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Why did the Roman Empire Fall - and some recommended reading

By Edited Dec 4, 2015 0 0

The fall of Rome and it's EMpire has a foothold on popular culture and has been examined in books, films and TV. The traditional view was born out of the great work by Gibbons in the 18th century entitled the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire - a giveraway title if there ever was one !

Gibbons declared that Rome had become corrupt, over bureacratic, slovenly and the barbarian hordes were just pushing at crumbling edifice when they launched there myriad of invasions in the 5th century A.D. 

Popular culture relates to the sacking of Rome in 410 A.D by Alaric and the Visigoths and the final dissolution of the Empire in the West in 476 A.D.

But did Rome end then? Certainly there is now a more nuanced approach to how we see the end of Rome. Rome as a city may have fallen and been occupied by a number of times in the 5th century but 'Romans' lived on the Eastern Empire based at Constantinople for another 1000 years. 

The Empire had been split between two emperors originally in the late 3rd century by Diocletian as he attempted to deal with a number of attacks and invasions from Persia in the East and from tribes over the Danube. This split of the empire lived on as emperors felt that a divided empire could be stronger and deal with problems more easily. The empire did stabilise for a period in the 4th century but life was changing. There were ever increasing rich landowners who ensured there own well being through militia's and started to create the concept of serfdom by ensuring people had land and some safety but essentially gave their lives to their local lord - this was the beginning of the early medieval period in many ways. And this was happening before the Empire fell in the West. It could be argued that 'Roman' culture survived in the West through this cultural shift and certainly the language remained alive through the church.

There were ongoing problems with famine, pestilence and of course 'barbarian' invasions which did become more serious as time went on. These invasions were not for looting but caused by vast movements of tribes and peoples from the eastern Asian steppes, caused by pressure on land and attacks on these tribes by groups further east. These people wanted to settle and become part of Rome not destroy it - it was not in their interest to do so.

Rome had always operated a policy of offering tribes land within their borders in exchange for military service and this still occurred but unfortunately there were so many people that this caused a dislocation of society in many areas.

The Roman bureaucracy had become more efficient in many ways but is was facing increasingly rich landowners who did not always want to play ball.

Rome also faced pressure from a re-surgent Persian Empire that was becoming more aggressive - in the past Rome had effectively dealt with such other possible contenders to its supremacy but facing a number of attacks at once across its borders it could not deal a decisive blow to Persia.

The army was also changing - it had become more focussed on fixed defence of the borders and did not deal as well with large scale movement across the vast empire. It was still well trained for the most part but could be seriously understrength in certain locations as troops were moved to help deal with the multiple attacks. 

Rome in the West eventually bled to death through the ongoing assaults on it but it there had been an ongoing change within society that meant for many rich landowners the Empire was not as important to their political ambitions as it had been. In many ways it died with a whimper in the West as already new overlords had taken control in the preceding century in many locations.

But the Empire itself continued on in the East and remained an effective superpower for another 500 years or so until the ongoing Arab expansion started to make serious headway into its territory. It also had to contend with the rising Western Medieval states who saw it as a rich plundering opportunity, even though they should have been Christian brothers. The East staggered on to finally end in 1476 as the Ottoman Turks finally took Constantinople and ended the Roman Empire for good. But the Eastern Empire had many successes and is a story well worth exploring - John Julius Norwich is the expert who has produced a number of long and shorter versions of its life whilst Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin gives an alternative look at the Eastern story.

In looking at the Western Empire there are very readable books by Peter Heather (Fall of the Roman Empire - A New History) and Adrian Goldsworthy's - The Fall of the West : The Death of a Roman Superpower.

When reading these it is interesting to note the allusions to today and how we are experiencing in the West a power shift though not fortunately through invasion and death as they did 1500 years ago.



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