Rome Didn’t Fall Quite The Way You Might Think

“You cheer my heart, who build as if Rome would be eternal.” —Augustus Caesar

In A Nutshell

The popular version of Rome’s fall is that a barbarian invasion tore Rome down column by column and left chaos in its wake. But by A.D. 476, the traditional date of the empire’s “fall,” the “invaders” had long been essential parts of the Roman administration and army. As a result, the fall was less catastrophic and affected the Roman population less than is typically imagined. The new “barbarian” leader was even commended by the emperor in Constantinople.

The Whole Bushel

A big part of this myth depends on whether or not the Roman Empire actually fell in A.D. 476, which it is easily argued it didn’t. The Eastern, or Byzantine, half survived for another 1,000 years after the “fall.” Yes, the city of Rome did fall to a tribe of marauding Germans called Vandals. But, as far big deals go, Rome being sacked (again) was a minor blip on the Mediterranean radar. The empire’s capital, Constantinople, had surpassed Rome in wealth, population, and political importance long before. In fact, when the Vandals sacked Rome in 476, the city wasn’t even the capital of the western empire—that honor fell to Ravenna.

And as for horn-helmeted invaders showing up and trashing the empire? It’s a bit more complicated than that. The “barbarians” (i.e., the Goths, Ostrogoths, and Germans) had been part of the Roman Empire as client-states, an increasingly large portion of the Roman military, and quasi-citizens. When the last Western Roman emperor was deposed in 476, Odoacer, the Goth who replaced him, wasn’t in any hurry to change things, and made sure to at least pay lip service to the true emperor in Constantinople. For the average Roman, life carried on as usual for decades after the last emperor wore his final purple cape.

This sounds a bit strange unless you’re aware that during the last two centuries of Roman primacy, the distinction between “Roman” and “barbarian” was a gray area. Rome’s military power always depended on its ability to pour a seemingly endless stream of its citizens into the meat grinders the empire called its legions. We’re talking about a society that treated the loss of tens of thousands of its troops like a minor inconvenience along the path to inevitable victory. As its frontiers lengthened and centuries of Russian-esque casualty rates took their toll, the empire’s endless reserves of men began to dwindle.

Rome responded by replenishing its legions with foreigners from the same frontiers the empire was attempting to defend. Germans and Goths filled the Roman ranks by the end of the fourth century AD. In response to the increasing threat of the Huns, the empire allowed Gothic tribes to settle along the Danube river and serve as human walls between the Huns and the rest of the empire. Even the Vandals of later pillaging fame only came into the empire because they were recruited by a rebel Roman general to aid his bid for power.

Pretty soon the “barbarians” weren’t just front-line stabbing fodder. They became officers and generals and controlled much of the imperial administration. For much of the fifth century, the empire was ruled essentially by a string of men descended from Rome’s former enemies and newest allies/mercenaries. After a coalition of the desperate finally defeated the Huns in 451, it was incredibly difficult to tell where Roman-ness ended and barbarianism began. The last regent of the empire was actually one of Attila the Hun’s former officers. And Odoacer, the barbarian who assumed control of Rome after the last emperor was deposed, received commendation from Constantinople for instilling some law and order into western Europe.

What essentially ended the Empire wasn’t foreign invasion, but a series of civil wars that wracked the frontier. The Roman army with its barbarian weaponry, dress, and generals squared off against itself over and over, reducing the western empire into countless fractious kingdoms with only brief unity under a handful of warlords-emperors, all of which gives new meaning to the saying, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Show Me The Proof

The fall of the Roman Empire: A social and ecological interpretation
Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire, by E.A. Thompson
Rome’s Fall and After, by Walter Goffart
Constantinople, Old and New, by Harry Griswold Dwight
Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.–A.D. 400, Thomas S. Burns

  • edzyl blane

    I wonder what the world be if Rome just maintained it’s Racial purity and no civil war happened after Augustus

    • k499t1

      Rome depended too heavily on slaves for all menial and hard work. Indeed it was said that economically Rome was a system that produced wine and exchanged it for slaves at its ever enlarging frontiers. It failed once these frontiers stopped growing. When you have a 50-50 rate of slaves to citizens miscegenation is absolutely inevitable.

      • ElBandito

        Actually, there’s proof that the Romans actually used professionals in ‘hard work’. In the Roman mines of Wadi Sikait (which was discovered in the 80s), they found wax tablets that marked freemen miners with descriptions on their previous contracts.

        and yeah, as I mentioned above, if you have almost all the guys that were in control of your security, trade, laws, etc, killing each other every 10-20 years and demanding more soldiers to fight for them, what do you think your country would start to be like? Because there’s a lot more reason than slave dependency that attributed to the fall of Rome.

