Edward Gibbons, the historian whose masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written and published in stages in the 18th century, is still regarded as one of the finest works on that subject, a subject that has fascinated historians the world over for centuries. His view of Rome’s fall is varied, relying on the dissolution of the legions, the injection of Christianity into Roman life, making them more “effeminate”, as well as the relentless invasion of barbarian “hordes” which were once kept at bay by the legions patrolling the frontier.
Others, like Finley Hooper’s work, Roman Realities, suggest it simply “changed” over time. There was no fall, it just became “Medieval”. The most plausible, and probably the most correct is a combination of factors, relying heavily on three reasons: terrifically poor and selfish rulers (elevated to ‘god’ status after their deaths), the dissolution of the Roman economy, driven by a lazy population who preferred to rely on slave labor then their own ingenuity, the incurring of massive debt, and finally, barbarian invasions. This final piece of the puzzle is the most interesting.
For centuries, “barbarians”, those who were outside the great empires of the age (Rome, Mauryan/Gupta, Han China), did enter the confines of the Roman Empire. They would integrate themselves into Roman society, essentially becoming Roman, and then make their way in their chosen world as Romans. Some rising to positions of prominence within the government or the army itself. Assimilation was the key.
The Romans did not insist on those they conquered lose who they were…they rather preferred it, taking what was best from that society or culture and integrating it into their own. What they insisted upon, however, was loyalty to Rome first. Loyalty and paying Roman taxes. Ironically enough, Caesar’s integration of some former provinces into the empire, forcing them to pay taxes, was one of the ways the crippling Roman national debt was settled, those provinces happy to become “Roman”.
The problems became much larger when those who guarded the frontiers were not being paid during the latter part of the Western Empire’s life. The dissolution of the Roman legions, the backbone of Roman power, meant that larger and larger numbers of the Germanic hordes could enter into Rome unimpeded, said large numbers of Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns, and others no longer needing to assimilate into Roman society at all. Why? They were numerous enough to not have to, essentially swamping Roman society, itself a conglomerate of disparate peoples. Further, the Roman government did not have the resources to stem the tide by the late 4th century A.D., the empire taken over and transformed.
The very violent nature of Rome’s end has also been something of a sticking point, but Bryan Ward-Perkins’ book, The Fall of Rome and the end of Civilization, examined this violent end to the empire through archaeological findings of Roman roof tiles. His work is outstanding and seems to prove, without question, the barbarian invasions were not only violent, but the certainly one of the root causes of the Empire’s fall.
Interestingly enough, those who supplanted the Empire attempted to be as those who were the empire…they wished to be Roman, the very people they removed. They dressed as Romans, adopted Roman customs as best they could, but could never be Roman, for without those Romans as models, those barbarians could never achieve what those they wished to be like did.
What I cannot help wonder is…what were average Roman people thinking as they saw the dissolution of their state, their nation, their…empire? What was being said at their dinner tables? Were they in fear?
We know during the course of the conquest, many were, of course, in fear. When Alaric the Visigoth, entered Rome in 410 A.D. (I refuse to use B.C.E. & C.E.) many were killed, butchered in the streets as so many wild dogs, signaling the end of the empire in the West (it continued in the East until the fall of Constantinople in 1453). Watching the horror, one is reminded of the Frenchman crying as the Nazis paraded through Paris in 1940. The sorrow the Roman people felt must have been profound, and, most assuredly, they were asking themselves “how did it get to this point?”
We do not know with absolute certainty what was discussed at those dinner tables or the local drinking establishment, for there are few written records of such conversations, but there must have been a certain awareness that “things weren’t right”, and that “something must be done”, although, it seems nothing was. The Republic was long dead, and the voice of the people essentially silenced, government power concentrated in the person of Emperors. Even when there was the Republic (509B.C. – 46 B.C.), the people were not as engaged as they should have been, allowing, again, a concentration of power in the Roman Senate, filtered through such people as Sulla who became de facto dictators.
Were the people uncaring? Disconnected? After so many years of prosperity, wealth, and plenty, and despite occasional bouts of plague, were they so naïve to think the empire would last forever?
A causal acquaintance with the vicissitudes of history would lead one to believe nothing lasts forever. The Romans were an educated people; not to the level of the Chinese, but they were educated. Surely, they must have known the end was at hand or at least moving toward that end with such poor leadership and a fraying economy. It is not without precedent a people can convince themselves all is well when, in fact, it is not, that unwillingness by a population to address obvious wrongs the final nail in the coffin of any society.
Assuming a government, a body made up of human beings, is going to care for the population without being held accountable is a fool’s errand, for, if nothing else, all human history shows us the opposite is true. Virtue dies a slow but steady death where government is involved.
We’ll never know for sure what was said at those dinner tables,, for as I stated earlier, we have no way to know what was said in casual conversation. What we do know is that the empire ended, never to return. Those that survived the end were subject to almost a millennium of death, loss of learning, and a drastically reduced way of life. I wonder if the elders of that period, those who were around for the last few “salad days” mentioned the words, “dixi vobis.”*
*told you so