Sign up ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There were several crises in the “late” Roman Empire.

For once, the crisis of the Republic, which resulted in the creation of Principat and later Dominat. This crisis may be related to the fact that due to an end of territorial expansion, the constant stream of slaves ran dry. By then, slavery had by large replaced traditional farmers, who had been the backbone of the Roman army. This crisis resulted in a population drop from about 50 million to about 30 million. (source: Kautsky)

Then, there was the crisis of the third century which almost caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. Usurper states were formed in the West and the East. This crisis was eventually overcome, and both the Gallic Empire and the Empire of Palmyra were re-integrated in the Roman Empire, but in the Western half, this success did not last for long. By 500, the Western Empire had vanished, while the Eastern Empire remained intact for almost 1000 years.

Now there are several factors in which the Western and the Eastern Empires were different. I believe that in the Eastern empire, slavery never played a role as important as in the Western empire, i.e. there were no huge latifundia with hundreds of slaves, so the end of slavery did not mean that much of a catastrophy in the Eastern half.

Furthermore, the Eastern empire is often said to have been technologically further advanced, had more population and was richer, but I am not sure if or why this would be true.

What are your thoughts?

Edit I cannot help but wonder why most answers claim military circumstances as reason for the decline of the Western Empire. The Roman Empire constantly fought wars with its neighbors, which before never caused to major crises, and the most ferocious enemy, i.e. the Persians, were faced by the Eastern Empire, which did not collapse around 500. This wikipedia site lists several theories about the decline of the (Western?) Roman Empire, the vast majority of which do not boil down to military circumstances.

share|improve this question
Welcome to the site. An upvote to keep you going. – Tom Au Feb 23 '12 at 14:53
good question, hard to answer. – user202 Feb 23 '12 at 20:02
What do you mean under phrase "western roman empire collapsed"? There nothing special happened in the western half of the empire until 800. The most significant events being * A Gothic rebellion of 535, which lead to a Gothic war till 552 when the Goths were defeated by Justinian. * Conflict between the emperor Leo II and the pope Gregory II in 727 over iconoclasm * Invasion of Lombards of 771 who were defeated by 773. What of these events do you call a "collapse"? What really was disastrous is the usurpation of the power by Charlemagne in 800, but still I doubt this action can be called "coll – Anixx Feb 24 '12 at 9:30
Because it was not invasion, but rebellion. Formerly content Goths rebelled against the emperor. – Anixx Feb 24 '12 at 14:45
@Felix Goldberg I meant that the changes were evolutionary with no single abrupt change. What can be sait more or less significant changes though are the adoption of Christianity under Theodosius and adoption of Greek language as the official under Heracleus (beginning of the 7th century). – Anixx Dec 4 '12 at 19:50

9 Answers 9

The simple answer to this question is that Constantinople was a much more homogenous, ideologically motivated culture than Rome was at the time. Founded by Constantine, the city was intended to be Christian from the start and throughout most of its history it was ruled and populated by dedicated Christians who acted in a relatively directed and coordinated way.

Rome, on the hand, was a fractured society. There were plebs, patricians, foederati, slaves, refugees, Christians, pagans and all kinds of other factions constantly quarreling and fighting without leadership or consensus. The imperial faction of this melting pot eventually ended fleeing to Ravenna, a fortress, and setting up sort of a mini-Constantinople there. Rome completely fell apart after that.

share|improve this answer
Constantinople had all that, including Goth warlords with great power like Stilicho in that period. They just managed to live through the period of weakness when they purged the Gothic elements from the army because they could hide behind the walls of the city. The West could not do that. – Oldcat Mar 26 at 17:43

The Eastern empire kept more of its troops on the borders, while the Western empire kept more troops close to the Emperor. The East also developed diplomacy to a fine art, which was a bit lost on their Western counterparts, and so was able to survive without being the toughest nation out there by a good margin.

share|improve this answer
I downvoted because the first assertion requires reference and the second is essentially true but anachronistic, and thus grossly misleading. The Byzantine Empire did become a byword for diplomatic cunning, often in lieu of actual military strength, but this development came at a much later date. During the 4-5th century, which is the timeframe relevant to the question, there was no discernible difference in military or political technique between the two portions of the Empire. – Felix Goldberg Dec 4 '12 at 12:52
Still Eastern Roman Empire diplomacy mainly consisted of huge bribes. The west had seen an economical decline since the third century, both in trade and the population of their cities, so they would not have been able to practice the same kind of diplomacy. – Jeroen K Oct 17 '13 at 12:45
Upon rereading this two years later I think was too rash/harsh and hereby reverse my downvote. – Felix Goldberg Mar 24 at 11:36
I won't downvote, but most of this is factually untrue. During the decline phase post 400, the entire army (such as it was) was in the field, and the Emperor was behind the walls of Ravenna. Certainly Honorius tried cunning tricks versus Alaric in 410, but it looks bad when they don't work and someone pops open the gates of Rome for a sack. The main security for the East was geographical, and the walls of Constantinople. They could, and did, abandon Thrace entirely and huddle behind the walls, secure that nothing important would be lost. The West could not do that. – Oldcat Mar 24 at 22:20

The slavery hypothesis is weak - all parts of Rome used slaves heavily.

