The Fall of Rome: How, When and Why Did It Happen?

Understanding the End of the Roman Empire

Ostio Roman ruins
Preserved house floor mosaic in the port of Rome at Ostia, where on 31 May 455, Gaiseric and his Vandal fleet found an undefended entry into the city. Michel Porro/Getty Images

The phrase "the Fall of Rome" suggests some cataclysmic event that ended the empire that stretched from the British Isles to Egypt and Iraq. But there was no straining at the gates, no barbarian horde that dispatched the Roman Empire in one fell swoop. Rather, the Roman Empire was challenged from within and without, changing over the course of hundreds of years until its form was unrecognizable. Historians have put the end of the empire at many points on this continuum; the Fall of Rome is rather an idea, a syndrome of various maladies that changed a large swath of human habitation over many hundreds of years.

Read on to understand the pressures that precipitated the end of the Romans' project, and what it meant to the people they once ruled.

When Did Rome Fall?

In his masterwork, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon names the date AD 476 as the year Rome ceased to exist. That date has been generally accepted because that's when the Germanic king of the Torcilingi Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor to rule the western part of the Roman Empire. The eastern half became the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul). But the city of Rome continued to exist; it still does. Some see the rise of Christianity as putting an end to the Romans; those who disagree with that find the rise of Islam a more fitting bookend to the end of the empire (that would put the Fall of Rome at Constantinople in A.D. 1453!). In the end, the arrival of Odoacer was but one of many barbarian incursions into the empire.

(For more, see my review of Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire.) The people who lived through the takeover would probably be surprised by the importance we place on determining an exact event and time.

How Did Rome Fall?

Just as the Fall of Rome was not caused by a single event, the way Rome fell was also complex.

For example, during the period of imperial decline, the empire actually expanded. Conquered peoples changed the structure of the Roman government. Emperors moved the capital away from the city of Rome, too. The schism of east and west created not just an eastern capital in Nicomedia and then Constantinople, but also a move in the west from Rome to Milan.

Take a look at the maps to see the changing expanse of the Roman Empire. Rome started out as a small, hilly settlement by the Tiber River, in the middle of the Italian boot. It was surrounded by more powerful neighbors.

By the time Rome had become an empire, the territory covered by the term "Rome" looked completely different. It reached its greatest extent in the second century A.D. Some of the theories on the Fall of Rome focus on the geographic diversity and the territorial expanse that Roman emperors and their legions had to control.

Why Did Rome Fall?

Easily the most argued question about the Fall of Rome is Why? The Roman Empire lasted over a thousand years and represented the height of civilization. Some historians maintain that the split into an eastern and western empire governed by separate emperors caused Rome to fall. Most classicists believe that a combination of factors including Christianity, decadence, lead in the water supply, monetary trouble, and military problems caused the Fall of Rome.

Imperial incompetence and chance could be added to the list. And still others question the assumption behind the question, and maintain that Rome adapted rather than fell.

See the Rome Era-by-Era Timeline

Leading Theories for the Fall of Rome

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Explore more topics related to the Fall of Rome and the decline of the Roman Empire

There are many factors that are blamed for the Fall of Rome. On this page, the factors considered are

  1. Decay,
  2. Vandals, and
  3. Religion, including Christianity.

Decay

The Roman Empire had become too big to control easily. Soldiers or families in distant parts of the Empire adopted local customs and the Empire was made up not only of natives from the Italian peninsula, but barbarians from the conquered lands.

Corruption became rampant.

Vegetius on the Decay

Decay of the army, according to Vegetius (5th century), the man responsible for the quote about preparing for war to ensure peace, came from within the army itself. The army grew weak from too long peace and stopped wearing its protective armor. This made them vulnerable to enemy weapons and to the temptation to flee from battle. Security may have led to cessation of the rigorous drills. Vegetius says the leaders became incompetent and rewards were unfairly distributed. See: "Vegetius on the Decay of the Roman Army, by Alfred P. Dorjahn and Lester K. Born. The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Dec., 1934), pp. 148-158.

