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As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire in AD 200s, Germanic tribes began to successfully invade the Western Provinces. Not a new threat, these Germanic tribes had always been a hovering menace but met little success. What was different in this time period that changed that? The answers to that question will help answer another: Why did the Roman Empire Fall?
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A Chronological Listing of Events Leading up to the Fall:
184 AD - Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Good Emperors dies and his son Commodus ascends the throne. His death has come to mark the end of the Pax Romana. As Nero before him, Emperor Commodus squanders much of the treasury on his own pleasure and leads it into bankruptcy.
192 AD - Commodus’ troops conspire to assassinate him. He was murdered by his wrestling partner after an unsuccessful poisoning attempt by his mistress, Marcia. An emperor long obsessed with gladiatorial displays, cruelty, and luxury, this was not the first attempt on Commodus’s life. In 183 AD, an attempt was made at the behest of his sister Lucilla.
- Commodus is portrayed in the movie Gladiator by Joaquin Phoenix. While not entirely historically accurate, Gladiator does reveal some truths about Commodus. For instance, he was known to be handsome, dismissive of the Senate, athletic and prone to entering gladiatorial competitions.
192 AD to 284 AD - Twenty-eight emperors were put into power by the army legions, but most were killed by these same legions. Rome’s armies fought each other and the defense of the empire suffered. Germanic people continuously and successfully attacked the empire. These include tribes like the Saxons, Goths, Alemanni, and the Franks.
284 AD - General Diocletian, after murdering the killer of his predecessor Emperor Carinus, assumes the position of emperor. He instituted many reforms in an effort to stem the invasions and bring political stability back to Rome.
- Increased the number of legions and toured the empire to inspect its defenses.
- Viewing the Roman Empire as too large for one ruler, Diocletian divided it into two. He became co-emperor of the eastern provinces and installed General Maximian as co-emperor of the western provinces.
- Issued the Edict of Prices in an endeavor to control inflation. Emperor Diocletian set a cap on prices and a wage-freeze. A Roman could be put to death for breaking the Edict but, despite this harsh punishment, it failed. Black-markets grew and merchants sold their wares at market prices.
- In an effort to prevent farmers from abandoning their land, he ruled farmers of rented property were never to abandon it.
- Likewise, Romans in heavily taxed occupations were ordered to keep their positions for life.
305 AD - Diocletian retires.
305-312 AD - Civil wars erupt.
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312 AD - Constantine takes over as emperor in the east. He tries to reinforce Diocletian’s reforms.
- Makes most jobs hereditary, passing from father to son.
- Allows landowners to actually chain workers to prevent them from leaving.
330 AD - Constantine moves the capital of the eastern empire to Byzantium, a Greek city, and renames it Constantinople.
337 AD - Death of Constantine. Again, there is civil war until Theodosius I takes Constantine’s place. The same problems continue in the empire and have a greater impact in the western half. Theodosius rules that the empire be split in two when he dies. He believes this will alleviate the empire’s difficulties.
Late 300s AD - Germanic tribes begin to enter the Roman Empire. Some are in search of wealth, better lands, and a warmer climate; the majority, however, are fleeing ferocious warriors from central Asia known as the Huns. Most tribes are comprised of numerous warrior groups only loosely connected by language. Roman called these Germanic tribes barbarians because their speech sounded like nonsensical babbling to them.
378 AD - The Visigoths defeat a substantial Roman force at Adrianople in the Balkan Peninsula. The eastern Roman emperor is killed and to maintain peace, his successor turns land in the Balkans over to the Visigoths.
395 AD -The division of the Roman Empire becomes final. The eastern empire is called the Byzantine Empire by historians while the western half is referred to as the Roman Empire.
410 AD - Alaric, a Visigoth chief captures Rome.
451 AD - The Romans join forces with the Visigoths to stop the Huns in Gaul. A determined Attila turns to Italy looting and ransacking the cities.
453 AD - Attila the Hun dies. The Huns withdraw to Eastern Europe but their absence opens the door to nomadic Germans, Slavs, Persians, and Avars on the eastern border.
455 AD - The Vandals sack Rome. Gaul is divided between the Franks and Goths.
476 AD - The emperor Romulus Augustulus is overthrown by a German soldier named Odoacer who declares himself king. Odoacer does not name a new emperor and so this is commonly referred to as the point when the Roman Empire fell. However, as this study guide demonstrates, the Roman Empire had been declining since around 200 AD for a host of reasons.
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Contributing Factors to The Decline
Barbarians - Deemed barbarians by Romans due to the babbling sound of their language, the barbarians were not one group but an assortment of different tribes.
- Germanic tribes began to exert control over Roman territory in the late 300s and 400s AD. The most significant tribes were the Visigoths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Franks, and Ostrogoths.
- The Huns followed. Led by Attila, this nomadic group stormed out of the grassy expanse of central Asia and terrorized the eastern empire. Plague and famine eventually weakened them and the Huns retreated to Eastern Europe after Attila's death.
Inflation - The invasions by Germanic tribes negatively affected trade and agriculture. Profits fell for merchants while food shortages rose for farmers. Prices increased and in an effort to counteract soaring prices, the government minted coins. However, the instability had already depleted the treasury of much of its silver and gold, making the new coins less valuable. Prices rose to offset the difference which led to inflation.
Rising Taxes - In order to maintain a sizable army, soldiers' salaries needed to be increased. Landowners were heavily taxed causing many to abandon their lands, intensifying the food shortage.
Political Instability - For many years Rome's legions handpicked the emperors. Often, when they became dissatisfied, these legions would assassinate their emperor and install a new favorite.
Poor Defense - Civil wars and political squabbles set Roman armies against each other, weakening the empire's defenses.
- Roman Empire and Colliseum, http://www.roman-colosseum.info/