The Myth of the “Fall” of Rome

By Dr. Mark Damen / 07.25.2015
Professor of Ancient Drama, Ancient History, Latin and Greek Languages
Utah State University

Introduction: Rome before the “Fall”

After nearly half a millennium of rule, the Romans finally lost their grip on Europe in the fifth century (the 400’s CE). Their decline left in its wake untold devastation, political chaos and one of the most fascinating and problematical issues in history, what caused the “Fall of Rome,” the problem we’ll tackle in this Chapter. Though Roman government in the form of the Byzantine Empire survived in the East for almost another thousand years, so-called barbarian forces overran western Europe, spelling the end of an era. While Rome’s absence in the West brought with it tremendous change—and none of it seemed very positive, at least at first—before we can even address the question of why Rome logged off and Europe switched users, we must understand how this transition happened and what exactly came to a close during this period.

The best way to answer that question is to look ahead to the changes which Rome’s demise produced. Within two centuries after its purported “fall” in 476 CE—by the seventh century, that is—Europe looked very different from the days when the Romans were in charge. By virtually every measurable standard, Western Civilization had relapsed severely. Trade had virtually disappeared, taking with it the European economy and the basis of civilized life, and because most of the populace was by then mired in dismal squalor, unable to travel or attend school, education and literacy were all but relics of the past. Thus, without any way for people to see their situation from a larger geographical or historical perspective, a basic siege mentality gripped their world. On the surface, the reason for all this seems fairly clear. The invasions of non-Roman outsiders had so badly disrupted the region that, in the words of one modern historian, it was as if “Western Civilization went camping for five hundred years.”

There is no better way to bring home the impact of this grim reality than to look at Europe in the early Middle Ages through a foreigner’s eyes. In outlining the peoples of the world for his contemporaries, an Arab geographer of the day describes Europeans as having “large bodies, gross natures, harsh manners, and dull intellects . . . those who live farthest north are particularly stupid, gross and brutish.” The tables have certainly turned when outsiders are describing Western Civilization the way classical historians like Herodotus and Tacitus had once appraised the barbarian world. The sequence of events leading up to such drastic changes, so precipitous a drop in quality of life, is where we must begin as we seek the reasons for “why Rome fell.”

The Barbarians Arrive: The Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE

Increasing pressure from peoples outside the Empire, the much maligned barbarians, had compelled the Romans in later antiquity to let more and more foreigners inside their state. Since most of these spoke a language based on Common Germanic, the Romans referred to them collectively as Germans, even though they actually represented a wide array of nations and cultures. These newly adopted resident aliens were assigned to work farms or were conscripted into the Roman army in numbers so large that the late Latin word for “soldier” came to be barbarus (“barbarian”). And where these barbarians met resistance, they sneaked or pushed their way inside the Empire, and in such a profusion that Rome was fast turning into a nation of immigrants.

Not that that was much of a change. Things had actually been that way for centuries, only by late antiquity it was undeniable that, in spite of being called “Roman,” the Empire was, in fact, a multicultural enterprise. The pretense of a “Roman” Rome had worn so thin it was impossible to maintain the illusion, for instance, that everyone in the Empire could speak—or even wanted to speak—Latin, the Romans’ native tongue. Furthermore, it had been ages since any emperor had even bothered to pretend his lineage could be traced back to some ancestor who had arrived with Aeneas in Italy, an invented history which was beginning to look rather silly when Spaniards and North Africans had been steering the Empire for centuries.

The stark truth was that by the fifth century CE—and indeed for many years before that—a succession of dynamic and capable foreigners coming from all ends of the Empire had kept Rome on its feet and these men were as “Roman” as anyone born or bred in the capital. Barbarians were, and had been for a long time, guarding and feeding the Empire, which made it all the more difficult to claim they shouldn’t also be running it. While three centuries earlier the Roman satirist Juvenal had lamented, “I can’t stand a Greek Rome,” now Rome wasn’t merely Greek. It was Dacian and Egyptian and Syrian and, most of all, ever more German by the day.

Thus, the sort of change which Rome had undergone—and was at the time still undergoing which implies a certain trajectory into the future—was all too clear: from a local stronghold in Italy, to a multinational power, to the only superpower in the known world, to a globalized conglomerate of many different peoples. Even if the Romans of Rome still held the title to the Empire and affected superiority over the barbarians managing their domain, Roman possession of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea was, for the most part, only on paper. The reality was that the state was jointly owned, a participatory experiment which was by then maintained with the sweat and blood of many races—and there were even more who would have liked to sign up as “Roman” but they couldn’t get in.

