Major Causes of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire
After a rise, comes a fall. And of course, good times don’t last forever. This was the deplorable situation that struck a once unified and soaring Roman Empire. Somewhere in the 5th century, Rome’s influence and standing in the world took a nosedive, ushering in its worse days of disunity and conflicts. Whether you cast your mind on the Western Empire that crumbled earlier in the 5th century or the Eastern side that followed suit centuries later, the fact is that Rome (as a whole) did fall eventually, after witnessing unprecedented growth.
What were the causes of Rome’s decline? This remains the million-dollar question that has prodded the minds of historians as they debate frequently to find the truth.
In this article, we share historical insights into the major causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.
Why Rome Fell
Just like any normal civilization fall, the stories behind Rome’s decline are rooted in a plethora of internal and external factors. It’s hard to pinpoint one causative factor of Rome’s fall, but we do know that invasions, religion, imperial incompetence, diseases, and divisions were just some of the reasons why Rome fell.
Most people hold strong assertions that the underlying cause of the collapse of the mighty Rome was the empire’s inability to defend herself from the Barbarian invasion. For many centuries, Romans warred with Germanic tribal groups, but they didn’t succumb to them. But around 300 CE, Barbarians penetrated Rome and caused considerable havoc. In 410 CE, King Alaric of the Visigoths did the impossible thing when he literally conquered Rome and sacked them from the city.
The Roman Empire became vulnerable to attacks; its troubles increased further when the Vandals attacked the Eternal City in 455 CE. In 476 CE, still not finished yet, King Odoacer cleared down the remaining legs of Roman rule in Italy when he rose up against Emperors Romulus & Augustulus. It’s no wonder why some historians state 476 CE as the exact year the Western Empire got annihilated.
Division and Cracks in Rome
The rulers of ancient Rome failed to pay heed to unity – “Divided we fall, united we stand”. When Emperor Diclotian controversially divided a once unified Rome into West and East during the late 3rd century CE, he created room for a quick fall of the Western side.
Government wise, the division favored the effective rule of both halves, but in the long, the two empires stood far apart. Instead of working together as Roman citizens, the West and East weakened their ties by engaging in minor conflicts over resources.
As time went on, the East grew stronger than the West. The weak Western Empire, therefore, became a vulnerable target to the Barbarian attacks. By the 5th century CE, the West had collapsed, but the East would go on to live for 1000 years before succumbing to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
Introduction of Christianity
Christianity became a turning point when it was introduced to the Romans as a new religion. When Emperor Constantine (306-337 CE) brought religious change (Christianity) to Rome, he was naïve about the long-term consequences of what he did. For centuries, Romans were used to the idea of many gods and goddesses (polytheism); emperors like Caligula even viewed himself as a god.
When Christianity came preaching a monotheistic (one) God, it was completely contrary to the established religious doctrines of ancient Romans. Consequently, Christians faced a series of persecutions. But they were once again saved by the anti-persecution principles of Emperor Constantine.
By embracing this new religion and throwing away their core traditions, Romans severely committed a suicidal change of faith. To speed up the Roman decadence, Christianity was made the empire’s main religion. This lessened the authority of their imperial rulers; within an eye’s blink, Roman emperors became nobody. How could the empire have survived without a respected leader?
Some historians move the fall issue from social problems to chemical poisoning. It’s unbelievable how ancient Romans played with the tail of a lion – they were drinking lead-infested water from water pipes. Even though ancient Romans supposedly had some knowledge of the dangers of lead, they went ahead to carelessly tamper with it.
With time their bodies absorbed and accumulated lethal amounts of the poisonous metal. Scholars argue that lead poisoning could have decreased the fertility rate and intelligence of Romans, leaving them with unwise population and leaders. In all, this might have contributed to their vulnerability and eventual breakdown.
According to historian Vegetus, the Roman army degraded internally. In the long absence of wars, the army retired to sleep without training. This made them ill-prepared for the invasions that finally came their way. They were struck down by relatively superior enemy weapons. This decay of the army was partly caused by incompetent leadership. Due to a lack of motivation (rewards), soldiers laid down their tools and lived as ordinary civilians.
After the reign of the Great Marcus Aurelius, Romans made little to no expansionism efforts. When you erect a building and leave it uncompleted at the peak, it would gradually fall down. This may have been the exact case of the Romans when they grew tired of expanding their empire.
Moreover, they spent lavishly at a time when gold supply to the empire was scaled down. The Roman currency lost its value when minting of their coins was done with little gold. In this vein, some theorists suggest that the empire collapsed on itself because it expanded so high. The bigger it got, the harder it became to govern.
Diseases and Misery
What can wipe out a civilization better than a disease? Historians think that massive depopulation hit hard at Western Rome, leaving them to be downtrodden by the Barbarian invasion. Between the 2nd & 3rd centuries CE, two catastrophic plagues visited the Roman Empire and killed the majority of its workforce. The Antonine & Cyprian epidemics were able to devastate Rome because of the empire’s extended trade links to China, India, and the East African coastline.
The number of Roman lives that were claimed by diseases was quite significant – some towns became empty, but exact death figures are unavailable. Consequently, the unhealthy Roman soldiers could hardly defend against the Barbarian invasion.
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