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There is no sparsity of “reasons” for the fall of the Roman Empire with the most common being war and invasion from the Germanic barbarian tribes. In reality, Rome saw a steady decline in its power from internal factors that resulted from weaknesses and ineffective decision-making in its environmental, military, and economic policies. Specifically, environmental factors were affected by climate change and sanitation, the military lacked the resources necessary to keep their ever-expanding empire within their grasp of power and lastly the economy, which was severely overworked by slavery, inflation, and poverty.
A less than favorable climate sabotaged the empire at the height of its reign. Climate uncertainty peaked in the sixth century, during the reign of Justinian. “It points to an enormous spasm of volcanic activity in the 530s and 540s C.E., unlike anything else in the past few thousand years. This violent sequence of eruptions triggered what is now called the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age,’ when much colder temperatures endured for at least 150 years” (Harper 2). During the Late Antique Little Ice Age, volcanic eruptions rocked Rome and the world. In 536 C.E., there was no summer; due to the ash from volcanic eruptions covering the sun, the sun seemed to shine only dimly, unnerving people worldwide. “First, in AD 536, there was a massive eruption in the Northern Hemisphere. Second, in AD 539/40, a tropical volcano erupted. The result was not just a year of darkness but truly staggering global cooling: The decade 536 to 545 was the coldest decade of the last 2000 years, with average summer temperatures in Europe falling by up to 2.5 degrees Celsius. And this was no passing phenomenon. For a century and a half, colder temperatures prevailed across large parts of the Northern Hemisphere.” (Harper 7). An example of a famous eruption is in Pompeii which happened in 79 .A.D. “A firestorm of poisonous vapors and molten debris engulfed the surrounding area suffocating the inhabitants of the neighboring. Tons of falling debris filled the streets until nothing remained of the once thriving communities” (Allen 1). The loss of an entire city played a role in the downfall of Rome, as Pompeii was a resort city which played a role in the downfall of the economy. Climate change was a constituent that played a role in the destruction of Rome. From volcanic eruptions that caused climate change and led to many deaths of citizens, Rome also lacked sanitation of proper drainage, something we take for granted today.
In today’s modern society, we take many things for granted, such as sewers, clean water, and sanitation. During the decline of the Roman empire, “Life expectancies ranged in the mid-20s, with infectious diseases the leading cause of death” (Harper 2). Rome was a highly urbanized society in which citizens lived in close quarters, which gave prey to infectious diseases and, without proper sanitation, it led to the steady downfall of Rome. “The Romans also connected societies by land and by sea as never seen before, with the unintended consequence that germs moved as never before, too. Slow killers such as tuberculosis and leprosy enjoyed a heyday in the web of interconnected cities fostered by Roman development” (Harper 2).
Infectious diseases spread through Rome like wildfire since new viruses were introduced through trading with other cities. Not only diseases rocked the empire from the within the city, but also diseases from the outside played a role. Three such intercontinental disease events rocked the empire. “The Antonine plague coincided with the end of the optimal climate regime and was probably the global debut of the smallpox virus. The empire recovered, but never regained its previous commanding dominance. Then, in the mid-third century, a mysterious affliction of unknown origin called the Plague of Cyprian sent the empire into a tailspin. Last but not least, the Black Plague” (Harper 3).Due to these plagues, it caused a mass annihilation of the roman citizens, which affected the economy,as without labor, the economy was drastically impacted.The city was so densely packed the drains and sewers were infested with diseases and rats that it was one of the reasons for the downfall of Rome.
The Roman empire was vast in size, which made it very difficult to defend its borders, mainly because they did not have enough troops to cover all of the frontiers adequately. The rapid expansion of an empire quickly became too difficult to control. This happened through the development in territories and increase in government control. As more land was conquered, Rome had to build roads so their supplies and troops could easily flow through the region. From the government’s perspective, ways were extremely beneficial because new territories could easily be accessed. “Constant wars and overspending had significantly lightened imperial coffers, and oppressive taxation and inflation had widened the gap between rich and poor” ( Andrews 2).
There were significant investments made as an attempt to aid the military troops who were trying to defend the borders of the Roman empire, but in the end spending, this money only increased the level of bankruptcy the Roman government had to deal with. The form of leadership in ancient Rome was very inconsistent, and commonly very inefficient as well. Rome was a vast empire, which made it much more challenging to govern efficiently. Another factor in the corruption of the political system was the power held by the elite guards of the emperors. During this time, many of the Roman citizens lost faith in their government and its leadership.Due to the military havoc of not controlling the borders and a weak leadership in the government it led to Rome’s slow and steady demise in the end.
