The Fall of Rome: Rebellion or Evolution?

Written by Lee Norton. Edited by Nathaniel Robinson.

The fall of Rome is seen as an event of great importance. It marked the end of an advanced civilisation and according to Bryan Ward-Perkins it left ‘the western world in the grip of a “Dark Age”. This period saw a massive cultural decline with arts and literacy supposedly lost. However, some revisionist theories suggest that Rome never actually fell and instead merged peacefully with surrounding tribes. This argument implies that Rome was not defeated or conquered, but simply transcended. Some studies have even concluded that there is no evidence to support the idea of a conflict having taken place. In contrast, P Heather in his work, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, states that the collapse of Rome was a “violent” process due to a large number of groups emerging around the western empire. This theory is agreeable, particularly as Romans are commonly interpreted to have seen themselves as a “policing” body over “uncivilised” behaviours, and would have been unlikely to submit hastily to foreign bodies.

According to traditionalist theories, barbarian hordes such as the Franks, Visiogoths, Ostrogoths and Vanals, gradually infiltrated the Roman Empire after small tribes united and merged together. They simply infiltrated Rome and invaded during the fifth century AD. Attacks on the empire by tribal groups were not uncommon. For example, the Gaul’s famously succeeded in sacking Rome with a small force during 390 BC. The barbarians’ revolution was therefore in no way a sudden occurrence, but something which continued on an on-going basis. The reasons for the revolt were likely over race and terrain; the Romans are perceived to have considered themselves to be a race favoured by the Gods, and saw all others as barbarous in the ways that Polybius, a Greek historian, would have suggested. As such, smaller forces would be seen as something to be conquered in order to expand the empire. Fears of invasion would then lead to the smaller groups taking a stand to avoid being subject to Roman occupation, while increasing their own borders.

In opposition to this theory, some of the barbarian tribes are noted to have allied with the Romans and were allowed to co-exist. Edward James explains that after ceasing their efforts to occupy Thrace, the Goths settled dividedly among the Balkan provinces and reached an agreement in 382 BC with the current emperor Theodosius. The agreement made was to settle and to be left to carry out their lives peacefully, as long as they assisted the empire when called to arms. However, they eventually began to rebel after being used as “cannon fodder”. Treaties such as this, support the revisionist theories that the tribes were able to reach agreements with the Romans in order to carry out a mutually effective co-existence, it also reminds the historian that the tribes never acted as a single unit. This is further evidenced by James as he notes the changing movements of barbarians groups. For example, he describes how the Visigoths moved from north of the Lower Danube through to Italy, Spain and eventually South-West Gaul between 376 and 418/419, while the Vandals moved from the Rhine to Carthage between 407 and 439. These migration patterns, among many more, reveal that the barbarian groups were never attacking from one front, they were continuously moving which eventually led them to surround Rome on numerous fronts as Heather summarised.

However, Rome was already declining before the tribesmen invaded. What had become a centrally ruled empire, began to divide its powers among other emperors in order to sustain itself. Each emperor acted independently, and as such, Rome was no longer a single individual’s ideology. Some have argued that alongside the empire’s division, it was also becoming bankrupt and had kept the tribes at bay through bribery. These ideas tend to suggest that the barbarian forces sought to rebel and plunder when the treasury was empty. However, other historians along the revisionist group note that many of the barbarian tribes had a great deal of respect for the Roman empire, particularly for their administrative and cultural advancements. These tend to support the concept that the Roman empire and barbarians came to an agreement to share their resources, to mutually protect their people. In this way, the division of Rome under several empires was simply continuing, until a string of leaders, both Roman and Germanic spread across the continent, taking the place of the once centrally controlled Rome. In this way, the barbarian rebellions were neither a case of winners or losers, but actually ended with a stalemate by the end of the fifth century.