The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

The fall of Rome came after a long process of political and military decline in the Western Roman Empire. Various historians indicate how definitive year of the fall 476 ADat which time Odoacer, leader of a coalition of Germanic tribes, overthrew the young emperor Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself king of Italy.

The Western Roman Empire, however, did not fall overnight. Its decline had extended since the 3rd century AD due to both internal political struggles and the threat posed by the barbarian peoples that lay in wait on its borders.

The personal interests of senators and the military, or the wasteful behavior of the emperors, on multiple occasions harmed the imperial administration. Corruption and lack of adherence to a common will left the empire ill-prepared to defend itself against the invasions it suffered in the 5th century.

Rome also lost authority when its generals in the provinces tried to impose themselves as emperors. Such circumstances produced civil conflict and the army lost its unity of purpose. Even more, the legions integrated mercenaries from Germanic peoples in the final decades of the empire, which eroded fidelity to Rome until its fall.

Summary of the events that marked the decline of Rome in antiquity

The crisis of the third century

(235 – 284 AD)

It was a period of military anarchy. For half a century regional leaders fought for command. Stability came with the rise to power of Emperor Diocletian in AD 284. But he transformed the empire into a tetrarchythat is, in a political system with four rulers.

Christianity and the dominance of Constantinople

(306 – 337 AD)

At the beginning of the fourth century, Constantine I reunited the empire under his rule, allowed Christianity as a religion and moved the capital to Constantinople, a city built on the old settlement of Byzantium.

The last division of the empire

(395 AD)

Honorius, youngest son of Theodosius would rule the West. Arcadio, the eldest son, would have power in the East. Soon the Gothic peoples made inroads from the borders of the Rhine and Danube rivers into the territories of the Western Roman Empire.

The Visigoth sack

(410 AD)

Under the command of the leader Alaric, the Visigoths besieged and sacked Rome, which had been left defenseless. The fragility of the old power was remarkable.

the looting vandal

(AD 455)

Rome was attacked by Genseric, king of the Vandals and Alans. The Vandals entered the city and took with them all the riches they could.

the fall of rome

(AD 476)

In AD 474, the aristocrat Flavius ​​Orestes enlisted the support of the army to appoint his teenage son, Romulus Augustulus, as emperor. Barely two years later, the chief of the Heruli and Sciri, Odoacer, dethroned Augustulus. Odoacer proclaimed himself King of Italy without accepting the title of Roman Emperor.
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Causes of the fall of the Western Roman Empire

Rome reached the height of its dominance in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. It then had control of both the Italian peninsula and territories in Iberia, the north coast of Africa, the Syrian-Palestinian coast, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and even regions as far afield as such as the island of Britannia in the north and Mesopotamia in the east.

However, sustaining such a vast empire presented great difficulties. From the third century, Roman power began to decline. We will now look at the causes of his downfall.

1. Conflicts of interest and civil wars

Territorial expansion hampered effective communication between the various imperial provinces. Rome thus faced internal and external threats. On the one hand, provincial military leaders sought to impose their will and even appoint themselves emperors.

On the other hand, defending the borders and gathering legionary forces where necessary became difficult. It was very costly to maintain territorial integrity.

2. The political and administrative division

The search for a better political administration and the need to defend Roman cities caused the imperial capital to be moved. In AD 395, the empire was divided by Theodosius. The capital of the western Roman Empire had been located in Milan until 402 AD and then passed to Ravenna.

The capital of the eastern section was Nicomedia until AD 330, the year in which Constantine founded Constantinople on the foundations of ancient Byzantium. Although the two parties recognized each other within the same tradition, their projects grew apart and they stopped fighting common threats together.

The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, grew rich. The West, on the other hand, became more vulnerable.

Map Roman Empire 395

Map of the Roman Empire after the division decided by Theodosius (395 AD). Constantinople, the eastern capital, was favored over time. This became more important in the commercial circuits. Its power increased and it was better protected than the cities in the western part of the empire.

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3. Military spending and economic problems

The empire stopped expanding in the second century. The taxes that Rome received in the form of food or other wealth from the regions began to decrease and, little by little, economic decline began. This, added to the constant wars, emptied the imperial coffers.

