The Fall of Rome

This is the final essay I wrote for my English 2010 class earlier this week. Today, I got the results back. 200/200! My instructor said it was fascinating and that he “thoroughly enjoyed reading it.” Woohoo!

Rome: That great and majestic city who, at one time, ruled most of the known world; the city that inspires hearts and minds with fantasies of power, grandeur and wonder. Today Rome is one of the most visited cities in the world where people can see the historic and awe-inspiring ruins. Every year large numbers of people flock to Rome to learn about those ancient persons who created gladiators, lived to excess and conquered most of Europe. What most people don’t think about is: What happened to them? We all know that Ancient Rome fell, but is there a clear answer why? What happened to that great and powerful empire whose soldiers struck fear into the hearts of those they conquered?

There are several theories as to why Rome fell. From internal corruption to disease and pecuniary inadequacies, scientists and scholars alike have struggled to come to a concise answer as to what the main reason for the fall of Rome was. In this paper I will be discussing and presenting several theories from noted historians about what their research has led them to believe caused the fall of Rome.

One of the earliest theories presented was by Edward Gibbon in his classic work, The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, written in 1787. In this book, Mr. Gibbon argues that the Rome fell because the population had lost their civic virtues by the outsourcing of military needs. He theorizes that Roman citizens lost the skill to protect themselves because they had taken to outsourcing their protection to mercenaries. As Romans became more and more complacent with having others protect them, they spent less time learning to protect themselves until it became uncommon for the average Roman to be trained in the military arts. Mr. Gibbon theorizes that this lead to the men becoming more effeminate and unwilling to be manly and militaristic. When the time came for a large invading force to attack Rome, the general public was unable to assist in protecting the Empire, thus leading to the over-run of the mercenary protection force, some of whom became part of the invading force, and then the conquering of Rome.

While Mr. Gibbon argues that Rome fell primarily because of complacency and a weakening of the populace in the military arena, Peter J. Heather theorizes in his book, The Fall of the Roman Empire, that there were no internal issues in Rome that cause their demise, but that the invading barbarians were just stronger and more adept. He states that the Roman Empire was solid and stable all the way through the early parts of the 3rd century AD and that the introduction of the Sassanid Persians in Iran around 226AD brought about the first signs of real trouble in Rome. Professor Heather details how Rome struggled to deal with the threat posed by the Sassanids and that “20–25% of the military might of the Roman Army was addressing the Persian threat from the late third century onward … and upwards of 40% of the troops under the Eastern Emperors.” Along with assigning a large military force to deal with the Sassanids in the East, Rome began reallocating the tax income of some of the Western provinces to allow for the funding and expansion of the military. This led to a reduction in local infrastructure in the areas where tax funds were being diverted and the weakening of those areas, making them easier for the Germanic tribes in the North, who had been adapting and growing due to an economic relationship with Rome, to come in and begin conquering outlying territories, starting a domino effect that would lead to the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.

Similar to what Professor Heather posits, Bryan Ward-Perkins claims Rome fell due to political instability caused by barbarian invasion and the decrease of tax revenues. He states that the cycle of damage caused by foreign invasion on outlying provinces caused damage to the Roman tax base and disrupted the flow of funds to the government. This decrease in taxes received made it difficult for Rome to fund and supply equipment for the mercenary defense force. As he states in his book, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, “…the strength of the army was closely linked to the well-being of the underlying tax base” (41). As territories were ravaged by invasion or conquered by the invaders, their ability to pay taxes to Rome was severely damaged. Ward-Perkins cites the inability of Rome to secure additional funds on credit or to divert spending from other government programs as a major factor in Rome’s demise as “military capability relied on immediate access to taxable wealth” (41). He explains that receiving credit from other countries for emergencies was a non-existent practice at this time and that Rome’s largest expenditure was the military with no other large government departments to pull funding from in order to add additional funds to the defense budget. This eventual lack of funds needed to pay for and fully equip the mercenary force used to defend Rome lead to the breakdown of Rome’s military and allowed the invading forces to conquer and subjugate the Roman people.

Along the lines of defense issues being caused by other underlying factors, Professor Ramsay MacMullin of Yale University declares that the cause of Rome’s demise rests in the loss of government control due to political corruption. In his book, Corruption and the Decline of Rome, Professor MacMullin states that the widespread practice of rich citizens paying bribes to government officials to gain tax exemptions lead to the economic instability and funding shortage that made it impossible to maintain the mercenary force that protected Rome. As those in government put their own personal gains above the needs of the Empire, it became commonplace for citizens to purchase military commissions they were unqualified for, legal verdicts and government positions along with the skirting of pecuniary responsibilities. MacMullin called these practices a “privatization of power” and proclaims that these actions are what left Rome open to subjugation.  He puts forth that these systemic actions, at first looked down upon and done in secret, became commonplace and left the government weak and unable to effectively manage the affairs of the Empire, thus leading to the shortage of funds necessary to maintain a strong and effective defensive force.

In contrast to Professor MacMullin’s supposition that Rome’s decline was caused by internal corruption, Dr. William Hardy McNeill suggests Rome was weakened by a reduction of the population due to illness and disease. He tells of an illness that first appeared in the Empire during 165AD, and lasted until around 180AD, that was later named the Antonine Plague. According to Dr. McNeill, scholars have suggested that this plague could have been smallpox, or something similar. Serious illnesses like the Antonine Plague continued to ravage Rome in the centuries following this outbreak. By his account, the Antonine Plague claimed the lives of 1/4 – 1/3 of the Roman population affected while a later plague, the Plague of Cyprian, appeared from 251-266 and had an even higher mortality rate, most of which were of the lower classes.  Dr. McNeill states in his book that “five thousand a day are said to have died at the height of the epidemic, and…rural populations were affected even more sharply than in the earlier epidemic years” (116). He later describes how the areas most affected by these diseases were located in areas that had previously provided the highest amount of tax revenue and agricultural workers for the Empire. This reduction in taxes and the workforce made the Roman Empire financially weak and less able to support the government and army. “As a result, pay for the soldiers at accustomed rates could no longer be found, and mutinous troops turned upon civil society to extract what they could by main force from the undefended landscapes which Roman peace had created throughout the empire’s Mediterranean heartlands. Further economic decay, depopulation, and human disaster resulted” (119). Dr. McNeill concludes his narrative on the disastrous affects of disease on the Roman Empire by declaring that the “vicious circle” of disease-caused population reduction and the financial toll it took upon the Empire lead to the eventual downfall of Rome.

 In a parallel line of thought, Dr. SC Gilfillan published an article in 1965 titled, “Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome.” In this article he declares that rampant use of lead for sweeteners and a myriad of household items brought about lead poisoning in the elite of Rome and caused the mental and physiological decline in Rome, thus bringing about the end of the Roman Empire. After years of contemplation in the scientific community, this theory has been debunked by the study of bones ranging from 3,300 BC to the 20th century AD. According to the scientific paper, “Lead Poisoning in Ancient Rome,” “in occupied areas during the late Roman era, lead levels were at 41-47% of present-day European levels.” The paper discusses how lead levels in Rome dropped to 13% of what is in our bodies today after 500AD and then rose again during the Middle Ages to the same levels as were present in Roman antiquity. The study also proves that the amounts of lead present in the capital of Rome “were not significantly higher than European legionary cities…” and could not have had a considerable enough impact on Roman health to have played a part in the decline of the Empire.

As a concluding argument for what caused the fall of Rome, I would like to present the theory presented by Professor Peter Brown of Princeton University in his book, “The World of Late Antiquity.” In this, Professor Brown presents the idea that Rome did not fall in 476AD as has been previously claimed, but that it remained and evolved for several centuries after, until it was diminished to just the city of Constantinople in 800AD. He declares that the capital of the Rome, which had traditionally been located in the Western Roman Empire, moved to Constantinople, which was in the Eastern Roman Empire, after Rome was invaded in 410AD and began its evolution into what it is today. In his book he states, “In the course of the fifth century, the Roman empire had found its way to a new identity, as the empire of Constantinople” (138). Professor Brown describes how residents of Constantinople began to learn Latin “to enhance the grandeur of Constantinople, their ‘New Rome’” (138). Described in-depth, Professor Brown details how Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire slowly evolved into Byzantium, despite attempts by Emperor Justinian (482-565) to recall the splendor of Rome’s past and to reconquer the Western Roman Empire. Professor Brown describes the evolution of the ‘New Rome’ from the strong empire of Byzantium to the remnants of an empire held within the walls of Constantinople after the invasion and domination by the Arab Muslims. According to Professor Brown, Rome never fell. It did not fall in 476AD because it had already moved to a new location and it did not fall during the surge of Islam in the 600s AD. Professor Brown declares that Rome has never fallen, but has evolved over time.

As we can see, there are many theories about what happened to the ancient Roman Empire. Will we ever know the true cause or certainty of that mighty civilization’s demise? Was it one of the theories presented here or a combination? Did Rome even fall at all or did Rome fall for a completely different reason that has yet to be uncovered? The discovery of new documents and artifacts in conjunction with new technology may help us find the answer in the future, but it is uncertain that we will ever have a clear answer for why Rome fell. Every historian and academic who studies the age of antiquity has their own distinct theory of what happened to the mighty ancient Roman Empire. While it is unclear whether or not the academics in the field will ever agree to one certain cause for the fall of Rome, what is clear is that historians and scholars will continue in their quest to research and determine what they believe is to be the true cause for the fall of the Roman Empire.


Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750. [New York]: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. Print.

Gibbon, Edward. The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. Vol. 1. Basil: Tourneisen, 1787. 07 June 2008. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Gilfillan, S. C. “Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome.” Journal of Occupational Medicine 7.2 (1965): 53-60. Print.

Heather, Peter J. The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Macmillan, 2005. Print.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Corruption and the Decline of Rome. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. Print.

McNeill, William Hardy. “Chapter 3 – Confluence of the Civilized Disease-Pools of Eurasia: 500 B.C. to A.D 1200.” Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1976. 94-160. Print.

Retief, Fp, and L. Cilliers. “Lead Poisoning in Ancient Rome.” Acta Theologica 26.2 (2010): 147-64. African Journals Online. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.