The Roman Empire Accidentally Killed Itself

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It took just 80 years for the Roman Empire to fall apart as a political unit.

When Theodosius the Great died in 395, he bequeathed to his two feckless sons—Honorius, a 10-year-old who would rule from the west, and Arcadius, a 17-year-old installed in the east—a functioning if creaking and ponderous empire that ran from the North Sea to the Arabian Desert. While Britain and the northern part of Gaul (France and Belgium) had been slipping from Rome’s grasp for a while, for the most part its borders were secure, and there hadn’t been a major barbarian incursion in decades. The economy was booming, reaching a peak of productivity and integration.

There were reasons to be worried, though. The year before Theodosius’s death had seen a devastating civil war that ruined the professional army of the western half of the empire, and there were no positive precedents for rule by a minor in Roman history. The late incarnation of the Roman Empire, an increasingly centralized and authoritarian state, depended on having a competent adult running things from the center who could make decisive decisions and dispense patronage.


Still, the Roman Empire had survived crises before, some of them lasting for decades. There was no a priori reason it couldn’t survive Honorius and Arcadius until they came to adulthood.

This time, though, there was no going back. When Romulus Augustulus was deposed and the barbarian general Odoacer took over Italy in 476, the last vestiges of the political structures of the Roman Empire disappeared entirely from western Europe, putting to an end to anywhere between 500 and 700 years of direct Roman rule. British and Anglo-Saxon warlords were carving up Britain into kingdoms, while Roman and Frankish warlords battled for control of northern Gaul. The formerly thriving regions of Noricum and Raetia had been so overrun by barbarian raiders that they were practically deserted. The Visigoths ruled southwest Gaul from their stronghold of Toulouse, and the Burgundians had built a kingdom centered around Geneva and Vienne. The Sueves controlled the remote northwest of Iberia, and powerful Roman landholders had taken ownership of the rest of the peninsula. The Vandals held sway over the rich, prosperous provinces of North Africa, building grand palaces in their thriving capital city of Carthage.


How did this happen? How did everything go so wrong in the course of a single long lifetime? That’s the topic of this week’s episode of The Fall of Rome.

I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. It seems pretty silly to me that professional historians don’t actually talk to the general public—why would you spend decades working on something if you don’t want to tell people about it?—so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.

To this point, I’ve avoided providing a master narrative of the fall of the Roman Empire, one focused on the high politics of emperors, generals, and barbarian kings. There are a number of reasons for that, but mainly I didn’t want that one single narrative to overly determine how the fall was understood. This was a complex series of processes that varied a great deal from place to place, and at any rate, I don’t think a single master narrative zeroed in on high politics even really captures all that much about the big happenings of history.


At some point, though, high politics become unavoidable. The next six or eight episodes of this show will deal with the fall of Roman political structures and institutions and the barbarian kingdoms that replaced them, and getting a basic narrative of what happened, when, and by and to whom is necessary. That’s what we’re doing here.

Historians have debated exactly why the Roman Empire fell for centuries. My favorite summation, and one that this episode should make clear, comes from the historian Guy Halsall: “The Roman Empire was not murdered and nor did it die a natural death; it accidentally committed suicide.”


If this sounds interesting to you, give this episode a listen, and if you have any questions, sound off in the comments.


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