The fall of Rome occurred after a long process of political and military decline in the Western Roman Empire. Various historians indicate 476 AD as the definitive year of the fall , the moment in which Odoacer, leader of a coalition of Germanic tribes, overthrew the young emperor Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself king of Italy.
The Western Roman Empire, however, did not fall overnight. Its decline had spread since the 3rd century AD due to both internal political struggles and the threat posed by the barbarian peoples that lurked on its borders.
The personal interests of senators and the military, or the wasteful behavior of the emperors, on multiple occasions harmed the imperial administration. Corruption and lack of adherence to a common will left the empire ill-prepared to defend itself against the invasions it suffered in the fifth century.
Rome also lost authority when its generals in the provinces tried to impose themselves as emperors. Such circumstances produced civil conflicts and the army lost its unity of purpose. Even more, the legions integrated mercenaries from Germanic peoples in the final decades of the empire, something that eroded the loyalty to Rome until its fall.
Summary of the events that marked the decline of Rome in antiquity
The crisis of the third century
(235 – 284 d.C.)
It was a period of military anarchy. For half a century regional leaders fought for control. Stability came with the rise to power of Emperor Diocletian in AD 284. But he transformed the empire into a tetrarchy , that is, a political system with four rulers.
Christianity and the dominance of Constantinople
(306 – 337 d.C.)
At the beginning of the fourth century, Constantine I reunited the empire under his rule, allowed Christianity as a religion, and moved the capital to Constantinople, a city built on the former settlement of Byzantium.
The last division of the empire
Honorius, the youngest son of Theodosius, would rule the west. Arcadio, the eldest son, would have power in the East. Soon the Gothic peoples made inroads from the borders of the Rhine and Danube rivers into the territories of the Western Roman Empire.
Under the command of the warlord Alaric, the Visigoths besieged and looted Rome, which had been left defenseless. The fragility of the old power was notable.
Rome was attacked by Genseric, king of the Vandals and Alans. The vandals entered the city and took with them all the riches they could.
The fall of rome
In AD 474, the aristocrat Flavius Orestes won the support of the army to appoint his teenage son, Romulus Augustulus, as emperor. Barely two years later, the chief of the Heruli and Scyros, Odoacer, dethroned Augustulus. Odoacer proclaimed himself King of Italy without accepting the title of Roman Emperor.
Causes of the fall of the Western Roman Empire
Rome reached the height of its dominance in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Then it had control of both the Italian peninsula and territories in Iberia, the north coast of Africa, the Syro-Palestinian coast, the Balkans, Asia Minor and even regions as far away. like the island of Britannia in the north and Mesopotamia in the east.
However, sustaining such a vast empire presented great difficulties. Starting in the 3rd century, Roman power began to decline. Now we will look at the causes of his fall.
1. Conflicts of interest and civil wars
Territorial expansion hampered effective communication between the various imperial provinces. Rome thus faced internal and external threats. On the one hand, provincial military leaders sought to impose their will and even appoint themselves emperors.
On the other, defending the borders and grouping the legionary forces where it was necessary became difficult. It was very expensive to maintain territorial integrity.
2. The political and administrative division
The search for a better political administration and the need to defend Roman cities caused the move of the imperial capital. In AD 395, the empire was divided by Theodosius. The capital of the Western Roman Empire had been located in Milan until AD 402 and then moved to Ravenna.
The capital of the eastern section was Nicomedia until AD 330, the year in which Constantine founded Constantinople on the foundations of ancient Byzantium. Although the two parties recognized themselves within the same tradition, their projects distanced themselves and they stopped fighting common threats together.
The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, grew rich. The West, on the other hand, became more vulnerable.
Map of the Roman Empire after the division decided by Theodosius (395 AD). Constantinople, the eastern capital, was favored over time. This became more important in commercial circuits. Its power increased and it was better protected than the cities in the western part of the empire.
