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Reasons for The Fall of The Roman Empire in The West

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For over a thousand years, the Roman Empire grew stronger and more powerful until it seemed like an unstoppable empire. It was so successful due to many reasons; their dominance in warfare, the stable structure of politics, and the strong-headed Romans leading the way to the top. Not only were they practical and well organized, but the Romans were very ambitious and aggressive in order to get what they wanted as well. Once they have their eyes set on a prize, they go for it until they get it. The Romans always sought to improve what they already had. All their ideas primarily came from other cultures, and they turned it into their own until it was perfect in their eyes. But what were the primary reasons for the fall of Rome? The following essay will try to answer this question.

While early Rome was governed by kings, it only took a bit of time until Romans decided to take matters into their own hands and rule over their cities by themselves. Establishing the senate, or better yet known as the Roman Republic, was established so that the senate would not advise the king, but rather pick a representative who would rule Rome as a king. The representative chosen would have to rule fairly and not as a tyrant, knowing that if he did not then he would be punished by the next representative. This eventually led to an era of peace and prosperity as the Roman Empire tried to address all matters of the state publically. Out of all the emperors who ruled, only five were known for their policies being thought out and reasonable. This period in time was mostly known for its peaceful methods of progression, where each emperor chose his successor. The Romans progressed under this time of peace, often known as the Pax Romana, and the Empire was safe from exterior and interior threats.

The very aspects that made the Roman Empire successful were the same ones that caused it to collapse. Although many historians believe and agree on the year of the fall of the western Roman Empire, 476 CE, and its consequences on western civilization, they tend to disagree on its many causes. While it’s commonly believed that the influx of barbarians from the north and west was part of the cause of the decline and fall, English historian, Edward Gibbon believed that it was due to the rise of Christianity and its effect on the Roman psyche. Neither one of these is correct, or incorrect. Rather, both these theories combined with the many other causes show the real reason for the fall and decline of the Roman Empire, not just one cause alone.

The Western Roman Empire consisted of what we now know as Britain, France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the Iberian Peninsula, and part of North Africa. The group of outsiders who started to migrate into Rome around 300 AD, otherwise known as barbarians, played an important role in the fall of the Empire. No one disagrees with this. However, if one were to try and fully understand the barbarians’ involvement as a whole sequence of events, they would see an unrecognized coherence to the story of western imperial collapse. There are two main reasons why this coherence has never come up before. The first reason is that most of the main barbarian groups, who later turned out to be the ones establishing successor states to the Roman Empire in western Europe, had initially crossed Roman borders by around 410 AD. But the last western Roman emperor was not disposed of until about seventy-five years later, in 476 AD. The initial invasions cannot be separated from the full working out of their social and political consequences. The longer-term consequences of the barbarians’ invasions of the Roman population of western Europe will be examined as well. While the western Empire did not go down quickly or easily, there is a clear line of historical cause and effect that runs from the barbarian invasions of the late Fourth and early Fifth centuries to the deposition of Romulus Augustus. The second reason can be understood in modern terms, as what caused the many different groups of outsiders to migrate into the Roman Empire in the first place. These population movements happened over the course of thirty-five years (376 AD – 410 AD), not all at once as some may believe. A closer look at the evidence shows that these years of invasions were all interrelated as different phases of a single crisis. The two main phases of population movement, in particular, were directly caused by the Hunnic power invasion into the fringes of Europe.

For the Roman imperial authorities, the first consequence of the arrival of the Hunnic tribes was the appearance of two substantial and separate Gothic groups, the Tervingi and the Greuthungi, in 376 AD. Both tribes landed on the banks of the Danube asking for asylum. Close examination of the evidence shows that what was once originally thought to be the reason for the tribes being on the banks of the Danube, was actually misinterpreted. The events that occurred in 376 AD at first glance, show fear-stricken Goths fleeing to the river of Danube from a solid mass of Huns. However, that was not the case, as it wasn’t for the many Goths who came to the border of Europe. The tribes wanted to ask permission to settle down in the Roman Empire, and start a new life for themselves, as the Huns were threatening and invading their homelands. The Huns were a new factor in the European strategic balance of power beginning in the late Fourth Century. They were seen as savages, going around from territory to territory, invading and taking over. The Emperor at the time that the two tribes asked for asylum, Emperor Valens, panicked and delayed an answer, leaving the Goths homeless as winter was approaching. When the Goths finally had enough of waiting, they crossed the Danube river without permission, and after a Roman commander planned out an ambush, the Battle of Adrianople quickly followed suit and would last five years. The Emperor and Romans were outmatched and not prepared for war, proving so when two-thirds of the Roman army was killed.

