There was a sense, among very learned folks, that Rome had been something great that had been lost. In their grief, Renaissance scholars pored over classical manuscripts, attempting to build a picture of Rome’s greatness and, perhaps, find a reason for its disintegration. Rome’s fall was bemoaned, even resented by some but the mechanics of its demise were still a bit of a mystery. Fifth century Roman manuscripts were few and far between. Renaissance scholars were forced to piece together scraps of information and tie them together with incredible amounts of conjecture. That is, until 1665 when a French legal scholar named Jacques Godefroy used a very old document in very new ways and revolutionized what we knew about the Roman Empire’s fifth-century demise. Godefroy’s work launched what is perhaps the most contentious academic debate in the Western Hemisphere. Yes, listeners, for this week’s episode on causation, we are tackling the Fall of Rome.

Transcript: Fall of Rome

Researched by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Marissa: Ask any historian, heck, any PERSON what caused the fall of Rome and you’ll hear many different answers. Barbarians! Malaise! Overextension! Decay! Documentation is poor, archaeological evidence is still growing, yet we’re so invested in the fall of Rome that we’ve been theorizing about it since before it even finished happening. Historians’ stances on the Fall of Rome often tells us more about the times THEY lived in than about ancient Rome itself.

But what about the Romans who lived through it and were theorizing about it at the same time? Though they were too close to the event to analyze it fully, Romans during the 4th and 5th centuries CE had some ideas. They generally felt that the barbarian invasions from the North damaged an empire that had already been weakened by religious disputes. Since 313 CE, when Emperor Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan, Christianity had enjoyed legal status. Prior to that time, Christians in Rome had suffered frequent persecution. From that point forward, however, Christianity continued to grow and displace the old pagan religious system that Rome had been founded on. By 380, Christianity was made the official religion of the empire by Emperor Theodosius I. Roman pagans believed that the rise of Christianity had triggered the process of decline and that barbarian invasions served as the final blow.

Elizabeth: Augustine of Hippo (who lived during the decline and fall itself 354-430 CE and is generally known as St. Augustine) could not disagree more. In his City of God, Augustine argued that Romans had authored their own sad fate because they had been preoccupied with worldly desires and the temporary pleasures of daily life. In doing so, Augustine argues, the Romans eschewed the eternal and divine truths of God, as revealed to them by Jesus Christ. They had forsaken God, who had, in turn, forsaken the Romans.[1] Augustine had one of this students, Orosius, write a survey of Roman history, called the Adversus Paganos (Against the Pagans) which demonstrated that pagan Rome was much more prone to disaster and terror than Christian Rome was.[2] Augustine of Hippo’s philosophy of history became the foundation of most medieval work on the fall of Rome. Medieval priests, like Salvian writing in about 440 CE, argued that Rome was punished for its vicious debauchery: drunkenness, orgies, avarice, and exploitation of the poor.[3] This fire and brimstone interpretation remained the dominant one for the medieval period.

Marissa: Few people challenged the medieval narrative of Rome until the Italian Renaissance. In Renaissance Italy, ravenous scholars consumed Greek and Roman literature that had been preserved, translated, and reintroduced to Mediterranean Europe by Islamic scholars. This stimulated new understandings of Roman history, its meaning, and trajectory. During the 1300s, the (arguably first) humanist scholar Petrarch reconceptualized the fall of Rome. Rather than seeing the Fall of Rome as the deserved implosion of a debauched civilization, Petrarch described Rome as the apogee of classical learning and the fall as the unfortunate triumph of backwardness and barbarism over civilization. In doing so, Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” to describe his own post-Roman time.

Suddenly, there was a sense, among very learned folks, that Rome had been something great that had been lost. In their grief, Renaissance scholars pored over classical manuscripts, attempting to build a picture of Rome’s greatness and, perhaps, find a reason for its disintegration. Rome’s fall was bemoaned, even resented by some but the mechanics of its demise were still a bit of a mystery. Fifth century Roman manuscripts were few and far between. Renaissance scholars were forced to piece together scraps of information and tie them together with incredible amounts of conjecture. That is, until 1665 when a French legal scholar named Jacques Godefroy used a very old document in very new ways and revolutionized what we knew about the Roman Empire’s fifth-century demise. Godefroy’s work launched what is perhaps the most contentious academic debate in the Western Hemisphere. Yes, listeners, for this week’s episode on causation, we are tackling the Fall of Rome.

