Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Animated map of the Roman Republic and Empire
Animated map of the Roman Republic and Empire between 510 BCE and 530 CE
  Eastern/Byzantine Empire
  Western Empire

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire (also called Fall of the Roman Empire or Fall of Rome) was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which it failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities. The Roman Empire lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control; modern historians mention factors including the effectiveness and numbers of the army, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperor, the religious changes of the period, and the efficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from barbarians outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse. The reasons for the collapse are major subjects of the historiography of the ancient world and they inform much modern discourse on state failure. [1] [2]

Relevant dates include 117 CE, when the Empire was at its greatest territorial extent, and the accession of Diocletian in 284. Irreversible major territorial loss, however, began in 376 with a large-scale irruption of Goths and others. In 395, after winning two destructive civil wars, Theodosius I died, leaving a collapsing field army and the Empire, still plagued by Goths, divided between his two incapable sons. By 476 when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus, the Western Roman Emperor wielded negligible military, political, or financial power and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman. Invading barbarians had established their own power in most of the area of the Western Empire. While its legitimacy lasted for centuries longer and its cultural influence remains today, the Western Empire never had the strength to rise again.

The Fall is not the only unifying concept for these events; the period described as Late Antiquity emphasizes the cultural continuities throughout and beyond the political collapse.

Historical approaches

Since 1776, when Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Decline and Fall has been the theme around which much of the history of the Roman Empire has been structured. "From the eighteenth century onward," historian Glen Bowersock wrote, "we have been obsessed with the fall: it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears." [3]


The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which it failed to enforce its rule. The Fall is not the only unifying concept for these events; the period described as Late Antiquity emphasizes the cultural continuities throughout and beyond the political collapse. The loss of centralized political control over the West, and the lessened power of the East, are universally agreed, but the theme of decline has been taken to cover a much wider time span than the hundred years from 376. For Cassius Dio, the accession of the emperor Commodus in 180 CE marked the descent "from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron". [4] Gibbon started his story in 98 and Theodor Mommsen regarded the whole of the imperial period as unworthy of inclusion in his Nobel Prize-winning History of Rome. Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke argue that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in republican times. As one convenient marker for the end, 476 has been used since Gibbon, but other markers include the Crisis of the Third Century, the Crossing of the Rhine in 406 (or 405), the sack of Rome in 410, the death of Julius Nepos in 480, all the way to the Fall of New Rome in 1453. [5]


Gibbon gave a classic formulation of reasons why the Fall happened. He began an ongoing controversy about the role of Christianity, but he gave great weight to other causes of internal decline and to attacks from outside the Empire.

The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

— Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West", Chapter 38

Alexander Demandt enumerated 210 different theories on why Rome fell, and new ideas have emerged since. [6] [7] Historians still try to analyze the reasons for loss of political control over a vast territory (and, as a subsidiary theme, the reasons for the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire). Comparison has also been made with China after the end of the Han dynasty, which re-established unity under the Sui dynasty while the Mediterranean world remained politically disunited.

Alternative descriptions and labels

At least from the time of Henri Pirenne, scholars have described continuity of culture and of political legitimacy, long after 476. Pirenne postponed the demise of classical civilization to the 8th century. He challenged the notion that Germanic barbarians had caused the Western Roman Empire to end, and he refused to equate the end of the Western Roman Empire with the end of the office of emperor in Italy. He pointed out the essential continuity of the economy of the Roman Mediterranean even after the barbarian invasions, and suggested that only the Muslim conquests represented a decisive break with antiquity. The more recent formulation of a historical period characterized as " Late Antiquity" emphasizes the transformations of ancient to medieval worlds within a cultural continuity. [8] In recent decades archaeologically-based argument even extends the continuity in material culture and in patterns of settlement as late as the eleventh century. [9] [10] [11] Observing the political reality of lost control, but also the cultural and archaeological continuities, the process has been described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall. [12]

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