This begs the question, then, why so many foreigners lived—and even more wanted to live—in Rome. Why did barbarians in such numbers press to invade an empire in which they were treated as second-class citizens no matter how hard they worked and collaborated? The answer is easy. The Roman Empire in that day was a far safer place to live and offered much better accommodations than the wild world outside its borders. Roads and aqueducts and baths and amphitheaters and even taxes look good when one is gazing in from outside where poverty, blood-feuds, disease and frost reign supreme—the mild Mediterranean climate of southern Europe cannot be discounted as a factor in the barbarians’ desire to infiltrate sunny Rome—but there was an even more impressive reason lurking beyond the borders of the Empire, something anyone would want to avoid if at all possible: Huns!

The Huns

Traveling all the way from Mongolia in the Far East, the Huns began encroaching on Europe sometime after 350 CE. Toughened by decades of crossing the Russian steppes on small ponies, these marauding Asiatic nomads spread terror far and wide, developing a reputation for insurmountable ferocity. That led easily to exaggerated reports of their speed and numbers. Indeed, there’s little that isn’t exaggerated about the Huns, which amounts to a serious problem for historians, how to sift the facts from the frenzy. And besides that, there’s an even greater problem. In all the history of the Huns, no Hun ever speaks to us in his own voice, because no Hun ever wrote history.

All in all, the Huns represent that rare instance where the victors didn’t write the history, because—the conclusion is inescapable—they didn’t care enough about history to write it. As a result, their reputation has suffered. It’s very odd, really. Conquerors usually find it useful in maintaining their dominion, to make at least some public declaration or justification of their conquest, some sort of excuse for invading and conquering. Many subscribe to invented histories, forging a historical right or reason they slaughtered and marauded, if not out of a guilty conscience, at least from a victor’s sense of shame. That the Huns didn’t even bother lying to those they conquered, or even to posterity, is without doubt one of their most frightening qualities. And so, much like our Western ancestors, many historians run in terror just at the sound of the name.

The Goths

Barbarian invasions

Those barbarian tribes who lived furthest east in Europe were the first to feel the sting of the Huns’ assault from Asia, in particular, the Goths, a loose confederation of Germanic peoples living northeast of the Balkan mountains, who were hit so hard and quickly by these savage marauders, that they were split into two groups: the Ostrogoths (“Eastern Goths”) and the Visigoths (“Western Goths”). By 376 CE, the Ostrogoths had fallen completely in Hunnic hands, where they would be victimized and enslaved for nearly a century.

The Visigoths, severed from their brethren but saved from the brunt of the Mongol assault by the mere fact that they lived further west than the Ostrogoths, desperately sought protection by appealing to Rome for asylum. There, they ran up against an impermeable shield of customs stations at the Roman border, a veritable wall of imperial disdain which was by then standard policy when barbarians began wailing and waving their hands. Thus squeezed between scorn and the spear, the Visigoths panicked and not a few tried to push their way into Roman territory. Facing a surge of frantic immigrants, the Roman Emperor Valens had little choice but to relent and let them in.

Once inside the boundaries of Rome, the Visigoths found safety but at the same time a new and in many ways more dangerous foe. As new-comers to Roman civilization, they were ill-equipped to live in a state run on taxes and mired in the complex language of legalities, and thus made easy prey for unscrupulous, greedy imperial bureaucrats who cheated and abused them. Very quickly, the Visigoths found themselves bound in something heavier and more constricting than chains—the gruesome coils of red tape—and they responded as any reasonable barbarian would: they demanded fair treatment and, when their pleas went unheard, they embarked upon a rampage.

Valens called out his army, a threat meant to intimate the Visigoths into returning to their designated territory and tithe. But like the truant step-children they were, the barbarians remained disobedient. Left with no other recourse but corporal punishment, Valens met the Visigoths in combat at the Battle of Adrianople (378 CE) in northeastern Greece, and what happened was not only unexpected but unthinkable to any Roman living then, or dead. Primed by the insults to their pride—or because they were simply scared out of their minds—the Visigoths defeated and massacred the Roman legions sent to keep them in their room. Worse yet, Valens himself was killed in the course of the conflict.

His successor, Theodosius I resorted to standard Roman policy and pacified the Visigoths temporarily with handouts and promises. But money and titles couldn’t buy back a Roman army or, more important, a reputation for invincibility. The Romans’ essential weakness was now in full public view. Still, Theodosius managed to hold the state together and keep up a tense façade of peace within the Empire until, through an act which proves the cruel capriousness of fate, he died prematurely in 395. His young, pampered, feeble-minded sons were suddenly thrust to the forefront of Roman politics, yet another disaster for the Romans who could really have done without one at that juncture in history.

The Eastern and Western Roman Empire

Those children, Arcadius and Honorius who were both still in their teens, were ill-prepared to hold real power. When a strong, new leader named Alaric rose to power among the Visigoths and started advancing on the West, Honorius panicked and recalled the Roman legions stationed on the Rhine river, Rome’s northern border,which opened the door for other barbarians to force their way inside the Empire. A confederation of Germanic tribes, the Vandals, poured across the border—crossing the Rhine during the particularly cold winter of 406 when the river had frozen to an uncustomary depth—and ranged freely about the every-day-less-Roman province of Gaul. After a while, the Vandals settled in Spain. This rendered pointless the Romans’ military outposts in Britain that protected what was up till then the northwestern boundary of their domain, so the Romans withdrew from the island, as it turned out permanently. Germanic tribes seized the opportunity to occupy Britain, particularly the Angles and the Saxons. Leaks were fast becoming floods.

His mind poisoned by court intrigue and the jealousy of rivals, Honorius struck a serious blow to his own cause by allowing the assassination of his best general, a man named Stilicho, in 408. So, with the Roman Emperor having done him the favor of eliminating his best defense against them, Alaric and his Visigothic forces invaded Italy with brutal barbarian dispatch and headed for the city of Rome itself. Panicking again, Honorius abandoned the capital, evading the Visigoths by fleeing to another Roman city in Italy, Ravenna, where he watched and waited out their wrath from a safe distance.

Rome burning

Now unprotected, the eternal city, the heart of the Roman Empire, took the full brunt of the Visigoths’ rage. In this infamous Visigothic Sack of Rome (410 CE) Alaric and his comrades plundered the city for three days, a devastation which turned out to be actually less physical than psychological but, even so, a wound which went deep into the heart of an already ailing state. When Saint Jerome, the great Latin translator of the Bible, heard the news of the Visigoths’ capture of Rome, he wrote “My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” The shock was indeed registered in deafening silence empire-wide.

At the same time, however, not everything went wrong for the Romans. For one thing, Alaric died only a few months after leading his forces on Rome. This left the Visigoths without competent leadership and, more important, still in search of a land they could settle and call home. After some negotiations, the remnants of their army and people moved out of Italy to southwestern Gaul, and later Spain where with the help of the Roman army they displaced the Vandals and established a kingdom that would endure for nearly two centuries. While barbarian in origin, the Visigoths of Spain quickly adopted Roman customs, the Latin language, and even the Christian religion, though in a heretical variation called Arian Christianity (or Arianism). Although that later caused trouble between the Visigoths and the orthodox Church in Rome, this late-ancient civilization laid the groundwork for much of Medieval Spanish culture to follow, forging a unique synthesis of barbarian, Roman, Christian and—after 711 CE when Islamic forces invaded Spain—Moslem traditions.

The Huns (Again)

All this time, the Huns were marching through and enslaving eastern Europe, inflicting their own brand of terror on the barbarian tribes there. Oppressing peoples like the Ostrogoths had kept these Mongol nomads, by now only distantly Asiatic, occupied for several decades. Empires like the Huns are run on conquest and collecting tribute from terrified populaces. They must keep expanding or their momentum falters and their economy as well, if it’s fair to say terrorists have economies. Fear, in fact, plays a large part in maintaining any such regime, so when the Huns’ new, powerful, European-born leader Attila learned that Christians in Rome had pronounced him, in traditional Old-Testament fashion, “the Scourge of God”—meaning God’s whip as a moralizing force to impose better behavior—he was very pleased and added it to his litany of royal titles. No doubt, the whip image appealed to him more than the moralizing part.

Attila the Hun

Sweeping west across the Rhine River into Gaul, Attila’s forces met a Roman army near Châlons (central Gaul) in 451 CE and, against all odds, the Huns were defeated. Infuriated and apparently under-educated in military protocol, the Hunnic general took the loss as an insult, a challenge of sorts, and wheeled south heading for Italy. The Romans in panic fled at his approach. Even the Emperor Valentinian III abandoned the capital—shades of Honorius!—but the leader of the Church, Pope Leo I, not only stood his ground but went to face down Attila in person. In one of the most remarkable moments in history (452 CE), they actually did meet and speak, but only in private. In the wake of their discussion, Attila wheeled about yet again, this time leaving Italy never to return. Leo’s words must have contained some powerful magic. Too bad there’s no record of what he said.

Shortly thereafter, Attila died of uncertain causes. Because his death occurred the night after he’d celebrated a new marriage—the last of many!—his young bride was suspected of complicity in his demise but the charge was never proven. And, as has happened so often in history, where the Italians failed to save their land, Italy itself rose to the challenge, shades of Greece and the Persian Wars! In this instance, the Hunnic army contracted some type of epidemic during their brief stay on the Italian peninsula. This mystery disease decimated their ranks, and soon after their departure they disappeared completely, from Europe and history. As one modern writer notes, “They were not mourned.”

The Vandals

Following their expulsion from Spain at the hands of the Visigoths and Romans, the Vandals fled to the northwest corner of Africa (modern Morocco). Once there, their wily and double-dealing leader Gaiseric helped them expand their domain by uprooting Roman control over the rich provinces of North Africa—the Vandals’ imminent approach on Carthage (modern Tunisia) in 430 CE is one of the last pieces of news Saint Augustine heard as he lay on his deathbed—but their devastation to Rome was more than economic. Quite a few Christians living in this area were slain by the Vandals who ironically belonged to the same faith but as Arian Christians were strongly opposed to those who swore allegiance to the Pope. Indeed, more than one of the gruesome hagiographies (“saints’ biographies”) heroizing early Christian martyrs stems from the carnage which ensued as the Vandals—fellow Christians!—spread across North Africa, murdering their holy brethren.

Next, moving to sea, the Vandals took up piracy and severely disrupted trade in the western Mediterranean. The recent assassination of Aetius, who was the most competent Roman general in the day and had died at the hands of none other than Valentinian III, the Emperor of Rome himself, only made the Vandals’ path to naval power and domination all the easier. This horrifying replay of Stilicho’s death—shades of Honorius again!—not only led to Valentinian’s own murder in retaliation for Aetius’ but also opened the way for a second assault on the capital itself, the devastating Vandalic Sack of Rome in 455 CE. Unlike the Visigoths’ earlier siege, the Vandals’ attack involved prolonged, physical ruin, a destruction so complete and indiscriminate, so emblematic of wanton atrocity, that these barbarians’ very name made its way into common parlance, and ultimately English, as a by-word for “the malicious destruction of property,” vandalism.

The “Fall” of Rome

The final days of the Roman Empire are usually assigned to the year 476 CE, when the German general Odovacar (or Odoacer) deposed the “last Roman Emperor,” a boy ironically named Romulus Augustulus. Although Odovacar acted with little respect for formalities—he removed the child from the throne and sent him off to a monastery where he subsequently died—the usurper faced no real opposition, political or military. The reality of the matter was that barbarian leaders like him had been the power behind the throne for many years in Rome, and the German strongman did little more than end the pretense of non-barbarian control of the Roman West.

His move was, moreover, driven by economics as much as anything else. Despite the travails of their Western counterparts, the Eastern emperors—by then, there were two Roman emperors, one in Rome and one in Constantinople—continued to demand that the entire Empire pay taxes into a common treasury. From there, few of these funds ever made their way back to the West where they were desperately needed to defend the state and rebuild its infrastructure. In open defiance of this tradition, Odovacar began keeping the monies he collected from those areas he governed.

Tomb of Theodoric

The luxury-loving emperors of the East were incensed to find their outstretched hands empty and responded in a manner consistent with standard Roman policy in the day. They hired barbarians to do their dirty work. In 493, Theodoric, the leader of the Ostrogoths who had at last been liberated from Hunnic dominion, was commissioned to head west and dispatch Odovacar, which he did in typically savage fashion. In the course of negotiating peace with his barbarian brother at a banquet, Theodoric stabbed him to death.

But once he’d had a good look at the West, especially the desperate condition of things, the Ostrogothic general refused to hand Italy over to some far-off “Roman Emperor” who had no intention of actually ruling it but only milking it for taxes. Now the lord of the land, Theodoric (r. 493-527 CE) set about restoring what more than a century of neglect, civil war, invasion and “vandalism” had wrought. Roman Italy needed a caring hand like his, and this barbarian proved the last ruler in antiquity to lend it such.