The number of slaves in Rome grew at a very rapid rate. “In 225 B.C. There were an estimated 600,000 slaves in Roman society and within 200 years the number went up to an estimated two million slaves; the proportion of slaves grew from an estimated 15% to 35% of the population”(Burks 9). To provide for Rome’s hunger of slaves, the Roman government relied on an ever-consistent income of available slaves. “Slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city”(Cartwright 2).For Romans, slaves were used in everyday day services from farming to being members of the military. Roman soldiers lived civilian lives, but they could be called away at a moment’s notice, which left hundreds of jobs without workers. Since the soldier/citizens could be called away at any moment, gaps were created in the workforce which were filled with slave labor. “Slaves were ideal for their consistency and cost…Slaves were relatively easy to acquire in the early days of Rome, and almost all businesses and households practically always had one or more slaves” (Burks 18). In the case of agriculture and farming, slaves were the primary workforce. Slaves were so vital to Rome’s economic structure that when slaves engaged in a rebellion, the whole economy started to slowly grind to a halt. The influx of slaves of early Rome is what gave Rome its definite economic advantage. Over time, however, as a result of so many conquered territories, the number of available countries to be defeated became more limited over time, and each region further away from Rome was more challenging to manage from afar. Each conquered country could provide a source of slaves and thus, an available workforce for the empire, as time went on, the number of potential slaves started to dwindle over time. However, as the number of territories expanded, the number of free nations within proximity became limited. The availability of new slaves captured for their workforce became more limited over time. Without increasing the workforce in the number of slaves that led to a decline in work being completed. There was an opposite correlation between the number of slaves and the size of a rational empire.As the slaves started rebelling against their masters and the government, this caused instability within the empire and also in the economy as it was heavily reliant on slave labor.
The economy in Rome during this period was unstable. In Rome, there was a scarcity of money, so the Roman government started producing more coins that had less silver within it. This process lead to inflation. Inflation caused high prices, which made life even more difficult for the highly taxed poor. The government of Rome was almost always on the verge of bankruptcy due to the costs of defending the empire, overspending on wars and high levels of taxation. The use of overspending on military and other attacks from outside forces caused the decline. A large amount had devalued the Roman currency. The lack of good emperors near the fall of the empire also played a large part in the struggling economy of the Roman empire as many of these emperors continued to spend the empire’s funds on luxuries rather than the necessities needed to aid their declining empire. The splitting of the empire caused the fall of the empire into the eastern and western empires as different emperors governed them. When the east empire rose, at first it worked well and helped the empire gain power but over time became distant from the western empire. Eventually, the two empires were failing to work together and even developing different languages from each other. This made communication and leadership between the two halves of the realm very difficult to maintain. The Roman state was a sufficiently a huge player in the Roman economy, in terms of the taxes it collected, and the money was spent on wages and armaments. Moreover, any reduction in state spending would not have been compensated for by an increase in private expenditure. “The absence of the demands of the tax collector, peasants would not have participated in the market economy. When “the great engine of enrichment stalled and, eventually stopped” (Koyama 4).Many members of the wealthy classes had fled to the countryside to avoid the tax people.Inflation,overspending, and the split in the empire caused a ripple in the economy which gave off to a unstable government and a unjust social class.
The Roman economy in ancient times was a world without economic growth. There was also great social inequality. Only the richest, or the ones part of the elite group made it through life able to support themselves fully without any trouble. A large portion of the people in the Roman world was middle to lower-class. There was only a small amount of people who were rich and these people had more power than the lower-class citizens. Because the Roman economy did not change much over time, poverty was the reason for a long grim lifetime for many. “As taxes failed to produce the needed revenue, the government resorted to the devaluation of the currency, Prices shot up… A pall settled over the population. People felt they were being swept downward by forces beyond their power to control” (Haskell 214). The government needed more money to supply the military with the proper supplies, so they raised the taxes and the prices of necessities tremendously. This caused many civilians to become weak and unable to buy what they needed. With all the attacks taking place, wealthy officials went corrupt. They bribed and threatened others to get what they want, discarding any thoughts about the citizens of Rome. This left the ordinary people, and the wealthy people fled. They would often escape and make their armies to overthrow the emperors.
The collapse affected the people of the empire dramatically.Through climate change to the failing government and economy the Roman people remained resilient till the end. Despite its downfall, the Roman Empire plays a huge part in world history. The inventions of Roman numerals, aqueducts,and modern plumbing all came from Rome and even though it didn’t survive, the world wouldn’t be how it is today without this empire. We can compare the Roman empire to today’s modern world, as we see every country wants to be the best of the best and pretty much own everything. For example, the United States we have many environmental issues at stake, such as pollution and toxic waste in the environment. The economy is a vital part of the government, and if it were to shut down again as it did in 2008, then we would be on a downfall. They say learn from your mistakes but in the case of the United States are we headed into a downfall like Rome but the modern-day version. All the correlations between Rome and today’s modern world are significant. We are sending troops across the globe trying to keep our power while our resources and money are dwindling.We are polluting the environment with toxic waste, which is inertly affecting us. In this case, can we learn from our predecessors and not make the same mistakes in today’s day and age.
- Allen, G.B. The Destruction of Pompeii, 79 AD, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pompeii.htm.
- Andrews, Evan. “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Jan. 2014, www.history.com/news/8-reasons-why-rome-fell.
- Burks. “Slavery.” Ancient Roman History, www.unrv.com/slavery.php.
- Cartwright, Mark. “Slavery in the Roman World.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 29 May 2019, www.ancient.eu/article/629/slavery-in-the-roman-world/.
- “Fall of the Roman Empire.” Rome.info > Roman Colosseum, Coliseum of Rome, www.rome.info/history/empire/fall/.
- Harper, Kyle. “How Climate Change and Plague Helped Bring Down the Roman Empire.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 19 Dec. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-climate-change-and-disease-helped-fall-rome-180967591/.
- Haskell, Henry Joseph. The New Deal in Old Rome: How Government in the Ancient World Tried to Deal with Modern Problems. A.A. Knopf, 1947.
- Koyama, Mark. “Why Did the Roman Economy Decline?” ART Marketing, ART Marketing, 17 Aug. 2016, artplusmarketing.com/why-did-the-roman-economy-decline-225deada66ea.
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