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Saturday, 20 August 2016

World History: The Decline and Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire

The Fall of Rome
On the last World History post we discussed Rome's evolution from a city-state kingdom to an empire ruling the Mediterranean and most of Europe, (please see here). In 27 BCE Augustus became the first official emperor of Rome; in 476 CE Romulus Augustulus became the last emperor of Rome when he was deposed. That is, he was the last emperor of the western Roman Empire. Meanwhile, in the east, the Eastern, or Byzantine Empire, lasted until 1453 CE with the inhabitants of Constantinople, (modern Istanbul), viewing themselves as Romans. Why did half of the Roman Empire collapse while the other half continue on for centuries? Often seen as the father of modern history Edward Gibbon tried to explain why Rome fell in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Today we shall see for ourselves how the Western Roman Empire collapsed.

Instead of being a chronological post, like my previous World History posts, this post shall deal with topics instead. These topics are the contributing factors to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and all these factors are linked in some way. All of these factors helped the decline of the empire.

War and Expansion, (or lack of it)
War, both conventional and civil wars, helped place immense strain on the empire. Many emperors, such as Septimus Severus who reigned 193-211 CE, only became emperor by winning a civil war against their opponents. Naturally emperors ruling thanks to military might rather than Senate choice does not offer a stable government. Between 200 CE and 300 CE there were twenty-two emperors not including the generals who declared themselves emperor, like Postumus in Gaul, where the United States only had eighteen presidents in the same time-span. Of course changing emperors via murder, coup and civil war further degenerates the administration of the empire.

Foreign wars, successful and unsuccessful, all put strain on the empire. In 225 CE the Parthian Empire, (in modern Iran), was toppled and Ardashir was crowned emperor of the new Sassanid Empire who wished to reconquer lands in the Middle East. What followed was almost continuous warfare between Rome, (both west and east), and the Sassanids for centuries with the Sassanids even managing to capture the Emperor Valerian prisoner in 260, (who would later die as a Sassanid prisoner and was even reportedly used as a footstool by the Sassanid emperor Shapur). While war waged in the east to the north there were continuous wars against the 'barbarians' along the Rhine and Danube. We shall talk more about the involvement of barbarians later on but they did drain Roman power when war happened against the Sassanids after 230. The Alammani gained a tonne of concessions when the Romans wanted a free hand in fighting in Persia, later the Goths in 251 invaded a province just under the Danube when conflict broke out in Persia again which caused the death of the emperor by barbarians, and five years later the Franks and Alammani invaded with the latter reaching Milan. Fighting these wars, and wars to retake lost land, put a considerable strain upon the Roman economy as fighting continuous wars on two fronts requires a large army who needs to be paid, fed and armed. Not only that, but by not gaining more land they could not gain more slaves which was needed to act as craftsmen or farm hands.

Finally we also have overexpansion itself. At its height in 117 CE Rome stretched from Portugal to Palmyra to north Africa to Belgium to Scotland to Spain. The sheer size of the empire was just too big to handle. Upon becoming emperor in 117 Hadrian started to withdraw from his uncle Trajan's conquests in Armenia and Mesopotamia, and started to fortify the borders of the empire. In the south this war easy as the Sahara acted as a natural barrier and in the east when Hadrian had withdrew from former conquests the Euphrates acted as another barrier. However, in the north he had miles upon miles of fortifications along the Danube, Rhine, Elbe and northern Britain. These fortifications were made from local materials so on the continent they were mostly made of timber and turf; although they left no clear remains they can still be seen. However, in north-east Britain stone was used which has made this the most famous of the fortifications. Today it is known as Hadrian's Wall, (which one of my former lecturers, Professor Jim Crow of the University of Edinburgh, helped excavate).
Hadrian's Wall
Even before the many civil wars and foreign wars Rome was just too big to handle. Hadrian building these fortifications were done to stem the tide of expansion or otherwise it would damage Rome. As war brought instability Roman administration of such a vast area of land became diminished. Local generals and governors started becoming powerful which in turn weakened the empire, and allowed pretenders to Rome to rise. Not only that but communication was slow, despite the efficient Roman roads, which meant it took a long amount of time to warn the military of an invasion.

Division and Splintered Wealth
East vs. West
In 284 Diocletian managed to become emperor with the backing of the military. Diocletian became emperor after years of instability called the Crisis of the Third Century where the empire was beset by conflict, invasion and division, (a Gallic and Palmyrene empire had been declared and broke off from Rome) following the assassination of the emperor. Diocletian wished to avoid this occurring again and appointed a co-emperor in 285, Maximian, where one would rule the empire west of a line running from Dalmatia to the Danube in Rome, while the other would rule the east from Byzantium, (modern Istanbul). This was done to ensure that the empire could be ran far more easily. Doing this, however, created a rift between the Latin-speaking west and Greek-speaking east so by 395 the division had become permanent. Before the split the two halves had squabbles over military aid, resources, taxation, and later religion which left them to battle on their own. The east prospered. It had control of the western half of the Silk Road, (please see here), and could take from the prosperous cities in Persia which made the east richer, and in turn fortify her cities. Byzantium, later called Constantinople, became a heavily fortified city. Meanwhile, the west became overshadowed as they lost the eastern trade and could only loot from the so-called barbarians. When the barbarians chose to raid they avoided the militarily powerful east to invade the west. A weaker west relied on harsher taxation creating an even greater wealth diaspora between the poor and the rich creating further alienation between the state and the people.

