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Decline of the Roman Empire

Decline of the Roman Empire

Overview
The decline of the Roman Empire refers to the gradual societal collapse
Societal collapse
Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses , as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers...

 of the Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire was the western half of the Roman Empire after its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly referred to today as the Byzantine Empire....

. Many theories of causality
Causality
Causality is the relationship between an event and a second event , where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first....

 prevail, but most concern the disintegration of political, economic, military, and other social institutions, in tandem with foreign invasions and usurper
Usurper
Usurper is a derogatory term used to describe either an illegitimate or controversial claimant to the power; often, but not always in a monarchy, or a person who succeeds in establishing himself as a monarch without inheriting the throne, or any other person exercising authority unconstitutionally...

s from within the empire. The English historian Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) made this concept part of the framework of the English language, but he was not the first to speculate on why and when the Empire collapsed.
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Encyclopedia
The decline of the Roman Empire refers to the gradual societal collapse
Societal collapse
Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses , as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers...

 of the Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire was the western half of the Roman Empire after its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly referred to today as the Byzantine Empire....

. Many theories of causality
Causality
Causality is the relationship between an event and a second event , where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first....

 prevail, but most concern the disintegration of political, economic, military, and other social institutions, in tandem with foreign invasions and usurper
Usurper
Usurper is a derogatory term used to describe either an illegitimate or controversial claimant to the power; often, but not always in a monarchy, or a person who succeeds in establishing himself as a monarch without inheriting the throne, or any other person exercising authority unconstitutionally...

s from within the empire. The English historian Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) made this concept part of the framework of the English language, but he was not the first to speculate on why and when the Empire collapsed. "From the eighteenth century onward," Glen W. Bowersock has remarked, "we have been obsessed with the fall: it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears." It remains one of the greatest historical questions, and has a tradition rich in scholarly interest. In 1984, German professor Alexander Demandt
Alexander Demandt
Alexander Demandt is a German historian. He was professor of ancient history at the Free University of Berlin from 1974 to 2005. Demandt is a renowned expert of the History of Rome.-References:...

 published a collection of 210 theories on why Rome fell, and new theories have emerged since then.

This slow decline occurred over a period of four centuries, culminating on September 4, 476, when Romulus Augustus
Romulus Augustus
Romulus Augustus , was the last Western Roman Emperor, reigning from 31 October 475 until 4 September 476...

, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire was the western half of the Roman Empire after its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly referred to today as the Byzantine Empire....

, was deposed by Odoacer
Odoacer
Flavius Odoacer , also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the first King of Italy. His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of Julius Nepos and, after Nepos' death in 480, of the...

, a Germanic chieftain. Some modern historians question the significance of this date, and not simply because Julius Nepos
Julius Nepos
Julius Nepos was Western Roman Emperor de facto from 474 to 475 and de jure until 480. Some historians consider him to be the last Western Roman Emperor, while others consider the western line to have ended with Romulus Augustulus in 476...

, the legitimate emperor recognized by the East Roman Empire, continued to live in Salona
Salona
Salona was an ancient Illyrian Delmati city in the first millennium BC. The Greeks had set up an emporion there. After the conquest by the Romans, Salona became the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia...

, Dalmatia
Dalmatia
Dalmatia is a historical region on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. It stretches from the island of Rab in the northwest to the Bay of Kotor in the southeast. The hinterland, the Dalmatian Zagora, ranges from fifty kilometers in width in the north to just a few kilometers in the south....

, until he was assassinated in 480. The Ostrogoths who succeeded considered themselves upholders of the direct line of Roman traditions. The Eastern Roman Empire was going from strength to strength and continued until the Fall of Constantinople
Fall of Constantinople
The Fall of Constantinople was the capture of the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which occurred after a siege by the Ottoman Empire, under the command of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, against the defending army commanded by Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI...

 on May 29, 1453.

Many events throughout the empire's history are considered to have worsened the empire's so-called "decline". The Battle of Adrianople
Battle of Adrianople
The Battle of Adrianople , sometimes known as the Battle of Hadrianopolis, was fought between a Roman army led by the Roman Emperor Valens and Gothic rebels led by Fritigern...

 in 378, the death of Theodosius I
Theodosius I
Theodosius I , also known as Theodosius the Great, was Roman Emperor from 379 to 395. Theodosius was the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire. During his reign, the Goths secured control of Illyricum after the Gothic War, establishing their homeland...

 in 395 (the last time the Roman Empire was politically unified), the crossing of the Rhine
Crossing of the Rhine
31 December 406, is the often-repeated date of the crossing of the Rhine by a mixed group of barbarians that included Vandals, Alans and Suebi...

 in 406 by Germanic tribes
Germanic peoples
The Germanic peoples are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group of Northern European origin, identified by their use of the Indo-European Germanic languages which diversified out of Proto-Germanic during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.Originating about 1800 BCE from the Corded Ware Culture on the North...

, the execution of Stilicho
Stilicho
Flavius Stilicho was a high-ranking general , Patrician and Consul of the Western Roman Empire, notably of Vandal birth. Despised by the Roman population for his Germanic ancestry and Arian beliefs, Stilicho was in 408 executed along with his wife and son...

 in 408, the sack of Rome
Sack of Rome (410)
The Sack of Rome occurred on August 24, 410. The city was attacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I. At that time, Rome was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire, replaced in this position initially by Mediolanum and then later Ravenna. Nevertheless, the city of Rome retained a...

 in 410, the death of Constantius III
Constantius III
Flavius Constantius , commonly known as Constantius III, was Western Roman Emperor for seven months in 421. A prominent general and politician, he was the power behind the throne for much of the 410s, and in 421 briefly became co-emperor of the Western Empire with Honorius.- Early life and rise to...

 in 421, the death of Aetius
Flavius Aëtius
Flavius Aëtius , dux et patricius, was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He was an able military commander and the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire for two decades . He managed policy in regard to the attacks of barbarian peoples pressing on the Empire...

 in 454, and the death of Majorian
Majorian
Majorian , was the Western Roman Emperor from 457 to 461.A prominent general of the Late Roman army, Majorian deposed Emperor Avitus in 457 and succeeded him. Majorian was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire...

 in 461 are all macrohistorical events concerning the decline of the Western Roman Empire.

Many scholars maintain that rather than a "fall", the changes can more accurately be described as a complex transformation.

Overview




The decline of the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 is one of the events traditionally marking the end of Classical Antiquity
Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity is a broad term for a long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, collectively known as the Greco-Roman world...

 and the beginning of the European Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

. Throughout the 5th century, the Empire's territories in western Europe and northwestern Africa, including Italy, fell to various invading or indigenous peoples in what is sometimes called the Migration period
Migration Period
The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

. Although the eastern half still survived with borders essentially intact for several centuries (until the Muslim conquests
Muslim conquests
Muslim conquests also referred to as the Islamic conquests or Arab conquests, began with the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He established a new unified polity in the Arabian Peninsula which under the subsequent Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates saw a century of rapid expansion of Muslim power.They...

), the Empire as a whole had initiated major cultural and political transformations since the Crisis of the Third Century
Crisis of the Third Century
The Crisis of the Third Century was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression...

, with the shift towards a more openly autocratic
Autocracy
An autocracy is a form of government in which one person is the supreme power within the state. It is derived from the Greek : and , and may be translated as "one who rules by himself". It is distinct from oligarchy and democracy...

 and ritualized form of government, the adoption of Christianity
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 as the state religion
State religion
A state religion is a religious body or creed officially endorsed by the state...

, and a general rejection of the traditions and values of Classical Antiquity. While traditional historiography emphasized this break with Antiquity by using the term "Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

" instead of Roman Empire, recent schools of history offer a more nuanced view, seeing mostly continuity rather than a sharp break. The Empire of Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

 already looked very different from classical Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

.

The Roman Empire emerged from the Roman Republic
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 when Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 and Augustus Caesar transformed it from a republic into a monarchy. Rome reached its zenith in the 2nd century, then fortunes slowly declined (with many revivals and restorations along the way). The reasons for the decline of the Empire are still debated today, and likely multiple. Historians infer that the population appears to have diminished in many provinces—especially western Europe—from the diminishing size of fortifications built to protect the cities from barbarian
Barbarian
Barbarian and savage are terms used to refer to a person who is perceived to be uncivilized. The word is often used either in a general reference to a member of a nation or ethnos, typically a tribal society as seen by an urban civilization either viewed as inferior, or admired as a noble savage...

 incursions from the 3rd century on. Some historians even have suggested that parts of the periphery were no longer inhabited because these fortifications were restricted to the center of the city only. Tree rings suggest "distinct drying" beginning in 250.

By the late 3rd century, the city of Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 no longer served as an effective capital for the Emperor
Roman Emperor
The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman State during the imperial period . The Romans had no single term for the office although at any given time, a given title was associated with the emperor...

 and various cities were used as new administrative capitals. Successive emperors, starting with Constantine
Constantine I
Constantine the Great , also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine, was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious tolerance of all...

, privileged the eastern city of Byzantium
Byzantium
Byzantium was an ancient Greek city, founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 667 BC and named after their king Byzas . The name Byzantium is a Latinization of the original name Byzantion...

, which he had entirely rebuilt after a siege. Later renamed Constantinople
Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

, and protected by formidable walls in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, it was to become the largest and most powerful city of Christian Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

 in the Early Middle Ages
Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the High Middle Ages...

. Since the Crisis of the Third Century, the Empire was intermittently ruled by more than one emperor at once (usually two), presiding over different regions. At first a haphazard form of power sharing, this eventually settled on an East-West administrative division between the Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire was the western half of the Roman Empire after its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly referred to today as the Byzantine Empire....

 (centered on Rome, but now usually presided from other seats of power such as Trier
Trier
Trier, historically called in English Treves is a city in Germany on the banks of the Moselle. It is the oldest city in Germany, founded in or before 16 BC....

, Milan
Mediolanum
Mediolanum, the ancient Milan, was an important Celtic and then Roman centre of northern Italy. This article charts the history of the city from its settlement by the Insubres around 600 BC, through its conquest by the Romans and its development into a key centre of Western Christianity and capital...

