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.

Dismissed Hypotheses

I have come across 6 hypothesis regarding the causes of the fall of the Western Roman Empire that I believe can be dismissed. The two racist hypotheses are the easiest to dismiss. The military reforms, economic atrophy, slave implosion and  religious hypotheses require a little bit of thinking but are also easy to dismiss largely thanks to the I’ll go through them individually:

Religious Hypothesis: Gibbons’ hypothesis argues that the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire after Constantine the Great weakened the empire. Supposedly, the argument is that the Christian religion was a peaceful religion that focused on “feminine” values of charity, equity, peace and love whereas the pagan religion was more “masculine” focusing on violence, honour, warfare, sports, sex and noble traditions. I should make it clear that I am an atheist, so there might be a perception that I actually have a bias towards accepting this hypothesis. This is wrong. I believe as much in 1, 2, 3 or 4 gods as I do in a trinity or anything else. More to the point however, the argument is bad on several more relevant factors. First it seems to suggest that Christianity was a purely peaceful religion. While this may be true from an individual perspective, state sponsorship clearly made Christianity show its violent tendencies relatively quickly after its acceptance. Christinanity is not a violent religion. Christians were violent, as were, and potentially are, the proponents of every religion. Religion is not the cause of violence. People are. So when violence became necessary, Christians are less fond of quoting Jesus and more fond of quoting the old Testament. Secondly, the religious hypothesis fails because it ignores the fact that Christianity remained the religion of the East, where it originated and where it played a much more important and at times divisive role. Another way to put it is that if Christianity was the cause of the fall of the West, the East would have fallen first because there was more Christianity there than in the West. Hypothesis dismissed.

Military Reforms Hypothesis: This hypothesis, first proposed by Vegetius, argues that the Roman Empire fell due to reforms by Gallienus, Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine in the transition from the Crisis of the Third Century to the Dominate, which made the army weaker. I’ve described these reforms here, and Elton (1996), Southern & Dixon(1996)Goldsworthy (2003)Luttwak (1976) and Whittaker (1997) do so at much more length and depth than I could ever do. There are several versions of this idea which overlap with some of the other dismissed hypotheses considered in this section. However, what all these versions have in common, is the underlying assumption that there was a noticeable deterioration in the quality of the Roman army as a whole. Where the versions of this hypothesis vary is in what may have been the causes of this deterioration.

Vegetius‘ own original idea seems to suggest that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was caused by a deterioration of its army’s equipment, training and commitment. The inaccuracy of his statements, particularly in relation to the quality of the late Roman army’s equipment, require them to be corroborated by archaeological evidence. It is true that there was a considerable change in the equipment used by the Roman army leading to the end of the heavy infantry that had been the hallmark of the republican army, but that was most likely a

One idea is that border frontiers, the “limitanei“, became much weaker and so were much more easily over-run. In my opinion, this argument simply ignores or simplifies the relationship between “comitatensis” and “limitanei” troops. “Limitanei“troops were probably never meant to contain large-scale military incursions. They were probably patrolling “Comitatensis” armies were . The authors mentioned earlier provide all the discussion of this any other issues that you can dream of. Ultimately, this hypothesis faces the same argumentative problem as all the other hypotheses: The same military reforms were applied in the East. If the military reforms undermined the ability of the west to defend itself, then it also undermined the East’s ability, which does not appear to have been the case. To this extent, I consider the hypothesis dismissed.

  1. Socio-Economically, Rostovtzeff’s “Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire” offers an alternative Marxist narrative which finds the source of the problem in the crisis of the third century when supposedly in an army staffed from the country rather than the cities, “the peasant of the army made common cause with the peasant of the countryside and both waged a war of extermination against their oppressors of the city”, as summarised by Baynes. This is simply factually inaccurate. The Roman empire of the west was not defeated by a great mutiny or a series of mutinies motivated by solidarity with the peasants from which many would have originated. There were some revolts that are difficult to ascribe to any particular ethnic or social group and which the Romans referred to as the Bagaudae. Although these “brigands” would have included free peasants and runaway slaves, as well as other people from the lower strata of Roman provincial society, these were ad hoc rebellions caused by the high levels of taxation that were necessary to finance the expensive military campaigns of the Late Roman Empire. Most importantly, while they were the target of Roman military action from the Crisis of the 3d century until the end of the Western Roman Empire, they were always defeated and in no way a threat beyond the level of minor distraction.
  2. Another version of this military decadence hypothesis is the Barbarisation Theory. The theory is that barbarians were in some way less able or loyal to the Roman Empire than native Roman citizens. There are 2 versions of this, depending on how encompassing a definition of “barbarians” one wants to use. What I would call the hard version is the one that traces this development to the Constitutio Antoniniana, the imperial edict by Caracalla that bestowed citizenship to all free men within the borders of the Empire. I call this a hard version because it considers as barbarians all those peoples from outside of the Italian peninsula. To this extent, the decadence of the Roman Empire followed the end of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty and included the rules of the Severan dynasty, the Pannonian general emperors that followed the Valerians after 260, the Tetrarchs, the Constantinians, Valerians, Theodosians and the remaining. What I would call the soft version of this theory is probably best summarised by Nilsson’s “Imperial Rome” . This theory does not see the inclusion of non-Latin origin conquered by the empire around the Mediterranean sea as a problem. The problem would have emerged from the use of barbarian soldiers from the beyond the frontiers, particularly those of Germanic origin but also, Dacians, Iranians (Scytians and Sarmatians), Berbers or Arabs. The theory presumes in both instances a loyalty to their original ethnicity and a political coesion among non-Roman peoples that was never present, but rather an invention of 19th century nationalistic European historiography.
  3. Evolution of Soze of Roman Military - 700BCE-600CEThe armies were well organised and staffed although between 410 and 425 the West

Racist Hypothesis 1:This hypothesis argues that the Roman Empire fell the racial purity of its armies was undermined and eroded by the inclusion of barbaric soldiers from the reign of Marcus Aurelius onwards. This point is argued by…

Racist Hypothesis 2: Anachronistically to the previous racial explanation, this hypothesis argues that the Roman Empire fell because its was racially inferior to the Nordic peoples that defeated it. This would imply that there was something intrinsic to the genetics of the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Alemmani, the Heruli, the Ruguli and the Sueves, that made them superior to the Romans. Some proponents of this hypothesis include…

 

Economic Atrophy Hypothesis: This hypothesis argues that the Late Roman Empire suffocated the Roman Economy to the point where it caused its own downfall. Although this hypothesis is closely linked to the work of A. H. M. Jones, the main proponent I’ve found for this theory is Bruce Bartlett who argued it in detail in this 1994 article published by the Cato institute. The argument is that warfare imposed a high taxation burden on the Roman population which caused the Roman Empire to stagnate. This is not an unappealing argument. I’m particularly happy to recognise that warfare created an extremely high taxation burden, which in itself caused very important changes to the empire’s socio-economic and legal system. I have no problem with the argument that the economy of the late Roman Empire was not particularly “free” as we would understand it.Where I begin to struggle with this argument is with the use of the word stagnation and how one goes from (unbearable?) tax burden to stagnation and from stagnation to collapse. It is unlikel Where my struggles force me to abandon this argument is again the fact that the same economy was present in

Slave Implosion Hypothesis: This hypothesis appears to have been very popular up until the 1980s and from what I’ve been able to understand is tied to the Marxist school. It’s an economic hypothesis, but one that is very different from the previously discussed one. The logic is that slavery dominated the Roman Empire’s economy and that the end of conquests decreased the slave supply. By decreasing the slave supply, the Romans became unable to run their economy and produce the resources necessary to continue to dominate. This point was most vehemently argued by XXX. However, the recent insights of XXX and XXX show that there was no decrease in the slave supply of the late Roman Empire. Unfortunately, exposure and endogenous growth from the existing stock as well as the continuous border conflicts continued to provide all the slaves that Rome needed. For this reason and, once again, because slavery was equally prevalent in the West as it was in the East I believe we can dismiss this hypothesis. However, this hypothesis raises the important issue of the prominent role played by economic resources in maintaining the sustainability of an empire.

 

Alternative Hypotheses

Expansion, Consolidation, Collapse Cycle (cite author)

System Collapse

Statistical Models of Empire Duration

Alternative Hypotheses in the Western Roman Empire’s Context

 

So What?

Having explored how the alternatives fit into the Roman context, I am however left asking myself: “So what?”, “What does all of that mean?”

In dismissing the hypotheses of the first section I have created an argumentative problem for myself in this section. The single most important, pervasive and deciding criterion in dismissing those hypothesis was the fact that all of those explanations applied equally, if not more, to the East as they did to the West. Thus if such a problem affected would have caused one half to fall, it should have had the same effect on the other half. Because the Eastern half of the empire endured, the hypothesis can be rejected.

Don’t get me wrong. The models are useful, insightful and interesting. They are valid whereas most of the hypothesis discussed in the first section were biased, prejudiced and often useless. Instead, these models explore dynamics in an appealingly dispassionate way. However, they can do nothing at all in terms of telling me what caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level they suffer from the same problem as the previous hypothesese suffered. All of those things are as much true of the west as they were of the East.The system collapse hypothesis seems completely inappropriate (REALLY?!). XXX’s theory is too general and the the statistical models just say that the fall is accidental. Perhaps what distinguishes these models from the hypotheses of the first section is that they are ultimately right. They can fit the Roman Empire’s case very well. However, they are too general and vague to offer any information on the specific causes and timing of the fall.

Thus, while the aforementioned alternative theories are valid tools, they are not particularly useful for deciphering dynamics at this level of detail. So I need an alternative approach to the problem. The next section attempts to deal with this.

3 Counterfactuals: An Imperfect Method by Exclusion for the Identification of Plausible Causes of the fall of the Roman Empire

As the previous section should make it clear, in dismissing the hypotheses of the first section I have created an argumentative problem for myself in this section. The single most important, pervasive and deciding criterion in dismissing those hypothesis was the fact that all of those explanations applied equally, if not more, to the East as they did to the West. Thus if such a problem affected would have caused one half to fall, it should have had the same effect on the other half. Because the Eastern half of the empire endured, the hypothesis can be rejected. Should it be unclear, I am kind of implicitly arguing that the division of the empire into two halves offers an environment that is close enough to a natural experiment which can allow us to test different hypotheses. “Kind of”, but not really, because this sort of argument only works under two conditions: 1) if the explanation is univariate, i.e.: if the explanation argues that a single factor (or at most a finite and relatively small number of factors) Caused the Fall of the Roman Empire; and 2) if that single factor or limited number of factors are present on both sides of the empire.

Fortunately, this seems to be the case of all of the cases discussed in the first section, so we can reject them all. However, in doing this, I have forced myself to find an explanation that relies on one or more factors that are true in the west but not in the east. This is the problem of the other hypotheses. They are too general to offer any insight about the differences between East and West. To identify why the western empire fell but the east Empire survived, I need to find what distinguished the two halves.

Fortunately, this natural experiment is not the only “natural experiment” (with all the caveats mentioned before) available. There are at least 2 other such questions that can be asked related to the path that the history of the Roman Empire took. Using them is much less straight forward than the issue about why the west collapsed when the east thrived, but they may still prove useful. Ultimately, the West-East question considers a counterfactual where either the East also falls or the west also survives in order to identify what caused neither scenario to materialise. So we can do the same for other issues. One such question is

“Why did the Western Roman Empire fall in the fifth century rather than during the crisis of the 3rd century?”

The other is

“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?”

These questions are different in that they question not what was different between two relatively comparable polities at a specific moment in time but rather what it was that changed about a specific polity or a collection of polities over time.

It is possible that the models in the previous section offer an interesting guide in terms of the relevant variables for consideration. From section 2, we learn that there are 2 relevant types of variables and 2 types of possible shocks:

  • Constants explanatory factors: Geography,
  • Variable Explanatory factors: foreign attacks, agricultural output, population, natural disasters, internal political stability
  • Exogenous shocks:  Military attacks/defeats, agricultural (bad harvests), epidemiological (plagues), natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, meteors)
  • Endogenous shocks: usurpations and succession crises

These variables can be considered to then impact

  • Relative Fiscal resources
  • Relative military resources
  • Relative Economic growth (technological development)
  • Relative administrative capacity

Another way to this about thesevariables is to perceive the two halves as having been different in 1) their permanent features or 2) different exogenous shocks they are faced with.

 

Note that I’m not saying that this is the only way to identify the causes of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It is however, the way that I accidentally ended up taking based on my approach to the question. Clearly, I’m happy with it, but I’d love it if someone could point out the flaw in my approach. (I’m too involved to see the forest from the trees at this point… 🙂 )

My Hypothesis

To this extent, there’s a great and relatively obscure paper I’ve come across that actually does this:  Baynes 1943 (find link!!). In it the author argues that

“In a word it was the pitiful poverty of Western Rome which crippled her in her effort to maintain that civil and military system which was the presupposition for the continued life of the ancient civilisation.”

“The area of civilisation is delimited on permanent lines: not expansion of territory, but concentration of resources in order to protect the solidarity of culture-that is the emperor’s task. The barbarian invasions broke into this area of intercourse, and the establishment of barbarian kingdoms on Roman soil destroyed the single administration which was its counterpart. And the fatal significance of the establishment of these barbarian kingdoms lay in the fact that they withdrew from the Empire not only Roman soil, but also the revenues derived therefrom. Africa lost to the Vandals, Spain occupied by Sueve and Alan and Visigoth: Southern France a Visigothic kingdom and the rest of Gaul a battleground on which Aetius fought and fought again: Italy alone remained as a source of revenue, and Italy was an impoverished land. The Western state was bankrupt. And the defence of the Empire demanded money, for Rome had so effectually provided the area of peaceful intercourse in Western Europe that her subjects were no longer soldiers if battles were to be won they must be fought by barbarian mercenaries and for mercenaries to fight they must be paid. Further, Rome’s effort in the West was a struggle with a double front: against the barbarian on land and against the Vandal fleet upon the sea. Rome possessed no technical superiority such as the invention of gunpowder might have given her, such as later the secret for the composition of the ‘ Greek fire ‘ gave to the Byzantine navy. Thus the tragedy of the Empire in the West lay precisely in the fact that she had not the wherewithal to keep at one and at the same time a mercenary army in the field and a fleet in commission. And the differentia which distinguishes the situation in the East of the Empire is in my judgement that, while the Danubian provinces were continuously ravaged, Asia Minor was for the most part untroubled by invasions: Asia Minor remained as I have said a reservoir alike of men and money. It was this reservoir which the West lacked.”

 

Considering 3 Counterfactuals 

Beyond the biased and perhaps even circular logical consistency that led me to the aforementioned hypothesis, there are at least 3 counterfactuals which may be of assistance in testing the validity of that hypothesis.

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?

 

Conclusion

Note that I’m under no illusion that none of the natural experiment, the logical and methodical path that led me to my hypothesis nor the counterfactuals are conclusive evidence in support of that hypothesis. Perhaps that’s the deeper truth behind this entire discussion, that we’ll never know the exact truth. I don’t like that attitude, so I can’t say I stand behind it. I think that a better path would be to compile a complete list of imperial collapses and their causes. I would certainly enjoy it much more. 🙂

——————

The survival of the Eastern half of the empire offers a very good control to use in testing different hypotheses. My understanding is that the West fell because its long borders and institutions were configured in such a manner that foreign invasions would inevitably coincide with internal struggles for power between competing factions. While the Romans were able to deal with one such pressure, both were impossible subdue at the same time. The internal crises between 406 and 453 were not particularly worse than those faced during the crisis of the 3rd century. The barbarians under Alaric, Genseric or Attila were nowhere as sophisticated a threat as Hannibal’s Carthaginians. However, the coincidence of both forces together with the necessities of defending the Persian border proved too much for the West to cope with. The inability to return North Africa to Roman control sealed the West’s fate. The state was bankrupted and simply fell under the weight of 60 years of unsuccessful conflict internal division and foreign intrusion.

The following lines can be divided into six parts. I begin by chronologically describing how the Western Roman Empire collapsed following the arrival of the Visigoths in the 370s. I then attempt to understand “why” this “how” took place in three ways. First, I review a number of popular explanations that I find unsatisfactory. Then I offer a brief review of the different features that I have understood to have interacted to bring about the collapse of the Western half of the Empire. Finally, I focus on the geographical features of the Eastern Roman Empire and its borders as defining explanatory variables of its survival. Before concluding, I briefly consider of the inability of any of the new political entities to reunify the West in the way the Romans did. I finish with a short discussion of the benefits and costs of the Roman Empire and the implications of its replacement by a multitude of polities for the development and growth of Europe in the ensuing 1500 years.

Anti-thesis – Dismissed Explanations of “Why” the Western Roman Empire Fell

Given the duration of the Roman polity, its important role in popular culture and how it has captured the imagination of a fractionalised Europe since its downfall, the collapse of the Roman Empire has been an extremely fertile field of inquiry that has spanned many hypotheses.

    1.  clearly suffered defeats. Historians presume that in 395 both halves of the empire were equally matched in manpower. Indeed, the only substantive difference that can be found between the West and the East is in the fact that in the first the Emperor is dominated by the Magister Utriusque Militiae, …High Command Structure and Nos of the West Roman Army (Ca 410-425)_ Notitia Dignitatum… whereas in the East the Emperor has two Magister Praesetalis, which could have competed with eachother and kept eachother in check. This is an hypothesis which is mentioned by Heather (page) but which is not explored and as a result is at best speculative.High Command Structure and Nos of the East Roman Army (Ca 395)_ Notitia Dignitatum
    2. A related loyalist argument of XXX is that the proportion of Italian soldiers decreased substantially, representing only X% by the fourth century from a maximum of X% in XXX. The problem with this argument is that Rome survived for long enough time and the claim that non Italians were more or less loyal to Rome seems to be a judgement on either their integration or training, neither of which seems plausible in light of the many victories experienced both in the West and in the East. Clearly Trajan’s army (X% Italian) was not detrimental to the conquest of Dacia and Parthia. Moreover, the East once again offers a particularly good control given that none of its soldiers were of Italian origin. I am of the more convinced with the theory that the main loss was financial and consequently administrative, rather than human.   On the other hand, the fact that the west was only able to contribute Marcellinus’ 10,00 to 20,000 soldiers in 358 does point to a loss in manpower.
    3. Another possible view that the Western army did not fall into decadence, but rather that it fell in numbers due to losing too many battles. Clearly the defeat of the Roman expeditionary force at Cape Bon and the 70,000 soldier that perished would have been a strike at the military capacity of the West, but it is important to remember that the originally 100,000 strong force came from the East, under the command of Basiliscus, brother in law of Eastern Emperor Leo. Thus that defeat is not necessarily telling of the losses of the West, which would have had to occur before this. On the other hand, the fact that the west was only able to contribute Marcellinus’ 10,00 to 20,000 soldiers does point to a loss in manpower. While the previous figure may seem to imply a steep and sudden decline at the end of the empire, tantamount to a sudden destruction of the army, the linearisation is not accompanied by any observation between the figures for the beginning of the 5th century and the disappearance of the polity by the end of that century. So it is important to bear in mind that the linear fall in the numbers of the western Roman army is imposed by lack of intermediary observations. On a less technical point, in parallel to the crossing of the Rhine and the debacle of the battle of Cape Bon, Heather presents evidence of smaller but surviving limitanei armies and comitatensis armies that were forced to fend for themselves at the frontier or that simply refused to side with whatever new emperor had been raised to the purple. The first is true in Northern Gaul at first and in Southern Gaul later (see resistance of gallo-roman aristocracy against Visigoths and Franks) while the second is true of Illyria. [FIND REFERENCES IN HEATHER) . This and the fact that up to Cape Bon Rome had experience intermitent periods of control over its own army as well as that of foederates in my view shows that the army’s man power was not suddenly and completely destroyed. What does seem to have happened is that Rome slowly became unable or insolvent to pay the cost of maintaining the cost of its army due to the costs and possibly the recruitment competition from the Visogoths, Franks and other barbarians. (When did the West suffer its biggest defeats? Do these defeats account for the fall in soldiers or was it simply that the west became unable to pay them.  –>The fall of Orestes and rise of Odoacer seems to point to this fact. But was this true already by 468?). Following the devastating losses of the battle of Adrianople, between 10,000 and 20,000, the next campaigns were:
      – Theodosius against the Visigoths
      – Theodosius against Magnus Maximus: battle of the Save 388
      – Theodosius against Eugenius: battle of the Frigidus 394. Theodosius had 45,000, Eugenius had +/- 45,000. Theodosius lost 10,000 (mostly Alarics Visigoths) while Eugenius suffered heavy losses ( let’s presume 25,000 at least).
      – Stilicho against Alaric in Macedonia in 397
      – Stilicho against Gildo via Mascezel in North Africa 398
      – Stilicho against Alaric in Thrace 400
      – Stilicho hands over a chunk of his army to the East.
      – Stilicho against Alaric at Battle of Polentia 402
      – Stilicho against Alaric in Verona in 403
      – Stilicho against Radagaisus – Battle of Ticinium 406
      – crossing of the Rhine in 406 destroys Gaul for 6-8 years before Constantius emerges
      – Constantine III’s rebellion and the ensuing civil war probably kills off a large portion of Rome’s Gallic and Hispanic armies.
      – massacre of Visigoths following Stilicho’s death migrates 30,000 Visigoths, which hag been incorporated as part of the Roman Army from Radagaisus’ army, to Alaric’s force.
      – Constantius’ wars against Visigoths, and against Alans are successful but probably costly.
      -Ensuing civil war between John and Theodosian forces imposing Valentinian III further deplete Roman army.
      – Vandals pillage through Hispania
      – Civil war between Felix & Aetius and Boniface & Aetius probably does some more damage.
      -Vandals conquer North Africa 429-435
      – Hunnic campaigns in Gaul and Italy devastate further 450-452- see battle of Chalons and Italian famine in 451
      – Majorian’s campaigns see further losses, particularly in failed launch of North African campaignI do not include Basiliscus’ defeat at Cape Bon because that was an Eastern force. From Ricimer onwards the Empire is fractionalised and it appears that the west can no longer even attempt to suggest that it can do anything outside of Italy. It seems to have become insolvent. So, some time between 376 and 451 the native Roman (Italian and not)) forces of the West seem to have disappeared. The list above offers some hints. Also consider the substitution of soldiers by taxes, from YEAR onwards.
  1. A complementary Marxist hypothesis, described by Whittaker, and separate from the aforementioned one by  Rostovtzeff’s, argues that the end large scale Roman conquests depleted removed the supply of slaves upon which the economy and its slave mode of production (SMoP) was based. However, Whittaker musters a panoply of literary and archeological evidence to show that the SMoP was mostly limited to Italy, that its demise did not overlap wth the end of conquests and that both before and after, the preferred labour force was composed of tenants, not slaves. The SMoP may also have been a characteristic of the late Republic early Empire, necessitated by the management of POWs. The end of conquests did not undermine the economy. Tenancy remained the favourite agricultural contract, both in the East as well as in the West.
  2. At the other end of the political economic spectrum, liberals like to argue that excessive government killed the roman empire. This is the argument advanced by Bartlet. This is actually a theory that I sympathise with quite a lot. This hypothesis suggests that poor management of the state led to an innefficient economy, which was suffocated by rising levels of taxation. Implicitly, this would have made the state revenues progress towards the downward sloping half of the Laffer Curve, thus ironically making the Western Roman Empire less solvent. The problem with this hypothesis is that of course, since Diocletian and Constantine the tax system had been homogenised throughout the Empire, from West to East. Clearly the process had enormous faults that allowed for abuses and heterogeneity, but there is nothing to indicate that the faults of the Western fiscal system were not reflected in the East. This theory seems to invert causality. Given that the West fell and the East survived, fiscal policy or the taxation system cannot have been the cause of the problem. It is more likely that whatever the problem was, it increased the strain on taxation in some way. Appealing though this hypothesis might be, regulation and taxation did not kill the West. As much as we have idealised it as an enlightened period in comparison to what followed, the Western Roman Empire was not an industrial or technologically driven economy. Large scale industrial products, such as clothing, mining and metal works were pretty much confined to servicing the state’s military needs, without which it is unlikely that it would have survived. Some may argue that the Pax Romana was a wasted opportunity that could have been used to promote competition and expand productivity, lowering costs and exploring new technologies. However this is axiomatically wrong: the Roman political economy was too centralised around the state to allow this type of behaviour to arise, much less to promote it. In both halves of the Roman Empire, due to their permanent state of warfare, the public sector was always a quasi monopolist-cum-monopsonist, driving economic activity, be it through soldiers’ salary, cereal purchases and subsidies or investment in physical capital like infrastructure. It was also too heavily centralised politically. This meant that there were no checks and balances or incentives for competition, as the system of clientelism that underlined the state made capture and predation more appealing than innovation and the disruptions that follow creative destruction. Provinces did not compete in the way that later national competition pushed European nation-states to colonise the globe and industrialise. China’s missed opportunities in both of these fields, which were arguably the two main drivers of Europe’s international success, are particularly informative about the cost of centralisation. Either way, it seems far fetched to blame the fall of the Western Roman Empire on its centralised administration, particularly considering that innovation and competitiveness was not the secret weapon of the Barbarians that took over. As a final note on this hypothesis, I would point to the scale of abuses and mismanagement described by XXX as evidence that the fiscal administration of the Empire was not the trigger for its fall. Should that have been the case, the East would have probably collapsed first.
  3. Another theory from whom is that lack of support from East allowed the West to fall and that Constantine’s division of the empire in two alienated one from the other. This is factually inaccurate. There was no alienation. The two halves tended to be governed by members of the same royal family be it during the Constantine, Valentinian or Theodosian dynasties and when Honorius died the Eastern Theodosians made  great efforts to ensure Valentinian III would acceded, going so far as to remove the usurper John. Heather also shows that there were at least four attempts at reconquering North Africa, not to mention the reinforcements sent to Ravena during Sack of Rome in 410. I will consider these later.

Baynes reviews a number of “modern theories” from the early 20th century, many of which seem to have a cultural-racial focus to which I share Baynes discomfort.

The fall of the Roman Empire was a long process that required a number of failures to take place and a number of successes not to take place, last among which Reconquest. To understand this process, and given that none of the explanations above convince me, I decided to do three things. First, I look at what remained constant from the fall of the republic and the rise of the empire. Secondly, I consider what had changed, what was new. Then ,I listed all of the Roman catastrophes that led to its inevitable collapse and tried to understand the causes behind them, and how they related to the constants and variables that characterised the Late Roman Empire. Those constants and variables will be the causes of the fall of the Roman West.

[Make sure to insert a bit discussing how frontier provinces were abandoned and those that still possessed forces often refused to coordinate their efforts with the emperor.]

“Why” the Western Roman Empire actually Fell

Contrarily to the technological, institutional, economic and tactical superiority through which Rome came to dominate its world, none of the kingdoms that replaced it could in any manner be described to have exceeded it in these dimensions. I believe that a surge of attacks at the borders, possibly motivated by Hunnic migrations from the Rhine, constant threats from Persia, policy instability (while Honorius’ and Arcadius’ regimes were unwilling to make deals with the Goths, the same was no longer true by Constantius and certainly not by Zeno), internal competition for power and simple geography conspired to overstretch the resources of the Western Roman Empire. These shifted the focus of invading hordes  from the Eastern to the Western half of the Empire, which was apparently impregnable from the West, North. They created alternative and competing sources of power within its borders, geographical fractionalisation due to a barbarian presence that undermined client relations, delayed Constantius’ plans to pacify Hispania and Aetius’ plan to retake Carthage only to have Majorian’s and Anthemius’ campaigns fail bankrupting the state along the way. Roman frontier provinces were left to fend for themselves from as early as 410 as the Roman state became unable to offer the necessary resources (Heather p. 263).

In detail I would say that
i) – Geographically, the western empire has relatively porous borders which were apparently breached relatively easily by Germanic tribes
ii) – Militarily, the shift from limitaneii to comitatensis, a necessary reform to put an end to revolts from border garrisons, made the borders more porous than they already were geographically. The necessity to have a large contingent of forces with the Emperor, limited the ability of the state to efficiently assign forces to more than 1 threat at a time.
iii) – The 2 aforementioned issues made successful invasions a statistical inevitability once attacks on the borders increased due to climate change and migratory pressures outside of the empire.
iv) – Managerially, the internal geography of the western empire requires weaker opponents in order for the one conqueror to achieve victory, due to the natural borders imposed by mountains, rivers and peninsulas’ narrow passages, absent in the East. Once the barbarians had been trained in the techniques of the empire and once they had penetrated it, given similar technology and tactics, it was impossible for any one group to dominate the others and reconstitute a centralised empire over the same territory of the western empire.
v) – Politically/Culturally, non-absorption & disenfranchisement of newly arrived immigrants (377/386 for the Franks; 376/378/410 for the Visigoths) did not give them a participatory stake in the survival of the empire’s institutions beyond its ability to pay for their services. – SO FAR I HAVE PRESUMED THAT THE VISIGOTHS WOULD HAVE GLADLY TAKEN ROMAN CITIZENSHIP, AND THAT IT WAS THE ROMANS WHO FAILED TO OFFER THEM THAT OPTION. THIS CASTS ROME IN A RATHER XENOPHOBIC LIGHT. HOWEVER, WHILE THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN RACIST, I DON’T THINK THEY WOULD HAVE SO MUCH HAD A PHOBIA AS MUCH AS AN ARROGANCE AND SUPERIORITY TOWARDS FOREIGNERS WHICH MEANT THAT THEY COULD ACCEPT THEM, AS LONG AS IT WAS ON THEIR TERMS. – (HEATHER pp. 158-167).

Why Did the West Fall While the East Endured?

When considering the question at hand, one is inevitably left with the itching question that I have attempted to highlight in the antithesis: Why did the West fall while the East endured and did quite well for some time?

Following the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, the empire had become increasingly centralised and homogenised so it is likely that in theory both halves would have been equal. In practice, the East seems to have been richer, but aside from the lack of cooperation with Stilicho, resources seem to have been pooled as often as possible so that this was not necessarily a problem. Moreover, offers a brief glimpse into the intrigues at the Western court, it would be incorrect to assume they did not have their equivalents in the East. But yet, the West fell, while the west remained. I believe that the reason for this is in the unique fact that distinguishes the East from the West: Geography!

While the Rhine and the Danube represented the main Western boundaries, they were clearly soft natural hurdles which could be counted on to be overcome. In the East however, Rome faced four borders. The Persian limes were heavily guarded and the focus of the Roman Empire’s defences at least since Hadrian shifted from an offensive to a clearly defensive strategy. To the North, invasion could take place from the Caucasus, where Rome and Parthia/Sassanid Persia fought for control of the buffer Kingdoms of Armenia and Caucasian Iberia, where a substantial amount of all these forces were amassed. The Caucasus is relevant for several strategic reasons. It offers an ideal location to set up a buffer puppet state north of which there are no more natural barriers and the weather is too cold for anyone to really bother to pursue expansion. At the same time, it stood on the path of the silk road and bridges the distance between the Caspian sea to the Black Sea. From the West, the Eastern Roman Empire was exposed to attacks from Greece, which would require the difficult crossing of the Bosphorous, so difficult indeed that none managed it. Meanwhile, the Sahara desert made it unlikely that any civilisation gained enough momentum to make the march from the West in the South coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The fourth border was to the South, and following the exhaustion of Rome and Persia was the source of both empires met their demise. The intervening 800 years since the conquest of Egypt, the East equivalent to Carthage, the Eastern Roman Empire shrank substantially into insignificance, from the great expanse of Justinian the great’s conquests to present day Istanbul, spending most of its time focused on present-day Greece and Turkey. Geography once again seems to have helped mitigate attacks from the West, even if they did take place. Meanwhile, it is likely that the relative frugality of Constantinople in comparison to Rome allowed to continue to feed itself, which was no longer possible for Rome following the loss of Carthage.

