To What Extent Did Christianity Bring about the Fall of the Roman Empire? (2017), by Sean Gabb

To What Extent Did Christianity Bring about
the Fall of the Roman Empire?

Note: One of my duties in the various places where I teach is to show students how to write essays – something most young people are not nowadays taught to do. What I like to do in class is to choose a question at random, discuss possible approaches, and then dictate an answer one paragraph at a time. Some of these answers are very short. Some amount to small dissertations. In this latter case, the students take turns at looking on-line for the information we decide is needed. It they cannot find it, I show them how to change the structure of what has already been written, or to strike out in a new direction.

It is a “writing masterclass” approach that makes use of my own strengths, and is often a welcome alternative to formal teaching. It fills up a long morning session. Everyone learns something, and the more attentive will improve their final grades by at least one step.

Here is an example of the finished product. Do not take it as a statement of personal opinion. It is an answer produced for a specific question, and it bears in mind what a possibly unknown examiner will appreciate, and what can be written to incorporate the sources found in class. SIG

PS – If anyone wants to engage my services as a teacher of these skills, please click on the image to the left. Though they are my niche subjects, Greek and Latin are not my exclusive focus as a teacher. I do much else besides.

PPS – If you are a student, and you have come across this in a frantic last minute search, I advise you not to copy and paste and submit. You will be found out in three clicks of a mouse. Examiners were not born yesterday.

Note to Students: Here is a consolidation of what I have dictated to you during the past three weeks. Your job, between now and the half term, is to produce a finished version. I have divided you into Group A and Group B. Members of each group are to work closely with each other, but each group is to work separately of the other.

The most obvious completion needed is to find the sources that I have omitted to supply. We looked out some of them in class – but you will need to do better than supplying references to books we found on Gutenberg. And you must standardise all citations. Adding more sub-headings than I have will do you no harm. Ditto an Abstract.

I also expect you to go over every one of the positive statements I make in this exemplar, and to decide whether you agree with them. If you disagree, I expect you to produce your own version. Because some of you have disagreed with me in class – sometimes very strongly – I hope to see radically different versions of the final product. Indeed, if what I finally see is just tidied up versions of what I gave you, with notes added, I shall not be pleased.

You may keep or reject my wording as you see fit. Just because I can produce nice sentences does not give anything I said a privileged status. Do not ask me for any more help. Do not show me your drafts for early comment. I will refuse to look at them. Do not ask [name omitted] for help. He is aware of the exercise, and will tell you to go away.

The learning outcome from a month or work in class is that you will be able to take all the material you have gathered for your own essays, and to produce a competent text that will express your opinions, and to support your opinions with relevant evidence – both in the main text and in the notes. I have lectured you at mind-rotting length about the construction of arguments and their arrangement into a consistent whole. I have shown you how to do it. It is now for you to do it yourselves.

Thanks, by the way, to [name omitted] for typing in the text and notes as I dictated them, and for producing this draft. Except to tidy up a few typos, I have not changed it. SIG


The purpose of this essay is to examine whether the establishment of Christianity by Constantine and his successors had any effect upon what is commonly known as the Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Accusation

In chapter 71 of his History Edward Gibbon says that he has “described the triumph of barbarism and religion”.[1] In other words, he explains the fall of the Roman Empire as a combination of barbarian invasions and the internal corroding effects of Christianity. In his Autobiography he goes further, saying “…I believed, and as I still believe, that the propagation of the Gospel, and the triumph of the church, are inseparably connected with the decline of the Roman monarchy…” [2]

Though he died in 1794, Gibbon remains probably the most influential historian ever of the Roman Empire. His works have been continuously in print for 240 years, and his opinion is worth taking seriously. To see whether his opinion is true, let us consider the facts.

In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which repealed all the criminal laws against Christianity. Since Constantine and his successors were Christians this amounted to the establishment of Christianity as the state religion. Though we have no statistics, during the next 80 years Christianity seems to have become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. In 391AD Theodosius I effectively abolished paganism by outlawing its sacrifices.

In 313 the Empire’s frontiers were completely secure. In 378, a mass of barbarians were allowed across the Danube and defeated a Roman Army at Adrianople, and never left the empire. In 406 an even greater mass of Barbarians crossed the Rhine. In 410 these barbarians sacked Rome. Over the next generation they took France and Spain and North Africa from the Empire. Italy itself was increasingly ruled by emperors who were front men for barbarian kings. After 476/480 these barbarian kings stepped from behind and ruled Italy openly.