, and especially Ravenna
Ravenna
Ravenna is the capital city of the Province of Ravenna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and the second largest comune in Italy by land area, although, at , it is little more than half the size of the largest comune, Rome...

), and the Eastern Roman Empire (with its capital initially in Nicomedia
Nicomedia
Nicomedia was an ancient city in what is now Turkey, founded in 712/11 BC as a Megarian colony and was originally known as Astacus . After being destroyed by Lysimachus, it was rebuilt by Nicomedes I of Bithynia in 264 BC under the name of Nicomedia, and has ever since been one of the most...

, and later Constantinople). The Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

-speaking west, under dreadful demographic crisis, and the wealthier Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

-speaking east, also began to diverge politically and culturally. Although this was a gradual process, still incomplete when Italy came under the rule of barbarian chieftains in the last quarter of the 5th century, it deepened further afterward, and had lasting consequences for the medieval history of Europe.

Throughout the 5th century, Western emperors were usually figureheads, while the Eastern emperors maintained more independence. For most of the time, the actual rulers in the West were military strongmen who took the titles of magister militum
Magister militum
Magister militum was a top-level military command used in the later Roman Empire, dating from the reign of Constantine. Used alone, the term referred to the senior military officer of the Empire...

, patrician, or both, such as Stilicho
Stilicho
Flavius Stilicho was a high-ranking general , Patrician and Consul of the Western Roman Empire, notably of Vandal birth. Despised by the Roman population for his Germanic ancestry and Arian beliefs, Stilicho was in 408 executed along with his wife and son...

, Aetius
Flavius Aëtius
Flavius Aëtius , dux et patricius, was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He was an able military commander and the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire for two decades . He managed policy in regard to the attacks of barbarian peoples pressing on the Empire...

, and Ricimer
Ricimer
Flavius Ricimer was a Germanic general who achieved effective control of the remaining parts of the Western Roman Empire, during the middle of the 5th century...

. Although Rome was no longer the capital in the West, it remained the West's largest city and its economic center. But the city was sacked by rebellious Visigoths in 410
Sack of Rome (410)
The Sack of Rome occurred on August 24, 410. The city was attacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I. At that time, Rome was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire, replaced in this position initially by Mediolanum and then later Ravenna. Nevertheless, the city of Rome retained a...

 and by the Vandals in 455
Sack of Rome (455)
The sack of 455 was the second of three barbarian sacks of Rome; it was executed by the Vandals, who were then at war with the usurping Western Roman Emperor Petronius Maximus....

, events that shocked contemporaries and signaled the disintegration of Roman authority. Saint Augustine
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo , also known as Augustine, St. Augustine, St. Austin, St. Augoustinos, Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed, was Bishop of Hippo Regius . He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province...

 wrote The City of God partly as an answer to critics who blamed the sack of Rome by the Visigoths on the abandonment of the traditional pagan
Paganism
Paganism is a blanket term, typically used to refer to non-Abrahamic, indigenous polytheistic religious traditions....

 religions.

In June 474, Julius Nepos
Julius Nepos
Julius Nepos was Western Roman Emperor de facto from 474 to 475 and de jure until 480. Some historians consider him to be the last Western Roman Emperor, while others consider the western line to have ended with Romulus Augustulus in 476...

 became Western Emperor but in the next year the magister militum Orestes revolted and made his son Romulus Augustus
Romulus Augustus
Romulus Augustus , was the last Western Roman Emperor, reigning from 31 October 475 until 4 September 476...

 emperor. Romulus, however, was not recognized by the Eastern Emperor Zeno
Zeno (emperor)
Zeno , originally named Tarasis, was Byzantine Emperor from 474 to 475 and again from 476 to 491. Domestic revolts and religious dissension plagued his reign, which nevertheless succeeded to some extent in foreign issues...

 and so was technically an usurper, Nepos still being the legal Western Emperor. Nevertheless, Romulus Augustus is often known as the last Western Roman Emperor. In 476, after being refused lands in Italy, Orestes' Germanic mercenaries under the leadership of the chieftain Odoacer
Odoacer
Flavius Odoacer , also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the first King of Italy. His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of Julius Nepos and, after Nepos' death in 480, of the...

 captured and executed Orestes and took Ravenna
Ravenna
Ravenna is the capital city of the Province of Ravenna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and the second largest comune in Italy by land area, although, at , it is little more than half the size of the largest comune, Rome...

, the Western Roman capital at the time, deposing Romulus Augustus. The whole of Italy was quickly conquered, and Odoacer was granted the title of patrician by Zeno, effectively recognizing his rule in the name of the Eastern Empire. Odoacer returned the Imperial insignia to Constantinople and ruled as King in Italy. Following Nepos' death Theodoric the Great
Theodoric the Great
Theodoric the Great was king of the Ostrogoths , ruler of Italy , regent of the Visigoths , and a viceroy of the Eastern Roman Empire...

, King of the Ostrogoths, conquered Italy with Zeno's approval.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the Western provinces were conquered by waves of Germanic invasions
Migration Period
The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

, most of them being disconnected politically from the East altogether and continuing a slow decline. Although Roman political authority in the West was lost, Roman culture would last in most parts of the former Western provinces into the 6th century and beyond.

The first invasions disrupted the West to some degree, but it was the Gothic War
Gothic War (535–552)
The Gothic War between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy was fought from 535 until 554 in Italy, Dalmatia, Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica. It is commonly divided into two phases. The first phase lasted from 535 to 540 and ended with the fall of Ravenna and the apparent...

 launched by the Eastern Emperor Justinian
Justinian I
Justinian I ; , ; 483– 13 or 14 November 565), commonly known as Justinian the Great, was Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565. During his reign, Justinian sought to revive the Empire's greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the classical Roman Empire.One of the most important figures of...

 in the 6th century, and meant to reunite the Empire, that eventually caused the most damage to Italy, as well as straining the Eastern Empire militarily. Following these wars, Rome and other Italian cities would fall into severe decline (Rome itself was almost completely abandoned). Another blow came with the Persian invasion of the East in the 7th century, immediately followed by the Muslim conquests
Muslim conquests
Muslim conquests also referred to as the Islamic conquests or Arab conquests, began with the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He established a new unified polity in the Arabian Peninsula which under the subsequent Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates saw a century of rapid expansion of Muslim power.They...

, especially of Egypt, which curtailed much of the key trade in the Mediterranean on which Europe depended.

The Empire was to live on in the East for many centuries, and enjoy periods of recovery and cultural brilliance, but its size would remain a fraction of what it had been in classical times. It became an essentially regional power, centered on Greece
Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 and Anatolia
Anatolia
Anatolia is a geographic and historical term denoting the westernmost protrusion of Asia, comprising the majority of the Republic of Turkey...

. Modern historians tend to prefer the term Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

 for the eastern, medieval stage of the Roman Empire.

Highlights


The decline of the Roman Empire was a process spanning many centuries; there is no consensus when it might have begun but many dates and time lines have been proposed by historians.
3rd century:
  • The Crisis of the Third Century
    Crisis of the Third Century
    The Crisis of the Third Century was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression...

     (234 - 284), a period of political instability.
  • The reign of Emperor Diocletian
    Diocletian
    Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

     (284 - 305), who attempted substantial political and economic reforms, many of which would remain in force in the following centuries.


4th century:
  • The reign of Constantine I
    Constantine I
    Constantine the Great , also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine, was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious tolerance of all...

     (306 - 337), who built the new eastern capital of Constantinople
    Constantinople
    Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

     and converted to Christianity
    Christianity
    Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

    , legalizing and even favoring to some extent this religion. All Roman emperors after Constantine, except for Julian
    Julian the Apostate
    Julian "the Apostate" , commonly known as Julian, or also Julian the Philosopher, was Roman Emperor from 361 to 363 and a noted philosopher and Greek writer....

    , would be Christians.
  • The first war with the Visigoths (376 - 382), culminating in the Battle of Adrianople
    Battle of Adrianople
    The Battle of Adrianople , sometimes known as the Battle of Hadrianopolis, was fought between a Roman army led by the Roman Emperor Valens and Gothic rebels led by Fritigern...

     (August 9, 378), in which a large Roman army was defeated by the Visigoths, and Emperor Valens
    Valens
    Valens was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 364 to 378. He was given the eastern half of the empire by his brother Valentinian I after the latter's accession to the throne...

     was killed. The Visigoths, fleeing a migration of the Huns
    Huns
    The Huns were a group of nomadic people who, appearing from east of the Volga River, migrated into Europe c. AD 370 and established the vast Hunnic Empire there. Since de Guignes linked them with the Xiongnu, who had been northern neighbours of China 300 years prior to the emergence of the Huns,...

    , had been allowed to settle within the borders of the Empire by Valens, but were mistreated by the local Roman administrators, and rebelled.
  • The reign of Theodosius I
    Theodosius I
    Theodosius I , also known as Theodosius the Great, was Roman Emperor from 379 to 395. Theodosius was the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire. During his reign, the Goths secured control of Illyricum after the Gothic War, establishing their homeland...

     (379 - 395), last emperor to reunite under his authority the western and eastern halves of the Empire. Theodosius continued and intensified the policies against paganism
    Paganism
    Paganism is a blanket term, typically used to refer to non-Abrahamic, indigenous polytheistic religious traditions....

     of his predecessors, eventually outlawing it, and making Nicaean
    First Council of Nicaea
    The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325...

     Christianity the state religion
    State religion
    A state religion is a religious body or creed officially endorsed by the state...

    .


5th century:
  • The Crossing of the Rhine
    Crossing of the Rhine
    31 December 406, is the often-repeated date of the crossing of the Rhine by a mixed group of barbarians that included Vandals, Alans and Suebi...

    : on December 31, 406 (or 405, according to some historians), a mixed band of Vandals
    Vandals
    The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe that entered the late Roman Empire during the 5th century. The Vandals under king Genseric entered Africa in 429 and by 439 established a kingdom which included the Roman Africa province, besides the islands of Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearics....

