On September 4, A.D. 476, a barbarian named Odoacer was placed on the Roman throne, ending the long line of Roman rulers that had lasted for centuries. Today, many historians mark this date as the fall of the Roman empire. The subject of Rome's fall has raised many controversies, and many fears. Why did Rome fall? How could such a powerful civilization, lasting nearly a millennium, crumble apart? If Rome fell, what does it mean for America? While many factors led to Rome's fall, the largest were economic and military troubles; which this paper will focus on. Our current economy, and military and foreign relation conditions in some ways resemble the Roman empire just before things began to get bad.
The Roman empire's economic failure played a great role in its fall. Some people theorize that a major cause of Rome's economic troubles was a decrease in farming and trade. From about 450 to 250 B.C., the Mediterranean area had a good climate for farming; and then a steady decrease in rainfall brought a steady decrease in agriculture. People flocked to towns, which in time became cities. The capital, where many people went, grew to a population of over one million by the first century A.D. (Nardo, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 61). Poverty became so bad that many people received free bread from the government. The price of land dropped, and rich farmers bought up huge estates, paving the way for the medieval feudal system.
When this happened, small independent farmers decreased in number, and large estates owned by rich people or the government increased in number. Don Nardo explains it well in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire: “Many of the peasants whose ancestors had owned and worked their own lands became the coloni; dependent tenant workers on the big estates; and over time the government passed laws binding these workers and their descendants both to their jobs and their respective geographic locations” (Nardo 65). People thus lost overall motivation and productivity declined.
Another huge factor in Rome's economic crisis was a decline in coinage value. It started when cheap metal alloys were used in coins instead of silver. When the value of coins dropped, the emperor Septimius Severus (197-211) tried to fix the problem by creating coins with even less silver content. However, this only made the economy worse. As barbarian tribes became a threat in the north, Severus needed more money to pay for his military, and issued higher taxes. This created a greater stress on the economy. His successor, Caracalla (211-217) followed many of the same policies as his father; excellently defending the empire's borders while allowing the internal issues, such as the economy, to grow worse and worse.
With each emperor that followed, Rome became more and more unstable. Trade continued to decline. Poverty and crime skyrocketed. Coinage became nearly worthless. Because soldiers' pay was so low, they started looting villages and farms of enemies and Romans. One emperor, Diocletian (284-305), finally broke the pattern of incapable rulers and tried to bring stability. While some of his changes may have helped, his attempts at reforming the economy failed. He thought he could fix the economy by regulating prices, but people did not like the government telling them how much they could make on goods, and often ignored or avoided the rules. Thus, the economy remained out of control. According to Peter Heather's book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians: “By the early 470s... the Roman state's main problem was lack of money” (Heather 428).
The decline in Rome's military also contributed to its fall. Because of the economy, the government could not afford to hire more troops, and the army became smaller. Soldiers were not as well-trained and less disciplined. There was also a major loss in morale and national pride, and people did not want to join the army. Young men did whatever they could to avoid military service, including amputating their own thumbs. At first, the government burned these people, but eventually the need for recruits became so great that they forced them to serve in the military anyway (Nardo, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 74). The economy also caused the quality of weapons and armor to decrease.
Because of its weakened militaristic state, the Roman empire may seem like it was a prime target for invaders. Many historians blame the devastating wave of barbarian attacks for Rome's fall. As the French historian André Piganiol put it, “Roman civilization did not die a natural death. It was murdered” (Nardo, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 75). Yet despite the increase in barbarian attacks and the decrease in military strength that the Roman empire experienced, the empire was still strong enough that it should have held the barbarians off. The barbarians had inferior armor, training, and numbers to the Romans. In adding up all the barbarians that opposed Rome, it is estimated that 110-120,000 helped bring down the empire; while the estimated size of the Roman army was at least 300,000 in AD 375 (Heather 446). In fact, some people say it was double that size. How, then, could the barbarians have conquered the Roman empire?
There were a few factors that helped the barbarians become victorious. First, the Roman empire had enemies on two fronts: the barbarians in the north, and the Persians in the east. This made it hard for the Romans to concentrate their troops in either of the two areas. Persia grew into a superpower status in the third century, and became a massive threat to the Eastern Roman Empire; causing the attention of Rome to shift east. Thus, they were possibly more open to attack from the north, since those 300,000 men were not necessarily in full concentration where the barbarians attacked.
Second, the waves of barbarian attacks were increasing greatly. To give an idea of how frequent these waves were, here is a list of various barbarian invasions: In the 230s, Germanic tribes invaded the area around the Danube River. Just eight years later, and again in 251, Goths from north of the Black Sea raided Rome. They defeated and killed the emperor, Decius. In 260, the Alamanni people attacked northern Italy. Around that time, the Roman regions of Gaul and Spain were invaded by more barbarian tribes. Meanwhile, Sassanian Persians captured Antioch in 253. The emperor Valerian held them back for some time, then was captured and died as a prisoner (Nardo, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 81-82). The attacks from both the north and the east were becoming more than Rome could handle.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the empire was rotting from the core. The barbarians alone were not responsible for Rome's fall; they were only able to overcome it because it was already weak and deteriorating from internal issues. These issues included the economy, a loss in morale and patriotism, a corrupt government, weak leadership, a false sense of security and invincibility, awful poverty, increasing crime and disorder, a rise in immorality, escalation of divorce and destructions of families, and more. In a sense, the Romans were in a vicious and destructive cycle: as the internal issues got worse, the empire became weaker and more susceptible to attack; as the empire grew weaker, the barbarian invasions increased and became more devastating; as barbarian attacks became greater, the Romans were too preoccupied with fighting them to focus on internal issues, letting the internal issues grow worse; and thus the cycle continued. Each time the cycle completed its circle, the empire was crippled even further.
How does the Roman empire before its fall compare to America today? Find out in part 2... to be continued...
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Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. 2006, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York City, NY
Murphy, Cullen. Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. 2007, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York City, NY
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Nardo, Don. From Founding to Fall: A History of Rome. 2003, Lucent Books, Farmington Hills, MI