Why Was the Western Roman Empire Never Reconstructed?

To my mind, there were only 3 attempts that almost succeeded at rebuilding a European Empire: the Franks, the Habsburgs and Napoleon. All of them achieved this through some, but not all, of the means that led to the rise of Rome and so failed, where Marius, Sulla, Pompei and Caesar succeeded. The Franks were able to combine a momentary mix of political unity, military might and foreign weakness to expand and dominate, but their underlying institutions were weak and so the gains eventually dissolved. The Hapsburgs were able to create strong links between elites South and North, but faced centrifugal forces that were too expensive to contain. Napoleon was probably the most ambitious and potentially successful of all in facing weak opponents, having reformed his state and galvanised resources to the effort of war on a yet unseen scale, combined with tactical and technological advantages. However, he ultimately faced too many and too adaptable enemies and had too much ambition, which cost him his army.

Conclusion – Centrifugal Forces and Creative Destruction

The fall of the Western Roman Empire is one of those topics that inspires enormous passions and upon which Western culture has, over the years, projected its prejudices and hopes. Its story has often been told as the fall from grace of a civilisation who lost its earlier military discipline, racial or civic purity, cultural breath or economic dynamism. To my understanding none of these are true and the fall of the West was a purely geographical and geopolitical development, typical of a polity that must spread its resources thinly to cope with a number of threats, meeting its ultimate fate when too many of them coincide. When these threats become overwhelming and when the centre survives at the detriment of the periphery, the downfall of the polity as a whole becomes inevitable.

While this centre-periphery dichotomy might offer some insights into the present European experience within the Euro-Zone, three other aspects impressed me most during my readings on this topic. First, it made me aware of the fact that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a necessary condition for the emergence of the competition between future European states necessary to bring about the political, technological and economic rise of the West in world affairs. More on that later. The other more geopolitical fact, perhaps obvious, is the nature of Europe’s Northern borders, how porous they are and how difficult it must have been to defend them. Finally, I was impressed by my observation that even as far back as the Roman Republic/Empire, institutional political dynamics basically worked within the remits of what present models allow us to understand (although not exactly predict…). Thinking about it, the collapse of the West was a rather predictable event, given the variables at play.

 

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Constants: Factors
1) Income inequality -> Marian reform -> no checks and balance -> non existence of orderly succession + tendency for weak leaders to be dominated -> high probability of internal crises -> policy continuity unlikely -> high probability of external crises

This title may be misleading. Much as I will consider variables only those features which changed at some point and had asymmetric effects on either half of the Empire, constants are only those features which do not vary across both halves of the empire.
In this sense, the political instability caused by the problems caused by the lack of a mechanism for the orderly transmission of power from one leader to the next were not solved despite the political, military and administrative reforms imposed by Diocletian and Constantinian. Despite the relative strength of the reigns of Valentinian and Theodosius, Magnus Maximus and Eugenius still rebelled in YEAR and Gratian ended up dead. Neither the Tetrarchly which failed without Diocletian nor the dual empires provided a particularly better transmission for power than existed during the Pricipate.
As noted before, the relevance of these changes is particularly dubious given that they would have impacted both halves of the empire equally. More importantly, these reforms endowed the Empire with the bureaucratic and military capacity to cope with new threats, as well as arguably assisting in maintaining loyalty by limiting the resources of frontier generals. This was a shared reform that should have given Rome a better fighting chance.

Endogenous Variables: Features Specific to the Late Roman Empire

Military Reforms

Still on the topic of the administration,  it is important to repeat the point made by Heather about the slight difference in military hierarchies in the East and West. Whereas in the East a dual military leadership seems to have forced of the two Magister Palatini Praesentalis to share power, in the West the magister utriusque Militum seems to have enjoyed sole leadership. However, this apparent asymmetry poses two problems. The first problem is that this difference may have only been apparent, not substantial. Indeed, it is important to not overstate the hierarchy described in the Notitia Dignitatum against a less competitive experiences described in narrative literary sources. Secondly, even if this difference is substantial, it is difficult to disentangle the direction of it effects. Would competition at the top made it  easier for an emperor like Arcadius to dominate military leaders like Rifinus and Eutropius. However the relevance of the structural differences implied by the Notitia Dignitatum are likely to be overstated, given that neither Rufinus nor Eutropius held the post if Magister Palatini Praesentalis. It seems to me that the difference is implied by a rigid reading and interpretation of what a Roman contemporary may have known to have been a snapshot or an idealised and indicative target creates an hypothesis that is likely fictitious. That being said the possibility should not be ignored and in the service of completeness I thought it pertinent to include this.

The construction of Constantinople as a permanent second capital may have been an important change. The costs associated with its physical construction and with the patronage that would have accompanied the retinue of another Emperor as well as the Senate he instituted would have diverted funds from a single purse that could have been used in the West. However, while Constantine’s decision broke away with the habit of shifting campaign ready capitals like Nicomedia or Noricum, it also created a well fortified centre of power with access to sea trade that was closer to Eastern elites. Thus, any added cost created by Constantinople could have been offset by the elites’ renewed access, stake and consequent loyalty and commitment to the Empire. Although it may seem like a random sub-set of the reforms of Diocletian, it is not. That’s because the effect of Constantinople, as part of the general shift in attention to the Eastern frontiers following the crisis of the third century had an asymmetric effect. Indeed, the shift in resources that accompanied the shift in attention was, at least in part, at the detriment of the West, even when accounting for increased revenues.

More endogenously, the coups, loss in territory and wealth decrease client links and available rewards thus undermining the ability of any emperor or leader to achieve a wide consolidation of power.

Exogenous Variables: Persian, Migration Pressures and New Players

  1. Migrations: Hunnic pressures made Visigothic and Alan/Suevic/Vandal migration too large to be immediately contained. – Offered alternative elites of relatively equal technological tactical and resource levels.

ADD MAP(S) OF VISIGOTHIC, ALAN-VANDAL-SUEVI AND HUNNIC MOVEMENTS

Visigoths (Athanaric, Fritigern,Alaric, Radagaisius, Athaulf) spread the West thinly
Alan/Suevic/Vandal migrate in mass

  1. Sassanid empire – The idea of the map below is to support the argument that it was easier to move around in the West than in the East, because it was almost impossble to take Bizantium and because there were a lot of garrisons in the East facing the Sassanid empire which could have been used to deal with the Visigoths. Unfortunately, the map relates to a period more than 200 years before the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and so can hardly be taken as representative of the distribution of soldiers by the death of Valentinian or Theodosius. The map below also does not allow me to say whether there were more troops in the East than in the West. However it may be a useful tool if I presume a similar distribution. Must check Heather for hints of information.

Orderly succession and competition at the Top – The Crises

  1. 408-411: From death of Stilicho to Constantius
  2. 423-433: from death of Constantius/Honorius to Aetius
  3. 457-460: from death of Aetius to Majorian
  4. 468-472: From death of Anthemius to Romulus Augustulus

ADD TIMELINE OF INTERNAL CRISES, FOREIGN INCURSIONS AND ATTEMPTED STABILISATIONS

4 attempts at Vandal containment:

  1. Constantius
    • Castinus+Boniface – This fails because of their eventual fallout over the usurpation of John
  2. Aspar
  3. Majorian
  4. AnthemiusMarcelinus+Basiliscus+Heraclius of Edessa

ADD MAPS WITH EACH OF THE ATTEMPTED RECONQUEST

Caveats
This takes nothing of the defeats which also show a certain lack of imagination on the part of roman military leaders. However the postponement caused by lack of succession mechanisms put more emphasis on large, expensive, “winner-takes-all” campaigns than on the continuity of more piecemeal successes.

Italocentrism is pursued at the detriment of other provinces. However, this is neither a trigger neither an immediate cause, only appearing to be relevant in the Gallic usurpations that last from 406 to Constantius.

