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Background: The Fall of Rome

The Roman Empire collapsed as a political entity in several stages during the 5th, 6th, and 7th century CE. Specifically, these are:

  • the crossing of the Rhine by the Germanic tribes that could not be repelled in 406
  • the abandonment of Britania shortly after 410 CE
  • the collapse of the defense of the Empire in Italy against Alaric's band of warriors (that would later form the Visigoths) and the subsequent sack of Rome in 410 CE
  • the takeover of various parts of the Western section of the empire by the Visigoths (Western Gaul and Iberia 413), the Vandals (Iberia 409, Nort Africa 429), the Suebi (Iberia 409), the Burgundians (Eastern Gaul 411), the Ostrogoths (Italy 489) and the consequent loss of territorial cohesion of the Western part of the empire.
  • the takeover of the Italian heart of the empire by Germanic mercenaries (gradually from the incident in 410, formally in 476, when the last Western Roman emperor was deposed(*)). Notably, the Eastern Roman emperor nominally stull retained suzeranity over the entire Empire. There were also still remnant provinces (e.g. Soissons and Mauretania) deep inside Western Roman territory that were still governed by Roman officials, though they were probably not in contact with the Roman emperor (the remaining Eastern Roman one).
  • the destruction of the Roman navy by the Vandals (notably the Eastern Roman one in the Battle of Cap Bon in 468, but they did, of course, also destroy the Western Roman fleet)
  • the inability of Justinian's the Eastern Roman army to secure the reconquered Italy (535-572). Given that this was the symbolic and historic heart of the Empire as well as the seat of the pope, this is kind of a big deal.
  • the collapse of the defense of the Empire in the East and the occupation of Egypt by Khosrow II in 618
  • the utter inability of the resist the attack of the caliphate in the 7th century in Northern Africa, the Levante, and, subsequently, the Mediterranean islands (Egypt being taken by an army that was only 4000 strong)
  • the loss of the Roman political institutions (The consulship being allowed to lapse in the early 500s. Other republican and military titles (dux, judex, Caesar, comes, etc. etc.) transformed into feudal nobility titles. The institution of the emperor transformed from a (nominal) princeps of the republic in the tradition of Caesar and Augustus to that of a god-given kingdom (and actually styled himself βασιλεύς, king, not imperator or αὐτοκράτωρ as before).
  • the demise of the Roman civil administration, especially in Italy due to years of chaos in the early Langobard era, and elsewhere.
  • the collapse of the economy, the infrastructure, the population, urban areas (the city of Rome's population declined from a million to a few thousands), etc. (For more data than in the wikipedia pages, see Ward-Perkins' 2006 book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization)
  • the end of the Pax Romana

Some of these events were more symbolic and though politically relevant had little bearing on the lives of ordinary people. However, the collapse of the economy, the infrastructure, the decline of the population, etc. must have been felt and must have had terrible consequences for everyone. This is documented to some detail in Ward-Perkins' 2006 book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

Question: What did the Romans think about this?

Although the process, stretching across more than 2 centuries, was slow, it must have been evident to most contemporaries. So: What did they think about this? To what extent did they anticipate this? Do we have sources attesting to that? (Note that these questions are so closely interconnected that it does not make sense to open seperate questions here on history.SE.)

What I found so far

Unfortunately, I found very little about this so far. One example is apparently Paulus Orosius writing about the sack of Rome in 410 as described by Ward-Perkins (2006 book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization):

The Christian apologist Orosius, for instance, wrote a History against the Pagans in 417-418, in which he set himself the unenviable task of proving that, despite the disasters of the early fifth century, the pagan past had actually been worse than the troubled Christian present. In describing the Gothic sack of Rome in 410, Orosius did not wholly deny its unpleasantness (which he attributed to the wrath of God on Rome’s sinful inhabitants). But he also dwelt at length on the respect shown by the Goths for the Christian shrines and saints of the city; and he claimed that the events of 410 were not as bad as two disasters that had occurred during pagan times—the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC, and the burning and despoiling of the city under the Nero.

Ward-Perkins is not actually primarily interested in how Romans perceived their impending decline, but in showing that the fall of the empire was actually bad in economic terms, accompanied by a collapse of wealth, of population size, and of the technology level.

