Health Editor’s Note: Here are some thoughts/reasons of historians about what might have caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I have thrown a few of mine in also. Perhaps not much different than what could be happening to America, as we speak/write…..Carol
Many historians have given reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which could be separated into two time frames since the Eastern part of the Empire lasted far beyond the Western. In comparing and contrasting six of these historians it is apparent that there is no consensus about why the Empire collapsed. There were certainly both internal and external factors, which brought about the demise or did not prevent the decline of this great empire.
Russian historian, Michael Rostovtseff, feels that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the engulfment of the educated classes by the uneducated masses and the subsequent barbarization or simplification of Roman political, social, economic, and intellectual life. (Kagan, 5) He also gives importance to the attacks by external enemies and constant civil war within the Roman Empire. (Kagan, 30) He describes the use of the army to terrorize the Roman population and the fact that constant internal strife allowed the enemies of Rome to attack its empire, weakened the ability to resist these attacks, and forced the emperors to use terror and compulsion to maintain internal order.
The policy of the subjection of the population to an administration based on compulsion and terror, creation of a new aristocracy from the members of the army, production of a slave state with autocratic monarchy led minority ruling groups, commanding an army filled with mercenaries, and compulsory military seemed to be the easiest way to keep the Roman Empire functioning. (Kagan, 20) These tactics did not save the empire as the emperor became totally dependent upon the military and therefore the military was able to remove any emperor who threatened their status. The soldiers seemed to have “mass psychosis” that forced them to fight other Romans and emperors that they had previously supported.
The Roman army, which has previously been composed of Roman citizens, eventually was made up of war-like tribes gathered from beyond Rome’s frontiers. The emperors bribed the armies but eventually lost control of and became slave to their own armies as the armies used the emperor to get what they wanted. Rostovtseff states that the leading classes of the Empire could not accept hereditary succession based on divine imperial power because this concept of principate to monarchy threatened their idea of freedom. When the army was still Roman the idea of principate was central, but as it became barbarized it became more amenable to a monarchy.
Rostovtseff says the political struggle between hereditary monarchy and emperors with their supporting armies and the upper classes ended but the struggle revisited in the form of army versus educated classed for leadership of the state. (Kagan, 31) The army fought the aristocracy and removed all power from the privileged classes. The army also came from the bourgeoisie and was separate from the civilized (aristocratic) life of the Empire. The humiliores class formed the majority of the population but were subjects of the landlords or the states and were separated from the privileged classes whom they supported with their work, taxes, and rents. Understandably the humiliores developed feelings of envy and hatred towards the upper classes. The friction between the city and the county led to the social revolution of the third century. The armies started to look upon the cities of the Empire as their enemies. (Kagan, 37) Cities lost their social and political influences as the armies sided with the peasants.
Rostovtseff gives the crisis in the third century social rather than political connotations as the bourgeoisie replaced the aristocracy and the middle class disappeared as it became more oppressed. The bourgeoisie and peasants both gained nothing and the depression of the Roman spirit allowed the Diocletian stabilization that in the end did nothing to improve conditions. (Kagan, 39)
F.W. Walbank blames low technology and the use of slavery to compensate for the lack of technology as the cause for the decline. (Kagan, 4) Slaves, who did the work, did not receive the benefit afforded to the freeman. Without hope of benefit or improvement in condition the slave did not strive to improve the way he did work. Greek culture had separated the things of the hand and of the mind. (Kagan, 42) In De Officiis I; Cicero describes labor jobs as being vulgar while those done by the educated as being honorable.
Technological advances were unnecessary since slave labor was cheap and plentiful. From an economic standpoint the masses that produced could not become consumers. Only the wealthy could purchase and the expansion of the Roman Empire did not target the peasant and the middle classes for consumption and the ability to profit from selling to these classes was lost. Industrialization did not develop because there was no mass consumption. In the end Rome was placated with old processes rather than choosing to develop technology. As the Empire expanded to new territories this process of using slave labor repeated itself. Trade became localized and international areas were ignored, as there was a reversal to small scale, hand-to-mouth craftsmanship. (Kagan, 47) This process would have had an effect of implosion rather than expansion as economic units became smaller and localized.
