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The Fall of the Roman Empire: (A Speculative Essay of Historical Philosophy)

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.



The question for us is: What brought about the dissolution of the Roman Empire? We should really never, and we most certainly aren't, here, asking: Why did the Roman Empire fall?

You may think I'm nitpicking, but I'm not. When we ask the why question, we bring with it the amazing implication that it, somehow, should not have happened; or speculate as to how this dissolution could have been avoided. We know that this is exactly what is happening when we witness various deep thinkers on the Sunday morning shows, from time to time, draw comparisons between Rome and the present-day United States, for the vague purpose of giving instruction about statecraft, as though we could actually learn something from Rome's example.

Such counterfactual speculation is not the business of history. History is concerned with what happened and what made those things happen. You may use the term why, if you must and you know what you're doing.

The issue of the various factors that brought about the dissolution of the Roman Empire has been exhaustively studied, and I'm sure, will continue to be mined for many years to come. Not only are there an endless series of books and articles, in professional journals, on the subject; one can find many fine summaries of those factors right here on Hub Pages.

We know that various internal and external stressors, let's call them, brought about the dissolution of the Roman Empire, first in the fifth century, part one, and then again, part two in the fifteenth. I am not even going to bother specifically referring to any of them here, because, as I said, you can get that many other places. Here's the thing: The empire had come under these stressors before in its history, and had overcome them.

Previous empires of that type had faced the same kind of stressors and had prevailed. That is, before these empires had been done away with, one by one. However, each time one empire went away, it was replaced by a stronger one.

Let's keep something in mind here: I am talking about a particular TYPE of empire. I would consider everything from the Babylonian, Assyrian, perhaps Egyptian, Persian, and all those of the western Asian region which I did not mention, Macedonian (Hellenistic), and Roman to be a certain type of empire.

A representation of Julius Caesar
A representation of Julius Caesar | Source

In short, what I'm going to be arguing is this: The reason that the Roman Empire succumbed to dissolution, part one in the fifth century, and then part two in the fifteenth century is because the Roman Empire represents a watershed moment in human history, in which that type of empire was no longer possible to create or sustain. Obviously, empire continued after the fall of the Roman Empire, but not that kind of empire.


When I give my answer t the question (What made the Roman Empire succumb to dissolution, first, for part one in the fifth century, and then for part two, in the fifteenth century?), I hope you will see why the question (Why did the Roman Empire fall?) is a wrongheaded one.

In short, I'm going to be arguing that the short answer to my amended question is: a) Christianity; and b) the great East-West split within Christianity concerning the nature of Jesus and the efficacy of the use of religious symbols and images.

Why did the Roman Empire succumb to the previously usual stressors of dissolution, first, for part one in the fifth century?

Short Answer: Christianity.

Why did the Roman Empire succumb to the previously usual stressors of dissolution, second, for part two, in the fifteenth century? What made the Eastern half of the Empire able to hang on for almost another one thousand years?

Short Answer: The great East-West split within the Christian Church concerning the nature of Jesus and the efficacy of the use of religious symbols and images.

Please allow me to introduce some terminology I have invented for the occasion. Now we must ask the question: What "type" of empire was Rome, such that its like was never seen again on the Earth after its dissolution?

The passing of the Roman Empire, in my view, marked the last time it would ever be possible to hold wildly assorted masses of people in an imperial structure I think of as an undifferentiated amalgam.

That's the kind of empire Rome was, as well as all of its predecessors were before it. That is to say, they held wildly assorted subject peoples in an imperial structure, I think of as an "undifferentiated amalgam."

Russell Crowe in "Gladiator." "You like that? You like that?"
Russell Crowe in "Gladiator." "You like that? You like that?" | Source

So far the building blocks of my argument are: the rise of Christianity, the great East-West schism of the Christian Church concerning the nature of Jesus and religious symbols and images, and the end of the efficacy of an imperial structure which held wildly assorted subject peoples in an "undifferentiated amalgam."

How does all of this work?