3. Military spending and economic problems
The empire stopped expanding in the 2nd century. The taxes that Rome received in the form of food or other wealth from the regions began to decrease and, little by little, the economic decline began. This, added to the constant wars, emptied the imperial coffers.
The rich who tried to evade taxes went to the countryside. The poor who could not get enough food in the cities also went to the countryside. These settlers established farms independent of central control. In these, a lord gave part of his land to his serfs in exchange for tribute. Thus began the feudalization process.
4. The invasion of the Huns
At the beginning of the 5th century, King Attila, under the command of the Huns, attacked and subdued various peoples in eastern Europe. The invasion of the Huns pushed these peoples to the west, to the very borders of the Roman Empire. Among the displaced peoples were the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Alans.
The Germanic peoples sought refuge within the Roman Empire, south of the Danube. At first they were despised, but eventually coexistence was established between these peoples called barbarians and the Roman settlers. Barbarians would soon swell the ranks of the Roman army.
5. The barbarian invasions
Border protection against attacks by barbarian peoples was maintained for decades. In the fifth century, however, coexistence was close, since various barbarian peoples lived within the empire. Visigoths and Ostrogoths requested land to settle with rights in the provinces of Rome. This caused conflicts.
The decline of Rome allowed peoples like the Saxons, Vandals, Alans, and German-Goths to occupy more and more territories in Britain, North Africa, Hispania, and even as far north as Italy. Population pressure was evident. Roman fragility increased with the impotence to stop the barbarians without fulfilling their requests.
In the middle of the 5th century, the Vandals conquered North Africa. Soon Rome would be sacked several times until its fall in 476 AD at the hands of Odoacer. From then on Italy would be consistently ruled by Heruli, Ostrogoths and Lombards until its fragmentation into small kingdoms in the High Middle Ages.
Karl Bryullov (1799-1852) The sack of Rome in 455. The scene in the painting recreates the sack of Rome led by Genseric, king of the Vandals and Alans.
Consequences of the fall of Rome
Historians place the end of antiquity when the Western Roman Empire disintegrated. Political, economic and social changes are so relevant that they open the door to a different world, that of the Middle Ages. Let’s look at the consequences of this transition in history.
1. The appearance and rule of new Christian kingdoms
The different Germanic tribes went on to govern the western territories of Europe. Most of these towns were already Christianized, so the role of the Catholic Church continued to be important in granting legitimacy to kings and feudal lords in their possessions.
Furthermore, in the absence of imperial law and institutions, the church saw its influence grow. People looked to this for guidance and stability. Bishops became advisers to the feudal nobility, and even regents of certain towns and lands.
Map of Europe in the 6th century. The West was divided into different kingdoms. In the East, Constantinople continued to be the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Image courtesy of: Bukkia.
2. The ruralization of life and the decline in trade
The trade routes of the imperial era declined in Western Europe. The roads and a good part of the infrastructure began to break down and disappear. The senorios tried to supply themselves with the products they needed, with which life depended more on the immediate environment for subsistence.
The quality of manufactured products lost quality. For example, the ceramics of the Middle Ages were not comparable to those that came from the East in ancient times. Most of the people dedicated themselves to agriculture. Many thus became serfs, that is, peasants who worked the land of a nobleman, to whom they paid tribute.
3. The Birth of Romance Languages
Latin only remained as the language of worship in the church. After the dissolution of the empire in the West, the Latin language took particular forms in the different regions of Europe. In the Middle Ages, Vulgar Latin gave way to languages such as Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French and Provencal. In the Eastern Roman Empire, also called Byzantine, the lingua franca was Greek.
4. The persistence of the Eastern Roman Empire
The fall of Rome did not mean the total loss of the Roman political tradition. In the East, Constantinople shone for centuries during the Middle Ages. It became the center of civilization, its trade routes endured, and the city prospered. It would take almost a thousand years until the Ottoman Turks finally conquered it in the year 1453.