Orosius' own account (History against the Pagans, book VII.39 and following) takes the attitude to propose that everything is not as bad as it looks and that whatever bad things occur do so as the instrument of the just and understandable wrath of god. In his own words:

For how does it harm a Christian who is longing for eternal life to be withdrawn from this world at any time or by any means? On the other hand, what gain is it to a pagan who, though living among Christians, is hardened against faith, if he drag out his days a little longer, since he whose conversion is hopeless is destined at last to die? (Orosius, History against the Pagans, book VII.41)

And:

In view of these things I am ready to allow Christian times to be blamed as much as you please, if you can only point to any equally fortunate period from the foundation of the world to the present day. My description, I think, has shown not more by words than by my guiding finger, that countless wars have been stilled, many usurpers destroyed, and the most savage tribes checked, confined, incorporated, or annihilated with little bloodshed, no real struggle, and almost without loss. It remains for our detractors to repent of their endeavors, to blush on seeing the truth, and to believe, to fear, to love, and to follow the one true God, Who can do all things and all of Whose acts (even those that they have thought evil) they have found to be good (Orosius, History against the Pagans, book VII.43).

In the second quote, Orosius ominously insinuates that one might think that all this misfortune is happening in response to the recent conversion to Christianity. The empire had gradually become a Christian state over the century leading up to the sack of the city. He does not mention or cite anyone who acutally made that argument, but his addressing it might indicate that there are writers that do. Or alternatively, that it was at least conceivable to ancient Romans of that time (and a good bit more logical than his own interpretation). It also indicates that he was aware of a decline of civilization of some sort unfolding around him, although he was determined to ignore and deny it.

(*) Kind of. The previously deposed Western Roman emperor Julius Nepos was stil around until 480.

  • 3
    You probably need to tweak a little to head off argumentation along the lines of "the Roman empire didn't fall until 1453 because the Byzantines regarded themselves as 'the Roman Empire'". – Spencer May 9 at 22:52
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    I would guess that people at all times anticipate the downfall of their civilization. After Cannae, plenty of Romans probably thought that their chapter of history was coming to a close. But it would be interesting to find ancient texts that were both historically pessimistic and popular enough to survive. – antlersoft May 9 at 23:29
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    Rome wasn't burned in a day – KorvinStarmast May 10 at 2:33
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    This question is well expressed. Solid background, good discussion of research, Kudo's and +1 – Mark C. Wallace May 12 at 0:30
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    Consider reading books by Zosimus, who lived during the time of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (but in the East). He documents the events (up to 410) quite well; its clear from his writings that he found all what was happening very distressing (see especially book 5). Links to books 1-6 are available here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zosimus – Moishe Kohan May 12 at 2:10
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+200

The literary evidence for Romans anticipating the fall of Rome would seem to be very limited and, at most, indirect. There are, though, references to potential future threats to the empire, but also - among Christian writers - the belief that Rome's future was in God's hands.

The contemporary accounts we have tended to focus on the past and / or the times in which the writer lived. This meant not infrequent references to 'better times' in the past and the reasons why Rome had declined up to the time they were writing their accounts. This recognition of decline, though, did not necessarily mean they felt it was inevitable that it would continue. Writers were aware, after all, that Rome had faced many challenges before and survived.

Not all writers acknowledged that there had been a decline, though, while others observed a decline in some respects but not in others.


Jill Harries, in Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome, A.D. 407–485, writes that:

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the Roman Empire in the West collapsed without a sound in the fifth century, but that nobody understood that the catastrophe had occurred before Byzantine chroniclers woke up belatedly to the fact in the sixth century.

The aforementioned Sidonius Apollinaris (died 489 AD) was a poet, diplomat and bishop who, despite being,

a witness to the death-struggle of Roman Gaul

Source: Neil McLynn in a review of J. Harries, 'Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome, A.D. 407–485', Journal of Roman Studies

was, according to Harries, nonetheless

clinging to the artificially inflated expectations of the Theodosian age

Cited by McLynn

One writer who perhaps alludes to troubled times ahead for the empire is Ammianus Marcellinus (died 391 AD or later), a soldier and historian who wrote about the period 353 to 378 AD. On the one hand, he asserts that:

Those who are unacquainted with ancient records say that the state was never before overspread by such a dark cloud of misfortune, but they are deceived by the horror of the recent ills which have overwhelmed them. For if they study earlier times or those which have recently passed, these will show that such dire disturbances have often happened.

On the other hand, with reference to 'barbarian' incursions in earlier times (160s AD), an element of pessimism creeps in:

after calamitous losses the state was presently restored to its former condition, because the temperance of old times was not yet infected by the effeminacy of a more licentious mode of life, and did not crave extravagant feasts or shameful gains...

Although it is debatable as to how much one can read into this, G. Sabbah in Chapter Two: Ammianus Marcellinus of Greek and Roman Historiography in Late Antiquity (G. Marasco, ed) writes:

Ammianus’ work is a world that embraces his personal life as well as the history and spirit of his times. Painted in black and white in order to contrast good and evil, justice and violence, this world is dominated by long-recognized obsessions: the anguish of the present and anxiety about the future, the haunting omnipresence of death and the passion for justice.

Ammianus' reference in the first citation of Rome overcoming reverses in the past is echoed by the 5th century AD poet Rutilius Claudius Namatianus. For example, Rutilius writes:

Amidst failure it is thy way to hope for prosperity.... after many disasters, though defeated, thou didst put Pyrrhus to flight; Hannibal himself was the mourner of his own successes....Spread forth the laws that are to last throughout the ages of Rome...The span which doth remain is subject to no bounds, so long as earth shall stand firm and heaven uphold the stars!

Recordings of Roman disasters by 4th and 5th century writers such as the anonymous author of Epitome de Caesaribus (previously attributed to Aurelius Victor) and Zosimus in Historia Nova seem to be expressed with feelings of despair, yet are followed by passages which relate that, within a few years, almost all was well again. An example of this can be found in sections on the Battle of Mursa Major in 351 AD when Constantius II defeated the usurper Magnentius, but with enormous casualities on both sides. Zosimus writes:

Constantius, considering that as this was a civil war victory itself would be scarcely an advantage to him, now the Romans being so much weakened, as to be totally unable to resist the barbarians who attacked them on every side

while the Epitome de Caesaribus relates:

In this battle, hardly anywhere was Roman might more fully consumed and the fortune of the whole empire dashed.

Yet the latter source soon after says "the frontier of Roman property was restored" while Zosimus, on the Battle of Argentoratum in 357 AD writes that

engaging with the enemy gained such a victory as exceeds all description. It is said that sixty thousand men were killed on the spot, besides as many more that were driven into the river and drowned. In a word, if this victory be compared to that of Alexander over Darius, it will be found in no respects inferior to it.

Even the poet Paulinus of Pella (died 461 or later), after the loss of his property in Gaul to duplictous Visigoths and Romans, retained an optimistic outlook in his Eucharisticus. True, he had wanted to leave Gaul for Greece, but this was due to his personal situation and he makes no comment on the future of Rome.

Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, writing in the late 4th or early 5th century AD, very clearly recognizes a decline in the Roman military in De re militari but his work is a plea for reform, not an acceptance that the empire's decline is irreversible.

Christian writers, unsurprisingly, look at Rome from a divine perspective and do not necessarily perceive a decline. Rufinus (344/345 to 411), for example,

Carefully selected and framed his topics to demonstrate his belief that history provides evidence of the working of God in time, and that history has a progressive, if fitful, movement toward the fulfillment of a divine plan.

Source: David Rohrbacher, 'The Historians of Late Antiquity'

Sozomen (died about 450 AD) adopts a similar interpretation to Rufinus, that

imperial stability depends solely upon the emperor’s continuing devotion to God.

Source: Rohrbacher

Orosius (died after 418 AD) saw Rome as "divinely inspired" and wrote that

I discovered that past times were not only equally as grave as those of today, but that they were even more terrible in accordance with how much more distant they were from the assistance of the true religion.

Cited in: Rohrbacher

Far from anticipating the fall of Rome,

Orosius and Olympiodorus, different in so many ways, both envisioned a more peaceful future with Gothic forces allied with yet subservient to Roman power.

Source: Rohrbacher


In earlier times, some emperors were concerned about the fortunes of the empire under their successors (for example, Marcus Aurelius on his successor Commodus), but this did not lead them to anticipate the fall of the empire. Nor did Tacitus (died about 120 AD), although he did forsee Germany

as the source of the greatest future hazards.

and was generally critical of the principate, observing that

They said that the world had been well-nigh overturned, even when the principate was the prize of honest men

Also,

he considered the principate a dangerous enticement to immorality and vice.

Although Tacitus

is sharply critical of the emperors’ excesses and fearful for the future of Imperial Rome, while also filled with a longing for its past glories.

Annals III.55 and his comments on Nerva and Trajan show that he

remained hopeful for human nature if it was given the right chances.

Going back even further, Polybius (died about 125 BC) made some general statements to the effect that all nations decay (see here and here), but this was - of course - long before the empire even came into existence.

Potentially one reason for a lack of literary accounts on fears for future is that the vast majority of the people who were affected by "the collapse of the economy" never recorded their thoughts, while "the decline of the population" would not necessarily have been seen as a bad thing by the inhabitants of a very overcrowded and polluted Rome with its frequent outbreaks of plague and streets so congested that daytime traffic was banned until the 4th century AD.

4

I very much doubt you can find evidence of anybody expecting the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman empire did survive and had a number of historians who documented the events which happened between 375 and, say, 600. Two of most prominent ones are Zosimus and Procopius. As you can imagine, they were rather horrified by what was happening. Here is Procopius (in Secret Hisory):

Italy, which is not less than thrice as large as Libya, was everywhere desolated of men, even worse than the other country; and from this the count of those who perished there may be imagined. The reason for what happened in Italy I have already made plain. All of his crimes in Libya were repeated here; sending his auditors to Italy, he soon upset and ruined everything.

The rule of the Goths, before this war, had extended from the land of the Gauls to the boundaries of Dacia, where the city of Sirmium is. The Germans held Cisalpine Gaul and most of the land of the Venetians, when the Roman army arrived in Italy. Sirmium and the neighboring country was in the hands of the Gepidae. All of these he utterly depopulated. For those who did not die in battle perished of disease and famine, which as usual followed in the train of war. Illyria and all of Thrace, that is, from the Ionian Gulf to the suburbs of Constantinople, including Greece and the Chersonese, were overrun by the Huns, Slavs and Antes, almost every year, from the time when Justinian took over the Roman Empire; and intolerable things they did to the inhabitants. For in each of these incursions, I should say, more than two hundred thousand Romans were slain or enslaved, so that all this country became a desert like that of Scythia.

Such were the results of the wars in Libya and in Europe. Meanwhile the Saracens were continuously making inroads on the Romans of the East, from the land of Egypt to the boundaries of Persia; and so completely did their work, that in all this country few were left, and it will never be possible, I fear, to find out how many thus perished. Also the Persians under Chosroes three times invaded the rest of this Roman territory, sacked the cities, and either killing or carrying away the men they captured in the cities and country, emptied the land of inhabitants every time they invaded it. From the time when they invaded Colchis, ruin has befallen themselves and the Lazi and the Romans.

Here is Procopius in History of Wars, III:

Afterwards Gizeric devised the following scheme. He tore down the walls of all the cities in Libya except Carthage, so that neither the Libyans themselves, espousing the cause of the Romans, might have a strong base from which to begin a rebellion, nor those sent by the emperor have any ground for hoping to capture a city and by establishing a garrison in it to make trouble for the Vandals. Now at that time it seemed that he had counselled well and had ensured prosperity for the Vandals in the safest possible manner; but in later times when these cities, being without walls, were captured by Belisarius all the more easily and with less exertion, Gizeric was then condemned to suffer much ridicule, and that which for the time he considered wise counsel turned out for him to be folly. For as fortunes change, men are always accustomed to change with them their judgments regarding what has been planned in the past. And among the Libyans all who happened to be men of note and conspicuous for their wealth he handed over as slaves, together with their estates and all their money, to his sons Honoric and Genzon. For Theodorus, the youngest son, had died already, being altogether without offspring, either male or female. And he robbed the rest of the Libyans of their estates, which were both very numerous and excellent, and distributed them among the nation of the Vandals, and as a result of this these lands have been called "Vandals' estates" up to the present time. And it fell to the lot of those who had formerly possessed these lands to be in extreme poverty and to be at the same time free men; and they had the privilege of going away wheresoever they wished. And Gizeric commanded that all the lands which he had given over to his sons and to the other Vandals should not be subject to any kind of taxation. But as much of the land as did not seem to him good he allowed to remain in the hands of the former owners, but assessed so large a sum to be paid on this land for taxes to the government that nothing whatever remained to those who retained their farms. And many of them were constantly being sent into exile or killed. For charges were brought against them of many sorts, and heavy ones too; but one charge seemed to be the greatest of all, that a man, having money of his own, was hiding it. Thus the Libyans were visited with every form of misfortune.

