The Internal Collapse of the Structural Pillars of the Western Roman EmpireBy: Cade W.
Ryskamp In the 1700s, historian Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of Rome wrote that the story of Rome’s “ruin is simple and obvious.” Gibbons then proceeds to cite dozens of reasons and uses 6,000 pages in attempting to articulate the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. Before and after Gibbon, historians have argued their case for the fall of Rome citing a multitude of reasons. The Western Rome Empire rotted from within and its tax revenue and military could no longer support the territory it had conquered in the name of the empire. When the Roman emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed in 476 A.
D., Rome surrendered without resistance, no longer able to govern, support, or protect itself. Although there are many factors that may have collectively contributed to the fall of Rome, the principal cause for the fall of the Western Roman Empire was due to the internal collapse of the once stable Roman governmental structures that supported its economy and army.Many empires have existed throughout time, but Rome unlike any other has left lasting impressions throughout the world that continue today. Rome still matters because many of our foundations and beliefs regarding politics, administration, architecture, war, power, language, citizenship, and responsibility have their root in the Roman Empire.
The Roman economy excelled at its height “with low taxes and tariffs, free trade and private property, Rome became the center of the world’s wealth.” The dissemination of Latin across Europe influenced the development of the Romance languages Spanish, French, and Italian. Buildings across the world have been inspired by the architectural style of Rome. Many countries still refer to legislative leaders as senators. Rome’s use of roads, aqueducts, and parks continue to influence landscape design and construction. The fusion of Rome’s legacy throughout the world can never be lost and has increased “the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue of the human race.” It must be understood that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a gradual process commencing hundreds of years before 476 A.D.
“The decline of Rome was the natural inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.” When the Roman Empire disappeared “by the fifth century A.D. . . ., when it was gone, the world was plunged into darkness despair, slavery, and poverty.” Without the Roman Empire’s structure and governance, the middle ages darkened Europe for almost one thousand years.
Europe splintered into many secluded kingdoms, trade was impeded by the lack security of the Roman army, cities’ populations declined, violence increased, and the feudal system hindered technological advancement and artistic expression. The fall of Rome mattered because it created a void which Europe was not able to fill until the Renaissance. In the early period of Rome, “the vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” Government and civil administration were “carefully preserved” by the early emperors. Early Roman emperors exerted leadership with absolute power, structure, and with minimal challenges to their authority. In the later empire, Rome’s once solid foundation of imperial leadership, its tax system, and superior military crumbled and was not able to resist invasion. The cause of the Roman Empire was not due to external forces but predicaments occurring inside the Roman Empire.
The internal deterioration of Rome’s governing structure ultimately leads to a chain reaction of the demise of the economy and military which ultimately causes Rome’s fall. Weak and incompetent leadership and corruption were direct causes of the fall of Rome. The “golden age” of Roman emperors such as Trajan and Antonines led way to an “age of iron.
” The late emperors, “anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy.” After the death of Marcus Aurelius, an age of inadequate emperors arose starting with his son Commodus. When Theodosius died in 395 A.D. his two young sons came to power leading to a 60 year period in which Rome was ruled by child emperors or incompetent former child emperors.
The existence of weak emperors allowed strong generals and bureaucrats to take power for themselves corrupting the government from within. Weak emperors led to corruption and corruption was a major cause of the ruin of the Roman Empire. Greed and corruption were widespread throughout the late Roman empire and took much needed funds away from the empire’s use. Rome’s system of governance functioned optimally when the emperor was both respected and feared by both Romans and enemies alike. During the age of iron and incompetent emperors, Rome did not function optimally because the emperors were not respected.
The weakened state of the position of the Roman emperor led to internal fighting and a power vacuum which further weakens the empire.Usurpers and civil wars played a major role in internal destruction of Rome because they weakened the army, disrupted economic trade, and challenged the overall legitimacy of the emperor. Between 180 A.D. and 376 A.D., there were more than 100 occurences of infighting which continually weakened sitting emperors.
