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The Decline of Ancient Rome

Updated on June 16, 2012

The Roman Empire was one of the greatest, but their fall was inevitable and the result of many separate causes. The main causes are as follows:


As time wore on, the Romans discarded their original Roman gods and goddesses for Christianity. Under this new religion, Romans didn’t believe in killing, war, or fighting, greatly weakening their military as their past values, such as strength and power, were changing.

Division of the Empire

After the empire split, the wealth and military and governmental power shifted to the East while the West was left defenseless against invasions.


Rome slowly crumbled both socially and physically. With a prolonged period of peace, as Rome was no longer expanding, the Roman military was slowly weakening. There was a lesser need for soldiers unlike in times of war. Many who had trained their entire lives for the army were put out of work having no skills other than fighting, while the soldiers who remained in the military weren’t trained as tough or disciplined as in the past. Also, as Rome grew poor, they were unable to remain in conquered provinces to enforce laws or protect the peoples, instead withdrawing from the lands. This, along with a weak military and poor leadership, led to a lost in loyalty and a low confidence in Rome. Also, Rome’s physical state decayed as well, such as buildings and roads, as the Romans became too poor to maintain them.


An excess of money wasted on statues and entertainment also weakened Rome. With a growing population of the poor, the government spent a lot of money to keep them alive and happy, such as providing free bread. The rich, including emperors, also hoarded riches and wealth, leaving even less for the poor.


Barbarians and vandals, such as the Germanic peoples and the Huns, attacked an already weakened Rome, wanting revenge because the Romans had conquered their land along with the riches that Rome held.

Poor Leadership

Bad emperors such as Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, also aided in the downfall of Rome since an emperor had absolute control over every aspect of the Roman Empire, including bad decisions.


Lead from pipes and stained glass sickened and killed much of the population of Rome and since they had no idea what was causing their illnesses, it remained a silent killer.


As Rome stopped expanding, so did their mines of gold and silver. With no new resources, the silver denarius’s value fell from 100% silver to .02%. This greatly weakened the value of the Roman money and widened the gap between the rich and poor.

Stopped Expanding

Rome stopped conquering new lands because they felt there was nowhere left worth taking over. This reduced jobs in the military and diminished their resources such as silver.


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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful historical analysis.

    • MikeSchultheiss profile image

      Michael Schultheiss 

      5 years ago from Eugene, OR

      *Mea maxima culpa, the title of the first book referenced above should be "The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians", by Peter Heather. Turchin's book is "War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires".

    • MikeSchultheiss profile image

      Michael Schultheiss 

      5 years ago from Eugene, OR

      Whilst I commend your interest in the Roman Empire, your portrayal of the causes of its decline is inaccurate in some important respects. I respectfully recommend that you read Peter Heather’s “War and Peace and War: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians”, and also Peter Turchin’s “War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires”.

      Firstly, it is not the case that Christianity felled the Empire. As fortune would have it (or rather, a plethora of factors), the continued existence of the Eastern Roman Empire, if anything even more Christian than its Western counterpart, stands as attestation of the fact that Christianity cannot account, in and of itself at the very least, for the downfall of Rome. The thing to understand is that the Romans were very good at Romanizing Christianity: by the close of the fourth century, it was not uncommon for bishops to hold Roman offices.

      I do not aver that sectarian squabbling did not weaken the empire to some degree, however (see the Arian-Catholic dispute for an example), though even this is actually subordinate to the much larger pattern, and the real reasons for Rome’s downfall. To understand this, one must go back decades before Constantine the Great issued his famous Edict of Milan in 313 CE.

      // With a prolonged period of peace, as Rome was no longer expanding, the Roman military was slowly weakening. There was a lesser need for soldiers unlike in times of war. //

      Actually, Rome faced mounting pressures on her frontiers, beginning to some degree in the second century, but intensifying greatly in the 3rd century. Contrary to your last point, in Late Antiquity Rome did more military spending than pretty much ever before. In fact, with the reforms of Diocletian, which were actually part and parcel of a much broader reform initiative that began earlier in the 3rd century CE, the Roman Empire levied heavier taxes in order to cover greatly expanded military spending. The army was reformed, and a new division between limitanei (frontier garrison troops) and comitatenses (mobile field troops) was established. The administration became much more sophisticated and bureaucratic.