And here is Zosimus (in Book V of Hisoria Nova) writing about Alaric's invasion (about 100 years after the fact):

Alaric on this marched out of Thrace into Macedon and Thessaly, committing the greatest devastations on his way. Upon approaching Thermopylae, he privately sent messengers to Antiochus the proconsul, and to Gerontius the governor of the garrison at Thermopylae, to inform them of his approach. This news was no sooner communicated to Gerontius than he and the garrison retired and left the Barbarians a free passage into Greece. Upon arriving there, they immediately began to pillage the country and to sack all the towns, killing all the men, both young and old, and carrying off the women and children, together with the money. In this incursion, all Boeotia, and whatever countries of Greece the Barbarians passed through after their entrance at Thermopylae, were so ravaged, that the traces are visible to the present day.

-3

Who are these Romans you are talking about ?

When we talk about final years of (Western) Roman Empire, first thing we need to know is that population from that period greatly differed from Cives Romani during the Republic, or even their Latini neighbors. In fact, most of late Roman emperors would not be considered as Romans just few hundred years before. For example, Constantine The Great had Greek mother, he was not born in Italia and even origins of his father were suspicious.

During its final years, Roman Empire was territorially very large, but as multi-ethnic state very weak with little cohesion by different parts except military might and in some cases inertia of population. And even that military might was failing - Roman army was no longer citizen army fighting due to sense of duty and honor (like for example in Punic Wars). Instead, it was purely mercenary organization, sometimes falling so low to bribe and hire barbarian tribes instead of training their own soldiers.

Most of the population in bordering provinces like Britania or Germania did not have Roman citizenship, they were simply subjects of Rome, more or less unwilling. When central rule started to collapse and new barbarian warlords appeared, they simply switched their allegiance. Of course, in some cases new rulers were in fact former Roman officials which retained some parts of Roman civilization, which made transition from Roman to non-Roman rule smoother and easier.

On the other hand, population in central provinces (especially Italia ) had gotten used to political instability, change or regimes, and occasional military campaigns and looting by various barbarian mercenaries. It was a gradual process, but, as mentioned before, by the time it happened most of the population in Italia did not have Roman or even Latin ethnic background, and they were not particularly motivated to defend failing state. They were simply waiting to see who would end up strongest in the end.

Finally, we have provinces of Eastern Empire which gradually become Byzantine Empire. Although nominally Roman till the end, this part of empire had predominant Greek element, with Greek language (with associated rich culture and literature) simply replacing Latin as spoken and official language. With Greek ethnicity in the core of this new state, and Constantinople as new capitol, Rome was gradually "out of sight, out of mind". Byzantine Empire did occasionally hold parts of Italia, and even Rome itself, but real center was elsewhere - subjects of Byzantine Empire didn't share much with ancient Rome except the name.

Fall of the Roman Empire and Roman civilization was in fact caused by lack of people willing to defend it . In late 4th century when terminal crisis started, there were no more ancient Romans willing to pro patria mori. Romans died before the Rome, which is a pattern commonly recurring at the end of each great empire.

  • 3
    Lots of generalizations - but little evidence provided to justify them. – Pieter Geerkens May 10 at 1:38
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    This answer is not correct. After the edict of Caracalla all free men in the empire, (including people in places like Britannia) were citizens. You appear to be putting an emphasis on ethnic roman-ness that would have been alien to the Romans themselves. It's hard to buy that places like France and Spain weren't "really Roman" when their decedents speak languages derived from Latin. – Gort the Robot May 10 at 3:23
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    Which are those "final years"? Because "was territorially very large, but as multi-ethnic state very weak with little cohesion by different parts except military might and in some cases inertia of population." and "Roman army was no longer citizen army fighting due to sense of duty and honor[...]. Instead, it was purely mercenary organization, sometimes falling so low to bribe and hire barbarian tribes" serves to describe the Roman Empire since the time of Julius Caesar... In fact, it would have been more appropiated for Julius Caesar's time than after Romanization had taken place. – SJuan76 May 10 at 8:37
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    @rs.29: Thank you for your answer. You are right that the army seems to have declined before the Western part of the empire disintegrated. But I am afraid, I have to concur with the other comments; this was not because of a lack of Romans supporting the empire. Plenty of people were affected by the collapse of order and prosperity and must have seen what was going on. And unfortunately, your answer does not address the question of the OP: What did these people (or even their conquerors) have to say about it? – 0range May 10 at 14:17
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    It is very hard to imagine how a city of 1 million could keep an empire of 65 million in check for 500 years if those 65 million showed no particular loyalty. Especially since a third of that 1 million was made up of slaves. You seem to be basically ignoring the romanization process that took place in Gaul, Hispania, Africa and Italy...the Goths, Vandals, etc. were never acculturalized to the same extent as by the time they showed up, things were already going south for the empire. – Gort the Robot May 12 at 1:13

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