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Old February 25th, 2014, 03:22 AM   #31

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Many thanks to everyone so far for brilliant contributions!

I do want to try to focus on determining when, how and why 'decline' commenced rather than the actual process of dissolution in the fifth century.

'General' reasons acting over centuries are usually less helpful- in theory one can blame Romulus and Remus for starting it all! There may have been proccesses beyond the vision or power of a single ruler, however powerful or autocratic, to recognise or counter. On the other hand, some rulers may have taken decisions whose consequences were huge.

I am interested to note the number of people citing Christianity. Whilst there is a suspicious proximity of the prevalance of that creed with the fall of the Empire, I am not aware of Heather, Goldsworthy or any other historian of repute citing this as a cause: and if it is to be cited- what is the mechanism by which it is deemed to act? I cannot see any evidence that Christianity tuned all Romans into conscientious objectors and pacifists, or that Aryanism was somehow much more militaristic in favour of the Barbarians.

Arguements that the Empire must live on conquests not only ignore the Empires ability to budget year on year over centuries but ignore the fact the great majority of conquests occurred under the Republic.

Brunt, in 'Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic' highlights the reduction in the legionary assidui class and the need by the Republic to resort to the pool of manpower offered by the poor. This in turn, he asserts was under constant pressure through the ever growing slave based economy, which tended to increase slave and freedman numbers and operate economic pressure on the poorer citizens and reduced their numbers steadily.

This operated it seems, until there was need to bring in the next pool of manpower and taxes- make all non Roman citizens into Roman citizens. This sufficied to see through the third century crisis.

I consider that the nail in the coffin however, setting active decline in motion, were the reforms of Diocletian, especially the economic reforms.Of course, he did not intend anything other than rejuvenation. But- By attempting price control he made many trades inoperable: by state control of the economy tying people for life, and their offspring too, to vocations,he destroyed the nature of classical civilisation which had operated, bringing in a feudal serfdom which is often cited as commencement of the Middle Ages. The operation of farms by superrich familes utlilising slave labour on a huge scale made these enterprises efficient, but made the lot of the poor citizen unenviable.

Despite this, had those reforms not taken place, some other solution would have had to be found to deal with inflation and the need to maintain the larger army now instituted.

The overall efect was a drop in citizen population and alienation of the mass of the citizenry, who began to prefer Bagaudae brigandage or barbarian rule to Roman, a hitherto uncommon phenomenon. The imposition of Christianity may have acted to widen the alienation or provide amelioration in the promise of a better life in the next world. In the end, neither money nor manpower could be found as before and we find the Roman state having to utilise foederate tribes as military manpower. Despite Diocletion supposedly doubling the army in size, his reforms in spreading troops in packets along the frontier and instituting cavalry based central armies seems to have caused problems. By 375, the armies available seem to have been much smaller rather than larger and the empire was far less resilient in terms of raising new armies than it had been in 270.

It may be that the battle of Mursa in 351, supposedly a bloodbath, caused a critical loss of western troops and at Argentoratum in 357 Julian could muster few troops. Despite this he mounted an effective invasion of Persia.

I therefore consider the onset of decline to be around 300 rather than 180-220.
Great post.

Of course, the problem with all of this is that it must have applied both to the West and the East, yet the East survived. We don't hear so much about Bagaudai in the Eastern provinces, nor does manpower ever seem to have been much of a problem.

Even in the late 8th and early 9th centuries (i.e., during the dark ages, when classical civilisation had collapsed), the Eastern Roman Empire was still raising huge numbers of men from Anatolia to fight the Arabs and the Bulgars.

