Empire Fail: “Why did Rome Fall?”

-Zach-
Today, me and my panel of guest historians well be looking at the reasons why empires fall. Mainly we’ll be looking at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, or “Fall of Rome” for noobs. But, we’ll also be looking at other empires that have fallen in an effort to find connections and similarities. Perhaps there are common reasons why empires fall.
With me today is my panel of guest judges. To my left is our good friend and the first woman historian, Anna Komemne.
-Anna-
Greetings to all.
-Zach-
Returning we have Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, a renowned warrior and leader.
-Matilda-
Hello everyone. (waves)
-Zach-
Next we have Charles Martel, commander of the Franks.
-Charles-
(nods)
-Zach-
And lastly we have…Bonaparte, or as you may know him, “Waterloosux1815.”
-Anna-
Why is he here?”
-Zach-
His “girlfriend” is really persuasive and kind of nice. She talked me into it.
-Bonaparte-
Ha! Josephine is very pig headed and must always have her way!
-Zach-
(cough!) Projecting! (Cough!)
-Bonaparte-
Pardon?
-Zach-
Oh, nothing. Just had something in my throat.

It was hard to get them all together, especially right after the holidays. But stars and schedules aligned.

-Zach
So, let’s get down to business. When it comes to Western history, this is really the elephant in the room. Not only did Rome and its fall shape the entire western world, it’s also a lesson of how something so successful and powerful can crumble in so short a time. Rome didn’t fall in a day true, but it weakened over a long period of time and when the final collapse did come, it happened in a few mere decades. Without exception, every one of us here was shaped by the Empire of the Romans. So, what about Rome made it so great for so long?
-Martel-
If I may, as commander of the Franks, I looked very much back to Rome. I tried to imitate their legions, their training and discipline.
-Zach-
Indeed. Your Grandson, Charlemagne was even crowned “Emperor of the Romans.”
-Anna-
I laugh at this. He was no more Roman then a Magyar chieftain.
-Matilda-
I’m not so sure of that, Anna. True, it wasn’t the Roman Empire or anything like it, but it was the spirit of the Empire. A unified political institution that could bring peace and stability.
-Bonaparte-
The Empire was not a tight, cohesive nation that we see today, not like France! It was a collection of kingdoms that paid allegiance to a higher emperor. Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire wanted to carry on with the…esssence of the Roman Empire.
-Anna-
Rome wasn’t just about political unity. It was an ideal. It was a way of life, a philosophy and a world view. To be a Roman was to be better than the rabble. To be better than the barbarians that surrounded you. To be a Roman was to be learned and with this learning, you saw the world through logic and reason.
-Zach-
But it had to be more than their philosophy and government. What made Rome great?”
-Martel-
The Legions.
-Bonaparte-
I agree
-Matilda-
Yes, the legions were the most disciplined and lethal force in the world. They carried the Imperial banners from Mesopotamia to the British Isles. Wherever they went, they built bridges, roads, walls and towns. Power came from the edge of the sword.
-Zach-
True. Once a group of people were dominated, they couldn’t rebel because the legions were too powerful. After a while they began to see the benefits of being Roman and soon Roman style cities were popping up all over Gaul, Cappadocia, and Britain. In a similar way America has McDonalds and Starbucks all over the world. So, tell me, why did it fall?
-Martel-
Outside pressure from barbarians
-Anna-
Decadence and loss of honor and cohesion.
-Bonaparte-
Christianity
-Matilda-
A gradual weakening of money and manpower.
-Zach-
I was hoping for a more cohesive answer. Are you saying all of those things or one of those things.
-Bonaparte-
Christianity alone is to blame. It made the people’s allegiance to a higher authority than the state. Also, it made them more docile and less violent. Without that blood lust and willingness to kill, the Romans as a people became weak.
-Zach-
I know Edward Gibbon, the great historian would agree with you there, but didn’t Christianity also keep the Empire afloat? Didn’t it preserve a unity and made the converted barbarians more accepting of civilization? Also, wasn’t it the Pope that met Attila outside the walls of Rome and convinced him to turn away?
-Bonaparte-
Bah!
-Anna-
It was the decadence. The people of Rome, for the most part, had converted to Christianity. They knew better yet many of them still acted no better than pagans. When a person is not moral or just, they can not lead an Empire. Their own selfish desires would come before the good of the Empire.
-Zach-
Okay, let’s look at the Venetian Republic. Why did it fall?
-Anna-
Decadence.
-Zach-
Only partially correct. They were traders above all. They managed all the trade that flowed from the east into the west. Goods from Persia, India and China went through Venice first. But when the Spanish, English and Portuguese found trade routes around Africa and to the New World, it cut off Venice’s wealth and thus their power. This made them slip into idleness and care only about pleasures. Perhaps they could have found alternate means, but the Mediterranean, the source of their wealth became provincial and unimportant. They were left in the dust with their little useless rowed galleys.
-Bonaparte-
But they could have done something to rise up!
-Zach-
Agreed, but as Anna said, decadence. They fell into pleasure seeking. So, Anna was partially correct. But was this true of Rome?  Did this alone cause them to fall?”
-Martel-
No. They still had their legions and they were still able to fight off anything.
-Matilda-
But the Germanic tribes did invade and take over. My Lombard forefathers living in Italy prove this.
-Martel-
True, true. In set field battles and army versus army, yes, the Roman legions, even in their depleted state, could win almost any engagement.
-Zach-
So…why did the Barbarians swarm over the Empire’s boarders? Why didn’t this happen in the Eastern half of the Empire? Anna, can you shed some light on this?
-Anna-
Simple. Our policy was different than the west’s. The west came to rely too heavily on the very barbarians that were taking over their lands. In the Eastern Empire, we saw this happening and we put our purple clad foot down. On a certain day, we rose up and killed all the barbarians in the army. Yes, this temporarily weakened our military, but we were stronger in the long run.
-Zach-
So, the West let the barbarians come in as allies, but in reality they were no such thing. They’d fight against Rome as often as with her. So you had large areas of the Empire, almost all of Gaul, that paid no taxes and held no loyalty toward the Empire.