        • Tory Quinton

          Very True. In fact not only did Rome use professional workers as much as slaves, the slaves were far from the chattel slaves of more recent memory. Slaves could occupy prominent positions in a household, slaves could buy their freedom and in some documented cases slaves actually had more money and more prestigge than their masters. In these cases the slaves were either freed or bouoght their freedom and often married into the family in a sort of arranged marriage.

    • ElBandito

      What racial purity?

      First off, Rome was already absorbing other tribes before it even became a major city. You CAN read Ancient Rome and the Roman Republic by Matthew Dillon et al, and read the inscriptions talking about the ‘genesis’ of the Roman city and the real laws that were in place against the ‘conquered’ Samnite states. Even the Romans had to deal with Gauls that had crossed the Alps and invaded Etruria.

      And that latter event happened at 300 BC. How do you explain the Roman weakness of compensating for their dead soldiers by replacing them with foreign youngsters?

      That’s like calling the US tactic of destroying the Native American ‘threat’ by taking native kids and sending them to boarding schools, where they were forced to speak only English, learn the modern American culture, and only worship/interact with people differently to the point where they could literally be used as ‘crowd control’ against their own people, and completely feel foreign to their own roots, as ‘a potential danger’ to American society.

      We’ve taken the Roman model and did the same thing. And like the Romans, we wound up attacked by a completely different race than the ones we’ve conquered and absorbed.

      I hate to be that guy, but I’ve seen your statement being used by national extremists today. And it irks all of us people who spend YEARS studying Roman history–because every racist who so much as glances at Roman history completely forgets the turmoil during the 3rd and 4th century AD.

      You can’t look at a society that has gone through multiple civil wars (where soldiers that could’ve EASILY been used as border security were dying everywhere else because many dudes were going, “NO. IM GONNA BE THE EMPEROR!”). Seriously, Rome went through THREE emperors in one year. THREE!! Then there was the year of the FIVE emperors (that fell apart, HARD) and the Year of the Six Emperors (whose co-reign lasted 20 days). There was SO much violence being started by rich, esteemed Romans (that have an extensive pedigree of being strictly ROMAN), it’s no wonder that society and its empire was crumbling.

      Seriously. Go make a list of emperors that ruled after the Flavian Dynasty, up to the fall of Rome. Count how many were murdered/assassinated/died in battle fighting against another 100% pure Roman.

    • Patriotic Dane

      Imagine…

    • Paul Hanson

      Racial purity?

    • edzyl blane

      Y’know. If they never allowed barbaric mercenaries

  • Nathaniel A.

    Very good bushel, reading about The Roman Empire is always fun.

    • Lisa 39

      I’ve never read or heard much about rome, not really interested, but i think i just learned more on the comment section than i did in the article 😉

      • Nathaniel A.

        Mhmm El Bandito must be very passionate about this topic.

        • Lisa 39

          Yes, i agree 😉

  • Rome did not have walls around the city. It was defended by the Roman army and hundreds of miles of Roman territory. Eventually that was not enough.

    When Rome was attacked by the various waves of “barbarians,” the aquaducts that supplied water from many miles away were an easy target. Once they were destroyed, the city was unlivable.

    • Tory Quinton

      As has been said Good Fences make good neighbors. In the case of Constantinople, those fences were the Theodosian walls and they so strong, so unbreakable that their very existence gave pause to invaders for several hundred years. In fact not even Mehmet’s massive cannons could do any real damage. In the end even after forcing a small breech in a newer, weaker section of walls the invaders were still repulsed, it took a simple accident to bring down the city. A gate that had been obscured from rubble was left unlocked.

      • Tolga Ozkiyici

        Oh yeah? Constantinople fell because a gate was left unlocked? You sound like you were there which I am sure you were not. It is very clear to me that you have no facts but just biased stories that you patched up together. We could talk about how Mehmed pulled ships across land with ramps to go past the naval blockade. Or how Hasan (Ulubatli), took the walls by storm but it would not change that these are not facts. History is muddy because of such stories, exaggerations, assumptions that people get excited about and often WANT to believe.

        • Tory Quinton

          That is exactly what happened, Yes. The city was besieged but could not be overtaken. The sea wall was impregnable and any damage to the other walls was repaired in the time it took for Mehmets cannon to be reloaded. The siege was at a standstill. No doubt had it continued within between three and 7 months the city woudl have fallen but the fact is a city gate was left unlocked. Why? Rubble was being cleared away in haste and much of that rubble was discarded in front of what was considered to be an unimportant gate (dont think I mean some small gate like you have on a house either, you can not possibly be that dens, but an actual city gate). Mehmets spies found it and exploited it. That is a fact. I am sorry you feel the need to be so hostile against it. By the way, I did not have to be there Thousands of people were there who survived, priests, soldiers even many nobles on both sides of the wall. Numerous histories have been written by both sides.

