The decline and fall of the Roman Empire

And the question of what caused it. Just because, well, ever since Breaking Bad ended, Rome is the only thing I feel like ranting about these days.

As we all know, there are at least 210 reasons (many of them contradictory) for why the Roman Empire declined & fell. And if you think that’s a joke, the historian Alexander Demandt once compiled a list. Unfortunately, it’s in German (beginning with “Aberglaube” and ending with “Zweifrontenkrieg”). Fortunately, though, someone did an English translation.

That list is way too long to turn into a poll, so I condensed it into a few more or less random options, plus a few options totally not on the list.

And besides, it can’t be that complicated, right? So, I figured that if we put our heads together, we can get this question sorted out once and for all.

I haven’t finished Mike Duncan’s History of Rome Podcast yet, but the impression I’ve gotten in the later episodes is that the Empire was just too big for one person to manage effectively and the emperors were loathe to appoint effective regional officials from an all-too-often real fear that the official would try to seize power from the emperor.

You left out the Persians :D. Beyond the Byzantine = Romans thing, I’m kind of in the Peter Heather camp on the WRE. His ( and his ilk ) answer to the problem overall seems the most logical and grounded to my mind. I never could work up much enthusiasm for stuff like moral decline or mass lead poisoning.

Demographic decline through plagues eroded the tax base and changed the balance of power relative to the Germanic tribes outside the borders of the empire. This led to the rise of the foederati to take the place of the undermanned/underfunded legions. As more and more barbarians were allowed inside Rome’s borders as a defensive force, the empire eventually reached a tipping point where the foederati became so independently powerful that central control became impossible and the Western Empire came apart at the seams. The Eastern Empire with it’s higher population and more stable tax base was better able to resist demographic collapse and so avoided this fate.

I did leave out the Persians. And I should have included them, so sorry about that.

I know how the argument goes (at least if I’ve understood it correctly): The Sassanids are much more belligerent and organized than the Parthians, leading to a need for more Roman troops on the eastern frontier, leading to knock-on effects for the economy, and for the army on other frontiers, because everyone has to go stare down Persians now. And the eastern frontier does seem to get a lot more militarized, with competitive fortress-building and more soldiers, and what have you. So, it’s an interesting thought.

But you know what? I dunno. Not sure if I buy it as an explanation for a hypothetical decline & fall, at least as long as we’re talking about the one in the West in the fifth century. At least it seems very Rube Goldberg-y, if you know what I mean. For the fall of the WRE, I think there are more important factors much closer at hand.

And, frankly, the Sassanids don’t actually impress me all that much. I know it’s fashionable to paint them as a Big Bad, but it seems a bit overstated. If they’re so dangerous, how come they never actually, you know, take any territory? I mean, beyond some nibbling around the borders. At least not until the big showdown in the seventh century, and even then they end up losing (and it’s their empire that disappears from history when the Arabs show up).

Mostly, they only ever seem to get one good punch in, and then they run out of juice. In 260, they capture Valerian at Edessa and beat up the Roman army real good. They should be all set to follow it up with a takeover of Syria, maybe Egypt, who knows what, right? Nah, instead they’re held at bay by whatever forces an obscure Palmyrene (yeah, I know, don’t look at me like that ;)) can put together.

And that seems to be how it always goes. In 540 Khosrau destroys Antioch, carts off the inhabitants as prisoners, and puts them up in a new city called “Khosrau built this, it’s better than Antioch, so up yours, motherf***ers” (OK, the “up yours, etc” bit is just implied, but the rest is accurate). Grand gesture, sure. But, again, does he follow it up by taking over the East? Nope, instead we get the Lazic War, which is frankly just another glorified border skirmish.

And so forth. Most of the time, I don’t see the Romans existentially threatened by Sassanid victories, however much the occasional jump scare makes them wet their togas. And the Sassanids were around since the third century. Seems a bit of a stretch to blame events in the fifth, on completely different frontiers, on them.

Anyway, that’s my take on the Persians. As always, feel free to wave your hands about, jump up and down, and explain how I’m a doofus and why.

