Rome: From Republic to Empire, and the Fall of Rome in the West 753 BCE to 468 CE

Rome from 753 BCE through the end of the Republic

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The Tiber River

The empire that Rome eventually built around itself, and that lasted, depending upon where you stood on the ground in what is now Europe, until 468 or 1453 CE, was an accident. It came about as an unintended result of Rome's original and primary activity - trade. The expansion of borders occurred largely as a response to perceived threats and economic necessity. This, of course, meant that Rome, as a republic from 509 to 4 BCE, was both unprepared to rule an empire, and often uninterested in meeting the challenge. Such unpreparedness brought complications that eventually challenged the constitution of the Republic, brought about the change to empire, and finally caused the fall of the empire itself.
Rome had grown up as a loose alliance of several Villages on the Tiber river who shared the area of the seven hills around the Tiber's most important assett: the ford. To make certain that they did not war against each other, these villages set up a common meeting ground where public discussion could take place among them on neutral ground. to make decisions in common. Their first government as a unified city was a monarchy in about 753 BCE. By 509, a conservative revolution had occurred because the business leaders of Rome had thought a king with the power of imperium for life was too powerful, and too able to move the society in directions not suitable for business and trade. They therefore persuaded the last king, Tarquinius the Proud, an Etruscan, to leave Rome, and leave his powers, as well.

The Celtic War 387 BCE

Brennus, leader of the Celts, accepts Roman payment to end the siege.

The Romans immediately made a new tradition, in which two Consuls shared the executive responsibilities, and the same purview. The consuls' terms of service were also limited to one.
The next step in Roman history began aroun 387 BCE. In that year a group of Celts (Gauls, as the Romans called them) surrounded the city of Rome and forced its residents to take refuge in the temples on top of the Capitoline Hill. They looted and pillaged the town, then laid siege to the Capitoline survivors, eventually only leaving after a large ransom was paid which nearly emptied Rome's treasury. This experience led to a determination by Rome never to be conquered again. Military and political reforms followed, and Rome moved out into the world as a conquering power.

Military Reforms

Formation of Roman Soldiers
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Roman Maniples in battle formation

One of the first military reforms was the "maniple" form of battlefield maneuver. More flexible than the Greek phalanx, but based on the same principle of foot soldiers operating together in close order drill for mutual support, the maniple was also a smaller unit of organization that could be detached easily from larger groups and operate independently against the enemy. The Roman army came to depend on speed of maneuver and close mutual support to defeat its enemies.

Conquest of Italy


By 300BCE, this once defeated power had become supreme in the plain of Latium, having first joined a defensive alliance of cities on the plain, known as the Latin League, the Romans conquered the cities closes to them, and annexed those within about 2 miles as part of Rome, turning those within a larger radius into dependencies. All of these cities were required to supply garrison forces for defense of the new empire, but not required to do anything else extraordinary.
The genius of the Roman conquest, however, was in not repeating the mistakes make by the Athenians with their empire. The Romans very quickly saw the efficacy of a policy to extend citizenship to all residents of the annexed towns, and to any of those from the dependent cities who moved into Rome or married a Roman citizen. This meant that those people who became Roman citizens could participate in elections, stand for government office, join the Senate or the Plebeian Assembly, and enjoy the benefits of what amounted to a very large free trade zone in the ancient world. Within the plain of Latium, trade by Roman citizens was protected and taxed at the lowest rates.

Inequities in Roman Society

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Roman Plebieans

Of course, there were still many inequities in the Roman system. Slavery was common (and usually arrived at through debt or prisoner of war status). Every Roman male was expected to serve in the army - the patricians as commanders and the plebeians as the foot soldiers. None were paid for their service. Defense of Rome was considered a duty, not a job. Of course, soldiers regularly did come home with money - most often gained by looting their enemies' property after victory. It even became tradition for the consuls to celebrate a victory with a triumph: a sort of official homecoming parade in which the consul would show off all the loot he had taken from his enemies. The more loot, the greater the glory of the consul, and the more he would spend on Roman public works. Such works came to include the famous Appian way, Hadrian's arch, and numerous baths and public buildings and triumphal arches that came to populate the Forum over the years. This was political spending.