When Rome was a unified entity, it could use all its resources on a threatened frontier to restore the situation, wherever the problem was. This is one of the reasons that the recovery from the third century crisis was so rapid - once the issue with defecting armies and usurpers was solved by the Aurelian or the Tetrarchs, apparently huge issues like the threefold split of the Empire could be cleared up amazing quick.

When the Roman Empire was divided, the two halves were not identical. The East was richer, the East had more defensible frontiers. Often Constantinople's foreign policy was to hide and wait for the enemy without the walls to get tired and leave. For the west to do the same would give up Italy to with Alaric before the sack in 410.

The setting up of a capital city and second court in Constantinople after 395 weakened this unity. It became harder, and slower to convince the rival court to dispatch aid. The West had better troops at first (remember, the army routed at Adrianople was the Eastern Army). This advantage was eroded some when Theodosius defeated Arbogast at the Frigidus to re-unite the Empire in 394.

The West's problems after that soon became apparent. It had two huge and long river boundaries to defend, plus whatever armies turned away from the walls of Constantinople on them. These armies needed to be paid, and the cash poor Empire had to trade land to its mercenaries. This solved the immediate problem, but took more land out of the tax base and made future problems worse. The Invasions of the Vandals in 406 and the Revolt of the Goths put two major threats inside the Empire, and the pogrom against the Goths just made their army desert to the enemy.

This downward spiral was never fully arrested, and even the attempts at recovery in the 410s and 420s just led the remnants of the Vandals to invade and take Africa. This cut the heart out of the Western Empire and despite the several attempts to retake the province, partially bankrolled by the East, the loss could never be made good. When this hope was gone, the citizens of the provinces had to see that there was no hope of ejecting the various barbarian settlers, authorized or not and had to make terms with the powers resident there. Eventually, that happened in Italy itself in 476 and it was all over.

share|improve this answer
Hear hear, very good abalysis. – Felix Goldberg Mar 24 at 11:37

There are several answers to that question; various authors have favoured one or another, but it is probable that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was due to their combination.

From a geostrategic point of view, the stability of the Roman Empire was guaranteed by the legions: strong but not numerous forces, able to intervene in many places thanks to their high mobility. Legions were thus supported by strong logistics (supply chain) and infrastructure (the famous Roman road network). However, the West, being less populated than the East, had comparatively more boundaries to handle with less troops. Moreover, a big part of the Eastern Empire boundaries were shielded against invaders by geography (Black Sea, Caucasus mountains, Arabic desert...) and by the Persian Empire.

In the fourth century AD, due to increasing population, the "Barbarians" were seeking land to settle. From the point of view of a Visigoth, Rome is the Civilization, and room was to be found mostly in the Western part of the Empire. Indeed, all along the third and fourth century, there had been a constant stream of "germanic" newcomers who were willing to become part of Rome, and eager to obtain land, by charity or by force, whichever was necessary. What changed at Adrianople is that the immigrants became too numerous to content with henceforth unoccupied land, and they turned out to be too strong to be dealt with militarily. Adrianople is the symbolic pivot because in the aftermath of the battle, Rome had to evict Roman citizens to meet the demands for land of the invaders. This is the point where Rome failed to defend its own. This is the moment where people began to cease to believe in Rome.

Demographically speaking, the fall of Rome, or at least part of the Empire, was "unavoidable" (with all the usual caveats in these matters), since the population in the Empire was somewhat constant, while it was rapidly increasing in northern and eastern Europe. That the West half should fall first was "logical" because it was larger, less densely populated, less supported by its economy and infrastructure, and primarily targeted by invaders.

(Edward Luttwak's books are a very good reading on the strategic aspects of the Roman Empires, both before and after the split: The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire and The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.)

These considerations must not hide other facts:

  • From the third century onwards, a constant theme in the Roman Empire was regular usurpations. Most emperors got the job by being proclaimed by their enthusiastic legions; when such a general was given this "nice" present by his troops, he had little choice but to roll with it and try to defeat the other legions still loyal to the previous emperor. If he succeeded, then he knew that he would have to crush many similarly rebellious commanders. The Roman military forces were mostly employed to quell such unrest.