I’m Marissa

And I’m Elizabeth

Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: Can you believe it’s been six years since we announced the launch of Dig?! We wouldn’t have come this far or kept at it if it wasn’t for you all, our listeners. We’re thankful for all of our listeners, new and returning, overseas and domestic, student in college or student of life. We’re especially thankful for the Patrons of this show, who’ve funded our presentations at conferences, the new equipment we’re recording on right now, and our endless book needs for research. A big thanks to our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Karl, Hanna, Lauren, Colin, Edward, Iris, Susan, Denise, Agnes, Jessy, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Marissa: To my mind, there are two main categories of explanations for the fall of Rome: there’s holistic explanations (which attempt to explain any and all causes contributing to the fall) and monocausal explanations (which focus on one primary cause only). Heads up… there is some disagreement about whether Rome really FELL at all. More on that later. And then those who can agree that Rome did fall, they can’t always agree on when it actually happened. Confused yet about how we can write an episode about something that may or may not have happened and if it did, we’re not sure when? Us too. But we’ll weather this storm together. First we’ll do a quick Roman Empire redux before we dive more deeply into the Fall of Rome and what it tells us about historical causality.

Elizabeth: The city of Rome thrived as early as the 7th century BCE but it was politically weak and dominated by their Etruscan neighbors. Still, Romans were able to build the world’s first storm drains, called Cloaca Maxima, which still exist today. The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BCE, after the overthrow of the last Etruscan king, Tarquin the Proud. The early Republic was characterized by a struggle between the patricians (the wealthy landowners) and the plebeians (the common people). The plebeians demanded greater political rights and representation, which led to the creation of the office of the tribune, a representative of the plebeians who had the power to veto laws and protect the rights of the common people.

During this period, Rome expanded its territory through conquest and colonization. Oftentimes folks differentiate between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire as if the Republic was not, itself, imperial. It was! The Romans conquered the neighboring city of Veii in 396 BCE, which marked the beginning of their dominance in central Italy. They also established colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, which became important sources of grain and other resources.

Marissa: The next phase of Roman history is defined by their wars with Carthage, a powerful city-state in North Africa. The Punic Wars were a series of three wars and they were named after the Latin term for the Cathaginians (punicus). The first Punic War (264-241 BCE) was fought over control of Sicily, which was a key source of grain for both Rome and Carthage. Rome emerged victorious and gained control of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.

The second Punic War (218-201 BCE) was fought over control of Spain and Italy. The Carthaginian general Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with his army and won several major battles against the Romans, but was ultimately defeated by the Roman general Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. The third Punic War (149-146 BCE) was fought over the city of Carthage itself, which Rome saw as a potential threat to its dominance in the Mediterranean. After a long siege, Carthage was destroyed and its territory was annexed by Rome.

Elizabeth: The late Republic was characterized by political instability and civil wars. The Roman Republic was governed by two consuls, but their power was increasingly challenged by powerful generals and politicians. The most famous of these was Julius Caesar, who rose to power through military conquests and political maneuvering. In 44 BCE, Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who feared his growing power. After Caesar’s death, a power struggle ensued between his supporters and his opponents. The most powerful of Caesar’s supporters was his adopted son, Octavian, who defeated his rivals and became the first Roman emperor in 27 BCE. Octavian took the name Augustus and established the Roman Empire, which would last for over four centuries.

Marissa: Under Augustus and his successors, the Roman Empire experienced a period of relative stability and prosperity. The empire expanded its territory through conquest and colonization, and the Roman army became one of the most powerful in the world. The empire also saw significant cultural and intellectual achievements, including the works of Virgil, Ovid, and Livy, and the construction of monumental buildings such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon. However, the empire also faced significant challenges. The empire’s vast size made it difficult to govern effectively, and corruption and political instability were common. The empire also faced external threats, including invasions by Germanic tribes and the Parthian Empire in the east.

1836 view of the Pantheon by Jakob Alt. Public Domain.

Elizabeth: In the third century CE, the empire faced a series of crises that threatened its survival. The empire was plagued by economic instability, political turmoil, and invasions by barbarian tribes. In 284 CE, the emperor Diocletian came to power and instituted a series of reforms that helped stabilize the empire. He divided the empire into two halves, with each half governed by a separate emperor, and reorganized the government and military. After the reforms of Diocletian in 284 CE, the Roman Empire entered a new phase of its history.

Marissa: The Tetrarchy was a system of government established by Diocletian, in which the empire was divided into two halves, with each half governed by a senior emperor (Augustus) and a junior emperor (Caesar). This system was designed to improve the efficiency of the government and military, and to prevent the kind of political instability that had plagued the empire in the past. Under the Tetrarchy, the empire experienced a period of relative stability and prosperity. The economy was reorganized, and the government was restructured to be more efficient. However, the system was not without its problems. The junior emperors often resented their subordinate position, and there were frequent power struggles between the different factions.

