Decline of the Roman Empire
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The decline of the Roman Empire refers to both the gradual disintegration of the economy of Rome and the barbarian invasions that were its final doom. The English historian Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) made this concept part of the framework of the English language, but he was neither the first nor the last to speculate on why and when the Empire collapsed.
Historiographically, the primary issue historians have looked at when analyzing any theory is the continued existence of the Eastern Empire or Byzantine Empire, which lasted almost a thousand years after the fall of the West. For example, Gibbon implicates Christianity in the fall of the Western Empire, yet the eastern half of the Empire, which was even more Christian than the west in geographic extent, fervor, penetration and vast numbers continued on for a thousand years afterwards (although Gibbon did not consider the Eastern Empire to be much of a success). As another example, environmental or weather changes affected the east as much as the west, yet the east did not "fall."
Theories will sometimes reflect the particular concerns that historians might have on cultural, political, or economic trends in their own times. Gibbon's criticism of Christianity reflects the values of the Enlightenment; his ideas on the decline in martial vigor could have been interpreted by some as a warning to the growing British Empire. In the 19th century socialist and anti-socialist theorists tended to blame decadence and other political problems. More recently, environmental concerns have become popular, with deforestation and soil erosion proposed as major factors, and destabilizing population decreases due to epidemics such as early cases of bubonic plague and malaria also cited. Global climate changes of 535-536, perhaps caused by the possible eruption of Krakatoa in 535, as mentioned by David Keys and others, is another example. Ideas about transformation with no distinct fall mirror the rise of the postmodern tradition, which rejects periodization concepts (see metanarrative). What is not new are attempts to diagnose Rome's particular problems, with Satire X, written by Juvenal in the early 2nd century at the height of Roman power, criticizing the peoples' obsession with "bread and circuses" and rulers seeking only to gratify these obsessions.
One of the primary reasons for the vast number of theories is the notable lack of surviving evidence from the 4th and 5th centuries. For example there are so few records of an economic nature it is difficult to arrive at even a generalization of the economic conditions. Thus, historians must quickly depart from available evidence and comment based on how things ought to have worked, or based on evidence from previous and later periods, on inductive reasoning. As in any field where available evidence is sparse, the historian's ability to imagine the 4th and 5th centuries will play as important a part in shaping our understanding as the available evidence, and thus be open for endless interpretation.
The end of the Western Roman Empire traditionally has been seen by historians to mark the end of the Ancient Era and beginning of the Middle Ages. More recent schools of history, such as Late Antiquity, offer a more nuanced view from the traditional historical narrative.
- Bronze Age collapse
- G.E.M. de Ste. Croix
- Global Empire
- Last of the Romans
- Legacy of the Roman Empire
- Plague of Justinian
- Rise of Christianity during the Fall of Rome
- Roman-Persian Wars
- Societal collapse
- The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
- Western Roman Empire