For me, the survival of the East automatically means that virtually every explanation of the fall of the West fails at the first hurdle.
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Old February 25th, 2014, 03:29 AM   #32
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Especially if the argument is that it caused a shrinking of the army. If anything, 4th century armies were larger and more active than those of the third century.
Late third century armies accomplished much more and were probably much better. Gallienus (268 CE) Aurelian and Probus repeatedly beat invaders--goths, heruli, Juthungi, Vandals, Alamanni--and threw them out, in sharp contrast to Adrianople and its aftermath, when for the first time they had to tolerate barbarians on Roman soil under their own leaders. It was at this time that christianity won out and, recruitment was becoming more and more difficult, in part evidenced by increased numbers of men cutting off their thumbs. In view of what the earlier christian leaders had said, opposing military service for christians (a position not reversed by Augustine until the dire circumstances of c 430 CE), it's not at all surprising that christian triumph coincided with a near cessation of citizen recruitment. It's perfectly reasonable to attribute the waning of Roman strength--the cause of rapid fifth century decline--to the new religion. Generally only barbarians would fight, for the time being, and they were untrustworthy and took the west for themselves.
What strikes me as weird or silly is the notion that Rome declined because it was going broke while its neighbors were rich.Why on earth was the Empire targeted by so many groups, west and east? Because it was relatively wealthy. And the empire down to fifth century, still had plenty of money to pay troops. But Aetius had to hire Huns....Look at all the gold Alaric and Attila, were still able to extort.

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By the later fourth century, part of the issue with Barbarians was that they fought with the same quality organization and technology as the Romans. Betraying the Goths and later Stilicho was a good way for Rome to lose a great number of its troops, and increase their enemies to great numbers all at the same time.
Right, dependence on barbarians became painfully obvious.

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By the fifth century, the "Barbarian" generals were mostly superior to the Romans; Geiseric is a great example.
Third century barbarians, to say nothing of Persians, also had capable leaders--look at Beroe Augusta Trajana and Abrittus.
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Old February 25th, 2014, 04:47 AM   #33

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It's perfectly reasonable to attribute the waning of Roman strength--the cause of rapid fifth century decline--to the new religion.
But not correct. Whilst christianity caused problems with recruitment because of concientious objection, the impact is overstated, and recruitment issues had existed ever since the reign of Augustus - which had been encouraged by the decline of latin military virtue, itself caused by wealth, the easy lifestyles parasitic to it, the increasing burden of recruitment upion rural communities, already unhappy with taxation and self serving government. We must also consider the role of the cneturionate, responsible for military standards directly, which declined asan institution - parlty because of the loss of experience from casualties in war, but also as a social instiitution, commensurate with the relative importance of it, and please note that centurions would be renamed in the late empire along with lesser responsibilities and soldiers under their command.

It would also be worth pointing out that mithraism, christianity's main competitor, was very popular with the legions especially on the frontier, and would have had more significance to the conduct of the legions (which of course the christian censored history might not make clear)
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Old February 25th, 2014, 05:03 AM   #34

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The decline in the quality of the Legions was definitely a factor. A decline in the discipline of Roman troops took away their biggest advantage over the Barbarians. Don't forget how Gratian declared that the troops no longer had to wear their helmets, as they were "too heavy".
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Old February 25th, 2014, 05:08 AM   #35

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The wearing of helmets was circumstantial. It had been standard practice for hundreds of years that soldiers did not wear helmets on the march. Whilst I'm not arguing about Gratian's decision, he was leaving it up to the individual soldier. Therefore the wearing of helmets was not an issue related to military protection, but a further erosion of centurial status and power.
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Old February 25th, 2014, 05:43 AM   #36

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It's perfectly reasonable to attribute the waning of Roman strength--the cause of rapid fifth century decline--to the new religion. Generally only barbarians would fight, for the time being, and they were untrustworthy and took the west for themselves.
Starman, this is all very well - but how do you explain the survival of the East? Did Eastern soldiers just magically appear out of nowhere and defeat the barbarians? Did the Eastern Empire survive by pure luck alone, despite the fact that it was in the East, not the West, that the Battle of Adrianople took place?

If Roman citizens were so unwilling to fight, why didn't the barbarians just overrun Greece and the Balkans, which is the area nearest where they entered the Empire in the first place? Why instead did they quit the Balkans entirely, and no Eastern Empire territory was lost at all?

Could men with no thumbs have fought back the barbarians and held the Persians in check? It just doesn't convince me. I simply do not believe that Christianity had any influence on military recruitment.