The rich who tried to evade taxes went to the countryside. Also to the countryside went the poor who could not get enough food in the cities. These settlers established estates independent of central control. In these, a lord gave part of his land to the serfs in exchange for tribute. Thus began the process of feudalization.

4. The invasion of the Huns

At the beginning of the 5th century, King Attila, under the command of the Huns, attacked and subdued various peoples of Eastern Europe. The invasion of the Huns pushed these peoples to the west, to the very borders of the Roman Empire. Among the displaced peoples were the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Alans.

The Germanic peoples sought refuge within the Roman Empire, south of the Danube. At first they were despised, but eventually coexistence was established between these so-called barbarian peoples and the Roman settlers. Barbarians would soon swell the ranks of the Roman army.

5. The barbarian invasions

Border protection against the attack of barbarian peoples was maintained for decades. In the 5th century, however, coexistence was close, since various barbarian peoples lived within the empire. Visigoths and Ostrogoths requested land to settle with rights in the provinces of Rome. This caused conflicts.

The decline of Rome allowed peoples such as the Saxons, Vandals, Alans and Germano-Goths to occupy more and more territories in Britain, North Africa, Hispania and even northern Italy. The demographic pressure was evident. Roman frailty increased with the powerlessness to stop the barbarians without fulfilling their requests.

In the middle of the 5th century, the Vandals conquered North Africa. Soon Rome would be sacked several times until its fall in 476 AD at the hands of Odoacer. From then on Italy would be ruled consistently by Heruli, Ostrogoths and Lombards until its fragmentation into small kingdoms in the High Middle Ages.

Sack of Rome 455 Gaiseric

Karl Bryullov (1799-1852) The sack of Rome in 455. The scene in the painting recreates the sack of Rome led by Genseric, king of the Vandals and Alans.

Consequences of the fall of Rome

Historians place the end of antiquity when the Western Roman Empire disintegrated. The political, economic and social changes are so relevant that they open the door to a different world, that of the Middle Ages. Let us observe the consequences of this transition in history.

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1. The emergence and dominance of new Christian kingdoms

The various Germanic tribes came to rule the western territories of Europe. Most of these towns were already Christianized, so the role of the Catholic Church continued to be important in granting legitimacy to kings and feudal lords in their possessions.

Furthermore, in the absence of law and imperial institutions, the church saw its influence grow. People looked to it for guidance and stability. Bishops became advisers to the feudal nobility, and even rulers of certain towns and lands.

6th century Europe

Map of Europe in the sixth century. The West was divided into different kingdoms. In the East, Constantinople remained the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Image courtesy of: Bukkia.

2. The ruralization of life and the decline of trade

Imperial-era trade routes declined in Western Europe. The roads and much of the infrastructure was deteriorating and disappearing. The manors tried to supply themselves with the products they needed, with which life depended more on the immediate environment for subsistence.

The quality of manufactured products lost quality. For example, the ceramics of the Middle Ages did not compare with those that came from the East in ancient times. Most of the people dedicated themselves to agriculture. Many thus became serfs of the gleba, that is, peasants who worked the land of a nobleman, to whom they paid tribute.

3. The birth of the Romance languages

Latin only remained the language of worship in the church. After the dissolution of the empire in the West, the Latin language took particular forms in the different regions of Europe. In the Middle Ages, Vulgar Latin gave way to languages ​​such as Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French and Provencal. In the Eastern Roman Empire, also called Byzantine, the lingua franca was Greek.

4. Persistence of the Eastern Roman Empire

The fall of Rome did not mean the total loss of the Roman political tradition. In the East, Constantinople shone for centuries during the Middle Ages. It became the center of civilization, its trade routes endured, and the city prospered. It would be almost a thousand years before the Ottoman Turks finally conquered it in the year 1453.

Bibliography

Gibbon, Edward (2000) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Penguin Classics.

Pirenne, Henri (2012) History of Europe from the invasions to the sixteenth century. Fund of Economic Culture.

Rémondon, Roger (1967) The crisis of the Roman Empire: from Marcus Aurelius to Anastasius. Editorial Labor.

Wickan, Chris (2022) The Legacy of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. Past & Present Editions.

See also:

  • Roman empire.
  • Byzantine Empire.
  • Roman Coliseum.
  • What is Roman law?