Today I thought that I would take a little diversion from my usual ramblings of science, technology, and software, and instead explore a long-time amateur interest of mine; namely, history. If you are a regular reader of my blog and the subject of humanities holds no appeal to you, there is no need to read further, for there is no hidden technological sub-plot to this post I’m afraid. Equally, I do however urge you to read on if have but a passing interest in history and human affairs, regardless of any education in the field. Indeed, my own knowledge is very much amateur; this post is mainly the result of the desire to share my fascination with a certain area of history. While virtually all eras and aspects of humanity’s past capture my curiosity, ancient history - that of the great civilisations of antiquity – does so the most. It is in particular the macroscopic events, important achievements, as well as disasters of these peoples that are both the most wondrous and poignant to me, and in some ways the most informative to us as the human race.
Few events since the birth of Christ have been of such immense and far-reaching consequence as the fall of the Roman civilisation. One cannot escape either the effects of its 1500 year endurance, arguably unparalleled by any other civilisation to date, nor the shock-waves generated by its final collapse, still running their course through to the present. In modern times, as over the past centuries, it is an event that has be shrouded in much confusion and misinterpretation. The so called Dark Ages, while not perhaps an impenetrable as the name suggests in our minds, lost much of what was known and discovered during the classical era, mostly only recovered in the post-medieval years, and some not even to this date.
Now, before I arrive at the core of the discussion, I feel it would be rather helpful to dispell some of the haziness surrounding this subject but defining some of the phrases and concepts more rigorously. Indeed, one cannot even begin to discuss the fall of the Roman Empire without the context of its beginnings and developments before that time.
What actually is the “fall” of a civilisation?
No civilisation has or ever will endure forever. Common sense, if not familiarity wish history itself, should tell you that and more. Yet their durations and the methods by which they falter are many and varied. While some grow quickly and are destroyed with equal speed, others experience modest advancement, a long peak, and a gradual decline. Between theses two extremes are a host of other patterns, every one unique and some quite extraordinary. The Roman Empire is one of the most astounding, in my view. While empires created by the Macedonians, Mongols, Spanish, and British, were magnificent in their own ways, and undeniably left their significant marks on history, their span from birth to death numbered no more than several hundred years. On the other hand, we can consider the Roman Empire, which accounting for the pseudo-empire of the Republic, endured almost a millennium. Slightly subtle, but most striking, is the fact that what is often referred to as the greatest empire of history is named after what was once e small village in the middle of a southern European peninsula. Not a country, not even a region, but what was originally a small group of tribal folk managed to conquer over 5,000,000 square kilometres of land and rule over a population of 100 million at its apex.
Although one could define the fall of a civilisation in various complex sociological and economic terms, among other rather technical ways, I find it more useful to a take a less rigid view. To list a few of the “defining” features (but by no means a definition), should just help to solidify the idea.
- A steep decline in the wealth and prosperity of society. Standard of living, level of technology, complexity of society, may all become hugely diminished.
- Loss of knowledge and skill; literary, scientific, architectural, historical, et cetera.
- The replacement of the principal culture or ethnic identification of a civilisation by a different (often a more “barbarous” one).
Both culture and language may undergo enormous transformation, with a varying degree of absorption.
- Great losses of territory considered to be ruled or controlled by the civilisation.
The causes can range from withdrawal of governance/troops, rebellion, or foreign invasion.
- A weakening/collapse of the military forces of the nation.
Many, if not all of these features are apparent in the downfall of great civilisations, rarely more pronounced than in the case of the Romans. Before we get to specifics here, let us first “set the scene” with a bit of background. Yes, I say a “bit”, yet Roman history is so vast that even a few thousand word summary can barely do it justice.
The beginnings and evolution of Ancient Rome
Rome in 800 BC showed few, if any, signs of the great civilisation it would become centuries later. Visiting the area that is known as Lazio in modern Italy (or Latiumin Classical times)at around this time in history, you would likely see sparse collections of wood and stone huts and small buildings organised at best into a petty kingdom, with minor and primitive fortifications at most. Society there was likely little more advanced than elsewhere in central and southern Europe (except Greece). Rome itself was a small settlement on top of the Palatine Hill – later to be the site of various temples and imperial palaces. When we consider that the Mesopotamian cultures were thriving in the advanced cities, with levels of technology unimaginable to most contemporary Europeans, and the ancient Greeks were beinning to produce astounding works of literature and art, the simple Latins were but squabbling with other Italic tribes over tiny patches of land to rule and farm.
