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The "Fall" of "Rome"

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Traditional history says the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD when Odoacer disposed of Romulus Augustulus and made himself ruler of Italy. As many would point out, this was not really the end of the Roman Empire, as the eastern half would survive for nearly a thousand more years. But clearly to many historians 476 AD represented a landmark moment in the history of Rome, the end of the Empire as it is commonly seen.

The Eastern half would survive in its own way, but as evident by its far more common association with Greek culture and language there exists a clear divide by what historians see as the Roman Empire and what survived in the east after 476 AD. In no small part due to the common history of Europe largely being dictated by western Europeans, we have come to see 476 AD as marking the end of the Roman Empire, with what was left of it constituting a practically different entity entirely.

Clearly things did change after Rome fell; while the Dark Ages were not the filthy, anarchic period of misery and woe that they are so often portrayed as, things certainly did get worse. Trade collapsed, education declined, as did literacy and hygiene. Things eventually got better, but clearly the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire werenot the high point of European civilization.

So we know Rome did fall, but why?

Why Rome fell has been the subject of countless debates and works, with a variety of reasons put forth. Poisoning of the water supply with lead, Christianity eroding Roman masculinity and martial power, barbarians invading, and of course general laziness and vice on the part of the Romans themselves. All these ideas have their merits and indeed are popularized inpart because of how easily they transfer to the modern world; linking contemporary woes like immigration, masculinity and military pride, hedonism,and dietary concerns to Romeís demise all make for good arguments at face value. But as often is the case, itís really not that simple.

Christianity, to start off with, didnít bring down Rome. Certainly the rise of Christianity caused great social upheaval and changed Roman culture, but the Eastern half survived for a thousand more years despite being arguably the more Christian of the two. So that makes no sense.

Hedonism makes for good sermons and speeches but doesnít accurately reflect the Romans, the vast majority of which were common folk who didnít partake in orgies regularly or have grapes hand fed to them. They worked regular jobs like artisans, farmers, bakers, craftsmen and so on, and lived average lives. Corruption within the higher levels of Roman government and society certainly played its part in Romeís demise, but to cast it all togetheras ďhedonismĒ is foolish at best.

As for barbarians, they certainly did their damage but should not be overstated. Rome had dealt with Barbarians at her borders for her entire existence. The difference was in the 4th and 5thcenturies, Rome no longer could defend those borders. She was too depleted andweakened by the crisis of the 3rd Century to stop them. Which brings us to the actual reasons Rome fell; economic and political instability.

That seems almost anti-climactic, because that can be used to describe just about any failed state or fallen nation. But itís true; a perennial problem for Rome ever since it had become an Empire was figuring outwho got to be in charge when the previous guy died. This debate spawned numerous civil wars , and contributed heavily the instability of the Empireís government and political system. Ironically, it was the Marian Reforms, which turned the Roman Army into what had essentially been a citizenís militia into a professional fighting force that caused this. The unintended side effect of the Marian reforms was the formation of legions who were in turn more loyal to their commanders than Rome itself. Julius Caesar was the most notable to make use of this, but it would remain a chronic issue during the Empireís existence, no more so than during the Crisis of the 3rd Century.

Economics was rather simple; Rome built its wealth on theconquest of other tribes and nations, as well as on the backs of slaves, of which it usually had a steady supply. When the Romans reached their extent, unable to go any further either because of natural barriers or hostile nations or both that supply dried up. Without slaves to work their mines and farm their fields Romeís pre-modern economy collapsed, as did its internal trade network. Civil wars only further worsened this while also destroying much of Romeís infrastructure and killingtens of thousands.

Between civil wars, economic collapse, and plague depopulating much of the Empire, the Late Roman Army simply did not possess the manpower to guard all of Romeís borders. So when Barbarians did cross into Roman territory, and they proved too difficult to subdue, the Romans did what they could; they bought them out. By most accounts the Germans were reliable soldiers, but when the Romans didnít pay them what they were due they tended to rebel, leading to disasters for the Romans. Not surprisingly because of this many late Roman authors and historians like to lay the blame of Romeís fall at the feet of the Germans, and insinuate that it was the rapid influx of Germanic tribes that fundamentally altered the direction and nature of the Empire.