Historian Edward Gibbon on Decay and the Fall of Rome

"But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.... The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians."
- Gibbon - Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Adrian Goldsworthy (How Rome Fell) on the Decay

For a long time, the Roman Empire functioned very well, and just like any other successful organization, to ensure its own survival and prosperity. In this case, the organization was the emperor and his administration. It amassed power and wealth and survived for centuries.

However, the Empire was more than the top echelon and like a bone with osteoporosis that still looks alive and well at top, it was disintegrating from within. Sure, it was strong enough to fight off the barbarians, but such battles shouldn't have been taxing the Empire at all if the bones were really strong. Goldsworthy doesn't talk about brittle bones but an aging athlete because he says it was as though the athlete no longer had the capacity to resist disease or recover from injury. One final relatively gentle tap was all our weary athlete needed to topple.

Christianity

When Constantine established religious toleration in the Roman Empire, he took upon himself the title of Pontiff. Although he was not necessarily a Christian himself (he wasn't baptized until he was on his deathbed), he gave Christians privileges and oversaw major Christian religious disputes. He may not have understood how the pagan cults, including those of the emperors, were at odds with the new monotheistic religion, but they were, and in time the old Roman religions lost out. Although the path from pagan to Christian Rome had a few more hurdles, it was from the time of Constantine that Roman Christianity is dated.

At this early point, however, the emperors of Rome controlled the religion since emperors held the power to appoint bishops. Over time, Church leaders became influential and took away power from the emperor. Christian beliefs conflicted with the working of empire.

Christian Emperors, Persia, and The Fall of Rome
This is a chapter from Frank Smitha's "Antiquity Online" about the division of the Empire into East and West and the reign, including conversion of Constantine.

Vandals and Religious Controversy

Vandals took over the Roman territory in Africa, just as Rome lost Spain to the Sueves, Alans and Visigoths. A perfect example of how interconnected all the "causes" of Rome's fall are, Rome lost revenue along with the territory and administrative control. It needed revenue to support its army and it needed its army to keep what territory it still maintained.

See: "The Decline of the Roman Power in Western Europe. Some Modern Explanations," by Norman H. Baynes. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 33, Parts 1 and 2 (1943), pp. 29-35.

Remnants of The Roman Empire
In this chapter from "Antiquity Online" -- about the 5th century Roman Empire, Frank Smitha shows the role of Vandals and religious controversies in the decline of Rome.
Among other points, Smitha says that Roman citizens living outside of Italy identified with Rome much less than their Italian counterparts. They preferred to live as natives, even if this meant poverty, which, in turn, meant they turned to those who could help -- Germans, brigands, Christians, etc.
Also see: The History of Florence, by Machiavelli.

Historian Edward Gibbon on the Fall of Rome and the Barbarians:

"The warlike states of antiquity, Greece, Macedonia, and Rome, educated a race of soldiers; exercised their bodies, disciplined their courage, multiplied their forces by regular evolutions, and converted the iron which they possessed into strong and serviceable weapons. But this superiority insensibly declined with their laws and manners; and the feeble policy of Constantine and his successors armed and instructed, for the ruin of the empire, the rude valour of the Barbarian mercenaries."
- Gibbon

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Economy | Lead and the Division of the Empire

Economic factors are cited as a major cause of the Fall of Rome. Some of the major factors, like inflation, are discussed elsewhere. But there were also lesser problems with the economy of Rome that combined together to escalate financial stress. These include:

  • Poor management,
  • The dole (bread and circuses), and
  • Hoarding.

Other Financial Problems

Collapse of the Roman Empire
In this article, Hugh Elton says that because the East survived when the West collapsed, institutional weakness and barbarian invasions, conditions common to both halves, are insufficient explanation for the Fall of Rome.

Instead, Elton says the cause of the Fall of Rome lies in financial difficulties peculiar to the West. For those looking for a single cause, the best single explanation would be poor leadership rather than military failure.

