AS you will remember from the first lecture in this series, two prominent historians– Edward Gibbon and Belgian Anacreon Perion—both conceived of two ways in which the Roman Empire fell. One, Edward, thought that it was Christianity which weakened the Empire and made it susceptible to Barbarian invasion. Anacreon, meanwhile, conceived of things in economic terms and saw the fall as the result of the Arab invasions of Spain and Africa, that which ended the economic unity of the Empire.
Now that we have some history under our belt, it is time to return to this thesis and see what holds up and what does not hold up.
Let’s begin with Gibbon, then Perion.
There are modern historians, good historians, who feel that Gibbon has some points to be taken seriously about Christianity vis-à-vis the Fall of Rome. After all, there was a large group of clerics which demanded a lot of resources and which otherwise directed resources away from military expenditures. Today, one can find echoes of Gibbon’s in modern European Marxist historians; the idea is that they have taken Gibbon’s idea that the Empire lost its will to survive by extending it to a class based perspective, one where the will to live was conceived as the poor welcoming the Barbarian invaders as liberators from the Roman elite who exploited them. All though there is some truth in this idea, the wider cause of Gibbon, that Christianity was the one and only cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, needs to be rejected.
Indeed, Gibbon himself should have understood this since, in 476, only the Western half of the Roman Empire collapses. Politically, the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, survives the collapse of 476 and lives into the fifteenth century. So Gibbon’s massive decline and fall of the Roman Empire doesn’t tell the whole story. Furthermore, the Eastern half of the Roman Empire was the more thoroughly Christianized half of the Roman Empire. So Gibbon either didn’t realize this or outright ignored it for his theory. Had Gibbon’s theory been true, one would expect the Eastern half to be the first to fall, not the lesser Christianized West.
So, when we speak about the fall of the Roman Empire, we need to speak about why the Western half falls while the Eastern half survives.
In order to do this, we must focus on the differences between the two halves of the Empire. One of the most important differences is geography. The Western half, for instance, had a much longer frontier with the Barbarians than the Eastern half. Concerning the Rhine and Danube Rivers, Diocletian’s division of the Empire places most of this territory within the West. Once this lengthy frontier had been breached in the West, Barbarians could get anywhere they wanted in the Western half of the Empire. In the Eastern half, meanwhile, even if Barbarians did get past the Danube River frontier, they are confined to the Balkans, they cannot get past Constantinople.
Another difference: The East was richer than the West.
The East had more cities, richer cities, and a more active commercial life; it also likely had a larger population. As a result, it had more weapons to deal with the Barbarian threat. The West, by contrast, is relatively poor and is hard put as a result to deal with Barbarian invasions. Ironically, Diocletian’s division exacerbates the problems facing the West; once he divides the West from the East, the West can no longer draw upon the resources of the East. So a plan which had once looked to strengthen ties now weakened them.
As a form of social organization, one must remember that even before 476, Roman as a social entity had ceased to exist before 476, likewise. In many places, Rome as a social and cultural entity continues to exist after 476 (many Barbarian invaders preserve Roman culture and ideas). So we need to ask ourselves why Roman culture, despite the effort of Barbarian kings to preserve it, ceases to exist.
At present, the leading theory is one which some find hard to accept. Namely, a sudden and prolonged population drop. Though this runs counter-intuitive to modern sensibilities, since we live in an age of sustained and remarkably continuous population growth, but it is what many historians feel what happened. Beginning around the second century and not ending until the seventh century, this was a large historical population drop. Each century, there is just fewer people. Barbarian migrations will contribute to this population drop, but the de-population seems to have set in before the Barbarian invasions. So we know understand the fall of the Roman Empire vis-à-vis Barbarian invasion not as a cause but as a symptom of a much more profound problem afflicting Rome; this de-population explains why Rome could handle the Barbarian invasions of the third century, but cannot repel those of the fourth and fifth centuries, and it also explains why Barbarians become more and more sought after as military weapon within the Roman military. So why de-population effects both halves of the Roman Empire, the East is able to better handle it thanks to their higher population and greater wealth.
Measuring population levels in late antiquity is a daunting task. Even so, by combining written and archeological evidence, a compelling picture has been drawn by historians. Archeological evidence, for instance, reveals the steady decay of urban structures throughout the Roman Empire beginning as early as the second and third centuries. This process occurs most dramatically in Britain where it does away with urban life by 450 and will not resume for several centuries. It progresses more slowly the further south one goes, but nonetheless, one can see the same general trend of urban decay.