It seems a good fit. The progress of Christianity correlates with the “Fall” of the Empire. Indeed Gibbon was not the first to notice the correlation. After the sack of Rome in 410, many pagans pointed the finger of blame at Christianity. They said that the empire had been safe all the time the sacrifices had been performed. Now, less than twenty years after the banning of the sacrifices, the Imperial City had been plundered by barbarians.

Because their works have not survived, we do not mostly know the names of these pagan writers. But Saint Augustine wrote his City of God and Orosius wrote his Universal History partly to reply to the accusations.[3] Certainly, they were repeated a hundred years later by the Greek historian Zosimus. He says:

In this Cynegius obeyed his commands, closing up the doors of the temples throughout the east, Egypt, and Alexandria, and prohibited all their ancient sacrifices and customary observances. As to the calamities which the Roman Empire suffered from that period, a distinct account of the facts themselves will be the best demonstration.[4]

There are obvious differences between Zosimus and Gibbon and his followers. Zosimus believed that the pagan gods existed, and that their protection alone was enough to keep the Empire strong. Gibbon and his followers take a more scientific approach. They claim, among much else, that Christianity valued the next world at the expense of this one, that it diverted young men from the army into monasteries, that it forced the Imperial authorities to pay attention to trifling differences over religious dogma at the cost of defending the frontiers. They also claim that, as a mystical religion, Christianity undermined the rational, secularist values of the best days of the Ancient World. [5]

But, if there are differences, the similarity is obvious. Without the disrupting effects of Christianity, they agree, the Roman Empire would not have fallen in the fifth century.

The Defence: Correlation

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The first defence worth making is that correlation is not cause. Just because two things happen at the same time does not necessarily mean that they are associated, let alone that one is a cause and the other an effect. Christianity became the established faith of the Roman Empire just as the Western Provinces came under strain. Well, at the same time, parchment books replaced the papyrus roll in many libraries, the civil service expanded, the gold coinage was expanded, many Emperors of this period originated from the Balkans rather than Italy. Did any of these cause the Empire to fall? Possibly they did, possibly not. But, to show a causal connection, we need to show more than a correlation.

A second point is that correlations require hard data. For example, we believe there is a correlation between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, because we know how many cigarettes are smoked and we know how many people contract lung cancer. We can arrange these figures in tables to show variations over fifty or a hundred years. We can see how a change of one variable in any direction is followed by a change in the other. Where past ages are concerned, we have almost no hard data, or almost no hard data that can be compared across time.

For the Ancient World in general, most statistical information that we have taken for granted since about 1700 was not collected in the first place. The Roman Government was interested to know how many tax paying units there were at any moment. It held a periodic census to make sure it was squeezing as much tax as it could get out of the people. [6] This was not the same as counting the population in the modern sense – that is, counting gross population, and then breaking it down by age and sex and social class and geographic location, and so forth. We often read in the ancient historians what look like hard statistics – for example, the claim in Herodotus that three million Persians marched with Xerxes in his invasion of Greece. [7] These usually turn out, however, to be unlikely – that, or they are simply vague guesses. [8]

Indeed, what statistical information was collected has mostly perished. The Greeks and Romans had no printing press. Everything had to be copied by hand. They did not have paper. Parchment was expensive. Papyrus was expensive and did not last. Literacy was no more widespread in the Roman Empire than it was in Europe before about 1350, and much less widespread than at any time since then. [9] Cheaper writing media, like waxed tablets or wooden boards, were not even intended to last. Books of any kind were a rarity. Not surprisingly, the great majority even of the high literature of the Ancient World has perished – ie, most of Tacitus, much of Livy, virtually all of Epicurus, and so on and so forth. What we have has survived almost at random, and is heavily biased towards literature or theology.

What all this means is that we do not have most of the information needed for establishing a detailed correlation. What was the population of the Roman Empire in 300? In 400 and 500? What was the population of the Rome at any time? What percentage of these populations were Christians? What proportion of committed and relatively indifferent Christians? How many monks were there by the end of the fourth century? How many of these might otherwise have joined the army? How much of the Imperial budget was spent on religious affairs and how much on military defence? What proportion of its time did the Imperial Government spend on each? How, if at all, did this balance change in the century after the establishment of Christianity? How much difference had the change from one religion to another on everyday life and social relationships in the Roman Empire? How effective were the laws against pagan sacrifices?

