The Amateur Academic’s Guide to the Fall of Rome

As one of the most important civilizations to exist on Earth, Ancient Rome continues to inspire awe and wonder in people of all races, creeds and national origin. The untimely fall of the Roman Empire, which is marked by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, resulted from a series of complex and hotly debated events, beginning with the empire’s decline at the turn of the first millenium AD.

Many of us are superficially aware of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, however few of us can claim to have an in-depth understanding of why it happened. Acquiring this knowledge is of particular import these days, as historians and anthropologists compare the troubling situations faced by contemporary civilizations, such as the United States, to this period of decline in Ancient Rome.

By taking into account many of the interrelated theories experts have devised regarding the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, we can more easily notice the warning signs of declining states in our contemporary world. With this information, we can critically look at what occurred and Rome and come up with solutions to keep the same issues from cropping up again in our time.

Why did Rome Fall?

Throughout modern history, there has been much conjecture surrounding the reasons for the decline of Ancient Rome. One of the more accepted beliefs was that the clash between pagan religion and Christianity led to the moral decay of the Roman Empire and its eventual collapse. While this was a popular monocausal explanation for the empire’s fall prior to the 20th century, recent historians, such as J. B. Bury, found this explanation to be too simplistic.

In addition to moral decay, overexpansion of the Roman Empire is often brought up as a contributing reason for its collapse. While the expansion of Ancient Rome during its glory days did much to temporarily accumulate wealth and power for the empire, once these funds were dried up, many of these newly acquired territories became quite expensive to upkeep with little to no revenue to offset the expense. As a result, this form of “plunder economy” is cited by some historians as being terribly unsustainable towards the end of the empire’s expansion, and did much to weaken Ancient Rome from within over time.

The Roman Empire’s contact with Germanic tribes also proved to be fatal to its continued longevity. Prior to coming into contact with Rome, Germanic tribes to the north were fairly powerless and disorganized in comparison to the might of the Empire. Over time, however, this relationship with Rome proved to be lucrative for the tribes–both in acquired knowledge and money–and eventually gave Germania the upper-hand as Roman Empire became more and more embroiled in costly issues both at home and abroad during its decline.

So far, one can see that the Roman economy played a large part in furthering its decline, and one of the more plausible explanations for the Empire’s fall was its eventual economic collapse. Similar to the southern United States prior to 1865, the Ancient Roman economy was built upon the existence of slave labor, which molded the Empire’s middle class into a rather unproductive and non-innovative group that could not respond effectively to economic pressures. Moreover, the Roman Empire’s almost obsessive spending on its military led to increased economic strain during its decline, as it also did much to perpetually drain the empire’s economy.

Plague and depopulation are also two major factors historians attribute to Ancient Rome’s collapse. Beginning in 165 AD, the Antonine Plague would decimate nearly half of the Roman population for the next 20 years. While the spread of disease mostly affected populations in the Western part of the Empire, the substantial decrease in Rome’s population as a whole made the economic strains outlined above all the more destructive to the Empire’s continued existence.

One of the lesser known reasons some believe contributed to the fall of Rome are actually environmental issues that faced the Empire—issues that are almost exactly like the ones we face in the world today. The expansion of the Roman Empire led to the massive exploitation of natural resources, which ultimately led to severe deforestation and soil erosion. Aside from the famine that surely would have resulted from these environmental problems, it is believed that climate change brought about by the eruption of the island of Krakatoa in 535 AD further exacerbated the environmental catastrophes faced by the Roman Empire.

Find Out More about the Fall of Ancient Rome

In 1836, American painter Thomas Cole completed a series of paintings entitled The Course of Empire, which visually captured the rise and fall of a nameless empire. These paintings had special relevance to American sentiments at the time, especially as the United States began to expand its own borders westwards to the Pacific coast. In addition, Cole’s five paintings are also an interesting representation of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and viewing them can help us to visualize the course of its expansive history.

Fortunately for those of us who want to find out more about the fall of Ancient Rome, there certainly is no shortage of resources found online and in print that attempt to explain  its much argued history. One of the more monolithic texts on the topic is Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which was published in England in 1776, the year America declared independence from Great Britain, interestingly enough. Despite the work’s epic scope and historical value, many of Gibbon’s theories and conclusions are now dated and have since been disproven by later historians and anthropologists.

A more recent explanation by American historian and conservative economist Bruce Bartlett attributes the excessive and wasteful spending of the Roman government as one of the key reasons behind the Empire’s collapse. His article “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome” is definitely not something everyone of us can follow or agree with, but Bartlett’s “free-market” viewpoint may help to shed some light on many of the economic issues plaguing the Empire during its decline.

The Oxford University Press Blog hosts a fascinating article that presents an interview with two of today’s preeminent scholars on the fall of the Roman Empire, Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather. Titled “The Fall of Rome – an author dialogue,” the two historians field questions about this fateful era of Ancient Rome’s history and provides an easy to follow and up-to-date characterization of the Empire’s fall.

While learning about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire may cause many of us to yawn or shy away, one cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding this history, especially as the same warning signs begin to crop up in the world today. Now more than ever, economic issues are plaguing some of the most powerful nations on earth, which is further complicated by environmental disasters and the proliferation of military expansion by a handful of world powers. In order to become an informed citizen in our contemporary age, take some time to learn about the problems that faced Rome during its decline, only then can we all work together to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself once more.