    , Suebi
    Suebi
    The Suebi or Suevi were a group of Germanic peoples who were first mentioned by Julius Caesar in connection with Ariovistus' campaign, c...

     and Alans
    Alans
    The Alans, or the Alani, occasionally termed Alauni or Halani, were a group of Sarmatian tribes, nomadic pastoralists of the 1st millennium AD who spoke an Eastern Iranian language which derived from Scytho-Sarmatian and which in turn evolved into modern Ossetian.-Name:The various forms of Alan —...

     crossed the frozen river Rhine at Moguntiacum (modern Mainz
    Mainz
    Mainz under the Holy Roman Empire, and previously was a Roman fort city which commanded the west bank of the Rhine and formed part of the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire...

    ), and began to ravage Gaul
    Gaul
    Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. The Gauls were the speakers of...

    . Some moved on to the regions of Hispania
    Hispania
    Another theory holds that the name derives from Ezpanna, the Basque word for "border" or "edge", thus meaning the farthest area or place. Isidore of Sevilla considered Hispania derived from Hispalis....

     and Africa
    Africa Province
    The Roman province of Africa was established after the Romans defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War. It roughly comprised the territory of present-day northern Tunisia, and the small Mediterranean coast of modern-day western Libya along the Syrtis Minor...

    . The Empire would never regain control over most of these lands.
  • The second war with the Visigoths, led by king Alaric
    Alaric I
    Alaric I was the King of the Visigoths from 395–410. Alaric is most famous for his sack of Rome in 410, which marked a decisive event in the decline of the Roman Empire....

    , in which they raided Greece, and then invaded Italy, culminating in the sack of Rome
    Sack of Rome (410)
    The Sack of Rome occurred on August 24, 410. The city was attacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I. At that time, Rome was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire, replaced in this position initially by Mediolanum and then later Ravenna. Nevertheless, the city of Rome retained a...

     (410). The Visigoths eventually left Italy and founded the Visigothic Kingdom
    Visigothic Kingdom
    The Visigothic Kingdom was a kingdom which occupied southwestern France and the Iberian Peninsula from the 5th to 8th century AD. One of the Germanic successor states to the Western Roman Empire, it was originally created by the settlement of the Visigoths under King Wallia in the province of...

     in southern Gaul and Hispania.
  • The rise of the Hunnic Empire
    Hunnic Empire
    The Hunnic Empire was an empire established by the Huns. The Huns were a confederation of Eurasian tribes from the steppes of Central Asia. Appearing from beyond the Volga River some years after the middle of the 4th century, they first overran the Alani, who occupied the plains between the Volga...

     under Attila
    Attila the Hun
    Attila , more frequently referred to as Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. He was leader of the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from the Ural River to the Rhine River and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea. During his reign he was one of the most feared...

     and Bleda
    Bleda
    Bleda was a Hun ruler, the brother of Attila the Hun.As nephews to Rugila, Attila and his elder brother Bleda succeeded him to the throne. His reign lasted for eleven years until his death. While it has been speculated throughout history that Attila murdered him on a hunting trip, no one knows...

     (434-453), who raided the Balkans
    Balkans
    The Balkans is a geopolitical and cultural region of southeastern Europe...

    , Gaul, and Italy, threatening both Constantinople and Rome.
  • The second sack of Rome
    Sack of Rome (455)
    The sack of 455 was the second of three barbarian sacks of Rome; it was executed by the Vandals, who were then at war with the usurping Western Roman Emperor Petronius Maximus....

    , this time by the Vandals (455).
  • Failed counterstrikes against the Vandals (461 - 468). The Western Emperor Majorian
    Majorian
    Majorian , was the Western Roman Emperor from 457 to 461.A prominent general of the Late Roman army, Majorian deposed Emperor Avitus in 457 and succeeded him. Majorian was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire...

     planned a naval campaign against the Vandals to reconquer northern Africa in 461, but word of the preparations got out to the Vandals, who took the Roman fleet by surprise and destroyed it. A second naval expedition against the Vandals, sent by Emperors Leo I
    Leo I (emperor)
    Leo I was Byzantine Emperor from 457 to 474. A native of Dacia Aureliana near historic Thrace, he was known as Leo the Thracian ....

     and Anthemius
    Anthemius
    Procopius Anthemius was Western Roman Emperor from 467 to 472. Perhaps the last capable Western Roman Emperor, Anthemius attempted to solve the two primary military challenges facing the remains of the Western Roman Empire: the resurgent Visigoths, under Euric, whose domain straddled the Pyrenees;...

    , was defeated in 468.

  • Deposition of the last Western Emperors, Julius Nepos
    Julius Nepos
    Julius Nepos was Western Roman Emperor de facto from 474 to 475 and de jure until 480. Some historians consider him to be the last Western Roman Emperor, while others consider the western line to have ended with Romulus Augustulus in 476...

     and Romulus Augustus
    Romulus Augustus
    Romulus Augustus , was the last Western Roman Emperor, reigning from 31 October 475 until 4 September 476...

     (475 - 480). Julius Nepos, who had been nominated by the Eastern Emperor Zeno
    Zeno (emperor)
    Zeno , originally named Tarasis, was Byzantine Emperor from 474 to 475 and again from 476 to 491. Domestic revolts and religious dissension plagued his reign, which nevertheless succeeded to some extent in foreign issues...

    , was deposed by the rebelled magister militum Orestes
    Flavius Orestes
    Orestes was a Roman general and politician of Germanic ancestry, who was briefly in control of the Western Roman Empire in 475–6.-Early life:...

    , who installed his own son Romulus in the imperial throne. Both Zeno and his rival Basiliscus
    Basiliscus
    Basiliscus was Eastern Roman Emperor from 475 to 476. A member of the House of Leo, he came to power when Emperor Zeno had been forced out of Constantinople by a revolt....

    , in the East, continued to regard Julius Nepos, who fled to Dalmatia
    Dalmatia (Roman province)
    Dalmatia was an ancient Roman province. Its name is probably derived from the name of an Illyrian tribe called the Dalmatae which lived in the area of the eastern Adriatic coast in Classical antiquity....

    , as the legitimate Western Emperor, and Romulus as an usurper. Shortly after, Odoacer
    Odoacer
    Flavius Odoacer , also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the first King of Italy. His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of Julius Nepos and, after Nepos' death in 480, of the...

    , magister militum appointed by Julius, invaded Italy, defeated Orestes, and deposed Romulus Augustus on September 4, 476. Odoacer then proclaimed himself ruler of Italy and asked the Eastern Emperor Zeno to become formal Emperor of both empires, and in so doing legalize Odoacer's own position as Imperial viceroy of Italy. Zeno did so, setting aside the claims of Nepos, who was murdered by his own soldiers in 480.
  • Foundation of the Ostrogothic Kingdom
    Ostrogothic Kingdom
    The Kingdom established by the Ostrogoths in Italy and neighbouring areas lasted from 493 to 553. In Italy the Ostrogoths replaced Odoacer, the de facto ruler of Italy who had deposed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 476. The Gothic kingdom reached its zenith under the rule of its...

     in Italy (493). Concerned with the success and popularity of Odoacer, Zeno started a campaign against him, at first with words, then by inciting the Ostrogoths to take back Italy from him. They did as much, but then founded an independent kingdom of their own, under the rule of king Theodoric
    Theodoric the Great
    Theodoric the Great was king of the Ostrogoths , ruler of Italy , regent of the Visigoths , and a viceroy of the Eastern Roman Empire...

    . Italy and the entire West were lost to the Empire.

Theories of a fall, decline, transition and continuity


The various theories and explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West may be very broadly classified into four schools of thought, although the classification is not without overlap:
  • Decay owing to general malaise
  • Monocausal decay
  • Catastrophic collapse
  • Transformation


The tradition positing general malaise goes back to Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

 who argued that the edifice of the Roman Empire had been built on unsound foundations to begin with. According to Gibbon, the fall was - in the final analysis - inevitable. On the other hand, Gibbon had assigned a major portion of the responsibility for the decay to the influence of Christianity, and is often, though perhaps unjustly, seen as the founding father of the school of monocausal explanation.

On the other hand, the school of catastrophic collapse holds that the fall of the Empire had not been a pre-determined event and need not be taken for granted. Rather, it was due to the combined effect of a number of adverse processes, many of them set in motion by the Migration of the Peoples
Migration Period
The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

, that together applied too much stress to the Empire's basically sound structure.

Finally, the transformation school challenges the whole notion of the 'fall' of the Empire, asking to distinguish between the fall into disuse of a particular political dispensation, anyway unworkable towards its end, and the fate of the Roman civilisation which under-girded the Empire. According to this school, drawing its basic premise from the Pirenne thesis, the Roman world underwent a gradual (though often violent) series of transformations, morphing into the medieval world. The historians belonging to this school often prefer to speak of Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

 instead of the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Edward Gibbon


In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a non-fiction history book written by English historian Edward Gibbon and published in six volumes. Volume I was published in 1776, and went through six printings. Volumes II and III were published in 1781; volumes IV, V, VI in 1788–89...

(1776–88), Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

 famously placed the blame on a loss of civic virtue
Civic virtue
Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits of personal living that are claimed to be important for the success of the community. The identification of the character traits that constitute civic virtue have been a major concern of political philosophy...

 among the Roman citizens. They gradually entrusted the role of defending the Empire to barbarian mercenaries
Mercenary
A mercenary, is a person who takes part in an armed conflict based on the promise of material compensation rather than having a direct interest in, or a legal obligation to, the conflict itself. A non-conscript professional member of a regular army is not considered to be a mercenary although he...

 who eventually turned on them. Gibbon held that Christianity
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 contributed to this shift by making the populace less interested in the worldly here-and-now because it was willing to wait for the rewards of heaven
Heaven
Heaven, the Heavens or Seven Heavens, is a common religious cosmological or metaphysical term for the physical or transcendent place from which heavenly beings originate, are enthroned or inhabit...

. "The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight," he wrote. "In discussing Barbarism and Christianity I have actually been discussing the Fall of Rome."

Vegetius on military decline


Writing in the 5th century, the Roman historian Vegetius
Vegetius
Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, commonly referred to simply as Vegetius, was a writer of the Later Roman Empire. Nothing is known of his life or station beyond what he tells us in his two surviving works: Epitoma rei militaris , and the lesser-known Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae, a guide to...

 pleaded for reform of what must have been a greatly weakened army. The historian Arther Ferrill has suggested that the Roman Empire – particularly the military – declined largely as a result of an influx of Germanic mercenaries into the ranks of the legions. This "Germanization" and the resultant cultural dilution or "barbarization" led not only to a decline in the standard of drill and overall military preparedness within the Empire, but also to a decline of loyalty to the Roman government in favor of loyalty to commanders. Ferrill agrees with other Roman historians such as A.H.M. Jones:


...the decay of trade and industry was not a cause of Rome’s fall. There was a decline in agriculture and land was withdrawn from cultivation, in some cases on a very large scale, sometimes as a direct result of barbarian invasions. However, the chief cause of the agricultural decline was high taxation on the marginal land, driving it out of cultivation. Jones is surely right in saying that taxation was spurred by the huge military budget and was thus ‘indirectly’ the result of the barbarian invasion.

Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke


In contrast with the declining empire theories, historians such as Arnold J. Toynbee
Arnold J. Toynbee
Arnold Joseph Toynbee CH was a British historian whose twelve-volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations, A Study of History, 1934–1961, was a synthesis of world history, a metahistory based on universal rhythms of rise, flowering and decline, which examined history from a global...

 and James Burke
James Burke (science historian)
James Burke is a British broadcaster, science historian, author and television producer known amongst other things for his documentary television series Connections and its more philosophical oriented companion production, The Day the Universe Changed , focusing on the history of science and...

 argue that the Roman Empire itself was a rotten system from its inception, and that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in Republican
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 times. In their view, the Empire could never have lasted longer than it did without radical reforms that no Emperor could implement. The Romans had no budgetary system and thus wasted whatever resources they had available. The economy of the Empire was a Raubwirtschaft
Raubwirtschaft
Raubwirtschaft is a form of economy where the goal is to plunder the wealth and resources of a country or geographical area. Raubwirtschaft is synonymous of colonialism, where there is no intention of developing the colony economically more than strictly needed for exploitation purposes...

 or plunder economy based on looting
Looting
Looting —also referred to as sacking, plundering, despoiling, despoliation, and pillaging—is the indiscriminate taking of goods by force as part of a military or political victory, or during a catastrophe, such as during war, natural disaster, or rioting...

 existing resources rather than producing anything new. The Empire relied on booty from conquered territories (this source of revenue ending, of course, with the end of Roman territorial expansion) or on a pattern of tax collection that drove small-scale farmers into destitution (and onto a dole that required even more exactions upon those who could not escape taxation), or into dependency upon a landed élite exempt from taxation. With the cessation of tribute from conquered territories, the full cost of their military machine had to be borne by the citizenry.

An economy based upon slave labor precluded a middle class with buying power. The Roman Empire produced few exportable goods. Material innovation, whether through entrepreneurialism or technological advancement, all but ended long before the final dissolution of the Empire. Meanwhile the costs of military defense and the pomp of Emperors continued. Financial needs continued to increase, but the means of meeting them steadily eroded. In the end, due to economic failure, even the armor of soldiers deteriorated and the weaponry of soldiers became so obsolete that the enemies of the Empire had better armor and weapons as well as larger forces. The decrepit social order offered so little to its subjects that many saw the barbarian invasion as liberation from onerous obligations to the ruling class.

By the late 5th century the barbarian conqueror Odoacer
Odoacer
Flavius Odoacer , also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the first King of Italy. His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of Julius Nepos and, after Nepos' death in 480, of the...

 had no use for the formality of an Empire upon deposing Romulus Augustus
Romulus Augustus
Romulus Augustus , was the last Western Roman Emperor, reigning from 31 October 475 until 4 September 476...

 and chose neither to assume the title of Emperor himself nor to select a puppet, although legally he kept the lands as a commander of the Eastern Empire and maintained the Roman institutions such as the consulship. The formal end of the Roman Empire on the West in AD 476 thus corresponds with the time in which the Empire and the title Emperor no longer had value.

Michael Rostovtzeff, Ludwig von Mises, and Bruce Bartlett


Historian Michael Rostovtzeff
Michael Rostovtzeff
Mikhail Ivanovich Rostovtzeff, or Rostovtsev was one of the 20th century's foremost authorities on ancient Greek, Iranian, and Roman history....

 and economist Ludwig von Mises
Ludwig von Mises
Ludwig Heinrich Edler von Mises was an Austrian economist, philosopher, and classical liberal who had a significant influence on the modern Libertarian movement and the "Austrian School" of economic thought.-Biography:-Early life:...

 both argued that unsound economic policies played a key role in the impoverishment and decay of the Roman Empire. According to them, by the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire had developed a complex market economy
Market economy
A market economy is an economy in which the prices of goods and services are determined in a free price system. This is often contrasted with a state-directed or planned economy. Market economies can range from hypothetically pure laissez-faire variants to an assortment of real-world mixed...

 in which trade was relatively free. Tariff
Tariff
A tariff may be either tax on imports or exports , or a list or schedule of prices for such things as rail service, bus routes, and electrical usage ....

s were low and laws controlling the prices of foodstuffs and other commodities had little impact because they did not fix the prices significantly below their market levels. After the 3rd century, however, debasement
Debasement
Debasement is the practice of lowering the value of currency. It is particularly used in connection with commodity money such as gold or silver coins...

 of the currency (i.e., the minting of coins with diminishing content of gold
Gold
Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. Chemically, gold is a...

, silver
Silver
Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal...

, and bronze
Bronze
Bronze is a metal alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with tin as the main additive. It is hard and brittle, and it was particularly significant in antiquity, so much so that the Bronze Age was named after the metal...

) led to inflation
Inflation
In economics, inflation is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services. Consequently, inflation also reflects an erosion in the purchasing power of money – a...

. The price control
Incomes policy
Incomes policies in economics are economy-wide wage and price controls, most commonly instituted as a response to inflation, and usually below market level.Incomes policies have often been resorted to during wartime...

 laws then resulted in prices that were significantly below their free-market equilibrium levels.

According to Rostovtzeff and Mises, artificially low prices led to the scarcity of foodstuffs, particularly in cities
City
A city is a relatively large and permanent settlement. Although there is no agreement on how a city is distinguished from a town within general English language meanings, many cities have a particular administrative, legal, or historical status based on local law.For example, in the U.S...

, whose inhabitants depended on trade to obtain them. Despite laws passed to prevent migration from the cities to the countryside, urban areas gradually became depopulated and many Roman citizens abandoned their specialized trades to practice subsistence agriculture
Subsistence agriculture
Subsistence agriculture is self-sufficiency farming in which the farmers focus on growing enough food to feed their families. The typical subsistence farm has a range of crops and animals needed by the family to eat and clothe themselves during the year. Planting decisions are made with an eye...

. This, coupled with increasingly oppressive and arbitrary tax
Tax
To tax is to impose a financial charge or other levy upon a taxpayer by a state or the functional equivalent of a state such that failure to pay is punishable by law. Taxes are also imposed by many subnational entities...

ation, led to a severe net decrease in trade, technical
Technology
Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, machinery, and procedures. The word technology comes ;...

 innovation, and the overall wealth of the Empire.

Bruce Bartlett
Bruce Bartlett
Bruce Bartlett is an American historian who turned to writing about supply-side economics. He was a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and was a Treasury official under President George H.W. Bush....

 traces the beginning of debasement to the reign of Nero
Nero
Nero , was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68, and the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his heir and successor, and succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death....

. He claims that the emperors increasingly relied on the army as the sole source of their power, and therefore their economic policy was driven more and more by a desire to increase military funding in order to buy the army's loyalty. By the 3rd century, according to Bartlett, the monetary economy had collapsed. But the imperial government was now in a position where it had to satisfy the demands of the army at all costs. Failure to do so would result in the army forcibly deposing the emperor and installing a new one. Therefore, being unable to increase monetary taxes, the Roman Empire had to resort to direct requisitioning of physical goods anywhere it could find them - for example taking food and cattle from farmers. The result, in Bartlett's view, was social chaos, and this led to different responses from the authorities and from the common people. The authorities tried to restore order by requiring free people (i.e. non-slaves) to remain in the same occupation or even at the same place of employment. Eventually, this practice was extended to force children to follow the same occupation as their parents. So, for instance, farmers were tied to the land, and the sons of soldiers had to become soldiers themselves. Many common people reacted by moving to the countryside, sometimes joining the estates of the wealthy, and in general trying to be self-sufficient and interact as little as possible with the imperial authorities. Thus, according to Bartlett, Roman society began to dissolve into a number of separate estates that operated as closed systems, provided for all their own needs and did not engage in trade at all. These were the beginnings of feudalism.

Joseph Tainter


In his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, American anthropologist Tainter
Joseph Tainter
Joseph A. Tainter is a U.S. anthropologist and historian.Tainter studied anthropology at the University of California and Northwestern University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1975. He is currently a professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University...

 presents the view that for given technological levels there are implicit declining returns to complexity, in which systems deplete their resource base beyond levels that are ultimately sustainable. Tainter argues that societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can include differentiated social
Social
The term social refers to a characteristic of living organisms...

 and economic roles, reliance on symbol
Symbol
A symbol is something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for...

ic and abstract
Abstraction
Abstraction is a process by which higher concepts are derived from the usage and classification of literal concepts, first principles, or other methods....

 communication
Communication
Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information. Communication requires a sender, a message, and an intended recipient, although the receiver need not be present or aware of the sender's intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast...

, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial "energy" subsidy (meaning resources
Natural resource
Natural resources occur naturally within environments that exist relatively undisturbed by mankind, in a natural form. A natural resource is often characterized by amounts of biodiversity and geodiversity existent in various ecosystems....

