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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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:
- Why did the Western Roman Empire fall in the fifth century rather than during the crisis of the 3rd century?
- Why did the Western Roman Empire fall but the Eastern Roman Empire did not?
- 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?
- 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.