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Old February 22nd, 2014, 12:31 PM   #1

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Was the Roman Empire in decline by 220CE?


The Roman empire is generally held to have been in its 'pomp' up to the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the Marcommanic wars and the plague of the late second century.

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that the empire fell into gradual decline from the reign of Commodus (180-192CE) onwards; a theme found in films as well as books. But is this an accurate assertion?

Plagues and their occasional depredations were a feature of human society until the twentieth century (and may yet return): the Empire was not seriously threatened for a long time and as always, long quiet period meant the army falling into inefficiency and time taken to regain effectiveness.

Arguably, Septimius Severus (193-211) brought the Empire to its largest extent. The army dealt with such problems as the change of dynasty in Persia, the advent of Goths and Franks and inceasingly powerful German federations, as so often, after initial setbacks.

The extension of citizenship in 214 undoubtedly increased tax income and available recruitment pools which helped the state to cope.

The Empire was strong enough to shrug off the effect of reigns such as those of the unstable fanatic Elagabalus (218-22) and the young mother-dominated Severus Alexander (222-235).

It seems to me that but for the disasters of 250-265 approx the state was coping, despite frequent bouts of civil war and change of dynasty including another boy ruler, Gordian III (238-44).

After the setbacks of the defeat of Decius by the Goths and Valerian by the Persians, the fragented parts of the empire defended themselves against foreign attack reasonably. Once the Gothic threat was dissipated c 268, the Empire was rapidly restored by Claudius II, Aurelian and Probus, retaining its classical character, territorial extent (except Dacia) and military capacity.

I would argue that it was the reign of Diocletian and his economic policies, initiating a transition to a state directed feudal economy, allied to continued domination of the economy by slavery which eventually brought about the economic stagnation and alienation/attrition/reduction of the general population such that in due course in the later fourth century the Empire struggled to raise armies and defend itself.

I would therefore argue that the period of onset of decline of the Empire should be dated not to c180-220 but instead to a period after 300 with the imposition of Diocletians new economic and military policy.

(Definitely one for Salah, I think!)
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 03:02 AM   #2

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There are those that argue the Roman world was in decline after Augustus, or during the late republic (as I do). The connection between conquest and cultural achievement is not necessarily a good one, and many times in the past nations have gone on the warpath to avoid the consequences of decline. However, I do recognise that in Rome's case the increasing wealth and ambition of individual Romans spurred on their conquests - it was not actually a Roman policy as such, but rather members of a society that took priode in military virtue and now had the confidence, strength, and finance such that certain individuals within the empire felt they could extend it - The senate more often praised men for showing such success and intiative than actually initiating a group decision toward those objectives.

Certainly the political power and economic strength was at its strongest in the first two centuries of the imperial period, and notably foreign trade withers after that. Some historians have described the empire as 'living off the fat of conquest', and basically blowing the money on high living.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 03:57 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by benzev View Post
The Roman empire is generally held to have been in its 'pomp' up to the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the Marcommanic wars and the plague of the late second century.

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that the empire fell into gradual decline from the reign of Commodus (180-192CE) onwards; a theme found in films as well as books. But is this an accurate assertion?
Not IMO.

Quote:
Plagues and their occasional depredations were a feature of human society until the twentieth century (and may yet return): the Empire was not seriously threatened for a long time
Plague struck even before Aurelius; there was a serious outbreak during the reign of Titus. The Empire always revived from every calamity, even the second and third century plagues which cost millions of lives, probably reducing the population by 25% or so.


Quote:
After the setbacks of the defeat of Decius by the Goths and Valerian by the Persians, the fragented parts of the empire defended themselves against foreign attack reasonably. Once the Gothic threat was dissipated c 268, the Empire was rapidly restored by Claudius II, Aurelian and Probus, retaining its classical character, territorial extent (except Dacia) and military capacity.
Right, the amazing resiliency of Rome continued into the third century.

Quote:
I would argue that it was the reign of Diocletian and his economic policies, initiating a transition to a state directed feudal economy, allied to continued domination of the economy by slavery which eventually brought about the economic stagnation and alienation/attrition/reduction of the general population such that in due course in the later fourth century the Empire struggled to raise armies and defend itself.

