Posted by Van Wagner on 13th Mar 2024

The Fall of Rome

The Roman Empire became static and this forced change over the course of its life. The fall of the Empire parallels the life of a star. A star burns for billions of years until its hydrogen supply begins to run out. From an outside perspective the star looks as if it is growing. It becomes larger turning into a red giant. But the star is just expanding because the fuel on the outside is burning. The inside is ravished and beginning to deteriorate. The outside continues to expand engulfing the planets that orbit it. The star appears to be turning red looking much hotter. In reality this is just it cooling down and turning redder during in this process. Eventually the shell burns out and what is left is a dwarf star. This miniature star eventually goes black and is dead. Each stage is important in defining what a Roman was and represent the shift away from a true Roman. The star analogy also is meant to demonstrate that Rome did not just fall it hit various key points that forced it to change more and more. The year 476 AD has and should remain the time in which the empire transitioned over. This is the most important year not because it is when Rome ‘fell’ but because it is when Romans were less than 50% Roman. Their Roman characteristics became their minority.

To prove that the empire fell here, we must first look at what a true Roman was. The time of Augustus marks the truest point for the Romans. This was when the empire was at its peak psychologically. It did continue to become larger after his time but this was the height of its vigor. This was in part from the stability that Augustus brought to the table. He united the empire in ways not achieved after. “He restored kingdoms of which he gained possession by the right of conquest to those from whom he had taken them or joined them with other foreign nations.”[1] He also made Rome much more mightier and beloved by giving the people more infrastructure. “He built many public works, in particular the following: his forum with the temple of Mars, the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, and the fane of Jupiter the Thunderer on the Capitol.”[2] Buildings built after Augustus came at the expense of the people. The value of silver diminishing over time is evidence of this. Augustus serves here to show an example of a bona fide Roman.

The time of Augustus in relationship to the stages of a star was at equilibrium like our sun is now. After this time a change occurred. The Empire continued to grow but deep down was losing momentum. It was not obvious then but the Roman world started to become stagnant. It maintained borders but did not continue to expand. But the elite continued to live more and more of a lavish life. Petronius shows this. “You have used your wealth to set a mistress over you. You are not very lucky in your friends. No one is ever properly grateful to you. You have enormous estates. You are nourishing a viper beneath your wing.”[3] The Roman elite had great power and wealth but they were using it unwisely. The viper represents the idea that everyone wanted the wealth of the Romans. The elite had to constantly safeguard their money. This fear made Rome go from the offensive to defensive stance. That was why they began to go stagnant and therefore caused more problems to arise.

The red giant star begins to expand as the core changes to helium this is the first signal of change. In the Roman world the first signal was the polices of Diocletian. He was faced with a failing economy and needed to make reforms. The dying economy was result of this stagnant empire. “He tried to fix by law the prices of goods put up for sale. Much blood was then shed over small and cheap items.”[4] These reforms allowed for short-term growth in resources but made the empire less stable because of death and distrust. “He appointed three men to share his rule, dividing the world into four parts and multiplying the armies.”[5] The schism of east and west happened later but the seed to erode the empire started here. This attempt to return Rome to time of Augustus failed here.

Also during this time the knowledge of the Germanic barbarians was beginning to become dated. The work of Tacitus shows how the Romans perceived the barbarians to be. “Young men, such as make it their pastime, fling themselves naked and dance amonst sharp swords and the deadly points of javelins. From habit they acquire their skill, and from their skill a graceful manner; yet from hence draw no grain or hire.”[6] Tacitus thought barbarians practiced foolish rituals. He felt they were simple people “Their method of dividing lots by lots is exceedingly simple. From a tree which bears fruit they cut a twig, and divide it into two small pieces.”[7] The barbarians were thought of as minimalists. The significance here is the Romans did not realize the Germanic barbarians had changed since Tacitus’ work. This shows once again that their defensive stance maintained a stagnant society.

The next event changed everything. The actions of Constantine made the empire begin to resemble something else. In the context of the star it has now reached the full red giant phase. The entire solar system is swallowed by the enormous star. The entire empire was changed by Christianity and the move of the capital to Constantinople. This move did not eliminate the city of Rome but it did change the fundamentals of what it was to be Roman. The term Roman is intrinsically linked to the city of Rome. The entire empire derived from this city. Once it no longer rained supreme what it was to be Roman had forever been changed. Christianity aided to the speed of this change. It changed the values of the empire. Because it added the option of an after live this created competition between the individual and the empire. The success of the empire was demoted below the success of the individual doing good to get into heaven. Some scholars argue that it is here that Rome transitioned to the Middle Ages. This is not so. Individuals still possessed a great idea of what a true Roman had been. They were not a total true Roman but resembled one, much like a grandson may look and act like his grandfather but never be exactly the same.

After this point the red giant star begins to run out of fuel. The empire begins to run out of fuel here too. The next change was in 476 A.D. which is the year commonly agreed upon as the end of the western empire. Many scholars argue that the empire fell a long time after this date. The red giant star burns out of its giant shell of gas at this point. It becomes just a dwarf star that keeps burning for a while until going black. The empire continued to be around after 476 but had mainly gone dim just like the red giant star.

Peter Heather helps prove that the empire ended here. He does this in the explanation of the Vandal attack in 468 A.D. “The Vandals did in 468 exactly what the English would do eleven hundred and twenty years later.”[8] The 1588 battle marked the change from Spanish dominance to English. In a way it is the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire. This end is a parallel. The Byzantine Vandal battle marked the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. Just as the Spanish underestimated the English so did the Romans to the Vandals. Heather also goes on to show how static knowledge the Romans had from Tacitus hurt them.

The west Roman state fell not because of the weigh of its own stupendous fabric, but because its Germanic neighbors had responded to its power in ways the Romans could never foreseen. There is in all of this a pleasing denouement. By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction[9]

The comparison seems to be much like the fable the tortoise and the hair. The Romans moved fast like the hair back in the time of Augustus. But they fell asleep in a sense like the hair before the finish line. They did not realize the barbarians had become more advanced. The barbarians maintained a constant struggle against the Romans and acted as the tortoise.

The work of Edward Gibbons takes a more gradual approach. He feels the lack of concern to the barbarians destroyed the Romans.

The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their danger, and the number of their enemies. Beyond the Rhine and the Danube, the northern countries of Europe and Asia were filled with innumerable tribes of hunters and shepherds, poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry[10]

This follows suit with the ideas of Heather. Gibbons contrasts Heather slightly by being more gradual. Heather focuses on the importance of the Vandal battle of 468 and Gibbon looks more at the entire spectrum of the barbarian invasion. The above passage shows this by taking note of the various tribes wanting to invade. He does not focus on one specific event just outlines the overall events. The work of Gibbons is more vague but still shows how the empire fell in 476.

The workings of the eastern empire should also noted here. The work of Procopius goes into detail about the faults of emperor Justinian. It is important here not showing the difference between the west and east. Justinian is viewed by many as the last great emperor of Rome, but in actuality he is the first leader of the Byzantine empire. He was not a Roman. His actions proved this. He attacked the barbarians in the west to recapture land. This was not to recreate the old empire it was to preserve and make the eastern empire even more powerful. Other actions of Justinian show that he cared little for helping the people of the west let alone the people of the east. “His second step was to establish many ‘monopolies’, as they prepared to operate this monstrosity. He himself went off with the payment which he had exacted as his share of the bargain.”[11] This is a huge fault because monopolies halt growth. A society that cannot grow will eventually fall apart. A main from this is Justinian was willing to sacrifice the prosperity of the entire nation for his own greed. Since he was willing to sacrifice the prosperity of the Byzantine empire there is no way his advances into the west were to restore the old empire. He just was continuing his greed and wanted more land. Because it was the old empire had no significance he just wanted more and more. This serves to show that during Justinian times, which occurred just after the 476 change over, the eastern empire no longer was the eastern empire but something entirely different.

Bryan Ward-Perkins helps show how the empire began to go dark after 476. He uses archeological evidence to prove that the empire changed into something entirely different. His analysis of the decline fits well into the analogy of the decline of the star. “It was no mere transformation it was decline on a scale that can reasonably described as ‘the end of civilization’.”[12] This gloomy image depicts a world that was ending. Just like the red giant star becomes a dwarf of itself so too did the empire. It is during this time in which many debate over whether Rome still existed. Ward-Perkins shows that a dramatic change happened here. “The economy of the post-Roman West is not that of the fourth century reduced in scale, but a very less sophisticated entity.”[13] This is significant in showing that Rome did not shrink down and maintain its equilibrium. It became something very less sophisticated that really had no structure. This is how the connection between the dwarf star and the empire makes sense. They are both primitive entities having a little bit of power but not much. In the case of the empire the power still lived on in basic techniques the Romans had.

The Salic law contains invaluable information. It shows the different fees associated with crimes. But more importantly it shows how the Frankish society used many Roman ideas but no longer were Roman. “If anyone has slain a Roman who eats in the Kings’s palace, and it have been proved on him, he shall be sentenced to 12000 denars, which make 300 shillings.”[14] In this law the Roman is identified. This is significant because the Frankish people acknowledge the Romans as another culture. They are not Roman because of this law. They give Romans rights proving this distinction between themselves and the Romans. At this point the empire was almost all gone represented only by this pseudo distinctions of Romans.

