The Western World After the Fall of Rome

Imagine you were born in what is now the region of northern France in the year 54 AD. No matter the language you spoke, the religion you practiced, or the tribe you belonged to, your life would have been dictated, both in small ways and large, by the city of Rome. 

It didn’t matter that Rome was hundreds of miles away from where you lived. Its citizens, soldiers, and magistrates would have been everywhere. You would have been required to pay taxes or tributes to the Romans, speak some version of Latin, and you may have even been required to enlist in a Roman army and travel to a faraway province to fight for the city and her empire. 

You may have spent your whole life without touching foot in the city itself, but it didn’t matter. Its power and influence would have been enough to make you Roman. 

However, this didn’t last forever. 

Eventually, Rome, despite all its fame and glory, fell out of favor with the people of the ancient world and became a city not too different from any other. But after spending hundreds of years atop the ancient world, its influence would linger much longer than the empire itself, shaping the western world and helping create what we now have today.

The Original Heart of the Empire

During this first century AD, Rome was still on the rise. For more than 250 years prior, the city had been slowly expanding its sphere of influence, taking control of lands as far from Rome as Spain and Britain as well as Syria and what is now Iraq. In 44 BC, its days as a republic ended as Julius Caesar took control of the government as dictator perpetuo, or dictator for life. 

From that point on, Rome was no longer a democracy but was instead managed by one man and his most loyal supporters: the emperor, aka augustus or caesar.

However, the trouble with this was that Rome continued to get larger and larger, making it increasingly difficult for just one person to control. The provinces became stronger and more independent, and the right to rule was often determined more by the size and power of one’s army than anything else. 

Rome’s Declining Relevance

At the same time, due to its geography, the city of Rome was growing increasingly irrelevant. 

The most prosperous parts of the empire could be found in the east, in what is now Turkey, Syria, Greece, and the Middle East. These regions had more people and more resources thanks to their connections to the rest of Asia, and also because of the fertility and productivity of their land.. 

The areas closer to Rome, mostly in western Europe, were less prosperous and also more wartorn. Invading barbarians, the name Romans gave to Germanic tribes from the north, were a frequent problem in these provinces throughout Roman history, and as time wore on, they became increasingly bold and dangerous. 

All of this meant that by the end of the second century (100-199 AD), the city of Rome was no longer the important political and economic center it once was. Its significance was largely symbolic. It had brought the empire together, but now it had grown beyond its reach. 

The Fall of Rome

By the end of the third century (200-299 AD), the empire had been formally split into eastern and western parts, and Rome was not even the capital of the Western Roman Empire. 

Invasions from Germanic tribes throughout the fourth century (300-399 AD) tore the Western Roman Empire apart, and the leaders in the east, recognizing a lost cause when they saw one, more or less let it happen, choosing instead to hang onto the richer and more prosperous east. 

So, when Rome was sacked and burned in 410, the empire it had built seemed to care very little. And when the Western Roman Emperor was removed from office in 476 by the Visigoth known as Odaecer, marking its official fall, the eastern half of the empire simply accepted this as the inevitability it had seemed to be for more than 100 years.

But what came next? 

For more than 600 years, Rome had been the center of the ancient western world, and while it no longer held the same political power, its influence remained, in some form or another, for hundreds of years more, even up until this day.

Life After the Fall of Rome

While surely a tragedy, the actual fall of Rome made little noise in the greater empire that had once been Roman but which had now shifted east. However, its fall is considered to be a turning point in Western history and had a dramatic impact on the next chapters in history. 

The Middle Ages

The period in which Greece dominated the ancient world is usually called the Classical Era. Once the Romans step in, it becomes Antiquity. The decline of the city of Rome and the fall of the Western Roman Empire comes in what is known as Late Antiquity. 

After that comes the “Middle Ages.” Middle? Middle of what? Isn’t time endless? How can there be a “middle age?”

This name is certainly problematic, but it is not used without reason. It refers to the “middle times” between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, Europe’s cultural revival that began in the 15th century AD. Though there was some progress, war, disease, and backwards thinking held society back, at least when examined through a modern lens. Using the term “middle” implies that western civilization “restarted” with the Renaissance, a word that actually means “rebirth.”

Again, many modern historians debate the use of this term. They say it promotes a view of history that is too narrow. There was progress during this time. It just looked different than in the eras that came before and after it. Nevertheless, it is still widely used to mark the period of history that came directly after the fall of Rome.