1. I am claiming that the emergence and deepening of Christianity energized among Rome's various subject people's, a certain kind of, what I will call, an individuated nationalism. What I mean by that is that Christianity helped to galvanize a sense of shared national identity, among Rome's various subject peoples. It helped to solidify a sense of Us versus Them; and this new self-consciousness brought with it the familiar expectations of self determination.

2. I am also claiming that the reason why the Eastern half of the Roman Empire was able to hang on for almost another thousand years, is because of the great East-West schism in the Christian Church regarding the nature of Jesus and religious symbols and images.

a. As you know, the West basically decided that Jesus was both divine and human; and that religious images and symbols were a good thing. Politically, you could get away with this in the West, which was more uniform ethnically than the East.

b. The East basically decided that Jesus was only divine and that the use of religious symbols and images were not such a good idea. This was a good move, politically, for the East, which, I think, was much more ethnically diverse than the West, at least in terms of having people with different skin colors living there.

c. Therefore, you could hold up a picture of Kenny Rogers in the West and say (This is the Son of God, Jesus the Savior, etc.) without a problem. Indeed, most Western Europeans might self-identify to a certain extent.

d. You could not hold up the same picture of Kenny Rogers in the more ethnically diverse East, without giving grievous offense, for obvious reasons. So then, if you are going to say that Jesus is only divine and does look like any human, you might as well not use any religious symbols and images; however, if you are going to say that Jesus looks like Kenny Rogers, you might as well use religious symbols and images.

Does that make sense?

3. When the Eastern Church and State implemented those two policies of Jesus as solely divine and no religious symbols and images, they had peremptorily---whether deliberately or by accident---extended acknowledgment of "individuated nationalism" to the various subject people of the Eastern Roman Empire. Therefore, while the Byzantine state was a continuation of the old Roman Empire, the religious schism reoriented it onto a very different basis. And this is why the Eastern Empire was able to hang on for almost another thousand years before the Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantine Emperors and Church respected the "individuality" and "distinctiveness" of its subjects.

Are you following me?

Redskins QB Kirk Cousins. "Are you not entertained?"
Redskins QB Kirk Cousins. "Are you not entertained?" | Source

The Undifferentiated Amalgam

I have yet to explain my use of the term "undifferentiated amalgam." As I said, the end of the Roman Empire marked the last time it was possible to hold wildly assorted people in the imperial structure I call the undifferentiated amalgam.

What is an "undifferentiated amalgam"?

Consider this: Throughout ancient history there seems to have been a high degree of cultural and especially religious interchangeability. That is to say, a basic religious structure existed into which you could just plug in new gods or extract old gods who had outlived their usefulness, so to speak. With such a high degree of cultural and religious interchangeability, there must not have been a very great sense of group, "national" identity.

I think we can know that this is true based on the survival of the one striking exception, among all the peoples referred to in the Bible, among all the peoples chronicled in the ancient history of western Asia (the 'Middle East'). I am referring, of course, to the Jews, who did not go the way of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Amorites, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Hittites, and so on.

Obviously, those peoples were not "destroyed" or "disappeared," or anything like that. Their identities were reorganized. Contrarily, the Jewish identity was not reorganized out of existence. And the thing that prevented this was the distinctiveness of their culture and religion. You see, their religion, in particular, could not be readily "mixed and matched" with any other.

Christianity, which emerged out of Judaism, facilitated the development of the same kind of national identity for other people, subjects of the Roman Empire, as that enjoyed by the Jews.

Before the rise of Christianity, then, Rome controlled an enormous, diverse population; but, as I've indicated, these pre-Christian subjects were not all that "diverse," after all, which was why Rome and other such previous empires, could hold conquered peoples within imperial structures which I call the "undifferentiated amalgam."

An "undifferentiated amalgam," then, is an imperial structure holding a large, diverse population of people who lack a sense of distinctive, separate "national" identities.


