Rome was founded as a small farming town in 753 BC. It grew to a vast empire that enveloped the whole Mediterranean Sea. It spanned from the western shores of what is now Portugal, to as far as the modern day Persian Gulf to the east. It remained as the world’s largest and most powerful empire in the ancient world for about 1100 years. But by 476 AD, the stress of war and the multiple sackings of Rome proved too much for the once mighty empire.
There have been many theories and debates by scholars and historians on the cause of the fall of Rome. A list of these theories was assembled by John P. Adams, a professor who taught at University of California Irvine. Some of the more outlandish include: 1) The people, provided with free “bread and circuses,” became lazy. 2) Widespread homosexuality among the upper classes led to a decline in the birth rate among aristocrats, thereby reducing the available pool of leadership manpower.
3) Pipes and utensils made of lead poisoned the aristocracy, lowering their birth rate and the intelligence level of this most important class (Sugars, CLASSICS 300-I). While the above examples can provide a laugh or two, there are several major events which contributed greatly to the fall of the Roman Empire.
One event that I think must be included when talking about the Empire’s demise is the shift from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic one. Since the beginning of Rome, the people believed that gods and spirits existed everywhere. They existed in rivers, trees, and even land. An example of this appears in a translated passage from the book written by Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans did. Livy, a historian in ancient Rome, wrote a passage which tells the story of a man named Horatius Cocles. Horatius was forced to jump into the Tiber River during a battle.
But before he does, he cried out “Father Tiber, I piously invoke you. Receive these arms and this soldier into your kindly waters. ” (Shelton, 2-3). He did this because he wanted the god which resided in the Tiber to protect him when he’s in the river. Romans also made sacrifices to appease the gods that lived in the land so that these gods would provide a good harvest in return. In another translated passage, Cato the Elder stated “…. for this reason, in sacrificing this pig, I pray in good faith that you will be benevolent and well disposed to me, my home, my family, and my children. ” (Shelton, 363).
Romans lived their daily lives around these beliefs for hundreds of years before Christianity came along. The religion slowly gained footing in the first century BC, after the death of Christ. Christianity, being a monotheistic religion, was totally different from the pagan religion of the Romans. Followers of Christianity focused more on spirituality and the subject of life after death. Followers of the Roman pagan religion prayed and offered sacrifices to the gods in the hope that material gains were reciprocated by them. The vast differences in the fundamental philosophies of these two religions created a segregation of Roman Society.
Christians were often blamed for disasters because they did not worship the pagan gods, thus the Roman people believed the gods were angered and punished them (Shelton, 445). Another crucial event that contributed to the fall of Rome was caused by Rome’s own greatness. As I stated above, The Roman Empire had grown to a massive scale. So much so that it was getting very difficult for one man to rule. So in the late 3rd century BC, Emperor Diocletian decided to split the Empire into two halve in order to have better control (Dorrington). It might have seemed like a good idea, but the Empire was separated in a way that was extremely lopsided.
The western half was left with older, smaller cities and farmlands and the people were primarily Latin. The Eastern half of the Empire, on the other hand, consisted of better developed urban areas such as Egypt, Persia, and Greece, better trade routes, and thus are more wealthy. Because of having bigger cities, the eastern half had 70 percent of the total population. Each half of the Empire also had its own emperor who controlled his own army (Dorrington; The Fall of the Western Roman Empire). How do you expect the Western Empire to survive with such a small population?
How do they sustain their once powerful army to protect against invaders without funds? You really can’t expect good answers to these questions when such a poor decision is made. A third and important cause of the fall, the final straw that broke the camel’s back, can be atrributed to the barbarian invasions that ultimately ended the reign of the Western Empire. Facing decline in economy and the steady deterioration of the quality of life caused by the split of the Empire, unrest amongst the people broke out and civil wars erupted throughout the empire.
The Roman army, which was already weakened by crisis, had their hands full fighting these wars. The Germanic tribes, such as the Vandals and Goths, seized the oppportunity and invaded and sacked Rome repeatedly, until finally capturing it in 476 AD by General Odoacer (Section 8, Damen). There are many other legitimate theories on what caused the fall of Rome. One such theory is that the Romans did not develop new technology to increase efficiency, as they relied heavily on human and animal labor (Fall of the Roman Empire). Thus, they could not keep up with the needs of the growing population.
But the events I focused on, introduction of Christianity, division of the Empire, and the barbarian invasions, had the greatest impact on its demise. Also, these theories are often interconnected or are the results of others. The collapse can’t be attributed to a single act or event. For example, the division of the Empire broke up the once seemingly indestructable Roman army, weakening it so that it cannot defend against the attacks of the barbarians. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that when discussing the fall of the Roman Empire, we’re talking about the Western Empire.
The Eastern, or Byzantine Empire, lasted for almost another one thousand years before being sacked by the Turks (Sugars, CLASSICS 300-I). But its importance lies in the fact that Western civilization is built on the principles and ideas that created the original Empire.
Damen, Mark. “Section 8: The Fall of Rome. ” 1320: Section 8: The Fall of Rome: Facts and Fictions. Utah State University. Web. 29 Sept. 2012. <http://www. usu. edu/markdamen/1320Hist&Civ/chapters/08ROMFAL. htm>. Dorrington, Adrian. “The Fall of Rome – Causes of the Fall of Rome. ” About. com Ancient / Classical History. About. com. Web. 01 Oct. 2012. http://ancienthistory. about. com/od/fallofrome/a/Dorrington. htm>. “Fall of the Roman Empire. ” rome. info Fall of the Roman Empire, Decline of Ancient Rome. Www. rome. info. Web. 29 Sept. 2012. <http://www. rome. info/history/empire/fall/>. “The Fall of the Western Roman Empire” www. suu. edu. Southern Utah University. Web. 01 Oct. 2012. <http://www. suu. edu/faculty/bostick/Sample%20Essays/Fall%20of%20Roman%20Empire. htm>. Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print. Sugars, J. Mark. CLASSICS 300-I: Pagan Culture — The Essay Assignments. 23 Mar. 2007. DOC.
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