The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
A Note on Three Myths
|Sack of Rome 410 C.E.|
The Decline of the Roman Empire is one of the great, artistic, literary, historical, philosophical, sociological, scientific tropes, and clichés of the western and now world tradition. It is also a rather annoying bugbear in terms of exercising an inadvertently malign influence on all the above.1
For the bottom line is that the fall of the Roman Empire has become, for the last few centuries a corrupting influence on the intellectual activities of the west because this fixation has incorporated into it a whole series of distortions and ideological biases that distort the understanding of history and culture.
The distortions come in many forms and cover many areas but here are some.
1) The fall of the Roman Empire is the central event of human history. Put this crudely it sounds pretty stupid and yet this bias creeps into writing about the fall of Rome routinely.2
The fact is the fall of Rome is not the central event of human history. I could list a whole series of events that are arguably much more decisive. Let us go through several examples.
The discovery and settlement of the New World by Europeans. This event in my opinion easily exceeds in importance the fall of Rome. Everything from the establishment of new nations to the distribution of the New World crops, maize, potatoes etc., have had and continue to have a widespread and deep impact.3
The fact is at the time the fall of Rome was an event of little greater importance or even less to world humanity than the fall of the Han dynasty in China or the fall of the Gupta dynasty in India. Those events it can be argued had an even greater impact some might argue. India for example did not see another attempt at unification for almost 1000 years. And China remained disunited for almost four centuries.4
In fact the whole Fall of Rome idea “forgets” that Rome did not fall in the East. There was no retrograde of civilization in the East instead the Empire went on and survived in various forms for almost a 1000 more years. But more important than the mere political survival of the empire was the fact of the survival in modified form of Greco-Roman civilized life. And such civilized life continued in the east up to the present day.5
The fact that at the time the so called fall of Rome was the disintegration and collapse of the western Roman Empire and that event was part of a general retreat that affected most old world societies at about the same time. From China to the Western Roman Empire there was a series of inter connected crises that put severe stress on all these societies. That of the western Roman Empire was of no particular importance compared to the others.6
This notion of the fall of Rome’s alleged central importance to the history of humanity goes back to the western traditions privileging of Greco-Roman culture to the exclusion of all other cultures and thus viewing what happened to it has the central focus of human history.
Of course this notion that Greco-Roman culture because it is considered so important in the west must therefore be the central focus of all human history is therefore at one with the idea that the fall of Rome, even though Roman culture did not in fact “fall”, is the central event in human history.
As mentioned above it is in fact far more accurate to claim that the central event in the last 2000 years is not the fall of Rome but the discovery and settlement of the Americas by Europeans; and that the fall of Rome is not the central event at all.
Also this concentration on the fall of political state the Western Roman empire, aside from ignoring the fact that the Eastern empire lived on ignores that it wasn’t the political fall that in the end was important but the decay of Greco-Roman civilization.
This leads to the next myth.
2) The Fall of Rome was an unprecedented tragedy. No it wasn’t. Other civilizations had had declined and fallen before and the decay of the Roman state was not some sort of unusual event in that respect.
For example the end of the bronze age was accompanied by widespread cataclysmic change. In that crisis the Hittite state and civilization was swept away, and so was the Mycenaean civilization of the Aegean and mainland Greece. All the other societies of the Middle East and much of the rest of the Old World experienced severe dislocation and crisis. And this wasn’t the first time such a crisis had happened.7
The fact is civilizations and states have a tendency to decline over time. There is nothing unnatural or bizarre about this phenomena. Although given the attitudes of some writers you would think that the decline was an unusual event when it is not.
After all more severe than the fall of Rome was probably the Mayan Collapse of 800 - 900 C.E.; that particular catastrophe was more abrupt and more sudden that the fall of Rome. Also has mentioned above this disaster was largely confined to the Western part of the Roman Empire. The Eastern part continued to exist, even prosper.8
In fact the decline of Rome resembles nothing so much as a retreat of civilized life from peripheral regions which could not sustain anymore the stresses of upholding civilized life.
