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What Caused the Decline of the Roman Empire?

written by: Noreen Gunnell • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 3/10/2014

During the AD 200s, Germanic tribes successfully attacked the Roman Empire, which was already on the decline. But why? Political unrest, inflation, and a stream of incompetent emperors are cited as causes.

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    A Chronological Listing of Events Leading up to the Fall:

    As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire in AD 200s, Germanic tribes began to successfully invade the Western Provinces. Roman Empire from Wikipedia Commons 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?

    184 AD - Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Good Emperors died and his son Commodus ascended the throne. Marcus Arelius's death came to mark the end of the Pax Romana. As Nero before him, Emperor Commodus squandered much of the treasury on his own pleasure and led it into bankruptcy.

    192 AD - Commodus’s troops conspired 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 had been made at the behest of his sister Lucilla.

    • Commodus was 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 included tribes like the Saxons, Goths, Alemanni, and the Franks.

    284 AD - General Diocletian, after murdering the killer of his predecessor Emperor Carinus, assumed the position of emperor. He instituted many reforms in an effort to stem the invasions and bring political stability back to Rome.

    1. Increased the number of legions and toured the empire to inspect its defenses.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. In an effort to prevent farmers from abandoning their land, he ruled farmers of rented property were never to abandon it.
    5. Likewise, Romans in heavily taxed occupations were ordered to keep their positions for life.

    305 AD - Diocletian retireed.

    305-312 AD - Civil wars erupted.

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    312 AD - Constantine took over as emperor in the east. He tried to reinforce Diocletian’s reforms.

    1. Made most jobs hereditary, passing from father to son.
    2. Allowed landowners to actually chain workers to prevent them from leaving.

    330 AD - Constantine moved the capital of the eastern empire to Byzantium, a Greek city, and renamed it Constantinople.

    337 AD - Death of Constantine. Again, there was civil war until Theodosius I took Constantine’s place. The same problems continued in the empire and had a greater impact in the western half. Theodosius ruled that the empire be split in two upon his death. He believed this would alleviate the empire’s difficulties.

    Late 300s AD - Germanic tribes begin to enter the Roman Empire. Some were in search of wealth, better lands, and a warmer climate; the majority, however, were fleeing ferocious warriors from central Asia known as the Huns. Most tribes comprised 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 defeated a substantial Roman force at Adrianople in the Balkan Peninsula. The eastern Roman emperor was killed and to maintain peace, his successor turned land in the Balkans over to the Visigoths.

    395 AD -The division of the Roman Empire became final. The eastern empire was called the Byzantine Empire by historians while the western half was referred to as the Roman Empire.

    410 AD - Alaric, a Visigoth chief, captured Rome.

    451 AD - The Romans joined forces with the Visigoths to stop the Huns in Gaul. A determined Attila turned to Italy looting and ransacking the cities.

    453 AD - Attila the Hun died. The Huns withdrew to Eastern Europe but their absence opened the door to nomadic Germans, Slavs, Persians, and Avars on the eastern border.

    455 AD - The Vandals sack Rome. Gaul was divided between the Franks and Goths.

    476 AD - The emperor Romulus Augustulus was overthrown by a German soldier named Odoacer who declared himself king. Odoacer did not name a new emperor and so this was 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.

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