Why Did Rome Fall: Informative Essay

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From a dominating empire to a declining power, many have attempted to declare a single factor behind the Western Roman Empire’s collapse. Rome’s imperialist grand strategy may have thrived in the 1st-3rd centuries, but it lacked sustainability, the Empire’s internal issues weakening its function until its defeat by Germanic forces in 476 AD. Modern scholars now generally agree that a multidisciplinary approach assessing a multitude of factors is necessary to define Rome’s fall. As Middleton notes, all great states at some point collapse, and defining a decline helps to understand a fall. In assessing Rome’s decline and fall, this essay focuses on the interaction of a variety of external and internal factors, moving away from traditional theories that focus too heavily on the capabilities of Rome against outsiders. This essay will argue that Rome collapsed because of a slow and ongoing internal weakening resulting from poor policy decisions, corruption, civil war, economic failure, population loss, deteriorating military standards, and loss of civic pride and culture. External influences of migration, barbaric invaders, and changes in climate exposed the internal decline of the Empire, but without the Empire’s internal deterioration and increasing political, economic, and social instability, the imperial defense may have kept the increasing external threats at bay. That is why when considering the fall of Rome in 476 AD, the internal factors that accumulated from the 3rd century onwards are more important than the external factors that exposed them.

The Accumulation of Internal Factors

Political and Military

The Empire’s political system declined from the 3rd century on as emperors became increasingly corrupt in their power, irritating the senate and military and inspiring civil war and usurpers in the face of decreasing trust and civic pride. Gabriel quotes over 100 instances of armed civil disruption over the seat of emperor between the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 to 476 AD, each inspiring the next. This constant instability consumed resources and distracted from the defense of the frontiers, allowing fear of usurpers to become the main issue the emperor would focus on. Murray notes the high frequency of emperors assassinated by their guards displays the army had realized they decided who became emperor, signifying an ongoing breakdown in civic trust and disruption, and encouraging barbarians to revolt. It is likely this constant political instability increasingly hindered the Empire’s smooth function, not only distracting Rome from increasing external threats but hindering their resources to deal with them.

A period of the late 3rd century, dubbed the 3rd-century crisis, scarred Rome’s strength and led to a large population drop, and has been attributed to barbarian invasion and internal revolt and conflict. While the population drop is also argued to be the result of a large plague, it regardless damaged Rome’s strength and political might. As the higher-ranked then pushed the peasants into a form of serfdom associated with high taxes and costs of slavery, this is argued to have maintained the population loss, decreasing Rome's population power as a large empire.

Employing an imperialistic grand strategy, the Roman strategy was generally realist in its focus on force, expansion, and capabilities over intentions. The consistent warring and swift expansion required a military of impractical size and vast budget. Too focused on expanding capabilities, the realist perspective led to more wars for financial gain to increase military strength. This cycle was unsustainable. With expansion came the appointments of elites to govern new lands within the Empire, increasing localism. The upper class in areas outside of the center was increasingly less defended by the military and increasingly growing in personal identities, so began to stop paying taxes to the center, this localism weakened the Empire’s patriotism and wealth, damaging its unification and finances.

Policy throughout the 3rd-5th centuries that settled Germanic tribes within Rome, giving some military training, and developing their political and social structures, created large, structured groups with competent armies that had the power to organize. This strategy while aimed at preventing raids lacked foresight, prioritizing expanding ‘Roman’ capabilities with settled tribes that weren’t necessarily indefinitely loyal. With no stable leader, Rome seemed to lose sight that they were weakening themselves from within, diluting the loyal citizenship and military.

Roman grand strategy had balanced the economic resources to maintain a distinguished army with the need for frontier defense since the 1-3rd centuries. Scholars like Murray find that following the crisis of the 3rd, they allowed barbarians into the army, yet Otts draws on the writings of Ammianus to pinpoint that this decline occurred following the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD. Either way, this was not a good strategy for maintaining military numbers. Emperors likely began hiring barbarians at least by the 4th century, as Otts highlights this period as suffering the biggest military losses in Roman history, as well as an increasing difficulty to recruit reflected in increasing laws pushing for military recruits. Recruiting outsiders would have broken the civil-military bond, increasing political instability and questions about the army’s legitimacy. Historian Ferril argues this is the main reason for Rome’s fall, the ‘Germanization’ of the military, leading to decreasing loyalty to the Roman government in favor of loyalty to commanders, alongside a decline in military discipline and professionalism. The imperial defense could no longer be seen as the invincible force it once was.