It is also true that the taxation system was extremely unfair and that the military efforts of the first half of the 5th century are likely to have pushed the fiscal base into poverty and fuelled the Baugaudae. However, this only emerged after the main events had taken place and can only have been an added but marginal nuisance not the driver.

Also, by the time Rome falls to pieces, it never returns to a republican system. The Imperial leadership created by Marian reforms was unremovable!

The Unreunifiable West: Pop, tech and geography  

Perhaps the most telling fact about the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the inability of the west to be reunited under one single polity eversince the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. For lack of any other approach I am left to find comfort in Jared Diamond’s theory that this is probably the result of heterogeneous populations, relatively equal levels of technology and natural borders, which made it impossible for any given side to dominate the others. The relevance of technology and geography cannot be overstated. Indeed, such was the difficulty to conquer neighbours that Europeans preferred going to Africa, the Americas and Asia and split them among themselves than to fight at home. Technology and tactics are probably more important than geography. Indeed when any single power made a particular advance on this field ( Napoleon’s first empire and the 3rd Reich), it tended to enjoy a temporary geographical expansion, which was inevitably undermined by stretching itself too thin rather than the particular ability of enemies to form a coalition, which tended to happen but only subsequently so.

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As the title should point the reader towards, the thesis that I have come to accept is that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the result of what is known in finance as fragility. This is to say that relatively small shocks, began having large effects on the rest of the Roman Empire’s political economy, even if only a relatively long time after the shock. At some point after the crisis of the third century, the empire became unable to cope with barbarians which it had been able to repel with until then. The causes for this are technological and tactical, as well as geographic and political. Ultimately, the unique feature of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, that distinguishes it from the East, from Persia or from China, was the inability of any of the subsequent political entities that replaced it to dominate the rest and occupy the same geographical space it left vacant.

Even if the East had not been too busy with its own problems, had it been able to conquer the West, it would have imposed a very different political system than the one that existed under the Republic or the Principate. Our contemporary western world’s tendency to idealise the Roman Empire is shaped by the massacres that followed on the heels of collapse, the loss of infrastructure, the feodalisation of social relations and specialisation and the religious capture that the Catholic Church was able to gain over the local kingdoms, whose rigid dogma has become a by-word for intellectual oppression and economic stagnation. However, civil wars plagued the Roman Empire throughout its existence. While one may wish to believe that little misery befell its population during the year of the the four emperors (24CE) that separated the Julio-Claudians from the Flavians, or the year of the 5 emperors (193CE) that separated the Nerva-Antonine dynasty from the Severans, the same can clearly not be said of the crisis of the third century that separates the Principate from the Dominate. The ruralisation and manorialism that followed were exploited by the heavily centralised administration of the Dominate created by Diocletian and later christianiaed by Constantine and Theodosius (inter alia). The empire set the course for the themes of the Middle Ages, with all of the features that we now associate with this period actually being inherited from the Romans.
However the barbarian invasions and the multitude of kingdoms they breathed life to created the necessary competitive pressures to bring about the age of maritime discoveries, protestantism, humanism, liberalism and the industrial revolution. The fall of the Western Roman Empire seems to me like a blessing in disguise…

Antithesis

Given the duration of the Roman polity, its important role in popular culture and how it has captured the imagination of a fractionalised Europe since its downfall, the collapse of the Roman Empire has been an extremely fertile field of inquiry that has spanned many hypotheses. This section reviews 3 of the easier to dismiss theories:

Thesis

My intuition points me towards the opinion that the military weakness of the empire would have laid in its fragility (effect that a small shock can have on the wider system), which is not exclusively a problem of being overstretched, but rather a problem of being overstretched, divided and exposed.
The borders of the empire were breached several times since the beginning of the crisis of the third century but the empire only started collapsing from 406 onwards, when it appears to have become unable to deal with the hoards of barbarians flooding in through it porous Germanic borders. Internally, the cause of the collapse was almost Politico-statistical-managerial- geographical. This is because of the numerical size of (the league effect) and tactical (training and education) consolidation of barbarian troops. While there are specific dates upon which the Western Roman Empire lost battles with the Franks, Vandals and Visigoths that allowed them to settle in the Empire, the main issue is actually  the everlasting inability of the East to recapture and reintegrate the West.

In detail:
i) – Geographically, the western empire has relatively porous borders which were apparently breached relatively easily by Germanic tribes
ii) – Militarily, the shift from limitaneii to comitatensis, a necessary reform to put an end to revolts from border garrisons, made the borders more porous than they already were geographically. The necessity to have a large contingent of forces w the Emperor, limited the ability of the state to efficiently assign forces to more than 1 threat at a time.
iii) – The 2 aforementioned issues made successful invasions a statistical inevitability once attacks on the borders increased due to climate change and migratory pressures outside of the empire.
iv) – Managerially, the internal geography of the western empire requires weaker opponents in order for the one conqueror to achieve victory, due to the natural borders imposed by mountains, rivers and peninsulas’ narrow passages, absent in the East. Once the barbarians had been trained in the techniques of the empire and once they had penetrated it, given similar technology and tactics, it was impossible for any one group to dominate the others and reconstitute a centralised empire over the same territory of the western empire.
v) – Politically/Culturally, non-absorption & disenfranchisement of newly arrived immigrants (377/386 for the Franks; 376/378/410 for the Visigoths) did not give them a participatory stake in the survival of the empire’s institutions beyond its ability to pay for their services.

vi) – Externally, political consolidation of several tribes into the Frankish, Alaman, Visigothic, Ostrogothic, Vandal, Suebi and Alan leagues would have swelled the ranks of the invaders, allowing them to better exploit returns to scale.

vii) – All of these factors must have been exacerbated by weak leadership, East-West disagreements and conspiracies, delayed and eventually late assistance from the East.

2) METHODOLOGICAL WARNING – General Principles
– In finding the causes of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the survival for another 1000 years of its Eastern half offers us a quasi-natural experiment w/ plenty of dummy variables. Indeed, whatever caused the fall of the Western empire must have been unique to it, or the East would have followed through.

3) METHODOLOGICAL WARNING – Theories I have discarded
This general principle eliminates the spread of Christianity and military/administrative reforms as immediate causes:
i) Gibbon’s theories of civic apathy and Christian pacifism must be rejected as inconsistent w/ the survival of a much more foreign dependent and Christian East.
ii) Diocletian’s (285-305) reforms (political centralization and monetary debasement) cannot be immediate causes as they happened at least 110-150 years before the collapse of the western empire, and also applied to the East
iii) Constantine the Great’s (306-337) military reforms (reinforcement of the comitatensis at the expense of the limitaneii) and tolerance of Christianity (313 Edict of Milan) once again cannot be the immediate cause of the collapse of the empire, given that they also applied to the East.
iv) – Although it is quite clear to me that the Crisis of the third century and the lack of conquests following Hadrian led to decreasing income per capita growth and most likely to the urban exodus that consolidated latifundi and created the landowner-servus et colonni relationships that would evolve into feudalism and dominate socio-economic relations until the 20th century, I cannot find them to have occurred exclusively in the West and thus cannot point to them as direct causes of the Western Roman Empire.
v) The contributions of Arnheim’s insights (that in order to support Christianity as the state religion in the west Constantine had to reintegrate the senatorial class into the administration of the empire) are mostly useful to our understanding of the origins of feudalism in the West. Their relevance to our understanding of the collapse of the Roman Empire are likely to be minimal and only relevant if through any interactions with manorialism they undermined the ability of the Western Empire to raise, fund and maintain its army, in a way different from the East.

Of all the authors and theories I have come across, the contributions of Heather and Brown are the ones that most resonate with me.

In many ways, this thesis echos the Baynes 1943 summary of the issue

[end here – incorporate some of the stuff below into the rest of the text]

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To this I would add the fact that once inside the Western Empire it was easier to reach the rich fields of North Africa than it would have been to reach Egypt in the East. The absence of threats in the West beyond those presented by the Germanic tribes left Hispania and Africa relatively unprotected. With the Comitatenses busy in Gaul with Franks, Visigoths and/or Huns, the Vandals were able to organise themselves and move to Africa, where they cut Rome from its richest province, undermining the Empire’s revenues and solvency. In the East however, any force coming from the North would have had to go through Asia Minor and the Levant before reaching Egypt, which would have also been able to levy a relatively strong force itself. The fact that the Visigoths began their efforts to the East and only after turned them to the West may be taken to reinforce this view.

