How large a factor was the economy failing and Rome facing bankruptcy to their downfall when you compare it to the likes of political corruption and the rise of Christianity?

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    The answer is hotly contested and will be opinion based no matter how much evidence is introduced. The relative impact of various factors in the fall of the Roman Empire is one of the big questions of history. It is the Fermi Paradox of the past - a question which is endlessly fascinating for speculation, but which we'll never have enough question to transform speculation into education. – MCW Feb 20 '15 at 20:26
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    I think the barbarians had something to do with it. – Oldcat Feb 20 '15 at 20:26

Economy of the period is analysed in the book by Bryan Ward-Perkins, Fall of Rome and the end of civilization (Oxford UP, 2006).The author gives abundant evidence that the fall of the empire was accompanied by a collapse of economy, material production and infrastructure in general. The evidence is based on contemporary accounts and archeological data.

However it is not completely clear whether the collapse of the economy was the reason or a consequence of the fall of the empire. My impression from the evidence presented in this book is that it was rather a consequence. The reason for destruction of economy was apparently collapse of administration, as a result of civil wars and invasions.

EDIT. Another recent book on the subject, Adrian Goldsworthy, The fall of the West. The death of the Roman superpower, (US title: How the Rome Fell), 2009 attibutes the fall of the empire to the constant internal struggle for power. It was so intense that the emperors cared more about their own survival than for the survival of the empire. The result was invasion of the tribes, which in turn led to the collapse of the central government and of the economy.


There is no consensus among historians as to what exact reasons lead to the downfall of the Roman Empire. There are varying different theories on this matter, but at least Edward Gibbon in his 1776 book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, gives a well-researched and more importantly, well-referenced account. According to him, barbarians from the outside were majorly responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire:

Significant events include the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the death of Theodosius I in 395 (the last time the Roman Empire was politically unified), the crossing of the Rhine in 406 by Germanic tribes, the execution of Stilicho in 408, the sack of Rome in 410, the death of Constantius III in 421, the death of Aetius in 454, and the second sack of Rome in 455, with the death of Majorian in 461 marking the end of the last opportunity for recovery.

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    This is rather too summary a verdict - why exactly were the barbarian incursions so devastating in the 5th century? Recall that Rome took many blows (from barbarians and even more self-inflicted) in the 3rd century yet survived that crisis very much intact. The barbarian invasions/sacks/etc brought down (Western..) Rome because they contracted the tax base which limited sharply the ability of the government to raise Roman troops which then brought along more incursions - vicious cycle. So the economy is a major factor, once you take a careful stock of the situation. – Felix Goldberg Feb 23 '15 at 13:30
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    I think the major blow to the economy of the West was the removal of the East by the de-facto separation starting in the 400s. Many times, the resources of the East financed the armies of the West to restore the entire empire. In the 400s, the East more often looked to itself. The West, poorer from the start and without reserves, could not rob Peter to pay Paul enough to avoid the fatal death spiral. If all the resources of the East could have been wielded by the Master of the West...it might have been different. – Oldcat Feb 24 '15 at 2:27

Economics were better than ever. Both the Imperial Romans and their successors, the Byzantines, were very wealthy. Unfortunately for them, it takes more than wealth to keep an empire together.

The thing to remember is that by 450 Rome did not really exist anymore in its original sense. All of the old families were gone or dispersed. There were no Cornelii, no Julii, no Scipii, all the old gens were gone. The city was full of Greeks, Africans, Germans and Judaeans. Nobody was even Latin anymore. The original Latins were a very serious, austere, strict people. The Romans of the 5th century were all on public welfare and wasted their time going to games, theaters and prostitutes. The army was a joke, mostly populated with foreign mercenaries. There were all sorts of wierd religious cults like the cult of Mithras. Economic activity wasn't the problem; the problem was that Rome was not a coherent group of noble people any more.

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    economics != wealth, although it pains me to say so. You can be incredibly vastly wealthy, but if you continue to debase the coinage and invent bizarre non-convertible currencies, you don't have an economy, you have a hot mess. – MCW Feb 20 '15 at 20:27
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    Sorry, -1. This explanation is completely wrong. First and foremost, it fails the Eastern Survival Test: the Eastern Empire was just as ethnically diverse than the Western (even a bit more so, actually) but yet it did not fall and continued strong. And there are more problems with your argument: the Cornelii etc were all gone already by 100 CE or so (more like by 69 CE). And there was nothing very bad for the empire about that - a continuous rejuvenation of elites is not a bad thing for the survival of a state, it's a good one. The new senators from Gaul in the 1-2 centuries were – Felix Goldberg Feb 21 '15 at 1:52
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    just as good Romans as your Cornelii of old. And the Pannonian military emeperors of the late 3rd century (from Valerian to Dicoletian) who restored and reassembeled the empire as best as they knew were pretty good Romans too. And come to think of it, what are exactly "the original Latins"? Do you count only the guys who allegedly built Rome in 753 BCE with Romulus & Remus or also their half-Sabine children? And what about Samnites and Etruscans who were conquered and integrated into the Roman elite? Or the other peoples of Roman Italy? "Originality" is actually quite an arbitrary label. – Felix Goldberg Feb 21 '15 at 1:55

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