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27 Jul

The Decline of the Western Roman Empire and the Fall of Rome

Crisis of the 3rd Century

The Western Roman Empire officially ceased to exist on September 4, 476, when Germanic chieftain Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus but the event itself was not the cause for the fall of one of the greatest empires in history. The Roman Empire began to decline already in the 2nd half of the 2nd century when it was severely weakened externally by invasions, and internally by a civil war and economic crisis which resulted in the so-called Crisis of the 3rd Century.

Crisis in the Countryside

The end of territorial expansion almost completely stopped the inflow of slaves at the end of the 2nd century which has had a devastating impact on the Roman economy that mostly based on slave labour. The lack of slave labour force severely affected the countryside where started to increase the number of coloni, tenant farmers who worked on large Roman estates called the latifundia and paid a rent to the owners.

Invasion of the Germanic Peoples

Economic crisis weakened the bonds between the integral parts of the Roman Empire and seriously endangered its unity. The Roman provinces became economically independent and the income from provinces declined. The monetary value has been falling, while the costs for administration, imperial court, public works and Roman games have been rising. Significantly also increased the costs for defensive measures against the Germanic peoples (Saxons, Franks, Vandals, Goths, Alamanni) who became more organized and started to invade deeper into the Roman Empire.

Spiritual Crisis and Rise of Christianity

The eastern frontier of the Roman Empire was endangered by the Sassanid Persian Empire, while the Roman army became unreliable and corruptive. Roman Emperors were unable to deal with the economic and social crisis which was further worsened by the outbreak of famine and plague. The Crisis of the 3rd Century was also marked by spiritual crisis on one hand and rise of Christianity on the other.

Roman Empire under Constantine the Great

Diocletian (284-305) ended the Crisis of the 3rd Century and managed to postpone the collapse of the Roman Empire for 150 years. His abdication in 305 was followed by a civil war which was won by Constantine the Great who ruled the entire Roman Empire from 324 until his death in 337. During his reign, the Roman Empire restored its former power and prestige for the last time in history.

Arrival of the Visigoths

The Huns destroyed the Gothic state at the Black Sea in 375 and forced the Germanic tribes to migrate closer to the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Roman Emperor Valens (364-378) allowed the Visigoths to settle on the territory south of the Danube River (today’s Serbia) but eventually, the territory became too small for the settlers.

Roman Defeat in the Battle of Adrianople

Visigoths rebelled and allied themselves with Alans and Huns. Emperor Valens moved north from Constantinople to intercept the rebels but he was killed in the Battle of Adrianople which resulted in decisive Roman defeat. Valens’ successor Theodosius I (379-395) solved the dangerous situation by reaching an agreement with the Goths: Visigoths were allowed to settle in today’s Macedonia, while Ostrogoths settled in Pannonia.

Division of the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern Halves

After Theodosius’ death in 395, the Roman Empire permanently split into western and eastern halves. The Eastern Roman Empire which later came to be known as the Byzantine Empire survived for a millennium, while the Western Roman Empire was unable to repulse the invasions of the Germanic peoples on the north and Huns on the north-east.

Sack of Rome by Visigoths (410) and Vandals (455)

In 410, Rome was captured and plundered for three days by the Visigoths led by Alaric I. By the mid-5th century most part of the Western Roman Empire was held by barbarians as foederati who were neither Roman citizens nor Roman colonies. At the same time, Rome was seriously endangered by the Huns under Attila but they did not attack the city. According to the legend Attila was persuaded to turn away from Rome by Pope Leo I. In 455, Rome was sacked by the Vandals, while the Roman institutions were crumbling.

Deposition of the Last Western Roman Emperor

The Western Roman Empire was ruled by eight emperors with formal authority only from the death of Valentinian III in 455 until the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. The power was de facto in hands of barbarian military commanders. Deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer therefore did not cause any major disruption at the time despite the fact that the event is traditionally viewed as the end of classical antiquity and beginning of the Middle Ages.

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