Elizabeth: During this period, Christianity emerged as a major force in the Roman Empire. Christianity had been persecuted by the Roman government in the past, but under the emperor Constantine, it became an accepted religion. In 313 CE, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious freedom to all citizens of the empire. Constantine also played a significant role in the development of Christianity. He convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which established the basic tenets of Christian doctrine and created the Nicene Creed. Constantine also commissioned the construction of several important Christian buildings, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Roman Empire under the First Tetrarchy. Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Now the decline and fall of Rome is a complex historical event that took place over several centuries and there is no one definitive account. But the dominant narrative, the one that you’ll find most places most of the time, goes a little like this: The Roman Empire declined and fell due to a combination of economic, military, and political factors. One of the main factors that contributed to the decline of Rome was economic stress. The Roman economy was based on agriculture, and as the empire expanded, it became increasingly difficult to maintain a stable food supply. This led to food shortages and rising prices, which in turn led to social unrest and political instability. Additionally, the Roman economy was heavily dependent on slave labor, which became increasingly expensive as the empire expanded and the supply of slaves dwindled. This led to a decline in productivity and economic growth.

Elizabeth: Military developments also contributed to the decline of Rome. The Roman military was one of the most powerful in the world, but it was also very expensive to maintain. They increasingly relied on Germanic mercenaries. If they had conscripted Romans from their own provinces to fight, they would have damaged their tax base. So, as the empire expanded, the cost of maintaining the military increased, and the quality of the soldiers declined. Additionally, the Roman military was often used to put down rebellions and maintain order within the empire, which meant that it was not always available to defend the empire from external threats.

Political factors also played a role in the decline of Rome. The Roman government was based on a complex system of checks and balances, but as the empire expanded, it became increasingly difficult to maintain this system. Corruption and political infighting became more common, and the government became less effective at governing the empire. Additionally, the Roman Empire was ruled by a series of emperors, some of whom were incompetent or unstable. This led to a decline in the quality of leadership and a lack of stability within the empire.

Marissa: Now remember the decline of Rome was a gradual process that took place over many centuries. However, there were several key events that marked the beginning of the end. One of these events was the invasion by the Visigoths in 410 CE. The Visigoths were a Germanic tribe that had been displaced by the Huns, and they were looking for a new homeland. They invaded the Roman Empire and sacked the city of Rome, which was a major blow to the prestige and power of the empire.

The Western Roman Empire, which included the city of Rome itself, was weaker and more vulnerable than the Eastern Roman Empire, which was centered in Constantinople. Western Rome had some geographical disadvantages: few natural barriers protecting its borders and more difficult access to the riches of Eastern Eurasian trade routes.There were also some demographic disadvantages: its population growth was in decline and its population more diffuse. The unity of the two halves was contested. The Western Romans’ native language was Latin but they also usually spoke Greek while the Eastern Romans spoke Greek and rarely bothered to learn Latin. Eastern Romans saw themselves as the heirs of classical Greece. Their civilization was wealthy, powerful, and ancient. It was also urban, containing incredible cities like Antioch and Alexandria.  They boasted of lucrative trade relationships with the Arab and Persian worlds, and far-flung civilizations like India and China.

Elizabeth: In comparison, the Western Empire was a new kid on the block. Its population was lower, more spread out, and less wealthy. It was one step removed from the prestige of ancient empires. Its power was relatively new and less culturally rich. The Western Empire made up for these disadvantages with brilliant military strategy and a degree of political wisdom that was rare in the ancient world. These comparisons may not have always been apparent to Romans living at the time and sometimes the power and might of the Western empire will have dwarfed the Eastern empire in some ways but these contrasts are clear to those of us with hindsight who are assessing the longevity of each half.

So we’ve explained HOW the decline and fall progressed, many historians can agree on these basic facts, but WHY did it happen when it did and the way it did and was it inevitable? Historians have been fighting bitterly over these questions for centuries. For the rest of the episode we’ll weigh and measure the arguments for the end of the Roman Empire and discuss what was at stake for the historians who made them.

Marissa: Jacques Godefroy, the lovely French fellow we discussed at the top of the show, was the first modern scholar to narrate the fall of Rome and offer explanations for how such a great civilization could crumble beyond repair. In his study of the 439 Theodosian Code, Godefroy discovered evidence of economic decline and social unrest. The 5th-century Rome he described was economically weak; it was crippled by burdensome taxation, its previously robust middle class was dwindling, cultivable land lay fallow, and their formerly impressive industry was collapsing. Godefroy found that, in an attempt to fix this economic crisis, the semi-representative Roman government devolved into something akin to despotism. OK, so perhaps Rome’s fall can be attributed to economic hardship and a miscalculated political response to that hardship. If you’re like me, this seems like a non-answer. You may be asking yourself, “But what CAUSED the economic decline in the first place?” This explains what happened but not why.