We are in no position to give definite answers to any of these questions. Therefore, blaming what happened in Europe in the century or so before 476 on a set of religious changes is to rest claims of historical fact on a mass of guesses. All we can really say is that Zosimus and Gibbon hated Christianity, if for different reasons, and they blamed it for the “Fall.” Augustine and Orosius were committed Christians, and they denied that it deserved any share of the blame. And that, really, is as far as we can go in this line of discussion.

The Defence: Falsification

However, this is not all that can be said. Arguing that Christianity was responsible for the “Fall” of the Roman Empire is rather like arguing that all swans are white when you are unable to look outside St James’ Park. You can see only a small, and perhaps a random, proportion of the swans in the world, and you have no right to say that any claim about their colour is made out by looking at your sample. Or, to repeat the previous section of this dissertation, there is limited positive evidence to make out the charges against Christianity.

But, if we cannot prove a claim about facts, it can be falsified. You cannot prove, by looking at two dozen swans in St James’ Park, that all swans in the world are white.  But, if you see one black swan among a million white, the claim that all swans are white falls to the ground. So it is with arguments about the “Fall” of the Roman Empire.

Now, the reason I have put the word Fall in quotation marks so far is that the concept of a fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century is both absurd and one more instance of the anti-Greek prejudice that has infected the West European mind since at least the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Reasonably considered, there was no “Fall.”

Crisis and Recovery in the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire, as ruled by Augustus and the Emperors of the first two centuries after Christ, enjoyed both internal stability and external security. [10] Then, after about 200, the Empire came under increasing strain. A movement of peoples through what is now Russia and the Ukraine led to greatly magnified pressure on the Rhine and Danube frontiers. The Goths kept breaking through the northern frontier, which now had to be massively defended at all times – defended with troops and fortifications, and with bribes and other expensive diplomacy. In the East, the sudden revival of the Persian Empire led to similar pressure on the Euphrates frontier. [11]

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At the same time, there appears to have been a decay of population and trade within the Empire. [12] As said, we have no statistics. But growing shortages of manpower meant that the Imperial armies had to be filled increasingly not with citizens but with barbarian mercenaries. Though taxes were increased to pay for higher military spending, there was a continual shortfall, and this was covered by currency debasement, or inflation. [13] Periodic civil wars made things worse.

The Empire was stabilised internally and on its frontiers by the Balkan Emperors of the late third and early fourth centuries – Claudius II, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, Constantine the Great, and so forth. From their reforms came the idea of dividing the Empire into semi-autonomous zones, according to military need. Therefore, the West would have its own Emperor to look after the Rhine and the edge of the Sahara Desert in the North African provinces. The East would have its own Emperor to look after the Danube and Euphrates. Each Emperor was equal. Each was usually related, at least by marriage.

The fourth century was a time of institutional experiment, in which the Empire would sometimes have a single ruler again. But the idea of an Emperor in the West and one in the East had taken hold, and it made sense. In 395 Theodosius I once again divided the Empire into Eastern and Western administrative zones, with an Emperor in Rome and Constantinople. He may have done this because he had two sons and wanted each of them to be Emperor. But this was the final division. During the next century, each half went its own way.

The Division of the Empire

In the West, the way was straight to disaster. There was no disaster in the East. The last Emperor in the West was Romulus Augustulus, who abdicated in 476, or Julius Nepos, who died in 480. In the East, the line of the Emperors continues unbroken to 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks. There were changes during these thousand years. The official language changed from Latin to Greek.[14] The frontiers expanded in some areas and shrank in others. The administrative machinery was transformed several times. But, all this time, the citizens of the Empire called themselves Romans, and the Emperors and lawyers and historians always looked back over an unbroken succession to Augustus, and even to Romulus. [15]

There was no “Fall.” What happened was that the Western provinces were overrun in the fifth century and made into the barbarian kingdoms from which our own history emerges. No doubt, the loss of all the Western provinces, including Rome itself, was a profound alteration. But the Roman Empire did not end because of this. As said, it carried on for another thousand years.

