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Teach About the Decline of the Roman Empire

written by: Noreen Gunnell • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 9/11/2012

Why did Rome fall? Many historians believe answering this question is central to understanding world history. Imperial Rome spread wide and far, but was eventually destroyed by factors from within and without.

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    The year, 476 AD, was the year the empire of Rome fell. While the Byzantine Empire, once the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, continued on successfully, 476 AD marks the last of the Western emperors and the end the powerful Roman Empire begun with Augustus in 27 BC.

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    The Fall of Rome Lesson Plan and Worksheet

    Lesson Focus: Examining and understanding the reasons and forces behind the end of the Roman Empire.

    Grade Level: 7 - 12

    Lesson Outline: Basically a lecture format with an accompanying worksheet for students.

    Examining the reasons for the decline of the Rome begins with understanding the civilization prior to the fall, before power struggles, inept leaders, domestic factors and invaders collided in history to devastate the once omnipotent empire.

    • Begin by going discussing the Five Good Emperors and what is known as the Pax Romana or “Roman Peace" (31 BC – 180 AD). A blank worksheet for students to complete is provided along with an answer sheet for teachers.
    • Move on to theories about what caused the end of the Roman Empire.

    The prominent argument as to Rome’s demise is often that inflation coupled with a struggling economy were to blame. Recent archeological discoveries have dampened the strength of this argument however. While rising inflation was surely a contributing cause, agricultural output was shown to be up in the century preceding the overthrow of Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) and the end of imperial Rome; so, Rome’s economy was not primarily to blame. Dependence on slave labor and an over extension of imperial resources were also problems during Rome's decline. The growth of the latifundia in the countryside also shifted some of the wealth from urban areas to rural ones. While this may not seem troublesome on the surface, this fact would prove to be significant to imperial Rome's downfall.

    During the turbulent time frame 192 AD to 284 AD, there were twenty-eight emperors put into power by the Roman legions. At the same time, Roman provinces became increasingly more populated and controlled by non-Romans such as the Goths, Saxons, and other groups. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the growing strength and cohesiveness of Germanic tribes revealed itself further in the unison and ambition of the Franks and the Goths. These new arrivals to the Roman world-Anglo,-Saxons in Britain, Goths in Gaul and Spain, and Vandals in North Africa-gained wealth and power. These were the new immigrant “Romans”, and pragmatic Italian Romans in their regions began to transfer allegiance from Rome to the local elite. Power was no longer limited to the city of Rome or wealthy Roman patricians. In an empire as vast as Rome, this in itself was a threat to its stability.

    Meanwhile, the Huns united under Attila and threatened from the east. Resisting foreign aggression, be it from the Huns or the Germanic tribes, was hampered by the cost of the army and the sheer size of the empire. Rome had spent much of its resources on defeating the Persians in the third century, depleting the treasury and its stock of precious metals. As time went on, coins were minted and the soldiers’ were paid, but with a currency no longer sufficiently backed by silver and gold. Inflation set it and quality of life, especially in the cities, began to suffer.

    The empire is made into four districts by Emperor Diocletian in 284 AD and governed by co-emperors. His retirement in 305 AD is followed by a series of civil wars (305 – 312 AD). In 312 AD, Constantine becomes the emperor in the eastern half of the empire and moves the eastern capital to Byzantium in 330 AD. He renames the city Constantinople. Following Constantine’s death in 337 AD, his successor Theodosius edicts that, upon his own death, the Empire be officially separated into East and West. This split becomes complete in 395 AD; Theodosius dies and his sons are named as emperors. The western half is referred to as the Roman Empire and the eastern half becomes the Byzantine Empire.

    Invasions and turmoil continue to plague imperial Rome and the Visigoth chief Alaric captures Rome for a while in 410 AD. While Alaric moves on, the sacking or Rome is shocking and demoralizing. The scourge of Attila the Hun is ended only by his death in 453 AD. Rome continues to be assaulted and the empire is finally brought to an end in 476 AD.

References

  • UNRV History. Five Good Emperors, http://www.unrv.com/early-empire/five-good-emperors.php
  • History News Network: Heather, Peter. “Why Did Rome Fall? It’s Time For New Answers”, http://hnn.us/articles/40538.html

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