The political trend which accompanied the fall of the Roman empire, is not a pretty picture either. My own view is that the worst was avoided various times over until it was unavoidable:
The Roman monarchy saw a period of great growth but eventually fell over itself due to growing struggles for control and power. The people of Rome won the day. A number of the early kings of Rome appear to have been men “of value” who represented one or another clan or tribe and in some way earned their rank. There was a degree of change-over so that , at least according to oral tradition, the best men took power rather than simply their sons and grandsons. A more detached view suggests that t the “ascension to the heavens” of Romulussmacks a little of a coup d’etat, very probably not the only one during that period. The absence of written records dating back to that period make it very difficult to understand exactly what the dynamics of the time were.
The enlightened shift to a Roman republic was the result of a need to push out Etruscan control of the city, but principally motivated as a movement of the people of Rome who with that act swore never to submit to a king again. The ancient fear of a king was the principal reason for the assassination of Julius Caesar.
The Roman republic also saw a long period of growth for Rome, although with various events along its path which make one wonder: civil war and internal social strife seemed to go on and be very detrimental to the future of Rome yet military achievements and success against the Latins and other peoples of Italy and then the Carthaginians across the Mediterranean kept coming strong. Interestingly the Roman constitution and design of the Tribal assembly was such that no one individual could govern for any extensive period of time and this proved to be an insurmountable hurdle even for those wishing to implement any serious social reforms, such as the Gracchi attempted.
So in spite of continued military success abroad it was evident that the increasing wealth of the city was going to an increasingly prosperous few, making the social divide even greater and leading to civil wars: first with Marius and Sulla as principal actors for the two factions, then with Caesar and Pompey. Augustus finally put a lid on it all by winning the final war against Mark Anthony and with an apparent people’s consent concentrated all power on a single person once and for all.
So the shift to a Republican system did not solve the social divide although it did go some way to redressing the balance by giving the plebeians a stronger hand in Rome’s politics. The definition of what it was to be “Roman” still held strong and to be a roman citizen still held it’s value. Had it not been for continued military success abroad it is likely that civil war would have brought Rome’s days to an end.
Again, taking a detached look at the republican period we can observe that social strife between plebeians and rich patricians lay at the root of many of the most significant political events. Not only the well known social wars with the Gracchi brothers but also those events such as the civil wars and indeed the final showdown between Caesar and Pompey the Great. Caesar was clearly driven by personal ambition but his political colours were those of the people rather than those of the aristocracy. In exchange of their support the plebeians won regular grain and wine distributions and free games at the circus.
A look at the economic trends of ancient Rome not to mention the military events soon shows that as the empire grew the issues became increasingly acute. The rich became richer, the poor became poorer until the plebeians did better to sell themselves into slavery rather than eek out a meager living on the “dole” (ie relying on the imperial grain distribution). A situation which clearly benefited the rich landowners in the short term but was not conducive to social stability in the long term.
Whilst the senatorial class remained rich and individually very powerful people, the senate as a political body was gradually weakened in terms of its ability to legislate. The links between Emperor and military became ever stronger: This trend is clearly visible on roman coinage which increasingly shows images glorifying (appeasing) the military. The choice of emperor, rulers and high ranking positions was increasingly placed in military hands rather than the result of “independent” political decisions.
We can see at this point that with time the distance between the humble people of Rome, the “plebeians” which made up the masses, and the ruling class was increasingly great. At one time (800-500BC) the king represented the people-warriors. During the republican period (500-27BC) the consuls were elected by the people, wielded absolute power thanks to the people and given that two were elected each year it was usual for them to come from the two opposing parties so that there should be a balance between the needs of the people as a whole and the interests of the Patrician class. During the imperial period the power of the consuls was nominal, and followed the same fate as the political power of the senate. By the end of the empire the Emperor’s position depended on the military support he could gather and the military were themselves quite detached from the people; both in geographic terms as well as culturally: increasing proportions of Roman military power was based on barbarian troops. It is hardly surprising that eventually it should be a barbarian-roman general (Odoacer) who toppled the imperial throne.
All of the above could be glibly summarized as follows: The ever growing Roman sphere of influence, its huge economy (failing economy perhaps), incredibly complex logistics, not to mention the continuous military pressure from outside the empire’s confines, were placing such strain on the system that the political situation became increasingly acute and violent with the end result that greater power was concentrated on fewer people in an attempt to make the command chain as short as possible and decisions as effective as possible. As the “political” situation was increasingly unstable so too was it harder for individuals to hold on to power before they got murdered by the next pretender, hence making instability even greater and problems more acute. A vicious circle.
Rome as capital of the empire: It is worth noticing that more than once Roman leaders such as Diocletian and Constantine saw that the only logical way forward was to split the empire into more manageable pieces. Before them it is interesting to consider that although Caesar’s intention was never publicly announced, his actions suggest an intention to move the seat of power eastwards.
The citizens of Rome were understandably against such a change as it would remove prestige from their city and Augustus used this fear in propaganda to win over political support against Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. But eventually the eastward shift was unavoidable: A mechanism was set up by Diocletian by which two co-rulers for east and west (Augustus) each supported by a Caesar was to ensure a “flatter” and more local decision structure and presumably an end to the endless coup-d’etats – given that even if you murdered one Augustus the other + 2 Caesars would be at hand. This involved setting up several capitals across the empire although Rome undoubtedly held its historical prestige. Emperor Constantine oversaw the definitive shift of political power to Constantinople and it wasn’t long before Rome’s position as political centre even within Italy was usurped by cities such as Ravenna and Milan.
Even after the capital of the empire and emperor had removed to Constantinople and after the Goths had managed to lay waste to the western empire, the city of Rome was still a very large bustling city. It was still larger than any other city in the west, but its political influence had essentially vanished. The emperors rarely came to visit the city any longer unless it was to remove more statues and treasures to Constantinople: political activity had moved to cities such as Ravenna or to the corridors of the Catholic papacy.
These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections:
link to: society after the fall of the roman empire