Why Rome Fell :
The sun had long ago set. The newborn moon peeked out from behind a scattering of thin, high clouds. From a vantage point atop one of seven hills I could see glimpses of how this great city must once have looked. The mammoth buildings seem to shed their long years and are once again as they were; huge, awe inspiring, it is as if a portal in time had opened and I am afforded a glimpse into what was Rome. What could have caused this once master of all cities to fall? This paper will attempt to describe some of the explanations generally accepted, or should I say argued, and possibly shed some light on what could have caused the fall of what was, unquestionably, the most powerful empire in history.
I feel that I must begin with the explanations given by Edward Gibbon. While few agree entirely with his logic, his Decline and Fall on the Roman Empire is certainly unavoidable in a paper such as this. His work could be best summed up by the word confusing. According to David Jordan, 'the causes for Rome's fall march across the pages of the Decline and Fall, seemingly without pattern, and seemingly unrelated to each other. This quote taken from the seventh chapter of Jordan's Gibbon and his Roman Empire sum up my feelings concerning the work; however, I will attempt to show some of Gibbon's Causes for this decline.
Two of Gibbon's causes are the political blunders of its emperors and their search for personal glory. These are especially obvious in his chapters on Constantine. In them Gibbon accuses the emperor of destroying Rome for his own personal glory. Another cause would have to be the anti-Roman nature of Christianity. Gibbons argues that the 'insensible' penetration of Christianity was fatal to the empire by undermining the genius of a great people. On a pessimistic note, Gibbon also lists as causes the inevitable collapse of all human institutions, some arguments on the corrupting nature of luxury and some detailed reflections on the vanity of human wishes. While the arguments presented are lengthily backed, they seem to fail in explaining the true nature of the fall.
Others, many others disagree with Gibbon's explanations and proffer their own for approval. One such author is David Woomersley who in his work, The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, openly attacks Gibbon's works calling it a blunt instrument with which to dissect these centuries. That quote, taken from chapter sixteen, is one of many which show the violent disagreement of the two ideas. A few pages later Woomersley refers to Gibbons works as a stumbling block to historians and again later refers to Gibbon himself as a poet historian, caught up in the moment and unaware of the true history of the situation.
The problem is that in the mist of these attacks, Woomersley fails to bring to light any new and exciting information concerning the fall of Rome and is seen as simply relying on the old standby that the cause was the corrupting nature of luxury and power. Woomersley argues that the Romans became so content in their superiority that they forgot how to fight and forgot what made them great.
Another who disagrees with the premises of Gibbon is author and historian David Jordan. In his work, Gibbon and his Roman Empire, Jordan states that Gibbon imposed himself on his materials and in doing so distorted the history he was attempting to record. In Jordan's opinion, the main cause of the decline was internal decay. Rome had taken the known world and held it for a very long time. He compares society to a living organism in so much that if it does not grow, it dies. While it was the Germanic tribes who eventually leveled Rome, it was Rome's own arrogance which destroyed it long before any enemies entered the city. This reasoning certainly seems logical and fits with the political situation of the times. At the time of the fall, state was overawed by the soldiers who were simply mercenaries. Leaders were murdered by their own troops for the wealth they had accumulated. The stubborn commons had been eliminated by the Augustan settlement and it seems that every reign of the latter emperors finished with the same cycle of treason and murder. The ladder history of Rome seems to play like a badly scratched record, frozen into a groove.
One fact which stands out in my mind is that Rome was greatest before the monarchy. Once power became centralized, Rome was doomed. In reverse order, England did not become a world presence until a decentralization of the power occurred, i.e. the Parliament. The problem seems to be who takes control when a monarch dies. It is the internal struggle which uses up so many resources and divides a nation. It is the losers of such a struggle which generally cause the break up since while people who oppose a particular ruler may be forced to live with it, they will never like it. I believe it is this inherent flaw in monarchy which lead to the continuous cycle of betrayal and murder which marks the ladder history of Rome.
As I hope this paper has shown, the issue of what caused the fall of the Roman empire is a complex one and will most probably remain unsolved for the foreseeable future. People build on the foundations of others…patterns form themselves. Perhaps someday we will know the true reasons for the fall and be able to use that knowledge to prevent the same fate from destroying our American empire.
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