The work of Pirenne argues the empire fell much later than 476 A.D., which does not help, prove this theory. But aspects of his argument do make sense here. His argument in terms of the conclusion of the empire works perfectly. The empire finally ended when the Moslems took over. “More and more, the Moslems consolidated their domination over the Sea. In the course of the ninth century they seized the Balearic Isles, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily.”[15] Pirenne argues that the barbarian invasions were minor in comparison to the advancement of the Moslems.

A way to look at this is when you move up a grade in high school things are slightly different and there may be new faces in the class but you are still within the same high school. When you go to college it is much different. So therefore the arrival of the barbarians was simply a move up in a grade of high school. The Moslem arrival was entirely different and signaled the end.

The appearance of the Germanic tribes on the shore of the Mediterranean was by no means a critical point making the advent of a new ear in the history of Europe. Great as were the consequences, which it entailed, it did not sweep the boards clean nor even break the tradition[16]

Pirenne and I differ on the what year the transition to the Middle Ages began. I say 476 he says well into the 9th century. But looking at his statement in a different way shows how the analogy of the red giant star holds true here. The star finally goes pitch black when the Moslems invade. He mentions the invasion of the barbarians as having ‘great consequences’ these consequences are the turning point but not the end. The end did come when the Moslems attacked but what fell was hardly Roman.

Another way to look at a true Roman is an hour glass of sand. The top is a real Roman the bottom is not. Once flipped it starts out with all the sand at the top. It slowly falls to the bottom. Once more than 50% of it has passed down to the bottom the top has become the minority. At the year 476 the hourglass reached the point where more sand was at the bottom than the top. Sand still is at the top but does is now becoming more and more minuscule. The time of the Moslems is when the last grain falls to the bottom of the hourglass. By looking at Pirenne’s argument this way it fits. We only differ on what we feel a Roman was but both acknowledge that the Moslems ended whatever was left.

Ward-Perkins, Heather, Gibbon, and Pirenne all have different ideas about the empire. I have tried to explain here how they all show the same thing but in different ways. The scholars do not differ as much as they just focus their attention to a specific area. The fall of Rome as seen has many different factors. Ward-Perkins is concerned in the archeological evidence. He cares about what types of goods were being produced. Heather is interested in the barbarians and focuses on why they were important in the fall. Gibbon is much like Heather in regards to the barbarians but is more vague. Pirenne is interested in the later days and focuses on why the final end to the empire. From first glance they appear to be in disagreement with each other. This is not true they just focus on their area of interest and try to show why it was important in the fall. Looking at all the works from a far they all make sense as being different puzzle pieces in explaining the fall.

Through the work of the primary texts and the analysis of the various scholars it becomes clear that the empire fell in 476. Each piece of evidence help paint the full picture. The analogy of the red giant star serves as a modern guide to help rationalize each event. The hourglass too acts the same way. The empire transitioned more to the Middle Ages in 476 but was not there yet. True Romans faded away over time. Big events in the empire continued to change the Romans into something more different. The empire did not just fall like the word compels one to think. The word fall should not be used because the empire faded out. Once the Moslems entered the scene the final nail was sealed in the empire of Rome.

The events of the ‘fall’ of Rome resemble a domino effect. Each time a problem arose after Augustus the solution to fix the problem created even more problems. It began to spiral out of control. These solutions brought so much change to the Roman world that what it was to be Roman was eventually lost. Once no one really knew what a true Roman was anymore they really could not be considered Romans. This fall did not just happen. The Roman Empire in 476 A.D. did not fall but rolled into oblivion.

[1] Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum- Divus Augustus The Lives of the Caesars- The Defied Augustus (accessed January 16, 2008); available from

[2] Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum

[3] Petronius, The Sayricon Chapter 5 (accessed 24 Jnauary 2008) available from

[4] Michael Maas Readings in Late Antiquity. (New York, Routhledge Inc. 2000). Pg 12.

[5] Maas, Readings in Late Antiquity Pg 12.

[6] Medieval Sourcebook: Tacitus: Germania (accessed February 15, 2008); available from

[7] Medieval Sourcebook: Tacitus: Germania

[8] Peter Heather The Fall of the Roman Empire pg 444.

[9] Heather The Fall of the Roman Empire pg 403.

[10] Edward Gibbon The Fall of the Roman Empire in the West pg 5.

[11] Procopius The Secret History pg 81.

[12] Byran Ward-Perkins The Fall of Rome pg 87.

[13] Ward-Perkins The Fall of Rome pg 117.

[14] Patrick Geary Readings in Early Medieval History pg 151.

[15] Pirenne The Making of Europe pg 33.

[16] Pirenne The Making of Europe pg 32.