Theodoric oversaw the repair of Roman roads and aqueducts, and under his governance Italy witnessed a small-scale renaissance, sadly its final breath of culture for much of the remaining millennium. To those who are able to grasp the complexity of these times, Theodoric’s actions come as no surprise at all. A veritable paradox, capable of both treachery and tenderness, he had been educated in Constantinople but remained essentially illiterate all his life. Moreover, he had served in his youth as a hostage to the Eastern Romans and thus had learned the language of those highly civilized bureaucrats. And like Odovacar, he was also a Christian and, although Arian, managed to maintain good relations with the orthodox powers-that-be, not that he wanted to live among them.

To this day, however, his strained relations with his secretary Boethius, an orthodox Christian, dominate the accounts of his regime—Theodoric ultimately had Boethius executed—but the Ostrogothic king would be better remembered for building a sound and effective government centered in Ravenna (northeastern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea), where his tomb can still be seen. It is fairer to him, perhaps, to recall his relationship with Cassiodorus, Boethius’ successor to the post of secretary, who was also an orthodox Christian but not so contentious a man. Cassiodorus quietly oversaw the copying of many Classical manuscripts, which was an important contribution to the preservation of Greek and Roman literature and thought during the Middle Ages. All in all, whether or not any of them knew it—and quite a few probably did—these men were folding the tents of culture, packing its bags and quenching the fires of scholarship. The West was readying itself for its Medieval “camping trip.”

The “Fall” of Rome as a Question of History

1 Question, 210 Answers

The classic conundrum of antiquity, “Why did Rome fall?,” has withstood legions of scholars catapulting answers at it—over 210 different ones at last count—and still it stands unbreached. Few of the suggestions have made much of an impression. Many involve “invented histories” of some sort, speaking volumes about the answerer and syllables about the issue. More than one may be dismissed off-hand as so far from what-really-happened that, though they represent someone’s history, it’s clearly not the Romans’.

For instance, Rome did not fall because of the distractions pursuant to sexual indulgence. Given the influence of Christianity which the Romans had adopted as their exclusive religion by then, the conduct of those living in the fifth century after Christ was relatively sober. Indeed, if the data point to any venereal villains across the great expanse of Roman history, it is the Julio-Claudians who oversaw the height of Roman power in the first century CE and were truly perpetrators of immorality at large. So, to make an argument relating sexual behavior to Rome’s “fall”—and to judge it fairly from the historical evidence—involves the ludicrous conclusion that the erotic felonies of a Caligula or Nero, in fact, sustained Rome’s triumph, instead of corroding it at its core. That suggests that, to prevent the collapse of their society, the Romans should have kept the orgies up, so to speak, which is patently ridiculous.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon

Simply put, sex—reproduction maybe, but not sex!—had little or nothing to do with the troubles that brought the Romans to their collective knees in later antiquity. Likewise, the climate and ecology of the time cannot be adduced as the reason for something so earth-shattering as the “Fall of Rome.” Nor do any of the other two hundred or so entries cited make the cut in history’s time trials, meaning that no one answer has as yet won the day for why the Romans lost. All may have appealed to some but none to all or, more to the point, a majority of scholars.

And some of these answers have come from very good scholars, the likes of Edward Gibbon, the pre-eminent classical historian of England in the later half of the eighteenth century. Brilliant though it was, the thesis he expounded in his monumental and highly engaging magnum opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—he argued that the rise of Christianity emasculated the native vigor of Rome, leaving it open to more virile conquerors, i.e. barbarians—is a proposition full of holes and inconsistencies, saying in the end less about the Roman Empire than its British counterpart, the hidden target of Gibbon’s book. For example, if Christianity so weakened the Roman West in late antiquity, why didn’t it weaken the other half, the staunchly orthodox East which survived nearly a millennium after the collapse of the West? Perhaps it’s true that Christianity redirected the attention of many Romans away from affairs of state, but it did not undermine their civilization. To the contrary, it was as natural an outgrowth of their culture, as “Roman” as all sorts of other things they did: theatre, epic poetry, gladiators, ship-building, all of which were imports, just like Christianity.

The Evidence

Any hope of finding a better answer depends on assessing exactly what was happening in Rome at the time of its “fall” and the data do, in fact, point to some clear and significant trends.