When a strong military leader would achieve a monumental victory his soldiers would “innont” him as the new emperor. Then this military leader would march his army to Rome to claim his title as emperor. One of the main problems that lead to the uprising of usurpers was loyalty of soldiers to their general. “Usurpers were an existential threat for the emperors in a way the Barbarians weren’t.” Usurpers weakened the office of the emperor because they created constant change in leadership. Without consistent and strong leadership, the Roman government did not operate effectively. The civil wars caused by usurpers caused many casualties which reduced the manpower of the army. Furthermore, when usurper military leader marched down to the capitol, he left the area where his troops were stationed unguarded.
This allowed the Barbarians to raid provinces uncontested. During civil wars, “trade networks within the empire suffered as conditions along the vast network of roads became unsafe for merchants”. When the trade system was cut off, Romans all across the empire were not able to get basic necessities including clothes and food.
Usurpers and civil wars further eroded the internal structural discipline of Rome and leads to the ultimate failure of the Roman economy and tax system. Rome’s economy and extremely efficient and complex tax system was the glue of the empire and allowed the transfer of products and money throughout the empire. This tax system allowed for the funding of the Roman army, insured the supply of food and goods throughout the empire, provided payments to the bureaucracy, and payoffs to Barbarian tribes to prevent invasions. When wars and disorder caused tax collection to be reduced to one-third of the empire’s previous collection, Rome could no longer support it governmental structure and military and “the empire of Rome was now in its death throes.” Due to the failure of the tax system Rome had insufficient funds and was not able to pay soldiers in the army or supply the army with necessary resources. The death blow to the Roman economy occurred when the Vandals captured North Africa, the most important economic province of Rome, and cut off much needed grain supplies and tax revenue. When the economy and tax system failed, Rome’s military began its decline.The strength of the Roman army was imperative to allow Rome’s empire to operate effectively.
“The Roman Army reached its pinnacle during the Imperial period. It provided Rome with the power to extend its borders.” When called, “each citizen bound himself, by the obligation of an oath, to draw his sword in the cause of his country” and the “wise institution continually poured into the field.” The Roman army and territory stretched from the Sahara in the south, Britain in the north, the Tigris in the east, and Spain in the west. Poor strategic military decisions further weakened the power of the army. Diocletian moved the more skilled soldiers to the central part of the Empire which was an ineffective strategy. After Diocletian split the army the borders were weakened immensely as they were guarded by peasants who had no formal training. Because of this foolish decision by Diocletian “Rome was no longer expanding but merely defending its borders.
” Constantine removed all the soldiers from the borders which was another poor choice by an emperor. Constantine’s decisions radically changed the structure of the Roman army. “Many historians have pointed military policies of Diocletian and Constantine as a catalyst for the fall of Rome.” When the empire’s central administration fell it made it challenging for the bureaucracy to work efficiently. The bureaucracy supplied the materials and finances for the army leading to the fall of the army.
Without the supplies from the bureaucracy the army quickly deteriorated and without the army Rome soon shared the same fate. By the fourth century, Rome’s weakened army struggled with reduced numbers, poor strategic decisions to defend the frontier, rebellions from within, and barbarian intrusions.Many historians argue that Barbarians caused the fall of Rome.
While barbarian invasion and occupation were the result of the end of the empire, the Barbarians were “more of a symptom not a cause” of the fall of Rome. When the army fell Rome was left vulnerable to barbarian attacks. The barbarians, specifically the visigoths led by Oceador, raided Rome unopposed. When Oceador overran Rome in 476 A.D.
, his army was unopposed because the Roman Army was not strong enough to fend off a group of Barbarians. The once great Rome died off as it was raided and pillaged by multiple barbarians tribes.Prominent historian Adrian Goldsworthy states “with usurpations, murders, executions, betrayals, and general incompetence as the norm, the Roman Empire dissipated so much of its strength and resources in fighting itself that it became incapable of withstanding external pressures it would have otherwise resisted.
” When Rome fell it was not due to barbarian invasions, the rise of Christianity, or other external forces. The true cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the gradual disintegration of the Roman government structures which led to the collapse of the economy and army. The fall of Rome occurred over a span of hundreds of years due to consistent weak leadership, the gradual deterioration of the economy, and ultimately military decline from within and these pillars of Roman governmental structure disintegrated. “Instead inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that is had subsisted so long.”