The Hole Left By Rome

Part of the reason the fall of Rome had such a major impact on the western world was that it produced what is known as a power vacuum. For so long, Rome occupied the top spot in the ancient world, and when it fell, someone had to replace it. But who? 

That’s the issue. Rome was beaten back in western Europe by a number of different groups, many of whom did not get along with one another. Their inability to cooperate is a big reason why Rome was able to conquer them in the first place, and it made it difficult for the region to continue to progress the way it had been for so long. 

Life During the Middle Ages

Individual kingdoms and fiefdoms fought one another for control over land, allegiances changed quickly and often, and the Catholic church (based in Rome, ironically) became increasingly involved in politics and the daily lives of people across Europe. 

It placed a stranglehold on information in an effort to secure its power, and so many of the lessons Rome had to teach, about politics, society, the individual, science, and so much more were forgotten or ignored so as to bolster the authority of the Church. 

Because of how things went, this period is sometimes referred to as the “Dark Ages.” The idea is that in the absence of a strong central authority, i.e. the Romans, progress slowed and civilization did not advance as much as it had. 

This is a somewhat debatable concept, but it speaks to the power of Rome: it held a region together that has pretty much never managed to coexist in peace for any significant period of time.

Returning to the World Rome Built

The Middle Ages are said to end with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which began in roughly the 15th and 16th century. 

During these periods, art and science flourished, and Europe began to explore the rest of the world with individual nations expressing their own imperial ambitions. There was a conscious effort to return to the teachings of the Greeks and Romans, who many at the time looked to as example civilizations that must be reborn (the word Renaissance itself means rebirth and comes from Latin).

As is always the case, these individuals were exaggerating. They professed the beauty and elegance of ancient Rome but excused the slavery, religious persecution, and endless warfare. They chose what to focus on based on what they wanted to see. But this just speaks to how much of an influence Rome had on the western world even a thousand years later. 

As a reminder of how fresh Rome was in the minds of the people living during the Enlightenment, the US constitution and government were very much modeled on the original Roman republic and borrows directly from Greek and Roman political scholars. 

The Holy Roman Empire

More than 300 years after the fall of Rome, the title of “emperor” was revived in the west. Given to a man named Charlemagne, he ruled over territories in central and northern Italy, southern France, and parts of Germany and central Europe. 

The name historians have given to this empire is  the “Holy Roman Empire.” Why holy? Simple: the Catholic Church was heavily involved. In fact, Charlegmane’s authority came from the Pope, the leader of the Church. 

This empire never came close to controlling the same amount of territory Rome once had. But it asserted its power by claiming a connection to the Rome of old. Their argument was, “Rome never fell, it was just reorganizing.” 

Of course, by then, lots of people had moved on or had no interest in being a part of a new Roman empire. But its very existence speaks to the influence of Rome. Even 300+ years later, to rule over Europe, one had to make links to the might of Rome.

The Byzantine Empire

When we talk about the fall of Rome, we always talk about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Why? Because the East never actually fell. 

The empire was officially divided at the end of the third century and became increasingly separate over time. The East was bigger (both in area and population) and richer, thanks largely to its connections with Asia. 

Its capital: Constantinople. Named after Constantine, the emperor who built it, the city was originally Greek and was called Byzantium. Today, it’s known as Istanbul. 

At the time, Constantine was simply the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. But with the fall of the west to come a little more than 100 years after his rule, he is often referred to as the first emperor of the Byzantine empire. 

For this reason, the empire that remained after the fall of Rome became known as the Byzantine empire, and it lasted for nearly 1,000 years after the fall of Rome in the west. It retained many things from the Roman empire, such as the official use of Greek and Latin. 

It was also a Christian empire, though its doctrines differed from those in the west. And it remained the dominant political and military force in the region throughout the Middle Ages. 

Eventually, the Byzantine empire fell to the Muslim-controlled Ottoman Empire, which lasted into the 20th century. The world changed greatly during these years, but the social and political institutions that made it possible for these empires to exist can trace their roots back to the years of the original Roman empire.

The World Moves On

When studying history, it seems as though Rome fell without much more than a whimper. But did it really fall? Sure, the city was sacked, and the empire it controlled crumbled. But life after the fall of Rome was still heavily influenced by the ancient superpower, and so is the world we live in today. 

So, while the historical forces that have shaped human society caused the world to move on from Rome, its influence remains. Humanity will always, in one way or another, be Roman.

Written by Matthew Jones