Why did Rome fall?


Well-Known Member
Jun 7, 2007
I am a big Roman history buff, and the question of why the western Roman empire in particular came to an end has been of big interest to me. I thought I'd share my thoughts here and see what others think.

There are a lot of theories as to why Rome fell. Gibbon blamed the decline in civic virtue and the empire's conversion to Christianity (although he was never able to adequately explain how or why the Byzantines, who were even more Christian, survived and prospered for another millennium after the fall of Rome). Richta blamed it on the superior technological innovations of barbarians. Bark and Heather suggest the empire basically died due to the toll wrought by the effort to keep it alive -- the former because of doomed reforms that ushered in the initial trappings of the feudalist system, the latter because of the disastrous toll wrought by the Romans' attempt to confront the rise of the Sassanids in the east. Pirenne and his imitators argue Rome never really fell, it just evolved into feudal Europe, although obviously Rome ceased to exist as a coherent imperial entity and so the Pirrenean thesis is not a valid explanation for why.

I have always tended to favor Arnold Toynbee's reasoning behind the fall of Rome: that the imperial system itself was unworkable, and that the whole of the imperial period was marked by the steady decay of republican-era institutions, virtues, and strengths. The fact that Rome's plunder economy effectively dried up after conquests reached their greatest extent under Trajan did not help.

Lately I've been reading The Roman Emperors by Michael Grant, and one of the things that struck me was how pathetically small most of Rome's emperors were. They were utterly pygmy; I could count the number of actually good, worthwhile rulers on my hands. The system may well have collapsed from the moment of its inception if not for the stewardship of Augustus. Things only got worse as the empire aged and its need for strong leadership grew: Honorius in particular strikes me as among the most flagrantly worthless men in recorded history, and I am convinced that his reign marked the point of no return beyond which nothing short of divine intervention could salvage the empire.

With serious reforms and competent military leadership, the empire may well have survived the economic stagnation and barbarian invasions that ultimately wrecked it (Diocletian's reforms may well have allowed the empire to survive another century). But without a capable emperor to do so -- and by the end, there never was one -- Rome had no hope of continued survival in the face of the hardships that rocked her.

One of the benefits of the republic, as with any heavily-balanced system, is that the worst excesses of its leaders are constrained by the power of other leaders. This was not true in the case of Rome. The closest thing to a check on the power of the emperor was the threat of assassination, and even that rarely served its purpose because there was a good chance the next emperor would be worst than the last. Where victories were won, they were often won by talented generals acting alone -- Aetius and Stilicho -- and not the emperors themselves.

I need to do some more research into the nature of the Byzantine empire to see if they suffered under similarly worthless rulers, but I think this thesis largely holds up.
Great post. Have you ever read Vergil's explanation for why Marcellus, who was supposed to be the next great ruler, died?
Can't say I did -- what's his take on it?

I'm a little shakey (it's from high school) and so I was hoping that you were familiar with it, but from what I recall he essentially said that the Gods killed Marcellus because if he had grown up to rule Rome, Rome's power would've rivalled that of the Gods. Just an interesting aside to your thesis on the lack of good rulers...
I've never seen Nero and Dick Cheney in the same room together so my question is... how old is Dick Cheney and does he play the fiddle... LoL! :D
AHH..Well Well Well USMC the Almighty. Here we are on a thread that's
speaking exactly what we was talking about on the other thread.
This information that's being talked about goes way back to 69BCs.
That was after Julius Caesar (Caesarion) death in 47BC that Cleopatra,
and her son Caeserion went to Rome.

(Bare this in mind that the BC years was counting down to the time
of Christ)

In 31 BC Mark Antony arm forces faced the Romans in a naval war
off the coast of Actium,.In which following the battle of Actium the
Romans invaded Egypt. So I believe at this point was the beginning
of the Roman Empire.

Caeserion was captured and executed, his fate was reportly sealed
by Octavian's famous phrase: " Two Caesers are one to many. "
This ended the hellenistic line of all Egyptian pharohs. I believe that
this is the point where the ruling of the Roman Emperors started.

My closing question is...How did the thread jump from the Roman days
to Dick Cheney? :confused:
I am not a scholar of the subject, but will interject my hindsight observations. It comes down to the expansionist/colonial system and not having the technology to manage it. Meaning that there needed to be a faster method of sending messages than by ship or horseback to manage it properly. The empire grew to big and fell under its own weight.
There have long been many theories about the fall of Rome. Most of them more relevant to their contemporaries than to actual historical events. The specific conditions that led to Rome being susceptible to barbarian invasion can be argued by scholars. I think a good way to explore the question is to ask why the Roman empire lasted so long. And why do it's influences persist to this day. The Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church are direct decendents of this empire. The symbols and trappings of the Roman Senate are evident every where in the US Senate. We are a part of that historical continuum.
i know...I was bored between researching for my cinco de mayo post and cooking fried bologna.

Okay r0beph..thanks for the warning to stay away from the
fried bologna.

However visit this url which is about the Roman Empire history,
and you should find the answers there.
Check that info out (great research site). I am not a scholar
on ancident history, but I do have some great research skills,
and I do own & operate a Research firm with my Son.

We do have some good paying contracts with private and city
operated businesses. Hopefully you other posters who is the
nosey type will visit the site as well.
I am not a scholar of the subject, but will interject my hindsight observations. It comes down to the expansionist/colonial system and not having the technology to manage it. Meaning that there needed to be a faster method of sending messages than by ship or horseback to manage it properly. The empire grew to big and fell under its own weight.

This was most of the reason the empire was partitioned into a Roman west and Byzantine east, each end governed by two emperors (one senior, one junior) as a tetrarchy. The empire did remarkably well despite these technological limitations; again, it reached its height under Trajan in the early 100's AD, but the empire didn't fall until almost 500, by which time it was drastically reduced.

But technological limitations did become a major problem later on. Eastern barbarians brought with them technological innovations like the compass that altered the equation on which the Pax Romana was based.