Population. First of all, there’s strong evidence of a steady decline in population across the entire Empire from the second century CE on. For example, peaking at around a million or so in the Classical Age, the population of the city of Rome gradually dropped over the course of the next few centuries, reaching a low point of a mere six thousand by the 500’s. The reasons for this drastic if incremental reduction in human resources are not clear, though many Romans’ luxurious lifestyle and their concomitant disinterest in producing and raising children must have played some part. So did plagues, no doubt, as well as constant warfare on the frontiers and perhaps even lead-poisoning, evidenced in human skeletal remains recovered from Pompeii which show that the Romans there were indeed exposed to high concentrations of the lethal element. Nevertheless, it’s unclear how widespread this problem was.

Economics. Second, economic data point to other factors which doubtlessly contributed to the situation. Well-documented among the travails of third-century Rome—a full two centuries prior to its notorious “fall”—is a particularly long period of financial crisis which inaugurated the slow collapse of the economy in the West. This economic depression was due in large part to the failure of the Romans’ system of conquest and enslavement. When the flow of cheap slaves began to dry up, estates throughout the Empire could no longer live off the abuse of human resources on which they had formerly depended. So without any real industry or much agricultural machinery to work the land—Roman land-owners did know about water wheels and windmills but archaeologists have found evidence of very few being used in this period—the aristocrats of late Rome apparently watched the collapse of their economy and disdained practical matters such as retooling their farms to ensure their viability.

Politics. Finally, political affairs contributed to the difficulties plaguing late Rome. The general incompetence of emperors and the failure of traditional politics in the West led to a wretchedly corrupt political structure, characterized by an oppressive burden of taxation levied to support the growing army of soldiers (barbari!) who were bribed—”employed” is too sophisticated a term for this practice—to fend off Rome’s foes. This, in turn, led to inflation and debasing of Roman coinage, which bred a lethal mix of apathy and angst that inspired many Romans to flee politics and later the poleis (“city-states”) of the Empire, the urban foundation on which rested most of ancient life. With that, actual power in Rome fell into the hands of local lords, and the concept of shared Roman civilization itself came under siege.

But states have survived disasters far worse than any or all of these. In sum, none of the theories or factors mentioned above explains why there’s no simple answer to the simple question, “Why did Rome fall?” So, perhaps, it’s not the answers that are flawed but the question itself. To a scholar, that demands an all-out Aristotelian response, a syllogism, an analysis of the question in terms of its principal elements, which are three: why, Rome, fell.

Conclusion: A New Question?

What’s a “Rome”?

Since “why” cannot be answered until the other components of the question have been determined, it’s best not to start there. First, then, when we say “Rome,” what do we mean? The city? The empire? Its government? Its people?

Hannibal Barca of Carthage

If by “Rome” we mean the city, invaders compromised that several times in Roman history before its so-called “fall” in 476 CE. That Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410, to the Vandals in 455, not to mention its other earlier “falls” such as the one to that most-Roman-of-all-Romans, Julius Caesar himself (45 BCE), and its near capitulation to Hannibal before that. So if it’s right to put the events of 476 in the same category—they were hardly as destructive physically or psychologically as those which preceded—the ouster of Romulus Augustulus can hardly labelled “the fall of Rome,” when compared to other ruinous sieges and takeovers of the city.

If by “Rome” we mean the Empire, only the Western half of that is even at issue. The Eastern Empire stood for nearly a millennium after 476, nearly as long again as classical Rome itself. So Rome as Empire can’t be right.

If by “Rome” we mean the government, that underwent drastic, often violent upheaval several times in Roman history, including the establishment of the Republic early in Roman history, the civil wars of the first century BCE, and the later reforms of the Emperor Diocletian who virtually remade the Empire in the image of autocratic Eastern regimes. That definition doesn’t work either.

Finally, if by “Rome” we mean the people, they lived on past 476. They’re still there. They’re called Italians. So, if the people of Rome ever “fell,” apparently they got back up again. That’s out, too.

Whatever the answer, the question of which “Rome” fell in 476 lies at the heart of the problem, and most of the answers that have been offered incline toward one but not all of the connotations the name Rome can carry. Yet, all are inherent in the question, at least when it’s phrased so simply as “Why did Rome fall?” Clearly, any cogent answer will have to address every “Rome” in Rome, so it’s probably best not to start there, either.

What’s a “Falling”?

Hopefully, “fall” will prove a less obscure term than “Rome,” and it does, unfortunately. “Fall” is quite clearly off-base, in fact, a rather inept way to describe what happened in later ancient Rome, since in most people’s understanding “falling” implies an accelerating descent leading to a cataclysmic crash followed by a big ka-boom, like a tree being cut down. But that’s really not how things happened in late imperial Rome. Nothing went “boom”—”blaarhhh!” maybe—but no explosion, no crash.