The decline in military discipline as a result of barbarian recruits hindered the protection of the borders. To make matters worse, early 4th-century emperor Constantine employed a strategy of creating large mobile field armies, based strongly on cavalry for quick movement to different crises. This took away from provincial forces and stationed border defense. The logistical erosion of imperial defense was now in action, with the invaders able to wreak havoc on the provinces before they were confronted and defeated. By the start of the 5th-century raids on the frontiers escalated, Rome trying to settle invaders to deal with the threat they posed. However, they now lacked the military capacity to control them, allowing organized tribes to pillage the Empire.

Economic Decline

The slow decline in the Roman economy prevented the Empire’s capability to survive attacks by 476 AD. Imperial finances were spent largely on the military and upper class and became increasingly demanding to maintain stability. This increased expenditure created inflation and lead to repeated economic failures with not enough gold able to be produced as required. Agriculture was the basis of the Roman economy and was estimated to account for about 90 percent of revenue, so to fund increasing military expenses, the agricultural tax increased out of control, mainly affecting the poorest who worked in the industry. This plight of the masses decreased patriotism, and provincial revolts increased, in turn costing more to prevent. Jones cites a large-scale decline in agriculture as a result, causing the people to suffer more, and be more susceptible to outside attacks and pillages. As barbarian raids increased, alongside growing localism, the flow of tax to the center dried, critically inhibiting the strength of the military to sustain the Empire. Romes’s economic issues can be interpreted as instrumental in its decline, decreased funding, civic loyalty, and supply.

The increase of the slave industry in the 5th century also reflects the desperate financial times. The overreliance on slaves leading to a ‘workers revolt’ is defined by Mashkin as the cause for Rome’s collapse. He applies a Marxist critical theory perspective, of the slaves revolting in favor of feudalization, taking down the Empire by weakening society and uniting with the barbarians for the fall of Rome. While this is not the single greatest factor, the importance of decreasing loyalty to the Empire and the economic and political impact of revolts did significantly weaken Rome.

As the economy increasingly declined, the imperialist grand strategy was no longer achievable. Rome had balanced its resources to maintain a distinguished army with the need for frontier defense from the 1-3rd centuries, but could no longer sustain both. Division of the Empire into East and West around 395 AD increased the West’s vulnerability due to its economic weakness and vast, undefended frontiers. In the early 5th century Rome began paying barbarians to not attack. The final straw for the economy that was already in shambles came in 468 AD when emperor Anthemius launched an overly-expensive expedition into North Africa, solidifying the economy’s collapse.

Cultural and Social Breakdown

Schnee has argued that the Empire increasingly failed in reputation management, employing poor public relations and perception management, allowing their almighty reputation to decline, creating a window for tribes to make the strategic policy decision to unite and defeat Rome. Based upon the declining political and military prestige previously discussed, a decline in reputation likely did encourage outsiders to attack. Scholars also point to a moral decline in the high ‘Roman’ standards of being. Levick notes the Republic established a ‘gentile rivalry’, unlike political clashes in other states, and a basis of rights and representation, which morals were slowly destroyed by increased greed and corruption in the Empire. If Rome was socially and culturally weakened as believed, the sparse loyalty would have encouraged internal revolt and outside attack.

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Historians such as Gibbon point to Christianity as the fall of Rome, shifting the glory of the state to God and reversing the emperor’s divine status, thus decreasing civic duty and dedication to the Empire. This would have halted the antagonistic and imperialist grand strategy. Middleton also states that the army’s new spiritual outlook weakened its powerful status. However, as Otts notes, “If Christianity was behind the fall, the East should have fallen first”. This may not have been the sole reason, yet likely contributed to the overall decline in Western Rome’s general prestige and strength.

Major External Factors

Germanic Forces and Migration

Around the 3rd century, regional Germanic tribes began to organize into distinguishable large groups such as the Goths and Vandals. They were now pressured by their large numbers to find better lands, causing multiple migrations toward the Empire and frequently raiding settlements within the western frontier. The resultant third-century crisis, as previously discussed, forced Rome to settle tribes within its borders. The tribes had also developed strong armor, perhaps at fault for Rome’s development of steel mills, and their leaders were growing in power and organizational ability. At this time, the raids and settlements of the external barbaric forces dried tax flow to Rome’s center, and forced greater Roman military expenditure to crush them, weakening Roman financial capabilities and depleting resources.