Gradually industry moved from large cities to the country estates and villages as agrarian interests were renewed, but the country was not up to the task since it had been long neglected for urban development. The estates then retarded the areas open to trade as they became self-sufficient and drew importance of trade away from the cities.
G.E.M. de Ste. Croix blames the fall of the Roman Empire on the fact that the wealthy had unlimited political and economic power and goes so far as to compare them to vampire bats as they sucked the wealth (life) out of the Empire. He quotes portions of the Second Novel (issued 11 March 458) to show how the imposition and collection of taxes caused distress to the Roman Empire. “On the remission of arrears…by stressing the woes of the provincials, whose fortunes are said to be enfeebled and worn down…by exaction of various forms of regular tribute….” (Kagan, 60)
The upper class exploited the lower classes by often deferring taxes for themselves. Those who carried out orders to collect taxes were often of the upper classes. A Novel of Emperor Romanus II, 959-963, states “We must beware lest we send upon the unfortunate poor the calamity of law officers, more merciless than famine itself.” (Kagan, 63)
De Ste. Croix describes a class struggle where “the Roman political system…facilitated a most intense and ultimately destructive economic exploitation of the great mass of the people, whether slave or free, and it made radical reform impossible.” (Kagan, 64) The propertied classes drained the wealth from the Empire and monopolized the political power and used this position to sequester the wealth of the Empire for themselves. He also quotes Peter Brown’s book, The World of Late Antiquity and this quote describes what de Ste. Croix has described as wealth going only to the wealthy. Brown’s words, “Altogether, the prosperity of the Mediterranean world seems to have drained from the top” shows that senatorial aristocracy had become richer as time went by.
The peasants became responsible for maintaining the Empire. The burden of maintaining the imperial military and bureaucratic machine, and the church, in addition to a leisure class consisting mainly of absentee landowners, fell primarily upon the peasantry, who formed the bulk of the population…” (Kagan, 65) De Ste. Croix states that these social and economic pressures disturbed the peasants and would have been a factor in why they may have not resisted the barbarian invaders because their present oppression was equally as harmful.
In comparing Rostovtseff’s, Walbank and de Ste. Croix’s reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, there is a common thread of social reasons that contributed to the eventual demise of the Empire. Walbank gives first blame to lack of technology with its economic ramifications and the social problems of the subsequent use of slave labor this lack of technology supported. Rostovtseff suggests that the masses overtook the educated in the critical areas of intellectual, economic, social and political life and the empire became decivilized. Constant internal strife allowed forces outside the Empire easier access. Civil strife between country and city broke down a united front against the invaders.
The economy became stagnant, as the slave force could not buy the products they produced. Trade became localized and the economy lost the ability to tap outside capital resources.
De Ste. Croix gives much importance to economic deterioration as the upper classes sucked the money out of the Empire by taxing the masses for the benefit of the few at the top. No money was used to maintain the infrastructure of the Empire. He also states that the internal economic pressures made it easier for outside forces to move in since what they might offer could not be seen as any worse than the existing oppression the Roman masses were experiencing. Walbank gives internal sources as the cause while Rostovtseff feels the external forces were able to take good advantage of internal civil strife.
A.M.H. Jones blames the barbarian attacks on the Western half of the Empire as the cause of the fall. He points out that a corrupt bureaucracy, who took much from the people, caused external weaknesses in both the East and West. In the East the government enforced a class system, which alienated the cities from the country. Land was no longer cultivated in the East or West. Although Jones does not specifically state that Christianity had a play in the decline, he does quote Gibbon who says, “Christianity sapped the morale of the empire, deadened its intellectual life and by its embittered controversies undermined its unity.” Kagan, 18)
Jones also points to heavy taxation to support the military and the processes used to collect those taxes was a definite cause of the decline. The economic decline resulted from supporting the non-productive members of Roman society on the collective backs of the peasants, who gradually decreased in numbers. His final point is that the escalating pressure of the barbarians on the weaker half of the Empire caused the collapse.
