In this essay, I am going to discuss what caused the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The answer to this question differentiates amongst many historians as they disagree on both why the Western Empire fell and when, but I will define a series of different contributors, that might not have caused the downfall on their own, but together proved to be catastrophic.
Because of the many different theories regarding the fall of the Western Empire, I will be focusing on key events in and around the fifth century. However, I cannot explain the position in which the Western Empire found itself in without slightly covering the divide of the Empire at the end of the second century. Up until this point, the Roman economy had been fuelled by the conquest of other nations, and the produce of slaves. When the Empire reached its limit and were no longer capable of expanding, Emperor Diocletian realised that he faced a grim situation. This lead us to the first contributor: He, therefore, chose a solution which on the short-term proved to be effective, but in the long term proved to be very costly. He chose to split the massive empire into two smaller empires: The Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire. During this period of economic unrest, the Roman idea of Romanising citizens within the empire declined and what the Romans called barbarism started to grow. This happened as Roman civilization within the cities around Europe slowly got assimilated by the nations native culture (Rostovtzeff in Kagan, 1978: 9-12). With the idea of Roman civilization in decline, the loyalty and the ties which bound many citizens of the empire to Rome and the Roman idea, vanished.
The second contributor was the Eastern empire itself, which grew to become a rich and strong entity mainly because of the rich lands which it occupied and its close proximity to foreign merchants.
While this happened, the Western Empire grew poor and was thrown into civil unrest. The two empires forgot to nurture their relationship and slowly grew apart. This led to conflicts of interest and to some extent they stopped aiding each other as proper allies. When Constantine became emperor, he officially moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople in A.D. 330 (Bracken, 2016: 03). This proved to be the third contributor to why the Western empire fell and one could speculate that if Constantine had stayed in Rome and consolidated instead of abandoning the West, things might have worked out differently. The Western Empire still did possess a great imperial force at this point, but because of conflicts of interest between the two empires, they grew apart and this did indeed greatly influence the fall of the west.
The fourth contributor happened when the Huns rose to power, in the middle of the fourth century, and pushed entire ethnic groups of barbarians towards the Roman empire’s eastern frontier. One of these ethnic groups was the Visigoths who arrived on the river Danube seeking refuge from the Huns in A.D. 376. Emperor Valens allowed them entrance into imperial lands, but unfortunately the empire was unable to provide enough food and supply for the vast migrating numbers. This resulted in the Visigoths taking up arms and pillaging Roman farmland and eventually Emperor Valens showed up with an army. At the battle of Hadrianople in 378, only two years after the Goths had been allowed entrance to Roman lands, he was defeated and killed (Davis, 1957: 20-23). This tells us, that the Romans’ mishandling of the Goths eventually let to barbarians occupying huge amounts of land within the empire and that the Romans now had to fight both the Huns at the Frontier and the Goths within imperial lands. Because of the internal strife, a lot of local Romans became unable to pay taxes and at this point only around 1/7th of the regular amount of taxes actually went to the empire (Bracken, 2016: 04). Around this time, the Roman Empire started to experience a war on all fronts, and an inability to collect taxes and this serves as the fifth contributor to the Empire’s collapse.
The sixth contributor started its rise in 406, when the Vandals migrated into the empire across the frozen river Rhine and settled down in Spain. They did not stay in Spain, however, as in 425 they had conquered the imperial fleet at Cartagena and soon moved across the Mediterranean to control huge areas of north Africa and in particular huge areas of imperial corn production. This meant that the emperor of the west had to actually buy his corn from barbarians (Davis, 1957: 22). This tells us, that the Western Empire was now both threatened by Goths within the Empire and was also completely encased by barbarians on all frontiers as shown on the map below.
In the year 455 the Vandals would eventually reach and sack Rome and leave a big impact on the Roman idea of Rome as the Cosmopolis of the universe.
The seventh and final contributor was the gradual barbarisation, not to be mistaken by the previously mentioned assimilation of Roman civilization in native cities around the empire. This was the barbarisation of central Roman lands. It had taken place within the empire because the Goths actually looked at the roman civilization with some admiration, as shown in the following letter from the Ostrogothic King of Italy, Theodoric to Unigis the Sword-bearer:
“We delight to live after the law of the Romans, whom we seek the defend with or arms; and we are as much interest in the maintenance of morality as we can possibly be in war. For what profit is there in having removed the turmoil of the barbarians, unless we live according to law? … Let other kings desire the glory of battles won, of cities taken, of ruins made; our purpose is, God helping us, so to rule that our subjects should grieve that they did not earlier acquire the blessings of our dominion.” (King Theodoric (c. 453-526), the Barbarian Ostrogothic king of Italy, wrote to Unigis, the sword-bearer (letter written by Cassiodorus, a Roman aristocrat in Theodoric’s service).
Goths had become a major part of the roman military and as stated in the letter, they wanted to adopt Roman culture, but in 476 the imperial general Odovacar, who was a Goth, saw his opportunity to revolt and kill Emperor Romulus Augustus. This event is to many believed to be the final blow, as the removal of the last Roman emperor meant the practical downfall of the Empire, but as shown in the letter, the Goths wanted to continue Roman laws and to some extent Roman culture.
To summarize, I accounted for seven different reasons which contributed to the fall of the Western Empire: The first contributor was the actual divide of the former massive Roman Empire, which caused the assimilation of Roman civilization in some regions. The second was that tensions between the two empires rose and they stopped working towards a common goal. The third was the relocation of the Roman capital, which caused a great shift in power towards the Eastern Empire. The fourth was the arrival of the Goths and the eventual the mishandling of these new immigrants. This triggered chaos in central Roman lands, and caused the defeat of Emperor Valen. The fifth contributor was that the empire lost their ability to collect taxes, which greatly weakened its economy. The sixth contributor was the arrival of the Vandals, which forced the empire to engage on a war on all fronts. The seventh and final contributor was the gradual barbarisation, which took place in central parts of the Empire. This was caused by the massive amounts of Goths who had settled there, as well as, the enlistment of Germanic soldiers and leaders into Roman military ranks and positions of power. My research into the fall of the Western empire shows me, that it was not caused by a single event, but by the contribution of many. Through my research I have learned that there are hundreds of different reasons to why the empire fell, and that the seven which I have chosen may only be a small piece of a greater puzzle.
Written by Frederik Roland Andersen, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, Autumn 2016.
- Bracken, Damian. 03 – Constantine the Great and the Birth of Christian Rome. University College Cork, 2016. Lecture 3.
- Bracken, Damian. 04 – Constantine; Fourth Century; Barbarians and the fall of Rome. University College Cork, 2016. Lecture 4.
- Bracken, Damian. 05 – Rome and the conversion of Ireland. University College Cork, 2016. Lecture 5.
- Bracken, Damian. 06 – The Late Roman Empire and the Barbarian Invasions. University College Cork, 2016. Lecture 6.
- Davis, R. H. C. A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis. London: Longmans, Green, 1957. Print.
- 04 – Tutorial. University College Cork, 2016. Tutorial 4.
- Kagan, Donald. The End of the Roman Empire: Decline or Transformation?Lexington, MA: Heath, 1978. Print.
- “The Romans.” The Classics Pages: Antony Kamm’s ”: 9.4 Fall of Rome and Constantinople. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.