There must be a better metaphor and, if a derogatory term is in order—and speaking positively about Rome in the fifth century seems out of the question, without completely recasting the issue—it would be more suitable perhaps to say Rome “dissolved.” Professional dignity and common sense, however, rule that out for most academics. Scholars, after all, can hardly sit around seminar tables in serious discourse debating the reasons why the ancient cookie “crumbled.”

So then, how about “leak”? “Slide”? “Putrefy”? All those present the same problem, though the gradualism inherent in any of them represents a significant step toward accuracy in reflecting the slow disintegration inherent in Rome’s “fall,” the far-from-instantaneous process of wasting away that characterizes the end of classical antiquity. Still, The Decline and Rot of Rome? It’s hard to see that on anyone’s best-seller list.


So, with the implications of “Rome” unclear and, worse yet, tied to the misguided metaphor of “falling,” our inner Aristotles can see that it’s categorically pointless to proceed to “why.” The question is all too imprecise, too rotten-at-the-core to produce sensible answers. It is, in fact, a loaded question, because it presupposes that Rome did fall, encouraging us to think in what may turn out to be inaccurate and unproductive ways. The real question is whether Rome fell, not why?

Did Rome Fall?

True, the Roman state did something monumentally unpleasant in the 400’s CE, especially for those citizens of Rome acclimated to the benefits of life in the Empire. That’s why many Romans in the day left the city for the countryside or monasteries or God’s merciful embrace. But that change did not happen overnight, or even over a decade. The historical data do not support any firm break between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, certainly nothing like the social upheaval that followed in the wake of the Black Death as it surged across Europe. There, the impact of an explosive catastrophe can be seen in every corner of the European landscape. But 476 doeis not equal 1347.

The historical truth, if any exists, is that Rome did not fall; rather, it evolved. Roman coloni (farmers tied to the land) gradually became Medieval serfs. The patron-and-client relationship, so central in Roman society, slowly assumed the name and nature of the lord-and-vassal bond, the social order underlying much of European society in the Middle Ages. So, if Rome fell, it was only in slow motion, very slow motion.

But change did come to Rome in the fifth century—as it has to every society in every century of human history—and a particularly drastic change it was. Many of the conventions which had once ruled the ancient Romans’ lives evaporated, never to re-emerge. Primarily, citizenship in Rome offered little or no protection to its denizens, like membership in a club that was now defunct. That, in turn, precipitated an even more serious casualty, the loss of pride in being Roman, and of all things that perhaps lies at the heart of the problem. When being Roman no longer mattered, then being Greek or Dacian or German didn’t either, and if their Romanness stopped giving people a sense of military or economic or racial superiority, what was the point of being Roman?

This bigotry, evidenced well before the fifth century, cuts to the heart of the myth about Rome’s fall. In simple terms, the nationalistic propaganda of late Rome included a good element of racism which held that Germans, while useful in some respects, were fundamentally aliens, something less than Roman, to many in the day less than human. So when barbaric groups of Germans first defeated the Romans in battle, then captured Rome itself and finally assumed the mantle of Roman authority, it looked to those who saw “Roman” and “German” as mutually exclusive terms as if the Empire was no longer Roman, no longer an empire at all. But this was, in fact, a rationalization, an excuse concocted by the late Romans to cover their own complacency and lack of planning, which was, to be frank, rooted in laziness. Thus, lethargy and bias lurk behind the notion that 476 was a date of any supreme significance, much less the Armageddon of the classical world, the moment when “Rome fell.”

At the same time, however, the fallacy of choosing 476 as a crucial moment in history—there is no year better for dating the “fall”—points to something else very telling, that Rome for the most part survived the crisis of the fifth century and in many respects weathered the circumstances surrounding its purported “fall.” For instance, Rome provided the essential groundwork for the later triumphs of its successor states and, in particular, the history of the Church argues strongly for an unbroken line of development between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the gradual evolution of Roman into Medieval structures. Indeed, many Roman institutions were preserved through the Church, not least of all its bureaucracy.

This indeed goes some way toward explaining why in its later days the popes in Rome more than once stood up to defend the state, when Emperors did not, as Leo I did when he confronted and turned Attila from Italy. Churchmen like him were defending not only their homes but their home institution, both Mother Rome and Mother Church. Seen this way, Rome did not “fall” at all but passed its cultural legacy, the very heart of its civilization, to the burgeoning Christian world.