The Punic Wars

By 264, the trading activities of the Romans had sent them far afield. Roman trade was one of the most successful in the Mediterranean Sea area. Only Carthage, in North Africa, surpassed the Romans when it came to control of market share in the Mediterranean world. Carthage possessed Sicily, and it became clear to the Romans that the island was the center of a trade web that covered the entire region. Rome sent a naval force to blockade the island and force the Carthaginians off. By 241, this led to a negotiated peace in which Carthage agreed to hand over Sicily, but Rome agreed to keep its hands off other Carthaginian outposts and territories in the region. Carthage, while shorn of its trade hub, was able to maintain its dominant trade position, and continued to compete with the Romans.
This led, prior to 218 BCE, to a series of conflicts as Roman consuls eager to win popularity sent armies to harass Carthaginian traders and garrisons in Saguntum (Barcelona), in what is now Spain. Angry, Carthage recruited a large army that included elephants, and sent it overland to Rome under the command of a famous general known as Hannibal. Hannibal's army was so effective that for most of the Second Punic War (218-202BCE) Roman armies had given up fighting it face-on, and instead were reduced to conducting guerilla actions against its supply lines and stragglers. For nearly 10 years, the peninsula of Italy north of the plain of Latium was open to Hannibal and his army.
Hannibal eventually invited the conquered Latin cities to join him, and rise up against Rome. This was how he eventually planned to capture the city. Because of the beneficial relationships created by Rome for citizens and trade, however, these cities surprised Hannibal and remained loyal to Rome, even after many defeats. As Hannibal then tried to surround Rome and starve its citizens, the Roman snuck an army out of Italy and across the Mediterranean to Carthage and surrounded their great enemy.
Hannibal was forced to take his army home quickly to defend against this surprise attack. Doing so, he lost many men, and much morale. He was defeated, and Carthage was eventually razed to the foundation stones in order that the Romans would have no competition for control of the Mediterranean Basin and its lucrative trade. The Punic wars were over in 204 BCE.
This did not make life easier for the Romans.

Roman Trade and Citizenship

They were now quite shocked to find themselves the masters of an ever growing empire. Roman policy came to be one of expansion in the direction of its enemies. Once threatened, Rome's response was to conquer the area where the threat originated, thus eliminating future disturbance. This, however, was a serious administrative problem.
Roman policy was, of course, intended to make conquered territories beneficial to the Roman citizenry. This meant that they were incorporated into the Roman trade network, becoming a part of an increasingly large free trade zone in which citizens and privileged others paid little or no taxes on trade, and non-Romans paid large import duties. It was also part of a growing market, and so attractive to traders both within and outside of the empire - leading to a greater availability of goods and more attractive prices.
However, it was not Roman policy to extend citizenship to the areas it conquered after Latium, except by special dispensation of a consul (this usually happened for political reasons, such as granting a town citizenship in exchange for electoral support of a client of a consul). So by the time of Caesar Augustus, (27 BCE - 12CE) just over four million people were Roman citizens in an empire that had a total population of about fifty two million. It is clear, then, that the benefits of citizenship were not enjoyed by all, and this encouraged a certain amount of civil strife.

Postwar Problems

Combined with that was another serious social ill. The veterans who had returned home from the Punic Wars had found that, while away serving Rome and defeating the Carthaginians, the Romans who had remained had usurped their land. The young men, away at war, had been unable to work their land, and so families had subsisted as best they could, and eventually often had to borrow from local patricians. When they were unable to pay back those loans, their small farms became the property of the patricians who had loaned them the money. Thus, many patriots came home from North Africa to a situation of homelessness. They also came home to find that there were no agricultural or urban jobs to help them earn money to support their newly homeless families. Those jobs had been taken by slaves.
The slaves were in fact prisoners of war - members of Hannibal's army, and normal Carthaginians who had agreed to become chattel in exchange for their lives. These people were brought home in record numbers, mostly by patricians, from Carthage. They took all the jobs, and took no pay for their work, thus making their masters even richer than they had been, while the class of Romans who had really fought and won the war were left to fend for themselves. This also led to some social discontent.

The Gracchi (140-160 BCE)

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Tiberius Gracchus speaking to the Senate

At this point, two astute patrician politicians, members of the Senate and brothers, began to champion the goals of this unrepresented proletarian class of disenfranchized and disenchanted Romans. Gaius & Tiberius Gracchus between 160 and 140 BCE, both proposed political changes including land reform (what amounted to the Roman government forcing the patricians to return without compensation the land they had gained through unfair foreclosure on loans). They also proposed the creation of colonies outside of the Latin Peninsula made up of the disenfranchised. They could be given land, and their existence in far-flung parts of the empire could serve as an example to others in the empire of the benevolence and power of Rome. Both brothers were murdered by the Senate for their views on land reform.
All of these controversies lead to some re-thinking on the role of the Roman constitution, and to the meaning of the traditional institution of Roman Government which had lasted since 509 BCE. This re-thinking, and the action required to deal with the social problems set in place by winning the war would challenge, and eventually destroy, the constitution, and the Roman Republic.

The Challenge to the Constitution 112 BCE to 27 BCE

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The Death of Caesar

Beginning in 112 BCE, the Roman Senate dealt with revolts, external wars, and punitive expeditions against North African, Celtic, and Germanic tribes. To pacify these problems, the Senate turned to Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE), making him consul in 107 BCE. Marius' methods were unorthodox - he recruited soldiers from among the lowest classes, ignoring the rule that Romans in the army had to own a certain amount of property. He paid for their weapons with the state treasury. The scale of this activity was particularly large, but it was effective. Because of his ability to defeat Rome's enemies with this unorthodox military, and despite the technical illegality of it, Marius was elected consul five more times between 104 and 100 BCE.
Because Marius' methods of recruitment were so unorthodox, the Senate refused to give its usual reward of land to the soldiers in Marius' army. The army thus became loyal not to the Roman state, but to Marius himself, who paid them, armed them, and trained them.
Other elites in Roman society came to recognize the effectiveness of Marius' methods, and soon began to purchase their own private armies in bids to gain political advantage, wealth, territory, and security. Thus the loyalty of the army came into private hands, and the state began losing control of its method of defense.

Caesar and the Civil War

In 91 BCE, during the Social War - the revolt of the Italians - Marius and another wealthy patrician, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, both used private armies to pacify these rebellions, and to suppress attacks on Roman territories in the province of Asia. Marius and Sulla were also political opponents, and their political disagreements soon occupied their armies, as for the first time Roman armies marched on Rome itself. Rome was occupied once by Marius, and twice by Sulla. Each time, the occupier rewarded his supporters with property and rank, and punished the supporters of his enemy with imprisonment, execution, confiscation and destruction of property. Rome was ablaze, but Sulla eventually came out victorious. By 79 BCE, Sulla had set up reforms in the Republican system, and then stepped down to return Rome to Senatorial control.
Crassus (115-48 BCE) & Pompey (106-48 BCE), both students and clients of Sulla, rose to the top of the Roman power structure through various illegal means following Sulla's retirement. By 70 BCE they had dismantled all of Sulla's reforms and began ruling as dictators. Eventually, these two invited a young Senator with great ambition, Gaius Julius Caesar, to join them in what they called the First Triumvirate. None of these men had gained their position as the rulers of Roman society by legal means, and in fact had systematically dismantled the constitution of Rome.
As Julius Caesar proved to be a potential threat to Crassus and Pompey, eventually he was given control of the province of Cisalpine Gaul - a province on the very edge of the Roman Empire, and one that would put Caesar at war with the Celts. Crassus and Pompey apparently felt that they could keep Caesar out of the way with this maneuver.
Caesar, however, was very successful in his new post, and in fact was able to conquer Gaul, and make allies out of many of the Celtic commanders. In addition, he wrote and published a book about his exploits which became a best-seller in Rome, and made Caesar even more popular.
Pompey had died by 56 BCE, but Crassus began to see Caesar as a potential rival, and began scheming to remove Caesar all together from the halls of power. To do this, he had the Senate call Caesar home. Caesar came, but against the instructions given by the Senate, he brought his army with him. Attacking Crassus' forces, he had defeated Crassus by 48 BCE, and entered the city of Rome, where he made himself dictator for life, and began legal and political reforms in Rome.
By 44 BCE, Caesar had become dictator, and aroused the anger of Senators who wished to restore the constitution and the Republic. On the Ides (15th) of March of that year, members of a conspiracy of about 60 Senators, including Gaius Junius Brutus, attacked and assassinated Caesar as he entered the Senate chamber.

Civil War and the Victory of Octavian 27 BCE

Octavian as Augustus Caesar, Princeps of the Roman Empire.
Diagram of the Battle of Actium