The Goths remained on Roman land and soon became allies with the Roman army. Alaric, a Goth and former Roman commander, one day decided to stand up for what the Goths were promised. Alaric demanded the Emperor give him and the Goths what they were once promised; property for them to turn into their new home. As Emperor Honorius delayed his answer, Alaric raised his demands to also make the Goths be seen as citizens of the empire, along with their promised land. After being told no on many occasions, Alaric gathered an army and crossed the Alps to Italy, where he would wait outside the city for the perfect opportunity to sack Rome. Alaric reentered Rome in August of 410 AD, where he stayed for three days and completely ransacked the city. It was only after six thousand Roman soldiers were sent to defend the city and were defeated, did the Senate finally relinquished. At the time, some people saw the sacking of Rome as a sign from their pagan gods. St. Augustine, who died in 430 AD, said that the fall of Rome was not a result of the abandonment of the people’s pagan gods, but rather a reminder to the Christians of the city of why they needed to suffer.

As you may be able to tell, there was strife between the pagans and Christians of the Roman Empire, which was just another example of a cause of disunity. Christianity, and many other religions, did not have legal status until the Roman Emperor in 313 AD, Constantine, issued the Edict of Milan. Less than seventy years later, in 380 AD, then-emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, Christians had other ideas brewing. Christianity had not declared war on Roman society, but rather they condemned it. The Christians were on strike, even before the advent of Constantine. The evaded State responsibilities and refused to fight for Rome. Constantine’s heroic remedy of calling in Christians to govern just gave them more power to do what they wanted. The Catholics in power became wealthy, occupied the highest positions in government, took up the defense of property, and allowed the reassuring idea that they would not let Rome fall so soon. However, when Rome was going through the final crisis that would eventually lead to its downfall, the Christians turned a blind eye and called Rome the devil’s city.

Not only were there religious conflicts, there were social conflicts as well. The social classes were on two completely opposite sides. The rich had unheard of luxury, while the poor were begging for scraps and lived in misery. There was no doubt that the lower classes called on the barbarians to help rid themselves of the upper class. The invasions in the Third Century were successful in exiling the upper class from the land. G. Ferrero teaches that another one of the causes of the fall of Rome was a crisis of authority. The main cause of the crisis was the ambiguous and vague character of authority. Did the Christians and the upper class, the imperial power who were given their power by popular vote, have the right to build themselves a dynasty to their liking? Many massacres and revolutions, such as the slaves and colony revolution, occurred from these uncertainties of the pagans and lower class.

Although Alaric the Goth soon died after he sacked Rome and succeeded, other barbarians, whether Christian or not, did not stop after seeing Alaric’s success. The old empire was laid to waste by Burgundians, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, and Magyars. By the year 475 AD Spain, Britain, and parts of Gaul had been conquered by barbarians. Only Italy remained as the “empire” in the west. Eventually, Rome lost northern Africa as well, which meant a loss of revenue. Loss of revenue eventually led to the empire having less money to support their army. The Roman State had no way of paying its armies and officials without resorting to currency debasement, requisitions, confiscations, and service without compensation. Now, with no way of paying its army, and the pressure of the Huns invading the borders of the Empire, Rome would need to think of other ways to mobilize a new and stronger army. But, out of fear and liberty, the Roman emperors disarmed their citizens and entrusted mercenaries to come to their defense. First, they called upon the population of barbarian areas in the empire, and then, later on, extended it to foreign barbarians as well. In the Fourth Century, Rome entrusted the barbarian tribes enough to put them in the front line to wipe out their enemies. In the reserve army itself, the barbarian officers held the highest rankings, up to the commander in chief, and the most esteemed units were barbarian auxilia.

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