Society after the fall of Rome

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society after fall of roman empire

As mentioned in our brief account of the fall of the Roman empire the decline was a gradual progressive process rather than a single cataclysmic event. The causes for the fall of the Roman Empire were also varied. It is therefore easy to see that in order to consider society after the fall of Rome requires us to consider a variety of aspects and viewpoints as well as over a relatively long timeframe of several centuries, say from the 4th to the 7th century AD.

As already analysed in our discussion of the causes of the roman empire’s fall it is perhaps easiest to focus on the roman empire of the west (as opposed to the eastern part with capital at Constantinople) and remember that the "official" date of 476AD is taken as marking the fall of the Roman empire with the deposition of emperor Romulus Augustulus at the hands of the Goth Odoacer.

Treatment of society after the roman empire’s fall will necessarily require consideration of broader geopolitical factors: the Mongols invasions of the west, the pressure of the Germanic Goths into western Europe and the subsequent tension between the latter and the Roman Empire of the East based at Constantinople which was to leave Italy in an eternal state of disarray and fragmentation. An example of this tension can be had by observing the events during the life of Emperor Justinian.

As can be easily imagined the western empire didn’t fall in a single day, battle or war. It was rather a steady decline over the course of a few hundred years which bridged "late antiquity" and the early middle ages, during which time successive "barbarian" invasions, eroding infrastructure, declining population , declining literacy and of course faltering trade and economy took their toll. Nevertheless there were still great battles fought, some were won, like the great battle in 451AD on the Catalaunian plains where Goths and Romans united against the Huns. A similarly great event was Pope Leo’s personal meeting with Attila at the gates of Rome: again the Hun was repulsed.

It is therefore useful to get a broader picture by stepping back to the second half of the 4th century, around 350-390AD. The pagan soldier-historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that Rome at the end of the 4th century was a wondrous site, bustling with activity and hard working citizens exactly like the Rome of preceding centuries. There was plentiful water supply to the fountains, Roman baths and Naumachiae (naval battles for public entertainment). Not to mention buildings old and new such as libraries and churches. There were dedicated administrative posts to maintain the amasing infrastructure and art that the city was so proud of such as the "curator operum maximumorum" or indeed the "curator statuarum" designated to take responsibility of public statues! The senatorial position whilst politically weak was still highly prestigious from a personal point of view.

Of course, we should also consider the opposite view: The Christians were just coming out of hiding and beginning to work their subtle change on society (for example, the Serapeum which Marcellinus wrote of as one of the wonders of the world was to be destroyed by the Christians on the same year he died). Christian writers of the time considered Rome a putrid corpse: clearly an issue of points of view but at the very least we can determine that business confidence and hope for the future in 4th century Rome was still prevalently positive: little did they know that the next 100 years would see the redefinition of many aspects of "Romanity", including its society and that the Christians were themselves going to play an increasingly significant role.


The image to the left is a simplified representation of a Roman (male) citizen in early Rome, say 500BC for convenience. The image to the right is an equivalent representation of a "Roman" 1000 years later, around the time of the fall of Rome, say around 500AD. Notice the numerous dichotomies which have developed, making it increasingly difficult for individuals to find a cohesive unity as an integrated society.

That is not to say that one model is "better" than the other – perhaps they are to be considered "equivalent" in that they are extremes - of social integration versus personal freedom. The likely answer lies in the Latin proverb "in medio stat virtus" – virtue lies in the middle.

(some of this thinking could be easily compared to some modern situations…..)




All real power increasingly moved to the Eastern half of the empire, to Constantinople and the emperor ruled from a distance, with occasional visits which were usually accompanied by removal of treasures to be taken back to "new Rome".

The only remaining administrative power left in the city of Rome was the church and its bishop although we should remember that the bishop of Rome was still one amongst equals and the supreme leader of the church, the "Pontifex Maximus", was the emperor.

The last decade of the 4th century and the first of the 5th saw the first incursions by the Germanic tribes such as Alaric’s vandals – who on 24th August 410 AD brought the first siege and sacking of the city since the Gauls in 387BC. Sieges aside, the size, economy and wealth of the city was such that we can comfortably say that Rome at the beginning of the 5th century was still a heavily populated and mighty city. It’s citizens were still attending public displays, dressing in a refined manner and eating refined foods. Alaric’s invasion was nevertheless the real marker for the steady decline to come, whilst the damage was limited to the burning of villas in the rich quarters of the city, the general economy was to be impacted by the removal of personal gold: the basic standard of the economy’s liquidity. A sign which the pagans considered as the anger of Jupiter at having been abandoned by the (Christianised) Romans.