    In the late fourth century AD, it had become quite impossible for distant provinces to obtain any form of military help from Rome. This is the meaning of Rome's evacuation of Great Britain in 410 AD: as Honorius puts it, Britain's cities had to fend for themselves now. This was what they had already done for some time: legions were sent only to suppress rebellions. In that sense, the Western Empire can be said to have fallen by fighting itself to death.

  • Germanic people were increasingly part of the legions themselves. Rome was finding expedient to hire these newcomers, who were more easily expendable than Roman citizens. Great Germanic generals like Stilicho and Odoacer were really considering themselves as "Romans". From their point of view, they did not "invade" the Empire; they were the Empire.

  • It has been argued that a severe and long-standing economic crisis had made the Empire unsustainable. The roots of that crisis have been variously attributed to demographic stagnation, rarefaction of precious metals, disruption of long-distance commerce... even epidemics, introduction of rats and climatic changes have been invoked. In fact we don't really know; but we can see, for instance, that the population of Rome (the city) had been steadily decreasing, from a maximum of about 1.65 millions in around 100 AD, down to 1.1 millions in 400 AD, then sharply falling to 0.5 millions in 450 AD, then 100000 in 500 AD. Though the big drop is contemporaneous with the formal "fall of Western Empire" of 476 AD, the problem was apparently much older.

    Therefore, it may be so that Odoacer, once having grabbed the reins of power, was lucid enough to realize that the former model had outlived its usefulness, and had to be dropped. Such economy-related explanations may make sense only if we can explain why the East was able to pull through; since climate, agriculture and commercial networks in the East used different structures, this kind of explanation is possible.

  • Some authors have blamed Christianism, preventing proper assimilation of Gothic people because they are Arianists, due to an historical accident: Ulfilas converted them to Christianism just at a time when Arianism was still fashionable. Goths and Lombards have clung to their now heretic liturgy because it was in their own language. The intransigence of Catholic rulers would have triggered rebellions, then chaos and fall.

    This is too simplistic a story to be accurate. However, it highlights the fact that the society structure was changing. Indeed, the Germanic people were trying to become Roman, but not the same kind as the Romans already there; they still wanted to retain some of their identity. In very anachronistic terms, we might say that the new immigrants were not content with a central government, and were pushing for diluted federalism.

share|improve this answer

Lars Brownworth discusses the survival of the Eastern Empire and by tangent the fall of the West in "Twelve Byzantine Rulers" in Episode 5: Zeno. His book by the same name presumably discusses the same. The podcast discusses the general situation at the time of the various emperors essentially being puppets of barbarian generals and the like. The fall of the West wasn't some immediate thing.

The last emperor was deposed but it wasn't until later when no new Emperor was crowned that the empire "fell". It was more that was the end of direct Roman control over the remains of the Western Empire. The Eastern Empire avoided this fate by the work of Zeno who managed to throw off the barbarian yoke in the east and forged a solid state that proved durable enough to survive as a united thing.

Odoacer and later Theodoric both payed homage to the Emperors in the east but after Theodoric died, the later kings and chiefs in Italy didn't mint imperial coins or do otherwise to show any kind of fealty to Constantinople. This eventually prompted Justinian to invade Italy.

share|improve this answer
And what does it say? – o0'. Feb 28 '12 at 7:53
I added a synopsis. – World Engineer Feb 28 '12 at 14:07

I think too many people are focusing on the attacks of the Goths. Any care to share why they attacked? How they lived in Roman land and fought in Roman armies before they revolted? I would also say the split did CAUSE the fall of the Western half. Since the Eastern did have a higher population and better trade and took that with them in the split (i.e. more money from taxes and more troops to recruit). Clearly the Romans had little control of the western half of the empire when Rome was sacked in 410 AD. So I am asking how much the economy played a role in the collapse. I think it could be argued as one of the leading causes.

share|improve this answer
I'm not sure this answers the question. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 1 '14 at 0:11
I think this is a better answer than the ‘the western empire collapsed because it was conquered’ approach. – mzuba Jul 1 '14 at 8:04
It is hard to get in the crops when Alaric is sitting outside the walls eating them. There's your economic factor. – Oldcat Mar 26 at 17:41

Furthermore, the Eastern empire is often said to have been technologically further advanced, had more population and was richer, but I am not sure if or why this would be true.

That was indeed the case. Eastern Mediterranean ("Levant") in general had civilization superior to the western part of the Roman Empire (btw there was only one Roman Empire - what we call Western Roman Empire is the part of the Empire governed by the Emperor of the West). That started to turn around only around 1000 AD.