Enter… Edward Gibbon. Gibbon, an English gentleman, MP, and historian born in 1737, is the godfather of the history of Rome’s fall. In February 1776, five months before the American colonies declared independence from Britain, Gibbon published volume 1 of his magnum opus, a six-volume, 1200-page classic titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A bright student of the English Enlightenment, Gibbon’s masterpiece demonstrates all of the hallmarks of an Enlightenment scholar: it’s secular (downright hostile to religion), philosophical, rational, Eurocentric, and brilliant, but also misogynist, arrogant, and highly problematic in a few other ways. (He’s been accused of anti-Semitism for instance).

Elizabeth: The thrust of Gibbon’s argument is that the introduction of Christianity was crucial to the Fall of the Roman Empire. In some ways he resurrected the arguments made by contemporaneous Roman pagans that we introduced at the top of the show. He asserted that Christianity contributed to Rome’s decline and fall by undermining the civic virtues and military spirit of the empire. He believed that Christianity, with its emphasis on individual salvation and otherworldly rewards, led people to turn away from the affairs of this world, including their duties as citizens and soldiers. This also bizarrely sounds like Augustine’s argument too doesn’t it? (Except Augustine and Gibbon disagree about whether this was a good thing).

Gibbon also argued that the Christian church, with its growing power and influence, became corrupt and entangled in the affairs of the state, weakening the imperial government and diverting resources away from secular concerns. He believed that the conflicts and divisions within the Christian church, particularly the theological disputes, further weakened the empire by sapping its political and intellectual energy. His depiction of Christianity’s impact is quite critical. Here’s one passage:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.[4]

Marissa: It is important to note that Edward Gibbon did not argue that Christianity was the sole cause of the fall of Rome. Rather, he believed that Christianity played a critical role in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. He acknowledged that the empire faced a range of other challenges, including economic and military pressures, internal divisions, and external threats like the ones we encountered in the dominant narrative earlier in the episode. He described the fall of Rome as something that was inevitable but also complex, not monocausal (meaning stemming from one cause).

Elizabeth: But as we’ve encountered many times in the show, nuance is often flattened and people’s arguments are boiled down to their essence and marketed to the masses. This happened with Gibbon’s work in a big way. Volume I alone underwent 6 re-prints before Volume II even hit the presses. Europeans and Americans looked to the fall of Rome to tell the story of Europe’s birth. In ancient Rome, warring European nationstates found a common history. One day this shared history would be used to fashion the racist notion of “Western Civilization” but in Gibbon’s day its implications were more immediate. His monograph reached the public at precisely the time that the English, French-, and Spanish-speaking worlds were battling with the question of representative government. They saw themselves in the Roman Republic and they worried that they too might end up like the great Roman Empire. Perhaps decline and collapse were inevitable? The more folks studied the fall of Rome, the more prepared they felt to face their own uncertain political futures. (If you know anything about the Era of Revolutions, you’ll know that this preparation was more helpful to some than to others.)

Marissa: The reception of the book was not uniformly positive, however. Some critics and readers objected to Gibbon’s treatment of Christianity and the role he attributed to it in the fall of the Roman Empire. In particular, some Christian theologians and church leaders felt that Gibbon’s work was overly critical of the church and its role in history. Gibbon was accused of being an atheist and a skeptic, and his work was even placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. Later Victorian historians ran with Gibbon’s thesis and replicated it but in even sharper relief. Writing in the mid-19th century, French scholar Ernest Renan accused Christianity of “sucking like a vampire the life-blood of ancient society.”[5] (drama queen!)

The Christianity cause (as we’ll unceremoniously call it) is pretty compelling. Christianity’s impact on the Roman Empire must have been remarkable to behold. Historian J. J. Saunders puts this well so I’ll quote from his excellent review article on this debate:

The whole mental atmosphere was transformed; a new faith, a new way of life, a new ethic, established themselves in the hearts and minds of men; ancient science disappeared behind the fog of neo-Platonism; politics seemed all but forgotten, and the educated world passionately and endlessly debated the theological problems of the nature of Christ and his relation to the Godhead…. Is not this the real mystery?– not the fall of empires, but how men’s outlook and belief change so radically that one generation finds the mental attitudes of it predecessors wholly unintelligible.[6]

Elizabeth: Critics of Gibbon’s thesis have pointed out a few things about Christianity’s supposed negative impact on the Roman Empire. First, only the Western half of the empire collapsed. The Eastern half of the Roman Empire, which was also Christian, survived for a millennium more as the Byzantine Empire. Secondly, while Gibbon argued that Christianity undermined the military spirit of Rome and encouraged a passive approach to life, some scholars have suggested that Christianity may have actually played a positive role in the preservation of Roman culture and values in the face of external pressures and internal divisions.[7] Nonetheless, Gibbon’s book remained the gold standard, the dominant narrative of Rome’s decline and fall for about a century.