It is interesting to note that around 415 AD, ie after Alaric’s invasion, Rome got back on its feet though the sense of risk and fear for the future was severely impacted. The population, rather than declining was actually increasing due to the numerous people looking for protection. This of course tells us that Roman trade, roman transport and travel were no longer safe and of course this would imply a risk premium on trade. The Roman poet Rutilius Claudius Namatianus (a bureaucrat of Gallic origins) wrote a poem called "De Reditu suo" of the voyage he took from Rome back to Gaul in 416AD – the Rome he describes is still splendid – this view should be tempered by the fact that at that very time there was a lively debate whereby the Pagans blamed Alaric’s looting of Rome on the Christians, and the wrath of Jupiter St. Augustine’s important book "De Civitate Dei" was also written as an answer to this accusation and it is likely that De Reditu was itself written as a Pagan response to St. Augustine.

Approximately 40 years later Pope Leo and general Aetius were defending the city from Attila. Aetius was murdered by the emperor, Valentinian III, who was himself assassinated by Aetius camp. By this time the pope’s role was becoming increasingly significant in consolidating the fate of Rome for successive centuries, by splicing Papal/Christian Rome with the Rome of the classical imperial age and in so doing undermined what little link there was between people and emperor. Hardly a finger was moved when Valentinian was murdered and the situation was dire: There was no general and no emperor left. The military and the people for once coincided in their choice of an aged Senator to lead them; but the Senator wasn’t up to the new role: unwilling to bring justice to either party and keen to marry himself to Valentinian’s young wife who in order to escape her fate sent a call for help to the barbarian Genseric. Roman society was breaking up.

Pope Leo wasn’t so successful against the following barbarian aggressor: Genseric who came from Africa with his Vandals, beckoned by the empress(!) The result was 2 weeks of continuous looting which ended with the removal of great treasures and hostages. Even the historic temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, built by the earliest kings of Rome on the Palatine was looted of its bronze roof tiles. Some 200,000 citizens were lost in the event.

Roman Treasures

All the above clearly lends itself to wondrous treasures being lost and found. Rather like the immense treasures which have come to light from Pompeii we can imagine the huge wealth which was lost in Rome’s dying centuries. It is at this point that the treasures often seen in fiction took their tortuous routes. Such was the fate of the treasures taken by Emperor Titus from the great temple at Gerusalem; taken by the Vandals to Carthage from whence they were taken by general Belisarius in 535AD under Emperor Justinian back to Constantinople. Religious remorse supposedly brought Justinian to return them to Gerusalem, from whence they were taken by the Arab Muslims, then later by the Crusaders and placed back into the churches of Gerusalem. Clearly after so many changes of destiny and hands much was lost along the way and replaced by legends of hidden treasures a-la-Indiana Jones.

Back to the see-saw of sieges and recovery

By 472AD Rome was back under siege at the hands of a Roman Patrician under Bizantine control (ie Eastern Empire). By the year 500 (ie 6th century) Procopius tells us Rome was healed once again. When the Goth Theodoric arrived, the city was in splendid state. The Goth (of Arian faith and hence considered a heretic by the Pope) rebuilt and restored the city: but the situation took a negative turn again when he died in 526. In 537 the acqueducts were cut – a hit on the city’s wonderful baths, but otherwise relatively ineffective thanks to the river Tiber which was still able to satisfy the city’s needs.

The above tells us of a city which resisted decline but over more than a century of sieges and lootings staggered with periods of recovery and restoration undoubtedly left their mark on the population: a sense of risk and hence an increasing reticence to invest for the future with a subsequent impact on the money market and the city’s fundamental economy. Nevertheless, everyday aspects continued as they had before: even the libraries and theaters staid open during the gothic wars.

We thus have the basic ingredients which were to characterise the middle ages and the society of Rome after the fall of the western empire:

Society in the Roman provinces during the decline of the empire

The steady decline was relatively slower in the provinces or increasingly independent city-states where old traditions were hard to die and the structure of society tended to be more resistant to the erosion which was affecting Rome itself. Local authorities emerged and developed into a feudal system which offered protection and work to local inhabitants.

Furthermore these provincial towns and cities didn’t suffer the same change of destination and purpose as Rome did. Their local economies whilst impacted by the disappearance of the so-called "Pax Romana" and the threat to trade routes essentially held on to their own local, internal trade.

It is easy to imagine how fortified citadels developed on hilltops in order to provide protection to the local inhabitants against marauding invaders attracted by the sudden absence of law-keeping forces: the famous Roman "limes" walls along the borders of the empire, like Hadrian’s wall, were gradually abandoned and clearly of little effect in keeping the enemies out and replaced by walls closer to home: The cities were increasingly fortified with walls of their own. Architects clearly became highly prestigious ancient Roman jobs and corporations of builders became highly influential in city affairs.

The Liber Pontificalis

An invaluable contribution to our understanding of those difficult times is the Liber Pontificalis – an account which was held rather like a diary of the lives of the popes and the major events which occurred during their periods as leader of the church of Rome. On the negative side, it is evidently a very one-sided view of events keen to portray a given propagandistic view of the church as an authoritative and solid administrative institution. Nevertheless it remains an invaluable source of information regarding the events following the fall of Rome.

It provides information regarding the changing use of public buildings and private houses turned into places of worship, or indeed of the building of Christian churches on top of Mithraic temples. Many churches arose on top of or using the structures of ancient pagan temples. The most famous example of this transformation is perhaps the Pantheon which as its name implies was originally a temple dedicated to all the gods before its transformation into a church. Less obvious but equally important is the transformation of Nero’s circus on the Vatican hill transformed into Saint Peter’s basilica.

Not surprisingly much of this activity, not to mention the building of homes and fresh buildings involved re-using materials, recycling existing dilapidated buildings. The ancient temples to Capitoline Jupiter, Minerva and Juno were converted to Christian temples, the statues of Juno and Minerva were converted into statues of the virgin Mary, whilst for a period those of other pagan deities such as Vesta and Mithras continued to attract followers. This process of conversion was not haphazard but rather a planned (Christian) strategy to eradicate paganism from within.

Whilst the general impression is that the city of Rome was irremediably declining, there were in fact significant levels of intervention and restructuring which kept the city’s essential fabric together. In spite of its continued position as an important centre for Christianity, the city was no longer it’s former self and so any activity within it shifted to match its new condition:

Given these effects, amongst others, it is easy to imagine that Roman society from the reign of emperor Constantine onwards saw a shift in structure:

The Senate continued its activities in Rome albeit it was but a shadow of its former self, its numbers greatly inflated whilst its decision powers were hugely diluted. Perhaps their most important charge was that of supporting the nominated consul and ensuring that the population at large was sufficiently entertained to contain the dangers of uprising.

The Population of Rome after the fall of the empire

Getting an estimate of the population of ancient Rome during the 5th, 6th, 7th centuries following the fall of the western Roman empire is extremely difficult. The likelihood is that information regarding population levels in the 2nd and 3rd centuries is overestimated, or that population levels into the 6th century (after the pragmatic sanction and the gothic wars) weren’t as low as might be thought, or both. The sharp decline between the two periods seems far too extreme and difficult to account for even considering the possible effects of plague and mass emigration.

It is unlikely that the population would have fallen much under 400,000 people in the 5th century when the likes of Cassiodorus ("Variae") at the beginning of the 6th century talks of the theatres being crowded (imagine the Circus Maximus with 385,000 seats for instance).

Procopius does tell us that not long after the period described by Cassiodorus (ie some 20-50 years later) , at the time of Totila’s invasion (545AD), with burning of whole regions of the city, the Circus Maximus made a sorry show, with unfillable seating space. Likely an underestimate.

At the end of the 6th century there were, according to the liber pontificalis (590-610AD Popes Gregory the Great and Boniface IV) Rome had suffered population falls thanks to pestilence and plague: some 200,000 people on the list of poor needing subsistence. This is clearly very very low in comparison to the enormous population of the preceding centuries.

Could some 300,000 people disappeared around 410AD and a further 200,000 disappeared in 420-450AD (Totila’s invasion and the end of the Gothic wars)? If we assume that these 200,000 were the heads of families and an average family of 3 we could surmise a population in the region of 600,000 poor and (say) another third made up of rich people, say 200,000. That would imply a more likely total of 800,000 people.

Ie the estimates of Rome’s population at the height of the empire’s expansion (2nd-3rd century) are likely overstated, probably more like 1M rather than 1.5-1.7M whilst the estimates of the city’s population after the gothic wars are likely underestimated.

We should note that these are still huge population numbers, especially when compared to other cities of the day and later epochs: As an example, the city of Florence in the 14th century, so well known for the art and renaissance, the literature of Dante, had a population of 100,000!

The population trend was nevertheless negative: into the Middle ages and the end of the first millennium the population of Rome was due to fall below the 100’s of thousands.

Sources of information regarding society during the decline of the ancient Roman empire:

The following documents give a relatively good picture of the number of buildings, the major events (albeit in terms of the Church’s interests), military campaigns, the laws and major issues affecting the Romans at large:

Procopius’ "History of the wars of Justinian" and "Secret History" (approx AD 550 ie 6th Century).

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"society after fall of roman empire" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments