Modern historians such as Peter Heather, historian and professor at King’s College London, continually debate the cause of Roman decline. As an authority on Late Antiquity and Medieval Europe, Heather has held positions at University College London, Yale University, and Worcester College, Oxford. His teachings and research led him to analyze the many causes of Rome’s fall. His conclusions blamed the barbarian invasions, although he did claim that Roman imperialism ultimately caused its own destruction. Heather believed that Rome fell because of lost territory and revenue, an overstretched military, and the growing strength of barbarians.
Rome declined because it lost vast amounts of territory and revenue. According to Heather, the Sassanid Persian Empire marked the start of Roman troubles. The Sassanids were powerful enough to push back Roman legions from Mesopotamia and Turkey, so in reality the Sassanids were enemies of Rome long before the Huns invaded. The Roman forces succeeded in subduing the Sassanid threat, but the provincial cities of the Middle East lost much of their taxable income because of the increased military presence.
Rome used its agricultural provinces to fund its armies and bureaucratic structure. Any loss of land directly affected imperial tax revenues. Even if they were not conquered, provinces where fighting occurred struggled to pay taxes. By the early 400s, Rome had lost Britain, Spain, and parts of southern Italy. As the Roman state lost financial power, landowners realized their lifestyle was threatened by increased taxation and property laws. Many of these landowners turned to the politics of Rome to protect their holdings. In return for tax revenue, Rome agreed to protect the landowning class from outside enemies. As the empire grew, late rulers faced constant pressure from local groups all over the Mediterranean region who wanted protection. The combined issues of territory and revenue led to a decrease in military support.
Heather also believed Rome fell because the military was spread too thin along the borderlands. By the mid-400s the army had been bled dry by declining tax revenues so they were mere shadows along the borderlands. Even though the eastern military had defeated the Sassanids, that army was forced to stay in the Middle East to keep the peace. The weakened military in the west failed to stop the Visigoths, Vandals, and other barbarian groups as they cut out portions of land for themselves across the empire. More troops were needed, but the funds could not be raised.
A large portion of the military had transitioned to garrison forces who dealt primarily with minor threats to frontier security. These soldiers had many other local duties and lived in a communal setting with their wives and children. When the barbarians began to push with force, the garrisons were not strong enough to fight back because they lacked man-power and training. Thus, loss of territory and revenue directly impacted the military forces which were divided sparingly along the borders.
Ultimately, Rome fell because the barbarian strength kept growing; one attack was not enough, but the cumulative effect caused the fall of the western empire. The barbarian problems arose from migratory expansion. The Goths and other Germanic groups fled from Eastern Europe as the Huns expanded their kingdom. Romans interacted with barbarians in the fourth century when Gothic refugees requested sanctuary within Roman borders. After a few years of peaceful living, the Goths revolted and killed emperor Valens at the battle of Hadrianople. The Alamanni and Burgundians followed the Gothic example by snatching territories north of Italy. The damage of the resulting frontier conflict continued on a grand scale both geographically and numerically.
The barbarians became a formidable enemy because contact with Rome increased their material wealth which in turn created a ruling class capable of controlling larger people groups. The continual pressure upon the Germanic tribes by the Huns forced them to invade Italy itself, and these continual invasions caused the fall of the Roman Empire. In 476 a Germanic prince deposed the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and the remaining Roman army now owed allegiance to a barbarian ruler.
Heather’s arguments have been debated for several decades. On one hand, some contemporary historians agreed with Heather about the barbarian invasions. Twentieth-century historian J. B. Bury had also argued that a series of events came together to shatter the empire, instead of one single event. John Matthews, a current professor at Yale University, co-authored a book with Heather, discussing the Gothic invasions and their effect on the Roman Empire.
On the other hand, many contemporary historians disagreed with Heather’s arguments. Some scholars accused Heather of rewriting Edward Gibbon’s thesis, but in reality, Heather disputed Gibbon’s claims that Christianity and moral decay led to Rome’s decline. Heather also disagreed with A. H. M. Jones and Bryan Ward-Perkins who both argued from an economic position. Jones believed that over-taxation destroyed the Roman economy, and Ward-Perkins believed that Germanic immigrants caused economic failures. Other historians claimed that Heather’s arguments lacked enough support because not enough surviving records exist.
Despite his contemporary opposition, Heather maintained that Rome fell because of financial, military, and barbarian problems. He claimed that since the empire had survived for at least half a millennium, no true historian could argue that Rome fell because of internal problems. This view of the Roman Empire offered fresh insights for twenty-first century scholars and created a new topic for debate in universities worldwide. Heather has authored over ten books about Roman antiquity, and he continues to write and teach in England.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Heather, Peter. Empires and Barbarians: the Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.