-Martel-
This drained the manpower that Rome could recruit from and also lightened their purses at the same time. You can’t have large groups of people within your boarders that hold no allegiance to your government.
-Zach-
Is there another case of this?
-Anna-
Unfortunately “Byzantium” as you call it, illustrates this. We Romans are a very religious people. In Syria and Egypt they had a different form of Christianity that didn’t conform to the Orthodox Church. Empress Theodora asked for leniency with these “heretics” but future emperors did not listen. They tried to stamp out their sects. When the warriors of the Prophet came into Egypt and Asia Minor, the Egyptian and Syrian Christians sided with the Muslims because the Muslims were more tolerant of their beliefs. So, instead of a loyal group of citizens, we had people that viewed the invaders as liberators and added strength to Islam.
-Bonaparte-
Divided loyalties is poison for a state.
-Zach-
But religion can also be a unifying force, can’t it? Isn’t that why Constantine the Great changed the religion of the Empire to Christianity? To unite it?
-Anna-
The Church kept our Empire together for more than a thousand years.
-Zach-
So, there were dived loyalties inside the Empire. That’s one reason.
-Martel-
But those people were never loyal to begin with. They were barbarian invaders that happened to be invited in. That’s not necessarily an internal problem. I still say it was my ancestors, the Germanic tribes. The Barbarians caused this. If it weren’t for them, the Empire would NOT have fallen.
-Zach-
Anyone else agree with this?
-Matilda-
Well, certainly the Empire had its problems, but I suppose that none of them were cause enough for the Empire to fall.
-Bonaparte-
True this. The barbarian invasions caused enormous stress on a weakened system. Was its fall inevitable? No. Not at all. Look at the Eastern Roman Empire. It was under the same stresses, but they dealt with the problems differently.
-Anna-
We were more unified in our religion. The barbarian Christians were Arian Heretics and not true Catholics. That caused a divide.
-Zach-
So, getting back to the Barbarians. The East, rather violently, stopped relying on Barbarian manpower while the West came to rely on it so much that eventually all their powerful generals were barbarians. The capital of the Empire moved from Rome up to Milan, Ravenna and elsewhere to be closer to the problems along the boarder. They clearly viewed the Barbarians as a top priority.
-Matilda-
At the end, the generals were assigning who would be emperor and eventually they tired of it and set themselves up as Emperors.
-Anna-
Theodoric had the nerve to ask Constantinople for Validation as King of Italy! I think not! The arrogance!
-Martel-
But the Barbarians did move in and set up their own kingdoms with in the boarders of the Empire. This bled the empire dry as one province after another melted away until Rome was left with very little real power.
-Zach-
That leads to an interesting point. Most historians give 465 as the date of the fall of Rome, when the last emperor, Romulus Augustalus was deposed. (Ironic name) However, the Roman Empire had, in effect, ceased to be before then and certain institutions such as the Senate continued to go on for a long while after. Charles, I do believe the Roman Senate was still around in your life time.
-Martel-
That is correct.
-Anna-
And technically, Theodoric claimed to be a vassal of the Eastern Empire and ruled Italy under our authority. It wasn’t true though. He was just and independent barbarian chieftain. When we took Ravenna a few decades later, we made sure to throw his entombed body into the ocean.
-Bonaparte-
At least you are not a vengeful people.
-Anna-
I would watch your tongue, Corsican.
-Zach-
So, anyways….The Barbarians, little by little took over the Empire. I think its safe to say that.
-Matilda-
I would also say, though some might argue with me, that Rome failed at keeping the loyalty of its subjects. I don’t mean citizens, I mean the common people that didn’t speak Latin or consider themselves Romans. The locals, if you will. The Empire, starting with Diocletian, imposed such strict regulations on the economy that it stifled all individuality and progression. By this I mean, Diocletian ordered that all social movement be stopped. All economic movement be stopped as well. If a man was a blacksmith, he had to remain a blacksmith. Then his son had to be a blacksmith. One couldn’t move from town to town. Taxes were so high that it was literally devastating to the poor farmers. When they couldn’t pay, they were forced to sell their farms to the rich landowners that grew in power and practically became feudal lords and kings. These rich land lords owned everything and held no loyalty to the crumbling empire. In fact, many of them embraced the coming barbarians because the barbarians would allow them to live as they would.
-Zach-
Okay, let’s look outside Western Europe for a moment. What about the Ottoman Empire? What can we learn from their fall that might help us understand the Fall of Rome?
-Anna-
The Ottomans, when they conquered Constantinople, (Shakes her fist) they were led by a strong leader that involved himself with the progress of his empire. Many of these early Ottoman rulers were powerful individuals trained from birth for leadership. However, as time went on, these leaders became more and more isolated from their people until finally, they weren’t even allowed to leave their palace and never had contact with the outside world in any real sense. They lived isolated, sheltered lives.
-Bonaparte-
Ha! What fools! A leader cannot be so isolated that they do not understand what is going on around them! If the leader becomes so detached from the common man, then the common man will rise up against him! That is what happened in France and with your American Revolution!
-Zach-
So, to recap; large groups of people that are not loyal to the government. Outside pressure from foreign powers that want what you have, Stifling government that makes the people resent it, incompetent, out of touch leaders that care only about themselves. Does that cover it?
-Anna-
We can get into education, economics and military prowess, but I believe we are out of time. That’s what this blinking red light means, right.
-Zach-
Crap. How long has that been on?
-Matilda-
A while now.
-Zach-
Well, I hope our readers are able to draw something from all this and perhaps research it themselves and come to their own conclusions. We didn’t by any means cover all of this subject. I’d like to thank my guests for taking time out of their bus schedules to be here today.

