Fall of Rome

The Fall of Rome occurred as the result of internal strife and external attacks and resulted in a transfer of imperial power to Constantinople.

Summary of Event

The decline and eventual fall of the powerful Roman Empire can be traced back to severe problems beginning with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a brutal persecutor of the Christians. His violent reign (r. 161-180 c.e.) experienced increased interior rebellions in addition to attacks on the empire’s borders. The subsequent reign of his brutal and incompetent son Commodus from 180 to 192 (when he was strangled) is regarded by many historians as the beginning of Rome’s long decline. Nepos, Julius
Romulus Augustulus

The third century c.e. saw increased tension between the opulent city-dwellers and the barely civilized peasants. Caracalla reigned from 211 to 217 and granted Roman citizenship to all freemen living in the Roman Empire, with the intent of imposing additional taxes on them. Severus Alexander ruled with “wisdom and justice” from 222 to 235, with his death beginning a period of great confusion throughout all Italy. Of his twelve successors who ruled in the next thirty-three years, all but one died a violent death, usually at the hands of the soldiers who had established them. The internal strife that began under Aurelius continued, and the increased taxation necessary to finance the military resulted in economy-crippling inflation. The defenses of the empire on the Rhine and Danube collapsed under the attack of Germanic and other tribes, and the eastern provinces were invaded by the Persians.

A very temporary restoration of peace and prosperity was achieved by the Illyrian emperors Claudius II Gothicus (r. 268-270), who drove back the Goths, and by Aurelian (r. 270-275), who was victorious over the Goths, Germans, and Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, who had occupied Egypt and Asia Minor. This brief restoration lasted until the accession of Diocletian, who ruled from 284 to 305. Diocletian introduced many social, economic, and political reforms, including removal of many political and economic privileges that Rome and Italy had enjoyed at the expense of the provinces. He sought to regulate rampant inflation by controlling prices on many necessary goods and on the maximum wages of workers.

Diocletian controlled Thrace, Egypt, and Asia. He assigned control of Italy and Africa to Maximian, control of Gaul, Spain, and Britain to Constantius, and control of Danubian provinces to Galerius. This system created a strong administration but greatly increased the size of the already monstrous governmental bureaucracy, thus creating a tremendous financial burden on the empire’s resources.

The abdication in 305 of Diocletian and Maximian, who both had taken the title of augustus, resulted in the outbreak of several civil wars that did not end until the accession of Constantine the Great in 312. Constantine the Great, who had previously become caesar of the army in Britain, overcame all rivals and reunited the Western Roman Empire under his rule. The defeat of Eastern emperor Licinius in 324 made Constantine the sole ruler of the Roman world.

Christianity had recovered from Diocletian’s attempts to destroy it by persecution, and the politically minded Constantine adopted Christianity, claiming a personal conversion and proclaiming it the official religion of the Roman Empire. The other event of far-reaching significance during Constantine’s reign was his establishment of a new governmental seat in Byzantium, which eventually was named in his honor as Constantinople (later called Istanbul). Constantine reigned from 306 to 337 c.e. and is often regarded as the second founder of the empire. He successfully fought off numerous opponents; reorganized local government into prefectures, dioceses, and provinces; legalized Christianity after his self-proclaimed conversion; and enlisted the church in service to the state. The death of Constantine in 337 began more civil wars between the rival caesars, which continued until Constantine’s only surviving son, Constantius II, was successful in briefly uniting the empire. Constantius II was followed by Julian, who ruled from 361 to 363 and was known as the Apostate because of his renunciation of Christianity. The reforms begun under Constantine, however, proved to be far from successful enough to halt the fall of the empire.

On the death of Theodosius the Great in 395 c.e., the empire was permanently divided into the Latin Western and the Greek Eastern Byzantine empires. The Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, lived on until 1435, when it was conquered by the Turks. The Western Roman Empire was overrun and gradually dismembered by Germanic tribes with various Roman leaders initially conciliating a victorious invader with military commands and administrative offices. The conquest of Africa by the Vandals under Genseric and the seizure of Gaul and Italy by the Huns soon followed. Led by their famous leader Attila, the Huns ruled central and northern Europe and confronted the emperors of east and west alike as an independent power. The city of Rome was plundered by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455, after which Julius Nepos and Leo I briefly held the Western and Eastern thrones, respectively. The death of Leo I passed the Eastern throne to his seven-year-old grandson, Leo II, whose father, Zeno, became the Eastern emperor when Leo II died in 474. Nepos’s insecure rule in Rome was highlighted by his appointment of Orestes, a former lieutenant of Attila the Hun.

The last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, surrenders his crown.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

It quickly became evident that Orestes desired the imperial throne for his son Romulus, and when Nepos fled Rome, Orestes crowned his young son in late 475 c.e. The crowning of Romulus was without any legal authority, but historians from the sixth century on have accepted that the boy was the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Orestes was soon at odds with his Germanic army and was slain in 476. A leader of this rebellious army was the mercenary Herulian leader Odoacer (sometimes called Odovacer), who is credited with overthrowing the child Romulus Augustulus on September 4, 476, thus finalizing the fall of ancient Rome.


Historians have been analyzing the world-changing decline and fall of ancient Rome ever since the founding of the science of history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their work probably will never result in a single definitive answer to the complex question of what caused the decline of the mighty Roman Empire. Any answer to this question must take into account the fact that the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople did not decline simultaneously with the Western Roman Empire but endured almost another thousand years.

Some scholars have stressed that the well-documented sharp decline in population in the Western regions severely limited agricultural and industrial growth as well as defense against invasion. Economic explanations were initially accepted as adequate, but nearly all have since been refuted or seriously weakened. Some scholars have looked for evidence that the soil of the western provinces was of poorer quality than that of the eastern provinces, and others have tried to show that patterns of rising and ebbing rainfall made the region fluctuate in prosperity. Furthermore, most barbarians invaded Europe from the west along the flatter regions as compared with the mountain ranges of southeastern Europe.

Geographically speaking, it is obvious why invaders appeared in Germany along the Danube River and in Italy itself, while Byzantium lay protected by the Balkan Mountain ranges. One scholar points to data that suggest that a contributing factor to Rome’s fall was widespread lead poisoning among the Roman upper class. The richer citizens consumed a Greek diet, with their food cooked in lead containers or lead-glazed pottery and drinking water that flowed through lead pipes. As they ingested diluted lead, they may have sterilized themselves and thus prevented the survival of the more talented men and women.

Regardless of how historical theories are evaluated, what is well documented in history are the numerous ideas of Rome that survived its decline and fall. Many scholars contend that the mighty Roman Empire did not fall but was merely transformed as a result of the merging of the papacy, Holy Roman Empire, Papal States, Italy, and various German elements into the nation-states of medieval Europe.

Further Reading

  • Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 2d ed. 2 vols. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1990. Acclaimed as a masterpiece by other historians and literary critics, Gibbon’s work was first published in seven volumes.
  • Grant, Michael. The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire. New York: Routledge, 1999. An analysis of the Roman Empire that examines the period of military anarchy between 235 and 284 c.e., the empire’s recovery, and the growth of the Byzantine Empire.
  • Grant, Michael. The Fall of the Roman Empire. Rev. ed. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990. Grant’s earlier work on the Fall of Rome.
  • Kagan, Donald, ed. The End of the Roman Empire: Decline or Transformation? 3d ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1992. A revision of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1962). Discusses whether the Fall of Rome marked the end of the Roman Empire or a transformation into a new country.
  • Liebeschuetz, J. H. W. G. Decline and Fall of the Roman City. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. An examination of the history of the Roman Empire during its decline. Bibliography and index.
  • Moorhead, John. The Roman Empire Divided, 400-700. New York: Longman, 2001. This history of the Roman Empire focuses on the division into eastern and western empires and the role of the Germanic invasions. Bibliography and index.
  • Williams, Stephen, and Gerard Friell. The Rome That Did Not Fall: The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century. New York: Routledge, 1999. An examination of the division of the Roman Empire into eastern and western empires. Argues that the western empire fell, while the eastern empire continued. Bibliography and index.