      Now, Rome had to do all of this because by this point, she had tremendous frontier problems: from the 220s CE on, her erstwhile rival in the east, the Parthian Empire, was replaced by the Sasanian Persian Empire. Where the Parthian Empire had fallen into decline and martial weakness, the Sasanian Empire was strong and expansionist. It would take the Roman Empire until the very late 3rd century to contain the Persian threat, and by then the great Persian Shahanshah Shapur I had collected a humiliating tribute from one Caesar, Philip, in 244, and defeated and captured another, Valerian, in 260.

      Rome’s frontier with Persia accounted for the deployment of 40% of the troops of the eastern half of the empire, or 20-25% of the combined eastern and western halves. In addition, during the terrible mid-3rd-century crisis, Rome faced incursions from a variety of barbarian groups, mostly of Germanic extraction, on her Rhine and Danube limites. Turchin describes the process by which these segmentary Germanic tribes coalesced into confederations and then kingdoms, kingdoms that were better able to deal with Roman power. Accordingly, Rome’s military spending on these frontiers had to rise as well.

      So you put all of that together, and then add the problems that Rome faced with her internal political system: the concentration of governance and the military on the frontier required Roman emperors to spend most of their time there, lavishing patronage on various officials and generally making sure that the machineries of empire were properly functioning.

      That said, Heather points out that for most of the 4th century, the Roman Empire didn’t look like an empire about to collapse: there was considerable agricultural prosperity, and in many ways Roman society was still flourishing, despite the heavier tax burden.

      It was the arrival of the Huns on the Pontic steppe in the late 4th century that began to change everything. Hunnic invasion forced groups of the Tervingi and Greuthungi west and south, towards the Danube. The Emperor Valens was away campaigning against the Persians when, in 376, a large group of these Goths, as they subsequently became known to history, were admitted across the Danube limes.

      With the resources of Rome’s officials and armies stretched, the usual protocols were not followed in disarming the barbarian arrivistes, and ensuring that enough troops were on hand to manage them. Subsequent Roman mistreatment led to a Gothic revolt, which led to the Goths trouncing the eastern Roman comitatenses in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, where the Emperor Valens was killed.

      Subsequent barbarian invasions in the early 5th century were probably also triggered by the further migrations of the Huns. We don’t know this for sure, but the fact that they occurred at about the same time is one clue, as is the fact that the timing is about right for the migration of the Huns from the Pontic steppe and the northern Caucasus region west to the Hungarian steppe north of the Danube.

      The Hunnic Empire created by Attila was certainly a major threat to both empires, but ultimately its dissolution after Attila’s death in 453 did far more harm. The European superpower that was the Hunnic Empire was a menace, but at least it was a united menace. After the Hunnic Empire dissolved, the Romans faced a plethora of threats all over the place, and with the Huns gone they couldn’t resort to the threat of a common foe to keep everybody in line.

      As you alluded to in this hub (good job), geography had a great deal to do with why the Eastern Empire survived but the Western Empire didn’t. Heather makes much of this: the barbarians invading across the Danube were generally prevented from crossing over to Anatolia by way of the Bosporus because Constantinople was right there, and that meant that as long as they could fend off the Persians, the East Romans/Byzantines could hang onto the richest provinces in Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. By contrast, the barbarians in the west had a much clearer passage across the Rhine into Gaul, and then down into Spain and thence to North Africa, etc.

    • profile image

      hannah banana 

      6 years ago

      i think the U.S. may be going down the same path in terms of spending too much money on the poor. I can respect if they can't find jobs due to our nation's bad economy, but that just leads other americans to believe that they don't have to work because they'll get all this free healthcare or homes and things like that!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Rome is not a dynasty, and its fall was not essential to anything except the expansion of barbarism in Europe and the beginning of the dark ages. Perhaps the most miserable time in recorded history, was Rome perfect? By no means. But they were a far superior alternative to the Germanic tribes that replaced them. Rome did not fall to more Roman Romans. Just as America will not "fall" (although such a catastrophe is far less likely) To the more American Americans.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      The fall of dynasties are sad, but essential for new growth.

    • G L Strout profile image

      G L Strout 

      8 years ago from Ohio, USA

      I suppose I am getting old, but I often wonder if the United States is headed down the same path. Then I look at some of th eoutstanding young people around the country and realize we will be okay after all.


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