The empire was too large and too complex to be governed properly. Communication was at the speed of a man on horseback. As Inner Stickler notes, if you give governing power to a local administrator, he’s too likely to revolt.

The nature of warfare of the era is also a limit. War is in-your-face, with the exception of bows and arrows (and slings) and a few siege engines. There is no way to control “space” in a battle…or in a palace. Palace revolutions are possible, because security only exists at sword’s length. (Firearms have allowed for protective zones around Presidents and premiers, helping to make dictators – and democrats – more secure.)

Even a primitive semaphore-telegraph system might have extended Rome’s viability.

And yet China was the same size, with the same level of technology, but it still managed to hold itself together. Why them and not Rome?

On the other hand: For an empire that was too large and too complex to be governed properly, it sure did a bang-up job of being an empire for centuries.

China was conquered by barbarians on its frontiers just as Rome was. In both cases, the invaders ended up adopting a lot of the culture of the people they conquered. Culturally, both China and Rome survived. Politically, neither the Caesars or the Han remained in power.

The tax/regional ruler situation was a horror. People were appointed based on how much money they promised to bring in. They also threw in bribe money they had to recoup. So the local economies suffered from idiotic, rapacious management.

It was also a class oriented society. High born people looked down on merchants, no matter how successful or rich they were. Nevermind if you were a technical type trying to invent new stuff. This resulted in a big disconnect (to put it mildly) sometimes between the Emperor, who might come from humble beginnings, and the Senators.


I blame Honorius.

Lead poisoned spaced alien butlers, duh.

shrieks incoherently and throws feces

No, actually I didn’t mean to bring them up as THE key point in a Western Roman collapse :). Rather they’re just another cog you left off the list. An existential threat they generally were not, but as you noted their relatively more consistent regional threat did result in a more or less permanent increase in the Roman military establishment, budget and permanent commitment. It was just one more added strain draining resources from the center and stretching the state.

I think more interesting in Heather et al’s analysis is the evidence that the potential Germanic threat was much more serious than in previous centuries due to expanding population and material/political sophistication, all more or less mediated by centuries of Roman contact. Once they started rolling, probably started by the Hunnic eruption, the new ‘super-tribes’ were rather more dangerous than say the Marcomanni and Quadi of old. And once they has penetrated the frontier and actually occupied territory, the loss of more and more tax revenue led to a progressive weakening of a state that depended on said revenue to maintain its standing army in a milieu of a largely unarmed populace. Which led to political instability, regional secessionism, etc. - just a big catastrophic snowball effect with multiple causes.

But I also buy into the idea that a great deal of bad luck was also involved and said fall was not inevitable. Despite some serious reverses the ERE for example managed to weather the storm more or less intact for centuries. There appears to be multiple tipping points along the way where the WRE might have held on in one fashion or another, but they almost went the wrong way. C’est la vie.

All this is true, and yet “China” (at least, the core state in the east) continued to exist as a political entity, and “Rome” did not.

That’s probably an issue of geography. Europe is divided up into a bunch of peninsulas with mountain ranges and major rivers providing good potential borders. It’s relatively easy for smaller nations to retain their independence.

Yea, I think that’s a problem for a lot of common theories. A lot of them attribute the fall to stuff that was true centuries before Rome fell, and while they may have been problems, they were problems the Empire seemed to manage with pretty well for centuries.

Honestly, I think people overthink the issue. Rome fell for the obvious reason that it was conquered by a bunch of Huns and Germans, and these groups were different enough from each other that they each created their own states, instead of keeping a unified entity. I’m not sure there needs to be some deep other reason.

After all, you never hear people ask why Carthage fell.

Yeah, but unfortunately, the parts the did threaten just happened to be the rich food producing money making parts. Which is why the Romans had to keep several large armies in the East at all time.


Interesting thread. I love reading about the Roman Empire and enjoy the thinking here - wish I could contribute!

I will use this post to mention a book I enjoyed about the end of the Roman Empire, Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen:

I was actually kind of surprised to discover that I don’t really know why the Roman Empire fell, interesting thread Bigfoot. :slight_smile: