When discussing the fall of Rome, there is a desire to latch onto the shortest, the most accessible, and the most direct and dramatic answer to the question lurking in many minds: mind: what does it actually mean for a civilization to fall? Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or simple response, with the result that one migrates to the more classical, elitist camp or the broader populist view. There is no monopoly on the truth, only a race to get in the last word. Objectively, culture and art declined radically. However, it can be argued that the Roman Empire imploded from the inside; a society of savage aggressiveness, that grew not through productivity improvement but by waging war on its neighbors to enslave their populations.
Such are the uncertainties of history that the efforts of the last Latin-speaking emperor of the East, the great Justinian, undermined Theodoric’s work and finally doomed the Western Empire. After Theodoric’s death Justinian tried to recapture the lands the empire had lost in western Europe. His general, Belisarius, had easily accomplished this task in North Africa and then turned his attention to Italy. But it took twenty years of desperate fighting before the imperial forces under Belisarius and Narses finally defeated the last of the Gothic armies. Italy was so ravaged by this war that she never recovered.
”Even very ordinary Roman houses and buildings were roofed with tile. With the fall of Rome, tile manufacture ceases – and for the next thousand years, rulers and prelates were roofed by timber, everybody else by insect-infested thatch. The Romans made pottery by the tens of millions of units; to this day, one of Rome’s hills is a garbage dump filled with the broken shards of an estimated 50 million pots. Trade and manufacturing slows after 200, vanishes after 400. The dwindled population of Europe has to make do with crude, misshapen local handiwork. Coins and ironwork vanish. Not until the Victorian era did Europe recover Roman plumbing and road-building skills. Not until the 20th century did human beings improve on Roman concrete.
From the point of view of every aspect of material culture that can be measured and recorded, the overthrow of the Roman empire was a catastrophe that annihilated a millennium of material progress. North of the Alps especially, Europe in CE 700 looked much more like the Europe of 1500 years before than like the Europe of 500 years before.”
Italy easily fell prey to a new group of barbarians who had come as allies of the Byzantines. These Lombards, it is said, were not so civilized as the Goths, not that it says that much. At any rate, they still fashioned drinking cups from the skulls of their enemies. Lacking the organizational talents of the Goths , moreover, they splintered Italy into numerous petty duchies.
But even this last major wave of barbarians to enter Italy came by invitation and merely outstayed their welcome. If any generalization is justifiable, it is that this was the usual course of events in the so-called Barbarian invasions. The movement of the Lombards into Italy was not the last of the great migrations. The Lombards were followed by Avars, the Avars by Magyars and Turks and various Slavic tribes. From the north came a wave of truly barbarian invaders: The Vikings. The Celts expelled from England by the Saxons invaded what is now Brittany.
”Fossils of cattle bones show that livestock withered in size between the peak of the Roman empire in 200 CE and the early medieval period. Not until the 1300s would cattle recover their
n heft. The ice of the Greenland glaciers preserves frozen air from different historical periods. Air from the first and second centuries of the Common Era contains byproducts of smelting and other industrial activity. Such activity then disappears from the air for 17 centuries, not to reappear until the Industrial Revolution.” ( David Frum )
By the end of the sixth century the Roman Empire of the West had ceased to exist as an effective government. Britain had become a network of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from which the Latin language and Roman influence had almost entirely vanished. Spain continued to be dominated by the Visigothic kings . The Eastern Empire had retained only bridgeheads in a fragmented Italy in which the Lombards were steadily gaining ground. Almost by default the pope acquired administrative powers in Rome and its surrounding territories, and something like the Papal States came into being ”de facto” long before they were created ”de jure” by Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short.
Central Gaul and part of what is now Switzerland were held by the Burgundians. In northern Gaul, the bloodthirsty Clovis had established what was to become one of the most successful of the barbarian kingdoms.The Franks had not migrated far , and once they established a power base in Roman territory, they pushed their conquests into Germany as well as Gaul, civilizing the barbarians to the east even as they themselves absorbed Roman ways. They were able to maintain the Roman system of taxation until they had devised a substitute. By the time the Roman system collapsed for want of a civil service to maintain it, the barbarian rulers were deriving their revenues from vast personal estates.
”The Franks were a heathen German tribe, almost the only one untouched by Arianism (the belief that Jesus was not a God), spreading from the east. While the primitive Franks continued to give homage to their old Germanic gods, other, more Romanized, tribes had adopted Arian Christianity as a “national” religion.Backward and barbarous they may have been but for the beleaguered Catholic bishops the Franks were the great hope. In the Franks, the papal agents found a fierce but malleable tribe and they spared nothing to bring the Frankish overlords under their sway. The dominion of the Franks in the west ensured the triumph of Roman Catholicism.
The “conversion” of Clovis was a crucial event, comparable to the “conversion” of Constantine–and equally surrounded by the same fanciful mythology. Clovis’s conversion, like Constantine’s, was no “inward experience of grace” but was a military matter. He was convinced that victory in battle lay in the gift of the god of the Christians. Christ for him was a talismanic war god.” ( www.travelersdigest.com)
The Barbarians had also organized a makeshift military government of counts and dukes to replace the elaborate Roman bureaucracy. But the era of a strong central government had disappeared from Gaul and would not be restored until the advent of the Carolingians.
”The prevailing soft multiculturalism of our times has made the phrase “the fall of Rome” a surprisingly controversial one. It’s much preferred to talk about “transformation” rather than “decline and fall.” In this “transformationist” view, the High Classical period of 200 BCE-250 CE subsides gradually, almost imperceptibly into the “Late Antiquity” of CE 350-700. The barbarians did not invade; they migrated. Rome did not fall; it experienced a “fusion” with the new migrants in a “cross-cultural exchange.” (I am quoting here from the catalogue copy of a recent museum exhibition on the arts of Late Antiquity.)
The thought that a statue like this might be considered less finely wrought than this was not to be entertained. What we have here is a “transition” from one culture to another, both cultures equally excellent in their own way. If anyone catches echoes of current clichés about Third World migration into Europe and America, your ears are not deceiving you.
Perhaps the most dramatic social changes, aside from the intrusion of a new, barbarian upper class , were the slow but steady desiccation of the Roman school system and the abandonment of Roman law. In Aquitaine, Italy and North Africa schools for the laity continued to exist for some time, but the quality of education declined. in other parts of Europe the church gradually assumed the task of teaching. Ultimately, medieval education became something very different from Roman education. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to overstress the differences. Education was still education in the Latin classics; as, indeed it remained until modern times.
Often overlooked, is the transformation that Christianity was evolving further and further from the radical pacifism of the Gospels that had been put to rest when the Emperor Constantine had established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. Today it is called the ”preferential option of the poor” , but the Roman Christianity was a form of revolution that converted a persecuted Church into a persecuting Church. Early Christians under the Roman Empire, perceived the Romans as “the Beast, a murderous idolatrous Beast,” who could not be confronted with force, because it is far too powerful and violent. ”Because the church had committed a real heresy–they had taken the gospels seriously. You can’t do that. The gospels, when you think about it, comprise a radical pacifist document. Emperor Constantine turned them into the doctrine of the Roman Empire. So the cross, a symbol of people’s suffering, became the predominant shield of the Roman Empire. And the religion became warlike and powerful ( Chomsky )
”Since its seizure by Rome 550 years before, North Africa had been one of the most secure and prosperous of all the imperial domains. Its grandest estates were owned outright by the emperor and its huge agricultural surplus supported the cost of the imperial armies – armies that a low-productivity pre-modern society could only sustain through the ruthless exploitation of slave labor. The loss of North Africa in the 430s wrecked the finances of the western Roman empire, extinguishing the empire’s power to sustain its military forces. Desperate attempts to regain the province were easily repulsed – and the western Roman state collapsed, victim of a shattering military defeat.”
”It was not the barbarians who brought down Rome, argues Goldsworthy. It was the Romans themselves – the instability of their state and its tendency to erupt into civil wars. It was civil war that had felled the old Roman republic – destroying its institutions in an accelerating cycle of internecine violence from the 80s BCE onward and enhancing the appeal of one-man rule. The same internecine violence erupted as one-man rule faltered after 235. The Roman armies destroyed each other in the struggle for power, exposing the Roman state as a tempting victim to the enemies against whom the armies were supposed to defend.
All this however raises a chicken-and-egg question. Was Rome weakened by instability? Or did instability perhaps result from weakness? That is – as Rome did a worse and worse job protecting its borders from invaders, did local army groups grow frustrated, and seize the imperium for their own commander in hope that if promoted to supreme rule, he might somehow obtain from the rest of the empire the resources needed to protect the sector in which those troops and their families lived?”