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The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire is traditionally seen as the end of Antiquity and the start of a period in European history that become known as the Dark Ages.

The Roman Empire stood for centuries and survived invasions, civil wars and deadly epidemics, so one can only wonder why did it eventually fell in the 5th century? Why was the before seemingly immortal empire unable to survive for another 400 years?

Social Structure of the Empire

The first thing we must understand is that the world of the late Roman Empire was a much-changed world in comparison with the Late Republic or even the Early Empire.

A process of Romanization began in the provinces after the initial conquest was done and as a result of this process a Roman elite was built up in the provinces of the Empire. During the early centuries of the empire Roman citizenship was seen as a privilege, however, from the rule of Caracalla onwards, most of the free population of the Empire were Roman citizens.
As a consequence of these changes, the political power started to shift out of Rome, into the provinces. This process was finished by the late 3rd and early 4th century when the Emperors( by this time there were usually more than one at the same time), moved their courts to other cities closer to the frontiers, such examples are Trier, Mediolanum, Ravenna or Constantinople just to give a few examples.

Apart from the emperor the most influential class of Roman society were the great landowners. A class of super-rich landowners had landed all over the empire, however, there also existed a class of landowners whose holdings were more limited and concentrated in a single province. The huge inequality that characterised the Roman world from the Late Republic onwards did not change much from this perspective, as probably the upper 10% of society held most of the available lands of the Empire.

Thanks to this huge inequality the Roman landed aristocracy had a direct interest in the maintenance of the Roman State that protected the status quo. To put it into simple words the wealthy were happy enough to pay their taxes to maintain the apparatus that protected them from the lower classes taking their wealth from them. However as the status and wealth of these landowners were based on land, an asset that could not be moved freely from one place to another, their alliance with the Roman State was a fragile one and only convenient so long as the Empire was able to protect the current status quo.

Changes caused by the Third Century Crisis

The event, or probably better said the chain of events that transformed the High Empire into the Late Empire was the Third Century Crisis. Historians date the Third Century Crisis from 235( the murder of Emperor Severus Alexander) to 284( the ascension of Emperor Diocletian). During these 50 years, the Empire was ravaged by civil wars, foreign attacks, epidemics and economic crises.

The empire at one point was split into three parts for over a decade, the capable Aurelian reunited it during the 270s and another capable emperor, Diocletian, reformed the Empire during his 20 years rule starting from 284.
First of all, Diocletian willingly partitioned the empire and named his companion Maximian as his co-emperor, and later two junior emperors were added on.

Previously the general norm was that the Empire had only one emperor, however, the increased attacks during the 3rd century made it mostly impossible for the emperor to personally be present at all points of danger. Unfortunately, when the emperor delegated power and his subordinate was victorious there was a chance of the victorious general turning into a rebel and marching against the emperor to depose him. By willingly ceding power to another man, Diocletian tried to address this problem and made sure that there was an emperor to deal with a foreign attack on all borders.

To decrease the chance of an ambitious governor turning into a rebel the provinces of the Roman Empire were broken up into multiple smaller provinces. For a similar reason, Diocletian tried to divide the military and civilian power into the provinces, which previously were held by single men. He also continued the policies of his predecessor Gallienus who de-militarized the senatorial class, thanks to further reforms of Diocletian the rich landowning class of the Empire, who more often than not previously gave the emperors, was limited to a civilian career.

The size of the Imperial bureaucracy also grew substantially during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. This growth was on the one hand good, as it gave a career path for the ambitious citizens of the empire, and a stake in the empire, but even this enlarged bureaucracy was inadequate to control the empire, as anyone can imagine a few thousand hard-working bureaucrats are nowhere near enough for an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and from the Wall of Hadrian to the Sahara.

The laws of Diocletian also changed the legal status of many of the citizens of the Empire. From Diocletian onwards many of the free peasants were turned into colonii( peasants who were tied to their lands), Diocletian also made certain occupations hereditary, sons of soldiers for example were obligated to become soldiers, sons of town councillors often faced the same fate( this change was necessary thanks to the growing imperial state apparatus, ambitious men much preferred the imperial career over a local one).
Diocletian also reformed the tax system of the empire.

Funds for local projects were confiscated by the state, consequently, the building projects in the provinces became rarer from the late 3rd century, and according to sources, these were mostly done by the imperial authorities too.

The reformed tax system was necessary for the maintenance of the reformed and enlarged imperial army, estimates vary, but the army was enlarged according to some between 25%-50%, a considerable increase that needed more tax revenue for its upkeep.

The legions that gave the core of the army were also reduced from 5,000 men to a mere 1,000, and from the reign of Constantine the Great, the army was classified into garrison troops stationed on the borders of the empire and mobile field armies, who were stationed behind the borders

The changing world outside the Empire’s borders

It was not only the Roman Empire that underwent a fundamental change from the days of Augustus to the reign of Diocletian. First of all the Barbarian tribes at the Empire’s northern borders became a much more formidable foe during these years. According to archaeological findings, the population of the Germanic tribes on the Rhine and Danubian frontiers of Rome grew exponentially, most probably thanks to the improved agricultural methods. Not only did the overall population of the tribes grow during this period, but they also started to form large tribal confederations.

Once united these confederations were able to field substantial armies. The Alemanni whom Julian the Apostate defeated at the Battle of Strasbourg had over 30,000 men, and the Alemanni was just one of the Germanic Confederations on the Rhine frontier of the empire.

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A more formidable enemy emerged on the Eastern frontier of the empire too. The Sassanid dynasty overthrew the Parthian Arsacids and became the King of Kings of Persia. The Sassanids proved themselves a much more capable enemy and during the middle decades of the 3rd century, their great King Shapur defeated and killed/capture 2 Roman Emperors and sacked according to him over 100 Roman cities. According to Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, the Sassanids forcibly moved the population of the sacked Roman towns into their domains, built up new cities and towns, improved the irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. Thanks to the growing population and revenue they taxed out of it, the Sassanids were able to maintain an army that at least was partially professional and proved to be a much tougher adversary to the Romans.

With great struggle and thanks to many reforms, the empire was able to survive the Third Century Crisis. From the time of Diocletian to the catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Adrianople, the empire was very much back in control, but then the Huns arrived.

The mysterious Huns arrived at the Ukrainian steppes in the late 4th century and their arrival caused a domino effect that in the end toppled the Western Empire.

The rise of the Sassanids put more pressure on the eastern borders of the empire from the third century onward

The rise of the Sassanids put more pressure on the eastern borders of the empire from the third century onward

How the dominos fell

The first people hit by the Huns were the Alans and the Goths. Some part of the Goths decided to seek asylum behind the borders of the empire, rather than fight and became the subjects of the Huns.

Thanks to the horrible treatment the Goths received from the Roman authorities, they eventually rebelled. The Goths ransacked the Balkans and defeated two Imperial Armies, in the first battle even the emperor Valens was killed. The Romans failed to completely subdue the Goths and in the end made peace with them in 382. The Goths were allowed to settle on Roman soil and remained semi-independent of the Empire. In the next decade, they assisted Theodosius in taking over the Western Empire, however, their harsh treatment and the convenient early death of the emperor led to their rebellion.

After the death of Theodosius, the Roman Empire was permanently partitioned into the Western Empire and Eastern Empire. Honorius succeeded his father in 395 and became the Western emperor, however, he never was more than a tool in the hand of ambitious figures.

The decade following the death of Theodosius was full of tensions between the eastern and western courts, luckily for them, open conflict was avoided between the two empires. Flavius Stilicho, who ruled the Western Empire in all but name was able to defeat all invaders in this decade, unfortunately. things changed in late 406.

In late 406, a large group of invaders(Vandals, Alans and Suevi) broke through the Rhine frontier of the empire and fell upon Gaul. According to Peter Heather, this migration was thanks to the expansion of Hunnic power into Central Europe, and just like the Goths 30 years earlier, this group of invaders were also running from the Huns. Conveniently for the invaders, the Rhine frontier was lightly defended as Stilicho withdrew forces to deal with an invasion in Italy.

As the central government was unable to deal with the problems, three usurpers rose in quick succession in Britain. The third Constantine III moved into Gaul and took the province over. Stilicho fell in 408, as angry mobs slaughtered the families of the barbarian foederati troops in Italy, these troops deserted and joined another invader Alaric, who went on to sack Rome in 410.

The invaders of 406 crossed into Spain and carved up most of the province between themselves. A semblance of imperial authority was re-established in the 410s, by Flavius Constantius, however, Britain and a part of Spain was lost to the Empire, Gaul and Italy were ravaged by war, the only part of the Empire left untouched was Africa.

After 15 years of infighting and fighting against Barbarians, the Western Army may have lost as much as half its manpower. Worse than this, thanks to the loss of some provinces and the devastation of some others, the Roman state lacked the money to rebuild its army. If all this was not bad enough, the man who saw through the recovery of the 410s died in 421. Civil War followed and the child Valentinian III came out on top. As Valentinian was a mere child, three generals fought to become the dominant figure in the West(Boniface, Felix and Aetius), Aetius came out on top eventually.

As the Romans were bickering among themselves, the Vandals left Spain for Africa, and by 439 took over the richest provinces of Rome. The loss of further tax revenue compromised the Western Empire even more. Aetius fought with success against the different tribes throughout the 430s and 440s, but when the mighty horde of Attila the Hun invaded Gaul, he needed the support of the Visigoths, Franks and other tribes to stand a chance against the invader.

After Attila the Hun died, the tribes who were formerly subdued by the Huns first rebelled against the Huns and later started to fight against each other. The losers of these wars, as often before, sought asylum on Roman soil.

After the murder of Aetius and an unsuccessful attempt by Majorian to retake Africa, the Empire rapidly lost control over all of Spain and Gaul. Majorian was treacherously betrayed by his former ally Ricimer, his former lieutenants lost no time to sever ties with the regime of Ricimer. By the time the foederati under Odoacer overthrew Romulus Augustulus all that was left of the empire was Italy.


As a conclusion the empire fell thanks to the combination of constant civil wars and invasions from outside the empires. As the empire lost more and more provinces, and the tax revenues that were crucial to the maintanence of the army dwindled, and it became more and more difficult to keep the empire united. As the Roman Army lost its dominant position over the invaders and struggled to protect the elites in whose interest the survival of the empire was crucial it became a slippery slope. Once the local landholding elites realised that coming to terms with usurpers or even foreign invaders was more in their interest than remaining loyal to the dying empire, the fate of the empire was slowly sealed.

Sources and other works

How Rome fell by Adrian Goldsworthy

The fall of the Roman Empire: A New History by Peter Heather

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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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