I think the real cause of the West's problems were incompetent government, combined with civil war, long-term structural weaknesses, and strong barbarian pressure. Together, these factors were enough to overwhelm the West, but the East stayed undamaged.
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Old February 25th, 2014, 05:47 AM   #37

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The wearing of helmets was circumstantial. It had been standard practice for hundreds of years that soldiers did not wear helmets on the march. Whilst I'm not arguing about Gratian's decision, he was leaving it up to the individual soldier. Therefore the wearing of helmets was not an issue related to military protection, but a further erosion of centurial status and power.
The source for this idea is the Roman historian Vegetius. It appears in a passage that is strongly moralising about the effeminacy of Roman troops and their unwillingness to wear heavy armour and weapons, as well as helmets. Edward Gibbon picked up on the text, and attributed the fall of Rome to it.

However, we clearly need to take such interpretations with a very heavy does of salt. Were Romans really that much weaker? Or is Vegetius simply exaggerating their weakness to suit his own personal agenda? It's pretty self evident when you read the original text that Vegetius is making a plea for a return to iron discipline and training of the troops, which he feels have been neglected.

Vegetius himself states that it is the relaxation of discipline and the lack of regular exercise, which causes the men to become unused to carrying their weapons and armour. It was the responsibility of the officers, generals and the leading class to make sure that the troops had proper practice, and this is what he is arguing for.

This is the root of the issue, not that the Roman citizen himself was somehow unable or biologically inferior to earlier generations.

Last edited by RoyalHill1987; February 25th, 2014 at 06:02 AM.
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Old February 25th, 2014, 01:42 PM   #38

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This is the root of the issue, not that the Roman citizen himself was somehow unable or biologically inferior to earlier generations.
The weakness by the 5th century in the Western half of the Empire was more down to institutional and political and economic weakness, combined with a permanently disrupted military chain of command and broken recruitment, with the Constantinople court routinely throwing the Ravenna court under a bus (redirecting Attila and Alaric, etc, into the more exposed West, plus Alaric as a foederati officer was originally a military agent of the Eastern Empire rather than the Western Empire).

I don't think the foederati were necessarily inferior to the standing Roman army and seemed more like a lack of political will in the West failing to keep them on a short chain, with Roman soldiers and local aristocrats themselves also going renegade and assimilating into the migrating barbarian hosts (speeding up the relatively swift collapse of the Western Empire and transition into Germanic statelets).

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Old February 25th, 2014, 09:18 PM   #39

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It think its important to remember here, that the western half broke up with a pattern.

The western Mediterranean was by 500 divided into 3 "Regna"; the Visigothic, the Ostrogothic, and the Vandalic (Non-Mediterranean Gaul is obviously being ommited here) Ravenna's pre-eminance amongst these regions mirrored the political scene in periods only a century before, albeit without the new "Elite". Italian politics Nominally subject to Constantinople, as in Theodosius' age, many Romans continued life as it always had been for them.

However, we have to notice something: it was indeed the eastern Empire to collapse, and not the western one. The East tragically and utterly fell apart in the wake of the Persian war.

The western Empire more than anything "dissolved" over the course of a hundred years, from Theodosius' death to Theodoric's, and only from the perspective of there being strong Political and Administrative unity in the West. That in and of itself was in steep decline for even longer. Following the Gothic War, the West certainly fell victim to economic and socio-cultural stagnation- but the East did at this time too (although not as bad as the West as a whole and certainly not Italy). By the age the Arabs came to invade the African Exarchate, the Western Mediterranean was already slipping out of its Roman age and into the Medieval.

That is to say, there were no clear-cut boundaries. Romulus Augustus' deposition is especially disappointing in closure. Not only was he not the recognized Augustus for Ravenna, the recognized was still alive. On top of this, he was overthrown by a military leader(albeit a Barbarian) with appeal made to Constantinople's court. This keeps in line so much with Roman tendencies and histories. If we pretend like Odoacer was an ethnic Roman, for a moment, he ends up appearing just like Sygarius in Gaul. Going back to the question, Odoacer- he was legally a part of Rome's military just as much as the "Legion" itself was.

