Lifecycle of the Roman Empire
To modern minds, the collapse of the Roman Empire resonates dramatically, illustrating both the limited power of government, as well as the imperial corruption. Although Imperial Rome “fell” in the fifth century A.D., strands of Roman culture endured throughout the Venetian Republic, the Byzantine Empire, and in Western Christendom, which “preferred the Latin language over the vernacular for the next thousand years” (Bonta, 2005). Such a sophisticated and nearly indelible cultural and political behemoth such as the Roman Empire was not brought down by a single, cause; but rather by a collusion of negative influences.
Also at play, perhaps, were positive influences of cultural evolution, as this paper will examine.
One of the primary reasons for the Roman Empire’s collapse was a cultural and moral “revolution” in the post-Republic Empire, which saw “a revolution not only in political but in moral and even religious manners. By the first century B.C., sexual mores had been abandoned, and the former sanctity of marriage forgotten.
Crime, once almost unknown in Rome, became rampant” (Bonta, 2005). Similarly, on a cultural and moral level, Mithran cults “contaminated” the “simplicity of the authentic Roman religion;” (Bonta, 2005). so, by the late 2nd century A.D., the religion of Mithra “had permeated every level of Roman society. This cult was in fact a vast secret society consecrated to emperor-worship and to the amoral doctrine of radical dualism–the idea that good and evil are eternal, absolutely equivalent principles that must both be appeased.” (Bonta, 2005).
Roman military strength had always been an important part of the early Roman concept of virtue and morales; that is: a “martial” sense of ethics pervaded early Roman culture. Rome’s military pride and conquests reinforced a predilection for warfare that helped to ultimately undermine Roman strength. Even Republican Rome was “unwilling to interrupt her ceaseless warfare at the water’s edge, and plunged into overseas empire building at the first challenge from abroad.” (Potter, 2004, p.4) In fact, the notion of Rome as a martial state may well eclipse the historical resonance of the Roman Republics or other eras.
Roman culture de-emphasized the value of human life and individual dignity. “The Twelve Tables of Roman law required the killing of deformed infants,”(Potter, 2004, p. 4) and the Roman armies usually fought “without negotiation and without quarter for the vanquished.”(Potter, 2004, p. 4) Civic unity had long been a strength of “classic” Roman culture. “Until the late second century B.C., Rome had never seen bloodshed from civil unrest. The various disputes between the plebeians and patricians had always been resolved by negotiation and political reform” (Bonta, 2005). P artisan violence finally erupted in the late 2nd century B.C., leaving in their wake, a succession of military dictators. In the next century, civil wars resulted in an end to Roman liberties.
Political assassinations and riots, “unknown in the early centuries of the republic, became
commonplace” (Bonta, 2005). Rampant civil unrest revealed certain flaws in the Roman systems of government and in the Roman constitution, most prominently: a lack of a representative government. Though Rome “provided for deliberation and even the enactment of laws by the masses in popular assemblies” (Bonta, 2005) there was no representative government.
If there were myriad negative influences working to slowly chip away at the edifice of Roman civilization, as noted in the discussion above, most of these negative influences evolved organically our of Roman thought and disposition, as well by way of “decadence” in the interpretation of civic identity and loyalty. The sprawling mass of Roman dominance resulted in a likewise bureaucracy “connected with the army now stretched beyond the frontiers into tribal lands, creating a form of “Roman” who was brought up outside the empire and yet played a role in the defense of the state. To be in the army, and in the service of the emperor, was to be “Roman, ” (Potter, 2004, p. 443) even if one’s roots were beyond the Rhine or Danube. This resultant loss of a homogenous Roman identity begs the question of cross-cultural evolution, an historical reality which may have played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Empire.
In conclusion it seems evident that the collapse of the Roman Empire emerged from specific “organic” identities at very level of Roman society including the religious, psychological, sociological, military, economic, and cultural levels. Perhaps the term “collapse” is not very accurate, though the obvious tendency to view the evolution of the Roman Empire as sudden and based on a single, primary event will always be a tempting, if specious, view.
Bonta, S. (2005, February 21). Lessons of Rome: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic Provides Lessons That Hint at Flaws in Modern Political Policies. The New American, 21, 36+.
Potter, D. S. (2004). The Roman Empire at Bay: AD 180-395. New York: Routledge.
Ward-Perkins, B. (2005, June). The End of the Roman Empire: Did It Collapse or Was It Transformed? Bryan Ward-Perkins Finds That Archaeology Offers Unarguable Evidence for an Abrupt Ending. History Today, 55, 12+.
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Lifecycle of the Roman Empire. (2016, Dec 26). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/lifecycle-of-the-roman-empire/