Why Did The Western Empire Fall When

The East Survived? Essay, Research Paper

Most historians agree that Romulus Augustlus was the last

leader of the Western Roman Empire.? His

reign ended in 476 and we can therefore state that the Western Roman Empire fell

at the same time, although other historians may argue for a slightly longer

lifespan.? These technicalities are in

some ways irrelevant.? The Eastern

Empire survived the fifth century, whilst the Western Empire crumbled.? Traditionally historians have blamed social,

economic and psychological factors for the collapse.? The ?sacred rhetoric?, as Brown calls it, describes the Western

Empire as crumbling from within.? More

modern historians place more emphasis on the so-called external problems that

afflicted the Western Empire in this period.?

In this essay I hope to analyse both the internal and external problems

of the Western Empire, whilst continuing to compare the problems of the west to

the problems of its sister empire in the East.The Western Empire was ravaged by

political problems in the fifth century. By looking at the number of

usurpations in the sister empires we gain a simplistic yet pronounced, view of

the differing political situations.?

A.H.M Jones states there were only a handful of attempted usurpations in

the Eastern Empire during the fifth century, whereas the number of attempted

usurpations in the Western was significantly larger.? One need only look at the succession of ephemeral Empereor?s that

succeeded Valentinian III to see how politically unstable the West really

was.? This is not to say that the

Western Empire was completely bereft of good leaders and commanders.? Indeed Aetius was in a position of power for

twenty-six years until his assassination in 454.? During his career Aetius managed to protect southern Gaul from

the Visgoths and more northern parts from the Franks.? He also worked successfully with the Huns, as well as beating

them in 452.? His assassination

highlights the lack of patriotism and the level of self-interest that infected

the upper echelons of Roman society.?

Maximus planned to kill Aetius merely as way of enabling the

assassination of Valentinan III.? This

self-interested and counter productive internal feud is symptomatic of the

internal political wranglings that beset the Western Empire.? These wranglings, some of which resulted in

civil war, wasted valuable military resources that could have been better used

in combating the other problems that also beset the empire in this period.This self-interested feuding is

strongly linked to the decline in civil responsibility.? In previous eras it was considered a Roman?s

duty to work for the state and the empire.?

However some have suggested that the Roman elite increasingly saw civic

work as dirty work. A.H.M Jones attributes this change in mindset to the

Christianisation of the Western Rome Empire.?

He suggests that the elite had religious objections to working for the

state.? However this argument appears

overly simplistic.? Many of the elite

landowners outside of Rome had become isolated.? This is partly due to increased centralisation of the state, but

also to the influx of other tribes into the empire.? These tribes, who from 376 onwards infiltrated the Empire, became

the closest source of power to many landowners.? It is no surprise then that they focussed attention on the

military and political might of the closest tribe, rather than the physically

and metaphorically distant imperial capital.?

This change in attitude is difficult to prove, but we know that landowners

were increasingly unwilling to allow their labourers to join the army.? This self-interested practice hardly depicts

these landowners as responsible and dutiful citizens of the empire.Those who did go into public

service were almost exclusively from the aristocracy.? Their behaviour reflects their class position.? The political institutions that managed to

give even the lowliest member of the empire some political rights were

gradually eroded.? De Croix believes

that the erosion of the peasants political rights, and the decreasing

importance of citizenship, virtually enslaved the peasantry.? Maybe he goes too far when he states that

this degradation of the peasant?s rights was a deliberate ploy to create cheaper

labour: ?(the decline in the importance of citizenship) was primarily a

development that would facilitate exploitation and as bought about by the

propertied classes it was for precisely that purpose?.? Along with large tax burden greedily imposed

on the peasantry by the landed elite, we see why the peasantry were hardly

enthusiastic about the empire.? The

decrease in conscription, the passivity in which they accepted the foreign

tribes and even the Bagaudic peasant uprisings are all symptoms of a poor and

discontented rural population.The tax burden bought on the

peasantry by the frequent war taxes, and the unwillingness of the landed elite

to pay their fair share, contributed to the decline in the rural

population.? The peasants could simply

not sustain themselves and in true Malthusian fashion the population

declined.? Clearly a decrease in

agricultural cultivation and agricultural production will not have aided the

maintenance of the empire.? There were

of course similar socio-economic problems in the East.? However, the peasants in the East were more

likely to own their own land, and because fewer resources were being used to

fight internal and external wars, their taxes were less cumbersome.? Also, the bureaucracy in the Eastern Empire

tended to be more middle class.? Men who

made into the civil service had risen due to the quality of their work, not

because of the quality of their bloodline.?

Thus administration in the east was more efficient, and the broader

social spectrum within the civil service ensured that the peasantry did not

have to bear as great a burden of tax as their western counterparts.Many have cited Christianisation

as a major reason for the decline of the Western Roman Empire.? Jones believes that this Christianisation,

by adding more ?idle mouths? in the form of priests, added to an already large

number of people that failed to contribute effectively to the economy. An

increasingly large political and unproductive superstructure was over burdening

a declining agrarian base.? He also

suggests that Christian morality discouraged entrance into the army.? It has also been argued that the

Christianisation was divisive, not only in pagan-Christian terms, but also in a

more sectarian fashion.? A prime example

of the divisiveness was the debate over the heresy of Arianism.? The ecumenical council of Nicea condemned

this belief, whilst the Arian tribes, mainly Goths, were ardent believers.? Thus friction between the imperial Orthodox

Church and the Ayrian tribes (mainly Gothic) was heightened.? In contrast the Eastern Empire was ecclesiastically

at least rather more peaceful.? The

belief that Christianisation was entirely negative is not a universal one.? Indeed Liebeschuetz ?sees Christianisation as a positive development.? He argues that the ?ceremonies of

consensus?, or the community driven aspect of the Christian faith, bought out

lying communities together, thus partially reversing the political

centralisation that had eroded the rights of the peasant.? The ecclesiastical peace in the East is

almost certainly linked to the fact that the percentage of Christians was much

higher.? So if we are to assign any

blame on Christianity for the fall of the empire it would seem logical to

assign blame on the division between Paganism and Christianity.? The best of example of this division is

perhaps seen after the Western Empire lost major battles.? The Pagans and Christian were often quick to

blame the other?s religious beliefs for the preceding disaster.Historians frequently use the

decline of Roman military strength to help explain the fall of the West.? The internal crises and the pressures on the

frontier necessitated a rise in army recruitment.? As we have seen previously, labourers were either reluctant or

forcibly stopped from joining up by their landowners.? The military began therefore to rely heavily on foderati.?? The foderati were barbarians, and even

whole tribes, that were paid to fight for the Roman army.? The most obvious case of this is at the

Battle of Chalons where Aetius faced Attila.?

Aetius received the support of a variety of tribes including Theodoric?s

Visgoths.? This conglomeration of tribes

and nations leads Gibbon to comment that Chalons saw the meeting of? ?all the great nations from the Atlantic to

the Volga?.? Standards within the Roman

army subsequently declined.? There was

less and less time or money for training, whilst army marches apparently

declined.? Yet we have to be careful not

overplay the decline in armies power.?

Jones points out that the Roman Army consistently defeated its opponents

even in the fifth century.? But this

army was far from self-reliant and was hardly strong or large enough to cope

with the persistent internal problems created by the barbarian tribes within

the empire.? The combination of internal

disturbances caused by the Barbarian influxes and the constant pressure on the

frontiers created an almost impossible task for the Roman Army.? The East had neither the internal problems

of the west, nor the persistent external threat.? Their armies were far less stretched.? Indeed the East made a concerted effort to lessen the power of

the army by using civilian means to solve problems that would have seen the

West use military force.The Huns played a significant

role in the collapse of the West.? Yes,

the bouts of plunder and pillage were an economic and political burden, but

their main contribution to the decline of the Western Empire came before the

reign of Attila.? The tribes that proved

so problematic to the West were forced into the Roman Empire by the gradual

build up of Hunnic pressure toward the east (Hunnenstrum).? The Huns were indirectly to blame for the

arrival of Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suevi and Burgundians into Roman lands, with

the years 376 and 405-6 being the periods of biggest infiltration.? As we have seen these tribes increased the

burden on the military.? It took the

Visgoths only two years to rebel in 378 and kill the Emperor Valens at

Hadrianople.? By 406 the Ostrogoths and

Radaegaius had already faced Stilicho in a major battle at Fiesole.? These battles left many parts of the

frontier open for yet more tribal infiltration.? The old external pressures of tribes rapidly became internal

problems.? At various times Gaul was

lost to the tribesman and most importantly Northern Africa was lost to the

Vandals of Gaiseric in 432.? The case of

the Vandals in Africa symbolises the problems caused by the tribes within the

Empire.? Not only did the Vandals

provide a military threat, as shown by their attacks on Rome in the 460s, but

they were an economic burden.? Northern

Africa provided large amounts of revenue to the Western Empire, as well as

providing it with a significant percentage of its food supply.? As we have seen these barbarians provided

not only a military threat, but they exacerbated existing political, social and

economic problems.The Eastern Empire had many

intrinsic advantages over its Western counterpart.? It was agriculturally more fertile, more populous and had a far

shorter frontier, and in this period was relatively free from external attack.? Indeed, the East only fought its traditional

enemy, Persia, twice in this period.?

However the East shared many of the political, social and economic

problems of the west, but perhaps to a lesser extent.? So why did the West fall??

We must surely point to the presence of foreign tribes within the empire

as the primary reason.? These tribes not

only fought the Empire, but their presence reinforced and added to existing

internal problems.? The west?s need for

extra military strength placed a huge burden on the peasantry and caused a

decline in output, whilst persistent internal problems added to an unstable

political climate.? In contrast the

Eastern Empire never housed any foreign tribes.? It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the presence of

barbarian tribes was the primary reason for the Western Empire?s decline. BIBLIOGRAPHYCameron, A -? ?The Mediterranean World in Late

Antiquity?Gordon, C.D. ? ?The Age of

Attila ? Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians?Heather, P. ? ?The Huns and

the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe? – English Historical ReviewJones, A.H.M ? ?The Decline of

the Ancient World?Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. ? ?Barbarians

and Bishops?Linder, R. ? ?Nomadism, Horses

and Huns? – Past and Present 92


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