Peter Brown believes the decline was caused by exposure to the non-Mediterranean world, which created changes. “What to do with a stranger in one’s midst—with men excluded in a traditionally aristocratic society, with thoughts denied expression by a traditional culture, with needs not articulated in conventional religion, with the utter foreigner from across the frontier.” (Kagan, 147) Large taxation on land that was not fertile drove people away from agriculture. (Kagan, 165) He mentions the wars and high taxation on society as factors in the decline. Costs to maintain civilizations not located on the water were high and much of the territory of the Empire stretched hundreds of miles away from the shores of the Mediterranean.
Arther Farrill believes the Roman army became barbarized as it lost tactical superiority. He thinks at some point Rome chose a fact in policy, which led to its fall. By 410 Rome had practically stopped producing her own soldiers and those they did produce were no longer taught “close-order” formations. Also, by this time the Western Empire could no longer send military power to its boundaries. This of course meant that most outlying territories, such as England and Africa, would be lost. Farrill also states that the shrinkage of the imperial frontiers from 310 to 440 was directly the result of military conquests by barbarian forces. (Kagan, 150) He points directly to the use of barbarian troops by Stilicha as a political problem, which was what caused his downfall in 408. (Kagan, 141) Farrill’s final thought was that the close formation skills were no longer efficiently used and this ineffectiveness allowed the barbarians to defeat the once proud and efficient Roman legions.
Jones blames the fall on the decline in the Roman economy that was supporting, through heavy taxation, non-contributing member of society and the military to the detriment of the peasant class who shouldered the burden of producing the income for the Empire. He focuses on internal weaknesses as the causation but also lays some blame to the external pressures of barbarian attacks on the weaker Western Empire.
Brown blames the vast geographical nature of the empire as its nemesis. The cost of maintaining and feeding cities that were located inland was high and drained the coffers. The Mediterranean world was always on the verge of starvation. (Kagan, 149) The exposure of the non-Mediterranean world decreased the effectiveness of Roman rule as foreign influences diluted Roman ways.
Agreeing with Jones, Farrill believes that the decline was caused by barbarization of the army. The lack of training in traditional legion tactics decreased Rome’s chances of resisting attacks from the outside. He states that by 476 the massive army of the West was gone and that this was the cause of collapse of Roman government in the West. (Kagan, 168)
The Rostovtseff, Walbank, and de Ste. Croix group try to define the problems associated with the fall of Rome. These problems were high taxation, high cost of keeping the military, civil wars, uneducated masses overtaking educated elite, low technology which increased use of slaves, lack of industrialization, isolated trade, the draining of the wealth by the upper classes, and the fact that barbarian invaders would have seemed no worse than the “vampires” who lived within Roman boarders.
The Jones, Brown, and Ferrill group give more culpability to outside influences of barbarized army, expense of maintaining vast borders, and changes brought to the Roman Empire. The aristocracy who ruled and ran the Empire did so successfully using conformity until they neglected to include the peasantry of the conquered territories. The exposure to the peasantry and breakdown of previous conformity altered Roman culture enough that the infrastructure of the Empire was weakened.
Historians often disagree with each other as to why and when the Roman Empire went into decline and fell. Some note is taken that perhaps the Empire did not fall at all since the Eastern part of the Empire continued to function as the Byzantine Empire. As a side note, none of these six historians mention famine and diseases that much have plagued the ancient world. In reality, any decline in this once powerful empire probably was caused by all the reasons these historians have found including introduction of Christianity and perhaps more reasons than we will ever know.