The Fall Of the Roman Empire

Prof. Peter Heather
Prof. Peter Heather

“Teacher: How was the Roman Empire cut in half?

Pupil: With a pair of Caesars!”

On Friday, 4th February, 2011, Professor Peter Heather of King’s College London gave a lecture on the fall of Rome to  students of the ‘Conservatism & Reaction’ course. Professor Heather began by stating that the Roman, Ottoman and British empires have fallen; that the American empire is falling; and that according to this trend, the forthcoming Chinese Empire will also fall at some point. “No empire lasts forever,” Professor Heather said, and added that the fall of the Roman Empire continues to be an interesting and popular topic precisely because “empires are often ending.”

How did something so immense and so long-standing like the Roman Empire lose its power? Professor Heather discussed various factors such as Christianity, monetary problems, military troubles, and the Barbarian invasion that scholars claim to be the causes of the Roman Empire’s collapse. Furthermore, there are different models of thought that emphasize some of the just-mentioned factors while dismissing others.

Professor Heather first delineated the ‘Old Model’ claims about what instigated the Roman demise. Up until the 1960’s, academic research mainly attributed the fall of the Roman Empire to the Roman Empire’s internal turmoil, its deep structural trouble. Furthermore, the role of the Barbarians was not thought to be significant.

Instead, they were thought to be what Glaucon was to Socrates, or what Storge is to Agape in C.S. Lewis’s “Four Loves,” or what Patricius was to St. Augustine, just mere supporting actors that mindlessly stand somewhere in the background, far away from where the true, significant action is taking place.

Mom says “Alcohol is your enemy” . . .  Jesus says “Love your enemy.” Excessive alcohol destroys the brain, heart, liver, and lungs, and so did the Barbarians. If Romans had only thought of the alcohol logic, perhaps the Roman Empire would have lasted longer.

According to the Old Model, the rise of Christianity — and particularly three specific aspects of it — contributed to the weakening of the Roman Empire. First, there were the expensive churches and places of worship to be built. Second, the best and brightest Romans became Bishops and church personnel instead of strong political leaders. And finally, there was the Christian pacifism and teachings to love and care for one’s neighbors.

The love that Christian teachings are awash with also encompassed the love for one’s enemy, and this colossal love turned out to be a weakness. According to the Old Model, Christians welcomed Barbarians for whom all-encompassing love was not the highest priority, and so the latter beat upon the former.

The Old model also highlights thethird century economic problems, internal fighting, and numerous civil wars that weakened the empire and rendered it unable to defend itself from the Barbarian intrusion. During the third century, Rome was struck by hyperinflation and the Roman elite significantly decreased their donations to local towns. To protect itself from the intruders and to keep things in check, panic-stricken Rome was forced to expand its army. Roman soldiers were paid in silver coins and therefore to expand the army, more silver was needed.

Unfortunately, the desired amount of silver was nonexistent and Roman leaders resorted to debasing silver-coins with other less valuable metals. Simply put, producing more debased silver coins to pay for imperial spending diluted the value of the silver coin. The consequence of this careless action was hyperinflation, which in any Era causes higher prices for goods and services.

A response to the third century crises was the formation and rise of bureaucracy. Professor Heather states that the creation of bureaucracy provided only a short-term solution and that many long-term problems came from it. For example, in 250AD, there were only 250 Senior Administrators for the entire Roman Empire. By the year 400, there were 6000 administrative positions that were held for 10 years. Additionally, there was a negative correlation between the rise of bureaucracy and the decline of the town council positions. Instead of serving on a town council, a position that was previously greatly respected and desired, fourth century land owners wanted to get away and become Imperial bureaucrats.

A town council position that once rendered one power to control and direct resources was now in the hands of the central state. Therefore, instead of becoming a powerless member of a city council, land owners sought after the positions of an imperial bureaucrat or Honorati. A new way to be a dominant figure in the Roman Empire was to serve as an imperial bureaucrat for 10 years and then come back to one’s town where one was given a power to sit on trials with governor/judge and help decide court rulings.

So far I have provided a synopsis of the Old Model’s outlook on the causes of the Roman Empire’s demise. Professor Heather stated that since the 1970s, the archeology of rural economy, that is the archeology of farms, revealed staggering new evidence that demonstrated that many of the old model’s understandings were partially, or in some cases fully, erroneous.

Since 85% of the Roman economy was generated through agriculture, evidence found through the archeology of the rural economy is the optimal way to discover information about the Roman Empire. This new rural survey, which was conducted with the help of modern plows, machines that dig deep and bring to surface ancient artifacts and specific clay pots that were sold in Roman shops and can therefore be dated with great precision, produced a plethora of evidence that shows that the late Roman period (end of the fourth century), was the era of highest population, maximum activity, maximum productivity, and economic output.  Contrary to what was previously thought, Rome at the end of the fourth century was in fact awash with peasants who inhabited and worked in the countryside.

There are many other examples, some contentious and others definitive, that assert that many other old model claims are erroneous. Professor Heather stated that neither the expense nor the loving nature of Christianity played a significant role in the fall of Rome. He states that expenditures for the erection of churches was more than compensated for with the destruction of pagan temples and profit that was generated through the sale of pagan relics.

Furthermore, Professor Heather stated that Christians were always ready to wage wars and that Christianity was in fact an imperial realm. Bishops and church authorities did not remain within their domain. They were state figures who were involved in important state matters. In short, Christianity was a career path within the imperial system.

So what was the chief cause of Roman Empire’s demise? According to Professor Heather, the answer revolves around the BARBARIANS. During the third century, Persia became a superpower that was able to compete with Romans in all areas, but particularly in warfare. Three Roman Emperors were killed by Persians and one was skinned and made into a wine drinking receptacle. The threat of Persia was so great that it took three generations of Romans to respond and reestablish the Eastern Frontier.

The majority of assets and resources were directed toward stabilizing the Eastern Frontier and therefore very scanty amounts of supplies were left to be utilized in Western regions of the Roman Empire. The concentration of resources in one place made the rest of the Empire vulnerable to foreign intrusion.

There were Anglo-Saxons in Britain, Visigoths in Spain, and Vandals in North Africa but Professor Heather spoke mostly about the two large group invasions, one that took place from 360-380AD and another from 405-408AD. Neither group was big enough to individually conquer the Empire. Instead, their goal was simple: survive on Roman soil, increase in size, and control bits of the Roman Empire until they were able to take away additional bits. Wealth in the Roman Empire was based on land.

Roman aristocrats that happened to live in the places that Barbarians settled were left with two choices: to flee and compromise their wealth or befriend Barbarian Kings and save their homes. This reduction and loss of property was followed by the reduction in tax revenue that the Roman Empire relied on in order to pay and retain an expensive army. Without a large army, the Roman Empire was ever more vulnerable and ever more heading towards its end.

It was not a ‘pair of Caesars’ that were responsible for the Roman demise, and according to Professor Heather neither was the rise of Christianity nor the internal economic and political struggle. These two factors might have contributed to the fall of Rome but there were a number of other causes.

Professor Heather emphasized the rise of Persia and the Barbarian invasion. The former rendered Rome vulnerable to the intruders by forcing it to allocate most of its resources to the Eastern frontier while the latter, slowly but surely, chipped away and conquered patches of Roman land. Dispersion of resources weakens an empire and renders it weak and vulnerable and it makes one wonder whether the current United States Empire is crumbling for the same reasons.

 by Milan Djurasovic (AY’11, USA)

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