Michael Grant’s The Fall of the Roman Empire was a quick non-fiction ‘hit’ that I needed after reading too much fiction. It is a 200-page summary of the reasons behind the fall of the Roman Empire. This can be a bewildering subject as there are no easy answers to the question ‘why did the Roman Empire fall?’ Listed below is an even more condensed version of the reasons why. For anyone that wants an even simpler explanation Michael Grant sums it up in the introduction by saying ‘It was brought down by two kinds of destruction: invasions from outside, and weaknesses that arose within.’ The list below is an elaboration of these ‘destructions’ and will hopefully be of interest to some.
Thirteen Reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West:
- The Generals against the State – There was no effective method of succession. Each emperor was in effect dependent on the army which resulted in endless coups détat and civil wars.
- The People against the Army – Rich and poor didn’t want to serve in the army. The state had to depend increasingly on German troops.
- The Poor against the State – The taxes to pay for the army fell disproportionaly on the poor driving them into destitution, banditry, slavery or death.
- The Rich against the State – The rich Senators evaded taxes and did not get involved in political life. They were snobbish and opposed to change.
- The Middle Class against the State – The middle class of merchants and small landowners were squeezed out of late Imperial life. The population consisted mainly of rich and poor.
- The People against the Bureaucrats – The late Roman bureaucracy was oppressive and allowed very little social mobility. The civil service was inefficient, bloated, corrupt and resistant to change.
- The People against the Emperor – The later Roman Emperors had little contact with the outside world. Their only contact with their subjects was via sycophantic or scheming courtiers.
- Ally against Ally – The split between the West and East became more pronounced during this period. Both halves of the Empire failed to co-operate which made it easier for the Germans to take over the West.
- Race against Race – Rome was unable to assimilate the German tribes that took refuge within its borders.
- Drop-outs against Society – With the rise of Christianity in the Empire many people were attracted to asceticism and became nuns, monks and hermits. As such they became divorced from their community and contributed little towards the Roman state.
- The State against Free Belief – Once Catholic Christianity became the dominant religion its proponents began to attack paganism, Jewish faith, Manichaeanism and other Christian faiths thereby causing disunity throughout the Empire.
- Complacency against Self-Help – The pagans relied too much on the glories of the past, they neglected practical subjects in their education and concentrated on grammar, rhetoric etc.
- The Other World against This World – Many Christians seemed reluctant to support the state even after the Empire became officially Christian. Some even saw the barbarian attacks as divine punishment. Some pagans viewed the world to be in perpetual decline since the Golden Age of the past. Both views led to pessimism.