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Fall of the Roman Empire

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most famous and instructive events in history.

Roman architecture continues to inspire variations today.  [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Roman architecture continues to inspire variations today.

Fall of the Roman Empire

The fall of the Roman Empire has been a matter of scholarly debate for many centuries, with many a minor and major cause suggested. In fact, like any historical event, many factors, including religion, geography and power, played a role in the decline of an empire that for so long dominated the landscape of world history.

The Roman Empire: A Quick Review

According to Roman-Empire.net, the beginning of the Roman Empire is steeped in the mythic past of early western civilization. The story of two brothers called Romulus and Remus is said to mark the beginning of the city of Rome. The brothers, after battling for the right, decided to begin a new city on Palatine Hill in Italy in 753 BCE. Other stories for Rome's beginning exist, but this remains the most popular.

Rome was like any other early Italian settlement of its era. Its advantage lay in its topography. Surrounded on all sides by mountains and oceans, Rome was easily defended, hard to attack and had the advantage of multiple trade routes via the Mediterranean Sea. Neighboring Greeks gave early Rome the tools of an advanced civilization including writing, reading and religion. Add this to the conquering of settlements on surrounding Italian hillsides and Rome quickly grew into a recognizable force in the ancient world.

Rome began as a republic and grew into an empire as it incorporated more countries and cultures into its sphere of influence. Rome was an urban culture that emphasized civil service, education and self-betterment. There was a rigid class structure and slavery was the norm. Rome was known for its circuses and culture as well as its dominant personality.

Ten Contributions to the Fall of Rome

Despite arguments, contradictions and a host of historical theories, not one main cause or event has been universally recognized as leading to Rome's decline and eventual fall. According to Kennesaw State University, 10 basic contributing factors are recognized that provide a basis for further research and study.

Events Prior to 400 CE

In 293 CE, Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into east and west. Unable to cope with the size of Rome's power, Diocletian had two Caesars and two Augustuses (emperor and emperor's assistant) to manage each half of the split empire in theory, weakening its rule.

Eventually, Emperor Constantine marched on Rome to take over both the eastern and western empires in 330 CE. Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium (Constantinople or Istanbul today), changing the power center of the empire. If not in Rome, is it still the Roman Empire?

Christianity was legalized and made the official Roman religion in 380 CE. This changed the Roman religion from polytheistic to monotheistic, creating great social and cultural upheaval.

Events from 400 to 700 CE

After Theodosius split the Empire into east and west once again, the Goths invaded Rome in 410 CE. The first weakening of the Roman part of the empire in six centuries was quickly followed by a second attack from the Vandals in 455 CE, decreasing Rome's influence drastically.

The Empire changed from emperor rule to a monarchy in 476 CE. Emperor Romulus Augustulus, who was too young to rule alone, had General Odoacar assist him. Odoacar killed the boy and claimed himself King of the Roman Empire. Disillusionment with the system of Rome spread during this time.

In 619 CE, the Islamic prophet Mohammed spread Islam to city-states in the eastern empire. The rise of a competing monotheistic religion within the empire may have led to further divisions between citizens and rulers

Events After 700 CE

By 721 CE the Islamic Empire spread to Spain, cutting off the Eastern Roman Empire from the Western Roman Empire. With the empire divided, so was its strength and dominance.

Christian crusaders attacked the city of Constantine in 1204 CE. Upon removing the ruling emperor and sacking the city, recovery as part of the Roman Empire never occurred. The Byzantine Empire was born in 1254 CE using Roman emperors and Roman armies, although the influence of Rome was definitely weakened.

In 1453 CE, Islamic armies entered the city of Constantine and took over, thus ending all ties with Rome and its empire.

Finally, Martin Luther criticized the Roman church publicly in 1517 CE by posting his 95 Theses on a church door. This act marked the beginning of the reformation period in Europe and is viewed by some historians as the final nail in the Roman Empires coffin.

Many historians find ease in noting the division of the empire or the fall of Constantinople as the main causes of the fall of the Roman Empire but social changes as well as logistical and military acts play a role. The causes could be summed up as religious change, geographical division and the thirst for power.

Religion and Rome's Decline

Until the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, the monotheistic religion had been a fringe ideology. Pagan beliefs of polytheism, a sort of live and let live system, dominated Roman thought and culture for centuries. Polytheism allowed Rome to enter other countries without demanding much change in religion from its new citizens.

As monotheism spread, whether through the rise of Islam or the growing popularity of Christianity, it was difficult to mesh with Roman ideals and beliefs. Christianity especially was against Roman rule, earthly governments and humanity claiming divinity or right of rule. After Constantines death, later emperors tried to outlaw Christianity once again. Later, paganism was outlawed. This social upheaval (both political and cultural) could be considered a long-term cause of Rome's decline, regardless of which particular incident of religious change is noted.

Division and Geography

The size and scope of Rome's influences grew beyond its resources, forcing the division of the east and west sections of the empire. Whether this was a good idea or not is hotly debated, but Diocletians decision seemed necessary at the time as the strength and reach of the army and the influence of Rome was pushed to its limits. Dividing the empire was not only geographical but psychological, making Rome appear weaker than its former self. Although the empire continued to operate (and indeed flourish in the East), the cohesiveness of strength, both militarily and culturally, and how it was perceived, in terms of the perception of absolute dominance that Rome had embraced to its advantage for so many centuries, was altered.

Power and Greed: Motivation for Change

It is clear from the changes in religious preferences, the differing rules of Roman emperors and the division in beliefs and culture that many who ruled Rome were motivated by the power to change things. Greed is a staple of empire building and often its undoing. Although thought less of as a cause for Rome's decline than military and religious conflict, power and greed, the change from republic to empire to monarchy, have a great effect on the integrity and identity of any nation.

The Roman Empire, its rise to victory and its grand decline are quintessential to Western civilizations history and understanding of self. Empire building has declined over the centuries but its influence still remains, for better or for worse.

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