The Roman Empire was the greatest hegemonic power in Europe for about 700 years. The Roman Empire was greater than any of its European rivals in terms of population, military strength, wealth, technological development, and economy, yet in 476 AD the Western Roman Empire fell. The fall of the half of the Empire that had the city that started it all has been a subject of historiographical discussion for years. I do not want to argue what I view is the fundamental reason or theme why the empire fell, but rather discuss about three events that occurred in the early life of the empire that reflected the weaknesses in the imperial system that made a fall possible.
The first event that showed the weaknesses of the imperial system was the Battle of The Teutoburg Forest. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest was devastating for the Roman Empire in ways that may not have been immediately apparent. The Roman Republic’s Empire, and later Roman Imperial Empire, were driven by the idea of Imperium Sine Fine, or an empire without limits. There was a burning drive in the hearts of all Romans with ambitious aspirations to push the physical boundaries of the Roman Empire. Rome’s history began with conflict, and conflict continued to be at the core of Rome’s existence. Thus success in battle proved to be the greatest source of legitimacy, and advancer of political ambitions.
War made Rome strong. Plunder taken from external threats meant more money in the Roman coffers. Success led to further success as plunder could be used to finance more powerful armies. Before the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, a battle occurred that made the later defeat in the Teutoburg Forest all the more devastating.
Crassus, who many believe was the wealthiest Roman ever, lived in a time that immediately preceded that formation of the imperial system. He lived in time where some of the most powerful figures in Rome’s history had been advancing the gradual push from a Republic to a dictatorship/imperial system. Crassus, Julius Caesar, and Pompey Magnus were heads of the Roman Triumvirate, a system that essentially divided the power of the Republic among the three men. All three were competing with each other to become the sole ruler of Rome. Julius Caesar had proven his worth by conquering Gaul, Pompey had a long and distinguished military career, and Crassus was known for his immense wealth and suppression of a slave revolt. Crassus wanted a great military victory that would enable him to surpass rivals Pompey and Caesar. Crassus decided to campaign against Rome’s most powerful enemy in the east, the Parthian Empire. The Parthian Empire covered an expanse that included much of the Middle East. Crassus suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Parthian forces and proved the difficulty of achieving Rome’s dreams of conquering the Middle East.
The Middle East proving to be too difficult an area to conquer, Rome turned northward to the land of Germania. Julius Caesar made the first incursions into Germania as part of his Gallic conquests. Romans knew little about the land but had encountered and thoroughly defeated peoples from Germania in the Cimbrian Wars. The lack of knowledge made Romans susceptible when fighting on the Germans home territory. Rome had been successfully campaigning deep into Germania until the disaster at the Teutoburg Forest. During the battle three entire legions were destroyed. The shame was such that the numbers of the three legions destroyed were never assigned again to any future legions. The disaster led to Augustus’s decision that the border of the empire should end with the Rhine River. This set the precedent for future emperors. Never was Germania seriously considered as a land that should or could be completely conquered by Rome. Instead, it became a land whose people were to be managed by Rome through trade and diplomacy.
The end of Roman expansion had a two dire consequences for the long term sustainability of the empire. First, the Roman Empire had relied on plunder from conquered lands to drive its economy. Conquering lands like Greece and Egypt made Rome very rich because looting the resources they provided to the empire proved to be extremely lucrative. Thus when conquest stopped, Roman economic expansion slowed and eventually stopped. The failure to grow the economy opened the door to destabilization on both the frontier and within the empire. Rome managed the barbarians sitting outside the empire in a variety of ways. It often paid off barbarian tribes to not attack, it paid rivals tribes to war with each other to blunt their capacity to war with Rome, and recruited mercenaries from barbarian lands. When Rome could not grow its economy due to the end of expanding the empire, the government needed to squeeze more resources out of its citizens rather than from subjugating peoples from outside the empire. As a result of lavish imperial spending and several civil wars, the economy shrunk overtime. Rome had less and less money to pay off the barbarian peoples just outside the empire. With payments drying up, the barbarians turned to raiding Roman territory to recoup the lost income. This had an adverse cyclical affect where Rome could not pay its barbarian adversaries due to economic and political weakness, barbarians would raid to their recoup losses, Rome would have to deal with the threat, commit resources to the frontier rather than stabilizing the center, eventually have to pay off the barbarians in some kind of settlement, and finance this by levying crushing taxes on the citizens of Rome thereby contracting the economy even further.
The second reason setting a limit to Roman conquests doomed the empire in the long run was that political advancement was intertwined with military success. Once expansion came to a halt, military greatness could no longer be achieved through conquering new lands, but rather by defeating political opponents within the empire. The reward of defeating political opponents in armed conflict civil wars proved to be very lucrative for commanders. Thus civil wars eventually became commonplace. Civil wars are often the most destructive wars for the state because all military and economic losses are internal.
This last point, that Civil Wars were unendingly corrosive, feeds into the second event that doomed the fate of the Empire in the long run. Historians divide the Roman emperors into different dynastic eras. The first dynastic era was the Julio-Claudian dynasty. This dynasty began with Augustus and ended four emperors later with Nero. Emperors from the Julio-Claudian line drew legitimacy from their familial relationship with the greatest of Roman heroes, Julius Caesar. Once Nero died, the Julio-Claudian dynasty had no other heirs who could ascend to the throne. A power vacuum formed. For the first time since the beginning of the Principate, the Roman Imperial system, there was no clear heir to the throne. A civil war broke out among the most ambitious generals of the empire. Prior to this point civil wars were uncommon. The last civil war had occurred nearly 100 years prior. Although the period leading up to the fall of the Roman Republic featured a few prominent civil wars, the wars of Sulla and Marius, and the wars of the two triumvirates, the majority of the roughly 750 years of Roman existence lacked civil conflict. Since no clear delineation of succession had ever been formalized in the imperial system, once the last Julio-Claudian died, the only real solution for selecting a new emperor was through civil war. Four generals heading legions that were stationed in different regions of the empire vied for power. Three different generals rose to the imperial throne, yet each general viewed themselves as legitimate and the others as illegitimate rulers of Rome. Ultimately the strongest won out. Eventually a general heading the eastern legions, Vespasian, came out victorious.
This civil war so disastrous because it set a corrosive precedent for selecting new emperors whenever a clear successor was left indeterminate or whenever a seated emperor was considered illegitimate. In both nadirs of imperial power, the Crisis of the Third Century, and the long collapse of the 5th Century, Civil wars ran rampant. Usurpers sprung up constantly resulting in near constant civil wars when the Romans should have been focusing on rebuilding their society or defending their frontiers from barbarian invasions. Barbarians at these points did not all of a sudden become immensely powerful enough to conquer the empire. Instead they took advantage of the empire when it was at its weakest. Since Rome had defeated all of its most serious enemies except for the Sassanid Empire in the East, Rome was only weakest after civil wars.
Barbarians did not have designs on conquering the empire as a whole, rather they sought prized Roman lands to settle in. Barbarians knew the Roman society to be superior to their own in many ways and hoped Rome would cede them land and officially recognize their peoples. Eventually the empire broke up not because of any one great invasion but because at moments of weakness, Rome had to cede away chunks of territory that were never permanently re-conquered and eventually were completely lost. The Western Roman Empire grew so weak, it essentially ceded away its entire empire.
The third event that doomed the Roman Empire was the assassination of Caligula. Caligula was a cruel, despotic emperor. His rule was so poisonous that the Praetorian Guards, the personal army of the emperor whose sole purpose was to unequivocally protect the emperor, decided they needed to kill Caligula for the greater good of the state, but also themselves. The thought of killing either of the two previous emperors Augustus and Tiberius was outside the realm of consideration for the Praetorian. Although Augustus was loved, Tiberius was widely hated by many, yet the Praetorian never killed him. Caligula took the excesses of imperial power and evil to new levels imbuing many with a burning desire to murder the emperor. The reason this murder is so important to the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire is that the murder of Caligula set the precedent that emperors could be overthrown, even ones who were viewed as legitimate at the time of the ascendance to the position.
Once one legitimate emperor could be killed, any emperor could be killed. Usurpers were thus enabled to become a common occurrence because the Emperor’s position was neither supreme nor guaranteed. In fact any emperors position could be untenable. The constant threat of being murdered or usurped was a Sword of Damocles that hung over the head of every emperor after Caligula. Thus weakness shown by an emperor anywhere could be instant cause for removal. Therefore the importance immediate suppression of usurpers, which led to many civil wars, was paramount. Often times emperors waited on defeating advancing barbarians in favor of suppressing a usurper.
Emperors needed to be strong and enrich those who protected them. Septimius Severus’s last words to his children were “be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all the rest.” The attitude of enriching the those who protected the emperor above all else created inefficiencies in the Roman economy and political dynamic. Rather than seeking to enrich the people, emperors sought to enrich those who could protect their authority. One resolution to this situation enacted by Diocletian in the late 3rd century was to push the emperor outside the realm of accessibility by withdrawing from everyday dealings to create a sense of godlike remoteness. By the time of Diocletian imperial affairs were dealt with by members of an extensive bureaucracy rather than the emperor directly. For strong emperors like Diocletian the adverse affects of such an arrangement were mitigated.
Unfortunately the remoteness of emperors only grew over time. By the time of the 5th century, the emperors were so far removed from society as a whole that they became reduced to figureheads. The real people who held power was the magistri militum (plural of magister militum), or the head general of all Roman forces. The problem fostered dependency by the emperors who needed the support of the magistri militum to protect their lives. As a result, emperors lost the power to hold sway over these generals. Often times the magistri militum were of some form of Germanic descent and their interests were not always completely in line with those of empire as a whole. Germans were able to rise to the rank of Magister Militum because the Roman military increasingly leaned on German mercenaries to supply their forces. Thus their leaders were often the best candidates for military promotions. The lack of pure Roman descent made the magistri militum position untenable as well. In the case of the Magister militum Stilicho his failure to annihilate the Visigoths was attributed to his supposed pro-Germanic sympathies stemming from his Vandal ancestry. Although evidence pointed to the contrary, the perception led to prominent Romans calling for his execution. In situations like these, magistri militum may not see combating invading barbarians as the main threat to their power but rather combating dissenting Senators or generals. Furthermore, no strong emperors to took the reigns and turn the tide against the barbarians or the increasing powers of the magistri militum. In addition the magistri militum could not exert absolute power in the way an emperor could and were thus restrained even in their best efforts to curb the tide of barbarian invasions.
The three events of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the civil wars after the death of Nero, and the murder of Caligula all represent facets of why the Western Roman Empire eventually fell. For all of its greatness, Roman hegemony eroded as a result of these three events. Thus it is important to note that the end of empire can be sewn before it even reaches its peak.