Marissa: Then things got really cringey. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin’s theories were quickly boiled down and circulated to a wider public (much as Gibbon’s had been). Within a few decades, sociologists, psychologists, politicians, and historians were inoculating their own disciplines with simplified versions of Darwinian principles– sometimes called Social Darwinism. The results were sinister: racial pseudosciences like physiognomy, racial degeneration theories like “race suicide,” and the budding, modern science of eugenics. It didn’t take long before historians began applying Darwinian theory to their explanations for the fall of Rome.

Even before Darwin exploded on the scene, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote in 1852 about “the undeniable degeneracy of the race at this time, at least in the upper classes.”[8] Butckhardt used the profiles forged on Roman coinage to assess the character and ability of Roman emperors. (This one has a wiley look in his eye, etc.) But once Darwin gifted nineteenth-century scholars a new biology-based vocabulary, racial explanations of Rome’s collapse abounded. In 1895, German historian Otto Seeck attributed Rome’s fall to the “mongrelization” of the Roman race. Seeck argued that “true Romans” were replaced by “inferior breeds” who demonstrated their inferiority by driving the Empire into the ground. Swedish historian Martin Nilsson wrote something similar: “Hybridization on a considerable scale involves the break-up of superior races into a heterogeneous and loose mass lacking stable spiritual and moral standards. This is, of itself, a sufficient explanation for the collapse of ancient culture and the Roman Empire.”[9]

c. 361 CE

Elizabeth: To be fair, Gibbon made a similar argument a century earlier. He criticized the empire for extending citizenship to “questionable” populations, resulting in the dilution of Roman civic virtue.[10] But a century later, using Darwinian vocabulary, the theory had new currency. Even so, these racial theories about the fall of Rome have been (no surprise!) thoroughly discredited. Few of Rome’s strongest emperors were themselves “pure Romans.”[11]

Since these racial explanations were always dubious they did not maintain their dominance for long. Indeed, there have been many other fascinating but dubious monocausal theories proffered to explain the cause of Rome’s collapse. Monocausal explanations can be really compelling, even sexy (in a Freakonomics kind of way) but their proponents often have less expertise in ancient Roman history and they rarely explain more than one aspect of the fall.

Marissa: Early 20th-century geographer Ellsworth Huntington argued for a climatic explanation. Huntington suggested that during the period of Roman dominance, the Mediterranean region experienced a relatively stable climate that allowed for high levels of agricultural productivity. However, beginning in the second century CE, the region began to experience a period of climate change, with more frequent droughts and other extreme weather events. This led to a decline in agricultural productivity and a subsequent decline in the prosperity and stability of the Roman Empire.

Huntington cited a range of historical and scientific evidence to support his argument, including ancient texts that describe droughts and crop failures, as well as modern studies of climate patterns and their effects on agriculture. He also noted that other societies that relied heavily on agriculture, such as the Maya and the Anasazi, experienced similar periods of decline and collapse during times of climate change and agricultural exhaustion. Some historians of Rome find this wholly unconvincing. In 1963 JJ. Saunders wrote “I have always thought it not a little far-fetched to try to explain the fall of Rome by measuring the girth of redwood trees in California.”[12] Saunders’s disdain is a little annoying, of course, but his doubts were vindicated in 1988 when Joseph Tainter definitively dismantled Huntington’s theory in his monograph The Collapse of Complex Societies (we’ll come back to Tainter later).

Elizabeth: Other monocausal explanations were discredited even more swiftly. Sociologist S. Colum Gilfillan argued that lead poisoning was a significant factor in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Gilfillan pointed out that lead was widely used in Roman society, from pipes for water distribution to cookware and even cosmetics. This led to widespread exposure to lead among the Roman population, resulting in a range of health problems that could have contributed to the decline of the empire. Geochemist Jerome Nriagu suggested that the Roman practice of producing sweeteners (they boiled grape juice in lead pots to produce a concentrated sweetener called sapa) may have worsened lead toxicity within the empire. Both Gilfillan and Nriau noted that lead poisoning can cause a range of symptoms, including cognitive impairment, behavioral problems, and even death, and that these symptoms could have affected the ability of the Roman population to carry out the tasks necessary to maintain the empire’s stability and prosperity. It sounds feasible and intriguing but the lead poisoning explanation has been entirely discredited. Roman authorities knew about the toxicity of lead and there is no evidence of widespread lead poisoning on the scale necessary to paralyze an empire.[13]

Marissa: There is one monocausal explanation that strikes me as particularly compelling. William H. McNeill’s 1976 theory on the fall of Rome in his book Plagues and Peoples suggests that disease played a significant role in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. McNeill argues that the Roman Empire was highly vulnerable to disease due to its extensive network of trade and communication. The constant movement of officials, traders, and the military amplified the spread of pathogens throughout the empire. The Romans also loved their public baths, fountains, latrines, and brothels. Their urban lifestyle meant they lived in close proximity to one another.

