Rome was not built in one day; so too, the mighty Roman Empire did not fall in a day – it covered hundreds of years. Why did Rome fall? Just like the human body is inevitably subject to growth, decay, and death it is the same with nations. History is replete with such examples without a single exception. The fall of an empire or nation is a natural phenomenon. The other causes are incidental like the disease that brings about the death of a human body.
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One of the causes of the fall of Rome was the Barbarian invasions – they marched through the very roads Rome had built to reach and subjugate them. But Rome since the time of Augustus had been battling the German tribes. Why should they suddenly overpower Rome in the 6th century? The barbarian invasions during the 3rd and 4th centuries were far fiercer but they were pushed back leaving behind scant traces of their marauding. The fact is that the Barbarians were no match to the Roman army. Thus it can be said that the Barbarians won in the 6th century not because of their superior strength but because of the weakness of the Romans1.
The second cause is the decay in the structure of Roman society. Three distinct tribes divided into ten clans each made up Roman society in the early stages. This tribal character continued during the days of the Republic. The system allowed for stability and self-government. Self-government entails self-discipline by subordinating self-interest for the welfare of the family and then of the society as a whole. Without discipline self-government is impossible.
Originally the plebeians were not part of the government because they did not belong to the tribes that originated in Rome; neither could they take part in the religion of the state that comprised of family gods. The king was a sort of high priest. This led to the voluntary exile of the plebeians for a short time to the Sacred Mountain because “no hereditary religion attaches us to this sit”2. But later after many years of struggle, they became part of the Roman administration but at the cost of Rome no longer being tribal-based. It became more wealth-based.
Things took a turn for the worse with Rome following expansionist policies. Foreign influence gnawed into Roman society. When Sulla conquered Greece it was followed by a reverse invasion of Greek literature, philosophy, and manners. But Greece of those days had become degenerate. More destructive was the influence from the east – the Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian Empires with their proletariat demoralized culture that attracted the urban elite of Rome.
The third vital cause was the change in the Roman army too had changed. The conquests led to Rome setting up garrisons in distant places where the soldiers were posted for many years. Consequently, they forgot their loyalties towards Rome and directed it more towards the local garrison commander3.
At home, the army became degenerate with the introduction of public games. The worst damage was done to slavery that swelled into an institution. Roman administration could not manage the slaves it took in. Society became dependent on slaves. The administration became too much occupied with huge bands of slaves, extremely dissatisfied, living in squalid conditions. Corn came to be freely distributed leading to transforming the self-respecting working class into beggars. The land came to be neglected and the condition of the soil worsened. Farmers were overtaxed while others were overindulged. The granaries of Rome became the deserts of Africa today.
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Bowersock, David. 1996. “The Vanishing Paradigm of the Fall of Rome.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 49: 31-42.
Ferrill, Arther. 2009. The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Tainter, Joseph. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies. NY: Princeton Uni Press.
- Bowersock, David. 1996. “The Vanishing Paradigm of the Fall of Rome.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 49: 31-42.
- Ferrill, Arther. 2009. The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd. p. 115.
- Tainter, Joseph. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies. NY: Princeton Uni Press. pp. 165-166.