The Fall of the Roman Empire
The Fall of the Roman Empire
There were many reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. First, it was too large to govern effectively from one city. Second, a cultural division had grown up between east and west. Third, the empire was mired in economic troubles. Fourth, it faced serious military threats from the north.
Politically, the reunion of the two halves of the Roman Empire under one ruler proved to be temporary. Instead of working effectively as partners, the eastern and western halves became rivals. When the western empire was threatened by invasion from the north, the eastern empire reacted with indifference.
Culturally, of course, the two halves had different roots. The eastern empire was culturally and linguistically Greek, the western half Latin. These cultures had a great deal in common, but not enough to hold them together as one unified nation-state in the face of all the other factors that destroyed Rome.
Economically, the Roman Empire was no longer prosperous. The soil was overworked and produced smaller harvests; a smaller food supply and fewer goods for export had diminished the state’s income. Like all other governments in history desperate to raise money quickly, the empire fell back on raising taxes. In a serious miscalculation, the government established a tax exemption for the wealthy; men could offer their services to the military in lieu of paying taxes. The burden of payment therefore fell on the plebeians, who could least afford it. Naturally, this gave rise to resentment between the social ranks.
Militarily, the state was no longer as mighty as it had been. The infantry legions had always been the backbone of the Roman army; in the early centuries AD, however, the infantry began to give way to cavalry regiments. These were both less efficient and more expensive. Because they were less mobile, they contributed to Rome’s military weakness; because they cost more to maintain, they worsened the state’s economic crisis. The military solution was to hire mercenaries—paid foreign troops who had no personal loyalty to either their commanders or to the Roman Empire. This combination of Roman military weakness with growing aggression from foreign peoples helped bring down the empire.
The Barbarian Invasions
Between about AD 100 and 500, massive migration took place in northern Europe. A large number of peoples were on the move, usually traveling west and south in their quest for plunder. These northern Europeans were generally of a nomadic warrior culture that can fairly be described as far more primitive than the level of civilization the Romans had achieved; hence, the Romans used the catch-all term barbarians to refer to them.
The Huns, who originated in the steppes of Central Asia (later Russia), were among the most warlike of all the tribes. As they swept eastward into Europe, they drove other peoples in their path aside. The Goths had established a stronghold around present-day Poland and Hungary; invaded by the Huns, the Goths began to move south. In 378, Goth warriors massacred the Roman army at Adrianople. This marked the final defeat of the Roman army, and resulted in official Roman recognition of a separate Goth state in 382. In 395, the Roman Empire officially broke apart into two independent states, with the eastern half becoming known as the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was its capital, and it would continue to exist until the 1400s; the patriarch of Constantinople became the metropolitan, the head of the Orthodox Catholic Church.
The Roman Empire in the west was finished, especially after a further invasion that culminated in the sack of Rome in 410. At the same time, other tribes were invading the empire’s northern provinces; the Sueves, Burgundians, and Anglo-Saxons were seizing territory and establishing themselves in Spain, France, and Britain. The Roman Empire existed only in name from AD 410 to 476, when Romulus Augustus, the last emperor, was assassinated.
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