No one knows very well the exact origin of the Latin tribes, or many of the other ancient peoples of the Italian peninsula. Certainly, the Etruscans (who give their name to the region of Tuscany) had a fundamentally different civilisation that preceded that of the Italics by a couple of centuries, yet was soon enough amalgamated by the Romans. The legend of the Trojan prince Aeneas sailing to the area around Rome following the destruction of Troy at the end of the 2nd millennium BC is likely little more than elaborate fiction and myth. Together with the story of Romulus and Remus, it is a “foundation tale” common in the mythology of almost all civilisations, that was likely fabricated and expanded around a core of historical fact in the following centuries to give a grander vision of the Roman people’s origins. What we know know, however, is that Latin and the other related languages of the region at the time were from the beginning Indo-European languages, likely brought my migrants to the peninsula in the 2nd millennium BC, who subsequently integrated with the existing population. Unlike Etruscan (which surely had some influence on both the Latin language and culture), Latin shares common heritages with languages as diverse and distant as Irish, Greek, Danish, Russian, and Hindi (both in their modern forms and their antecedents).
The legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, having slaughtered his brother Remus in an argument over who would become the first to rule the fledgling city of Rome, began the era of the Roman Kingdom, which lasted from 753 BC until 507 BC, as far as our best estimates can tell. Little is known of this period, although it undoubtedly had a vital role to play in the establishment of Rome’s dominance. The Sack of Rome in 387 BC by the Gauls (the ancient Celtic peoples of France and central Europe), despite not affecting Latin culture, destroyed the vast majority of early Roman records, not to mention architecture, such that we have to day is at best due to second or third hand accounts. After a couple of centuries of monarchy (albeit of a slightly unusual, non-hereditary form), Rome was in the clutches of its 7th king, the cruel and tyrannical Lucius Tarquinius Superbus - the third of the Etruscan line that had gained dominance in the latter years of the Kingdom. It was thus quite inevitable that the population of the city soon rebelled and overthrew him, forming the much better known Roman Republic in the process. This movement, led by the senator Lucius Junius Brutus, created a strong and enduring (pseudo-)democratic republic in which the Senate (led by two elected consuls holds year-long terms) effectively governed the state. The Roman Republic proved to be a model of great success, as Rome quickly developed into an advanced civilised society, inspired to a great extent by the success and culture of Ancient Greece, while still unique and proud in its own right. Over time the plebs (common populace) increased greatly in power and influence compared to the patricians (nobility), so much so that (although they were typically not able to vote), could rise to the highest positions in the Republic, even as far as consul and governor of the provinces. The famous motto SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus – “The Senate and People of Rome”), which even now covers certain buildings and the manhole covers of modern Rome, represents well the nature, spirit, and pride of the Roman people.
From the founding of the Republic, it was not long before the Latin peoples managed to subdue their neighbouring tribes, and by the 3rd century BC most of ancient Italy was under the rule of Rome. It was around period that the Romans also began to battle the Carthaginians, a trade empire based around the city of Carthage in modern Tunisia, originally an outpost of the Phonecian civilisation. These so-called Punic Wars are generally not considered to have been initiated for Rome’s desire to expand its territory, but rather to insure its supremacy in trade and limitation of Carthaginian influence. In the end, the Romans were of course victorious, in spite of several set backs, eventually defeating Hannibal and razing the city of Carthage. Thus began the conquests of Rome, and its eternal lust for glory and power. This small republic of minor importance in the 5th century BC had already become the superpower of the Mediterranean by the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. At the same time, however, the seeds of its destruction had already been sown. It is at this point, still 500 years before the fall of the Rome, that some consider to be the source for its later decline.
The lands of the Roman Republic upon the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
By a quirk of history, it was a man by the name of Marcus Junius Brutus, a descendant of the heroic founder of the Republic, who would participate so markedly in its demise. A long-time friend of Julius Caesar, Brutus was the leader of the conspirators who assassinated Caesar on the Ides of March, and to whom the famous utterance of “Et tu, Brute?” was made by Caesar in his dying breath. (More likely, the actually words were the Greek “Kai su, teknon?” – “You too, my child?”. It was customary for the elite and intellectuals of Rome at that time to converse as well as write academic texts in Greek.)
Although there was a brief time in which many thought the Republic had been saved by those who conspired against the dictator Julius Caesar, it was not so. Caesar’s rule having been preceded by two devastating civil wars in the first century BC, much of the populace, thanks largely to his shrewed political tactics, the stability and peace he brought to the Republic, and his conquest of all Gaul, respected him, even as a hero and a worthy “dictator for life” (despite the lack of precedence of such power or title). Indeed, the conspirators, despite being given full amnesty by the Senate for his murder, were forced to flee Italy and were later killed or committed suicide in the ensuing wars. What cemented the transition in the end was the great ability and cunning of the first Emperor, Augustus (born Gaius Octavius Thurinus), which enabled him to manipulate the Senate while maintaining the facade of a return to a Republican system, eventually coercing the senators into appointing him emperor (interchangeably referred to as Augustus, Caesar, and Imperator during the period). In this tumultuous and tragic fashion was the glorious Roman Empire born.