The East, we should say, clear-cut collapses. The period between the Persian capture of Dara and Heraclius' victory over Phocas spelled doom for the Roman Empire. Sources aren't clear at all as to which areas stilk had Persian garrisons by the time the Arabs arrived on the scene. A total, utter, collapse of the Roman polity.

Yet interestingly enough, Constantinople, the capital of the Mediterranean, the Roman heart, stood strong and survived.

Last edited by The Black Knight; February 25th, 2014 at 09:22 PM.
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Old February 26th, 2014, 12:58 AM   #40

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It think its important to remember here, that the western half broke up with a pattern.

The western Mediterranean was by 500 divided into 3 "Regna"; the Visigothic, the Ostrogothic, and the Vandalic (Non-Mediterranean Gaul is obviously being ommited here) Ravenna's pre-eminance amongst these regions mirrored the political scene in periods only a century before, albeit without the new "Elite". Italian politics Nominally subject to Constantinople, as in Theodosius' age, many Romans continued life as it always had been for them.

However, we have to notice something: it was indeed the eastern Empire to collapse, and not the western one. The East tragically and utterly fell apart in the wake of the Persian war.

The western Empire more than anything "dissolved" over the course of a hundred years, from Theodosius' death to Theodoric's, and only from the perspective of there being strong Political and Administrative unity in the West. That in and of itself was in steep decline for even longer. Following the Gothic War, the West certainly fell victim to economic and socio-cultural stagnation- but the East did at this time too (although not as bad as the West as a whole and certainly not Italy). By the age the Arabs came to invade the African Exarchate, the Western Mediterranean was already slipping out of its Roman age and into the Medieval.

That is to say, there were no clear-cut boundaries. Romulus Augustus' deposition is especially disappointing in closure. Not only was he not the recognized Augustus for Ravenna, the recognized was still alive. On top of this, he was overthrown by a military leader(albeit a Barbarian) with appeal made to Constantinople's court. This keeps in line so much with Roman tendencies and histories. If we pretend like Odoacer was an ethnic Roman, for a moment, he ends up appearing just like Sygarius in Gaul. Going back to the question, Odoacer- he was legally a part of Rome's military just as much as the "Legion" itself was.

The East, we should say, clear-cut collapses. The period between the Persian capture of Dara and Heraclius' victory over Phocas spelled doom for the Roman Empire. Sources aren't clear at all as to which areas stilk had Persian garrisons by the time the Arabs arrived on the scene. A total, utter, collapse of the Roman polity.

Yet interestingly enough, Constantinople, the capital of the Mediterranean, the Roman heart, stood strong and survived.
Good post.

The death of 'Rome' in the west was indeed a long drawn out process, made even longer by the (East) Roman recapture of Italy under Justinian in the 6th century AD. Even up till 751AD, the Romans were still ruling from Ravenna.

Rome took a long, long time to die. Even after Ravenna was lost, the Pope still considered there was a Roman Emperor sitting in Constantinople. Then in 800AD with the Coronation of Charlemagne the 'Roman' idea was revived yet again, after just 50 years gap since actual Roman control.

I do wonder if you are overdoing the collapse of the East, though. The Romans did win the war with Persia. All of the territory they had occupied was recovered, and we know Heraclius himself visited Jerusalem and returned the 'True Cross' there in a dramatic victory ceremony. More than this, the Romans had invaded Persian territory, sacked their capital Ctesiphon and overthrown the Shah. Despite the terrible destruction of the war, it was a complete and resounding Roman victory in the end. Rome triumphed over Persia.

The real break was the Arab conquests. Western Roman territory was occupied by peoples who ultimately adopted Roman language, culture and religion. The Arabs did not convert to Christianity, nor did they adopt the Greek language.

Had they done so, the Eastern Empire and North Africa today would be speaking Greek or Latin-derived languages just as France, Spain and Italy do. So Turkey would be speaking Greek, as would most likely Egypt and Syria.

The difference is Islam. The East had the misfortune to be conquered by people with a tradition that was more important to them than the allure of the existing Roman culture.
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