This is foolish. By the 4thCentury the Roman Empire was composed of more than just Latins, indeed more than just Italians; it comprised Egyptians, Syrians, Anatolians, Greeks, Dacians, Celts, Spaniards and North Africans. The Empire of the 4th Century was much different than the Empire of Augustus, which in turn was different than the Republic of Scipio Africanus, and in turn was different fromthe small city-state that overthrew the Etruscan League. Rome had changed, just as every nation and society does over time. For centuries the centers of German culture and society were Vienna, Prague, and Koingsberg. Today none of those cities are inside Germany, and in two of them German is no longer spoken. The same holds true for Rome.

So why is 476 AD the end? The simple answer is that it was the last year Rome was ruled by an Emperor. But thatís not really true actually; there was in fact another Roman Emperor after Augustulus, he just never set foot in Italy. In 480 the Eastern Roman Emperor declared the Western half of the Empire absolved. So why isnít 480 the year given for the fall of the Western Roman Empire?

The answer in the end is that 476 is ultimately an arbitrary number. Odoacer did not radically transform Roman government when he seized power in 476; Germanic warlords had been the strength behind the throne for decades at that point. Nor did life in Italy changed drastically after 476. The Roman people living in Italy did not suddenly awaken and decide ďWe are no longer RomanĒ.

Odoacer himself did not last long; he was deposed by Theodoric not long after, who styled himself King of Italy. But things actually got better under his leadership; instead of sending taxes away to a common treasuryof the Empire, he used it to rebuild Italyís shattered infrastructure, repair the roadsand aqueducts, and return some semblance of normalcy. Life in Italy experienced a brief resurgence, before the Gothic Kingdom itself began to decline and eventually Italy was consumed by the Gothic Wars. Over the course of the decades afterwards, things did change. The idea of Roman citizenship was lost, as it no longer meant something to the people living in Italy.

But this was not a sudden thing; Rome wasnít built in a day, nor did it fall in a day. Romeís decline was a very long, drawn out process that took place over the course of centuries, beyond the breadth of a human lifespan. Rather, Rome did not so much fall as it did simply change. Romeís civil institutions, itís government, civil service, military, dissolved and were replaced by smaller off shoots, while Roman society and culture evolved.The coloni system became the basis for feudalism, and allegiance and service to Rome became allegiance and service to the Church. These were not radical departures but natural responses to a changing political and social scene.

The idea that Rome fell in 476 AD is thus a rathermisleading one. The city itself is fine, and it still stands today. The Roman people are still around, but we call them Italians now. The Empire itself endured for another thousand years. And Roman government and society didnít end, they changed, just as they did when Magna Graceia was conquered and the Republic became an Empire.

At the end of the day societies and ideas arenít organisms.They donít live or die according to a natural life cycle. Communism originated in 1848, peaked in the 1960s, declined after the Sino-Soviet split, and hasnít recovered since. But we still talk about it today, so clearly it isnít really gone. Just as Rome wasnít really gone after 476, or even 1453. The last century alone saw the titles of Czar and Kaiser mentioned considerably, and still today there is someone alive who was born with the title Czar. Hardly anyone would call him ďthe last RomanĒ, but clearly some semblance of Rome, the idea of it, continues to live on.

And in the end thatís what Rome was, more than a nation,culture, society, army, or empire, it was an idea. The idea that being Roman, a citizen of Rome, carried with it a value and meaning and was something worthhaving or worth fighting for. It felt the most real when it was backed up by something tangible; material wealth, legal protection, and such, but at its core it was an idea born out of small city-state in central Italy, fell intodecline an disuse sometime after the 5th Century, but whoís imagery, namesake, and legacy still is brought up regularly 2,500 years after it first came into being. And until every trace of it is gone, Rome will never really fall.
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