The extent and regions of the Roman Empire at its peak under Trajan in the 2nd century AD.
I will not dwell too much on the history of the early amd mid-Empire; suffice to say that it was governed by an eclectic mixture of men ranging from the wise and clement to the insane and cruel. The early 2nd century AD saw a time of both great prosperity and peace, often referred to as the Pax Romana, culminating with the rule of Marcus Aurelius (the last of the “Five Good Emporers“). Besides the Empire reaching its greatest territorial extent, it was also at its social and economic pinnacle, seemingly unshakable. (As a note, the film Gladiator was, at the very least, more or less along the right lines in its portrayal of Marcus Aurelius and his son and successor, Commodus. Unfortunately though, Commudus was not slain in the Colosseum by the vengeful Maximus Decimus Meridius, but was rather strangled in the bath tub by a wrestler after a failed poison attempt). Clearly, this “benevolent dictatorship” did not last as long as one might have hoped. The Crisis of the Third Century, beginning not long after the death of Marcus Aurelius, is considered by most to demonstrate the first (or at least clearest) signs of imperial decay. This is the subject on which I shall now focus.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Now, let me first admit to this heading not being of my own making. It in fact stems from Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece on the subject, written in the late 18th century, and has since been an inspiration in the study of late Roman/early Medieval history, as well as having become an almost cliched style of title.
With notable decay commencing in 3rd century, the power and grandeur of the empire gradually declined, with but several short-lived and quite modest resurgences (such as Constantine the Great’s reunion of the East and West halves of the empire, which later split again). The Crisis of the Third Century, although technically over by the closing decades of the century, never wholly subsided. The economic collapse, social unrest, numerous invasions, and incompetent emperors continued for the most part until the momentous Sack of Rome in 410 AD by the Visigoths, the first to occur in roughly 800 hears, and by far the most devastating. Although the Empire and certain aspects of Roman civilisation continued in a paltry and diminished form, a subsequent Sack of Rome in 455 AD by the Vandals (another Germanic tribe), put the proverbial nail in the coffin. The somewhat more stable and populous eastern half of the empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire (with a predominantly Greek culture) lasted amazingly for another millennium, until its capital Constantinople was sacked by the Ottomans (Turks) in 1453 AD, having been reduced to a shadow of its former glory centuries before by the Arab and Turkic expansion. When I refer to the “Roman Empire” in this article, however, I solely mean the Roman Empire as a whole entity, that which was dominated by Roman culture and the Latin language.
Backtracking slightly, let us now examine the potential causes of the decline, starting with what are perhaps the more evident ones.
- The system of governance of the Roman Empire was flawed from the start. Unlike the Republic, there did not exist a strict set of rules determining who had the power to command what. The “checks and balances” developed during the Republic were far out of place by the time of the mid-Empire. The Empire was born out of civil war and turmoil, and not given any much consideration or foresight. What is more, the method of succession was not fixed – the Emperor could nominate whoever he chose to succeed him, or in the event of his death it may be whoever bullied their way to the top. In the latter years, the Praetorian Guard, the supposed protectors of the Emporer, often murdered the Caesar and replaced him with someone of their choosing. Even the Roman Kingdom, despite being an autocracy, had rules and traditions in place to protect against such chaos. Beginning with Caesar Augustus and lasting until the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the majority of emporers had enough sense and acumen to maintain, solidify, and even expand the boundaries of the empire, while the worst ones did not at least get chance enough to do too great harm. Beginning in the 3rd century however, this no longer applied.
- The empire simply expanded too quickly, and as it did so, put unbearable strain on its resources. Food, money, and troops all became harder to maintain as its size increased, and particularly, as the external threats amassed. Protecting and supplying the frontiers, and sometimes even the central provinces, became a difficult task. The sheer level of infrastructure required to hold onto to newly conquered provinces was immense, and the end result was monetary devaluation and rocketing taxes, hurting tremendously the lower and middle classes of society in many areas. This is a fate that has been shared by many great empires since, and thus must be taken quite seriously.
