Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Collapse From Within

The Western Roman Empire, at its greatest extent, included modern day Spain, France, Italy, England, and parts of North Africa. The Romans, masters of war and commerce, dominated this vast amount of land for almost a thousand years, first as a republic then as a mighty empire. Even so, the Romans could not maintain their power forever. Military conflicts with the barbarians are often seen as the major cause of the dissolution of the Empire. 1 However, with a critical look at the sources, the student of history can see that the Empire was already sick from internal disease before the barbarians finished it off with force. The Empire's massive financial crisis combined with rampant political corruption, the growth of Christianity, and the separation of East and West, damaged the empire beyond repair and left it vulnerable.

The root of the Empire's slump is found in its financial crises, dating back to the era of the Roman Republic. 2 The Republic gained funds and strength by placing farmers on conquered lands. The Republic grew in wealth and power by drawing upon the hard work of its territories, exploiting the slaves it captured, and plundering its enemies. This economic reliance on expansion turned out to have detrimental consequences for the Romans. Towards the latter days of the Republic, commerce increasingly centered on the slave trade. 3 With the dawn of Augustus' Pax Romana, came the inception of many future issues. A decline in war and piracy, brought about the reduction of slaves entering the Roman Empire. Problems began to brew due to the economy’s dependence on slaves. Without enough slaves to exploit, the aristocratic land owning class often looked to the lower classes of freemen to utilize for their ends. The aristocracy even attempted to suppress their rights through legislative means. Roman citizenship slowly became meaningless and gave rise to a division in the society. The aristocratic exploitation of the poor and working classes ensured that the people who worked could not enjoy the product of their labor. This gave laborers no incentive to master their craft or trade and led to a Roman stagnation that would only grow until the final collapse of the Empire.

Another problem that severely crippled the Roman economy was providing for the nation's defense. Due to the vast amounts of land they conquered, the Romans needed a large standing army to rule and administer their territory. 4 This great army, however, was costly and required the government to continuously tax. One anonymous source writes in 368 A.D about how the great expenses of the army had affected the tax system; "Let us turn now to the vast expenditure on the army which must be checked similarly, for this is what has thrown the entire system of tax payment into difficulties...." 5 Growing taxes made it increasingly difficult for Roman trade to prosper and pitted peasants against the government. 6 Many Roman peasants defected and fought alongside their invaders such as the Visigoths. The historian Zosimus, who lived during the end of the 5th century, writes, "as a result of this exaction of taxes, city and countryside were full of laments and complaints, and all... sought the help of the barbarians." 7 The critical student of history will see that all the issues so far discussed are related to each other. The overexpansion of the empire led to an influx of slaves, but also a vast amount of land to care for. Once expansion halted in the second century, slaves became more difficult to find, causing the economy to slowly sink. 8 To continue governing the vast areas of land controlled by the Empire and to maintain the lifestyle of the aristocracy, taxes were imposed and rights were slowly stripped away from the lower classes. These factors contributed to the foundation of the steady decline of the Empire.

During these financially questionable times, political corruption was rampant. Financial decay aggravated political corruption, and political corruption accelerated financial decay. Herodian of Syria recounts how one man actually bought the office of emperor in 193 A.D; "When [Julianus] came to the to the wall of the camp, he called out to the troops and promised to give them just as much as they desired, for he had ready money and a treasure room full of gold and silver…Captivated by such speeches...the soldiers hailed Julianus as Emperor...." 9 Corruption was widespread and made it even more difficult for the imperial government to retain control of its lands. To further complicate matters, after the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, civil wars broke out between different claimants to the imperial throne due to the lack of a clear succession policy. As political corruption and instability grew, Roman citizens’ trust and faith in the government waned, leading to more disorder and division in society. 10

This overall loss of the financial power and lack of trust and faith in its political leaders was furthered by the rise of Christianity in the Empire. As Christianity grew, it directly undermined the power of the emperor. Popes and other bishops began to assume more secular power, which further complicated the Roman power structure. As many began to convert to Christianity, polytheistic Roman religion fell from favor. 11 The emperor ceased to be viewed as divine, and the glories of the Roman state were forgotten while the glories of the heavenly Jerusalem were promoted. Pliny the Younger, a magistrate of Rome, calls Christianity a contagion and realizes its effect on the authority of the emperor. He writes to the emperor Trajan; "For many persons… are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the [Roman] temples…had been almost deserted...." 12 Pliny's remarks are telling. Pliny is writing only in the first century; as the centuries passed on, the Church would rise in prominence as the Empire continued to crumble.

A decisive moment in the Empire's history was Diocletian's division of the empire. Realizing that the territory was too large for one man to rule, he split the Empire into East and West. 13 He remained emperor of the East while he appointed Marcus Aurelius Valerius emperor of the West. This separation, while effective in the beginning, led to only greater disorder in the Empire. Over time, East and West grew so far apart that they were unable to work together to protect their borders and solve financial crises. As the East grew in wealth, the West declined in health. As the East defeated its enemies, the enemies were only diverted to the Western Empire instead. 14 By splitting the empire, Diocletian saved the Eastern Empire, but at the cost of the West.

With Roman spirit weakened by financial crises, Christian influence, and political corruption and division, the barbarians slowly infiltrated the Roman Empire. First, they came to work on plantations due to the lack of slaves, then they came to fill in the gaps of the Roman legions, and finally they filled even political positions. Barbarian vigor and strength quickly spread and consumed the feeble, debilitated Roman people. Historian Eileen Powell writes that the Empire had "...a small injection to begin with and then more and more till in the end the blood that flowed in its veins was not Roman but barbarian." 15 As early as 98 A.D, historians such as Tacitus recognized this dangerous trend. Tacitus recounts the speech of Galgacus, an ancient barbarian leader, as he spurred on his troops. Galgacus says:

Do you suppose that the Romans will be as brave in war as they are [immoral] in peace? ...their own army, an army which, composed as it is of every variety of nations, is held together by success and will be broken up by disaster. These Gauls and Germans, and, I blush to say, these Britons, who, though they lend their lives to support a stranger's rule, have been its enemies longer than its subjects, you cannot imagine to be bound by [loyalty] and affection....16

Galgacus ridicules the Roman army, arguing that its soldiers have been enemies much longer than friends to the Romans. This infiltration of the barbarian people and mindset set the stage for the knockout blow to the Empire: the military conquests of the barbarians.

By the third century, the Goths, an aggressive Germanic tribe, had become the greatest threat to the Roman Empire. They and other Germanic tribes began to apply great pressure to the northern frontier marked by the Danube and Rhine Rivers. In 263 A.D, the Goths crossed the Danube River and overran much of the eastern provinces. 17 As the Romans reacted to the Goths, the Franks and Alemanni seized their chance to break through the Roman frontier as well. The Roman Emperor Aurelian, however, made a valiant stand and was able to hold off the Goths, Vandals, and a new threat from the East, the Sassanids. The increasing pressure from outside forces was largely due to the advance of the Huns. The advancing Huns sparked a great migration of many Germanic tribes into Roman territories. As the Huns advanced westward, they conquered and enslaved the Ostrogoths. The Visigoths and other Germanic tribes found themselves trapped between the advancing Huns to the west and the Roman Empire to the southeast. The Visigoths were much more frightened of the Huns and chose to request entrance into the Roman Empire. In 376 A.D, the Visigoths settled in the empire, but were soon mistreated and subjugated to arbitrary rule by Roman officials. The Visigoths pushed back and thus sparked the fateful battle of Adrianople.

The battle of Adrianople was a decisive win for the Visigoths who trampled the Roman Army and even killed the Roman Emperor Valens. A Roman soldier and historian, named Ammianus Marcellinus, writes:

But when the barbarians... beat down our horses and men ... At last one black pool of blood disfigured everything, and wherever the eye turned, it could see nothing but piled up heaps of dead, and lifeless corpses trampled on without mercy... the emperor ...was mortally wounded with an arrow, and, very shortly after, died, though his body was never found.18

This defeat dealt a massive blow to the reputation of the "invincible" Roman legions and showed the vulnerability of the Roman Empire. Valen's successor, Theodosius I, was able to hold the Visigoths back but only temporarily. 19 In 410 A.D, the Visigoths, invigorated by their king, Alaric, moved towards Rome and sacked the Eternal City. The Romans reacted to this threat by withdrawing troops from the Rhine River and from Britain. Their retreat, however, allowed unprecedented numbers of Germanic Barbarians to surge into the Roman Empire and overtake Britain, Spain, and North Africa. 20 In 455 A.D, the Vandals pushed north from the sea raiding Italy and sacking Rome a second time. Atilla the Hun also pushed deeper into Europe and plundered much of northern Italy. 21 Rome was spared, but just barely.

During the final days of the Western Roman Empire, a series of emperors fled Rome and ruled from the area surrounding the Italian city of Ravenna. By now, the emperors had lost much if not all of their political power; the leaders of the army, made up of mostly Germans, held the real power. The forced abdication and exile of Augustulus, the last emperor of the West, is seen as the traditional date of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, since no emperor was named to carry on the succession after him.

The Western Empire's fall, therefore, cannot be attributed only to the invasions of the barbarians or any other singular cause. The student of history must realize that the fall of the Empire was multifactorial and that each cause was related to and stemmed from the other. Just as a series of dominoes fall and knock each other over so did the various crises knock over the Roman Empire. Overexpansion led to a dependency on slaves and an obligation to protect more land. Slaves-labor and crushing taxes to fund such expansion and administration stifled economic growth and crippled Roman society. With these economic issues ablaze, political corruption took root, causing many to lose faith in the Roman institution. Then, with the rise of Christianity, a further rift grew between the people’s values and allegiances to the Roman government. During this time of disillusionment and crises, the barbarians slowly rose to power. They attacked from the outside in battles and skirmishes but also advanced from the inside through the Roman legions and political positions. The Western Roman Empire was not defeated nor destroyed; rather, it was infirmed for many years and in the year 476 A.D., finally collapsed and died. The fall of the Empire warns modern nations to be wary of internal crises. It also reminds nations to ensure that they do not lose their cultural or national identity as the Romans did. The Roman Empire was the most formidable and diverse nation of antiquity. The fall of the Empire is an eternal testimony to the destructive force and power of internal strife.


Andrews, Evan. "8 Reasons Why Rome Fell." History. January 14th, 2014. https://www.history.com/news/history-lists/8-reasons-why-rome-fell.
Black, Simon. "Taxes Brought Down The Roman Empire, And They'll Do The Same To America." Business Insider. April 18th, 2012. https://www.businessinsider.com/all-transactions-to-be-conducted-in-the-presence-of-a-tax-collector-2012-4.
Galgacus. Speech to his soldiers, recorded by Roman historian Tacitus. In Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola, 29-33 c. 98 A.D.
Heather, Peter. "The Fall of Rome." BBC. February 17th, 2011. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/fallofrome_article_01.shtml
Herodian of Syria. History of the Emperors II.6ff: "How Didius Julianus Bought the Empire at Auction." 193 A.D. In William Stearns Davis, ed. Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13, Vol. II: Rome and the West.
Jewsbury, George, Barbara Molony, and Matthew S. Gordon. Civilizations Past & Present, Combined Volume 12th Edition. New York: Pearson, 2007.
Marcellinus, Ammianus. The Battle of Handrianopolis 378 A.D. In The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus During the Reigns of The Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens, trans. C. D. Yonge London: G. Bell & Sons, 1911.
On Military Matters 368 A.D. In A Roman Reformer and Inventor. Translated by E.A. Thompson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Pliny. Letters, "Letters of Pliny to Emperor Trajan." Translated by Wilham Melmoth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Vol.11, pp. 401-05, 407. Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Loeb Classical Library.
Power, Eileen. Medieval People. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000.
Southern, Pat. "Third Century Crisis of the Roman Empire." BBC. February 17th, 2011. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/thirdcenturycrisis_article_01.shtml

1. [Eileen Power, Medieval People (New York: Dover Publications, 2000), 2.]
2. [Pat Southern, “Third Century Crisis of the Roman Empire,” (BBC, February 17th, 2011). ]
3. [Evan Andrews, “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell,” History, January 14th, 2014.]
4. [Andrews, “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell,” January 14th, 2014.]
5. [On Military Matters 368 A.D. In A Roman Reformer and Inventor, translated by E.A. Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 106.]
6. [Simon Black, “Taxes Brought Down The Roman Empire, And They'll Do The Same To America,” (Business Insider, April 18th, 2012).]
7. [Ibid.]
8. [Andrews, “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell,” January 14th, 2014.]
9. [Herodian of Syria, History of the Emperors II.6ff: “How Didius Julianus Bought the Empire at Auction, 193 A.D. In William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West.]
10. [Andrews, “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell,” January 14th, 2014.]
11. [Ibid.]
12. [Pliny, “Letters of Pliny to Emperor Trajan.” Translated by Wilham Melmoth, Cambridge, Mass.: (Harvard University Press) Vol.11, pp. 401.]
13. [Peter Heather, “The Fall of Rome,” (BBC, February 17th, 2011).]
14. [Andrews, “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell,” January 14th, 2014.]
15. [Power, Medieval People, 4.]
16. [Galgacus, an ancient barbarian leader. Speech to his soldiers, recorded by Roman historian Tacitus. In Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola, 29-33 c. 98 A.D.]
17. [George F. Jewsbury, Barbara Molony, and Matthew S. Gordon, Civilizations Past & Present, Combined Volume 12th Edition. (New York: Pearson, 2007), 155.]
18. [Ammianus Marcellinus, The Battle of Handrianopolis 378 A.D. In The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus During the Reigns of The Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens, trans. C. D. Yonge (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1911), pp. 609.]
19. [Andrews, “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell,” January 14th, 2014.]
20. [Ibid.]
21. [Jewsbury, Molony, and Gordon, Civilizations Past & Present, (New York: Pearson, 2007), 155.]

Photo Credit: Pablo Dodda
Brightness adjusted.

Find teachers and tutors worldwide online at LRNGO.com
comments powered by Disqus