Those who worry about the impending collapse of our industrial civilisation often compare it – the United States in particular – to the Roman Empire. Even pieces like this one which attempt to deny the parallel are clearly haunted by it. In this essay, I want to explore the history of the collapse of Rome and its impact both at the time and in retrospect. Next week I will discuss the parallels and differences between that history and the world situation today.
What exactly am I talking about when I say “the collapse of Rome”? The end of the Western Roman Empire is conventionally dated to the abdication of the last person to claim the title of emperor in 476, but the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire lasted until 1453. If you take seriously the claim of the Russian Tsars to be the successor of Byzantium, then you could even argue it lasted until 1917. Then again, the Ottoman Sultans arrogated the title of Roman Emperor to themselves when they took Constantinople, and they lasted until 1922. But like most people who compare Rome to the USA, or to industrial civilisation generally, I shall confine myself to the fall of the West.
Many causes have been suggested, ranging from the rise of Christianity to climate change to lead poisoning, and many of them may have been contributory factors. But most people imagine it to have been the result of barbarian incursions from outside, perhaps coupled with some sort of moral decay within. This is the standard Hollywood version. Depending on your point of view, this is either a cleansing victory of the freedom-loving barbarians over the evil and decadent Romans, or a calamitous defeat involving the wanton destruction of all that’s valuable.
As usual, the Hollywood version has very little in common with the historical realities. It was not all, or even mostly, a matter of large hairy men with axes setting fire to things. The Roman Empire was not overwhelmed by a tidal wave of barbarians surging through a breach in its hitherto impregnable borders. For one thing, it was a slow process – histories of the fall of Rome usually start a good hundred years before the finale, when a body of Goths asked permission of the Emperor Valens to enter the empire. That’s right: asked permission. And they did this because there were precedents for that kind of thing.
At a fairly early stage in its history, the Romans decided that their empire was quite large enough to be going on with, and they weren’t going to expand it in any major way. True, the Emperor Trajan annexed Dacia (more or less modern Romania) in the early second century AD and built a column to brag about it, and the eastern frontier with Persia moved back and forth a bit over the years, but the empire in the time of Valens was pretty much what it had been five hundred years previously.
The reasons for this decision were eminently practical. Before railways, telecommunications and steamships, it took a long time for an emperor to get reports about what was going on or to issue orders. Even with an elaborate bureaucracy, excellent roads, and a dedicated messenger service, the empire was as much as one man could rule – in fact, it was really too big for one man to rule. Hence various schemes were tried to divide the responsibility between two (or sometimes four) rulers, with an east-west split being natural as that was the empire’s longer axis.
Apart from Persia – shown here as the Dominion of the Sassanids – none of the empire’s neighbours posed a serious military threat. The tried and true system was to keep the tribes adjacent to the border sweet with judicious gifts, playing one off against the other so as prevent any alliance that might be a serious threat from forming. These tribes were also a convenient source of recruits for the army, as well as forming a buffer zone between the empire and more distant tribes. It was a game that the Romans had played for a long time, and they were extremely good at it.
As modern scholarship has shown, the influx of non-Romans into the army led to the Roman-barbarian distinction becoming less of an ethnic one than that of a choice of career path. Civilian administrators saw themselves as Romans; soldiers were barbarians. People moved between the two, of course, as they always had, but they might do this under two names. (Romans traditionally had always used multiple names, so this was less of big deal than it might seem to us.) The Roman empire was always multi-ethnic, and nobody was particularly bothered by this.
Whole groups of barbarians might be admitted to the empire, under supervision, because what government doesn’t like extra taxpayers? So long as they didn’t form a separate state within the state – and the Romans could easily prevent this – they were an asset. These people wanted to assimilate. Roman civilisation was an ideal to which many people aspired. The empire was a multi-ethnic state from very early in its history; the Romans didn’t care what language you spoke or what gods you worshipped, so long as you paid your taxes and didn’t cause trouble. Plenty of people were happy to take that deal.
This is what the Goths were after when they applied to Valens for permission to enter the empire. I won’t go into the details here, but mistakes were made – Valens was planning a campaign against Persia, and took his eye off the ball. The Romans tried trickery, screwed up, had to resort to force, and were then heavily defeated at the battle of Adrianople, in which Valens got himself killed for good measure.
Adrianople is often presented as the turning-point, after which the empire was doomed. But the Romans had lost battles – indeed, entire armies – plenty of times before and coped perfectly well. They had also lost senior leaders in battle, up to and including emperors, and also coped perfectly well. So what went wrong?
As with most things that go wrong, it seems to have been a mixture of malice and incompetence. A key weakness of the empire was the lack of a generally agreed source of political legitimacy. While there were dynasties, and it definitely helped to be related to the right people, it was never really a hereditary monarchy as, say, mediaeval England was. Anyone who had the support of the army could become emperor, or – if they didn’t look “Roman” enough – install some pliant aristocrat as a sock puppet. Romulus Augustulus was the last but by no means the first in that mould, and unlike some of his predecessors he at least managed to enjoy a long and peaceful retirement.
If an ambitious commander couldn’t manage that, he could look for a power base outside the empire. The first person to pull this off was a soldier of Gothic origin best known to us as Alaric, who started off in the Roman army and then became king of the Visigoths (possibly creating that position). His troops sacked Rome itself in 410, although he seems to have been reluctant to do this; the city got off quite lightly in comparison to what the Vandals did to it fifteen years later. Had he been offered the right job, a lot of unpleasantness could have been avoided.
The empire was always the big prize, and the serious players were focussed on that rather than on the larger picture of the empire’s well-being. By the time things started to go seriously wrong – the loss of North Africa to the Vandals was probably the fatal blow – Rome no longer had the military force or more importantly the prestige to recover. Rome fell, in other words, much as Ernest Hemingway described the process of going bankrupt: slowly, then all at once.
Along the way plenty of things could have gone differently. The empire came through a string of crises in the third century, after all. As late as 451, they were able to see off Attila the Hun, with some help from the Visigoths. Valens might have won at Adrianople. Indeed, Adrianople might not have needed to be fought at all. When Romulus abdicated, there was still some expectation that someone else might take the job – perhaps Julius Nepos. Successive Eastern emperors tried to recover some of the lost territory, with fair initial success, but the magic had gone.
Because Rome had never imposed itself solely by armed force. By and large, the people they ruled – or at least the upper crust, the people who mattered – wanted to be Roman. There were a lot of tangible benefits; the famous list in The Life of Brian is not too far from the truth. And less tangibly, Romanness was something to which many outside the empire aspired, in the same way that America used to be cool before the Iron Curtain came down.
But over time, taxes went up, imperial rule became more oppressive, and the army was less able or willing to guarantee the peace and security of the provincials, especially at the borders (and a glance at the map shows how much of the empire was on or near a border). For many people, life was actually better under a barbarian overlord. Taxes certainly went down. The existing administrators were largely co-opted by the new regimes. Many of the more annoying laws, such as those obliging a man to follow his father’s occupation, went away.
In short, the Roman empire in the West died because it no longer served a useful purpose for enough people. When the armies of the Eastern emperor Justinian conquered Italy in the sixth century they were not welcomed as liberators. Most people preferred life under the Goths, and the territory was soon lost again. People adapted, and life went on.
Next week I’ll explore what we can learn from this story in relation to the world-empire of industrialism. Don’t touch that dial….
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