Roman Empire had ruled over Mediterranean lands and most part of Europe for almost 400 years. Romans governed the territories of modern Austria, Belgium, Egypt, England, France, Greece, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and many others. It was one of the most powerful civilizations of the world and so, the fall of the Roman Empire remains a mystery. Different scholars have different opinions on why the Roman Empire collapsed. One of the common versions is that Roman Empire collapsed due to the ineffective governance of its last emperors. However, many factors contributed to the fall. Sociocultural dimension of the Roman Empire can shed more light on the reasons of the collapse, and show the role of the emperors in the society of the last centuries of the Roman Empire.
To start with, there are four main schools of thought considering the reasons of the Roman Empire’s fall. They include theories relating decay to the general malaise, theories about single cause decay, and explanations of catastrophic collapse and versions of the transformation as the main cause of decay. Talking about the collapse makes one reject the version about the transformation of the Roman Empire. However, the rest three schools are worth more attention. Edward Gibbon, Arnold J. Toynbee, and Adrian Goldsworthy are the representatives of the first school. Gibbon believes that the collapse of the Roman Empire was predictable. According to him, “the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.” He argues that political, military, religious, and social factors contributed to destruction of the Empire. Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke claim that the Roman Empire was doomed from its beginning and that the Empire displayed gradual decay of different institutions since the times of Republic. They explain the collapse through the flawed budget system and consumerism.
According to other historians, diseases like smallpox and measles killed the half of Rome’s population. The infections were spread in different ways. As Lauren Patzer puts it, these ways included “increased contact with foreigners, increased raids by barbarians forcing the Romans into sheltered, walled towns where the transmission of germs and disease spread. Romans using public baths, fountains, and latrines as well as brothels also increased the spread of pathogens.” At the same time, the first historian who presented single cause versions of the disease was William H. McNeill. He indicated that Romans had gone through several waves of plague and other diseases. Plague reduced Rome population and affected the economy, culture, and legacy. Smaller population brought weakening of economic ties of the empire, a smaller tax base and the impoverishment.
Another single cause theory is grounded in the environmental degradation. Jared Diamond is one of the supporters of this theory. According to him, Romans degraded their environment by deforestation, increased irrigation, and overuse of natural resources. As a result, they received nonproductive soil and overpopulated cities.
Finally, supporters of the third school including Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins argue that the Roman Empire fell because of the moral decay, barbarians’ attacks, and political infighting. Peter Heather indicates problematic communications over the Roman Empire, reduction of income, barbarian immigration, and Sassanid threat as the leading factors contributing to the decay. Meanwhile, Bryan Ward-Perkins lists political instability, foreign invasion, and reduced tax revenue.
After examination of the main theories of the Roman Empire collapse, the author of this research is likely to support the general malaise theory. The fall of such political construction as an empire has to have more than one reason behind it. Therefore, one should see it as a complex of different factors. First of all, some preconditions created an environment beneficial to the general malaise of the empire in the next centuries. It seems that the problem was rooted in the times of the republic when the state was developing. Democratic laws of the Roman republic worked until Rome was not as large. Later, when it increased to the size of the empire, state governance using the old mechanisms became impossible. Those who had the power could not exert control over the territories because of the great distances between them. As a result, power distribution in the empire was unequal, and that was the reason of the multitude of civil wars and rebellions.
Second precondition of collapse was the governance of the Roman Republic. Governance through the elective senate was rather effective until Rome was just a city. However, as the Romans conquered more territories, councils could not effectively perform their duties. Senate form of government proved to be ineffective. Nevertheless, senate members wanted to grab the power and gave bribes to their electorate. Thus, it led not to democracy but to the corruption. Corrupted councils thought only about themselves and were helpless in making decisions under stressful conditions. They were unable to defend interests of Rome. It marked the start of the corruption that finally became one of the factors determining the collapse of the Empire.
Changes in society also contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the ancient times, personal and military valor was one of the key values of the Roman citizens. They believed that their duty was to live for the sake of their nation and state. Those who were brave and ready to defend their state were encouraged, and cowards were despised. Labor was another basic value of the Roman society. In ancient Rome, people worked and earned high social esteem. In the course of time, the social guidelines have changed. As Romans conquered more and more lands, they captured many slaves ready to perform any duties for the new masters. People realized that they did not need to work hard as they had slaves who could do their work for them. Hence, Romans became more prone to apathy and indifference. Romans became spoiled and lazy. They did nothing except consuming everything they could.
Later, Romans lost the desire to defend their state too. When they had so many slaves, they could send them to risk their lives for them. Thus, famous Roman valor and courage disappeared, and it affected the entire Roman army. More and more Roman citizens tried to escape the army and so barbarians became Roman soldiers. It had negative consequences. They were not patriotic and were ready to kill anybody for money. Barbarians rather destroyed the empire than protected it. Furthermore, the army became uncontrollable. Barbarians did not obey Roman commanders; they were ready to listen to those who were barbarians too. Hence, the Roman army became more barbarian than the Roman one.
One more harmful factor contributing to the general malaise was the practice of patronage. When rich people paid poor people for their votes and other services (such as arrangement of different shows), the consequences were negative. Average citizens were becoming thoughtless tools in achieving political goals with no thinking about the future perspectives. The city population became corrupt, and the quantity of the poor increased. It contributed to the increasing number of parasites that did not want to do anything but benefit from the state. Roman aristocrats gave state reserves to the poor instead of increasing economic strength of the empire. As a result, parasites maintenance was almost equal to the army maintenance. Sometimes, it was even larger and so, soldiers did not receive enough money.
To sum up, this research attempted to draw a complex picture of the Roman Empire with the stress on its political system. Its collapse was not expected for modern people. Everybody knew that Roman Empire was strong, and no enemy could do harm to it. Nevertheless, those who lived in Rome could easily predict that collapse was inevitable. Senate cared only about their power and not about the state. Roman emperors could not govern the empire adequately because of the length of the territory, corrupted senate, and uncontrolled army. Social apathy became the common tendency in the Roman society. Romans became indifferent to the fate of the state paying attention only to bread and circuses. At the point where Romans become consumers who wanted neither to work nor defend their state, they degraded, and the Roman Empire collapsed. Hence, Roman Empire collapsed not only due to the ineffective governance of its last emperors but also because of the range of political, social, and cultural factors.