Reasons for the fall of Rome?

‘Destruction’ by Thomas Cole, painted 1833–1836, part of a series ‘The Course of Empire’

Discussion of the the reasons for the ‘fall’ of the Western Roman Empire will go on forever and everybody will have their pet one. The classic book is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a six-volume work by the English historian Edward Gibbon.

Rome didn’t ‘fall’ it one cataclysmic day, week, month or year, nor was it all gone in one puff of smoke and was suddenly not there. It weakened, fragmented, disintegrated like the links of chain mail rusting and breaking, badly repaired and never again as strong. It transformed into pieces, changed into regions, city-states and mini fiefdoms run by warlords who battled each other for the next several centuries.

By 395 CE, things were changing/declining noticeably as I discussed here even though the deposition of the last Roman emperor in the west, Romulus Augustulus, who merely ruled over a small area round Ravenna, didn’t occur until 476 CE. The last really effective Roman emperor, Majorian, died in 461 CE.

Some areas such as northern France stuck out for a while after their ties to Rome had been cut. Before Majorian died, he appointed Aegidius in 457 CE to command all military forces in Gaul as magister militum (master of soldiers). Aegidius and his son Syagrius ruled over northern Gallia as Romans until Syagrius came up against Clovis, the dynamic kind of the Franks in 486 CE.

Yes, but why did the mighty civilisation that had lasted 1,229 years ‘fall’?

Books have been written on this – lots of them – but some of the main ones could include:

  • Invasion by barbarian tribes (Although there were many already settled with the Empire by the early 5th century, sometimes in semi-autonomous regions, thus weakening Roman identity)
  • Economic troubles and over reliance on (diminishing) slave labour – pirates, land consolidation, reduced access to markets, etc.)
  • Rise of the Eastern Empire and concentration on Constantinople with reduction of Rome’s importance
  • Internecine conflict, Greek vs Latin language and identity
  • Over expansion and military overspend
  • Government corruption and political instability
  • Arrival of the Huns and migrations of the barbarian tribes
  • Christianity and the loss of traditional values and structures
  • Weakening of the legions – ‘barbarisation’ and unwillingness of core Romans to enter the military
  • Loss of craft skills, industrial level production and diversification

Are there more?

Oh, yes! In 1984, a German academic, Alexander Demandt, published a book, Der Fall Roms, and he listed 210 reasons. Here’s the list, translated into English:

