Next time you read someone pontificating that the Roman Empire fell because it did something he doesn’t approve of, just smile.
The Roman Empire fell because it did something the author doesn’t approve of. And the American Empire or Putin’s Russia or Communist China will fall because they also do what the author dislikes. It’s a fun trope and you see it all the time. It’s easy to do and lets the author pretend to be the edjamakated sort of fellow who can use Pompey, Pluto and Plato in a sentence rather than a hack re-wording the latest instructions from the Military-Industrial-Media-Complex. Now that the American Empire has been defeated by its allies over Nord Stream and by its enemies in Afghanistan, we can expect to see a lot more of it.
But exactly when did the Roman Empire end? We need a date so we can blame that end on that thing that we dislike. Edward Gibbon wrote a rather large book about its decline and fall: it begins in the 200s and ends in the 1400s. That’s 1200 years of declining and falling; hard to find a single cause in all that.
The end of the Roman Republic – that’s an easier thing to date. Most would agree on the date at which Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus became supreme after the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra in 30BP. But even that becomes hazy when we take into account the Roman pretence that Rome never changes even while it’s changing. And the issue is further complicated by the Romans’ love of great antiquity which meant that they never stopped doing something that they had once done. So the ancient priesthood of the flamines with their curious costumes and taboos endured; the Sibylline Books, lost but then restored, were consulted even into the Christian period; they honoured geese and punished dogs; the sacred fire burned; the lowering of the flag stopped the trial. So, no matter how cataclysmic the crisis, at the end, the Republic was once again “restored” just as it was. And that is what Octavianus claimed to have done – consuls, the Senate, praetors and all the rest remained but he, now named the August One, was merely the first man in Rome. He had restored the Republic. And we will see this throughout: whatever happens, nothing has happened; the pretence is kept up.
410. That’s the date it ended. The Visigoths, under Alaric, sack Rome. But Rome isn’t the capital of the Empire nor even of the Western Empire at this time. And Alaric, who had been a Roman soldier, is seen by many as unsuccessfully seeking a formal position inside the Empire. But the date is significant because, among English-speaking historians, it is probably the origin of the notion that “the Roman Empire fell” at some definable time. Roman Britain seems to have been generally prosperous and peaceful (with some friction north of the Wall) for three centuries until the middle of the 300s when sea raiders and northerners combined to shake its security, a general then took many soldiers to the continent in an unsuccessful bid for the crown and the last soldiers left in the early 400s to defend Rome. This left the Romanised (and Christianised) British to the mercies of the raiders. Little but legends survive from this time; this is the era of Arthur: but was he in Cornwall or the Borders? did he even exist? was he Roman, Briton or Sarmatian? king or war leader? Libraries are full of books of speculation; no one knows and archaeology doesn’t help. Gradually the Britons were pushed out and Saxons settled what was now called “England”. Recorded history picks up again in the 700s when the Saxons become Christianised. So in Roman Britain, there certainly is a “fall” in the early 400s, followed by a three-century “dark” age, followed by a gradual growing of the “light” as Christian Saxons struggle against a new round of pagan raiders from the seas. Here, the Roman Empire did “end”. But not for any moralistic reason – the legions left and Britannia was a juicy target.
The history on the Continent is quite different. Barbarians, yes, but always pretending to rule by permission of the Emperor in the East and seeking a Roman-style title. Henri Pirenne’s researches make this clear. Take, for example another “end date” – 478. The last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus (a name ironically combining the founders of Republican Rome and Imperial Rome) is overthrown by the barbarian Odoacer. But Odoacer is careful to seek authority to rule from the Emperor in Constantinople and to consult the Roman Senate. So the pretence of the unchanging Roman Empire is kept up. And this kept on – a barbarian king, formerly a soldier of the Empire, would take power and the Emperor in the East would appoint him to some Roman position and he would be king of his people and an official in the Empire. Marius is Consul seven times, Sulla appoints himself Dictator, Caesar becomes Dictator for life: it’s all perfectly Roman and in accordance with the Twelve Tables. Given a little twisting of the rules. Which now become the new rules.
Of course it’s pretence and of course each iteration is a blurred copy of the last. But it’s a continuous process and one cannot find – except by making some arbitrary decision – a moment at which one thing ends and another begins. An important moment in the Western Empire comes when Charlemagne declares himself Emperor of the West. Crowned by the Bishop of Rome without reference to the Emperor in the East. That’s a split; but it’s all done in Latin, it’s all Christian and it’s still calling itself the Roman Empire headed by the Imperator Romanorum. Charlemagne even referred to himself occasionally as Augustus and claimed to have renewed the Empire. So 800 marks a moment to be sure, but there’s still something in the west calling itself the Roman Empire and it’s not entirely fanciful to do so.
The Holy Roman Empire existed until 1806. That’s another thousand years after Charlemagne created it and by 1806 there’s no doubt that Caesar Augustus would recognise nothing in it – but how much would he have recognised in Constantinople in 600? Certainly some time in those thousand years the (Western) Roman Empire ceased to have any content beyond the name. But one cannot find a “moment”: it just faded away over time until nothing was left but the name and Bonaparte – having just made himself emperor in a ceremony redolent of Rome and Charlemagne – puffed the last bit of dust away.
Meanwhile in the East the Empire continued. Its hold on the Western Empire waxed and waned but by the 800s had disappeared in form and in reality (although it kept Venice). But it certainly endured in the East; rich and powerful. What did it in was the century of destructive war with the Persian Empire beginning in the early 500s which so weakened the two that they were unable to resist the Muslims. By the mid 700s, Islam ruled over Roman Africa, Egypt, Spain, most of today’s Middle East and the Persian Empire itself. The Eastern Roman Empire was left with the Balkans and Anatolia. Over the subsequent seven centuries, Islam, which never lost its desire to rule over “The City“, ate more and more until the Empire was reduced to the bounds of the city itself and, when it fell in 1453, that was the end. And that’s the date Gibbon picked.
So, when did the Roman Empire “fall”? There isn’t any date – unless you take 1806 or 1453 – and therefore there isn’t any “cause”.
So the next time – and that time will be soon – you read someone pontificating that the Roman Empire fell because it did something he doesn’t approve of and the USA or Russia or China is doing the same – smile. It’s just gas and persiflage.
(The fall of the Republic, on the other hand, could be framed as the inability of a smallish city state to deal with an expanding empire, the strain of the need for large armies and foreign garrisons, greed and ambition fed by the tremendous inrush of loot, the impoverishment of many ordinary citizens. You don’t often see that comparison, but here’s one: Donald Trump as Tiberius Gracchus; “farcical” sneers the reviewer – well it is the NYT. All I can say is that there is a certain parallel and wait till he meets Cataline and Clodius!)