The Mediaeval Roman Empire

Here we come to what is called a rescue hypothesis. Let us go back to the example of the swans. I look round St James’s Park and say that all swans are white. You find a black swan, and tell me that my hypothesis has been falsified. I might give in and accept I was wrong. Or I could try arguing that something about the bird you have in your arms makes it other than a swan. This has been the approach of many West Europeans since at least the Renaissance. The Italian scholars saw two great ages for mankind. There was Classical Antiquity. There was the modernity that began with their own recovery of ancient literature. Between these two great ages was a vast gulf of darkness and barbarism that they called the Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages. [16]

Renamed the Byzantine Empire, the continuing Roman Empire was written off as a weak and pitiful shadow of what had died in the fifth century. According to the W.E.H. Lecky, who wrote in the time of Queen Victoria,

Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet “mean” may be so emphatically applied…The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.[17]

Granted that court politics do often focus on the trivial. But let us examine this claim that the continuing Roman Empire was “destitute… of greatness.” In the fifth century, it kept Attila and the Huns from ravaging its Balkan provinces – even if that did mean persuading them to go west into Italy. In this time, Constantinople grew into one of the biggest and richest cities in the world. The Eastern Empire, as a whole, appears to have entered a golden age of wealth and security.[18] In the sixth century, it reached out from Constantinople and took back North Africa and Italy and parts of Spain from the barbarians. By the death of Justinian, Britain and France were irrecoverably lost, but the Mediterranean was once more a Roman lake.

After Justinian, the Empire entered a century and a half of crises. Each of these could have been fatal. Each one of these it survived and overcame. In 602, the Persian Empire took advantage of internal weakness, and struck hard. It took Syria and Egypt, and its armies managed once to lay siege to Constantinople. Then, under the Emperor Heraclius, the Empire struck back, retaking the lost provinces and effectively destroying the Persian Empire. From around 570BC, barbarians once more invaded Italy, and also invaded Greece. The Lombards were never forced out of Italy. But the Avars and Slavs were eventually contained and even incorporated in the Empire.

Above all, the Empire had to deal with the first and exceptionally violent explosion of Islam. In 634, the Arab armies poured out of the desert and defeated the Imperial armies at Yarmouk. They took Syria. The turned west and took Egypt. In the next fifty years, they took the whole of Roman Africa.

The early Caliphs had an unbeatable strategy. In battle, their armies were both ruthless and suicidally brave. Once the battle was over and won, they offered lower taxes and full religious toleration to the losers.[19] They built a huge empire. They swept up the remnants of the Persian Empire in two seasons. They conquered Visigothic Spain in about five years. They spread their frontiers thousands of miles to the west and east.

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The only firm resistance they met was from the Empire. As said, they took Syria and Egypt and North Africa. But the moment they turned north, into the core territories of the Empire, they always met with bloody and humiliating defeat. In the 660s, they laid siege to Constantinople. The Romans invented Greek Fire – a burning vapour that could be shot hundreds of yards, and that even burned on sea water[20] – and inflicted a shattering defeat on the Arabs. It was the same in the greater siege of 717. After this, the Empire went gradually of the offensive, retaking parts of Syria, and turning Egypt into a diplomatic satellite. All through the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, the Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the Mediterranean world. It lived for over four centuries beside militant Islam, and contained it. No one else has ever managed that. So much for the idea that the Empire was “destitute… of greatness.”

It will be noticed that, except when quoting Lecky, I have not used the name “Byzantine Empire.” I believe it is more appropriate to call this particular state organisation either the Mediaeval Roman Empire, or just “The Empire.”

It should be enough to refute Zosimus and Gibbon to show that the Empire did not in fact fall in the fifth century. But we can go much further. I accept that what I am about to say rests ultimately on claims about statistics that do not exist, and may never have existed. But there is good reason for saying that the survival and glory of the mediaeval Roman Empire was closely connected with its vision of itself as a Christian state.

Christianity: A Greek Religion

When it was first noticed by outsiders, Christianity was seen as a Jewish heresy. When the Jews rejected it, St Paul and the early Evangelists took the message to the Greeks. They founded seven church communities in Greek Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and communities in Corinth and Syria and Alexandria and elsewhere in the Eastern Provinces. The New Testament and all the early writings of the Christian Fathers are in Greek. The first Christians in Rome and the Western Provinces appear to have been Greeks and renegade Jews.[21] Christianity did eventually spread to Latin speakers, but the great majority of Christian writings remained in Greek.