In the late 4th century, the Huns migrated through Europe creating a ‘large coalition of nomadic tribes’ as they went and forcing populations to flee to Rome for help. Some 75,000 Goths were forced to immigrate to Rome and arrived on the Danube. Emperor Valens granted them asylum, but a shortage of food quickly turned them against their host. Now inside the frontiers, the Goths defeated Roman forces in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, destroying almost two-thirds of the imperial military. From here nothing was the same, and Germanic tribes’ moves to within Rome’s walls only increased, raiding as they pleased, severely weakening Rome’s military and causing great political and economic instability. Increasing immigrants throughout the 5th century were settled as Rome lacked the resources to expel or control them, slowly destroying Rome from within, and seizing mines and food sources. This immigration crisis severely weakened Rome. However, arguments focusing solely on the immigration crisis as the cause of Rome’s fall are often biased in conservative perspectives attempting to liken the crisis to modern-day US or Europe.

The Goths and Romans eventually united against Atilla and the Huns in 451 AD when they reached the Roman Empire, but imperial forces were no longer the same, ending in defeat. By 476 AD, the Empire was in no state to defend itself when Germanic leader Odoacer attacked and forced the final emperor, Romulus Augustus, to abdicate.

Whilst immigration, raids, and attackers weakened and formally took down the last of the Empire, overly fixating on the barbarians against Rome, focuses too much on the situation as one force against another. This realist perspective ignores the slow decline occurring from within, and the broken grand strategy that made Rome defeatable.

Climate

While the external factor of climate change was discussed in early antiquity based on written records, only recently has its importance risen in discussing Rome’s fall, with recent paleoclimatic data suggesting “a climatic shift away from the stability of previous centuries” in the time of Rome’s decline. From 200-400 AD data from sea ice and solar activity also indicates this instability involving a dryer and cooler climate. This likely affected the depleting resources, and agricultural and economic instability within the Roman Empire during this period.

Drake draws on humidity data to show that significant shifts in the North-Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) created periodic droughts that can be linked to migration movements on the periphery of the Empire. These climatic shifts could have been a previously-undiscovered major push factor for tribes’ migration into Roman borders, alongside the Huns’ presence in similar regions. Drake shows NAO shifts link up with 4 major migration movements of late antiquity, the Gothic migration of 376-410 AD being one.

Alongside this climatic evidence, the Empire’s physical environment may also have amplified migration and conflict. Geography made Western Rome easy to enter in comparison with the harsh terrain that protected the Eastern Empire. This may well have diverted potential attackers and migrations of the East to the West, forcing a declining Western Rome to settle tribes where the East’s frontiers were secure.

While increasingly persuasive evidence, climate’s influence on migration and the degradation of Rome would not have single-handedly destroyed the Empire. Climatic data is also still new and ever-developing, discussed mainly among scientists. As Marx et al. note, historians recommend “more experts from their discipline are brought on board” for a better multidisciplinary understanding of how climate worked with other factors in Rome’s decline.

Analysis and Conclusion

While traditional theory may see Rome’s fall as a direct result of external attacks, a constructivist lens sees a combination of these internal factors as causing the collapse, the barbarian invasions and civil wars enabled by, and as a result of, a wider process of political and social transformation within the Empire. Western Rome could not sustain a consistent grand strategy, or general strategy, in the face of ongoing corruption over the seat of the emperor. Political instability and poor policy decisions created economic, military, and social decline, allowing the Empire to grow weak.

This internal deterioration was a long and steady process, allowing external threats of immigration and invaders to infiltrate and break a weakened Empire. Policy decisions and management of the external threats faced by Rome failed early on, focus on internal instability taking precedence, and as the state weakened, it was no longer capable of dealing with the Germanic tribes within, or the Huns that came after. When considering the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, the internal factors are more important, as the collapse was preceded by a much larger internal deterioration.

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Why Did Rome Fall: Informative Essay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/why-did-rome-fall-informative-essay/
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Why Did Rome Fall: Informative Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Nov 15 [cited 2024 Apr 18]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/why-did-rome-fall-informative-essay/
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