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The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Gibbon, Chater 38: “the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness’ Discuss the true definition of ‘decline and fall’ – did the Roman Empire decline and fall? YES, but the question of ‘late antiquity’ looks at the Roman ‘world’; culture, religion etc, answering effectively two different questions.

is, can the end of the Roman Empire be seen as a catastrophe or as a gradual transition?

Traditional verses Revisionist in English speaking historiography.

What about French, Italian and German historiography – do they see they take a traditionalist or revisionist view?

Traditional Theory

Focus on ‘decline’ and ‘collapse’ led to the disintegration and eventual collapse of the Empire.

Gibbon ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ (1788)

End of the Roman Empire due to the rise of Christianity, and that resources (both materially and through personal) that were traditional directed towards the state were siphoned off to the newly established Church.

Rostovtzeff ‘The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire’ (1926)

Attempt to look behind the historical narrative and monumental evidence alike, into the vanished inarticulate doings of ordinary people.

Writing during the time of Lenin and Mussolini.

Believed the ‘biological notions that peoples degenerate, as individuals grow old, or that a mixture of races, however vigorous, necessarily breeds disastrous mongrels, for the failure of Paganism is to mistake effort for cause.

Sees the ‘ultimate problem’ (p487) ‘Is [that] not every civilization bound to decay as soon as it begins to penetrate the masses?’ and that to create a lasting civilisation should be ‘not one of class, but of the masses’

Sees that the Mediterranean world collapsed not because to became over-civilized, but because civilization did not penetrate all of society.

Barbarians did destroy the empire, not as an external pressure but by undermining the empire from within by trying to imitate a society that was not theirs and to which they had no allegiance.

The decay of the Mediteranean city-state structure led Roman culture to relapse into that an ‘almost pure house-economy’ (p478)

States that the decline of the Roman Empire was due to the increased absolutism of the later Roman emperors (from Diocletian onward).

Seeck, 6 volumes from 1895 – 1921, covering from emergence of Constantine in 305 to the deposition of Romulus Augustus in 476 – detailed but doesn’t cover the same range of topics as Jones

Bury, 2 volumes in 1923, covering from death of Theodosius I (395) to the death of Justinian (565). Both he and Gibbon focus more on the narrative and on the barbarians beyond the frontier.

Historians like Spengler and Toynbee regarded decline as inevitable

Moralists like Walbank, decided that the Romans had a ‘failure of nerve’, resulting from the otherworldliness for the old civic patriotism

Socio-economists like Rostovtzeff and Boak, regarded social conflict, shortage of man-power, or similar internal weaknesses as the primary causes.

Jones ‘The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 a social, economic and administrative survey’ (1964)

Argues that the barbarians were a destabilising element to the Roman state and led to its eventual collapse.

A large part of the population were ‘idle mouths’; senators, the army, the clergy. The barbarians put additional external pressure on an already weakened economic system.

Extended the end of the antique period to 602 (Maurice’s death), and that the Roman Empire continued, although diminished, to the East.

Jones accused of writing in the ‘genteel tradition’ of British scholarship in the nineteenth century.

Particularly draws upon Roman law codes to find information on administrative personal and their duties, on social and economic conditions, and on similar topics.

‘In general, his judgements of personalities and his conclusions on problems and trends are conservative.

States that there was still social mobility within the Roman state aperatrus (either through the army or government) that were quite different from that offered by the Church.

Jones agrees there were various weaknesses within the Roman state; political, military, economic, sociological, administrative, and moral.

He concludes (p1067-68) however, that though some of these were due to internal causes, others, such as the increase in the military establishment and consequently in the financial demands of the state, were the result, direct or indirect, of the pressure of the frontiers.

The West did not have the internal strength to resist the heavier and more widespread attacks to which it was subjected; the East, with less pressure and greater resources, managed to survive.

Jones’ concluding sentence: ‘The internal weaknesses of the empire cannot have been a major factor in its decline.

Helped ‘breathe new life’ into the study of the Late Antique period.

Heather’s ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History’ (2005)

Heather revises Gibbon’s narrative, and limits himself to the western half of the Empire.

