by Patrick Lynch
There is much debate as to the causes of Rome’s destruction. What we do know is that no single factor can be blamed as it was a combination of problems that led to the demise of one of the world’s greatest empires. It reached its peak under Trajan in 117 AD but ultimately, its size caused all manner of problems. Diocletian split the empire in two at the end of the Third Century Crisis, and by then, it was swiftly heading in the wrong direction. Internal and economic factors helped weaken Rome, and the invading tribes were able to take advantage. Realistically, the empire was finished a long time before the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476 AD.
German historian Alexander Demandt is an expert in the history of ancient Rome and came up with 210 different theories as to why the empire collapsed! In this piece, I will briefly look at just five possible reasons.
1 – Internal Strife
In ‘The History of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, Edward Gibbon had a controversial theory. He claimed the rise of Christianity contributed to the fall of Rome as it bred a ‘turn the other cheek’ mentality. He also claimed the religion valued idle and unproductive people and also led to internal divisions. Gibbon wrote this in the 18th century, and modern historians tend to disagree with his analysis.
Gibbon’s claim that Rome was subject to moral decay probably holds more water. In the 2nd Century BC, Polybius wrote of a decline in moral virtue that led to the fall of the Republic. The same affliction appeared to damage the empire. The original ideals, values, and traditions upon which Rome was founded declined and were replaced by a notion that life was cheap and depravity, gluttony, and cruelty were the norm.
The advent of the Gladiatorial Games is one such example. Rome developed a ‘mob’ mentality and these individuals needed to be entertained. The rise of slave labor led to a huge number of unemployed Romans who required state handouts. If they became bored, civil unrest and riots followed. The Games were a means of keeping the public in check and consisted of excessive violence and cruelty. The emperors paid for the games which of course mean the state bore the cost. At one point, setting up the Games cost one-third of the Empire’s income as rulers tried to curry favor with the people.
The breathtaking incompetence of many of Rome’s emperors was yet another problem. Even those with a cursory interest in Roman history will have heard of Nero and Caligula for example. In the early days of the empire, a good ruler would come around now and then to clean up the mess of the inept leaders before him. Towards the end of the empire, there was a succession of weak and clueless emperors incapable of dealing with the ever-growing number of threats.
The Senate acted as an advisory body, but corrupt and power-hungry rulers routinely ignored this advice. Angry senators would plot against the leader and decisions were never made for the good of the empire. The Praetorian Guard were the personal bodyguards of the emperor, but they too became drunk on power. Eventually, they decided who would be emperor and would routinely murder the person on the throne.
The Third Century Crisis almost destroyed the Empire and paved the way for its eventual downfall. From 235-284 AD, there were at least 26 emperors and all, but a handful was murdered. Rome’s traditional trade network collapsed during this period so by the time Diocletian brought an end to the Crisis; the Empire was on its last legs.
2 – Economic Deterioration
As is the case with all great empires, Rome was founded on a strong economic foundation. By its peak in 117 AD, the empire spanned approximately 1.5 million square kilometers and was inhabited by around 130 million people. Trade was crucial to the growth of the Roman economy and its outstanding transport system allowed a huge variety of goods to be imported across its borders. However, governing the empire was an expensive task with enormous military, administrative and logistical costs. A combination of several factors resulted in hyperinflation, heavy taxes, a localization of trade and ultimately, a crippling financial crisis.
The denarius was the main coin used in the first 200+ years of the empire. When it was created, each coin contained 4.5 grams of pure silver and was the equivalent of a day’s wages for the average craftsman/skilled laborer. Once the amount of precious metals entering the empire fell, fewer denarii could be created. This lack of money didn’t prevent greedy emperors from building ridiculous vanity projects, and they decided to reduce the purity of the coinage.
Nero was one of the first emperors to devalue the denarius, and by the time Gallienus took the throne in 253 AD, the coins contained approximately 5% silver and consisted of a bronze core with a thin layer of silver. By 265 AD, the denarius contained 0.5% silver; the result was inflation of up to 1,000% across the empire. By this time, Rome had no more enemies to steal from so taxation was raised. The resulting mess completely paralyzed trade. By the end of the 3rd Century AD, the vast majority of trade was localized with barter methods used instead of the exchange of currency.
To make matters worse, the empire faced an intense labor deficit. For centuries, the empire relied on slaves to work as craftsmen and till the fields. In the latter part of the Republic and the first 150 or so years of the Empire, constant conquest meant there was a steady supply of slaves. By the 2nd Century AD, Roman expansion had practically ground to a halt, so the supply of slaves dried up along with the accompanying plunder. Later on, there was a growing humanitarian sentiment within the empire (when Christianity became the main religion) as Romans began to realize that slavery was wrong. A significant proportion of slaves were freed; this exacerbated the labor problem. -History Collection