This week’s entry: Decline Of The Roman Empire
What it’s about: At its peak in the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire ruled over 70 million people (about 21 percent of the world’s population). It was the most populous empire in history until the Song Dynasty united China a thousand years later. Through the first two-thirds of its 1,200 years of existence, first a kingdom, then a republic, then an empire expanded around the Mediterranean sea, spanning three continents. But a century after peaking in size and influence, Rome suffered a series of crises leading to its downfall; the entire empire disintegrated within another two centuries, for a number of reasons still being debated today.
Strangest fact: While the Roman Empire’s collapse had a profound effect on European history for centuries afterwards, the causes of that collapse weren’t widely discussed by historians until a thousand years later. English historian and Parliament member Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his succinctly titled The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire in 1776, which began a discussion on the subject that continues to this day. Gibbon believed the turning point for Rome was when the empire began outsourcing national defense to foreign (i.e., “barbarian”) mercenaries. Roman citizens, in Gibbon’s opinion, became weak and complacent, and the mercenaries gained enough power that they and other outsiders were able to bring down the empire.
Biggest controversy: Even now, 1,500 years after the Fall Of Rome, and 230-some years after Gibbon, competing schools of thought exist as to what did the Romans in. One historian listed 210 different theories, but four prevailing schools of thought remain. The first is Gibbon’s idea of general malaise—Roman complacency allowed foreigners to invade. The second is environmental—that a series of epidemics, deforestation, and excessive grazing, or even lead poisoning weakened the empire fatally. A third cites that a catastrophic combination of all of these factors and more, all happening within a short period of time, were too much for an otherwise-stable empire to withstand. And a fourth theory claims Rome didn’t fall at all—the “barbarian” invaders in fact preserved Roman ideas and ideals in the smaller states that replaced it. The empire’s dissolution was a necessary step in the transition to the modern-day nations eventually formed from Rome’s ashes.
Thing we were happiest to learn: At least part of the Roman Empire didn’t actually fall with the Fall Of Rome. To manage his sprawling realm, Emperor Diocletian partitioned the empire into eastern and western halves around 300 A.D. The western half, still governed from Rome, collapsed in the 400s, but the eastern half, based out of Constantinople (which, as They Might Be Giants taught us, is now Istanbul) persisted for another thousand years. Historians call that eastern half the Byzantine Empire, but its inhabitants would have called it the Roman Empire, and it was the most powerful entity in Europe for most of that millennia of existence. Although Byzantium differed from its predecessor in some respects—Greek replaced Latin as the primary language, and Orthodox Christianity was the main religion—and it lost territory more or less steadily, it essentially continued Roman traditions until the Renaissance. Rome’s legacy finally ended when the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople in 1453.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The peaceful “Pax Romana” period is a myth. While much of Rome’s territory settled into tranquility after being conquered, the two centuries of Pax Romana (27 B.C. to 180 A.D.) coincided with the early stages of the Roman-Persian Wars, which lasted over 700 years, and are still the longest conflict in human history. The conflict raged for so long in large part because it was a prolonged stalemate. The border between Rome and two successive Iranian empires (first the Parthian, then the Sasanid) in modern-day Iraq, was too far from the heart of either empire for sustained warfare. So the border was a site of constant minor skirmishes, with neither side gaining the upper hand. The Persians were never defeated by Rome, but were so weakened by the conflict that they were quickly overtaken by the Caliphate, who then proceeded to conquer much of the Byzantine Empire over the course of the next few centuries.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The invaders who destroyed the western Roman Empire are nearly always referred to as barbarians, a word used by nations all over the world and throughout history in some variation to mean “savage” or “uncivilized,” but really to mean “not us.” The term dehumanized outsiders, and was even an attempt to justify slavery. But on the plus side, it did give us Conan.
Further down the wormhole: One suggested reason for Rome’s decline is that its economy was primarily based on looting. One of the government’s main sources of income was plunder from conquered territories, so when Rome’s borders stopped expanding outward, the plunder dried up. The empire raised taxes, which drove small farmers onto the dole, which had to be paid for with higher taxes, leading to a vicious cycle. One of the easiest ways to measure just how much loot someone has taken is in good old U.S. dollars. We’ll take a look at the green stuff next week.