, or other forms of wealth
Wealth
Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions. The word wealth is derived from the old English wela, which is from an Indo-European word stem...

). When a society confronts a "problem", such as a shortage of or difficulty in gaining access to energy
Energy
In physics, energy is an indirectly observed quantity. It is often understood as the ability a physical system has to do work on other physical systems...

, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy
Bureaucracy
A bureaucracy is an organization of non-elected officials of a governmental or organization who implement the rules, laws, and functions of their institution, and are occasionally characterized by officialism and red tape.-Weberian bureaucracy:...

, infrastructure
Infrastructure
Infrastructure is basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function...

, or social class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

 to address the challenge.

For example, as Roman agricultural output
Agricultural productivity
Agricultural productivity is measured as the ratio of agricultural outputs to agricultural inputs. While individual products are usually measured by weight, their varying densities make measuring overall agricultural output difficult...

 slowly declined and population increased, per-capita energy availability dropped. The Romans solved this problem in the short term by conquering their neighbours to appropriate their energy surpluses (metals, grain, slaves, etc.). However, this solution merely exacerbated the issue over the long term; as the Empire grew, the cost of maintaining communications, garrisons, civil government, etc., increased. Eventually, this cost grew so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures could not be solved by the acquisition of more territory. At that point, the Empire fragmented into smaller units.

We often assume that the collapse of the Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were better off (all but the elite, presumably.) Archeological evidence from human bones indicates that average nutrition improved after the collapse in many parts of the former Roman Empire . Average individuals may have benefited because they no longer had to invest in the burdensome complexity of empire.

In Tainter's view, while invasions, crop failures
Famine
A famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including crop failure, overpopulation, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Every continent in the world has...

, disease
Disease
A disease is an abnormal condition affecting the body of an organism. It is often construed to be a medical condition associated with specific symptoms and signs. It may be caused by external factors, such as infectious disease, or it may be caused by internal dysfunctions, such as autoimmune...

 or environmental degradation
Environmental degradation
Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife...

 may be the apparent causes of societal collapse, the ultimate cause is diminishing returns on investments in social complexity
Complexity
In general usage, complexity tends to be used to characterize something with many parts in intricate arrangement. The study of these complex linkages is the main goal of complex systems theory. In science there are at this time a number of approaches to characterizing complexity, many of which are...

.

Adrian Goldsworthy


In The Complete Roman Army (2003) Adrian Goldsworthy
Adrian Goldsworthy
Adrian Keith Goldsworthy is a British historian and author who specialises in ancient Roman history.-Biography:Goldsworthy attended Westbourne School, Penarth...

, a British military historian, sees the causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire not in any 'decadence' in the make-up of the Roman legions, but in a combination of endless civil wars between factions of the Roman Army fighting for control of the Empire. This inevitably weakened the army and the society upon which it depended, making it less able to defend itself against the growing of numbers of Rome's enemies. The army still remained a superior fighting instrument to its opponents, both civilized and barbarian; this is shown in the victories over Germanic tribes at the Battle of Strasbourg
Battle of Strasbourg
The Battle of Strasbourg, also known as the Battle of Argentoratum, was fought in 357 between the Late Roman army under the Caesar Julian and the Alamanni tribal confederation led by the joint paramount king Chnodomar...

 (357) and in its ability to hold the line against the Sassanid Persians throughout the 4th century. But, says Goldsworthy, "Weakening central authority, social and economic problems and, most of all, the continuing grind of civil wars eroded the political capacity to maintain the army at this level."

The Horseshoe


Writing in the 1960s, the Czech historian Radovan Richta
Radovan Richta
Radovan Richta was a Czech philosopher who coined the term technological evolution; a theory about how societies diminish physical labour by increasing mental labour. Richta was born in Prague....

 held that technology drives history. Thus, the invention of the horseshoe
Horseshoe
A horseshoe, is a fabricated product, normally made of metal, although sometimes made partially or wholly of modern synthetic materials, designed to protect a horse's hoof from wear and tear. Shoes are attached on the palmar surface of the hooves, usually nailed through the insensitive hoof wall...

 in Germania
Germania
Germania was the Greek and Roman geographical term for the geographical regions inhabited by mainly by peoples considered to be Germani. It was most often used to refer especially to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube...

 in the 200s altered the military equation of pax romana
Pax Romana
Pax Romana was the long period of relative peace and minimal expansion by military force experienced by the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Since it was established by Caesar Augustus it is sometimes called Pax Augusta...

.

Disease


William H. McNeill
William H. McNeill
William Hardy McNeill is an American world historian and author and is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1947.-Biography:...

, a world historian
World History
World History, Global History or Transnational history is a field of historical study that emerged as a distinct academic field in the 1980s. It examines history from a global perspective...

, noted in chapter three of his book Plagues and Peoples (1976) that the Roman Empire suffered the severe and protracted Antonine Plague
Antonine Plague
The Antonine Plague, AD 165–180, also known as the Plague of Galen, who described it, was an ancient pandemic, either of smallpox or measles, brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East...

 starting around 165 AD. For about twenty years, waves of one or more diseases, possibly the first epidemics of smallpox
Smallpox
Smallpox was an infectious disease unique to humans, caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor. The disease is also known by the Latin names Variola or Variola vera, which is a derivative of the Latin varius, meaning "spotted", or varus, meaning "pimple"...

 and/or measles
Measles
Measles, also known as rubeola or morbilli, is an infection of the respiratory system caused by a virus, specifically a paramyxovirus of the genus Morbillivirus. Morbilliviruses, like other paramyxoviruses, are enveloped, single-stranded, negative-sense RNA viruses...

, swept through the Empire, ultimately killing about half the population. Similar epidemics
Pandemic
A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that is spreading through human populations across a large region; for instance multiple continents, or even worldwide. A widespread endemic disease that is stable in terms of how many people are getting sick from it is not a pandemic...

, such as the Plague of Cyprian
Plague of Cyprian
The Plague of Cyprian is the name given to a pandemic, probably of smallpox, that afflicted the Roman Empire from AD 250 onwards. It was still raging in 270, when it claimed the life of emperor Claudius II Gothicus . The plague caused widespread manpower shortages in agriculture and the Roman army....

, also occurred in the 3rd century. McNeill argues that the severe fall in population left the state apparatus and army too large for the population to support, leading to further economic and social decline that eventually killed the Western Empire. The Eastern half survived due to its larger population, which even after the plagues was sufficient for an effective state apparatus.

Archaeology has revealed that from the 2nd century onward, the inhabited area in most Roman towns and cities grew smaller and smaller. Imperial laws concerning "agri deserti", or deserted lands, became increasingly common and desperate. The economic collapse of the 3rd century may also be evidence of a shrinking population as Rome’s tax base was also shrinking and could no longer support the Roman Army and other Roman institutions.

Rome's success had led to increased contact with Asia though trade, especially in a sea route through the Red Sea that Rome cleared of pirates shortly after conquering Egypt. Wars also increased contact with Asia, particularly wars with the Persian Empire. With increased contact with Asia came increased transmission of disease into the Mediterranean from Asia. Romans used public fountains, public latrines, public baths, and supported many brothels all of which are conducive to the spread of pathogens. Romans crowded into walled cities and the poor and the slaves lived in very close quarters with each other. Epidemics began sweeping though the Empire.

The culture of the German barbarians living just across the Rhine and Danube rivers is not so conducive to the spread of pathogens. Germans lived in small scattered villages that did not support the same level of trade as did Roman settlements. Germans lived in single-family detached houses. Germans did not have public baths nor as many brothels and drank ale made with boiled water. The barbarian population seemed to be on the rise. The demographics of Europe were changing.

Economically, depopulation led to the impoverishment of East and West as economic ties among different parts of the empire weakened. Increasing raids by barbarians further strained the economy and further reduced the population, mostly in the West. In areas near the Rhine and Danube frontiers, raids by barbarians killed Romans and disrupted commerce. Raids also forced Romans into walled towns and cities furthering the spread of pathogens and increasing the rate of depopulation in the West. A low population and weak economy forced Rome to use barbarians in the Roman Army to defend against other barbarians.

Culturally, the decline of Roman urban life and of the Roman educational system made it prohibitively difficult for rulers to maintain Roman civilization in its various manifestations. German barbarians were more easily able to integrate into the uneducated Roman aristocracy and demand land and, later, demand kingdoms of their own.

This theory can also be extended to the time after the fall of the Western Empire and to other parts of the world. Similar epidemics caused by new diseases may have weakened the Chinese Han Empire and contributed to its collapse. This was followed by the long and chaotic episode known as the Six Dynasties
Six Dynasties
Six Dynasties is a collective noun for six Chinese dynasties during the periods of the Three Kingdoms , Jin Dynasty , and Southern and Northern Dynasties ....

 period. Later, the Plague of Justinian
Plague of Justinian
The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire , including its capital Constantinople, in 541–542 AD. It was one of the greatest plagues in history. The most commonly accepted cause of the pandemic is bubonic plague, which later became infamous for either causing or...

 may have been the first instance of bubonic plague
Bubonic plague
Plague is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by the enterobacteria Yersinia pestis, named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. Primarily carried by rodents and spread to humans via fleas, the disease is notorious throughout history, due to the unrivaled scale of death...

. It, and subsequent recurrences, may have been so devastating that they helped the Arab conquest of most of the Eastern Empire and the whole of the Sassanid Empire
Sassanid Empire
The Sassanid Empire , known to its inhabitants as Ērānshahr and Ērān in Middle Persian and resulting in the New Persian terms Iranshahr and Iran , was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty from 224 to 651...

. Archaeological evidence is showing that Europe continued to have a steady downward trend in population starting as early as the 2nd century and continuing through the 7th century. The European recovery may have started only when the population, through natural selection
Natural selection
Natural selection is the nonrandom process by which biologic traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. It is a key mechanism of evolution....