Their attack did not have the results they wished, however, and Rome was plunged into 13 years of Civil war. Caesar's adopted son (nephew Octavian, 18 years old in 44 BCE) and his most important general, Marcus Antoninus (Mark Antony) inherited Caesar's wealth, territories, and armies, and immediately formed the Second Triumvirate with another of Caesar's generals, Marcus Lepidus, to govern Rome. This government concentrated its first efforts on rounding up the assassins of Caesar and their co-conspirators and executing them all. After defeating Brutus and one of his co-conspirators in the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BCE, Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus began to scheme against each other.
Antony, whose control of the Eastern provinces cost ever-more cash, allied himself with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Octavian, whose control of the Roman home provinces left him somewhat less powerful than Antony, began to make out that Antony was a traitor to Rome because of his affair with the queen of a foreign empire (Cleopatra of Egypt). Antony took to slandering Octavian's adopted status and lack of military experience. Lepidus was forced to retire.
Antony attempted to defeat Octavian in battle by luring him to the Eastern provinces, where Antony was strongest. Octavian, however, was able to catch Antony off guard in a naval battle at the port of Actium in 31 BCE, and defeated him. Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide, and Octavian gained control of all Roman territory.
By 27 BCE, Octavian had set up the political organization that would be the basis for the Roman Empire to come. He had declined to openly call himself dictator or emperor, preferring the term princeps, or "first among equals." This was probably to avoid causing the same anger that had led Brutus to assassinate Caesar. In any case, Rome's nominal republican institutions were returned (though they were manipulated from behind the scenes by Octavian). Eventually Octavian accepted the title Imperator from the Senate (this means, "general of all the armies"). He never wished to be called Emperor, but did also receive the posthumous title Augustus. By Augustus' time, the Roman constitution was long dead, and an Empire had grown up in its stead.
Octavian ruled this empire, quite literally, from his home. Rather than other elites as members of a public bureaucracy, since Octavian (Augustus) did not accept official title as emperor, the state was ruled as a function of his household. Octavian's household servants thus took on the roles of official bureaucrats. In many ways, then, the Roman Empire was ruled as the personal property of the emperor. Even the Senate, which Octavian nominally restored to its full power, was bound to obey imperial wishes, and the most powerful senators often found themselves vying to please the emperor, rather than acting as independent statesmen, as was the ideal of the Republic.
Octavian's success at restoring order and peace led to the Pax Romana - a period of 200 years of peace, Roman success and economic improvement.

The Height of Roman Culture


The time of Octavian's rule, and after for about 2 centuries, is known to historians as the Pax Romana - the Great Roman Peace. Octavian reimposed order and republican institutions from the top, forcing the Senate to do what it had not been able to agree upon in the Republican period. During this time, trade and culture grew at amazing rates in the Roman Empire.
Historians such as Sallust and Livy saw history as the working out of a moral purpose, following the philosophy of the Stoics. The restoration of order was explained as the bringing of justice to the world, and the process of Roman history was the working out of that destiny.
Cicero, the great politician and orator (and enemy of Augustus) theorized along Stoic lines that the world was a rational place and that justice therefore could and should be based on reason. This became the basis of his idea of "Natural Law" which was supposed to be able to knit the multiple linguistic and ethnic groups together under one law, rationally applied through reasonable debate in front of well-trained judges.

The Rise of Christianity and Its Impact on Europe

Temple to Mythras in the Crypt at San Clemente Church

The Roman Catholic Church can be said to have had as much impact on European society as Rome itself. The rise of the Church, from anonymous Jewish fringe sect to persecuted religion to the official religion of Rome and finally to a controlling position in European culture during the Middle Ages involved a process of changes, the causes and implications of which are many and mixed. Today we will trace the growth of the Christian religion through the end of the Western Roman empire. We will look primarily at developments in its organizational structure, and in its Theological structure, in an attempt to explain its growth into the primary spiritual, and to some extent temporal, power in Medieval Europe.


The organization of the early Christian church was critical to its survival as a religion, and became the basis of its structure into the Catholic period. Initially, Christianity's success was with the urban poor, and the uneducated. Its rites were apparently simple, and minimal at first. Entrance to the community came through baptism with water. After that, one could join in any of the Christian rites. This baptism removed the taint of original sin. The main ritual of early Christians was a gathering for a meal known as the agape, roughly translated, "love feast". After the feast, Christians would participate in the Eucharist, meaning "thanksgiving" - a remembrance of the Lord's Supper, in which unleavened bread and unfermented wine, believed to be transformed by God into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, were taken. The ceremonies performed by Christians also included the singing of songs of praise, and prayers.

The early churches were community affairs, with very little formal structure. As organization and communication, as well as the answering of questions and conflicts regarding Jesus' teachings came up, an organizational structure grew to handle them. The early churches were apparently administered by boards of elders known as presbyters (elders), and deacons (those who serve). By 200CE, as the Christian churches found more and more members, they began to accept the executive authority of bishops (episkopoi, or "overseers") - these bishops were elected by each individual congregation. As the need for communication grew, and differences of opinion between congregations surfaced, these bishops became the arbiters of Christian doctrine. They also began to extend their authority over the congregations of outlying towns and villages. "The Doctrine of Apostolic Succession" eventually increased the powers of bishops to the level of near kings in their congregations. This doctrine stated the church's belief that the powers Jesus had given the original disciples - to heal, etc., were passed from bishop to bishop through the ceremony of ordination. The bishops were considered to be the successors to the apostles - inheritors of the knowledge of Christ through their Apostolic ancestors.

Early Church Organization and Communication

Map of Christian Churches in Europe and Middle East, 70 CE.

