End of the Western Roman Empire

And the Beginning of the Dark Ages

The Western Roman empire, had existed for more than a thousand years by the time Rome’s troubles began in the 370s. By the end of the fifth century A.D., every province had lost Roman sovereignty in a little over a century. Roman institutions, tax structures, and commercial networks were disintegrating in the old empire’s core. The outward manifestations of Roman elite culture, such as spacious homes, inexpensive imported goods, and hot flowing water, were disappearing from daily life. Rome’s civil infrastructure fell in disrepair.


Migration of Barbarian Tribes

Rome had been ruled by a series of fools, usurpers, tyrants, and children before being abolished. The territory that had once been the center of a strong state had been divided among peoples who the proudhearted Romans of the imperial heyday had scorned as savages. These were the so-called “barbarians,” a derogatory term that covered a wide range of people, from wandering nomadic tribes that were relatively new to the west, to long-established close neighbors whose lives were profoundly influenced by Roman-ness, but who had been unable to participate in the benefits of citizenship. 

The resultant clashes of political ideologies, and the general disintegration of imperial institutions had a role in the development of the barbarians. The destiny of the Roman west now rested in the hands of the newcomers, even if Rome would continue to exist virtually unaltered in the east, where it thrived in mutant form as Greek-speaking Byzantium. It was now the age of the savage.

The Huns from China

It all started with the Huns‘ conquest of Europe in the late fourth century. Although their origin is patchy, they seemed to have traveled thousands of miles from their homes in the grasslands north of China. The steppe’s grass and vegetation turned into abrasive, biting dust, which was an existential catastrophe for the Huns, who relied on grazing animals for their food, water, clothing, and transportation. And it would have given the option to either relocate or perish. In A.D. 370 various bands of Huns began to cross the Volga.

Eventually, years would pass before they made a direct claim to be a top power in the Roman world. However, the Huns were not the issue in the 370s. It was the Germanic tribes they drove away. In other words, a secondary migratory crisis in eastern Europe was fueled by a climate emergency in eastern-central Asia. Drought moved the Huns, and the Huns moved the Goths, and in the year 376, vast bands of terrified Gothic tribespeople appeared on the banks of the Danube, another important Roman boundary river.

The Visigoths

The Visigoth tribe were reluctantly allowed to enter into Roman territory south of the Danube. The state-led refugee settlement program quickly devolved into an instance of evil exploitation. The Romans created a terrible foe within their own boundaries by brutalizing the Goths. The Goths rebelled against the oppression when it became intolerable, and in A.D. 378 in the Battle of Adrianople they ultimately defeated a Roman army and killed the Eastern Emperor Valens. When the Goth King Alaric advanced west in 410, the fragile peace that the horrified Romans had established with the barbarians fell apart, and the great city of Rome was sacked. 

The Vandals

The Empire was constantly under attack for the following few decades before the Vandals again stormed “the Eternal City” in 455. Finally, the Germanic chieftain Odoacer led a revolt in 476 that led to the removal of Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Eventually, the Vandals and the Saxons were able to invade the Western Empire’s frontiers and take control of Britain, Spain, and North Africa as a result of the Western Empire’s weakness. Since no Roman emperor would ever again hold office in Italy after that, many people consider the year 476 to be the year the Western Empire met its demise. 

An Economic Downturn

Rome was not only being attacked from beyond, but it was also disintegrating from inside due to a serious financial crisis. Constant wars and extravagant spending had seriously depleted the imperial coffers, and punitive taxes and inflation had increased the wealth disparity. Many members of the rich classes had even gone to the countryside and established autonomous fiefdoms in an effort to evade the taxman. A manpower shortage also shook the empire at the same period. 

Rome’s economy depended on slave labor to cultivate its land and perform manual labor, and her military strength has historically brought in new waves of conquered peoples to be employed. But as Rome’s empire started to contract in the second century, its access to slaves and other war booty started to dwindle. The Vandals’ conquest of North Africa and subsequent disruption of the empire’s trade through pirating in the Mediterranean in the fifth century dealt the empire one more blow. The Empire started to loosen its hold on Europe as a result of its economy’s downturn and a drop in both commercial and agricultural production.

Military Overspending & Overextension

The Roman Empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Euphrates River in the Middle East, yet its splendor may have also been its doom. The empire was faced with a logistical and administrative headache due to the size of the area it had to manage. The Romans’ superior road systems did not help them manage their holdings because they were unable to communicate swiftly or efficiently. By the second century, the Emperor Hadrian was obliged to construct his fabled wall in Britain only to keep the enemy at bay since Rome failed to gather enough soldiers and resources to defend its borders against insurrections inside the country and attacks from the outside. Rome’s civil infrastructure deteriorated as more and more resources were devoted to maintaining the empire’s military might.


Corruption & Political Instability

Even though Rome’s sheer size made it challenging to run, inept and inconsistent leadership made matters worse. Roman emperorship had always been a dangerous job, but in the turbulent second and third centuries it almost resulted in death. The upheaval caused by the civil war saw more than 20 emperors ascend to the throne in just 75 years, usually following the assassination of their forebears. 
The Praetorian Guard assassinated and installed emperors at will, once even put the position up for auction to the highest bidder. The political rot also extended to the Roman Senate, which failed to temper the excesses of the emperors due to its own widespread corruption and incompetence. Civic pride declined and many Roman residents lost faith in their government as the situation deteriorated.


Related Features

The Rise of the Barbarian Kingdoms

The Rise of the Barbarian Kingdoms

The barbarian kingdoms were monarchies in western Europe that formed in the wake of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. 

Alaric – The King of the Visigoths

Alaric – The King of the Visigoths

Alaric I (r. 394-410 CE) was a Gothic military commander who is famous for sacking Rome in 410 CE, which was the first time the city had been sacked in over 800 years.

The Sacking of Rome in 410 CE

The Sacking of Rome in 410 CE

The Sacking of Rome in 410 CE was undertaken by the Visigoths led by Alaric. At that time, Rome was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire,

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Andrews, E. (2014, January 14). 8 Reasons Why Rome Fell. HISTORY; HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/8-reasons-why-rome-fell


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