Fall of the Roman Empire
For centuries historians have debated on the main factors which led to the total collapse of the Roman Empire. However, nowadays we still cannot find a single truthful version why such a powerful nation went into the decline. What we know for sure is that it definitely did not happen overnight, but day by day the situation in the Empire became worse and worse, leading to the overall destruction. The era of Classical Antiquity was over, the European Middle Ages began. To find out the most important causes of the collapse and to understand why these causes are not unanimously accepted, let us have a close look at what happened in the 3d and lasted till the 5th century of Common Era (Squires, 2011).
Most historians agree that the most significant reasons of the breakdown are the following: Decline in ethics, morals, and values, natural disasters, failing economy, rising unemployment of the plebs (working class), Barbarian invasion, slave labor, Christianity, too fast expansion of the Empire as for those times, antagonistic issues between the Emperor and the Senate, political corruption spread by Praetorian Guard, heavy military expenditures because of the constant wars, Barbarians’ understanding of the major military tactics of the Romans, huge expenditures on the Gladiatorial games to please the mob.
With the constant desire of the governing top to please the mob, life became really cheap. Killings caused more killings turning people into cruel predators. Roman customs, traditions, values, institutions, and ideals went into decline. The value of life became so low that no one could really tell anymore what was bad and good, wrong or right. The loss of ethics was obvious. Surprisingly, but this loss began not from the lower classes of society but from the upper rich layers, including Emperors. This resulted in the devastating effects on the Romans. Promiscuous sexual behavior together with orgies and adultery marked the life of most people. Tiberius, the Emperor, had a group of boys to satisfy his perverted interests; Elagabalus forced a Vestal Virgin to marry (who swore to never marry); Nero enjoyed incest and, moreover, castrated his male slave in order to marry him as a woman; Commodus had harems of women making all Romans angry by sitting in the feminine clothes in the theatre. Such extremely low morality led to the fact that religious festivals of Bacchanalia ad Saturnalia with lewd acts, sacrifices, and ribald songs were the main entertainment for the slaves and lower classes. Bestiality and explicit, lewd sexual acts were practiced to amuse people. Forced prostitution and brothels flourished. Gladiatorial combats to death and chariot races were widespread. However, the Emperors considered it vital t please the mob, otherwise, its unsatisfaction could have led to the riots in the streets and civil unrest. Eventually, the cost of these games was one third of the total income of the Empire. Alcohol was consumed massively. Cruelty beyond measures of understanding was the common thing towards both animals and men on the arena (Causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire, n.d.).
A series of plagues, the most well-known is the Plague of Cyprian, added up greatly to the decline of the Roman Empire as a huge amount of deaths occurred in the 3d century AD (anno Domini). With the sharp decrease in the population, it was very difficult for the Roman Emperors to raise taxes and levy armies. Moreover, earthquakes and famines shook the territory leaving people without food and, therefore, more cruel and hungry to kill.
The third important cause was the failing economy and, as a result, a very high rate of the inflation. Bankruptcy threatened the government all the time. Heavy taxation, failing economics, costs for the Empire defense, and growing unemployment resulted in civil wars and even more depletion of the Empire’s resources. The overwhelming majority of the population did not share the well-known prosperity of Rome. Roman currency underwent devaluation to such extremes that the bartering system was in use again. This happened because of the gold which was to be used for making Roman coins, was used to pay for the luxury goods to the Orient.
The main cause for the unemployment of the plebs in Rome was a very cheap slave labor. The Roman government attempted to establish the policy of free trade but this only showed that the plebs could not compete with the foreign trade. Because of this the subsidization was installed which made up the differences in prices for the working class in Rome. However, the result was negative again as thousands of Romans simply decided to live on subsidies which were just enough to live. This step cost the government only more money. The growing gap between the poor and the rich was getting bigger with each coming day in the Roman Empire (Goldsmith, 1975).
Despite these serious factors, the Roman Empire was constantly shaken by the invasions of Barbarians. Many historians consider it to be the main cause of the fall. Scattered Germanic tribes which inhabited small villages were the main enemies of the Roman Empire. After the division of Rome in 284 AD, Diocletian overtook the reign over the Empire. He decided that such a large territory is impossible to be controlled, and divided it into two with one more equal in rights emperor. Fortunately, with different rulers at the top of the Western and Eastern parts, the Roman Empire was reunited again under the governance of Theodosius I. He died in 395 AD and the Empire was divided again – this time this division was permanent. The Western part was under the rule of Ravenna and Mediolanum (Milan) intermittently, and the Eastern part – under Constantinople. This division showed many of those tribal people (Huns, Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, etc.) that any of them could try to enjoy the rewards of prosperous Empire. The biggest group of them was the Huns who captured prisoners and achieved new allies only becoming more powerful with time passing by. The Huns exerted the biggest pressure on the Empire which with the incompetent Emperors was soon left without a proper leader to defend the territory. Therefore, in 410 AD Visigoths from the central Europe attacked Rome leaving it half destroyed. In 455 AD Vandals the northern Europe signaled the breakdown of the Roman Empire. By the beginning of 500 AD, the Western part of the Roman Empire existed no more. In its place many of the Germanic Kingdoms have been established. The Eastern Roman Empire turned into the Byzantine Empire surviving for another thousand years (Causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire, n.d.).