Constantine the Great
Around 33 CE a religious leader was crucified for stirring trouble in the Jewish community of Jerusalem. What started as a reformation of Judaism escalated into the worship of the crucified man, Jesus of Nazareth, and has now become the largest religion in the world, Christianity. Due to Christianity being monotheistic in contrast to Rome's polytheism this caused initial tensions as Christians refused to participate in the public religious ceremonies, or pay the Jewish tax. Edward Gibbon also stated that converts renouncing family, paganism and country, dislike of common pleasures and talk of an impending doom ostracized them from their pagan neighbors. Like the druids, Bacchanals and Jews before them Rome started to persecute Christians to keep public security, and direct blame away from the elite. In 64 CE Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome when the public initially blamed Nero and in 250 the first anti-Christian laws were passed. Despite Roman persecution and schisms in the early Church the religion started to grow in popularity so by the year 300 a tenth of the population was Christian. One emperor had even had Jesus Christ among the gods which he privately honored. Not even Diocletian's persecution of Christians managed to stem the popularity of the new religion. Everything would change under Emperor Constantine. On the 28 October 312 Constantine supposedly saw a cross in the sky just before a battle. He won the battle, was baptized and declared tolerance for all religions across the empire.

How did this help Rome fall? Edward Gibbon has exaggerated the role of Christianity, (I just want to say I am an atheist in case anyone was wondering if I had an overly pro-Christian bias), but it did have some role in helping the empire's decline. In 380 Christianity became the state religion. This severely damaged the power of the emperor as the emperor was seen as being descended from a god and being divine, so by shifting religion this shifted supreme power from the emperor. Meanwhile, the pope and other Christian leaders now had a say in the role of the state, in the west, thus adding another player into convoluted Roman politics. In contrast the Church in the east was more under the emperor's control with the city of Byzantium being renamed Constantinople to show the power of the new Christian emperor. However, as shown earlier, Christianity was less important compared to military and economic issues...and the barbarians.

Attila the Hun
Rome faced issues from two types of 'barbarians': invaders and soldiers. Weakening administration meant that Rome was finding itself increasingly difficult to recruit soldiers to fight the peoples of northern Europe, called barbarians by the Romans. Successive emperors made a bold decision to resolve the northern threat and solve their manpower issues: hire 'barbarians' as mercenaries. Instead of Roman citizens the legions were swelled with peoples from all around northern Europe. However, this would prove to hasten the decline. For one, many of these mercenaries were polytheistic so often they came into conflict with the now Christian Romans, (although this did help spread Christianity across Europe), and the mercenaries had no loyalty to Rome. Instead of fighting for the emperor, Rome and empire they instead fought for their local commanders. Increased localism as a result hastened the empire's decline.

Invasion, of course, sped up the fall of the west. As said earlier the wealthier east could afford defenses making the west prime raiding material. In 406 in what is called the Crossing of the Rhine thousands of people making up Germanic tribes destroyed the illusion of Roman power by crossing the Rhine and they migrated to the fertile southern provinces, sacking cities as they went. This destroyed the empire in Britain, Iberia and France but this migration would later play a crucial role in shaping the genetic makeup of Europe. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, in 410 even managed to sack Rome, the first time in centuries. Although Rome had no longer been the capital for several years it was a serious blow regardless as the city was so wealthy compared to the rest of the empire. An even greater threat to both east and west was Attila the Hun, ruler of the Hunnic Empire. Attila invaded first the east in 440 winning many battles which emboldened him to invade the west. In 451 the western empire had to ally itself with the Visigoths at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains to defeat Attila. It would be the last time that Rome could defend itself from invasion.

In 476 the final bell tolled for Rome. In 476 the west only consisted of Italy, the northern Balkans and parts of northern France. A man called Odoacer was a 'barbarian' officer in the remnants of the army when Emperior Julius Nepos was deposed by Orestes who declared his son, Romulus, emperor who then styled himself as Romulus Augustulus. When Constantinople refused to acknowledge this Odoacer deposed Romulus and declared himself King of Italy which Constantinople recognized. However, as Rome's power had diminished so much that most of the population outside of Rome went by regardless of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Often regarded as one of the greatest empires had died in a whimper.

The Western Roman Empire died a slow death with years of instability, economic decline, overextension, being overshadowed and religious discord slowly ebbing the strength of the empire. As the sun set on Rome it rose on Constantinople. The Roman Empire lived on with the eastern Byzantine Empire where the population truly saw itself as being Roman. It remained a major player in the world until it was finally conquered in 1453. Incidentally like the west it died a similar death: years of instability, economic decline, land being lost to others and being overshadowed by another empire. However, the Byzantine Empire will have to wait for another post. Next World History will take us to China following the Han Dynasty onwards. Before I give my sources though here are my favorite stupid reasons people have given for Rome's collapse: animal cruelty, the liberal arts, feminism, laziness, pacifism, stupidity and decadence.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
-The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts

For a list of other World History posts please see here

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