1.   Abolition of gods
2.   Abolition of rights
3.   Absence of character
4.   Absolutism
5.   Agrarian question
6.   Agrarian slavery
7.   Anarchy
8.   Anti-Germanism
9.   Apathy
10.  Aristocracy
11.  Asceticism
12.  Attack of the Germans
13.  Attack of the Huns
14.  Attack of riding nomads
15.  Backwardness in science
16.  Bankruptcy
17.  Barbarisation
18.  Bastardisation
19.  Blockage of land by large landholders
20.  Blood poisoning
21.  Bolshevisation
22.  Bread and circuses
23.  Bureaucracy
24.  Byzantinism
25.  Social mobility
26.  Capitals, change of
27.  Caste system
28.  Celibacy
29.  Centralisation
30.  Childlessness
31.  Christianity
32.  Citizenship, granting of
33.  Civil war
34.  Climatic deterioration
35.  Communism
36.  Complacency
37.  Concatenation of misfortunes
38.  Conservatism
39.  Capitalism
40.  Corruption
41.  Cosmopolitanism
42.  Crisis of legitimacy
43.  Culinary excess
44.  Cultural neurosis
45.  Decentralisation
46.  Decline of Nordic character
47.  Decline of the cities
48.  Decline of the Italian population
49.  Deforestation
50.  Degeneration
51.  Degeneration of the intellect
52.  Demoralisation
53.  Depletion of mineral resources
54.  Despotism
55.  Destruction of environment
56.  Destruction of peasantry
57.  Destruction of political process
58.  Destruction of Roman influence
59.  Devastation
60.  Differences in wealth
61.  Disarmament
62.  Disillusion with stated goals of empire
63.  Division of empire
64.  Division of labor
65.  Earthquakes
66.  Egoism
67.  Egoism of the state
68.  Emancipation of slaves
69.  Enervation
70.  Epidemics
71.  Equal rights, granting of
72.  Eradication of the best
73.  Escapism
74.  Ethnic dissolution
75.  Excessive ageing of population
76.  Excessive civilsation
77.  Excessive culture
78.  Excessive foreign infiltration
79.  Excessive freedom
80.  Excessive urbanisation
81.  Expansion
82.  Exploitation
83.  Fear of life
84.  Female emancipation
85.  Feudalisation
86.  Fiscalism
87.  Gladiatorial system
88.  Gluttony
89.  Gout
90.  Hedonism
91.  Hellenisation
92.  Heresy
93.  Homosexuality
94.  Hothouse culture
95.  Hubris
96.  Hypothermia
97.  Immoderate greatness
98.  Imperialism
99.  Impotence
100. Impoverishment
101. Imprudent policy toward buffer  states
102. Inadequate educational system
103. Indifference
104. Individualism
105. Indoctrination
106. Inertia
107. Inflation
108. Intellectualism
109. Integration, weakness of
110. Irrationality
111. Jewish influence
112. Lack of leadership
113. Lack of male dignity
114. Lack of military recruits
115. Lack of orderly imperial  succession
116. Lack of qualified workers
117. Lack of rainfall
118. Lack of religiousness
119. Lack of seriousness
120. Large landed properties
121. Lead poisoning
122. Lethargy
123. Levelling, cultural
124. Levelling, social
125. Loss of army discipline
126. Loss of authority
127. Loss of energy
128. Loss of instincts
129. Loss of population
130. Luxury
131. Malaria
132. Marriages of convenience
133. Mercenary system
134. Mercury damage
135. Militarism
136. Monetary economy
137. Monetary greed
138. Money, shortage of
139. Moral decline
140. Moral idealism
141. Moral materialism
142. Mystery religions
143. Nationalism of Rome’s subjects
144. Negative selection
145. Orientalisation
146. Outflow of gold
147. Over refinement
148. Pacifism
149. Paralysis of will
150. Paralysation
151. Parasitism
152. Particularism
153. Pauperism
154. Plagues
155. Pleasure seeking
156. Plutocracy
157. Polytheism
158. Population pressure
159. Precociousness
160. Professional army
161. Proletarianisation
162. Prosperity
163. Prostitution
164. Psychoses
165. Public baths
166. Racial degeneration
167. Racial discrimination
168. Racial suicide
169. Rationalism
170. Refusal of military service
171. Religious struggles and schisms
172. Rentier mentality
173. Resignation
174. Restriction to profession
175. Restriction to the land
176. Rhetoric
177. Rise of uneducated masses
178. Romantic attitudes to peace
179. Ruin of middle class
180. Rule of the world
181. Semi-education
182. Sensuality
183. Servility
184. Sexuality
185. Shamelessness
186. Shifting of trade routes
187. Slavery
188. Slavic attacks
189. Socialism (of the state)
190. Soil erosion
191. Soil exhaustion
192. Spiritual barbarism
193. Stagnation
194. Stoicism
195. Stress
196. Structural weakness
197. Superstition
198. Taxation, pressure of
199. Terrorism
200. Tiredness of life
201. Totalitarianism
202. Treason
204. Two-front war
205. Underdevelopment
206. Useless eaters
207. Usurpation of all powers by the state
208. Vaingloriousness
209. Villa economy
210. Vulgarisation

That gives you quite a choice! Some are self-contradictory, duplications or, in my opinion, plain daft. Others are simplistic or even offensive in 2022. Some will have been disproved since then, others dismissed as specious. But there are more than a few nuggets of truth in that list and I think it’s evident there were complex and interactive reasons, just as the Roman civilisation itself was. I’d recommend Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation for a reasoned view.

Perhaps you have your own alternative theory?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel, is now out!

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4 comments to Reasons for the fall of Rome?

  • Phil

    People looking for a military explanation like to quote Adrianople in 378AD, certainly an explanation given by Charles Oman as marking the decline of infantry and the “rise” of the “knight”. However the total theoretical manpower of the Late Roman Empire was approaching 500,000. Allowing for sickness etc. The figure was probably nearer the 300,000 under Augustus. Losses at Adrianople were 30,000, so just 10%, less than half the losses at Cannae in 216BC suffered by the much smaller Republic. Moreover it was the Eastern Army defeated at Adrianople, yet it was the Western Empire which “fell”. My theory, it was Frigidus in 394AD Where the best units in the Western Army were destroyed along with most of their senior officers and command structure by Theodosius. Moreover the West had a weaker economic base from which to rebuild their forces. Theodosius is said to have won two victories at the Frigidus, one over the Western Roman Empire, and one over his Gothic “Allies”, most of whom he managed to sacrifice in a futile frontal assault on the first day, meaning the Eastern Army suffered few casualties of note.

    • Alison

      So many strands (economic, social, philosophical) running at different times coupled with human nature make this change a complex business.

      I’d agree that the Battle of the Frigidus River was a very significant turning point. Apart from the victories you describe above, Theodosius also won the battle of old and new religions – equally significant, I think.

  • Fascinating article and interesting list. My favorite has to be #206. No empire can continue its reign when it is populated by “useless eaters.”

  • Alison

    Sounds quite harsh, doesn’t it? But I suppose it! The idea of supporting people who consume but don contribute.

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