          “We could talk about how Mehmed pulled ships across land with ramps to go past the naval blockade.”

          And those ships sat outside the walls accomplishing nothing. The Naval blockade was long gone by the time the city fell.

          “Or how Hasan (Ulubatli), took the walls by storm”

          yes, after the gate was breached and gave access to a weak point. Seriously, why are you so hostile? You are taking events several hundred years ago way to personally to be anything other than a troublemaker.

          By the way, I dont really care because I am neither Greek nor Roman, nor Muslim. History is history. The Byzantines did a tremendous job holding out for so long and Mehmet did a tremendous job in finally conquering the city. So again, your level of hostility is grossly misplaced.

          • mcrumph

            The sea walls were not impregnable. The Venetians, during the 4th crusade, breached the walls, sacked the city and then established their own ruler there. It was generally this destruction of the city’s defense and political infrastructures that then led to the various invasions that turned the city from Christian hands to Muslim.

          • Tory Quinton

            Not accurate… The Venetians (70 of them to be precise) entered the city through a gate on the sea wall that had been left unlocked either deliberately or through neglect. Once inside they managed to enlarge a few holes, enough to allow for individual soldiers to enter. Others climbed the towers that guarded the golden horn. This resulted in the final decline of the city and the creation of the so called successor states. By the time of Mehmed and the final siege 300 years had passed, the city was once again prosperous (comparatively), and the walls and been rebuilt and upgraded so that Mehmed’s navy could neither bypass the great chain in the harbor nor breech the sea walls. They relied on the unsuccessful use of tunnels and then at last brought powerful cannon to bear. The reality is the city fell through fatigue not the direct results of the assault. Constantine had only 7000 men to defend the city, most of these were foreigners who fled at various times, including the Genoese mercenaries. The great sea wall were very much intact.

      • Carl

        The “Ottomen Turk” took the city of Constantinople due to the lack of man power to man the walls.The city had been going down hill for a couple of centuries and most of the top families and the money had moved out. The miles of walls could not be properly defended and the fighting spirit was not there. The Roman, Justian journey after 900 yrs in the East came to end…

    • Carl

      Rome was a walled city for hundreads of years, isn’t it wriien that Hanabel “came to within sight of the Roman walls maned by the people of Rome before he stopped”.

  • Scott

    Everybody knows part of Rome’s decline can be attributed to the rise of Christianity.

    • Sargonarhes

      False Christianity. Every one should know Jesus told his followers his Kingdom is no part of this world, and any real Christian would not have gotten involved in the politics of the Roman Empire. After the last of the Apostles died the people that assumed to role of head of the church started to move away from the real Christian values and beliefs leading to the rule of Christendom that would help wreck the Roman Empire.
      Get your facts straight.

    • Tory Quinton

      Christianity actually boosted Roman power. That is why the Eastern Roman Empire became Christian so quickly and why they developed such vast wealth and power. We can debate the merits of that Christianity as a value system or a political system over the long term, but there is absolutely no doubt that Christianity saved the Empire and propelled it to a 1000 year long empire that was the envy of the whole world. Only China could claim to equal the might, grandeur, wealth and power of Roman Empire, for indeed Byzantium was the Roman Empire.

      • Rob Lewis

        As my wife likes to say, “The Catholic Church is the Roman Empire by other means.”

  • Scitech101

    Well, to be sure, a number of other factors contributed just as much (if not more) to the Fall of Rome: chronic civil war since 200AD; Economic displacement caused by the Latifundia system and other productivity issues; Chronic economic mismanagement; bad leaders such as Commodus, etc.

    It is also worth noting that for its size, the Roman civilization (Republic and Empire) was remarkably long lived, even when you don’t count the Byzantine Empire.

  • Patrick Marsh

    If Rome was around, America wouldn’t exist and we’d all be living in the most powerful country, defending ourselves and helping our allies. Not much different than America today. Not sure if modern Rome would be the World Police.

    • Scott

      How astute.

    • Tory Quinton

      “Not sure if modern Rome would be the World Police”

      Well, Ancient Rome certainly was. In many cases Roman annexed territories because the local leaders begged Rome to assist. When we speak of the pax romana, the Peace of Rome we are actually not talking about peace so much as the period of peace that was brought about by the absolute power dominance after Augustus. That peace existed because pother people were aware that striking Rome was a fools errand. In this sense it was very much like America after WW2. We were simply to powerful to be at risk from any threats.