For example it is now rather clear that civilized life was in serious, apparently terminal decline in Roman Britain before the arrival of the Barbarians. Again such retreats of civilization from the peripheries are neither surprising nor the least bit unusual.9
Central Asia for example had seen many retreats and advancements of states and societies many thousands of years. And in Europe the movements of peoples and states had been going on for millennium.10
In fact what disrupted the historical trajectory of Western Europe was not the fall of the Western Roman Empire but the establishment of the Roman Empire in the west. For this Empire fixed the focus of the areas it conquered on the economy of the Mediterranean and shifted the cultural axis to there as well. It also disrupted trading patterns and the movement of peoples. The Celtic - Germanic focus of Western Europe was permanently disrupted, for a Latin, Mediterranean based empire dominating western Europe was neither culturally nor geographically “natural”.11
If the Eastern Roman Empire represented a “natural” geographic entity centered on the eastern Mediterranean the western empire represented no such “natural” entity. Further the societies in the eastern Mediterranean had been interacting in fairly intense manner, culturally and economically, for thousands of years. No such intense interaction had been going on in Western Europe. Economically Europe north of the Alps in the west and the Spanish sea coast was Atlantic not Mediterranean centered and the various societies were much less tightly tied together.12
In fact if it is accepted that the disruption of the Empire in the west was to a large extent a re-assertion of previously existing, economic etc., realities than the fall of the Roman empire in the west begins to appear a lot less unusual and ends up being “typical”, of such retreats of civilization from “marginal” “peripheral” regions and a reassertion of previously existing patterns long buried under the force and authority of a Mediterranean based state. In fact just how much society was based necessarily on the authority of the Roman state to subsist and exist was shown by the aftermath of the decay of the empire in the west when the ending of Roman political authority brought on the retreat / collapse of Greco-Roman society / culture. Which leads to the third myth.13
3) The Roman state, society, culture and economy were in an absolutely healthy state right to the end and were destroyed by the barbarians. This is nothing more than a reassertion of the old idea that the Roman empire did not die a “natural” death but was assassinated / murdered.14
This point of view is based on the notion that the empire was not able, despite its state of health to cope with the added pressure of barbarian invaders because the pressures were so great. The idea is that over the centuries the barbarian groups outside the empire had grown so much in numbers and strength that the empire was simply unable to cope with them.
Aside from the fact that the Eastern Empire was able to cope with them, to say nothing of the Sassanian Persian empire, India and China, who were all able to cope with barbarian invaders this neglects a simple problem of numbers and one of culture.15
First the barbarian hordes of legend are just that legend. The barbarian hordes including men, women, children slaves etc., seem never to have numbered more than 100,000 for one barbarian “horde” and that the total population of all the barbarians who invaded the empire put together seems to have numbered under two million and likely under one million. The population of the Roman Empire numbered probably over 50 million during this time and the western part of that empire likely well over 20 million. After the reforms of the later part of the empire the total number of soldiers available to defend the empire probably numbered c. 500,000 – 600,000. The empire did not lack it seems numbers or soldiers to defend itself from so called barbarian hordes that at most could summon 40,000 men and in most cases considerably less for war against the Romans. Further the economic resources of the Romans were immeasurably greater than those available to the barbarian invaders so that economically at least on face value the barbarians were totally out classed.16
If in this view that the Roman state, society, and economy were healthy and prosperous during the late empire in the west is in fact accurate; than how did the invasion of a few hundred thousand barbarians totally disrupt the system. Just how did they triumph when they were outnumbered and hugely out produced economically? If the empire was so healthy how could it be overthrown and destroyed?
The question is rhetorical. A healthy state and society in such circumstances would not be overthrown. This problem is made even more difficult by the following. If the overthrow of the Roman state by the barbarians is hard to credit if the western empire was economically etc., healthy than how does one explain the fall and decay of Greco-Roman civilization in the west?
After all it is easy to demonstrate that the barbarians had no wish to destroy Greco-Roman civilization in the west but to partake in it and enjoy it. They wanted to in most respects to preserve it and yet could not stop its decay and collapse in the west. I will mention here the efforts of such barbarian rulers as Theodoric the Great in Italy to preserve Greco-Roman forms of government and society and even culture and how all such efforts failed in the end and the apparently remorseless decay set in.
