One Reason for the Fall of Rome

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum
The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum. CC Flickr User TheCreativePenn

Why Did Rome Fall? | Decay As a Reason for the Fall of Rome

Historians agree that it took several generations for Rome to fall. During such a time frame in a country or organism, decay is inevitable, so you could say decay is the basic organic reason for the Fall of Rome.

All (Crumbling) Roads Led to Rome

The Roman road system spanned 80,000 km when Rome was at its height in the second century. It took Roman soldiers swiftly, via the straightest route possible from Rome to any trouble spot in the Empire, but roads need to be maintained, which is expensive and easy to put off.

Over time, the roads decayed and weren't repaired in a timely manner [Highways, Byways, and Road Systems in the Pre-Modern World, by Susan E. Alcock, John Bodel, Richard J. A. Talbert; John Wiley & Sons, 2012]. Not only was the monumental road system a symbol of Rome's power, but its decay symbolizes Rome's. There is more.

Corruption is another word for decay.

Roman History Basics in Review

The Falls of Rome: Depending on where you are coming in on your quest for information about the Fall of Rome, you may or may not already know that The Fall refers to The Fall of the Roman Empire and not the fall of the Roman Republic, which dates to up to a millennium and a half earlier. This earlier fall occurred around the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Dates for the 2 Falls:
1. Caesar = 44 B.C. [approximate end of the Roman Republic] See: End of the Roman Republic. Republican Rome's collapse was protracted, but power was kept within the family -- literally.
2. The Fall of Rome = usually, A.D. 476, but sometimes later, 1453, and sometimes earlier, 410 or 378. See: The End of Rome. At the Fall of Rome, Rome (the Empire) fell to outsiders -- barbarians or the Ottoman Empire.

Transition From Republic to Empire: After the Republic collapsed, there was civil war, as there had also been before the infamous Ides of March stabbing. Remember when Julius Caesar cast the die and stood against the Senate of Rome by crossing the Rubicon? Well, that meant civil war. After the next civil war, Julius Caesar's adopted heir and blood-relative, Octavian became ruler and established the famous Roman peace (Pax Romana) through the Empire. Gradually, he (and his successors) turned more and more of Rome's power over to himself, stripping it from the Republican forms, notably, the Senate. He styled himself princeps (primus inter pares ' first among equals of the Senate'), sort of like the speaker of the house, but the term is now familiar in the form "prince." Octavian was awarded a title that became his name and a title conferred on his successors. This was Augustus. Augustus was CEO and emperor. The Empire belonged to him and his successors.

Early Signs of Decay in the Roman Empire

The emperors weren't exactly hereditary monarchs. Fights between claimants to the throne as well as assassinations were frequent. Extending the territory of the Empire was good for business and it put lots of jewels in the pockets of the Augustus who could then line the pockets of his security guards. Unfortunately (for the long run), the Empire was big enough that it didn't have to worry too much. The army could beat the enemy, but it no longer needed to stay in fighting trim. With a bit of cash in his pocket and the exotic reaches of the Empire to explore, imagine what a barely out of adolescence small-town soldier might get up to. If one of Caesar's legions could have quelled an uprising in a day, now it might take a few more men and a bit longer.

Division of the Roman Empire

Not every Augustus was competent to rule or play politics with the Senate. Some were more interested in hewing off ostrich necks in the arena or lewdly playing in a pool with underage boys [Commodus [Cassius Dio 72.21], Tiberius]. The Empire split so it could be supported by more baskets of imperial eggs [tetrarchy]. The top eggs were now the Augusti (Augustuses) and their subordinates the Caesares (Caesars).

In this way the land-needing barbarians had more people to petition and areas where they could worm their way in or demand bribes to stay out. Likewise, with each emperor in control of an army, there were more military legions to turn traitor. The fighting men acclaimed their popular and successful military leader imperator -- emperor.

To try to break up the control of their underlings, the emperors divided the provinces up and further divided them into smaller administrative units. This required an extensive military and civil bureaucracy, acting as a buffer to the emperors (regal, semi-divine, but now somewhat out of the loop), while lining their deep pockets.

A 1st Popular Date for the Fall of Rome

Each emperor might have a different vision of how the Empire should be run; many were not so community-minded.

At Adrianople, it appears that Eastern Emperor Valens wanted to show up his co-Augustus by fighting a battle against the Visigoths all on his own. His fellow emperor Gratian was busy against the Germans, or dawdling. It was a disastrous move for both halves of the Empire. Valens lost. Two-thirds of the eastern army, 16 divisions, the battle, and his life. The Visigoths won. Valens' successor Theodosius incorporated these barbarians into the land in the East, and the Eastern Empire actually came out ahead, in the end, because the other barbarians proceeded westward to Gaul, Spain, Africa, and Italy.

Barbarian Mingles With Roman

The emperor nicknamed for the cut of his hooded cloak, Caracalla, son of a Syrian mother, Julia Domna, and an African emperor of Rome, Septimius Severus, spread citizenship to all potential citizens in the Empire (not women, not children, not slaves), diluting the privilege of, or, if you prefer, re-defining what it meant to be Roman. This potential tax-base improved the imperial organization's bottom line. If this weren't a look at decay, this might be called an adaptive measure.

The Fragile, Rotten Egg Topples

While the Persian wolf howled at the border on the weak eastern edge, the Roman Empire scraped by, narrow victory after narrow escape after occasional defeat, simultaneously suffering frequent internal turmoil. The Empire still looked good. Large, rich, with all the appurtenances of power, but it was decaying. As Adrian Goldsworthy (author of a recent important work on Cleopatra) explains in How Rome Fell -- but using an athletic analogy, the decayed Empire was so rotten inside that it took barely an ostrich feather to knock it down when Odoacer simply ordered the last emperor in the west to get out.

And so Rome fell in A.D. 476.