The Antonine Plague (165-180 CE) was perhaps the most severe example of this. It’s unclear whether the plague was what we now know as smallpox or measles but irrespective of the pathogen, it left 5 to 10 million Romans dead. McNeill argued that this rapid decline in population put Rome in a tough situation; it had a massive, powerful military and a large, complex bureaucracy to support and not enough tax-payers to do it. Archaeological evidence suggests that after the 2nd century, the inhabited areas in Roman towns continuously shrank. During this time there were growing numbers of policies addressing deserted lands within the empire.

Elizabeth: At the same time, Germanic peoples who were run out of their homelands by the Huns, were on the move. They were less prone to epidemic disease because they lived in small, scattered settlements and conducted limited trade. They lived in nuclear family units and had no public facilities. They also, critically, drank beer/ale which required them to boil water. So at the same time that the Roman population was shrinking, the Germanic population was growing and pressing onto Rome’s borders. More frequent Germanic raids of the Roman border towns drove more Romans into walled cities, which further increased the rate that pathogens spread among them. McNeill noted that these outbreaks may have been exacerbated by environmental factors, such as climate change and deforestation, which created conditions that were conducive to the spread of disease.

The Plague of Cyprian (249 to 262 CE) compounded this crisis by decimating the military and other workers. McNeill argues that this may have been the final trigger for the worst of the economic crisis Rome experienced during this time. It’s worth pointing out that the Eastern half of the empire, which had always been more populous, weathered these pandemics without much damage to their state and only moderate damage to their economy. So from the 3rd century crisis and onward, the Eastern half of the empire was on much firmer footing than the West. McNeill’s thesis certainly explains most of the questions we have about the fall of Rome but it’s incredibly hard to prove definitively. So for now it remains one theory of many.

Marissa: McNeill’s theory would have resonated with  eighteenth-century historians of Rome (if they had still been alive and introduced to modern germ theory). There had always been this sense that Romans, not just their minds but their bodies, were compromised. McNeill’s theory kind of brought a modern vocabulary to the idea of a figuratively diseased Rome. Eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder wrote: “Expiring Rome lay for centuries on her deathbed… a deathbed extending over the whole World…. which could… render her no assistance, but that of accelerating her death. Barbarians came to perform this office; northern giants, to whom the enervated Romans appeared dwarfs; they ravaged Rome, and infused new life into expiring Italy.”[14] (Note this dude is German and he’s painting these Germanic barbarians in a pretty flattering light.)

Let’s return for a bit to the chronology we were crafting of the ways that historians interpreted the fall of Rome. Before our little foray into monocausal explanations, we were discussing the very sinister trend of racial pseudoscience and how this colored the ways that historians thought about Rome’s collapse. The next important trend in historical analysis began in the 1930s and these folks were crazy for economics. Most histories of the fall of Rome from the first half of the 20th century ascribe to a Marxist philosophy of history. They assume that all societies go through six stages: primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and finally global, stateless communism.

Elizabeth: Ancient Rome, they contended, was a slave society: economically primitive and “an awful example of what happens to societies which fail to produce and distribute wealth on a satisfactory scale.”[15] Marxist economic historians’ depictions of Rome were much less rosy than those of previous historians. They pointed to its overreliance on slave labor, the low standard of living for the masses, restricted markets, dependency on agriculture rather than industry, low wages for free workers, and their economic imagination were woefully lacking. Gordon Childe, for instance, wrote in 1942: “Economically as well as scientifically, classical civilization was dead 150 years before barbarian invaders from Germany finally disrupted the political unity of the Empire.”[16]

To these historians, Rome’s fall was inevitable and hardly surprising. Rome was, based on Marxist philosophy, destined to disintegrate into a feudal society (stage 3). And it wasn’t all that great anyway, hardly the loss that earlier historians had grieved. But not all aspects of these interpretations have stood the test of time; aspects of their argument have been discredited. Later economic historians have proven that free labor was slowly overcoming slave labor. Roman slaves were few and expensive.