With the exception of Donatism – which was confined to North Africa, and was an argument about the status of Christians who had lapsed during the last persecution – the early heresies all originated among the Greeks. The Arian Heresy, that raged all through the fourth century, was about whether Christ was “like unto the Father” or “one with the Father.” The difference is expressed in two Greek words – homoiousios and homoousios. There is only one letter of difference in Greek. In Latin, they both translate as consubstantium, and the difference had to be carefully explained to Western Christians.

What I am arguing is that Christianity was, for many centuries, primarily a Greek religion. Its intellectual heart was inside the Eastern Provinces. Though, as ever, there are no statistics, we can believe that there were more Christians in the East than in the West. The Latin word for non-Christian in paganus. This means someone who lives in the countryside. From this and much other evidence, we can suppose that Christianity was a religion of the cities. There were more cities in the East than in the West, and there were many more big cities. By about 300, the big cities in the West were Rome, Carthage and London. [22] The East had Constantinople and Antioch and Damascus and Jerusalem and Alexandria, and Ephesus and Smyrna and Halicarnassus and many others that have left extensive and magnificent ruins.

Between 361 and 363, the Empire was ruled by Julian the Apostate. Brought up a Christian, he converted to paganism and tried to use his power to turn back the advance Christianity had made since the conversion of his uncle, Constantine. In 362, he arrived in Antioch, one of the Empire’s biggest cities, to find the temples shut up and abandoned. There were still pagan intellectuals there, like Libanius. The people still celebrated some of the pagan festivals. But the most important religion was already Christianity.[23] In other Eastern cities, Christianity was enough of a mass movement for there to be serious riots connected with the Arian Heresy.

In Rome, on the other hand, the senatorial aristocracy only converted to Christianity late in the fifth century – after the barbarian conquest of the West. They had bitterly protested when, in the 390s, Theodosius I ordered the removal of the statue of the Winged Victory from the Senate Chamber. After the sack of Rome in 410, there was even a pagan revolution in the City, in which the temples were briefly reopened.[24]

Therefore, Christianity was primarily a Greek religion, and it was the Greek areas of the Empire that survived. This, though, is another negative argument – that Christianity was not inconsistent with Imperial survival. Let us look at how Christianity may have contributed to Eastern survival.

Christianity as Backbone of the Mediaeval Roman Empire

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At the outset, I concede that Christianity may have introduced a spirt of division into the Eastern Empire. One of the reasons why Constantine chose Christianity as the new state religion was hope that it would bind all the peoples of the Empire together.[25] This reason did not apply in Egypt or Syria. These had been conquered by Alexander the Great in the third century BC. Since then, they had been ruled by Greek-speaking elites, and Greek language and culture dominated in much the same way as English language and culture still dominate in Wales.

The rise of Christianity gave a voice to the native Syrians and Egyptians. For a while, this was a common voice with the Greek Christians. After 481, however, their ways parted. The Arian Dispute concerned the relationship of Christ to the Father. Once this was settled, a further dispute arose over the relationship between the human and divine elements of Christ’s nature. In this Monophysite Dispute, the Greeks tended to what we regard as the orthodox view of Christ as a perfect fusion of God and man. The Syrians and Egyptians tended to view Christ’s human nature as at best minor. A century of persecution by the Imperial Government turned heretics into rebels. One reason why Syria and Egypt fell so easily to the Persians after 602 may be that the native peoples there no longer saw the Imperial Government as legitimate. One reason why they fell so quickly again to the Arabs may be that they felt closer to the strict anti-Trinitarianism of Islam than to Orthodox Greek Christianity. [26]

If this is so – and, again, the evidence is lacking – then the Empire was weakened in one respect by Christianity, or was weakened by the Imperial Government’s idea of promoting Christianity. On the other hand, Christianity was part of the identity of the citizens of the Mediaeval Roman Empire. It was omnipresent in daily life. It gave meaning to life.[27] This identity did nothing to damage the survival of a state organisation that lasted a thousand years. It is reasonable to suppose it helped the Empire to survive.