The bishops maintained contact with each other, and as doctrinal questions arose, or the need to deal with heresy (any way of looking at Christianity that did not agree with the bishop's accepted system) came up, they might attend conferences. They also dealt with the civil authorities. The bishops' ability to maintain church solidarity even through the economic and social difficulties experienced in Rome was certainly an important element in Christianity's survival through a very difficult period.

In fact, beginning in the early years of Christianity's spread, Christians were persecuted. At first, the persecutors were Orthodox Jews, who saw Christians following Jesus as their Messiah to be an abomination. Their violence against Christians brought the Christians to the attention of the Romans, who were concerned because of the violence their existence was creating. The Romans initially had no concern with Christian beliefs beyond the fact that their existence created a problem in maintaining order in the empire. As long as Christians were considered to be Jews, their refusal to worship the state gods of Rome caused no problem, since Jews were the only Roman subjects in the empire to have been granted exemption from that requirement (see Cicero). However, it soon became clear that Christians were a proselytizing religion separate from the Jews. They attempted to convert non-Jews to their religion. Further, while they lived in the same places, and worked at the same occupations as other Roman subjects, their tendency to keep to themselves, and their refusal to allow others to see their ceremonies was considered anti-social. Romans, to whom civic participation was as natural as eating, saw the aloof Christians as "haters of human beings". As rumors of the Eucharist got out, the idea that Christians ate flesh and drank blood became the basis of rumors that they were cannibals. Those problems, combined with the fact that Christians continued to refuse to worship Roman state gods in festivals and on holy days made the Romans feel they were revolutionary, and perhaps would bring the wrath of the gods down on Rome. For this reason, the simple acknowledgement that one was a Christian, without any other proof of treasonous or criminal activities, was enough to bring a sentence of death in Roman courts. (Apology). However, most persecution early in Christianity's growth were done by citizen mobs, not the Roman government. This led to the martyrdom of some of the most important Christian saints, and galvanized the community to maintain its value systems. Those whose faith was not strong enough either left the faith, or never joined, making the Christian community one of unquestionable belief in its precepts.

The Catholic Church

As the church formed its organization, the emergence of congregations, bishops, and declarations of Christian dogma allowed the Christian belief to gel into a generally accepted body of ideas. Most people who professed to be Christian agreed on what they believed, and why they believed it. This body of beliefs came to be labelled as Catholic, meaning "universal" in Latin. Thus the Catholic Church means "The Universal Church". The ideas - or doctrine - of the Catholic church were held to be "orthodox" - correct. Any ideas that contradicted or disagreed with the orthodox doctrine were labeled heresy, and were quickly suppressed. This need to be certain that the general Catholic belief system was upheld against heretics created the need to more and more clearly state the Catholic doctrine. That lead to a growth in theology, beginning with the compilation of a "canon" that included the "Old Testament", "The Gospels", and the "Epistle of Paul". These books formed the basis on which the Catholic Church then based its theology - its philosophical interpretation of God's Word, and the direction that gave for human behavior. Further elucidation of the Bible, as this canon came to be called later in history, came from bishops and later converts to the Christian Church. Catholic Orthodoxy made the church the repository of Christian teaching, and the bishops the receivers of Christian knowledge. The church then decided on a set of statements that made clear the beliefs it espoused. This meant that now, beyond being baptized, participating in the Eucharist, and accepting Christ as Lord, one had to accept the statements of the Catholic faith, the canon of the Bible, and the authority of the church in order to be Christian. The church had organized itself in response to challenges to its authority as the body of believers.

The Pope, and Rome as the center of the Catholic Church, was an outgrowth of the system of bishops discussed earlier. As bishops extended their authority to outlying congregations, the bishop of Rome asserted its superiority over all others. This came partly from the fact that Rome was likely the biggest congregation in the Christian world. It also stemmed from Jesus' words to Peter, "Though art Peter (in greek Petros) and upon this rock (in Greek petra) I will build my church." ( See Craig, p.161) - Suggesting that Peter, the supposed founder of the Church in Rome, is the founder of Jesus' church. Additionally, Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome. It was these points that gave the Roman congregation's claim to primary status authority.

