The reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire can be approached in different ways, none of which can be demonstrated to be the right one. Answering the question goes to the core of philosophy:
- historical events can be considered in a cause-effect structure, which has the nasty hitch of removing the idea of human free will and after all what is history if not a description of human affairs, presumably free thinking humans? Ie if every event in the timeline of Roman history is the result of the preceding event (its cause) then the event must be considered as pre-destined. So the fall of the Roman empire was predestined from the very beginning. Yuck!
- On the other hand we could take a “teleological” approach which considers that events are driven by a final goal (whatever that might be) and hence permit some human free will (phew, I’m not a robot). In this model of Roman history we can actually allow the question of “what might have been done to avoid the decline and fall of the Roman empire”.
To get another angle at understanding the issue it is interesting to consider St.Augustine who was a Christian fore-father who furthermore happened to be alive at the time when the Roman empire was falling. The Christians played a big big role at the time of the roman empire’s collapse and are certainly one of the factors at play, although it’s difficult to say whether they were a cause as such. One of St. Augustine’s issues was this: if humans behave according to cause-effect in a causal kind of world then we cannot say we are free to choose because everything is predestined, and if so we cannot be blamed (by God) for our sins! As you can see, digging into historical events and the roles of people within them requires us to use a variety of tools.
A Teleological approach to explaining the reasons for the collapse of the Roman empire
So the teleological (the second) approach to the fall of the Roman empire seems an obvious choice – but it’s also tough to unravel as it’s like answering the question “why did the chicken cross the road” and possibly getting the unreasonable answer “to get to the other side“. If we tried it on the reasons for the fall of the Roman empire we might get a weirdly esoterical answer like:
- “Actually if you look at the timeline of Ancient Rome, Roman society had already run its course and died long before the 4th century AD. Roman society had found a degree of equilibrium for its “Jungian” tensions of collective unconscious when “panem et circenses” proved to be a suitable answer for “happiness” and eliminated the cause fortension between poor Plebeians and rich Patricians. What we consider as the fall of the Roman empire only happened after “true” Roman society had already died out and been quietly replaced by a “civitas” where foreign barbarians with foreign values, foreign cultures and foreign personal aims far outnumbered true Romans and failed to use the Roman system to find their own social goal.“This made-up goal-ended answer is clearly full of broad unprovable statements but it is suggesting some intriguing ideas:
- What we consider the fall of the Roman empire is simply the outwardly, delayed and visible effect of a society which had reached its “goal” (if such an concept really existed).
- Roman society died out when it had evolved to its nirvana and the Roman empire fell because of the squatters who moved in in search of their own nirvana (and evidently didn’t find it)
- This answer is pretty much in line with what the Christians of the time were saying – ie that pagan roman society was a decaying corpse; except they were blaming it on paganism as a religioius system rather than considering the demise of the empire as the aftermath of ancient Roman society having achieved its peaceful goal.
The Teleological (goal based) approach seems to give some interesting insights and it allows for free will but takes us into uncharted esoterical waters. Using it more extensively would require many pages worth of unqualifiable conjecture; the causal approach is easier and academically less dangerous to chat about.
A mechanistic-causal approach to explaining the reasons for the fall of the roman empire
I suggest that whoever is approaching the subject should start by taking the causal path, use it to learn the factors involved as if the result really were an inevitability and then step back and consider it all over again from a social- teleological standpoint. Very difficult and inevitably takes you into deep philosophy and psychology; I personally found Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs an interesting way to go (not discussed further in this article).
Returning to the “simple” causal approach….The reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire are broad and varied. As with other cataclysmic events it is not a single action, but rather a set chain of events coupled with a “final” trigger which takes history in a new direction. The chain can be there for a while and the final event may have failed to trigger a few times, but in the end statistical chance won the day:
- Economic decline: all the wealth lay in the East. Nasty imbalance of trade.
- Mutated social conditions, in terms of values, morals, individual objectives.
- A shift in religion to Christianity which underpinned the failure of the “old” model of Romanity and rule. Perhaps it was a cause, perhaps a catalyst.
- Overly extended boundaries created unsurmountable logistical and resource issues.
- Increasing threat from outside the empire’s borders and indeed from her own allies and provinces ie geopolitics of a scale never encountered before.
- Increasing power of the military. Strong link between military and ruling power made for highly unstable politics and hence lack of true government.
- Ruling class’ increasing stranglehold on Roman society and trade. In spite of a series of adequate social, economic and technological conditions being place, comparable to those of pre.industrial revolution England, the ruling class (Roman Emperor) had great interest in maintaining the status quo – even as a means of avoiding social unrest. One way or another, social unrest or social dismemberment seems to have been structural and unavoidable…. sounds rather like a recipe for Hegelian historical cycles and Marxist social revolutions doesn’t it? I guess it’s a danger of the causal approach.
Having chosen the causal approach, and trying to remember that the approach itself will have a bias for a certain kind of conclusion (a little like the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat in physics), we will ponder the variety of factors both internal and external, which made up the chain of internal events leading to the collapse of ancient Roman civilisation: social, military, political, economic and religious as well as geopolitical (external to the empire).
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