Marissa: At the same time that Marxist economists were hate-studying ancient Rome, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne was thinking laterally (whatever that means). According to Pirenne, the fall of Rome was not primarily caused by the barbarian invasions of the 5th century. Indeed, one may even argue that Rome never really “fell.” Instead, there was a gradual economic and social transformation that occurred in the Mediterranean world between the 3rd and 7th centuries. Pirenne even suggested that perhaps Rome lived on? In Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

Pirenne argued that the Mediterranean was a vibrant economic and cultural hub during the Roman Empire, with trade and commerce connecting various regions and peoples. However, this economic system began to decline in the 3rd century due to a number of factors, including political instability, external invasions, and the loss of trade connections with the East. As a result, Pirenne believed that the Mediterranean world entered into a period of “interregnum,” in which the traditional political and economic institutions of the Roman Empire were replaced by new structures that were based on local, regional, and even tribal identities. These new institutions included feudalism, city-states, and religious institutions. Pirenne’s theory is known as the “Pirenne Thesis.”[17] Much as we saw with Gibbon’s anti-Christianity theory, Pirenne’s thesis took on a life of its own.

Elizabeth: In 1971, Peter Brown took up the Pirenne Thesis in his The World of Late Antiquity. Brown rebranded Augustine’s “Dark Ages” as “Late Antiquity.” He recast this world as a vibrant, dynamic time that was home to lively religious and political debates. There was no mention of decay or malaise or barbarian topplings of civilization. How? According to Brown himself: “The first step, in my opinion, is to deny that the Germanic invasions put an end to antiquity. They did not. Antiquity was already disappearing without invoking an intervening catastrophe and without pausing, for a moment, to pay lip service to the widespread notion of decay.”[18]

Marissa: Every since Brown’s revival of the Pirenne Thesis in the 1970s, academic textbooks use words like “transition,” “change,” and “transformation” instead of “fall,” or “collapse.” In this more nuanced context, all of the aspects of Rome’s decline and fall have been recast in new roles. Hostile barbarians are no longer understood to have breached the Roman borders, invaded its states, and sacked its once-great cities, bringing the ailing empire to its knees. Instead, they are understood as displaced Germanic peoples who migrated into the Roman empire which, for its own reasons, accommodated them. In some instances, these Germanic folks came to rule parts of the Roman state.

Elizabeth: Canadian historian Walter Goffart, in 1980, pointed out that it became Roman policy to give Germanic peoples mercenary gigs, settling rights, and tax revenue if they agreed to cease hostilities. Goffart wrote: “The Empire… had better things to do than engage in a ceaseless, sterile effort to exclude foreigners for whom it could find useful employment.”[19] Goffart gave the Pirenne Thesis a little twist. He believed Rome did fall but only because it gave away its power voluntarily in order to prevent barbarian invasions. It’s starting to feel like at this point, every single possible iteration of causal explanation has been proffered about Rome’s fall (or transformation or whatever).

Marissa: Post-modernism can make one feel that way. It’s fair to categorize these ideas about transformation and accommodation into a sort of post-modern school of Roman history. Post-modernism became all the rage in the second half of the 20th century and, in some cases, continues on today. We may even be post-modern historians (?) Political theorist Fredric Jameson defines post-modern history as practicing “broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”[20] (This really does sound a lot like us.) So the post-modernist approach to the fall of Rome problematized the entire idea of a fall or the idea of barbarian invasions– they’re questioning even the basic facts as we thought we knew them. Maddening right?

Thankfully for those of you who like tidier endings, there is one last movement in the study of Rome’s fall that has popped up in the last 15-20 years and an honorary mention from the 1980s that I just really find convincing. (Maybe one day we’ll call these post-post-modern?) I’m grouping these together because, to my mind, they seem like holistic explanations (meaning they don’t flatten the complexity of the issue like monocausal ideas do) but they also have ideological thrusts. They’re not just massive, exhaustive chronicles of the fall. They also swing the pendulum back to a place where the fall not only exists, but was violent, radical, and relatively quick.

Elizabeth: In his 1988 monograph The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter posited a holistic theory that could be applied to the fall of Rome.Tainter’s theory of the fall of Rome centers around the concept of societal complexity and the diminishing returns of investing in complexity. He argues that Rome’s collapse was not caused by external factors such as invasions, but rather by the unsustainable nature of its own internal systems of organization and governance. As the Roman Empire expanded, it became increasingly complex and required greater resources to maintain, while at the same time facing diminishing returns on investment. This led to a point where the costs of maintaining the empire outweighed the benefits, and the society collapsed as a result. Tainter’s theory suggests that societal collapse is not inevitable, but rather a consequence of reaching a point of diminishing returns on investments in complexity.[21] This theory FEELS true because of what we know that comes after the fall: much simpler, diffuse agrarian societies.

