In 476 A.D., the Western Roman Empire came to a collapse. The reasons that caused the fall of the empire are still a subject of many debates amongst historians. So what are the factors that led to its decadence?
The Course of Empire Destruction, by Thomas Cole (1836)
Invasion of the Germanic Tribes
The Germanic tribes had been Rome’s thorn for centuries. However, the empire was able to repel their sporadic raids successfully in the 4th century, though the Germanic tribes like the Goths were getting stronger and becoming a challenging force for the empire. It was in 410 A.D. the Visigoth King Alaric carried out a successful pillage on the city of Rome, from which the empire took decades to recover.
But it was the raid by the Germanic leader Odoacer in 476 A.D. that sounded the knell of the Roman Empire. He managed to oust the Emperor Romulus Augustulus.
Military Expenditure and Overexpansion
The dominion of the Roman Empire spanned from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River. Although an imposing display of territory, it helped bring the demise of the empire.
With such a vast territory to govern, the empire struggled to maintain order. The brilliant road networks notwithstanding, Rome faced a lot of communication problems. Marshaling troops and resources to defend its dominions from the rampant internal and external attacks was also a challenge riddled with blunders. The excessive finance needed to upkeep the military was detrimental to Rome’s technological development and civil infrastructure.
Political Turmoil and Corruption
Adding to an unwieldy reign of territory, political decay beleaguered the Roman Empire. The ascension to the throne became a deadly position in the second and third century. Over the span of 75 years, more than 20 men became the Emperor of Rome, each killing his predecessor. The emperor’s personal bodyguards ‘the Praetorian Guard’ became the king makers, assassinating and installing rulers at their own will. At one point, body guards even auctioned the position of Emperor to the highest bidder.
This anarchy was not curbed by the Roman Senate which was itself soaked in corruption and incompetency.
The political instability weakened trust and patriotism within the populace.
The Creation of the Eastern Empire
In the late third century the Emperor Diocletian split the Roman Empire in to two: the Western Empire (capital Milan) and the Eastern Empire (capital Byzantium or Constantinople). This, in the short term, improved administrative functions, but in the long term it created a huge gap between the two parties. Conflict over the issues of resources and military aid arose between them, and they couldn’t make common cause to ward off external attacks. The East also grew wealthier than the West as the gulf opened.
Moreover the strong fortification of the East diverted the attention of the Germanic invaders to the West, which was virtually unguarded. This was due to Emperors like Constantine who secured the protection of the East - while neglecting that of the West.
The Subversion of the Roman Legions
The decline of the Roman Empire affected the military tremendously. Rulers like Constantine and Diocletian, unable to recruit soldiers from the Roman citizenry, began hiring mercenaries, most of which were of Germanic descent. The legions were swelled by these tribes; at one point the Latin word “barbarus” (meaning barbarians) was used instead of soldiers.
Although great warriors, the Goths were very treacherous; they often turned on their Roman employers and most of the invaders of Rome in 476 A.D. were Goths that got their military stripes in the Roman legions.