Why did the (Western) Roman Empire Fall?

Previous empires, such as Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece were conquered by the armies of the next ‘world’ empire, but the mighty Roman Empire declined and fell over a period of hundreds of years. Historians, therefore, are very interested in the causes of its decline. 

EDWARD GIBBON

In his 1776 book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historian Edward Gibbon was the first to do in-depth research on this subject. The purpose of this article is to reflect on the causes of the Fall. Much of this section is a summary of the Wikipedia article, Historiography of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. References are omitted from this section but can be found in that and related articles.

This article follows on from the previous article; Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire, which provides a summary description of the Fall. The current article provides an understanding of the underlying currents that gave rise to the major events described in the previous article.

Underfunding of the Imperial Forces

Underfunding of the army may have contributed significantly to the Fall. The rich aristocrats of Rome sought protection within the strong walls of the city of Rome. In theory, they supported the armed forces but did not wish to pay for it.

For example, Stilicho, like all other generals, was desperately short of recruits and supplies. Though devoted to the Roman Empire, he was very active in confiscating assets, for the administrative machine was not producing enough support for the army (Wikipedia).

Christianity

The rich aristocrats did, however, pass large amounts of money to the Christian Church. Edward Gibbon attributed a significant role to Christianity in the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He remarked that “the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes … who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

Reliance on Barbarian Mercenaries

Edward Gibbon blamed the empire itself, for it gradually entrusted the role of defending the Empire to barbarian mercenaries who eventually turned on them. 

ROMAN SOLDIER

The historian Arther Ferrill, in The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, has also suggested that the Roman Empire declined largely as a result of an influx of Germanic mercenaries into the ranks of the legions. They were more loyal to their Germanic commanders than to the Roman government. He added that the chief cause of the agricultural decline was high taxation. This taxation was spurred by the huge military budget and was thus ‘indirectly’ the result of the barbarian invasions.

Many causes in Combination

JB Bury held that several crises, that arose simultaneously, were the cause of the fall: Due to the depopulation of the empire, it had come to depend on the enrollment of barbarians in the army.  It was furthermore necessary to pay them well as a consequence of the decline in military spirit.

Plunder Economy of the Roman Empire

Some historians argue that the Roman Empire itself was a rotten system from its inception. In their view, the Empire had a plunder economy based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new. It relied on riches from conquered territories, but this source of revenue dried up with the end of Roman territorial expansion in the second century. Meanwhile, the costs of military defense and the pomp of Emperors and wealthy aristocrats continued. Therefore, the Empire looted its own people through exorbitant taxation, from which the élite was exempted. This taxation drove small-scale farmers out of business, and into dependency upon the élite.

Weakening Central Authority

In The Complete Roman Army (2003) Adrian Goldsworthy, a British military historian, identified the main cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire as weakening central authority, resulting in endless civil wars between factions of the Roman Army fighting for control of the Empire. These civil wars weakened the army, making it less able to defend itself against its enemies.

Sassanid Persians

According to Peter Heather, in his The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005), the Fall was caused by a series of sequential events:

First was the emergence of the Sassanid Persian Empire (also known as the Empire of Iranians or Neo-Persian Empire) in the east. They were powerful enough to push the Romans back. Many modern readers tend to think of the “Huns” as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, but it was the Persians who held the attention and concern of the Emperors. 

To cope with the Sassanid threat, the Roman Empire stripped the Western Roman Empire of resources, weakening it.

At the same time, Hunnic incursions in Germania forced peoples on the Empire’s borders to migrate elsewhere. Due to the weakened military capacity of the Western Roman Empire, the Germanic peoples were able to force their way into the Empire.

Conclusion

This article will not select from these causes, for the interest of this website is not WHY the Empire fell, but HOW it fell, namely that the empire did not really fall, but continued. The goal of these articles is to show that the prophecies of Daniel accurately predicted HOW the Roman Empire will fall.

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