Indeed, we can see this again and again. Let us take two examples. First, in 622, the Emperor Heraclius decided to strike back at the Persians, who had taken Syria and Egypt, and were planning to take Constantinople itself. The Church provided the money. The Patriarch and Emperor stood side by side and preached what can only be described as a crusade against the fire worshippers from the East. Religious symbols were put on all the military emblems. Icons were carried into battle. Victory in the war, when it came, was celebrated in a giant ceremony in the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem. The Empire had triumphed over its enemies. So had the Church. [28]

Second, there was the first siege of Constantinople by the Arabs in the 660s. As said, the Empire was alone in mediaeval states in facing down militant Islam. This is because Emperor and Caliph were both heads of universalist religions that preached exclusive salvation. They crashed into each other in the seventh century. They ground against each other for centuries. Islam only won eventually because the Empire mismanaged its relations with the West Europeans. But, in the first siege, deliverance of the City was ascribed by everyone to the intercession of the Virgin at one of the key points in the battle for the walls. This intercession is still celebrated by the Orthodox Church, and was recently given a musical setting by John Tavener. [29]

Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose the following:

  1. The Empire as a whole did not fall in the fifth century;
  2. Christianity was more dominant in the East than in the West, and the East survived;
  3. The continuing Roman Empire of the middle ages was a powerful and successful state organisation;
  4. Christianity contributed to the survival and strength of the mediaeval Roman Empire.

The hypothesis, that Christianity caused the “Fall” of the Roman Empire is a nonsense that should be seen as bringing disgrace on anyone who so much as uses the phrase. Indeed, Gibbon himself was not wholly committed to it. In Chapter 39 of his Decline and Fall, he admits:

If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors. [30]

I could end here. Instead, I will briefly review other causes for the loss of the Western Provinces – always keeping in mind, however, how little we can know about what really happened.

Broadly speaking, the explanations fall under two headings:

First, there are explanations that deal with what we may call contingent causes. What I mean here is events that have no root in any grand narrative. They might or might not have happened. Let me illustrate this with a more recent example. In June 1791, Louis XVI gathered his family into a coach and fled Paris. His idea was to get to safety with the Austrian invaders. At Varennes, he was recognised by Jean-Baptiste Drouet, the local postmaster, who blocked the road with a cart and held up the royal coach until the Paris regime could send out an arrest party. But suppose it had rained heavily the night before – suppose Drouet had not been able to move the cart, and the royal coach had carried on towards the Austrian lines. The course of European history might have been radically changed. No grand narrative here of causes buried deep in the history of France and the European Enlightenment – just a fundamental turn in history based on the accident of weather.

Applying this to the Western Provinces, J.B. Bury dismisses all talk of general causes. In his History of the Later Roman Empire, he says:

The gradual collapse of the Roman power … was the consequence of a series of contingent events. No general causes can be assigned that made it inevitable. [31]

For him the events of the fifth century can be adequately explained by looking at the freezing over the Rhine in 406, which allowed large numbers of barbarians to cross into the Empire who could otherwise have been kept out. There was then the treason or incompetence of named Roman officials that led to the occupation of France and Spain and North Africa. If there was no Western Empire by the end of the fifth century, it was because of a series of unlucky accidents that might have been avoided.

As with Drouet’s cart, we can, on this scheme of explanation write any amount of “what if” history. But, to say once again, we lack critical information. A further defect of the Bury line of argument – if the word “defect” is appropriate here – is that it lacks excitement. The Roman Empire was a vast state organisation. It dominated the whole Mediterranean world for half a millennium. We expect a correspondingly grand explanation for the loss of its Western Provinces.

We come, then, to the second class of explanation, which is to find general causes. Here, we begin once more with Gibbon:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. [32]

In other words, the Empire was too large for its own long term survival. Its government was too far removed from the people. It could only be a matter of time before it failed.

Or let us look at a selection of the modern explanations.

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Peter Heather proposes a new theory to one of the greatest mysteries of history: the strange death of the Roman Empire in his The Fall of the Roman Empire A New History.[33] Heather illuminates the panorama of Empire’s end with a mix of authoritative analysis and great story telling. He examines the extraordinary successes of the Roman Empire and, with a new understanding of its continued strength, and enduring limitations, shows how Europe’s barbarians, transformed by centuries of contact with Rome, eventually pulled it apart. Heather argues from the perspective that it was the Barbarian invasions from Eastern Europe that caused the demise of the Roman Empire.

This source disagrees with Ellsworth Huntington’s view as expressed in his Climatic Change and Agricultural Exhaustion as Elements in the fall of Rome.[34] He argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to the rapid decline in Agriculture, and a vast drop in grain production. Instead Heather argues that as a result of centuries of fighting against their Roman foes, the Barbarians had shown their resilience towards foreign rule and refusal to bow towards the might of the Roman Empire. This resilience caused many revolts to take place across the Roman Empire including places such as Dacia. As a result of these revolts the Romans were fighting on many battle fronts and was spending millions of “denarii” which was to the detriment of their economy.

