Causes for the Fall of the Western Roman Empire: Dismissed Hypotheses and Some Conjectures

Much as with all the other posts in this series, this post does not claim to be an authoritative or even formal work about the fall of the Roman Empire. Instead, based on what small and insignificant information I gathered  about the events that led to the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire during the 5th century it rather quickly and incompletely discusses some hypothesis that hope to explain this development. This is done in a relatively informal manner for the simple purpose of explaining it to myself. The degree of complexity is completely arbitrary and set to satisfy my heterogenous and idiosyncratic criteria.

While this is also not a work of of history, geography, economics, politics or any other mix thereof, I am aware that all of these disciplines do inform the idiosynchratic and informal judgements I make to reach my conclusions. If nothing else, I have recourse to these tools as a buffer between what strikes me as relevant and that which does not.

The post is divided into 6 sections:

  1. Section 1 considers a number of hypothesis that can be dismissed. Again this is idiosyncratic: Some of these hypothesis will be more popular than others. Some of them are so vile, so prejudiced and even internally contradicting that they barely warrant any consideration. However, because they were so relevant in the past, it seems to me that not acknowledging and debunking them would be irresponsible. Others are less repugnant, much more sophisticated and therefore slightly more arduous to dismiss.
  2. The next section provides a brief summary of some of the (other) arguments I’ve come across in relation to why empires (in general) fall, which sounds as a good starting point for a discussion.
  3. The following section adds some brief considerations that I have not really found anywhere else but which appear to be relevant. The focus is on social networks, dynastic rules, succession and internal political stability considers
  4. The 4th section considers the arguments of section 2 and 3 in the specific context of the Western Roman Empire’s time, economy and political system.
  5. Having considered these potential causes, it seemed to me it would be appropriate to look at 3 counterfactuals that can be described in chronological order as:
    1. Why did the Western Roman Empire fall in the fifth century rather than during the crisis of the 3rd century?
    2. Why did the Western Roman Empire fall but the Eastern Roman Empire did not?
    3. Why was it impossible for any of the political units that replaced the Roman Empire to re-unify the entire territory that was once under its jurisdiction?
  6. The last section concludes.

In writing this I am most acutely aware of my own amateurism and of the compliments paid to Goldsworthy and the criticisms of Gibbon’s treatment. A quest for the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire (or any empire for that sake) is a mirage that has haunted generations of scholars. It is that unattainable conclusion that can only resolve itself when the researcher’s confidence of the truth of her “findings” becomes supported by the sort of confirmation bias that only repetition and time commitment can subconsciously instil.

What I hope to have done instead, once I do away with the explanations that do indeed fit this inappropriate description, is to consider a range of fault-lines in the nature of empires that I contextualise in the case of Roman Empire. I do not seek a single explanation of the fall of the Roman empire or a single moment when such an event took place. There was unfortunately no cohesive campaign, deposition or defeat available. For that purpose, it would have been much more convenient if the Roman Empire had fallen with the death of Decius in 251, of Valerian in 260, of Julian in 363, Valens in 374 or Majorian in 461. It is a testament to our human need for specific explanations, moments and (un)charismatic leaders that the standard date of the fall of the Roman Empire is the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, when in fact the last legitimate Western Roman Emperor was Julius Nepos who died in 480 and was the man this child’s father was usurping.

Instead I propose a framework for considering all the problems that plague empires and how they can conspire over time to bring them to their knees. Clearly I believe in the validity of my findings and I endeavour to falsify them. In doing so I may perhaps accept such a wide range set of influences as to make the entire effort pointless. However, I would suggest that the really difficult trick lays not in finding the right set of conditions, events or crises that cause the fall of empires but rather when their progression reaches beyond the level where sustainability is possible and a phase transition becomes inevitable. In the case of the Western Roman Empire I would argue that the two most important steps were the fall of Stilicho in 408 and the defeat suffered at the battle of Cape Bon in 468. Personally, the fact that I find most striking about this conclusion, is the realisation that no one ever mentioned this to me in school.

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The History of the Goths: From Antique Barbarians to the Reconquista

This post is divided in 11-sections that provide a chronological account of the known history of the Goths, ranging from their uncertain origins until the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. It is best understood as following this other post about the origin of the Goths and is divided in the following 24 sections:

  1.  In order to contextualise the presence of the Goths geographically, the first section (“The Eastern Danube Frontier at the End of the Principate“) provides a discussion of the many iterations of the Roman Empire’s territorial structure and administration between 107CE and 285CE.
  2. The second section (“The Goths arrive to Dacia: Learning from the Carpi and Heruli (230s-249CE)“) covers the arrival to, establishment and raids of the Goths between 230 and 249CE.
  3. The third section (“From Abritus to Naissus 250CE and 270CE“) considers the actions of the Goths between 250 when they defeat emperor Decius and their defeat at the hands of Claudius Gothicus in 270CE in the battle of Naissus.
  4. The fourth section (“Contextualising the Gothic Raids amid the Crisis of the 3rd Century“) considers the chaotic context of the crisis of the third century that serve as the background for the Goths interventions until now.
  5. The fifth section (“Turbulence in Dacia“) quickly discusses parallel developments in Dacia as a result of all this chaos.
  6. The sixth section (“What happened to the other Barbarian tribes?“)discusses the fate of the Goths neighbouring tribes
  7. The seventh section (“The Goths in the early 4th Century – Constantine, Thervingi and Greuthungi“) discusses the limited activity of the goths during he early 300s.
  8. The eighth section(“The Goths Flee the Huns into the Roman Empire: 360s – 376“) considers the causes of the Gothic exodus of the 360s.
  9. The ninth section (“The Goths in the Eastern Roman Empire: 376-395“) describes the Gothic Wars between 376 and 395, including the battle of Adrianople, the rise of Theodosius, the usurpations of Maximus and Eugenius, the death of Gratian and the death of Theodosius.
  10. The tenth section (“Theodosius: At Adrianople or recalled?“) goes off on a tangent and discusses whether it is more plausible that Theodosius already was at Adrianople or whether he had to be recalled by Gratian from his exile.
  11. The eleventh section (“Theodosius and the Goths between 378CE and 395CE“) cover the initial campaigns of Theodosius to stabilise the Moesias.
  12. The twelfth section (“Stilicho and Alaric, Tribigild, Gainas and Fravita in the East: 395-401“) considers the initial relevance of Alaric, his original stance among the Goths and the power relations in the east at the end of the fourth century.
  13. The thirteenth section (“Stilicho and Alaric’s first campaigns in Italy: 401-403“) briefly describes the spillover of Alaric’s efforts to the West between 401 and 405.
  14. The fourteenth (“The Fall of Stilicho: Radagaisus, the Crossing of the Rhine, Contantine III and Alaric: 405-408“) section discusses the convergence of crises in the West, including the battles against Radagaisus, the crossing of the Rhine at the end of 406, the ensuing usurpation of Constantine III, the invitation of Alaric onto the West and the death of Stilicho.
  15. The fifteenth section (“Competing Narratives for the Motives that Brought Alaric back to the West in 408“) discusses the theories regarding Alaric’s sudden change of focus from the east to the west and whether the ultimate goal of the campaign might have been to install Stilicho or his son in Constantinople.
  16. The sixteenth section (“The Visigothic Supergroup in the Western Empire: 408-410”) then describes the aftermath of all these events from the massacres of the Goths by Olympius, the swelling of Alaric’s followers to a Visigothic super-group, the negotiations of 408-410 and culminating in the 410 sack of Rome.
  17. The seventeenth sectin (“Post-Alaric Settlement in Narbonnensis and Constantius III’ Campaigns: 410-418CE”) eighth section then describes the movements of the Goths in the first 13 years between 410 and 418, the rise of Constantius III, their role in the stabilisation of the West, the passing of Alaric, his replacement by Athaulf, then Sigeric and onwards to Walia and the settlement of the Goths in Gallic province of Narbonensis.
  18. The eighteenth section (“Theodoric I (418 – 451): Tentative Attempts at Expansion“) covers the reign of Theodoric I of the Visigoths who ruled at the same time as Constantius III and Aetius and who gave his life to “defeat” Attila the Hun at Chalons in 451.
  19. The nineteenth section (“Theodoric II/Euric, Consolidation and the Hispanic Expansion (451-484CE)“) then describes the period between 451-484 and the role of the goths in the last period of the Roman Empire, during the reigns of Majorian and Anthemius.
  20. The twentieth section (“Alaric II, Clovis and the End of Gallic Possessions (484-507CE)“) covers the Visigothic retreat from Gaul due to the conquests of Clovis.
  21. The twenty first section (“Ostrogothic influences in the Visigothic Kingdom: 507-672“) then covers the expansion of the Visigothic kingdom to the entire Iberian peninsula, the influences of Theodoric the Great Amal of the Visigoths, the short period of Visigothic-Ostrogothic alliance, the effect of Justinian’s wars and the increased level of rebellions within the Visigothic territory.
  22. The twenty second section (“The Umayyad Invasion and  Al-Andalus: 672-824“) considers the Berber invasion of the Umayyad’s, its causes and effects within Hispania.
  23. The penultimate section (“The Reconquista and the end of the Visigoths : 9th century onwards“) provides a very brief and superficial description of the survival, foundation and early stages of the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula by Christian kingdoms
  24. The last section concludes

