Sunday, December 19, 2004

Why Did The Roman Empire Collapse?

The date of the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire is commonly put at AD 476, and it is usually explained with breaking under massive barbarian invasions.

However, in 476, Rome was no more an empire: at the time it controlled only Italy (barely), and there was only symbolic change: this was the first coup (by German mercenary Odoaker) whose leader no more took up the title of Roman Emperor. The fall of the empire was more of a 40-year process of almost unhindered German conquest: First, the Visigoths attacked the Eastern Roman capital Constantinople in AD 395, after which they roamed all across the Balkans, then Italy, sacked Rome in AD 410, went on to Gaul and Hispania. After two decades they finally settled in Southwestern France AD 418. Second, from 406, a Western German tribal coalition conquered Southern Gaul and all of Hispania. In AD 429, the most powerful tribe, the Vandals (who gave their name to Andalusia) crossed over the Gibraltar Strait, and ten years later, they conquered North Africa until Carthage. Third, the Franks slowly expanded from the North. The Romans had some attempts at reconquest, with little success. (When armies numbering hundreds of thousands met on the Fields of Catalaun in AD 451, both the ''Roman" and "Hun" side was dominated by Germanic allies/vassals.)

But the Roman Empire previously withstood German invasions, even stronger ones. The first was the Teuton-Cimbri invasion 113-101 BC (see previous post). Then the Romans battered German tribes from 19 BC to AD 92 with little success. Small border conflicts flared up into major wars every few decades from 166. From after AD 248, there was practically continuous war, fizzling down temporarily only in the latter years of Constantine the Great. And the worst year was not 410 - it was 268 (or 269 by some calculations).

In AD 268, first, the Ostrogoth Empire (roughly today's Ukraine) with its vassals attempted a grand invasion of the Roman Empire (an event on the scale of Attila's invasions, but almost forgotten). With 320,000 men in multiple armies and navies, they ravaged the Aegean Sea and all of the Balkans. But when the main force met the imperial Roman army at Naissus (today Nis/Serbia), it was crushed. However, and second, the remaining force of 35,000 had to rush into Italy: the 100,000-strong Alemann army descended from the Alps. They were routed at Lake Garda. Third, even before, the Franks conducted a raid all the way down to Hispania - and, fourth, the Roman provincial governor finally defeating them declared a separate Gallic Empire (re-incorporated by AD 274). Fifth, at this time, the Queen of Palmyra had another separatist empire in the Asian provinces and Egypt (AD 260-272). Sixth, beyond Palmyra, the Neo-Persian Sassanide Empire was eyeing events. Seventh, all this was in a time of internal instability, when short-lived soldier Emperors replaced or battled each other in rapid-fire coups. Eighth, a major epidemic was sweeping through the Emire at this time...

So was Rome critically weakened by AD 400? You can get some hints in the South Hungarian city of Pécs, which was built upon the cementery of the Roman city Sopianae (province Pannonia). Many of the tombs and burials were excavated (now protected under UNESCO). Those from the late 4th century show an early Christian culture very different from today. Tombs had painted-wall mausoleums above them, in which family members dined every day. Apocalypse was expected any time. But even more striking is the evidence in skeletons: small and fragile; according to detailed examinations, these people not only suffered from famine, but ill-designed vegetarian diet, too - most likely excessive fasting.

So let's go back one century. Emperor Constantine The Great legalised Christianity in the Edict Of Milan (Ad 313). Tough he did not made Christianity exclusive official religion, and himself was baptised only on his deathbed - and that by a different sect than the one winning at the Council of Nicea a decade earlier (Nicean Creed) -, he already gave bishops the right to overrule judicial decisions, and confiscated the property of some 'pagan' temples. During his successors, the persecution of non-Christians and inter-Christian conflicts worsened, partly ordered by imperial edicts. This Christian jihad, and here emerges the theme I want to throw light at, gradually also turned against secular Hellenic culture - philosophers, libraries, architects.

Though their laws weren't unprecedented, their success in putting edicts into practice - and the definite return to the Nicean Creed - make Western Roman Emperor Gratian (ruled AD 375-383) and Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 378-395, in the last years in the West too) stand out. (Tough, the real man behind both's religious policies was Ambrosius, bishop of Milan.) In AD 380, the Emperors declared (Catholic) Christianity the sole religion of all their subjects, and began to outlaw and root out everything else. (Quite literally, for example Theodosius once ordered 7000 Thessaloniki citizens killed for protesting the arrest of a popular horseracer, for homosexuality - that was too much even for Ambrosius.) The edicts banned worship, statues, books, the Olympics; there were imperial campaigns to destroy all these, death camps for hellenists, destruction of public baths, and so on. (But curiously enough, brothels and gladiator games weren't yet outlawed.) This reached its height in "response" to the plague of AD 390. The result was a terrorised and apocalyptic society, lost industrial knowledge, and a ruined economy.

Thus killed the Roman Empire its own ability to resist.

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