Emil Lucki, in her Case Study in the A Decline of the Roman Empire in the West[35]on the other hand, is concerned with the question, “why was it, if the state was failing, that the people did not rise to the occasion and prevent the Barbarians from invading their land.” Therefore she argues that the investigations in to the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire should include a consideration of the people’s role, especially of that class whose influence was paramount, namely the large land owners. The main purpose of this paper is to examine this aspect of the problem with special focus on Roman Gaul, the most prosperous and possibly the most populous province of the Roman Empire.

Lucki argues that the pivotal catalyst for the fall of the Roman Empire was the occupation of Gaul by Barbarians. Gaul provided an influential invasion point for the destruction and attacks on Rome. In addition Lucki argues that it is impossible to say that Gaul was lost due to lack of manpower or were too weak to offer effective resistance. This is because the resources and culture that the Gallo-Romans had was far superior to that of what the Germans possessed. Consequentially, Lucki’s main argument is that, because the landholders were responsible for recruiting soldiers, training the army and settling minor disputes among their dependants, they, the landowners, could be held accountable for the loss of Roman Gaul, and therefore had a significant impact on the Fall of Rome. This is because the landowners were responsible for the running of the state (Gaul), and were the only class members who had significant power in Gallo-Rome.

Nick Squires, the Telegraph’s correspondent in Rome since 2008, covering Italy, the Vatican and surrounding countries, argues that it was not due to one single dramatic event that caused the decline of the Roman Empire, instead he provides the alternative argument that the decline of the Empire took place over around 300 years. Squires argues that the fall of Rome was due to a plethora of reasons. Most prominently military overreach, invasion by emboldened tribes of Huns and Visigoths from northern and central Europe, inflation, corruption and political incompetence.

Squires expands on his argument that a collection of factors caused the “fall” of the Roman Empire:

Increases in taxation were also highly unpopular, while increased trade with India and China, through the Silk Route, may have caused a crippling trade imbalance. The rising cost of ever more spectacular gladiatorial games, borne by Roman emperors and therefore the state, has also been posited as a theory for the decline. The once invincible Roman army was weakened by factional fighting and its ranks were diluted by the introduction of large numbers of Germanic tribesmen, other historians have suggested.[36]

 [Conclusion needed]


[1] Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-87), Chapter LXXI (71), Project Gutenberg Edition.

[2] Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings (1795), Project Gutenberg Edition.

[3] Authority needed.

[4] Zosimus, New History. London: Green and Chaplin (1814), p.49 – online edition.

[5] Authority needed.

[6] Authority needed. You could use Luke c.2, or you could find something else about the counting of households. This might go into both text and notes.

[7] Authority needed.

[8] Authority needed.

[9] Authority needed. There is a book on this by E.V. Harrison. Go and find it.

[10] Authority needed.

[11] Authority needed.

[12] Authority needed.

[13] Authority needed.

[14] Authority needed.

[15] Authority needed.

[16] Authority needed.

[17] William Lecky, A history of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne 2 vols. (London 1869) II, 13f [You standardise this reference]

[18] Find reference in Treadgold.

[19] Authority needed.

[20] Authority needed.

[21] Authority needed.

[22] Authority needed.

[23] Authority needed.

[24] Authority needed.

[25] Authority needed.

[26] Authority needed.

[27] Authority needed. The book I have in mind here is Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire, details of which you can find for yourselves.

[28] Authority needed. Nice book here was Walter Kaegi. Look it out.

[29] Authority needed.

[30] Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-87, Chapter XXXAVIII (38), Project Gutenberg Edition.

[31] Authority needed.

[32] Authority needed.

[33] Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire A New History. Give full details.

[34] E. A. Thompson, Peasant Revolts in Late Roman Gaul and Spain.

[35] Emil Lucki, The Role of the Large Landholders in the Loss of Roman Gaul: A Case Study in the Decline of the Roman Empire in the West.

[36] Authority needed.

Further Reading – if you’ve got this far:

The Byzantine novels of Richard Blake

Edward Gibbon: Man of the Enlightenment

© 2017, seangabb.

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