the western half of the Empire, did indeed lose its sovereignty in the face of invasion by Germanic "barbarians." The Roman capital had already been moved to Constantinople in the early fourth century, and the eastern half of the empire remained intact, albeit under constant military pressure, until 1453. Arguably, one of the major causes for the collapse of the western empire was the fact that the Empire as a whole had focused its resources in the east for a century by the time waves of invaders appeared on the horizon starting in the fourth century CE.

    At the time, most Christians blamed polytheism and heresy for Rome's fall: it was God's wrath exacted on a sinful society. In turn, the remaining polytheists blamed Christians for undermining the worship of the gods who had presided over the Empire while Rome was great. From the contemporary perspective, Rome's fall seems to have less to do with divine intervention than routine defeats and a growing barbarian threat.

    • 12.1: Roman Relations with Barbarians
      Romans had always held "barbarians" in contempt, and they believed that the lands held by barbarians (such as Scotland and Germany) were largely unsuitable for civilization, being too cold and wet for the kind of Mediterranean agriculture Romans were accustomed to. Romans believed that barbarian peoples like the Germans were inferior to subject peoples like the Celts, who could at least be made useful subjects (and, later, citizens) of the Empire.
    • 12.2: Invasions
      The beginning of the end for the western Empire was the Huns. The Huns were warriors of the central Asian steppes: expert horsemen, vicious warriors, unattached to any particular land. They had much in common with other groups of steppe peoples like the Scythians who had raided civilized lands going back to the very emergence of civilization in Mesopotamia. They were known to cruel and so unstoppable.
    • 12.3: Conclusion
      While interpretations of the collapse of the Empire will continue to differ as long as there are people interested in Roman history, there is no question about the basic facts: half of what had once been an enormous, coherent, and amazingly stable state was splintered into political fragments by the end of the fifth century.

    Thumbnail: The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890. (Public Domain)

    This page titled 12: The Fall of Rome is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher Brooks.

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