In my opinion, the key event for the fall of the West was Vandalic invasion of North Africa in 420s AD which took away critical economic resources from Romans. They were aware of that fact and there were several attempts to recapture Africa. All failed until the expedition of Belisarius in 530s AD.

share|improve this answer
@SevenSidedDie: Not at all. The Roman Empire had two emperors long before what we call the "division" of the Roman Empire. The Empire was never devided into two separate states and when the office of the Emperor of the West was abolished, the Emperor of the East remained the sole ruler of the Empire. – Nemanja Trifunovic Aug 25 '12 at 13:02
@SevenSidedDie: I suggest you read Chapter I of Bury's "History of the Later Roman Empire". Here it is online:*.html – Nemanja Trifunovic Aug 25 '12 at 16:42
"A few words may be said here about the unity of the Empire. From the reign of Diocletian to the last quarter of the fifth century,the Empire is repeatedly divided into two or more geographical sections—most frequently two, an Eastern and a Western—each governed by its own ruler. From A.D. 395 to A.D. 476, or rather 480, the division into two realms is practically continuous; each realm goes its own way,and the relations between them are sometimes even hostile. It has, naturally enough, proved an irresistible temptation to many modern writers to speak of them as if they were different Empires. – Nemanja Trifunovic Aug 25 '12 at 16:47
"To men of the fourth and fifth centuries such a mode of speech would have been unintelligible, and it is better to avoid it. To them there was and could be only one Roman Empire; and we should emphasise and not obscure this point of view. – Nemanja Trifunovic Aug 25 '12 at 16:48
"But it is not merely a question of constitutional theory. The unity was not only formally recognised; it was maintained in practical ways. In the first place, the Imperial colleagues issued their laws under their joint names, and general laws promulgated by either and transmitted for publication to the chancery of his associate were valid throughout the whole Empire.53 In the second place, on the death of either Emperor, the Imperial authority of the surviving colleague was constitutionally extended to the whole Empire until a successor was elected. – Nemanja Trifunovic Aug 25 '12 at 16:49

The biggest difference between the military threats of the Goths and the Huns compared to Persia was the migratory nature of the former versus the centralised (and thus spatially constrained) government of the latter.

Rome and Persia had sparred against each other in the mesopotamian region for centuries, but, though one or the other might gain ascendancy, they were unable to maintain their advantage beyond their centre of gravity.

In contrast, although germanic tribes had been fought off by the legions repeatedly over the centuries, when the Goths did finally break into the Empire, they brought their entire nation with them. It took just one sustained failure to deal a fatal blow to the Empire.

Note that one of the reasons for the continued ebb-and-flow of the balance of power between the Persians and the Romans was that the Persians were also having to hold off similar migratory opponents on their north-east border (not always successful, as illustrated by the Parthian rule between the two Persian empires).

In this sense, Persia acted as a buffer for the Eastern Roman Empire, leaving only a small part vulnerable, north of the Black Sea. A good reason for the quality of the defenses of Constantinople!

share|improve this answer
+1 Especially for noting that the Persian Empire faced similar threats. There was even some cooperation in guarding the Caspian passes at times. – Felix Goldberg Dec 7 '12 at 12:00
I disagree that it took one failure to disrupt the Empire. It took repeated blows from Goths, Huns, Vandals, Alans, Suebi, Franks, and Alimanni, and a number of civil wars over a 100 year span to wear out the Western Empire. – Oldcat Mar 26 at 17:38

In the "early" going, at least (fourth and fifth century A.D.), part of the differences in the fate of the Roman Empires had to do with the movements of the Goths and Huns.

"To make a long story short," the Huns chased the Goths out of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (e.g. HUNgary), and these people in turn migrated to, and took over the Italian peninsula and western Europe from the Western Romans. No such thing happened to the Eastern Romans (in modern day "Asia Minor,") and they were spared for almost a thousand years.

share|improve this answer
How does the military threat caused by the Goths or the Huns differ from the military threat caused by, say, the Persians? I would say that, with the Sassanids and the Parthians, the Eastern Roman Empire faced stronger enemies than the Western Roman Empire. Furthermore, in its glorious old days, the Roman Empire had no problems dealing with equally strong adversaries, such as the Carthagians. I’d say that without inner crisis, it is impossible to say why the Germanic tribes led to the collapse of the Western Empire. – mzuba Feb 24 '12 at 9:31
@mzuba: Rome, however, did have problems dealing with the Germanic tribes almost from their first encounter. More than one Germanic tribe (Goths, Vandals, Lombardi...) was able to seriously threaten Roman military authority. – sbi Feb 27 '12 at 15:36
So why didn't the Goths migrate into the Eastern Empire instead of the West? – Gaurav Feb 28 '12 at 6:36
@Gaurav: They actually did. In 378 they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Eastern army at the Battle of Adrianople. Nowever, later military, economic and political development saw them moving into the Western Empire and staying there. It's a long story that wikipedia covers in "Fall of the Western Roman Empire" (still work in progress, but the big picture is there and so many of the details). – Felix Goldberg Dec 4 '12 at 12:56

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.