The Rise of the Catholic Church

The Romans continued to persecute Christians throughout the late imperial era, claiming that it was Christians' refusal to participate in the state religion that had brought the barbarian invasions down on Rome, until emperor Constantine converted to Christianity prior to his death. Later, Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, the new official status in the Church brought new problems to be faced and solved. In the Eastern Empire, the power of the Emperors and their intelligence and political savvy made them unlikely to submit to the authority of their bishops, regardless of the religious authority those bishops claimed. For that reason, the relationship of church and state went a different route from the Western Empire, where the authority of the Bishop of Rome was enough to have emperor Theodosius pay humble penance for his sins after the bishop excommunicated him, presumably for challenging the authority of the Church. The church gained further legitimacy and authority in the minds of the Roman subjects of the West when, as Rome was sacked by barbarians, and the Emperor ran for Constantinople, the Bishop of Rome stayed, and used his authority and popular support to help the sufferers and negotiate with the new conquerors of Rome.
Emperor Theodosius

While the Bishop of Rome, later known as the Pope, did not exercise political control over the Western Empire, his moral authority, combined with the fact that Christianity was really the only common link between the fortified manors and towns of early medieval Europe during the period of barbarian invasions made him in many senses Europe's ultimate authority. It was his consent, in the middle ages, to a king assuming the throne that conveyed both God's blessing, and a common sense of authority that others of similar rank could accept as bringing temporal legitimacy as well. The view of the Pope as the sole interpreter of God's word, and as the sole authority through which earthly authority could be recognized gave the Pope unmatched if limited, powers in the affairs of Western Europe for centuries.

The Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire

The fall of the Roman Empire was due to a number of problems. These included, but, as always, were not limited to, a "barbarianized" army; a growing inability of Roman emperors after Hadrian (r.117-138CE) to succeed in defending all points of attack; inability to maintain an economy with the vitality to support defense needs; a growing lack of confidence in the empire.

All of these factors eventually led to a concentration of loyalty in the hands of a few members of the Roman power elite. These powerful and well connected people took on the responsibility of defending their patrons in return for their loyalty and economic support. This "atomization" of power in the Western Roman Empire extended all the way to the emperor himself. However, the fall of the Western Empire was not accompanied by the fall of the Eastern Empire at Byzantium (Constantinople), which survived intact for another millennium with the vitality to support itself, and become a major economic and intellectual/legal center of the Medieval world, and was continuously able to provide a powerful army for its own defense and even the conquest of territory surrounding it east and west.

"Barbarianization" of the Roman Army

In this lecture, we are primarily interested in the fall of the Western Roman Empire. We'll start our analysis by looking at the so-called "barbarianization" of the Roman Army.

While non-Roman soldiers had been accepted into the Roman army with some regularity before Septimius Severus (193-211 CE) became Emperor of Rome, the practice became widespread under Severus. His army came to be staffed primarily by non-Roman soldiers. This meant that the new soldiers lacked a lifetime connection to Rome through education, experience, or parentage. This eventually led to deep loyalty problems, and a willingness of armies to follow their immediate benefactor, rather than some vague loyalty to a kingdom whose emperor they hardly knew, and whose history was not their own. Several problems led to this "barbarianization".

By the time of Hadrian's (r.117-138CE) rule, the Roman Empire had reached its maximum size. It stretched from Judea, in the East, to the isles of Great Britain in the West, from the Rhine and the Danube Rivers in the West to the Sahara Desert in the South, and surrounded the Mediterranean sea, making it a Roman lake. As we've seen in previous lectures and readings, this empire had been created largely by accident, as a part of Roman defense doctrin following the sacking of Rome by Celts (Gauls) in 380 BCE.

Rome's emperors after 138 CE, however, followed a specific policy of non-expansion. This was because Roman troops were spread too thin to defend all of the empire's borders. Rather than the mobile, flexible force that had been the fulcrum of Roman power in the period of conquest, the army by 138 CE had become mostly a passive guard force, stationed in fortresses and lookout posts along the length of the borders. There were not enough citizens of Rome, and particularly not enough of those who wanted to serve in the army, to cover every square mile of frontier even a single man deep. These thinly spread Roman forces thus had to be augmented by recruits from the provinces.

Most of those recruits from the provinces were not Roman citizens, and most came from the provinces closest to the border areas where they were needed. They reported to and trained at the forts along the line of the frontier, and never had any direct access to Rome itself. The men so recruited had different reasons for joining the Roman army from those of earlier Roman forces. Most were from "barbarian" (conquered) peoples, and joined the army for the steady pay, and for Roman citizenship. Their loyalty was less to Rome and the emperor than to themselves as individuals and the benefits they would receive as citizens. Most, in fact, had never seen Rome at all, and were unfamiliar with either Roman history, or with the responsibilities that were supposed to come with citizenship.

Because they were trained at the frontier forts, often between regular duty shifts, their training was spotty, not up to standard of the former conquering Roman legions. Their may also have been language problems for the Roman commanders to deal with, since many of these provincial recruits did not speak Latin, and their commanders and trainers often spoke no Frankish, Saxon, Gothic, or any other language.

