Why did the Western Roman Empire fall? The rise of Christianity, corruption, the decadence of the ruling classes, over taxation, changes in military policy? Or was it simply the Barbarian invasions?
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians
Oxford University Press, 2007
Peter Heather attributes the primary cause to exogenous shock caused by the barbarian migrations into the Empire in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. If these shocks had occurred earlier the Empire would have fallen and if they had not come the Empire would have lasted several more centuries. The Empire was a stable entity, with internal problems, as has any political entity, but they were within the outer limits of what it could manage and still function. The rise of the Persian Empire in the East in the third century had created a superpower challenge that required heavily reinforcing the eastern borders. This was successfully done, but doing so greatly stretched the resources of the Empire so that it had little surplus resources to handle a new crisis. The migration and invasion of the barbarians provided that crisis.
Heather sees the Empire as a symbiotic relation of several components:
The Landowners were Roman citizens who had a common education and culture that provided a homogeneous “Romanness”. They, more than the residents of the City, were the Romans. Whether they were of the old Roman families or provincials from cities that had obtained Latin rights they spoke and wrote common “Classical Latin”, shared common values provided the civil and military officers that staffed the empire, and provided leadership at the middle levels of society.
The Central Government taxed trade and land and used the revenues to pay and equip the Army. The Army protected trade and agricultural activities against outside threats and internal disorder. With an assurance of safety against outside threat and internal disorder agricultural activities and trade could produce enough wealth to provide higher standards of living and pay the taxes to support the Army. While the system primarily benefited the landowners there it must have also produced enough safety and income to be preferable to the alternative for most of the population.
The Army saw (as did most every one else) it’s first job was to defend the Empire against the Persia. During the fourth century 20 to 25 percent of the Army was directly deployed opposite Persia. The rest of the Army was either in border garrisons defending the long frontier or in the field armies that constituted a reserve to reinforce against attacks on the border or counter attack. While the total army was probably about 600,000 men the maximum field army that was available west of Constantinople to deal with the invasion on the Rhine-Danube line was about 80,000 spread among several field armies belonging to both parts of the empire. When matched against the nations migrating with their full strength, as opposed to raiding and border skirmishes, the numbers available to both sides were similar, and until reinforcements could arrive, could favor the invaders.
The Exogenous Shock.
The Germanic Tribes in the 1st Centuries BC and AD that the Romans came in contact with were economically hunters and “slash and burn” farmers. Every ten or twenty years a village would exhaust its fields and move. Heather thinks that the real reason for the Romans stopped at the Rhine was not the defeat of Varus in 9 AD at Tueutonburger Wald but that the region could not produce enough taxes to support the Army. Though not conquered the Germans learned from the Romans. They developed a stable agriculture, which supported a much larger population than slash and burn farming, and permitted the development of trade and manufacturing. This improved economy allowed them to field larger and better equipped armies. The service of many Germans in the Army had taught them the military skills to use the larger force. In the Late 4th Century the Huns started to invade the homelands of these nations forcing them to migrate and the only place they could go was into the Empire.
The Huns were a warlike tribe of nomads that came off the steppes and invaded the area of the German tribes forcing them to migrate. The Hunic economy and political structure did not allow them to settle in one location; they kept attacking westward forcing more dislocations until they were fighting the Romans themselves, though eventually defeated by the Romans the damage had been done.
The Migrations of the Germanic tribes into the Empire to escape the Huns in the 376 and 402-10 started the unraveling of the relationships that held the Empire together. War and invasion would put farms out of production temporarily or permanently depriving the Government of the taxes to support the Army. This made it harder for a reduced/weakened Army to recover lost lands or protect those that were left. Which would result in more land going out of production. The loss of this protection made it expedient for landowners to support the invaders to keep their lands rather than support the central government. Slowly over about 100 years the Western Empire unraveled.
A controversy in recent years asks was The Fall really a fall or just a change in the political arrangements with life going on pretty much as before. Some point out that many institutions survived, there was a definite Roman characteristic in the successor states and there were people who called themselves Romans for a long time after the fall. Heather argues, I think successfully, that while it was a process over time with important survivals, The Fall was really a fall and a hard fall. While for most any one other than poor Romulus Augustus, the last emperor, who was removed on September 4, 476, September Fifth was not much different than September Third; but the Western Europe of 576 was vastly different from the Western Europe of 376 when the migrations started. While some people must have come out ahead the vast majority of the reduced population was much impoverished with far less physical and economic security.
This is a well written book explains the story of the Fall of The Roman Empire in a way that treats both the available data and the persons involved with respect and reaches conclusions without forcing the data. While he gives a varied review of the different explanations for the Fall of Rome many support his explanation as part of the reason the Empire was overstretched. Unlike most commentators he believes the economy was able to support the Empire so long as it did not have to deal with extraordinary events. He tells the story of people with ordinary ability trying to control and reverse events that were to large for them to control. One thing I liked was his account ties together the different parts of my limited knowledge of the Roman Empire into a coherent whole.
It will certainly not end the debate over the causes of the Fall of Rome but it is a major contribution to the discussion, whether future historians agree with him or not this is an explanation that cannot be ignored. The book has good pictures and maps that support the text. Strongly recommended.
Related: Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem. Review of a fictional account of the Barbarian invasion across the Rhine in 406/407
Topic: All my Rome posts
6 months ago