Through the specific interactions of these institutional/cultural reforms with the specific geographical barriers, levels of urbanization, income distributions and religious identities in the west, which appear to be very different from the East, these issues may nevertheless have served as catalysts once the triggers emerged.

In the immediate, this logic also eliminates any factors that were not present by the reign of Theodosius.
4) TRIGGERS: Barbarian Settlements in the West
Barbarian Invasions in 3 stages (377/386 for the Franks; 376/378/410 for the Visigoths; 406 for the Vandals/Suebi/Alans):

1st: Franks (note that this is actually irrelevant as these franks were relatively well controlled. Interestingly the Franks were not particularly problematic until the end of the 400s)- At some point during the 3rd century the a number of Germanic peoples (” les peuples Chamaves, Chatuaires, Bructères et Saliens, et après que ces derniers eurent traversé le Rhin, la ligue comprendra aussi les Tongres, auxquels contribuent les Sicambres. Ils seront rejoints par la suite par les Ampsivariens, les Tenctères, les Tubantes et les Usipètes”) unite along the lower right shore of Rhine in Lower Germania (Germania Inferior) in a league that the Romans call Francia. The Flemish transgression (transgression flandrienne) shifts the geography of the region, impoverishes Franks, Saxons and Frisians and pushes them to pillage the borders of the Empire from 254CE before being stopped by Gallienus in 257CE. As Gallienus moves to Pannonia to deal with unrest there, the Posthumus declares himself emperor of the Gallic Empire in XXX. During the ensuing conflict with the rest of the empire the Franks have a free rein and engage in piracy along rivers and the Atlantic coast as far south as Lusitania. It is only in 264 that Posthumus is able to stop them. However, w/ his death the Alamans and the Franks return to their raids along the border in 269. Although he defeats them in 277, Probus is unable to eliminate the Franks with same success as against the Alamans, leaving two groups of Franks within the borders of the empire in Batavia and in Toxandria. In 286, Carausius an usurper stationed in Britain, takes Portius Itius (+/- Bologne-sur-mer)and allies himself with the Franks in Toxandria in an attempt to control Maximianus’ access to the British Isles. However in 287/ 288, Maximian crushes the Salian king Gennobaud who surrenders w/ his people and are allowed to stay in Toxandria as Lètes. Constance Chlore concludes the conquest of Britain and deports the Chamaves and Frisians to Ambiens and the country of the Bellovaques in Gaul. During the ensuing 4th century, the Franks are upgraded to Foederatii status and w/ the increasing reliance of the Roman empire on foreign troops many serve in high ranking military positions, including Richoner, Bauto and Argobast.
2nd: In 376 AD, displaced by the invasions of the Huns, the Visigoths, led by Alavivus and Fritigern, asked to be allowed to settle in the Roman Empire. Hoping that they would become farmers and soldiers, the emperor Valens allowed them to establish themselves in the Empire as allies (foederati). However, once across the Danube (and in Roman territory), the dishonesty of the provincial commanders Lupinicus and Maximus led the newcomers to revolt after suffering many hardships. Valens (of the Eastern Empire) then asked Gratian, the western emperor, for reinforcements to fight the Goths. Gratian sent the general Frigeridus with reinforcements, as well as the leader of his guards, Richomeres. For the next two years preceding the battle of Adrianople there were a series of running battles with no clear victories for either side.
In 378, Valens decided to take control himself. Valens would bring more troops from Syria and Gratian would bring more troops from Gaul.
Valens left Antioch for Constantinople, and arrived on the 30th of May. He appointed Sebastianus, newly arrived from Italy, to reorganize the Roman armies already in Thrace.

Sebastianus picked 2,000 of his legionaries and marched towards Adrianople. They ambushed some small Gothic detachments. Fritigern assembled the Gothic forces at Nicopolis and Beroe (now Stara Zagora) to deal with this Roman threat.

Gratian had sent much of his army to Pannonia when the Lentienses (part of the Alamanni) attacked across the Rhine. Gratian recalled his army and defeated the Lentienses near Argentaria (near modern-day Colmar, France.) After this campaign, Gratian, with part of his field army, went east by boat; the rest of his field army went east overland. The former group arrived at Sirmium in Pannonia and at the Camp of Mars (a fort near the Iron Gates), 400 kilometers from Adrianople, where some Alans attacked them. Gratian’s group withdrew to Pannonia shortly thereafter.

After learning of Sebastian’s success against the Goths, and of Gratian’s victory over the Alamanni, Valens was more than ready for a victory of his own. He brought his army from Melanthias to Adrianople, where he met with Sebastian’s force. On 6 August, reconnaissance informed Valens that about 10,000 Goths were marching towards Adrianople from the north, about 25 kilometers away. Despite the difficult ground, Valens reached Adrianople where the Roman army fortified its camp with ditch and rampart.[16]

Richomeres, sent by Gratian, carried a letter asking Valens to wait for the arrival of reinforcements from Gratian before engaging in battle. Valens’ officers also recommended that he wait for Gratian, but Valens decided to fight without waiting, ready to claim the ultimate prize.

The Goths were also watching the Romans, and on 8 August Fritigern sent an emissary to propose a peace and an alliance in exchange for some Roman territory. Sure that he would be victorious due to his supposed numerical superiority, Valens rejected these proposals.However, his estimates did not take into consideration a part of the Gothic cavalry that had gone to forage further away.
In the event, the Romans lost the battle. According to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a third of the Roman army succeeded in retreating, but the losses were uncountable. Many officers, among them the general Sebastian and the Emperor, were killed in the worst Roman defeat since the Battle of Edessa, the high point of the Crisis of the Third Century. The battle was a significant blow for the late Empire, resulting in the destruction of the core army of the eastern Empire, the deaths of valuable administrators, and the destruction of all of the arms factories on the Danube following the battle. The lack of reserves for the army led to a recruitment crisis, which accentuated the strategic and morale impact of the defeat. Despite the losses, the battle of Adrianople did not mark the end of the Roman Empire because the imperial military power was only temporarily crippled.

3rd) The Rest: Alan’s, Suebi & Vandals
– 31 December 406 is the often-repeated date of the crossing of the Rhine by a mixed group of barbarians that included Vandals, Alans and Suebi. The Rhine-crossing transgressed one of the Late Empire’s most secure limines or boundaries, a climactic moment in the decline of the Roman Empire that initiated a wave of destruction of Roman cities and the collapse of Roman civic order in northern Gaul, and that occasioned the rise of three usurpers in succession in the province of Britannia; hence the crossing of the Rhine is a marker date in the Migrations Period.

The full statement of received opinion has been that a mixed band of Vandals, Alans and Suebi crossed the Rhine at Mainz on December 31, 406, and began to ravage Gaul. Several written accounts document the crossing, supplemented by the time line of Prosper of Aquitaine, which gives a firm date of 31 December 406.

A letter of Jerome written from Bethlehem, which gives a long list of the barbarian tribes involved, some of them, like Quadi and Sarmatians, drawn from history or literary tradition, mentions Mainz first in a list of the cities devastated by the incursion; this is the sole support for the common assumption that the crossing of the unbridged Rhine was effected at Mainz. Jerome lists the cities now known as Mainz, Worms, Rheims, Amiens, Arras, Thérouanne, Tournai, Speyer and Strasbourg as having been pillaged.

The initial gathering of barbarians on the east bank of the Rhine has been interpreted as a banding of refugees from the Huns or the remnants of Radagaisus’ defeated Goths,[4] without direct evidence. A frozen Rhine, making the crossing easier, is not attested by any contemporary, but was a plausible surmise of Edward Gibbon. On the east bank, the mixed band of Vandals and Alans fought a raiding party of Franks. The Vandal king Godigisel was killed, but the Alans came to the rescue of the Vandals, and once on the Roman side, they met with no organized resistance. Stilicho had depleted the garrisons in 402 to face Alaric in Italy.

