Five Facts: Why the Roman Empire Fell

J.R. Waller, MBA
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Key Points

  • The Roman Empire gradually declined over centuries. Many factors led to its eventual collapse including economic, military and administrative struggles.

Introduction

A common misconception is that the Roman Empire fell on August 27, 410 AD with the sack of Rome at the hands of the Vandals.

This was the turning point and “end” more or less to the empire in the most literal sense. However, the Roman Empire actually fell or declined over a series of a few hundred years, about 250 give or take a few decades.

The inheritors of Rome, both the Catholic west and Orthodox east (as they would come to be known) both considered themselves (especially the east under the Byzantine empire) to be the new torch bearers of the old Roman Empire.

Rome’s fall then was more of a mutation into something new when viewed in light of the grand scope of world history. It’s continuation in many ways is still felt to this day, especially in regard to modern law for example.

What were some of the ingredients that contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire? Let’s look at “Five Facts” for why the Roman Empire fell…


1. Constant Political Turmoil and Corruption

Rome was not often known for peaceful transitions of power, certainly not in the way a 21st century democratic republic would view a transition of power.

“The donning of the purple” that is the putting into office a new ruler/emperor was always a precarious endeavor throughout much of Rome’s history. However, violent transitions of power became increasingly commonplace and abrupt in the later Roman Empire due to growing distrust between royals, political espionage, corruption, power struggles and civil wars, all of which took its toll on the political establishment.

This type of social atmosphere manifested itself notably between 235 and 284 AD when the Roman Empire witnessed what it termed a “time of crisis.” Things got worse in the later empire as well.“…violent transitions of power became increasingly commonplace and abrupt in the later Roman Empire…”

The constant turnover in office during the Roman Empire’s later centuries led to many attaining office who were incapable of effective administrative and fiscal leadership.

These leaders’ aspirations for power only led so far. Their thirst for power did not necessarily or often translate into effective imperial management. As a result, the empire and its citizens suffered from inept and inconsistent leadership from the top from often power hungry individuals lacking proper leadership and management credentials.


2. An Over-Reliance on Taxation

As the Roman Empire expanded it was constantly embroiled in warfare, including civil wars in the later empire. This placed constant financial strain on the empire as funding for the military protection of the empire was primarily through taxation. Simply put more wars led to more need for armies and greater taxation. This created an ever widening gulf between rich and poor and subsequently civil unrest and anger became more constant among Roman society.


3. Expansionism

In the end the Roman Empire became, simply, too much to manage. Hindsight is always 20-20 when it comes to history and while it is always dangerous to point to singular events as truly changing the course of world history in the case of the Roman Empire and reasons for its decline there are a couple important events one cannot overlook. Both have to do with expansionism in one way or another.

“In the end the Roman Empire became, simply, too much to manage. ”

The first happened in 9 AD. This was the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In this battle Aminius defeated Publius Quinctilius Varus’ legions and auxiliaries in ambushes which shocked the Romans. It was a rout that would ultimately prove disastrous to the Empire because after this the empire never expanded into Germanic territory east of the Rhine.

If Rome had actually pushed into Germanic territory it could have prevented the Germanic invasions in later years. While this of course is a big “if” there is no question that the course of the empire’s history would have been different had it pushed further east of the Rhine river.

The second event was Trajan’s (53AD – 117AD) overall expansion of the empire. Trajan had expanded the empire to the greatest size in its entire history during his wars with the Dacians.

During this time he expanded the empire all the way into modern-day Iran (117 AD). Trajan even had designs to go as far east as India however that would never become a reality due to his sudden death to illness.

While the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest kept Rome from expanding where it needed to for protection, Trajan’s expansion actually expanded the empire too far. As was stated before, the empire was too large in the end to be managed effectively given limitations in the ancient world.

Perhaps if Trajan had pushed further east to India it may have made the empire stronger as going beyond the Rhine would have done, however that would also have made the empire even more difficult to manage.

In either scenario Trajan’s expansion for what it was caused the empire logistical and administrative challenges due to the shear size of the empire. It was simply a lot to manage and with the aforementioned political turmoil and economic challenges that would face the empire, it becomes easier to see how the deck was slowing becoming stacked against Rome.


4. Economic Limitations and Struggles

Due to the vast size of the empire and reliance on limited ancient world technology the Roman Empire’s economy, which was primarily based on farming and agriculture, faced stringent limitations.

A reliance on agriculture in and of itself was not a cause for the fall of the empire per say, however it was the combined effect of a dependence upon farming to fuel the economy while subsequently not having the means to develop widespread economic trading networks or prosperity networks due to a lack of proper technology. Rome’s technology was significant for its time, but it lacked the speed needed to sustain wide-scale trading networks.

The vastness of the Roman Empire meant it was necessary for it to run financially well in order for it to remain nimble and solvent, but the empire did not have the technological means at its disposal to generate wealth from farming across the entire empire in a consistent manner.

Instead pockets of wealth and small economies fueled the empire instead of a widespread more sustainable agrarian economy. Commerce then was stilted and limited while ever increasing taxation helped fill the void left by slow transportation networks, which as we saw above did not mean prosperity for all.


5. Growing Disunity

As the later empire suffered at the hands of constant attacks by Germanic tribes and from civil strife at home and economic and administrative issues, it began to experience a gradual fragmentation of its society. A strong allegiance to “Rome” started waning.

A key example of this came from within the ranks of the military. As the empire fell on tough economic times and needed to keep warding off invaders and grow its tax base it began to allow and assimilate captured barbarians into the ranks of its military.

This not only allowed barbarians to learn about the operations of Rome’s armies from the inside and use it against the empire, but it also caused great inconsistency among legions and even in political circles, with many of the barbarous groups asserting their own power and disrupting the empire.“From its inception what had made the Roman Republic all the way to the early empire so successful was its unity, strong sense of identity and patriotism.”

This, combined with corruption internally, left the empire without its greatest ally: unity. From its inception what had made the Roman Republic all the way to the early empire so successful was its unity, strong sense of identity and patriotism.

In the later empire its politicians, philosophers, commanders and citizens were now letting slip that which had kept them so formidable over the centuries. This was especially true as the gulf between rich and poor grew and the elite became more apathetic to the outside world because of their affluence. Social fragmentation would be a major downfall for the empire.


Conclusion

Ultimately the Roman Empire fell for a myriad of reasons. Yet it is important to note that most of the reasons for its collapse were internal as opposed to external.

The Roman Empire underwent a serious identity crisis in its later era. It could not handle the weight of its own shoulders. It often had bad leadership at the helm, its citizens were taxed too much and too often, there was constant distrust in the air and its citizens lost sight of what it meant to be Roman.

All of these internal challenges, along with external parties ready to capitalize on them, coalesced into a gradual decline, fall and mutation of the Roman Empire into the eastern and western empires of the Middle Ages.

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