By the way, let us ask ourselves this question: What was Christianity originally? I know that's a loaded, trick question. But here's what I mean by that: Let us recall that the Jews, as captives of the Roman Empire, had entertained the concrete, secular hope of liberating themselves from the Empire and reestablishing the Jewish kingdom, under the leadership of someone from the lineage of King David.

When and as that hope was thwarted and continued to be thwarted, that hope was abstracted, virtualized, and put off into the indefinite future.

The hope was effectively abstracted in the sense that the goal was transmuted from salvation of the body to salvation of the soul.

The hope was effectively virtualized in the figure of Jesus (said to be of the Davidic line), who was, after all, a Jew, born to a Jewish community, raised and educated in the Jewish way (sort of 'working class,' if you will). But the sense I get is that "Jesus," to the extent that he even existed historically (I understand there is some question), seemed to be a lot like President, then candidate Barack Obama, in the sense that he was something of a "blank slate," upon which various people projected various things upon him, according to their own special fantasies.

The hope was effectively put off into the indefinite future, so much so that the concept of "Heaven" was derived. I'm talking about Heaven in the sense of a popularly available and democratic afterlife.

I could be wrong, but as far as I'm aware, the concept of a relatively popularly and democratically available afterlife (Heaven) had not existed before Christianity. For example, Egyptian religion allowed the departed to have a relatively full afterlife, if the deceased had been wealthy; it took money to get yourself treated to high-quality mummification; and you wanted to have a well appointed crypt, which could represent the quality of life you enjoyed on Earth so that same quality of life would be available to you in the Great Beyond; that is to say, it was a matter of Earth-"Heaven" correspondence.

If you were a poor Egyptian person, who could not afford mummification or a crypt, you might have a very vague, shadowy kind of existence---if that---"on the other side."

No religion had concepts of anything like what we would recognize as Heaven and Hell.

So then, in a sense---and only a sense---the original but thwarted secular hope of the Jews for liberation from the Roman Empire and the reestablishment of the Jewish kingdom under a champion from the Davidic line, gave the world Christianity.

A Roman coin.
A Roman coin. | Source

We're almost home!

Now then, when a Roman Emperor demanded of a population that they worship him as a god, the polytheists, it seems to me, would have had no reason not to go along. As I said, a basic structure was in place that allowed you to constantly plug in new gods and extract worn out ones. This is the interchangeability of religion in the ancient world, that I have been talking about; and it is this very high degree of cultural and especially religious compatibility---from our perspective---that facilitated empire by "undifferentiated amalgam."

However, when a Roman Emperor demanded that Christians worship him as a god, these followers of Christ found that they did not want to. And they found that they did not want to because of the rising sense of individuated nationalism, which the religion of Christianity facilitated. This rising sense of "individuated nationalism" made the deification of the Roman Emperor, rather an existential non-starter for the Christians; such a demand was, in effect, to ask the Christians to reverse the process by which they were becoming themselves, which was impossible.

Now then, the Jewish religion was not compatible with the polytheism of the times; it could not be "mixed and matched" with any other religion. This religious and cultural distinctiveness gave the Jews and enduring, distinctive identity, in the form of an "individuated nationalism."

The outgrowth of Judaism, Christianity, was also not compatible with the polytheism of the times; it could not be "mixed and matched" with any other religion. Christianity was doing for other peoples what Judaism had done for the Jews: galvanized a sense of individuated nationalism, first and foremost of other captive peoples of the Roman Empire.

As the Christians began breaking away from the polytheistic milieu, if that is the word, identity would be reorganized along various other bases. But I credit the emergence of Christianity for, at least, providing that initial push.

As a result of all of this, then, when the Roman Empire was again subject to various foundation-rocking internal and external stressors, the Christians and their sympathizers would have rejoiced, I think; it was a prison break! The western half of the Empire came crashing down in the fifth century---I believe the date is 476 CE. The Eastern half was able to hang on for nearly another thousand years, for the reasons I have already suggested: The Eastern Emperors adopted policies that respected the distinctiveness of their subjects.

In 1453 the Islamic Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople and thus, brought about the end of the Byzantine Empire.

Thank you for reading.


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