Thus, the borders of the Roman empire were guarded by troops with questionable loyalty to Rome. To overcome this loyalty problem border generals created a system that encouraged personal allegiance - a sort of cult of the commander. Since local commanders were in charge of paying the troops, they had control over local groups of the Roman army. They could, and did, dominate centers of production useful to the army. For the soldiers themselves, the clearest and nearest provider was the local commander. A capable and generous man was able to provide his troops with more than they needed, and the troops profited. This encouraged loyalty to the commander, and so the local troops would fight for whatever it was that the commander might fight for.

Military and Economic Challenges in the 3rd Century CE

In short, the barbarianization of the Roman army had the effect of transferring loyalty of the army from the empire to the commanders. This effectively meant the fragmentation of the army - decreasing its cohesive fighting ability, and increasing the likelihood, as eventually happened during the time of the "barracks emperors" that commanders would use their troops to press their personal claims to power. This atomization and alienation of the Roman army was accompanied by an increase in border problems as the empire grew older. A good example is the rise of the Sassanid empire in what is now Iran, during which the old Persian empire, with its territories in Mesopotamia, part of Anatolia, and what is now Iran and Afghanistan, was revived in nearly full glory. The Sassanids put serious pressure on the Eastern Roman border by 224 CE. Also in the 220's and 230's CE, the Goths, a nomadic tribe of warriors, began to over-run the Danube, breaking into the Eastern Roman empire from the North. Further turmoil in the Central Asian steppes continued to put pressure on the Goths and the Visigoths near the Danube, and to force Germanic barbarian tribes up against Roman borders on the Rhine in the same period. Without enough troops to hold a solid line everywhere, the Romans tried to transfer armies around the empire to reinforce areas in need, but were unable to keep up with the growing pressure, and eventually the barbarians began to find holes in the Roman defenses.

In response to this, Severus, and later emperors including Diocletian (r. 284-286) and Constantine (r.307-337CE), had to take drastic measures. Septimius Severus found that to maintain an effective fighting force on the frontier, he had to increase military pay - literally to double it. This increase brought military expenditures to 25% of the total imperial outlays every year. With no credit systems in place in the Roman economy, this pay had to be taken directly from the annual tax income of the imperial administration. There was thus no money left for extra public works, or for great buildings, infrastructure, administrative costs, etc. It was necessary to take funds from other areas of government to fulfill the military need.

Ancient Economics

Part of the problem here stems from the fact that the Roman economy was essentially a zero-sum game. Wealth was created primarily through agricultural production, which was the largest source of tax income, as well as the source for raw materials for manufacturing. This meant that the economy was limited by space (how much can be grown on the land in a particular year), and by human and animal energy. Since technology did not increase agricultural production, or the manufacture of goods from agricultural produce, by any very great degree on a year-on-year basis, the productive capacity of the Roman economy was relatively static for at least two centuries, except when it dropped due to poor weather conditions or locust swarms.

This means that any increase in prices, on one side, or in wages on the other, would have had a devastating effect on the economy as a whole - since no new wealth was being created, any change in the balance of income and payments had to take something away from some other part of the economy. The increase in military wages thus took away from several parts of the economy. The emperor even sold furniture from his palaces in order to help defray the cost of paying the new higher wages, and demanded that the wealthy patrician households. In addition, the wealthy in the empire were pressed into military and government service without pay in order to minimize costs. By the time the Goths had begun their invasions, this system was already slowing down the empire, taking valuable capital out of the investment pool to pay for the army, who were as likely as not to spend their new wages on less productive entertainment industries, or save, thus, in a static economy, keeping the money out of circulation and further limiting the money supply. The Gothic invasions, had, therefore, a major impact. As the Goths burned fields, farms, and villages, and stole valuable property from the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, they were taking further from this limited economic pool. This made recovery very difficult, because a smaller amount of wealth had to be used to rebuild Rome's empireafter each invasion. The emperors of Rome solved theis problem in several different ways.

Emperor Diocletian (r.284-286 CE)

Diocletian (r.284-286CE), aware that he himself was neither a brilliant general, nor able to give his attention to all problems and areas of the empire at once, divided the empire in four administrative zones, creating a "tetrarchy" - government by four emperors. In Diocletian's plan, the empire was to have two emperors with the title Augustus, one of whom would be senior to the other, but not superior, and each Augustus would govern one half of the empire. They were to be assisted by two "caesars" each a subordinate to an emperor, but also emperor in his own right over one quarter of the Roman Empire. This would, Diocletian hoped, have the effect of allowing emperors to pay closer attention to problems, and also provide for a smoother transition between emperors - avoiding assassinations, succession fights, etc., that had caused the "barracks emperors" to leave their posts unguarded, allowing the Goths to pour across the borders. Diocletian's hopes were dashed, however, when, upon his death, five claimants to the throne fought over the empire. Eventually, Constantine (r.307-337CE) won, and re-unified the empire under himself as a single emperor. He did, however, maintain Diocletian's administrative divisions, with the hope that specified responsibilities and powers in a descending order of ever-smaller administrative territories would create an organization that made it difficult for anyone to gain enough power to challenge the emperor.