Zosimus’ New History (vi.3.1) imputes the usurpation of Marcus in Britannia to a reaction to the presence of barbarians in Gaul in 406; from a fragment of Olympiodorus, the acclamation as Emperor of Marcus, the first of the Romano-Britannic usurpers, took place that same summer.
2) Inability to Recover/Counterattack

Delay – Upon becoming Emperor (450-457), Marcian repudiated the embarrassing payments of tribute to Attila the Hun (434–453), which the latter had been accustomed to receiving from Theodosius II in order to refrain from attacks on the Eastern Empire. Aware that he could never capture the eastern capital of Constantinople, Attila turned to the west and waged his famous campaigns in Gaul 451 and Italy (452) while leaving Marcian’s dominions alone. Marcian reformed the finances, checked extravagance, and repopulated the devastated districts. He repelled attacks upon Syria and Egypt in 452, and quelled disturbances on the Armenian frontier in 456. The other notable event of his reign is the Council of Chalcedon in 451, in which Marcian endeavored to mediate between the rival schools of theology.

Marcian generally ignored the affairs of the Western Roman Empire, leaving that tottering half of the empire to its fate. He did nothing to aid the west during Attila’s campaigns, and, living up to his promise, ignored the depredations of Geiseric even when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455. It has recently been argued, however, that Marcian was more actively involved in aiding the Western Empire than historians had previously believed and that Marcian’s fingerprints can be discerned in the events leading up to, and including, Attila’s death.

Failures – Leo and Justinian
1) Leo’s reign (457-474) was noteworthy for his influence in the Western Roman Empire, marked by his appointment of Anthemius as Western Roman Emperor in 467. He attempted to build on this political achievement with an expedition against the Vandals in 468, which was defeated due to the arrogance of Leo’s brother-in-law Basiliscus. This disaster drained the Empire of men and money. The expedition, which cost 130,000 pounds of gold and 700 pounds of silver, consisted of 1,113 ships carrying 100,000 men, but in the end lost 600 ships. After this defeat, Vandals raided Greek coasts until a costly peace agreement was signed between Leo and Genseric.
2) Justinian
2)CAUSES:
– Long borders w/o natural protection
– Hunnic invasions
– Climate change
– Delayed (by Marcian between ) and unsuccessful assistance by Leo I between ) from the Eastern Empire
– Justinian plague in
– internal instability and Civil war caused by lack of appropriate mechanism of succession.
– Recruitment difficulties (due to the inability of an increasingly centralized state to get soldiers from provinces due to colonii’s ability to avoid it through the support of their latifubdiary master? – centralization as a solution to political competition but eventually as a deterrent from participation?)
3)CONSEQUENCES: Once the empire was conquered
4)OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:’A
i’)- Note that the Roman Empire appears to have seen at least 4 different regions/subcultures capture the imperial throne:
1) Italians (Julio-Claudian & Flavian Dynasties),
2) Hispanics (Nerva-Antonine Dynasty),
3) Syrian (Severance Dynasty)
4) Illyrian (Early Dominate, from the overthrow of Gallienus by Claudius II Gothicus and Aurelian (270–75) followed by their successors Probus (276–82) and Diocletian (ruled 284–305), through the Constantinian Dynasty and until the end of the Valerian Dynasty in 379.

-Crisis of 3rd Century: from the death of Alexander Severus in 235 to the death of Aurelian in 275, by which point the empire had coalesced back into unity after the defeat of the Palmyreen & Gallic empires.
Dominate

————————————-

WHAT CAUSED THE COLLAPSE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE?

It is important to bear in mind that the collapse was progressive.

Economic activity seems to have taken a beating during the crisis of the third century. The economy would at least temporarily have turned into subsistence/barter dominated by villas and walled cities supported by urban exodus, plague and civil war.

The institutions were always unstable due to the issue of succession. Administratively, centralisation under the dominate gave local elites less of a stake in the state.

Strategically, Sassanid attacks and the flux of immigrants seems to have increased, the latter of which ahead of the advance from Attila the Hun & his horde, to the point where it would have been difficult to combat on both fronts (black swan) immigration would have been such as to make nigh on impossible to assimilate the new-comers, a fact further compounded by the Romans unwillingness to adapt to/accept them.

Militarily, there was a rising dependence on foederatii and payment of bribes rather than fighting wars,which again goes to show a certain detachment on the part of Roman citizens & landowning aristocracy, towards the struggles of their state. Bear in mind that as the empire expanded its military, it would have been normal for the number of Italian soldiers to have peaked. Once this would have happened, if the army continued to grow, the representativeness of roman soldiers would have fallen as a proportion of the total army. Nevertheless, it seems that the Roman Empire began to have recourse to Barbarian soldiers more and more often after the battle of Adrianople.

Often there is also reference of how wealthy Roman aristocrats/senators did not even contribute to the ransom of their city when it was being sieged. Why not? Look at aristocracy/senators’ role.

Antithesis

Gibbons’ hypothesis that Christianity eroded some idealised virtuosity of traditional Roman moral completely ignores the survival of the equally or even more Christian East.

Marxist theory is wrong. Dependence on slavery did not bring the empire down. The slave method of production seems to have been a characteristic of the late Republic early empire necessitated by the management of POWs. The end of conquests did not undermine the economy. Tenancy remained the favourite agricultural contract.

Military reforms and the acceptance of barbarians does not seem to have undermines the empire.  These small groups were career soldiers seem to have been as (dis)loyal to Rome as any early Italian soldier. The choice to limit Italian military service was not motivated by capture as much as by the fiscal/ supply needs of the Italian army. There is no evidence that the military reforms of Diocletian and Constantine in any manner undermined Roman capability.

The fall of the Roman Empire was a long process that required a number of failures to take place and a number of successes not to take place, last among which Reconquest. To understand this process, the most honest method seems to require the listing of Roman catastrophes and understanding the causes behind them. Those will be the causes of the fall of the Roman West.

  1. Marxist theory is wrong. Dependence on slavery did not bring the empire down. The slave method of production seems to have been a characteristic of the late Republic early empire necessitated by the management of POWs. The end of conquests did not undermine the economy. Tenancy remained the favourite agricultural contract.
  2. Military reforms and the acceptance of barbarians does not seem to have undermines the empire.  These small groups were career soldiers seem to have been as (dis)loyal to Rome as any early Italian soldier. The choice to limit Italian military service was not motivated by capture as much as by the fiscal/ supply needs of the Italian army. There is no evidence that the military reforms of Diocletian and Constantine in any manner undermined Roman military capability. If anything, the Roman army was at its appex in the fourth century, a development most likely triggered by the Persian wars with the Parthians and the Sassanids.

Evolution of Soze of Roman Military - 700BCE-600CEHigh Command Structure and Nos of the West Roman Army (Ca 410-425)_ Notitia DignitatumHigh Command Structure and Nos of the East Roman Army (Ca 395)_ Notitia Dignitatum

Baynes reviews a number of “modern theories” from the early 20th century, many of which seem to have a cultural-racial focus to which I share Baynes discomfort.

The fall of the Roman Empire was a long process that required a number of failures to take place and a number of successes not to take place, last among which Reconquest, which was attempted 3 times and either never completed or failed. To understand this process, the most honest method seems to require the listing of Roman catastrophes and understanding the causes behind them. Those will be the causes of the fall of the Roman West.

 

Views of other websites: Decisive battles in history – Adrianople: The history of the battle is described as if the “Roman empire decided to stop the incoming hordes of barbarians at Adrianople”. This is a grossly misleading narrative, which western historiography created in the 19th century and which has survived until recently, as though this was the last of a number of battles between the civilized roman empire and the uncivilized barbarians. In fact this was a war that the Roman Empire brought upon itself, for 1: letting too many Visigoths enter the empire at once, 2: treating them with unusual cruelty (starving them) and 3: allowing the rise of unexperienced, ego driven generals like Valens to the power of Eastern Emperor, because his brother Valentinian (who by then had perished) was chosen as emperor.

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