- Most notably put forth by Edward Gibbon, the empire’s decline may be attributed to loss of “civic virtue”, or societal decay. The morals and ethics of the people of the Roman people was considered by many, including contemporary historians (as far back as Pliny the Elder, who lived in the early first century) to have collapsed. The Roman virtues, once highly esteemed in the Roman Republic, had been all but forgotten a hundred years into the Empire. Valour, duty, and learning were replaced by idleness, egotism, and indulgence. Men were more interested in attending luxurious parties and viewing theatrical spectacles than marching on the battlefield, while women would flaunt themselves in translucent silk dresses. Once this process began, there was little to stop its runaway course, except for the remote chance of radical and intelligent reforms, which no Emperor had the courage or perhaps capability to perform. The fact that the height of this decay corresponds with Constantine’s conversion of the empire from paganism to Christianity has been noted by some historians as a factor. (The argument boils down to: when people believe that the afterlife is the ultimate goal, and such qualities as meekness are desirable, how can those same people must force to conquer the world?). This viewpoint is however doubted by many, and I personally consider the underlying cause to be more complex and deeply embedded in the society and its development.
- Closely linked to the previous point is the weakening of the Roman military. Beginning in the 3rd century, it became custom to generate much (eventually the majority) of the force by creating loose alliances with barbarian tribes. Such groups of warriors were called Foederati, primarily composed of Germanic tribes led by Germanic chieftains. In hindsight, one can see the transformation of the Roman military from a force composed at least 90% of Italians in the early empire, to one where only the commanding elite was Italian at the beginning of the 3rd century, and finally to one that was virtually entirely barbarian for the century before the ultimate fall of Rome. It is not surprising, you might rightly say, that putting the control of your armed forces effectively in the hands of your enemies (and in course becoming dependent on them) should come back to bite you one day. Indeed, the very leader of the people who sacked Rome in 410 AD, Alaric of the Visigoths, was a commander in a Roman foederatus (federated legion) in his early years, even spending some of his youth in Rome itself. Laxness, and even plain stupidity of the later rulers of the Empire may be blamed to a large extent for Rome eventually succumbing to foreigners – yet this does not even approach the core of the issue. It was noted by the historian Tacitus in his own time that the virtues upheld by the Germanic tribes, while differing greatly in certain ways, resembled in many respects the ancient Roman ones, and were crucially upheld while Rome was full of decay, especially well the luxuries of the civilised world could least penetrate. The warlike and ferocious nature encouraged in these tribal societies may not have made them a civilised or advanced people, but they excelled at one thing in particular: fighting.
As far as I know, this summarises what are considered to be the primary causes of this great civilisation’s collapse, despite other “fringe” theories having appeared in recent times. Undoubtedly, such occurrences as widespread plague, environmental change would have contributed to the downfall, though it is rather unlikely they would have been the sole causes. Perhaps one of the most intriguing of these more minor theories is that of lead poisoning. Unknown to even the most sagely scientists of the era was the fact that lead is a highly toxic element, lethal in sufficient dosages. As the Romans, above all the aristocracy, would consume much food and wine that had been prepared in lead pots. and consequently had lead concentrations in their bodies over ten times that of their own slaves, and up to 100 times of that of humans alive today. The failure of the elite classes of Roman society to reproduce sufficiently, for this grave biological and social reason, might have lead to their ultimate demise, possibly even accounting for the insanity of several emperors such as the notorious Nero. In recent years this most curious theory had even started to enter the mainstream.
Labelling one, or even several, “true causes” of the fall of Rome, is a reductionist explanation that does not even come close to conveying the complexities of human affairs that existed during the decline and fall of the civilisation, or indeed, at any time. In my view, only by considering the circumstances in a holistic (and tactful) manner, can one gain at best a fair impression of the ultimate reasons from the available written and archaeological data. I firmly believe that all of the points given above had significant roles to play in Rome’s demise, to varying degrees, yet I would not want to go much further than this, and only to point out that there are surely factors unbeknown to me or anyone alive today (or perhaps ever) that were involved.
To many, including myself, it is quite astounding at some level that Roman civilisation flourished as long as it actually did. Saying this, there was no true reason why it could not have continued even until this present day, except, perhaps, for human fallibility. The bedrock of civilisation that was the Roman Republic might have resulted in a vastly different alternate history. Nevertheless, the contributions and achievements of this magnificent civilisation to humanity, ranging from society, law, art, and literature to warfare, technology, and most prominently religion, are beyond question. Whether one considers the following centuries of relative primitive and largely barbaric existence that dominated most of Europe until the dawn of the Italian Renaissance in 1300 either a great tragedy or an inevitable spoke in the wheel of time, understanding and appreciating the life and death of such an important civilisation and culture is in my mind of no less importance than the newsworthy events of recent years. If you are romantically inclined, you might find it enlightening as I do to envisage the happenings of the past as droplets that trickle down the stream of time into the vast sea that is today’s world.