Emperor Constantine (224-337 CE)

Constantine continued to face the economic difficulties caused by the attacks of the Goths, and now by Germanic barbarians on the Rhine. In response to these challenges, Constantine began the process of freezing occupations. This was done to prevent people from running away from their responsibilities - as many had been doing under the increasingly onerous taxes imposed by Rome. Artisans, farmers, even administrative officials, faced with what appeared to be insurmountable economic difficulties, often would attempt to escape the empire altogether. Part of the problem of course, was the scarcity of wealth. This made it difficult even to buy food. Constantine thus froze wages and prices in an attempt to control the economy. This failed miserably, even though the penalty for overcharging was death. Constantine, as Diocletian had done before him, also inflated the Roman currency in an attempt to make it go farther. This was an artificial solution that had little effect other than the inflation of prices, however, and problems continued. Economic problems, and the problems of defense, had a drastic effect on Roman society and politics as well. With the increase in the in the pay of the army came a decrease in the wealth and power of the Senate and traditional Roman elites. Increasingly as bankruptcy, careers as frontier military commanders far from the center of power, and lack of imperial or legal support for their positions, senators and began to lose their right to serve in the Senate. When this occurred, the military began to fill in the power vacuum by providing new, and newly wealthy men, from the barbarianized army to fill the empty Senate seats. With more money thanks to higher pay, and with soldiers often loyal directly to them, these military men were able to gain important positions in the government.

The Dawn of the Middle Ages

By 401CE, just as Pope Innocent I was becoming the first Roman Catholic Pope to claim universal jurisdiction over all Christians in spiritual matters, the emperor called armies back from the lines of defense at the borders to form imperia guards. Towns, including Rome, were given defensive walls. To make defense easier, many of these towns shrank in size. Peasants and artisans would go to the governors of towns or walled manors to find refuge in the event of an invasion. These people were granted refuge, but mostly only in return for a promise of work performed for those who controlled the defense. Often, these peasants were bound to the land they worked, and the land became the property of the manor or town governor. These governors might use their wealth to buy barbarian mercenaries to fight the invading barbarians, or to create their own local armies. As invasions continued to focus on cities - centers of wealth and power - the wealthy began to move further and further out into the countryside where they could avoid barbarian pillaging, and where they could build fortified manors for defense not against barbarian raiders, but against the Roman tax collectors. They also bonded local peasants, shopkeepers, and artisans who sought assistance in either avoiding taxes or escaping their frozen social status in exchange for work and a place to live. In this, then the shape of Medieval feudalism was already becoming visible in Roman Europe.

It is clear that due to the general suspicious nature of the times, communication with other centers of population came to be rare. Travel between towns and manors became dangerous, due to the possibility of meeting the tax collector or the invading hordes, or just independent bands of thieves who hid out in forests and made a living by stealing. Since these were not on any tax roles, and had, legally, home, they were legally outside the law - none specifically applied to them - and they came to be known as "outlaws". In many cases, as communication was cut off, and technology transfer limited, these manors and isolated towns moved to a more primitive way of living and governing, with local law and power taking more and more precedence over the law of Rome. In fact, in many cases, by the end of the 5t' century AD, the most important thing many still had in common was Christianity - the official religion of the Roman empire after about 388 AD. Rome itself became little more than a village. The Pope, however, remained there, and continued to care for the Western Roman empire in place of the Emperor, who was, after 320 or so, in Constantinople, and in little or no contact with the Western Empire. In 476 CE, Romulus Augsutus, the last Western Roman Emperor, abdicated his throne, and lost his head to a Lombard chieftain named Alaric. Through his role as protector and unifier the Pope's importance as the head of the European church grew, taking on much of the authority of the old Emperor, and giving the Pope a semblance of Kingship on Earth that would continue well into the Early Modern period of European history. To protect Rome, on at least one occasion, the Pope rode out to meet Lombards and others who were sacking Italy and negotiate with them the preservation of Rome and its citizens. As head of the city of Rome, and its new chief priest, he became not only head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also Pontifext Maximus: the chief guardian of the bridge over the Tiber. In the East, the Roman Empire, graced with powerful, and capable emperors and headquartered after Constantine at Constantinopolis, or Constantinople, would continue on for another millenium, mixing Roman concepts of law with Eastern art, religion, and mysticism, and Greek philosophy, language, and politics, to create a unique, and important, crossroads for world civilizations known as the Byzantine Empire.