So why then all the fixation on “fall,” when the “evolution” of Rome is a much more accurate way of expressing the transition Rome underwent during the fifth century? The answer should be self-evident: the “Evolution of Rome” is boring, if only because the message lacks a moral core. In other words, saying something like “We must never do something as evil as that or we will evolve like Rome, and you don’t want that, do you?” isn’t a very effective way to use history. It’s far too easy for somebody to say “Well, why not?”

In spite of all its inaccuracy, then, “falling” is a far more palatable way for many people today to look at ancient Rome. In so complex and consequential a situation as the woes suffered by Rome in the fifth century where so little is clear and so many players cross the stage, simplicity comes at a premium. “Fall” has the great advantage over “evolve” of providing a straightforward and palpable vision of Rome’s purported demise, a salient, pointed metaphor that makes history come alive. That is, to give Rome a “fall,” a sudden death of sorts, makes it seem all the more human, more closely related to things people today know and see. People fall and die; Rome fell and died. It’s so simple, so accessible some part of it has to be right.

But it’s not. Such personification is fundamentally flawed, as invalid as it is simplistic. Though made up of living organisms, societies are not people and do not live or die as humans do. Many historians, including the Roman annalist Livy, have had trouble stifling their laughter at the purported “birth of Rome” featuring Romulus and Remus, clearly fictional personifications of the fetal state. Why, then, is Rome’s “fall” and the dethroning of Romulus Augustulus, the birth-tale’s teen namesake, treated more seriously when it has all the earmarks of invented history, too? Both these Romuli, indeed all of Rome’s “little Romes,” smack of myth-making concocted for the convenience of those with little room in their lives for anything more than a superficial study of the actual, messy, complicated what-really-happened.

In that light, the “fall of Rome” becomes a sort of game based on humanity’s strong but irrational need to personify past ages in order to make them more understandable. Indeed, the general urge to create periods of history stems from the same weakness. Seeking closure for Rome or any past society is a student-and-professor game convenient for quiz-taking, chart-making, sermonizing and remarkably little else.

“Die for Rome!”

If any metaphor drawn from real life encompasses “Rome” and helps us to understand why it “fell,” perhaps it’s best to describe it not as a nation, not as a people, nor a government, nor even a city, but an advertising campaign. Seen from the Nike-swoop perspective, “Get Out There And Sacrifice Yourself For Rome!” is the single most successful notion ever perpetrated in Western Civilization. Of all the impossibilities facing Roman historians, one of the greatest has to be trying to count the number of—to borrow a phrase from the American general George Patton—”poor bastards” who went out there and died for Rome. As witness to its marketing power, Rome’s transcendent symbols—the eagle, the laurel wreath, the fasces, the triumphal arch—still imbue and predominate Western culture. In other words, we still live in the afterglow of the Roman state’s central message, “Rome is what matters, so go out there and kill for it! Or die trying.”

But ideas like that don’t “live,” at least not in the strictest sense of the word—they don’t have sharp transitions between life and death the way people do—instead, ideas come and go, quickly or slowly, and, what’s most important here, they can be resurrected at any moment, in a way that humans beings cannot. If Rome is essentially an idea, then it’s inaccurate to assert that it “fell,” at least in the sense that it “died.” Whatever happened to the state of Rome in the fifth century, the idea of Rome lived on, and that was the essence of Rome itself.

Later history provides plenty of witnesses to this, if nothing else in the number of people who have invoked Rome’s legacy to advance their own causes: Justinian and the Gothic Wars, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, Russia’s czars and Germany’s Kaisers—both are titles derived from the name Caesar—and, most horrifically, Hitler and the Third Reich, the First Reich being Rome. That is, Hitler tried to pass off his regime as some reincarnation of “Rome” in the modern world. Fortunately for all, his empire came nowhere near lasting a thousand years, but the allure of Rome eternal, unified, invincible, has over and over proven irresistible, at least as the yardstick by which megalomaniacs measure themselves.

The simple reality of Rome in late antiquity is that something big and centralized in the West—and only in the West—broke up into several smaller units, each resembling in many ways the larger whole to which they had once belonged, but the image of Rome and the imagery driving it lived on. Indeed, the majority of modern Western languages, laws, religions, customs and culture are in some way fundamentally Roman, making all of us by all fair standards modern Romans. And, until the last traces of Roman civilization are erased and forgotten, Rome cannot be said to have died—or fallen.