It is often forgotten that in the end the barbarians simply became part of the new ruling elite, merging with the provincial Roman nobility. What changed simply was who was on top so to speak. Yet this political change is supposed to have caused the decay and collapse of a vibrant healthy Greco-Roman civilization in the west. That makes absolutely no sense, especially if you add the fact, and it is a fact, that the barbarians wanted to preserve it, if only for their own benefit.17
The idea that Roman culture was in a healthy state during the process of decline shows merely a determination to ignore the evidence. To give just one example; Greco-Roman science. The fact is after the late 2nd century C.E., even the embers of life in classical learning had died leaving a dogmatic, fossilized science that merely recycled old nostrums and was largely incapable of doing anything new. In fact the only signs of life in that department were in the eastern part of the empire in the west creativity had guttered out in the sciences.18
Another example is art. We have plenty examples of art from the relevant time periods and much of it is old, decaying and bluntly inferior by a large margin to the art of the early empire, (30 B.C.E. – 200 C.E.). So ancient art was decaying. Although it is of interest to point out that art produced by the barbarians frequently shows vigor if not polish.19
Finally the fact is the empire during this time period shows a great deal of evidence of economic decline before the final ignominious collapse in the west. If the empire had been economically so vibrant and healthy before the barbarians took over just how did a mere change in political masters, especially political masters who wanted to maintain the golden goose, produce such economic malaise, decay and stagnation?20
It appears that the economic decay predated the barbarians and despite their efforts continued into their own rule indicating a deep seated economic weakness.
Of all the myths briefly reviewed here the third is perhaps the most annoying in that it presents an idea that makes the fall of the western Roman Empire even more inexplicable and incomprehensible and also serves to make events harder to understand.21
Perhaps at another I will look at other myths about the decline of Rome.
1. For an overview of the problem see Kagan, Donald, Introduction, in Kagan, Donald, Editor, The End of the Roman, Empire, D.C. Heath and Company, Toronto, 1978, pp. vii-x, Grant, Michael, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Annenburg School Press, Radnor, PA, 1976, pp. 15-20, Berr, Henri, Preface, in Lot, Ferdinand, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1961, pp. xxxvii-liv.
2. Virtually any book that covers western history overall does this. The best example is probably Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
3. See Mann, Charles C., 1493, Knopf, New York, 2011.
4. For an overview that puts the fall of the western Roman Empire in perspective see, McNeill, William, Hardy. The Rise of the West, Revised Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ILL, 1991, ch. 8. ( I am using the epub edition.)
5. See Moorhead, John, The Roman Empire Divided, Longman, London, 2001.
6. Footnote 4.
7. McNeill, ch. 4, s. a + b. See also two previous postings, Here Here. See also the examples given in Tainter, Joseph A., The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.
8. See Moorhead, pp. 217-247, Webster, David, The Fall of the Ancient Maya, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002.
9. Faulkner, Neil, The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, Second Edition, Tempus, London, 2004, pp. 221-248.
10. McNeill, ch. 3 s. d, n. 2.
11. Lot, pp. 10-12.
12. Moorhead, pp. 248-270.
13. See McNeill, ch. 3, and ch. 8.
14. For this thesis see Heather, Peter, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Pan Books, London, 2005, and Empires and Barbarians, Pan Books, London, 2009, pp. 1-206.
15. McNeil, ch. 8.
16. Tainter, pp. 128-152, Grant, pp. 21-58.
17. Grant, pp. 203-230,Vogt, Joseph, The Decline of Rome, Weidenfeld, London, 1965, pp. 177-281, Burns, Thomas S., Rome and the Barbarians, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003, pp. 309-373.
18. Lot, pp. 374-375.
19. IBID, pp. 135-150.
20. Tainter, pp. 128-152, Grant, pp. 92-144, Jones, A.H.M., The Decline of the Ancient World, Longman, London, 1966, pp. 362-370, Lot, pp. 55-85, Falkner, Neil, Rome: Empire of the Eagles, Pearson Longman, London, 2008, pp. 278-292.
21. This is a particular problem with Peter Heather’s theories.