Along with urban decay, archeology also suggests that rural life is shrinking as well. Those sites which remain in existence do not grow. So the rural is not simply absorbing the urban population; rather, a general decline is happening where no growth occurs.
Written evidence confirms the picture that the archeological evidence has been pushing. In terms of written evidence, imperial laws provide abundant concern with what translates to ‘abandoned fields’. The Roman land system was based on a land tax, so Roman rulers were concerned when large tracts of abandoned land started to appear in the Roman Empire; this meant that no one was tending to these lands. If no one was tending the lands then it meant that no taxes could be collected. As the centuries compound so does the obsession with these empty lands and cities; there was a point where Roman officials would sweep up people and force them back into the cities in an effort to try and stop the process of urban decay.
What causes this decay? Latest evidence suggest that it is epidemiological.
It is believed that a series of diseases throughout the Roman world touches off de-population. The first major outbreak of Roman disease I known as the antitime plague (165-180 A.D).
Contemporaries then remark upon new outbreaks of disease, with a new outbreak happening from 251-256 A.D. So why historians are not exactly sure what these new disease were, historians think that during the second and third centuries, it was measles and small pox which made their first appearance in the Roman Empire, likely originating from China. In the sixth century, though, the worst epidemiological blow comes—the appearance of bubonic and Justinian plague (542-543).
Though it is difficult to find precise figures for the drop in population, to give an idea of the severity, it is vital to think about the city of Rome; housing over a million inhabitants during the lifetime of Augustus at 1 A.D., by about 450, its population was down to about four-hundred thousand people.
By Charlemagne’s lifetime, the population of Rome had whittled down to ten or twenty-thousand in a city built for about a million people. To say that there was a very high vacancy rate in Rome would have been an understatement. Of course, this is not to say that the entire whole of Europe dropped by such massive figures, but it does given an idea of the scope of the de-population.
Rome civilization depends on cities. When de-population takes effect, the educational system collapses, once the educational system collapsed, the Roman government collapses since there is no longer Roman lay people. Roman senators lose their distinctive identity with the collapse of the Roman educational system because they can no longer study classical literature in the way that they once had as they find themselves swallowed up in the illiterate warrior aristocracies of the Barbarian societies. What one fins is almost a domino effect which de-urbanization causes.
In a sense, this process of change was anticipated by Perion well. He did, after all, believe that by 476, Europe had become a relatively impoverished place compared to what it had been five-hundred years earlier. But Perion’s ideas have been revised in two very important respects: (1) his chronology is no longer accepted. Thanks to archeological evidence, we know the decline happened near the second and third centuries, not the seventh century. Furthermore, Perion pointed to the Arabs as the cause of the European economic collapse; but, with Arab success at the expense of the Byzantine and Visigoths, we know now that it is the symptom of a broader social-demographic change—the Arabs succeed in part because the Arab and Byzantine worlds had been so badly weakened by this process of de-population.
As for the nature of the middle ages, both thinkers see the Carolingian period as the low point, that which deserves the title of ‘dark ages’. Gibbon understands this as a cultural darkness, while Perion understands it in economic terms. There is, of course, a cultural bias in Gibbon’s approach: where he saw terrible Latin, others see an evolving language, Latin into Romance Languages. Culture simply is, in other words, one language or art style is not any better or aesthetically pleasing than another style, it simply is and exists in difference.
As for Perion’s insistence that the dark ages represent an economic low point, a lot of historians would have different opinions. Some speak of it in harsh terms (‘third world’ and ‘under-developed’) while others speak very well of it in terms of it constituting a recovery. There is an element of truth in both views; after all, in the High Middle Ages, the Carolingian economy does appear to be underdeveloped in contrast. But compared to the Roman economy, the Carolingian economy is a notable improvement.
It is, however, starting to become clear that the Carolingian economy cannot be regarded as the low-point in medieval Europe’s economic system. This low point is more probably reached in the seventh century, with the eighth and ninth centuries represent a recovery period. Perion, in other words, badly underestimated the connections with existed within the Carolingian world and the House of Islam and the Byzantine Empire. What modern historians know now that Perion did not know, because he did not have access to the archeological evidence, was that the connection between the Carolingian Empire and the outside world did not simply run through the Mediterranean. It ran through the North; beginning in the seventh century, a thriving commercial life sprang up in the North Sea, curtesy of the Viking’s ‘Northern Arc’. Perion, in other words, did not know that all throughout the North, there existed tens-of-thousands of Arab coins and Far Eastern relics. It also is believed now that the Carolingian world had a greater degree of access to the commercial life of Mediterranean Europe thanks in part to the House of Islam (Carolingians would sell slaves to the Arab world).