The most interesting and pervasive observation I make is the chaotic environment of Gothic and Roman fragmentation throughout the period considered. Thervingi were separate from Greutungi. Fritigern contested Athanaric. Theodosius may have been appointed by Illyrian Generals without the formal approval of Gratian. Magnus Maximus and Eugenius contested Theodosius. Alaric probably started out as the leader of a small regiment of Goths after the Battle of the Frigidus. Stilicho struggled with Rufinus and Eutropius. Gainas struggled with the praetorian prefects of the East. Alaric allies himself to Stilicho. Olympius overthrows Stilicho. Alaric invades Italy and sacks Rome and so on. The environment is completely chaotic.

However, while fracture is the common element, it seems to move in opposite directions for the Empire and for the Goths. While the empire seems to become more fractionalised, Alaric’s leadership seems to slowly coalesce around a growing number of followers, which the following leaders inherit. However, as the empire falls and the borders between the Franks and the Goths slowly settle at the Pyrennees, fragmentation seems to slowly creep back into the Gothic fold, reverse its direction and accelerates exponentially with the arrival of the Umayyad expedition in the 8th century.
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The Origins Goths: Migration, Diffusion and Gothic Banality

In a previous post, I spent some time discussing the fall of the Roman Empire. Although, it is inevitable to mention the Goths in such a discussion, the complexity of the issue is such that even the most superficial discussion would be distracting. To avoid that problem, and serve as a reference to myself, and possibly others, this post offers a very brief discussion of the facts I was able to gather them.

The post is part of a 2-part series on the Goths. The first part, contained in this post, is a discussion of the origin of the Goths. There are two main theories about the origins of the Goths: the migration theory and the diffusion theory. The main difference between the two is about how the process of social, economic and political development and increased complexity takes place. Migration theory suggests new stages require new peoples’ whereas diffusion theory suggests that internal dynamics and proximity to and interaction with more developed neighbours is sufficient for this progress to take place. After considering the two hypothesis is some (limited) detail, the post argues that diffusion theory seems more likely than migration, particularly in relation to the three confederations of peoples that marked the fall of the Roman Empire of the West. However, some effort is made to avoid purist views so that even though diffusion theory is preferred to migration, the conclusion of this post is that, more likely than not, the dynamics of diffusion took place over a background of continuous migration flows and miscegenation that culminated in the ethnogenesis of the people we came to know as the Goths. While it is possible that the dominant class narrated its own origins back to Scandinavia, what we know as the Goths most certainly also included peoples of Iranian descent (e.g.: Scythians), Dacian descendents of the survivors of Trajan’s conquests as well as other Germanic peoples (e.g.: Heruli).

The second part of the discussion of the history of the Goths is an upcoming discussion in 12 parts describing the history of the Goths since the beginning of their interactions with the Roman Empire until their demise at the hands of the muslim invasions of the Iberian peninsula 400 years later..

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ECB Decisions: Deposit Facility rate, APP, Unequal Supply Growth & Oil

The first week of December will probably be remembered as “that time the ECB thought rates weren’t negative enough and decided to drop them by another 15 bps “. However,  the central bank did more than just lower the rates:

  • QE was extended until such time as the ECB sees fit
  • A lot of confusion seems to have been generated about the ANSA.
  • some details were provided about Greek coverage by QE, and
  • Geopolitical risks were acknowledged.

The decisions were not unanimous but there was an overwhelming majority in support. This post reviews what I (arbitrarily) consider the most important points.

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Giving another shot at regular posting…

If you’ve been reading this website for any length of time (thank you if that’s the case), you’ll be aware that I have tried to experiment with a wide range of posting formats. Evidently, I struggle to find a balance between a piece with enough content to be interesting and writing a post that is short enough for me to be able to do it briefly and with some regularity, while I do everything else I actually have to do.

With this in mind I’m going to try another thing. This time, I’m going to try to write 1 short opinion piece a week about financial markets and 1 short opinion piece per month about political developments… starting from December…:)

Given my failures in the past (evidenced here, here, here and here), I’m not going to promise anything, but I hope to be able to do this.

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ECB Report 2015Q3 – Resilience in the face of localised instability

As was the case previously, this post is divided in 4 parts:

  • First, I consider the ECB’s most orthodox policy tools, the policy rates.
  • Secondly, I review the structure of the ECB’s balance sheet.
  • This is then followed by a more indepth consideration of the elements pertaining to different forms of direct financial market intervention,
  • Lastly, I provide a brief review of the recent developments in Target2 balances.

Following these considerations, I conclude that

  • The third quarter of 2015 was relatively calm for the Eurozone
  • No changes in policy rates took place.
  • On the liability side, the growth of bank notes stabilised
  • On the asset side, QE and the LTROs remained important contributors to growth
  • The ECB’s exposure to the Greek financial sector through ELA is less than 2.5% of its balance sheet.
  • The PSPP continues to grow at a steady pace and, bar any other policy innovations, may end up accounting for at least 24% of the balance sheet of the ECB by September 2016.
  • Greece is still not covered by the PSPP.
  • Given the turbulence in Greece, this stability is consistent with the improved strength of the EZ due to the extensive tools at the disposal of the ECB and the fire-power it endows it with.
  • Continued QE did not erode the exchange rate value of the Euro any further.

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Considerations About the Greek Crisis: Bad Media, Amateur Greeks, Lazy Creditors and Geopolitical Fears

Watching the diplomatic and financial downwards spiral regarding the debt crisis in Greece, I am not particularly impressed or comforted by the skills of politicians or economists on both sides of the isle, or about the media.

The inability of both parties to find a consensus makes me wonder whether either sides actually wanted to reach a deal. On the one hand, there seems to have been a certain level of amateurism in the negotiations. At the same time, European leaders from creditor countries failed to implement more indepth reforms and to explain what was happening and dismiss claims that tax-payer money was going to greece. Lastly, the media decided that Syriza was just plain bad and reliably decided to exploit every prejudice among its readers and report the discussions in a pretty negative light.

Ultimately, however, my concern isn’t any of the above, but rather the fear that the disorderly mess emerging from Greece leads to a realignment of geopolitics in the black sea.

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