The Fall of the Roman Empire

At its peak in the year 106 AD, the Roman Empire consisted of 52 provinces and influenced or controlled some 2.3 million square miles of territory around the Mediterranean Sea. The Roman army was efficient and well-organized, and the ruling classes in Rome, including the Emperor, were the richest and most powerful men in the Western world. Yet within three hundred years the Empire was on the verge of collapse, and the reasons for its decline and fall have interested historical analysts for centuries.

The seeds of the destruction of the Empire may have been sown in 44 BC, when Julius Caesar appointed himself ‘dictator for life’. The rapid growth of the Empire under this famous general was based on conquest and plunder, and its economy depended on the taxes, slaves and treasure that could be extorted from the new provinces. This one-way traffic had to come to an end when there were no more lands to conquer within the reach of Rome, and the cost of protecting and administering the provinces became too high. In the later years of the Empire, the army was spread too thinly to defend the Empire’s borders against attacks from Germanic barbarians to the north and Persian invaders to the east, and relied more and more upon locally recruited mercenary soldiers who lacked the patriotic pride and discipline of the Roman legionaries.

The leadership of the Empire was often a cause of insurgency and discontent among the Roman citizens and the Empire’s subjects in other countries. There were some good Emperors over the centuries; but there were also a substantial number who were cruel, weak, insane or greedy. The worst of these rulers imposed heavy taxes, passed insupportable laws and executed their enemies; so there were always rebellions in the provinces, and the army was always dealing with a problem somewhere in the Empire. Even at home, long periods of civil war were common, usually caused by arguments over the right to the title of Emperor – in one year there were no fewer that 25 soldier-emperors appointed as the army joined in the struggle for power.
The Empire eventually became too large to be ruled directly from Rome, and the Emperor Diocletian divided his realm into two parts in 250 AD, each with its own Emperor and its own capital city; Milan and Nicomedia, and later Ravenna and Constantinople. Partly as a result of epidemics of plague and other diseases in the West, most of the population of the Empire lived in the East, so the old problems of finding recruits for the Western army on its Germanic and Gallic borders continued.

In addition, the Western Empire had economic problems as gold became scarcer to find, making it difficult to pay the soldiers and causing further unrest in the army. Meanwhile, the aristocracy of the Empire continued to live their extravagant lifestyles which the failing economy could not support. One interesting theory holds that a major cause of illness among the aristocracy could be traced to their wine bottles, water pipes and even their cosmetics, all of which were made from lead and other heavy metals and simply caused unexplained deaths which we now know were due to lead poisoning on a massive scale.

It is possible that the gradual spread of Christianity made the true Roman citizens more tolerant, less belligerent and less inclined to force their way of life upon others, paving the way for the withdrawal of their forces from the lands they had conquered. It is more likely that the army became so badly-organized that they could not withstand the strength of the rebellions on all their borders, and the true Roman soldierly spirit was diluted by the influx of barbarian or non-Roman mercenary recruits. One of these mercenary chiefs, Odoacer, led a revolt in the year 476 caused by the Emperor’s refusal to pay his men in land for their services, and met no opposition as he swept into Italy and overran what remained of the Western Empire, deposing the true Emperor who fled and never returned. This event is generally thought of as the end of the Roman Empire, although the Eastern Empire continued in Constantinople for another thousand years.

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