I would therefore argue that the period of onset of decline of the Empire should be dated not to c180-220 but instead to a period after 300 with the imposition of Diocletians new economic and military policy.
IMO the real decline of the Empire is best correlated not with Diocletian's reforms, intended to strengthen it, but with the triumph of christianity in the late fourth century. As late as the reign of Juilan, a half century after Diocletian, the Roman army remained very powerful. Note the great contrast between 363 CE and the mid third century. In the latter period Persian armies were very powerful relative to Roman ones, in the former, they either refrained from fighting or didn't fare so well tactically. No, I don't think Diocletian enfeebled the Empire. But look what a pussycat it had become especially in the west, by the fifth century. In fact even in the late fourth it couldn't even expel the goths. Third century emperors repeatedly crushed them and ejected them.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 04:31 AM   #4
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The Roman Empire of 395 CE, when the West and East were last united under a single Emperor, was still very powerful and the superpower of the time. If the successors after Theodosius had been capable then it might not have gone into a permanent decline, particularly in the West. But as noted above the real decline began right about the time Christianity became the official religion of the whole Empire, in the time period between Constantine and Theodosius. There was a surprising loss of martial spirit and a Germanization of the entire western Roman army within a single generation after 395 CE. This increasingly placed the power of the military at the fingertips of individual generals rather than the Emperor, who had increasingly lost his authority until he was merely an imperial puppet influenced by the strongmen of the day.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 05:42 AM   #5
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The Roman Empire of 395 CE, when the West and East were last united under a single Emperor, was still very powerful and the superpower of the time. If the successors after Theodosius had been capable then it might not have gone into a permanent decline, particularly in the West. But as noted above the real decline began right about the time Christianity became the official religion of the whole Empire, in the time period between Constantine and Theodosius. There was a surprising loss of martial spirit and a Germanization of the entire western Roman army within a single generation after 395 CE.
The continued strength of the Empire for a time after the christian triumph around 381 or so was illusory because by then, the Empire was dependent on barbarian recruits. Alaric and arbogast were key players at the Frigidus in 394. The empire's dependence on barbarians became painfully obvious after they were alienated following the death of Stilicho. I don't think Roman leadership--emperors, generals, whoever--was the problem after 400. The skill of Constantius and Aetius compensated for crummy emperors. But Roman citizens it seemed, just wouldn't fight anymore. Essentially the only way to control the invaders was with payment or access to grain. IMO the survival of the west to 476 CE belied just how vulnerable and nonviable it was after the christian triumph. On two occasions, in 410-11 and in 416 IIRC the goths were poised to seize the West's only remaining strong asset--its North African territory. They were prevented from doing so, and the West given a new lease on life, because of sheer dumb luck--storms just happened to thwart the goths.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 05:57 AM   #6

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Around 220 is a good date I'd guess.

Rome's biggest threat was its army from the onset and even Augustus did not manage to solve the issue of the army. By the end of the second century, the army had essentially become a wild beast always looking for an increasingly generous paymaster and to tame it you had to promise plunder and increase wages, which Septimius Severus did significantly.

After Caracalla's murder, the beast became extremely hard to tame.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 07:03 AM   #7

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Around 220 is a good date I'd guess.

Rome's biggest threat was its army from the onset and even Augustus did not manage to solve the issue of the army. By the end of the second century, the army had essentially become a wild beast always looking for an increasingly generous paymaster and to tame it you had to promise plunder and increase wages, which Septimius Severus did significantly.

After Caracalla's murder, the beast became extremely hard to tame.
This is what led to the Crisis of the Third Century, and the later economic decline. Saying that the economic decline of Rome was Diocletian's fault is a much too simplistic view. Diocletian was attempting to save the Roman economy which had been devastated by the constant turmoil of the past 50 years. Rome was experiencing huge economic problems, and Diocletian did everything he could to stop it, albeit unsuccessfully. The economic decline of the late Roman Empire, while in my opinion inevitable once they stopped conquering new territories, was still immensely sped up by the barracks emperors.
Blaming Christianity for the Roman Empire's fall is also much too simplistic. Julian's army, comprised of the best soldiers in the empire, was mostly destroyed in his Persian campaign, which greatly weakened the army. Then, just 15 years later the best of the army was once again destroyed at Adrianople. These two immense defeats, combined with the falling recruitment and loss of the empire's best soldiers, were in my opinion what really were the immediate cause of the Roman Empire's military decline. These soldiers were extremely hard to replace, and most of their replacements were of inferior quality. This both contributed to and sped up the replacement of Roman soldiers with Foederati, which were far inferior to the now nearly non-existent native Roman troops.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 07:47 AM   #8

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I'm going to side with Caldrail's direction on this one and say that while the Empire expanded, the roots of its decline already existed since the "Republican era."

As the Roman Empire expanded through military conquests, great Generals were able to seize control and become Imperial Autocracies. These weren't always sole dictators like Julius Caesar and Octavian Caesar, but also the Triumvirates.

Luckily the Roman Empire was able to deal with (destroy) all of its major threats. Yet through trade and exposure, new threats would begin to emerge. Arminius uniting a group of Germanic tribes and inflicting major damage against Roman forces was just a teaser preview of what would come. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, we got another such incident.

By the 200s, the neighbours of the Romans were forging larger tribes, building Kingdoms. They were able to even overrun the Roman borders at times. Unfortunately for the Romans, this often meant battles between distant fronts, and the Emperor was unable to deal with all of them at once.

This resulted in usurper Emperors throughout the 3rd century. Roughly due to the same reason as the first Triumvirate, "Why don't we just rule, we have the power to do so." There did get to be so many of these usurpers, that they began carving up the Roman Empire into separate Empires.

Even though Aurelian was able to reunify the Empires, and beat back the foreign invaders, the problem still remained.

Diocletian's reforms more or less legitimized an oligarchical/multi imperial court rule of the Empire. Four heads and four courts to rule the Empire. This ultimately ended up with the same issue Aurelian had faced, except perhaps worse, and Constantine this time cleaned it up.

While the Romans were busy dealing with their own issues, the surrounding nations had become much greater threats. The Romans solved the issue from time to time by forming alliances, or making vassal agreements with these entities - this was not too different a solution to what the Romans had done centuries earlier with client Kingdoms.

Then the Huns came, driving Germanic federations, that had developed over the past few hundred years, right into the Roman Empire before the Huns themselves came over. This was a disastrous situation for the Romans. Unlike previous barbarian invasions, these Germanic tribes knew how to fight like the Romans, and they were equipped like the Romans. In some key cases, such as Geiseric, they were better Generals than the Romans.

According to Gibbon, the decline began in the reign of Commodus. Obviously it wasn't steady, as even in the 4th century Rome saw some of its most powerful moments. My argument is that the Roman Romans were never really being able to find a stable solution for controlling their vast Empire. Even if governments had stability for a time, the large Empire behaved as an incubator for separate powers growing within or beyond the borders as a result of interaction with the very central power that was Rome. This led to huge damaging conflicts in the Empire, and as this increased, and recovery ceased to be complete we began to see what the historians have labeled as the decline of the Roman Empire. Eventually some of these areas of the Roman Empire would be beyond recovery by the Imperial Courts of the Romans; this is what we call the collapse of the Roman Empire.



Just something quick to add:

If Europe was looking for the speediest path to stability and recovery, they lost it when Charles Martel defeated the Umayyad Caliphate. Not long after Martel's reign, was the Abbasid revolution - and the Caliphate seemed much less interested in Europe after this. If the Umayyad's had managed to take control of Southern Europe in this time, then they would have been part of the wealth and splendor that the rest of the non-European portions of the Roman Empire continued to enjoy in this period. Rather we have one portion of the former Roman Empire enjoying a golden age while the remainder, as the Medici propagandists put it, slept in darkness.

Last edited by Theodoric; February 23rd, 2014 at 07:55 AM.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 02:56 PM   #9

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I believe that Huns were main player in the destruction of Rome.
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 03:09 PM   #10

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I believe that Huns were main player in the destruction of Rome.
While you could say that they were an immediate military cause for the fall of Rome, the destruction that they were able to wreak was really only because the Roman military and state had declined so much. The success of the Huns was really the result of, and demonstrated perfectly the underlying decline in the Roman military and political systems that had occurred by the mid-5th century AD.
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