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14 comments on “Empire Fail: “Why did Rome Fall?”

  1. Glenda says:

    Really interesting, and funny at the same time. One word, awsome.

  2. cthulhu says:

    So, what modern parallels can we take from this? A large group of non-english speaking people with no loyalty to our nation can lead to our downfall? hmmmmm…..

  3. zacharyhill says:

    I leave the conclusions to the readers. I present evidence and by no means was this comprehensive. There is so much more to the fall of the Roman Empire than what was presented.

    • Desert Rat says:

      Things are always more complicated than a few easily digestible talking points can cover, but you did great. I loved the round table format.

      You know, I think about how future historians will look back at what destroyed the American empire, and it’s going to be a doozy. There won’t just be books written about why America fell–there will be libraries of books devoted to the subject. And as will always be the case, a good number of the historians who write about us and what we did will look at our situation, study it for years, debate the facts of the case endlessly among their peers, and then, at the end of the day, they’ll come to all the wrong conclusions. Although, given how much of our current events are being documented and recorded right now, I think they’ll have an easier time trying to make heads or tails out of our situation than they would about the fall of Rome or, say, the decline of the British Empire, provided they can sort the wheat from the propagandists’ chaff.

  4. […] Here is a cool page by a friend of mine that I’ve been meaning to link to.  For a great example of this page, check out Empire Fail: Why did Rome Fall  http://minimumwagehistorian.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/empire-fail-why-did-rome-fall/  […]

  5. Laserlight says:

    Have you read Fate of Empire, by Sir John Glubb? Covers the life cycle of various empires through history.

  6. Dave says:

    Enjoyed your post. I am pretty firmly in the school of thought that the Empire was murdered by outside invaders much more than it died from internal rot. Not a popular school of thought any longer in academic circles and my professors gave me much grief over it, with themselves being mostly students of the more PC late antique gradual transformation theories. Two things though Augustulus was deposed in 476 not 465 and Constantine didn’t make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, just a legal religion, Theodosius made it the state religion.

    • zacharyhill says:

      How true! I forgot, yes, Theodosius made it the official. And I suck with names and dates. I often have to go back and check those to make sure. Good catch there sir.

    • zacharyhill says:

      Oh, also the “gradual transformation” theory, that the Roman Empire somehow transformed into Medieval Europe is a theory I don’t buy. St. Augastine thought the change was pretty drastic and quick, enough that he thought it was the end of the world. Maybe it is a gradual transformation if you count hordes of barbarians taking over your land a gradual transformation.

  7. dracona357 says:

    In the spring of 1978, I heard a radio broadcast by Ronald Reagan that covered much of this. One thing he noted that you seemingly lumped into “decadence” was the arrogant, out-of-touch leadership attempting to buy the loyalty of the masses with largess from the public treasury.

  8. […] Empire Fail: “Why did Rome Fall?” […]

  9. Hi, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this article.
    It was helpful. Keep on posting!

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