The Dole and Barbarians

Why Rome
In this article, Grempel says the other side of Roman decadence was the dole. Millions were spent on bread (including pork, by the end of the second century) and circuses for the non-working poor. Barbarians ruled Rome and even when a Roman, Diocletian, regained control, he was influenced by the East. With Constantine came a barbaric Christianity and the move of capital from Rome to Constantinople.

Economic, Military, Gradual

Fall of Rome
This Ohio State site lists 3 single-issue models for the collapse:

  1. Economic (lack of circulating currency and trade deficit, and other factors not clearly economic, like environmental change and decaying infrastructure)
  1. Military (citizenship granted to all reduced the incentive to join the army), and
  2. Gradual transformation (it never fell or fell to Islam).

Economic - Hoarding and Deficit

Fall of Rome
Causes of the Fall of Rome include economic decay through hoarding of bullion, barbarian looting of the treasury, and trade deficit; military decay through attrition and disorganization; and the lack of an effective military leader.

"One of the primary catalysts to the deterioration of the economy was the lack of circulating currency in the Western Empire. Two reasons for the lack of funds are wholesale hoarding of bullion by Roman citizens, and the widespread looting of the Roman treasury by the 'barbarians'. These two factors, coupled with the massive trade deficit with Eastern Regions of the Empire served to stifle the growth of wealth in the west."~ The Economic Collapse

See Economic Reasons For the Fall of Rome - General for information on the effect of

  • Inflation
  • Land and
  • Feudalism

on the Fall of Rome.

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Division of the Empire into Western and Eastern (Byzantine) and Lead

Two of the many explanations for the Fall of Rome are the splitting up of the Roman Empire and the presence of lead in the drinking water leached in from the water pipes or leached from cooking and pottery.

See Lead Poisoning. For problems on the theory and evidence for lead poisoning, read: "Old Wine in Old Lead Bottles: Nriagu on the Fall of Rome," by Charles Robert Phillips III. The Classical World, Vol.

78, No. 1 (Sep. - Oct., 1984), pp. 29-33.

"Does anyone know why the Roman Empire (after Rome falls in 476 A.D.) is called the Byzantine Empire? I have read that around the 300s A.D. the capital of the western empire was moved into northern Italy. Is the Byzantine Empire just a modern name that was given to the empire after the west collapsed?" - from ZULULAND1.

Other Opinions

In his World Culture's website, Richard Hooker argues that the Fall started during the reign of Diocletian (284-305) when the Empire was split into two halves. Each half had a senior Augustus and a junior Caesar. Together these four rulers were known as the "tetrarchy." While the tetrarchy didn't last long, the division of the Empire became the norm.

Ancient History's forum participant Adrian Dorrington opined that the Empire was split not just geographically, but culturally, with a Latin Empire and a Greek one, the latter of which survived because it had most of the population, a better military, more money, and better rulers.

Lead

In 1998, Steve Muhlberger at Nipissing University compiled a bibliography of sources since the since the nineteenth century that have suggested lead poisoning led to the Fall of Rome.

Frontiers of the Roman Empire

Source: [URL formerly at ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1994/94.09.01.html] CR Whittaker's Frontiers of the Roman Empire.

The extensive empire put such a strain on Roman coffers Emperor Honorius sent letters to the Roman cities in England to tell them they'd have to fend for themselves. [This marks the end of the period of Roman Britain.]

By the third century, it was sometimes hard to tell Roman from barbarian. In addition, Romans regularly employed "barbarians," -- the Huns and Vandals -- sometimes in double crosses:

The Roman general Aetius used Huns in battle in Germany and Gaul, but then in 451 he used the Burgundians and Visigoths of this region to fight against Huns (led by Attila).

In a factional struggle with the leadership in Ravenna, the Roman comes africae invited the Vandal King Geiseric to Africa.

References:

  • Did Rome Really Fall?

  • [URL formerly http://www.etss.edu/hts/hts2/notes11.htm]The End of the Western Empire

Rome Era-by-Era Timeline

The 4 Parts of This Fall of Rome Article:

Why Did Rome Fall? | Decay, Christianity, Vandals | Economy | Lead and the Split