, had gained some resistance to the new diseases. See also Medieval demography
Medieval demography
This article discusses human demography in Europe during the Middle Ages, including population trends and movements. Demographic changes helped to shape and define the Middle Ages...

.

Environmental degradation


Another theory is that gradual environmental degradation caused population and economic decline. Deforestation
Deforestation
Deforestation is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a nonforest use. Examples of deforestation include conversion of forestland to farms, ranches, or urban use....

 and excessive grazing led to erosion
Erosion
Erosion is when materials are removed from the surface and changed into something else. It only works by hydraulic actions and transport of solids in the natural environment, and leads to the deposition of these materials elsewhere...

 of meadows and cropland. Increased irrigation without suitable drainage caused salinization, especially in North Africa. These human activities resulted in fertile land becoming nonproductive and eventually increased desertification in some regions. Many animal species become extinct. This theory was explored by Jared M. Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Also, high taxes and heavy slavery are another reason for decline as they forced small farmers out of business and into the cities, which became overpopulated. Roman cities were only designed to hold a certain amount of people, and once they passed that, disease, water shortage and food shortage became common .

Mining output


Output from the silver mine at Rio Tinto peaked in 79, corresponding to the beginning of the era of coin debasement and inflation and over-taxation. The Roman Emperor debased the coinage because Roman mines had peaked and output was declining. The thesis is that mines of all commodities were being depleted, including gold, silver, iron and so forth. This led to the decline of Roman technological and economic sophistication. In a similar fashion, Roman trade with India
Roman trade with India
Roman trade with India through the overland caravan routes via Anatolia and Persia, though at a relative trickle compared to later times, antedated the southern trade route via the Red Sea and monsoons which started around the beginning of the Common Era following the reign of Augustus and his...

 and via the Silk Route with China
China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 may have drained precious metals from the Empire, causing a persistent trade imbalance. As early as the 1st century CE the matter was discussed by Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder
Gaius Plinius Secundus , better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian...

 in his Natural History.

Lead poisoning



Jerome Nriagu, a geochemist, argued in a 1983 book that "lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman empire." His work centred on the level to which the ancient Romans
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

, who had few sweeteners besides honey
Honey
Honey is a sweet food made by bees using nectar from flowers. The variety produced by honey bees is the one most commonly referred to and is the type of honey collected by beekeepers and consumed by humans...

, would boil must
Must
Must is freshly pressed fruit juice that contains the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit. The solid portion of the must is called pomace; it typically makes up 7%–23% of the total weight of the must. Making must is the first step in winemaking...

 in lead pots to produce a reduced sugar syrup called defrutum
Defrutum
Defrutum, carenum, and sapa were reductions of must used in Ancient Roman cuisine. They were made by boiling down grape juice or must in large kettles until it had been reduced to two-thirds the original volume, carenum;...

, concentrated again into sapa. This syrup was used to some degree to sweeten wine and food. If acidic must is boiled within lead vessels the sweet syrup it yields will contain a quantity of Pb(C2H3O2)2 or lead(II) acetate
Lead(II) acetate
Lead acetate , also known as lead acetate, lead diacetate, plumbous acetate, sugar of lead, lead sugar, salt of Saturn, and Goulard's powder, is a white crystalline chemical compound with a sweetish taste. It is made by treating lead oxide with acetic acid. Like other lead compounds, it is toxic...

. Lead was also leached from the glazes on amphora
Amphora
An amphora is a type of vase-shaped, usually ceramic container with two handles and a long neck narrower than the body...

e and from pewter drinking vessels.

The main culinary use of defrutum was to sweeten wine, but it was also added to fruit and meat dishes as a sweetening and souring agent and even given to food animals such as suckling pig and duck to improve the taste of their flesh. Defrutum was mixed with garum
Garum
Garum, similar to liquamen, was a type of fermented fish sauce condiment that was an essential flavour in Ancient Roman cooking, the supreme condiment....

 to make the popular condiment oenogarum and as such was one of Rome's most popular condiments. Quince and melon were preserved in defrutum and honey through the winter, and some Roman women used defrutum or sapa as a cosmetic. Defrutum was often used as a food preservative in provisions for Roman troops.

Nriagu produced a table showing his estimated consumption of lead by various classes within the Roman Empire.
However, to produce the table Nriagu assumes all of the defrutum/sapa consumed to have been made in lead vessels:
Population Source Lead level in source Daily intake Absorption factor Lead absorbed
Aristocrats
Air 0.05 µg/m3 20 m3 0.4 0.4 µg/day
Water 50 (50-200) µg/l 1.0 liter 0.1 5 (5-20) µg/day
Wines 300 (200-1500) 2.0 liters 0.3 180 (120-900) µg/day
Foods 0.2 (0.1-2.0) µg/g 3 kg 0.1 60 (30-600) µg/day
Other/Misc. 5.0 µg/day
Total 250 (160-1250) µg/day
Plebeians
Less food, same wine consumption. 35 (35-320) µg/day
Slaves
Still less food, more water, 0.75 liters wine 15 (15-77) µg/day


Lead is not removed quickly from the body. It tends to form lead phosphate complexes within bone. This is detectable in preserved bone. Chemical analysis of preserved skeletons found in Herculaneum
Herculaneum
Herculaneum was an ancient Roman town destroyed by volcanic pyroclastic flows in AD 79, located in the territory of the current commune of Ercolano, in the Italian region of Campania in the shadow of Mt...

 by Dr. Sara C. Bisel
Sara C. Bisel
Dr. Sara C. Bisel was a physical anthropologist and classical archaeologist who played a prominent role in early scientific research at Herculaneum, a Mediterranean coastal town destroyed by the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Her pioneering work in the chemical and physical analysis of...

 from the University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a public research university located in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States. It is the oldest and largest part of the University of Minnesota system and has the fourth-largest main campus student body in the United States, with 52,557...

 indicated they contained lead
Lead
Lead is a main-group element in the carbon group with the symbol Pb and atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, malleable poor metal. It is also counted as one of the heavy metals. Metallic lead has a bluish-white color after being freshly cut, but it soon tarnishes to a dull grayish color when exposed...

 in concentrations of 84 parts per million (ppm), whereas skeletons found in a Greek cave had lead concentrations of just 3ppm. However, the lead content revealed in many other ancient Roman remains have been shown to have been less than half that of modern Europeans which have concentrations between 20-50ppm.
Criticism of lead poisoning theory

The role and importance of lead poisoning in contributing to the fall of the Roman Empire is the subject of controversy and its importance and validity is discounted by many historians. John Scarborough, a pharmacologist and classicist, criticized Nriagu's book as "so full of false evidence, miscitations, typographical errors, and a blatant flippancy regarding primary sources that the reader cannot trust the basic arguments." He concluded that ancient authorities were well aware of lead poisoning and that it was not endemic in the Roman empire nor caused its fall.

Although defrutum and sapa prepared in leaden containers would indubitably have contained toxic levels of lead, the use of leaden containers, though popular, was not the standard and copper was used far more generally. The exact amount of sapa added to wine was also not standardised and there is no indication how often sapa was added or in what quantity.

Additionally, Roman authors such as Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder
Gaius Plinius Secundus , better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian...

 and Vitruvius
Vitruvius
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman writer, architect and engineer, active in the 1st century BC. He is best known as the author of the multi-volume work De Architectura ....

 recognised the toxicity of lead. Vitruvius, who flourished during Augustus
Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

' time, writes that the Romans knew very well of the dangers.
Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from it white lead [cerussa, lead carbonate, PbCO3] is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system. This may be verified by observing the workers in lead, who are of a pallid colour; water should therefore on no account be conducted in leaden pipes if we are desirous that it should be wholesome (VIII.6.10-11).

J. B. Bury


J. B. Bury
J. B. Bury
John Bagnell Bury , known as J. B. Bury, was an Irish historian, classical scholar, Byzantinist and philologist.-Biography:...

's History of the Later Roman Empire (1889/1923) challenged the prevailing "theory of moral decay" established by Gibbon as well as the classic "clash of Christianity vs. paganism" theory, citing the relative success of the Eastern Empire, which was resolutely Christian. He held that Gibbon's grand history, though epoch-making in its research and detail, was too monocausal. His main difference from Gibbon lay in his interpretation of facts, rather than disputing any facts. He made it clear that he felt that Gibbon's thesis concerning "moral decay" was viable — but incomplete. Bury's judgment was that:


The gradual collapse of the Roman power … was the consequence of a series of contingent events. No general causes can be assigned that made it inevitable.


Bury held that a number of crises arose simultaneously: economic decline, Germanic expansion, depopulation of Italy, dependency on Germanic foederati for the military, the disastrous (though Bury believed unknowing) treason of Stilicho
Stilicho
Flavius Stilicho was a high-ranking general , Patrician and Consul of the Western Roman Empire, notably of Vandal birth. Despised by the Roman population for his Germanic ancestry and Arian beliefs, Stilicho was in 408 executed along with his wife and son...

, loss of martial vigor, Aetius
Flavius Aëtius
Flavius Aëtius , dux et patricius, was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He was an able military commander and the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire for two decades . He managed policy in regard to the attacks of barbarian peoples pressing on the Empire...

' murder, the lack of any leader to replace Aetius — a series of misfortunes which, in combination, proved catastrophic:

The Empire had come to depend on the enrollment of barbarians, in large numbers, in the army, and … it was necessary to render the service attractive to them by the prospect of power and wealth. This was, of course, a consequence of the decline in military spirit, and of depopulation, in the old civilised Mediterranean countries. The Germans in high command had been useful, but the dangers involved in the policy had been shown in the cases of Merobaudes
Merobaudes (general)
- Biography :Merobaudes was an official of Roman Emperor Julian . He was entrusted with the transportation of the corpse of the Emperor when Julian died during his military campaign against the Sasanids....

 and Arbogastes. Yet this policy need not have led to the dismemberment of the Empire, and but for that series of chances its western provinces would not have been converted, as and when they were, into German kingdoms. It may be said that a German penetration of western Europe must ultimately have come about. But even if that were certain, it might have happened in another way, at a later time, more gradually, and with less violence.

The point of the present contention is that Rome's loss of her provinces in the fifth century was not an "inevitable effect of any of those features which have been rightly or wrongly described as causes or consequences of her general 'decline'". The central fact that Rome could not dispense with the help of barbarians for her wars (gentium barbararum auxilio indigemus) may be held to be the cause of her calamities, but it was a weakness which might have continued to be far short of fatal but for the sequence of contingencies pointed out above.

Peter Heather


Peter Heather
Peter Heather
Peter Heather is a historian of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, currently Professor of Medieval History at King's College London. He has held appointments at University College London and Yale University and was Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at Worcester College, Oxford until...

, in his The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005), maintains the Roman imperial system with its sometimes violent imperial transitions and problematic communications notwithstanding, was in fairly good shape during the first, second, and part of the 3rd centuries AD. According to Heather, the first real indication of trouble was the emergence in Iran of the Sassanid Persian empire (226–651). Heather says:

The Sassanids were sufficiently powerful and internally cohesive to push back Roman legions from the Euphrates and from much of Armenia and southeast Turkey. Much as modern readers tend to think of the "Huns" as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, for the entire period under discussion it was the Persians who held the attention and concern of Rome and Constantinople. Indeed, 20–25% of the military might of the Roman Army
Roman army
The Roman army is the generic term for the terrestrial armed forces deployed by the kingdom of Rome , the Roman Republic , the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine empire...

 was addressing the Persian threat from the late third century onward … and upwards of 40% of the troops under the Eastern Emperors.

Heather goes on to state — and he is confirmed by Gibbon and Bury — that it took the Roman Empire about half a century to cope with the Sassanid threat, which it did by stripping the western provincial towns and cities of their regional taxation income. The resulting expansion of military forces in the Middle East
Middle East
The Middle East is a region that encompasses Western Asia and Northern Africa. It is often used as a synonym for Near East, in opposition to Far East...

 was finally successful in stabilizing the frontiers with the Sassanids, but the reduction of real income in the provinces of the Empire led to two trends which, Heather says, had a negative long term impact. First, the incentive for local officials to spend their time and money in the development of local infrastructure disappeared. Public buildings from the 4th century onward tended to be much more modest and funded from central budgets, as the regional taxes had dried up. Second, Heather says "the landowning provincial literati now shifted their attention to where the money was … away from provincial and local politics to the imperial bureaucracies." Having set the scene of an Empire stretched militarily by the Sassanid threat, Heather then suggests, using archaeological evidence, that the Germanic tribes on the Empire's northern border had altered in nature since the 1st century. Contact with the Empire had increased their material wealth, and that in turn had led to disparities of wealth sufficient to create a ruling class capable of maintaining control over far larger groupings than had previously been possible. Essentially they had become significantly more formidable foes.

Heather then posits what amounts to a domino theory — namely that pressure on peoples very far away from the Empire could result in sufficient pressure on peoples on the Empire's borders to make them contemplate the risk of full scale immigration to the empire. Thus he links the Gothic
Goths
The Goths were an East Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin whose two branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, played an important role in the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe....

 invasion of 376 directly to Hunnic
Huns
The Huns were a group of nomadic people who, appearing from east of the Volga River, migrated into Europe c. AD 370 and established the vast Hunnic Empire there. Since de Guignes linked them with the Xiongnu, who had been northern neighbours of China 300 years prior to the emergence of the Huns,...

 movements around the Black Sea in the decade before. In the same way he sees the invasions across the Rhine in 406 as a direct consequence of further Hunnic incursions in Germania
Germania
Germania was the Greek and Roman geographical term for the geographical regions inhabited by mainly by peoples considered to be Germani. It was most often used to refer especially to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube...

; as such he sees the Huns as deeply significant in the fall of the Western Empire long before they themselves became a military threat to the Empire. He postulates that the Hunnic expansion caused unprecedented immigration in 376 and 406 by barbarian groupings who had become significantly more politically and militarily capable than in previous eras. This impacted an empire already at maximum stretch due to the Sassanid pressure. Essentially he argues that the external pressures of 376–470 could have brought the Western Empire down at any point in its history.

He disputes Gibbon's contention that Christianity
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 and moral decay led to the decline. He also rejects the political infighting of the Empire as a reason, considering it was a systemic recurring factor throughout the Empire's history which, while it might have contributed to an inability to respond to the circumstances of the 5th century, it consequently cannot be blamed for them. Instead he places its origin squarely on outside military factors, starting with the Sassanids. Like Bury, he does not believe the fall was inevitable, but rather a series of events which came together to shatter the Empire. He differs from Bury, however, in placing the onset of those events far earlier in the Empire's timeline, with the Sassanid rise.

Bryan Ward-Perkins


Bryan Ward-Perkins
Bryan Ward-Perkins
Bryan Ward-Perkins is an archaeologist and historian of the later Roman Empire and early Middle Ages, with a particular focus on the transitional period between those two eras, an historical sub-field also known as Late Antiquity. His published work has focused primarily on the urban and economic...

's The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005) takes a traditional view tempered by modern discoveries, arguing that the empire's demise was caused by a vicious circle of political instability, foreign invasion, and reduced tax revenue. Essentially, invasions caused long-term damage to the provincial tax base, which lessened the Empire's medium- to long-term ability to pay and equip the legions, with predictable results. Likewise, constant invasions encouraged provincial rebellion as self-help, further depleting Imperial resources. Contrary to the trend among some historians of the "there was no fall" school, who view the fall of Rome as not necessarily a "bad thing" for the people involved, Ward-Perkins argues that in many parts of the former Empire the archaeological record indicates that the collapse was truly a disaster.

Ward-Perkins' theory, much like Bury's, and Heather's, identifies a series of cyclic events that came together to cause a definite decline and fall.

Henri Pirenne


In the second half of the 19th century, some historians focused on the continuities between the Roman Empire and the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms rather than the rupture. In Histoire des institutions politiques de l'ancienne France (1875–89), Fustel de Coulanges argued that the barbarians simply contributed to an on-going process of transforming Roman institutions.

Henri Pirenne
Henri Pirenne
Henri Pirenne was a Belgian historian. A medievalist of Walloon descent, he wrote a multivolume history of Belgium in French and became a national hero....

 continued this idea with the "Pirenne Thesis", published in the 1920s, which remains influential to this day. It holds that even after the barbarian invasions, the Roman way of doing things did not immediately change; barbarians came to Rome not to destroy it, but to take part in its benefits, and thus they tried to preserve the Roman way of life. The Pirenne Thesis regards the rise of the Frankish realm in Europe
Frankish Empire
Francia or Frankia, later also called the Frankish Empire , Frankish Kingdom , Frankish Realm or occasionally Frankland, was the territory inhabited and ruled by the Franks from the 3rd to the 10th century...

 as a continuation of the Roman Empire, and thus validates the crowning of Charlemagne
Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

 as the first Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor
The Holy Roman Emperor is a term used by historians to denote a medieval ruler who, as German King, had also received the title of "Emperor of the Romans" from the Pope...

 as a successor of the Roman Emperors. According to Pirenne,[4] the real break in Roman history occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries as a result of Arab expansion. Islamic conquest of the area of today's south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Palestine, North Africa, Spain and Portugal ruptured economic ties to western Europe, cutting the region off from trade and turning it into a stagnant backwater, with wealth flowing out in the form of raw resources and nothing coming back. This began a steady decline and impoverishment so that by the time of Charlemagne western Europe had become almost entirely agrarian at a subsistence level, with no long-distance trade. Pirenne's view on the continuity of the Roman Empire before and after the Germanic invasion has been supported by recent historians such as François Masai, Karl-Ferdinand Werner, and Peter Brown
Peter Brown (historian)
Peter Robert Lamont Brown is Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. His principal contributions to the discipline have been in the field of late antiquity and, in particular, the religious culture of the later Roman Empire and early medieval Europe.-Life:Peter Brown was born in...

.

Some modern critics have argued that the "Pirenne Thesis" erred on two counts: by treating the Carolingian
Carolingian
The Carolingian dynasty was a Frankish noble family with origins in the Arnulfing and Pippinid clans of the 7th century AD. The name "Carolingian", Medieval Latin karolingi, an altered form of an unattested Old High German *karling, kerling The Carolingian dynasty (known variously as the...

 realm as a Roman state and by overemphasizing the effect of the Islamic conquests on the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. Other critics have argued that while Pirenne was correct in arguing for the continuity of the Empire beyond the sack of Rome, the Arab conquests in the 7th century may not have disrupted Mediterranean trade routes to the degree that Pirenne argued. Michael McCormick in particular has argued that some recently unearthed sources, such as collective biographies, describe new trade routes. Moreover, other records and coins document the movement of Islamic currency into the Carolingian Empire. McCormick has concluded that if money was coming in, some type of goods must have been going out – including slaves, timber, weapons, honey, amber, and furs.

Lucien Musset and the clash of civilizations


In the spirit of "Pirenne thesis", a school of thought pictured a clash of civilizations between the Roman and the Germanic world, a process taking place roughly between 3rd and 8th century.

The French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 historian Lucien Musset, studying the Barbarian invasions, argues the civilization of Medieval Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

 emerged from a synthesis between the Graeco-Roman world and the Germanic civilizations penetrating the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not fall, did not decline, it just transformed but so did the Germanic populations which invaded it. To support this conclusion, beside the narrative of the events, he offers linguistic
Linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 surveys of toponymy
Toponymy
Toponymy is the scientific study of place names , their origins, meanings, use and typology. The word "toponymy" is derived from the Greek words tópos and ónoma . Toponymy is itself a branch of onomastics, the study of names of all kinds...

 and anthroponymy
Anthroponymy
Anthroponomastics , a branch of onomastics, is the study of anthroponyms Anthroponomastics (or anthroponymy), a branch of onomastics, is the study of anthroponyms Anthroponomastics (or anthroponymy), a branch of onomastics, is the study of anthroponyms (Anthroponomastics (or anthroponymy), a branch...

, analyzes archaeological records, studies the urban and rural society, the institutions, the religion, the art, the technology.

Late Antiquity


Historians of Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

, a field pioneered by Peter Brown
Peter Brown (historian)
Peter Robert Lamont Brown is Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. His principal contributions to the discipline have been in the field of late antiquity and, in particular, the religious culture of the later Roman Empire and early medieval Europe.-Life:Peter Brown was born in...

, have turned away from the idea that the Roman Empire fell at all - refocusing instead on Pirenne's thesis. They see a transformation occurring over centuries, with the roots of Medieval
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 culture contained in Roman culture and focus on the continuities between the classical and Medieval worlds. Thus, it was a gradual process with no clear break. Brown argues in his book that,

Factors we would regard as natural in a 'crisis' - malaise caused by urbanization, public disasters, the intrusion of alien religious ideas, and a consequent heightening of religious hopes and fears--may not have bulked as large in the minds of the men of the late second and third centuries as we suppose... The towns of the Mediterranean were small towns. For all their isolation from the way of life of the villagers, they were fragile excresences in a spreading countryside."

Historiography


Historiographically
Historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

, the primary issue historians have looked at when analyzing any theory is the continued existence of the Eastern Empire or Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

, which lasted almost a thousand years after the fall of the West. For example, Gibbon implicates Christianity in the fall of the Western Empire, yet the eastern half of the Empire, which was even more Christian than the west in geographic extent, fervor, penetration and vast numbers continued on for a thousand years afterwards (although Gibbon did not consider the Eastern Empire to be much of a success). As another example, environmental or weather changes affected the east as much as the west, yet the east did not "fall."

Theories will sometimes reflect the particular concerns that historians might have on cultural, political, or economic trends in their own times. Gibbon's criticism of Christianity reflects the values of the Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

; his ideas on the decline in martial vigor could have been interpreted by some as a warning to the growing British Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

. In the 19th century socialist
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 and anti-socialist theorists tended to blame decadence
Decadence
Decadence can refer to a personal trait, or to the state of a society . Used to describe a person's lifestyle. Concise Oxford Dictionary: "a luxurious self-indulgence"...

 and other political problems. More recently, environment
Natural environment
The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living things occurring naturally on Earth or some region thereof. It is an environment that encompasses the interaction of all living species....

al concerns have become popular, with deforestation
Deforestation
Deforestation is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a nonforest use. Examples of deforestation include conversion of forestland to farms, ranches, or urban use....

 and soil erosion proposed as major factors, and destabilizing population decreases due to epidemic
Epidemic
In epidemiology, an epidemic , occurs when new cases of a certain disease, in a given human population, and during a given period, substantially exceed what is expected based on recent experience...

s such as early cases of bubonic plague
Bubonic plague
Plague is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by the enterobacteria Yersinia pestis, named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. Primarily carried by rodents and spread to humans via fleas, the disease is notorious throughout history, due to the unrivaled scale of death...

 and malaria
Malaria
Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease of humans and other animals caused by eukaryotic protists of the genus Plasmodium. The disease results from the multiplication of Plasmodium parasites within red blood cells, causing symptoms that typically include fever and headache, in severe cases...

 also cited. Global climate changes of 535-536, perhaps caused by the possible eruption of Krakatoa
Krakatoa
Krakatoa is a volcanic island made of a'a lava in the Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. The name is used for the island group, the main island , and the volcano as a whole. The island exploded in 1883, killing approximately 40,000 people, although some estimates...

 in 535, as mentioned by David Keys
David Keys (author)
David Keys is archaeology correspondent for the London daily paper, The Independent, frequent television commentator on archaeological matters and author of the 1999 book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World. He has visited over a thousand archaeological sites in sixty...

 and others, is another example. Ideas about transformation with no distinct fall mirror the rise of the postmodern tradition, which rejects periodization
Periodization
Periodization is the attempt to categorize or divide time into named blocks. The result is a descriptive abstraction that provides a useful handle on periods of time with relatively stable characteristics...

 concepts (see metanarrative
Metanarrative
A metanarrative , in critical theory and particularly postmodernism, is an abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge. According to John Stephens, it "is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge...

). What is not new are attempts to diagnose Rome's particular problems, with Satire X, written by Juvenal in the early 2nd century at the height of Roman power, criticizing the peoples' obsession with "bread and circuses
Bread and circuses
"Bread and Circuses" is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement...

" and rulers seeking only to gratify these obsessions.

One of the primary reasons for the vast number of theories is the notable lack of surviving evidence from the 4th and 5th centuries. For example there are so few records of an economic nature it is difficult to arrive at even a generalization of the economic conditions. Thus, historians must quickly depart from available evidence and comment based on how things ought to have worked, or based on evidence from previous and later periods, on inductive reasoning
Inductive reasoning
Inductive reasoning, also known as induction or inductive logic, is a kind of reasoning that constructs or evaluates propositions that are abstractions of observations. It is commonly construed as a form of reasoning that makes generalizations based on individual instances...

. As in any field where available evidence is sparse, the historian's ability to imagine the 4th and 5th centuries will play as important a part in shaping our understanding as the available evidence, and thus be open for endless interpretation.

The end of the Western Roman Empire traditionally has been seen by historians to mark the end of the Ancient Era and beginning of the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

. More recent schools of history, such as Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

, offer a more nuanced view from the traditional historical narrative.

See also

  • Bronze Age collapse
    Bronze Age collapse
    The Bronze Age collapse is a transition in southwestern Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age that some historians believe was violent, sudden and culturally disruptive...

  • G.E.M. de Ste. Croix
  • Global Empire
  • Last of the Romans
    Last of the Romans
    The description Last of the Romans has historically been given to any man thought to embody the values of Ancient Roman civilization - values which, by implication, became extinct on his death....

  • Legacy of the Roman Empire
    Legacy of the Roman Empire
    The legacy of the Roman Empire refers to the set of cultural values, religious beliefs, as well as technological and other achievements of Ancient Rome which were passed on after the demise of the empire itself and continued to shape other civilizations, a process which continues to this day.-...

  • Plague of Justinian
    Plague of Justinian
    The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire , including its capital Constantinople, in 541–542 AD. It was one of the greatest plagues in history. The most commonly accepted cause of the pandemic is bubonic plague, which later became infamous for either causing or...

  • Rise of Christianity during the Fall of Rome
  • Roman-Persian Wars
    Roman-Persian Wars
    The Roman–Persian Wars were a series of conflicts between states of the Greco-Roman world and two successive Iranic empires: the Parthian and the Sassanid. Contact between the Parthian Empire and the Roman Republic began in 92 BC; wars began under the late Republic, and continued...

  • Societal collapse
    Societal collapse
    Societal collapse broadly includes both quite abrupt societal failures typified by collapses , as well as more extended gradual declines of superpowers...

  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
    The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
    The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a non-fiction history book written by English historian Edward Gibbon and published in six volumes. Volume I was published in 1776, and went through six printings. Volumes II and III were published in 1781; volumes IV, V, VI in 1788–89...

  • Western Roman Empire
    Western Roman Empire
    The Western Roman Empire was the western half of the Roman Empire after its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly referred to today as the Byzantine Empire....


Further reading

  • Robert J. Antonio. "The Contradiction of Domination and Production in Bureaucracy: The Contribution of Organizational Efficiency to the Decline of the Roman Empire," American Sociological Review Vol. 44, No. 6 (Dec., 1979), pp. 895–912 in JSTOR
  • Arther Ferrill The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation" 0500274959 (1998) supports Vegetius' theory.
  • Adrian Goldsworthy
    Adrian Goldsworthy
    Adrian Keith Goldsworthy is a British historian and author who specialises in ancient Roman history.-Biography:Goldsworthy attended Westbourne School, Penarth...

    . How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower(2009); published in Britain as The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower (2010)
  • Guy Halsall. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (Cambridge U.P., 2007) excerpt and text search
  • Peter Heather
    Peter Heather
    Peter Heather is a historian of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, currently Professor of Medieval History at King's College London. He has held appointments at University College London and Yale University and was Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at Worcester College, Oxford until...

    . "The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe," '"English Historical Review Vol. 110, No. 435 (Feb., 1995), pp. 4-41 in JSTOR
  • Peter Heather
    Peter Heather
    Peter Heather is a historian of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, currently Professor of Medieval History at King's College London. He has held appointments at University College London and Yale University and was Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at Worcester College, Oxford until...

    .
    Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe (Oxford University Press; 2010); 734 pages; Examines the migrations, trade, and other phenomena that shaped a recognizable entity of Europe in the first millennium. excerpt and text search
  • Peter Heather
    Peter Heather
    Peter Heather is a historian of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, currently Professor of Medieval History at King's College London. He has held appointments at University College London and Yale University and was Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at Worcester College, Oxford until...

    ,
    The Fall of the Roman Empire, 2005, ISBN 0-19-515954-3, offers a narrative of the final years, in the tradition of Gibson or Bury, plus incorporates latest archaeological evidence and other recent findings.
  • A. H. M. Jones. The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey (2 Vol. 1964) excerpt and text search
  • Donald Kagan
    Donald Kagan
    Donald Kagan is an American historian at Yale University specializing in ancient Greece, notable for his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War. 1987-1988 Acting Director of Athletics, Yale University. He was Dean of Yale College from 1989–1992. He formerly taught in the Department of...

    , ed.
    The End of the Roman Empire: Decline or Transformation?, ISBN 0-669-21520-1 (3rd edition 1992) – excerpts from historians
  • Mitchell, Stephen, ;;A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641: The Transformation of the Ancient World (2006)
  • "The Fall of Rome – an author dialogue" Part I and Part 2: Oxford professors Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather discuss The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians.
  • Jeanne Rutenburg and Arthur M. Eckstein, "The Return of the Fall of Rome," International History Review 29 (2007): 109-122, historiography

Foreign language

  • Lucien Musset, Les Invasions : Les vagues germaniques, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1965 (3rd ed. 1994, ISBN 2130467156)

External links