Roman Empire Decline Essay Contest

6f. The Fall of the Roman Empire

Constantine the Great, 306-337 C.E., divided the Roman Empire in two and made Christianity the dominant religion in the region.

The invading army reached the outskirts of Rome, which had been left totally undefended. In 410 C.E., the Visigoths, led by Alaric, breached the walls of Rome and sacked the capital of the Roman Empire.

The Visigoths looted, burned, and pillaged their way through the city, leaving a wake of destruction wherever they went. The plundering continued for three days. For the first time in nearly a millennium, the city of Rome was in the hands of someone other than the Romans. This was the first time that the city of Rome was sacked, but by no means the last.

Constantine and the Rise of Christianity

One of the many factors that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire was the rise of a new religion, Christianity. The Christian religion, which was monotheistic ran counter to the traditional Roman religion, which was polytheistic (many gods). At different times, the Romans persecuted the Christians because of their beliefs, which were popular among the poor.

This 16th-century medallion depicts Attila the Hun, one of the most vicious invaders of all time.

In 313 C.E., Roman emperor Constantine the Great ended all persecution and declared toleration for Christianity. Later that century, Christianity became the official state religion of the Empire. This drastic change in policy spread this relatively new religion to every corner of the Empire.

By approving Christianity, the Roman state directly undermined its religious traditions. Finally, by this time, Romans considered their emperor a god. But the Christian belief in one god — who was not the emperor — weakened the authority and credibility of the emperor.

Constantine enacted another change that helped accelerate the fall of the Roman Empire. In 330 C.E., he split the empire into two parts: the western half centered in Rome and the eastern half centered in Constantinople, a city he named after himself.

Why Two Empires?

This map of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. shows the various people who invaded and how they carved up the Empire.

In 324, Constantine's army defeated the forces of Licinius, the emperor of the east. Constantine became emperor of the entire empire and founded a new capital city in the eastern half at Byzantium. The city was his New Rome and was later named Constantinople (the "city of Constantine").

Empress Theodora was one of the most powerful women of late antiquity. She helped keep her husband, Emperor Justinian, in power and solidified the strength of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century C.E. as the western Empire collapsed.

Constantinople was advantageously situated for two reasons. First, it was on a peninsula that could be fortified and defended easily. Further, because Constantinople was located on the frontiers of the empire, imperial armies could respond more easily to external attacks or threats.

Some scholars also believe that Constantine established a new city in order to provide a place for the young religion of Christianity to grow in an environment purer than that of corrupt Rome.

The western Empire spoke Latin and was Roman Catholic. The eastern Empire spoke Greek and worshipped under the Eastern Orthodox branch of the Christian church. Over time, the east thrived, while the west declined. In fact, after the western part of the Roman Empire fell, the eastern half continued to exist as the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years. Therefore, the "fall of Rome" really refers only to the fall of the western half of the Empire.

Other fundamental problems contributed to the fall. In the economically ailing west, a decrease in agricultural production led to higher food prices. The western half of the empire had a large trade deficit with the eastern half. The west purchased luxury goods from the east but had nothing to offer in exchange. To make up for the lack of money, the government began producing more coins with less silver content. This led to inflation. Finally, piracy and attacks from Germanic tribes disrupted the flow of trade, especially in the west.

There were political and military difficulties, as well. It didn't help matters that political amateurs were in control of Rome in the years leading up to its fall. Army generals dominated the emperorship, and corruption was rampant. Over time, the military was transformed into a mercenary army with no real loyalty to Rome. As money grew tight, the government hired the cheaper and less reliable Germanic soldiers to fight in Roman armies. By the end, these armies were defending Rome against their fellow Germanic tribesmen. Under these circumstances, the sack of Rome came as no surprise.

Goth Rockers

Wave after wave of Germanic barbarian tribes swept through the Roman Empire. Groups such as the Visigoths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Ostrogoths, and Lombards took turns ravaging the Empire, eventually carving out areas in which to settle down. The Angles and Saxons populated the British Isles, and the Franks ended up in France.

In 476 C.E. Romulus, the last of the Roman emperors in the west, was overthrown by the Germanic leader Odoacer, who became the first Barbarian to rule in Rome. The order that the Roman Empire had brought to western Europe for 1000 years was no more.

Antiquity Online
At least five distinctive chapters on the fall of Rome can be found at this history buff's website. In-depth essays provide the real info on what happened in Rome, from the political chaos to the rise of Christianity. Also, visitors can find out what was going on in the rest of the world while Rome was decaying.

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Attila, King of the Huns
Attila has gone down in history as one of the most vicious conquerors. He created an alliance with neighboring clans, the Franks and Vandals, then tore through the countryside and decimated western Europe. Find out more about Attila the Hun's invasion of Italy at this Virtual History of Venice website.

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The Huns
Attila the Hun's lust for power, money, and land is legendary. Check out this independent enthusiast's website on the Huns and the battles that shook the Roman Empire. It's text only, but full of great information.

The Barbarians
Discover the contributions the Barbarians made to modern society.

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The Best of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Historian Edward Gibbon's most influential work is his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it he argues that Barbarian attacks and religious disagreements led to the downfall of the mightiest Western power of the ancient world. Although later historians have pointed out factual and interpretive flaws in Gibbon's scholarship, it remains one of the most widely read historical works in the world. At this site, browse through excerpts from Gibbon's celebrated book.

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The most celebrated history book in the English language has its own famous founding myth:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.”

Edward Gibbon almost certainly contrived this fanciful recollection, but the scholarship that went into his Decline and Fall still stands, like a timeless Roman ruin: majestic, elegant and even sublime. An object of awe, Gibbon’s history unfolds its narrative from the height of the Roman empire to the fall of Byzantium. The six volumes (published between 1776 and 1788) fall into three parts: from the age of Trajan to “the subversion of the western empire” in 395 AD; from the reign of Justinian in the east to the second, Germanic empire, under Charlemagne, in the west; and from the revival of this western empire to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In so doing, Gibbon traces the intimate and profound connection of the ancient world to his own, more modern time, linking more or less explicitly the age of the Enlightenment to the age of Rome.

Gibbon may have been an amateur historian (his life was otherwise devoted to nurturing his family’s considerable wealth, and to serving in the militia), but his erudition is staggering. It was commonplace in Augustan England of the 18th century to refer to Virgil, Ovid, or Plutarch. Gibbon alludes to passages in Strabo, Sallust, Seneca, Macrobius and Longinus, among many others.

Next to his learning, there’s his style, whose later devotees include both Winston Churchill, (No 43 in this series), and Evelyn Waugh. “It has always been my practice,” wrote Gibbon, “to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory; but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.”

Decline and Fall is a cathedral of words and opinions: sonorous, awe-inspiring and shadowy, with odd and unexpected corners of wit and irony, concealed in well-judged footnotes. For example, in chapter VII on Gordian, he writes:

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.

His footnote provides a witty coda: “By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children. His literary productions were by no means contemptible.”

He was also happy to disavow any consequence to this immense undertaking: “History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.” Gibbon also liked to season his narrative with pithy asides. For example: “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” And again, in chapter VIII: “All taxes must, at last, fall upon agriculture.” Sometimes, Gibbon is almost the equal of Tacitus in his brutal summaries of the historical process: “Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.”

And then there’s his intellectual background, as a scholar steeped in the age of reason. Gibbon famously blamed Christianity for the disintegration of the Roman empire:

“As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more Earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.”

However, here and there, as in his account of Constantine’s conversion, he grudgingly allows for the benefits of religion, too:

“The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.”

After several rewrites, with Gibbon “often tempted to throw away the labours of seven years”, the first volume of his Decline and Fall was published on 17 February 1776, less than six months before the US declaration of independence, a famous climax to the revolution in the American colonies, and a more than passing coincidence. Two months after the first publication of the first volume of this colossal classic, Gibbon boasted to his stepmother about his work’s reception: “It has been very well received, by men of letters, men of the world, and even by fine feathered ladies.”

It is, in other words, a work of universal interest, and timeless influence, unquestionably a magnificent classic of our literature. Gibbon’s own farewell to his masterpiece is almost more affecting than his celebrated account of its genesis:

“It was on the day, or rather the night, of 27 June 1787, between the hours of 11 and 12, that I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summer-house in my garden... I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatsoever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.”

A signature sentence

“The strength of the frontiers, which had always consisted in arms rather than fortifications, was insensibly undermined; and the fairest provinces were left exposed to the rapaciousness or ambition of the barbarians, who soon discovered the decline of the Roman empire.”

Three to compare

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings(1796)
Winston Churchill, A History of the English-speaking Peoples (1956-58)
David Womerseley, The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(1988)

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon is available from Penguin Classics in three volumes, along with an abridged edition (£12.99). To order the latter for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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