Fall of the Roman Empire

Fall of the Roman


Towards the end of the second century

A.D., , the Roman empire began to weaken. ecological factors may have been
responsible. In some of the longest settled parts of the Mediterranean,
the number of settlements began to fall - maybe the land, was overused,and
had started to show it affects. The climate seems to have been gradually
getting worse. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius there could have been
plagues. But mostly, the weakness of Rome was the weakness of its political
system. The Roman citizen body was not what it used to be, a clearly identified
group with a direct interest in the res publica.

This change had begun before A.D.

200. Even before 100 B.C., the affects of constant warfare and the amazing
wealth it produced for a very few at the center of it had destroyed social
agreements among the Romans and the government. Military dictatorship
then under Caesar, 27 B.C.-A.D. 14

Only a tiny minority had a real political
role in the res publica as a whole. For a century or more after Augustus,
citizenship continued to be promoted, because it still, outside of Italy,
marked one off from one's neighbors, and showed that one was a person of
importance. By the middle of the second century, so many people were citizens
that the privileges were gone.

Suddenly, the obligations of citizenship
were much more clear than the privileges. Since the opportunities for conquest
had fallen, those citizens ambitious for advancement or fearful of falling
into the unprivileged mass of the poor had to compete mainly with each
other for the shrinking profits of empire. Indicative of this situation
is the way the Roman citizenry was divided, at first informally and then
by law, into honestiores and humiliores, "more honorable" and "more humble"
citizens. Only the "more honorable" were treated by the imperial authorities
with the respect that had once been due all citizens. The "more humble"
could be beaten, tortured, and executed with little ado. The division reflected
the needs of imperial officials, who needed arbitrary powers to control
what they saw as an over-privileged population. But the process of dividing
the citizenry sharpened the struggle for places in the new elite. Such
competition, and the growing poverty of the government, led to another
great breakdown in orderly government after A.D. 196. Again, would-be military
dictators fought for supreme power. Between 235 and 297 the civil wars
were constant. The boundaries collapsed and Persian and barbarian armies
added to the problems of the empire's subjects.

A blance of unity was restored only
by a long and destructive reconquest of the empire, first by Aurelian 270-275,
then by Diocletian and his colleagues 284-305. But the easy well being
of the second century did not return. In many areas, especially in the
west where cities were newer than in the east, urban life was damaged.

Following the wars, and in the changed natural conditions, the economy
of the empire, of the civilization as a whole, was not strong enough
to allow all the wrecked cities to be rebuilt. The passage of time would
show that the urban network built before and during the Roman expansion
was in a long slow decline.

More apperaent to contemporaries
was the damage sustained by Roman prestige. The rulers of the fourth century
devoted themselves to restoring the honor of the Roman name and the unity
that had once been based on it. But official efforts in this direction
were less effective in creating a new social solidarity than unofficial
ideologies that came boiling out of the cosmopolitan cities of the eastern