Fixes the empire’s fall on when Odvacar deposes the last western Roman emperor, Romulus, in 476 CE (p430)

Part 1: rejects that society declined from 180 CE; instead, state and society are functioning soundly despite military setbacks, until the end of the fourth century.

Part 2: Heather deploys research of the past four decades on Germanic ethnogenisis, and that the Germanic successor states of the later Migration period were already forming during the fourth century. Germanic tribes constituted a greater military threat to Rome than there divided ancestors.

Part 3: Speculation on causation, agrees with Gibbon’s blame on internal weaknesses for the west’s fall. Though cognizant of socio-economic weaknesses in the western empire, Heather emphasizes instead ‘exogamous shocks’ caused by dynamic Romanized intruders.

Revisionist Theory

Focus on themes of continuity and transformation rather than distruction

However, this tends to ‘overshadow’ changes in historical periods, and leads to a risk of ignoring changes that occurred over the period.

Over reliance on historical sources rather than a balanced view of both archaeology and documents

Pirenne ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’ (1939)

Pirenne rejected earlier historian’s view that the Germanic invasions of the fifth century as the main agent in the transformation of an economy of commercial exchange into the economy of rural self-sufficiency.

According to him the Germanic invasions, though a shock to ancient civilisation, left its nature unchanged, because the Western world remained focused on the Mediterranean Sea by which it maintained a fertilising contact with the East.

Trade was still active in Marseilles and the Provencal ports, with trade from the East entering Mediterranean Gaul, while no great change took place to intellectual life.

The rupture came with the Muslim invasions of the seventh century, which finally ended Eastern and Western Mediterranean unity.

The closing of the pan-Mediterranean trade systems and the development of separate Arab-Scandinavian trade routes via the Russian rivers led to the development of North Sea trade routes which help facilitate Carolingian growth.

Pirenne saw the Carolingian age not as a ‘renaissance’ but as a hallmark of regression.


Argued that LA art had not deteriorated and should be viewed in its own terms

Brown ‘The World of Late Antiquity: from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad’

Argues that the Roman world went through a period of transition

Widely accepted in the US, ‘resulting in the banishment of terms as catastrophe, change, crisis and decline’

Founded the study of ‘Late Antiquity’ with its own characteristics.

A study of the transformation of the style of life of the Mediterranean world in late antiquity and the emergence of two or three distinct patterns of society out of what had been a more or less uniform whole. Value judgments are avoided; but Brown is well aware that one cannot write history without occasionally implying them.

Part 1: Society and Religion, not much said

Part 2: examines the west from 350 – 600 CE, finds a short but deceptive cultural revival followed by a long period of coming to terms with the new barbarian rulers.

Focuses on the eastern Roman Empire

It is not a political, social or economic history, but a panorama of intellectual life over a wide chronological and geographic area.

Cameron ‘The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity Ad 395-600’ (1993)



Revaluation of the destructive impact and destabilisation caused by the barbarian migrations

Ward-Perkins ‘The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation’

Fall of Rome was a turbulent and violent exercise.

Centred on a traumatic political shift rather than a gradual change.

However, although there was great change, much of Roman civilisation did survive and violence in the fifth century was no greater than in any other.

Much of his theory based on archaeological evidence, were evidence of decline would be more apparent than cultural survival (plus evidence based on British archaeology)

Additional theories on transition

Goffart ‘Barbarians and Romans A.D. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation’

Argues that the Roman administration gave up the right to taxation in the areas of barbarian settlement and that the money was directed to them instead of the central government.


Takes Goffart’s theory further, stating one third of tax revenue went to the local civitas and the other two thirds redirected to the barbarians.

This modus operandi contined after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west until the collapse of the Carolingian Empire.


Doubts late Roman cities any part of the imperial tax.

Argues there was no transference of property, something which would be more stable and securing for the barbarian groups than purely fiscal control.

Future of Late Antiquity

Establishment and funding of the European Science Foundation researching ‘Transformation of the Roman World’ in order to chart the history of the fall of the Roman empire to present day Europe.


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