The military aspects of the fall of the Roman empire are just one facet of several. We consider the logistical strain posed by the vast expanse of the Roman empire. Even during the fall of the Roman empire the size of the military contingent was enormous, though a vast proportion of it was of non-Roman citizens. Other aspects such as economy and immigration pressure at the borders are also considered.
The military aspect is often the first and most identifiable reason for the fall of any empire: The loss of a battle or of a war frequently defines a place and a time when one force gains the upper hand on the other. This is not quite the case with the fall of the Roman empire. It is one thing to lose a battle, or a war. It is a very different thing to define the end of an empire or culture which had extended itself to reach 25% of the world’s population!
Another comparative measure is the end of other cultures and nations which the Roman empire had taken over. Examples like the Etruscans and the Romanisation of their culture for example took many centuries, until the time of Emperor Claudius (himself married to an Etruscan princess) before the language was said to be dead. National provenance and identities were preferably absorbed and integrated with that of Rome over time.
So e can see that whilst a given date is chosen, the fall of the Roman empire was not an event led by a take-over by another warring empire, but rather one of internal shocks and invasions, often by one of Rome’s own associated barbarian commanders. The size of the Empire was too large, so that its bureaucratic functions had in the greater part moved to Constantinople in the East (aka “New Rome”) and continued to work regardless of the events at old Rome. Those who did siege and enter the city of Rome sacked its many treasures and indeed declared themselves “Caesar” and issued Roman coinage with their own portrait.
The fall of the Roman Empire of the West is often ascribed to the date 4th September 476AD. ie in the 5th Century AD. The population of the city did drop drastically in the following centuries, so that it was likely less than 100,000 inhabitants by the 5-6th Century AD – barely 1/10th of what it had been at its peak around the 2nd Century AD. By this time much of the Imperial activity having shifted elsewhere.
A chain of events which led to the fall of the Roman Empire
Modern disaster theory would tell us that any given disaster is
set off by a trigger event,
that it is final link in a chain of events
near misses: the early stages of the disaster chain tend to repeat in time, until that fatal occasion when the final trigger is also present
The final trigger event which is often taken to symbolise the fall of the Roman Empire is that the young emperor Romulus Augustulus got deposed and power shifted to Constantinople for good. There is no single battle which saw the end of the empire but rather a sequence of invasions during a long period of time. In many of these it is also not very clear whether the “invader” is actually a foreign power or an internal one.
The reason for this rather grey evolution has a number of facets outlined below…
Was the fall of Rome really about running out of new lands to invade?
The empire was extremely large and even Rome itself was too enormous for a single army to actually lay the city waste or remove all its treasures and wealth in a single blow. In fact, it is difficult to determine whether more wealth was removed by the Roman emperors themselves to take it to the eastern capital Constantinople than was removed by invading barbarian armies.
The fall of the Empire is much about loss of wealth and power but we can equally look at the flip side: Why did it weaken and stop “growing” ?
This point is an interesting one, and worth delving into when we consider the Economy of ancient Rome: is invasion and warfare actually a means of removing wealth from a nation? (other than gold or other valuables which you might actually carry away somehow). Very often the wealth of a nation lies in its infrastructure, its labour force and ability to create added value goods, as well as its ability to trade with neighbouring nations. Invading your neighbour is actually a good way of destroying your own trade….
This leads us to a possible insight of how the Romans led their imperialist agenda with “Romanisation”: A far more effective means of imperialist growth is not necessarily the exploitative military route but rather a cultural and economic expansion, coupling as we see in places such as Carthage and even Pompeii, Roman colonisation mixed with integration of local cultures and a degree of independence.
Nevertheless the approach tended to be with a colonial mercantile philosophy and failed in a similar fashion the colonial mercantilism of France and Britain in the 18th/19th Centuries.
Weakening Military power vs. increasing external pressure
Towards the end, the ancient roman army was largely composed of immigrant foreigners. The number of “true” Romans was actually very limited. Many of the great generals towards the end of the empire were actually “barbarians” such as Stilicho for example. This last example is particularly interesting because it is a perfect example of how politics and personal objectives did much to help the decline: Emperor Honorius had a barbarian tutor and general called Stilicho. Stilicho did a great job of keeping the empire in one piece and defeated great threats from the east such as Alaric. Honorius became jealous of Stilicho and felt threatened by him and so eventually had the general, his family and friends put to death. Needless to say that the invaders had the better of Honorius shortly after.
Not only was the roman army full of barbarian “allies” but the division between civilian status and military profession had become stronger and exacerbated by the clear distinction between the military forces which defended the “limes” (border areas) versus those who were in the regular territorial army – at any rate it was certainly very different from the soldier-farmer-citizen Roman individual of the early kingdom. An interesting feel for the disjointed fate of the army at the furthest borders is to be had from the film “The Last Legion” where the heroes of the film’s (very adapted) plot search out the ninth legion at Hadrian’s wall only to find it’s commander has long since become a local farmer.
The empire was so large and stretched at all the frontiers that eventually some areas had to be abandoned through sheer lack of resources to defend them. Emperor Honorius is a great example again when according to fragmentary texts, he refused to send the Britons any military support: many provinces, including Britain, were simply abandoned to their own devices or one might say returned to a state of independence and partnership. We can thus see how the military might of Rome, whilst great and advanced in technology was increasingly distributed and dependent on the support of the provinces. It is not surprising that some of the farthest provinces, least inclined to subservience would eventually want a greater share of the rule. In fact when Rome was eventually invaded by different barbarians, some even assumed the name and title of “Caesar” and issued coinage.
In Conclusion: Military reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire
It was not a single event.
The Empire had grown logistically too large to manage in one piece
The considerable military resources were exceedingly stretched and increasingly diluted
The military objective had shifted away from one of gaining new lands, to one of defending the ‘limes’ borders and internal peace
The internal economic system was mercantilistic and of limited potential to keep it all properly funded
From a military point of view, right to the very “end” the Romans continued to have great military strength and power both in terms of men and technology. It is estimated that over 400,000 troops were available to the empire of the west when Romulus Augustulus was deposed, but they were for the large part Roman allies, distributed across a vast area, relatively short of resources and unable to act in the highly effective way they were known for when the empire was smaller, united, richer and more “roman”.
These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections: