Throughout the centuries historians have tried to explain why the Roman Empire fell. In 1984, Alexander Demandt, a German historian, provided a list of two hundred and ten reasons for Rome’s decline, including some entertaining ideas like gout, earthquakes, and female emancipation. The overall view of most historians has been that Rome reached its zenith in the second century, started to decline in the third, and finally collapsed in the fifth. Historians credit A.D. 476 with the official demise of the western empire. Rome fell through a gradual process because poor economic policies led to a weakened military which allowed the barbarians easy access to the empire.
In the third century, Rome’s emperors embraced harmful economic policies which led to Rome’s decline. First, the limitation of gold and silver resources led to inflation. Monetary demand caused emperors to mint coins with less gold, silver, and bronze. For example, Emperor Claudius II debased the silver denarius to only one-fiftieth of its original value. Currently, the price of gold is $1,722 per ounce, but if the government appraised an ounce of gold for $34, then inflation would be the same as the Roman third century. Emperors thought to fix inflation by issuing price control laws, but the laws were below equilibrium prices, thus hurting the economy further. During the fourth century, Constantine successfully reformed the currency, but other poor economic policies continued within the empire.
Secondly, excessive upper-class wealth hurt the Roman economy. Some wealthy individuals hoarded gold bullion because of the dramatic inflation in the third century. Others, like Emperor Commodus, depleted the imperial coffers so the empire had little money left. The wealthy upper-classes enjoyed a combination of unlimited economic and political power, and such excessive wealth led to a poverty state in the western empire which crippled its effort to maintain a strong military system.
The third problem Rome’s economy faced was tax increases. Rome acquired money for taxation by gaining new lands. However, the empire reached its territorial limits by the time of Emperor Trajan in the second century. As Rome lost eastern lands to invaders, the loss of that taxable income meant tax increases for the western provinces. Also, any loss of land due to immigrants directly affected imperial tax revenues. Even if they were not conquered, provinces where fighting occurred struggled to pay taxes. By the early fifth century, 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, but tax increases continued for the lower classes.
Rome’s poor economic policies caused military problems. First, the decreased tax base meant no financial support for the military. The Roman military cost fifty percent of the imperial expenses. By the mid-fifth century 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 their invaders, the army was forced to stay in the Middle East to keep the peace. The weakened military in the west failed to stop the barbarian groups as they cut out chunks of land for themselves across the empire. More troops were needed for the professional army, but the funds could not be raised. The strength of the army was directly tied to the tax base.
A second military problem, caused by hiring low-pay soldiers, resulted in poor training and discipline. Rome’s army had always been small compared to the empire’s population, but the training and discipline had been unrivaled by all contestants. As mercenaries and volunteers joined the ranks, discipline completely changed. Trained Roman soldiers now protected themselves behind a wall of shields and let mercenaries rush out for hand-to-hand combat. As the western army became more barbarized, it lost military tactics. Also, a large portion of the military 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.
Thirdly, economic problems influenced prolonged military commands. Generals claimed they needed more time to end military campaigns successfully, so the Senate granted them prolonged military commands, and inevitably, these commands moved troop loyalty to the commander. Generals now became the main contenders for imperial power, taking their armies away from the borders in pursuit of Roman glory.
Finally, economic problems led the military to employ mercenary soldiers. The Senate approved of mercenaries because the extent of the empire was taxing native soldiers. The larger the empire grew, the more heavily Rome relied on mercenaries to guard its borders and rogue territories. These mercenaries claimed no allegiance to Rome and thus followed their commander because he paid them. Barbarian soldiers, known as the foederati, gained Roman protection and privileges in return for protecting the empire’s borders, and these foederati eventually made up eighty percent of the army. The Roman military thus weakened over time, and they continued to lose territories along the borderlands which further damaged the Roman economy. This vicious cycle persisted until the barbarian invasions destroyed the empire in the fifth century.
Ultimately, Rome declined because poor economic policies led to a weakened military. When pressures grew along the borders, Rome lacked the resources to defeat the enemies of the past. No territorial conquests were available to provide new wealth for a dying economy forcing Rome to finally yield to the barbarian invasions. So instead of considering why Rome fell, perhaps historians should side with Edward Gibbon and be surprised that Rome lasted so long.
– Hannah S. Bowers
The Heritage of the World: with a Western Emphasis. New York: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2010.
Kagan, Donald. The End of the Roman Empire: Decline or Transformation? Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1992.
Ward-Perkins, Brian. The Fall of Rome: and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Ebook.