As the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.” The same is true for the Roman empire.
Of course, whether or not the Roman empire was a good thing is your opinion. But the impact Rome has had on the modern western world cannot be overlooked.
It stood atop the ancient world for nearly 500 years. But no city can remain above the rest forever. Rome, too, must fall.
What Does “Fall” Mean?
When an empire “falls,” it doesn’t trip down the stairs or topple of its bicycle. Instead, it simply stops having as much power and influence as they once did.
Empire’s rise, meaning they expand their borders and exert more control over the people who live there. Cultures mix and people usually get rich, especially those in power.
An empire that falls goes through this process in reverse. Eventually, an empire gets too big and starts to break apart. The people living in one area, which is usually really far away from the people making decisions, begin to turn to new leaders and disregard the old, in this case those reigning from the city of Rome.
Eventually, after some time, pretty much no one is paying attention to the people from the capital of the empire, and they can’t do anything about it. Their influence is gone.
Usually, the “fall” is attributed to a single moment, typically the capture of the capital city, or one that holds considerable power. So, when we talk about the fall of the Roman empire, we’re referring to the capture of the city of Rome. This happened in 410 BC, and the empire it once controlled followed in 476 BC.
However, while this moment may serve as an official mark, this process of falling takes place over multiple generations and is the result of a number of different factors.
An Empire Looking East
One of the biggest things that helped bring about the fall of Rome was geography.
Don’t forget. Back then, no one had cars or planes. All distances were traveled on foot or on horse. Managing an empire that stretched thousands of miles required quick communication between the leaders in the capital and their counterparts in the provinces.
This would have been fine except that the parts of the Roman empire that were growing the fastest — the lands of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, etc. — were also those that were the furthest away from the city of Rome. This meant these more prosperous and more numerous cities had that much more freedom to operate without interference from officials in Rome.
The two sides eventually became so different that they were divided into two separate parts, officially the Eastern Roman Empire and Western Roman empire. When this first happened, in the third century, Rome was not named the capital of the Western Roman Empire. By this point, its relevance had waned considerably. But it remained an important political and economic hub for the region.
Upon winning the civil wars that brought him into power by 315 AD, Constantine I built his new capital for the empire, in Byzantium, the modern location of the city of Istanbul. Right in the middle of modern Turkey, this move further shows how much more important the east had become to the leaders of the “Roman” empire.
Because of how differently the histories of these two empires have played out, when historians refer to the “fall of Rome” they are referring to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the part that actually has Rome in it.
The Influx of Germanic Tribes
One of the reasons Constantine and subsequent emperors made the decision to focus more on the east was because the military situation in the west was becoming unwinnable.
The Romans called the tribes living north of their border Barbarians, though there were many different groups, many Germanic, including the Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, and Saxons. They were always a “problem” for the Romans.
While the region known as Gaul (western Europe, France, Belgium, Netherlands, parts of Germany and Switzerland) was conquered by Julius Caesar back in the first century BC, its borders were always under duress. Many, many wars were fought trying to push back invasions from these tribes, and many more were fought to strip them of their land and give it to the Romans.
However, throughout the fourth century AD, things got a lot worse. The Huns, a group from Central Asia, began invading the lands of northern Europe, mainly those controlled by the Visigoths. This forced the Visigoths, and many other Germanic tribes, to move into Roman territories.
In the past, these movements would have been met with Roman troops and stopped with slaughter. But with the attention of the empire in the east, and the sheer number of people moving south, the Romans slowly conceded territory. Eventually, the Visigoths reached the city of Rome in 410 and, after a period of starving the Roman people by cutting them off from food supplies, took the city.
The Sack of Rome and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire
Rome had been sacked. A tragic and symbolic loss, no doubt. But since the Western Roman Empire did not use the city of Rome for its capital, it still had life.
However, throughout the following decades, the Western Roman Empire would slowly disappear. It lost lands throughout Europe and north Africa, and then in 476, the final Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, gave up his title and surrendered to the Germans of the north, led by a man named Odaecer.
The eastern half of the empire would continue to operate for another 1,000 years. Those living at the time continued to consider themselves Romans. But history has another name for this empire, the Byzantine empire. This speaks to the continued relevance of Rome. But the Roman empire we all know and love was no more.
In the west, countless groups would compete for the lands once controlled by Rome, including those in modern-day Italy. The rise of the Roman Catholic church put Rome back in a powerful position, but it would never again be the giant it once was.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao