Friday, May 29, 2015

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? (c. 200 - 650 AD)

Given the importance of the Roman Empire in the Western historical imagination, it is hardly surprising that so much energy has been spent investigating the causes for its decline and eventual collapse. The explanations that one is accustomed to reading – that it was due to either a general civic malaise called “degeneration,” or that it was the fault of the Christians and their otherworldly pacifism – are both, I think, unsatisfying. I would like to offer what is, I think, a better historical argument, which reflects more closely the opinions of practicing scholars.

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius three problems which characterized the decline of the Roman Empire began to collaborate: those of internal division, depopulation, and invasion. Civil War had been a problem even under the Republic, and persisted into the Empire, which never had a fixed principle of succession. Any Emperor, whether good or bad, had to fear assassination and mutiny, which competed with adoption and biological descent as the chief mechanisms for replacing one Emperor with another. Whenever an emperor died, either from natural causes or unnatural, executions, mutinies, and civil wars were likely to follow. This situation repeatedly squandered the lives, wealth, and energy of the Empire. It became particularly acute when Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, was assassinated (192) – touching off generations of instability and civil war called “the crisis of the third century.” Diocletian (d. 311) attempted to resolve this problem by creating a new system called the tetrarchy, which split the Empire into two halves, and appointed senior and junior Emperors in both. The tetrarchy fell apart almost immediately, and when Constantine emerged as the victor from another round of civil wars (324), he abolished it. The precedent for dividing the Empire had been set, however, and it was followed by Theodosius, who upon his death (395) made his sons Honorius and Arcadius emperors in the West and East respectively.

Like the tetrarchy, this system simply compounded the problem. Although officially West and East were in alliance, in fact they were enemies. Both halves now faced the same problems of internal stability, but neither could draw on the resources of the other to resist foreign invasion. This was a bigger problem for the West than the East. Most of the wealth and population of the Empire had always been located in the East, and it also enjoyed several geographic advantages. Its capital was impregnable, the Bosporus prevented invaders of one half from crossing over to the other, it had shorter frontiers, and also fewer foreign enemies. The Western half, on the other hand, had fewer men and less wealth, as well as long and dangerous frontiers. Further, once an invader had crossed those frontiers, Italy, Gaul, or Spain were all within easy striking distance. In effect, the core areas of the Empire – Greece, Egypt, and Syria – had spun off the Western provinces, and these were unable to cope with the Germanic invaders on their own.

A second problem was depopulation. In the Antonine, Cyprian, and Justinianic plagues small pox, bubonic plague, measles, and other diseases repeatedly wracked the Empire’s major cities. Although demographic figures for the ancient world are impossible to establish with certainty, archeological evidence suggests that in one major city, Rome, the population fell from about a million inhabitants under Augustus to about half that in the time of Romulus Augstulus, and to about ten or twenty thousand in the time of Charlemagne. In other words, a major city simply evaporated. Contracting city walls, decayed or abandoned urban structures, and reforestation of farmland all suggest that demographic decline was not confined to Rome, but was widespread throughout the Empire. Roman administrators frequently expressed anxiety over the amount of empty land in the Empire – a law under Pertinax offered to give it away to anyone who would till it. Thus, even though the borders of the Empire remained stable until the early 5th century, much of that territory was slowly reverting to wasteland.

Barbarians on the frontiers were by no means a new problem for the Romans. However, the Germanic invaders of the 4th and 5th centuries were better organized than their predecessors, largely because they had learned from the Romans. Alaric’s Goths were by no means the wild, ill-disciplined hordes that the Romans had been dealing with for centuries. They understood the importance of organization, and began to collect into super-tribes called the “Franks,” “Goths,” and “Vandals.” They had also learned new and more disciplined ways of fighting. Initially they sought shelter from steppe nomads such as the Huns and Avars – a situation that might have been made to work to the advantage of Romans and Germans alike. But the Romans were unwilling or unable to absorb them peacefully. The people resented them, mid-level bureaucrats cheated them of payment and provisions, and the Emperors were unable to either negotiate with or militarily defeat them. During the last of the wars between them, the Western general Stilicho, desperate to fill out his army, stripped the Rhine of its garrison. When the river froze over during the unusually-cold winter of 406, the tribesmen on the other simply walked across unopposed. Shortly afterward Honorius, suspecting treachery, had Stilicho executed. What was left of the Western army fell apart or joined the invaders, and the Gothic leader, Alaric, sacked Rome (410.) After these disasters the Western Empire eked out a symbolic existence until 476, but in effect it had been replaced by Germanic successor states. 

The Eastern half of the Empire had little to fear from these developments (and, indeed, did nothing to prevent them.) Under Justinian it recaptured Italy, North Africa, and even parts of Spain. It did not, however, have the resources to hold onto these gains, and suffered major territorial losses in the 7th century to the Arabs. Normally they, like the Germans, were too internally divided to pose much of a threat to the Romans or the Persians, who had been using them as mercenaries for generations. But they, like the Germans, had learned from their imperial neighbors. If we set aside the theological claims of Islam, and look at it as simply an empirical matter, then the effect that Muhammad’s preaching had was to unite all of the smaller tribes of the Arabian peninsula into one enormous super-tribe. Rather than being held together by common ancestry, as the earlier tribes had been, the new super-tribe was to be held together by common faith and by common subordination to the Prophet and his successors, the Caliphs. At the same time Muhammad was unifying the Arabs (c. 630), the Persian and Roman Empires were in the middle of an unusually ferocious war, which saw several emperors on both sides assassinated, both capitals besieged, most of their richest provinces pillaged, and the better part of both armies slaughtered. A few short years after they concluded a peace treaty, the Arab tribesman exploded out of the desert. The Persian Empire was totally destroyed, and the Romans only barely survived. Although they eventually succeeded in throwing the invaders back across the mountains of southern Anatolia, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria were permanently lost. With the Muslim conquests Roman pretensions to imperial rule in the Mediterranean came to an end. In so much as it had an imperial successor, it was the Umayyad, and later the Abbasid, caliphates. However, it is important to realize that the Roman Empire did not come to an end even then - it persisted, as an independent polity, until the mid-15th century.

The fall of the Roman Empire, then, is best seen as a combination of internal division, depopulation, and foreign invasion, and also the individual decisions made by the Emperors and their foreign enemies. Nothing in history is predestined, and it is conceivable that the Roman Empire could have found a way to navigate these crises. However, with such a set of problems, the deck does seem to have been stacked against them.

I’ve tried to offer a more satisfying explanation of the Roman Empire’s decline than polemics rooted in modern political and cultural controversies. I’m not by any means an expert on this period, and am merely conveying the opinions of people who are. Nevertheless, I am firmly persuaded that if we want to understand this fascinating and troubled period, or indeed any period in history, we need to set aside our present preoccupations and try to understand it on its own terms, and for its own sake.

A lecture on late antiquity by Harvard historian Paul Freedman (the entire course is excellent):

Plague in the Roman Empire:

Part of a Series on the Ancient World

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