    • rowhns

      it depends if ‘world’ meant only the land area around the mediterranean sea

  • Liam Carter

    Perhaps a better timeline will shed light on how Rome fell ???
    http://histolines.com/timeline_character.php?charname=Roman+Empire

  • Matt Sowersbry

    very interesting. More interesting than the assumed story usually represented

  • Sargonarhes

    Rome fell the way so many huge empires do, from within.

    • Grant Guthrie

      Yeah look at the United States now…Were witnessing the fall of our present ‘world leader.’ Coming from an American, I can tell you I see this process unfolding now.

      • Sargonarhes

        Oh yeah, we can see the beginning or actually the middle of that process already underway. It would take very drastic measures to save it now, if it is possible at all. The corruption goes deep.

  • this is very interesting article….but it is true?

  • Desrio

    Everyone knows that the decline of the Western Empire was brought about by Asterix.

    • Bradley W

      Indubitably. Those unnecessary frustrations would cause any self-respecting empire to crack.

  • IrishYank2

    Pfft! Oh come on! We ALL know that Rome fell due to Barack Obama and his socialist ideals. He’s responsible, in fact, for every tragedy in human history. There Ah Fixed It!

  • IrishYank2

    So basically, Rome was in an all out war of attrition with the rest of the known world, and to replenish manpower they outsourced to other groups to fill the gaps. Sounds like Microsoft.

  • tesmith

    ruling class, including generals were drinking highly acidic wine out of lead goblets, instant lead poisoning, which affects the brain first , you go crazy, then you die.
    just imagine all the ruling and governing class crazy for a few years then dead. death blow to highly structured society like rome

  • Tyler Barton

    A lot of you sound like you KNOW all these “facts” first hand. Unless you were there, you don’t know how it happened. All we can do is speculate so why are you all trying to throw these stories around like you KNOW you are right?

    I don’t mind a discussion but when you start a response with “Uh… no,” “False.” “Wrong.” etc. you just set yourself up to look bad. Just state that you disagree rather than trying to make the other person wrong, because you don’t know.

  • James
  • rowhns

    Istanbul was Constantinople
    Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
    Been a long time gone, Constantinople
    Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night

    Every gal in Constantinople
    Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
    So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
    She’ll be waiting in Istanbul

  • MasT

    Never was the capital of Roman Empire,Ravenna. It was for a short time (50 years) residence of the emperor, but it was Milan before that. This city was made capital by Goths when they conquered northern Italy, but it was after the sack of Rome by Huns and during the period in wich almost every barbarian tribe of eastern Europe invaded Italy. Most of those were German, whom was considered by romans as “not to trust” even if they made pact with them and allowed them into their armies due to a lack of men, but mostly due to the fact that if you were under the governament of Rome you were in fact a ROMAN (not ally, not friend, not simpatizer, ROMAN (Pax Romana)). There was absolutely NO RACIAL PURITY, most of roman emperors were Iberian and sometimes African. During the Roman era you could be just whatever you wanted, nobody was interested in the colour of your skin, your grandparents roots or wich deity you were following. In fact the Roman Pantheon was a mixture of every religion they assimilated, Jupiter was at the same time Zeus, Odin and Tinia (etrurian god), they even used the concept of “Sacred Groove Temple” for barbarians who wanted to pray nature instead of a human form divinity. To be a slave was just a name, in a householed you were like a nanny for kids, a maid, a steward and a delivery boy, being an actual part of the family. That said roman collapsed due to: lack of strong central governament, CORRUPTION (cultural and financial, at EVERY LEVEL of society), barbaric invasions, the land conquered was too much to control (no gps or airplanes back than), plagues, civil wars. When this article says that the last emperors were like Attila and Odoacre, it’ s kinda wrong: even if the destruction of Western Roman Empire is dated 476, that empire was already disintegrating like 100 years or more before, so being the emperor of Rome after 350 was mostly a charade. I’m italian I’ve studied this stuff since I was 7.

  • interesting article

  • Interesting article … but not too accurate…

  • Rome was sacked for the first time in 410 and then in 455 but the city was replaced by Ravenna already as the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Fall of Western Roman Empire occurred in 476 after “Battle of Ravenna”.

    http://comprehensivehistory.blogspot.com/search/label/FALL%20OF%20THE%20WESTERN%20ROMAN%20EMPIRE

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  • google search shows, ” As my wife likes to say, “The Catholic Church is the Roman Empire by other means “.. did you edit the part out about the catholic church? After hijacking the Christian Faith in 300 ad. They changed the Christ’s name to Jesus and turned his wife into a whore. They then ran the world for thousands of years with one of the most Fascist and evil empires. They had no need for government nor armies. This part of the Human History is known as ” The Dark Ages”.. (will you edit this out also)?