The next cause, which I already tackled a little bit in this paper, is a cheap slave labor. During the first two centuries of the Empire, the number of slaves increased drastically. Romans depended greatly on the slave’s labor which only added up to the decline in ethics, morals, and values, including the new ways of production of goods more effectively. The fact that slaves could do practically everything for the Romans was a major obstacle in the development of the whole population. The treatment of slaves, however, was as low as the morals of Romans, leading to the Slave (Servile) Wars and constant rebellions. The most prominent of them was led by Spartacus, the gladiator slave. With the upcoming of Christianity in the later decades of the Roman Empire, the attitude towards slaves altered a little bit. The amount of slaves decreased significantly after the manumission was established (the acts of freeing slaves).
Some of the historians, including Edward Gibbon, ascribed the adoption of Christianity all the negative consequences that led to the finish in the fall of the Empire. In his point of view, the population became less interested in what was going on ‘here-and-now’ as Christianity promised them the life after death (Gibbon, 1870). This promise was a relief for them as life in the Roman Empire became harder with each new day. Millions of people were hopeless. Early death was a common thing. Christianity, on the other hand, gave people the courage and hope for better life. Finally, Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor of the time, proclaimed to become a Christian issuing an edict with promises of protection and favor to all Christians.
The next factor, which I would like to indicate in this paper, concerns a fast expansion of the borders of the Roman Empire. The rapid accumulation of the lands which the Empire conquered demanded the protection of the borders and the resources for existence from the government. On the other hand, all the people of the conquered territories were considered Barbarians and hated Romans. The big mistake of the government was to make taxes for the non-Romans very high, moreover, they increased continuously. Rebellions often arose shaking the weakening Empire. Meanwhile, from the permanent military activities led by the Emperors, the manpower became so scarce that even these conquered people were permitted to join military ranks which only gave them the secretive knowledge of the Roman tactics in battle (Saez, n.d.).
I could not avoid mentioning the antagonism between the Emperor and the Senate as it had very harmful effects on the overall bad political and economic situation in the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor was legally empowered to rule Rome’s civil, military and religious affairs. The Senate performed the role of an advisory body. It was in Emperor’s power to determine who will live and who will die. However, such power was in the wrong hands, as the Roman Emperors were corrupt, leading immoral and debauched lives. The antagonistic actions between the Emperors and the Senators burst out all the time leading to the civil military activities, and making the Empire very weak under the constant pressure from outside its borders (Causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire, n.d.).
The misdoings of the Emperors did not stop on this. The Praetorian Guard had been formed consisting just of the elite soldiers who had to protect the Emperor everywhere. However, the Guard only spread corruption and their power grew to such extent that they even started to make decisions whether the ruling emperor should be killed and who could take his position after his death. The Praetorian Guard could sell the throne of the world to anyone who paid the highest price.
Corruption rose so did the expenditures on the wars. The Roman Army needed soldiers, everyone from the outsiders, as I have already mentioned, was allowed to join the military. The resources to satisfy military’s needs were not enough either.
Having the opportunity to enter the Roman military force, Barbarians easily learnt their battle tactics. This led to the turning against Romans their own ways of leading a battle by the Visigoths who were led by Alaric, ex-soldier of the Roman Army (Goldsmith, 1975).
In my point of view, all of this added up to the upcoming fall of the Roman Empire. Besides, I would like to say that the main causes of the breakdown can be also found in the lack of education of the population. This lack of education made them incompetent about the political and economic situation which eventually led to the fact that the government started to do everything else but caring for its people. The government gave the people ability to entertain themselves and the people were satisfied. They led very poor lives but they enjoyed orgies, Gladiator fights, and Bacchanalias.
To conclude I would like to point out that despite the wide variety of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, most historians agree with the main ones: Invasions by Barbarians together with expansion of the borders of the Empire, adoption of Christianity, loss of moral values and ethics, and the slave labor are the most important factors. The large amount of different opinions on this issue is due to the fact that with the study of that historical period each historian finds something more but the whole picture does not change, it is just complemented by some new details.
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