Marissa: My current two favorite historians of Rome are Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins. I just find their work to be such a great balance between narrative and analysis. Both Heather and Ward-Perkins reject the idea that barbarian invasions were non-violent or that the societal collapse of the Roman world was undetectable to the people who lived through it. But one focuses on internal causes and the other on external causes. They both seem to feel like it’s important to get back on track after the question was derailed by post-modernists. Ward-Perkins ends his book’s intro with: “As someone who is convinced that the coming of the Germanic people was very unpleasant for the Roman population, and that the long-term effects of the dissolution of the empire were dramatic, I feel obliged to challenge [post-modern] views.”[22]

According to Ward-Perkins, the fall of Rome was caused by a combination of factors, including a decline in agricultural productivity, a breakdown of trade networks, and a reduction in the overall standard of living. These changes led to social unrest and the breakdown of traditional economic and political structures. Ward-Perkins argues that the fall of Rome was not a slow decline, but rather a catastrophic event, characterized by violence, famine, and widespread disruption of daily life. His theory suggests that the fall of Rome was not caused solely by external pressures or invasions, but rather by a complex interplay of economic, social, and political factors.

Elizabeth: Heather focuses more on external factors. His theory is that the primary cause of the fall of Rome was the massive influx of barbarian migrants into the Roman Empire, who were able to take advantage of Rome’s weakened military and political institutions. Heather argues that these migrations were not peaceful, but rather characterized by violence and warfare, and that the barbarians played a key role in the destruction of the western half of the Roman Empire. Heather’s theory suggests that the fall of Rome was not a slow, gradual process but rather a relatively rapid and violent event, caused by external pressures from barbarian invasions.

To Heather, the formation of the Sassanid Persian empire spelled the end of a Roman Mediterranean: “Much more important to imperial collapse than any internal developments was the rise of Persia to superpower status in the third century. From this point on, a much higher proportion of the empire’s resources, fiscal and military, had to be focused permanently on the east… Army, bureaucracy, and politics: all had to adapt in order to meet the Persian challenge.”[23]

Marissa: Fair enough. I want to leave you with a quote that’s grounding. We’ve discussed so many theories on the cause of Rome’s fall and we’ve even problematized whether it fell at all, or whether the fall was a good or bad thing. I don’t want you to leave this episode feeling like you’ve just hallucinated a bunch of theories that don’t hold up. The reality of what happened has gotten lost. Historian J. J. Saunders is very helpful here:

“In the case we are discussing, the phrase “fall of Rome” has blinded us to what really happened. The Roman Empire did not vanish in a puff of smoke in the fifth century; the imperial administration broke down only in the Western provinces, and in the East the government continued without a break until the Latin conquest of 1204, and then after an interruption until the Turkish conquest of 1453.”

Elizabeth: Contemporary interest in the fall of Rome stems from the ongoing relevance of many of the issues and challenges faced by the Roman Empire. The collapse of Rome has been used as a cautionary tale throughout history, highlighting the potential dangers of political corruption, economic decline, and social unrest. The lessons of Rome’s decline are still relevant today, and scholars and policymakers continue to study and debate the causes and consequences of the fall of Rome in order to gain insight into contemporary political and economic issues.

Finally, the fall of Rome has also captured the popular imagination, with many books, films, and other forms of media exploring the rich history and mythology surrounding this pivotal event. The drama and intrigue of Rome’s collapse continue to inspire and captivate audiences around the world, ensuring that the fall of Rome remains a topic of enduring interest and fascination.

Marissa: It will be interesting to see how the next generation of historians interpret this monumental event. And I can’t wait to learn what our interpretations of the fall of Rome will say about us.

Notes


[1] City of God, Augustine.

[2] Adversus Paganos, Orosius

[3] De guberatione Dei, Salvian.

[4] Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (Chapter XV, Part III)

[5] Quoted in and translated by J. J. Saunders, “The Debate on the Fall of Rome,” p. 4.

[6]  J. J. Saunders, “The Debate on the Fall of Rome,” p. 5.

[7] Heather, P. (2005). The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ward-Perkins, B. (2005). The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[8] J. Burckhardt, Age of Constantine the Great, Eng tr. 1948 pp. 219-220

[9] J. J. Saunders , Debate p. 8

[10] Gibbon, E. (1776-1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. J.B. Bury (Ed.). New York: Fred de Fau and Co., 1906. Volume I, Chapter III, page 93.

[11] JJ Saunders, Debate, p. 8

[12] J. J. Saunders, Debate, p. 8

[13] (Mary Beard, SPQR: A History or Ancient Rome (2015).

[14] Bryan Ward-Perkins, Quoted in Did Rome Every Fall?

[15] Saunders,p. 9

[16] Childe, What Happened in History,

[17] Pirenne, Henri. “Mohammed and Charlemagne.” Dover Publications, 2001; Brown, Peter. “The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750.” W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

[18] Henri Pirenne,  “Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade” (Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 14.

[19] Quoted in Ward-Perkins, p. 9.

[20] Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Duke University Press, 1991, p. xii.

[21] Tainter, Joseph A. “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 1-6.

[22] Ward-Perkins, p. 10.

[23] Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 2005.


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