The Fall of the Roman West Part 1

I got thinking about this after reading a comment from someone I know on their Facebook status.

The real question is why did the Eastern Empire survive while the Western half fell to the barbarians?

The answers seem to lie in a number of areas. Peter Heather in his 2005 book The Fall Of The Roman Empire covers the subject in detail and there there is a considerable amount of strong scholarship in Peter Brown’s 1971 The World Of Late Antiquity, a seminal work in the development of the study of Late Antiquity as a distinct period.

One major cause behind the Fall of the West lay in the different cultural landscape of the West. This is, in part, what I shall discuss here.

The West was a far less urbanised society and the educated Roman upper class was distanced from the general populace by language and culture. at the beginning of the period across the Western provinces, the local populations spoke their traditional languages; Celtic in Gaul and Britannia or Punic in North Africa, for example, and the cultured upper classes spoke Greek or Latin with equal facility. Latin remained the language of the military and of official administrators and it was only via contact between these groups, soldiers, tax collectors and, later on church figures, that Latin gradually came to be the language of the masses. Even then, it was not the classical Latin of the great orators and authors, it was the simplified Vulgar Latin of the Army camp and of everyday use.

At the beginning of the 3rd century, Roman civilisation extended only as far as the elite was able to impose itself, generally nor far outside of urban centres or beyond the boundaries of the huge villa complexes that were a feature of the West.

The economy was overwhelmingly dominated by agriculture, most people lived a life dominated by subsistence farming and Agriculture was the primary generator of wealth and tax revenues.

The educated Roman elite depended on vast estates for their increasingly lavish lifestyles and they shared a cultural landscape that in the year 200 was remarkably homogeneous across the Empire.

This was to change in the 3rd century following the succession of crises and political instability caused by successive barbarian incursions. The fragile nature of classical Roman society was exposed. After two centuries of peace, the demands of warfare led to a collapse of the politico-economic underpinning of the ruling elite. For the elites of the Mediterranean littoral and the East, life continued almost unchanged, but on the fringes, along the long Rhine, Danubian and Mesopotamian borders, the armies of Rome came under pressure from the Sassanids in the East and the Gothic and Germanic tribal confederations along the Danube and on the borders of Gaul and Britannia.

The empire was rocked by these onslaughts and a succession of emperors failed to stem the decline. Eventually the empire was split into three portions, the Near East was ruled by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, much of the West by the so-called Gallic Empire founded by Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus and the remainder of the empire under the rule of Rome.

What saved the empire and allowed for a re-unification was, in effect, a military coup. The reign of Gallienus (253-260) had seen the loss of the western provinces to Postumus, the short reign of his successor Claudius II Gothicus saw victories over the Gothic barbarians who had invaded Illyricum and Pannonia and a beginning of the defeat of the breakaway Gallic empire.

It remained for his successor Aurelian to complete the defeat of both the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Queen Zenobia, reuniting the empire. It was Aurelian also, who elevated the cult of Sol Invictus to become the primary deity and official state cult of the Empire, following the principle of “one god, one empire”.

After the death of Aurelian the empire was once again ruled by a succession of short-lived emperors, often raised up by the legions, until the accession of Diocletian in 284.

A former cavalry general, Diocletian was the strong ruler that the emperor needed. His acclamation as emperor led to the establishment of what is known as The Dominate (as opposed to the classical Principate) and his reign marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century.


It was Diocletian who really completed the military and administrative revolution that would change the Roman world forever. His elevation of professional Latin-speaking soldiers to the highest levels of government marked the decline of the traditional senatorial class as an instrument of government.

The traditional aristocracy had already been excluded from military command under Gallienus and successive emperors had promoted men like themselves, tough professional soldiers, often from lowly and insignificant backgrounds.

These new men were not part of the old elite and they were not dependent on large scale land holdings for their wealth and power. Under Diocletian and his successors, there arose a new bureaucratic and administrative elite, paid for by the imperial treasury and dependent on the emperor for advancement. These men were almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of the army.

The traditional senatorial classes thus withdrew from public life and spent more time cultivating and expanding their estates and developing what was to become the late-flowering classical culture of the Roman West of Late Antiquity.

However, the increasingly large bureaucracy of Diocletian and Constantine required educated and literate administrators. These New Men, products of the meritocratic and more fluid social structures of the militarised empire and dependent on the emperor for their preferment, were open to influences from outside of the traditional, essentially conservative, classical elite.

Therefore, it was comparatively easy for Christianity, particularly under Constantine, to penetrate into this new salaried elite, further distancing the new Dominate government, which was centred on the East and the court in Constantinople from the old, mainly pagan, landowning senatorial elite of the West.

Christianity was far more widely adopted in the East than in the West, where local pagan cults still held sway in the general population and the old deities of the classical past were still mainly followed by the elites. Even when Christianity did gain a foothold in the elites of the West, it was heavily influenced by classical Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy.

Therefore, although this is only part of the picture, it can be seen that the roots of the decline of the Roman West lie in the socio-political and economic changes wrought by the Crisis of the Third Century. The cleavage between the New Empire and the traditional Provincial elites led to a situation where the increasingly centralised East became more unified and more “patriotic” than the West. Christianity helped to create this sense of unity and purpose and the meaning of being “Roman” began to mean something new. Being Roman came to mean being Christian and it soon became apparent that the Empire and the Emperor were synonymous. Power, privilege and preferment all flowed from the centre.

In the revitalised East, there was no identification with a nostalgia for the old Rome, Romanitas was linked to the Emperor and the Roman Christian faith.

At the same time that the cultural elites of the West were withdrawing from public life and creating their idealised classical revival on huge estates across Gaul, Hispania, North Africa and Italy, the East was beginning to create the Greek-speaking, Christian Empire that would be able to repel the barbarians and continue to exist for another thousand years.

This is a complex subject, and I shall return to it again.


One thought on “The Fall of the Roman West Part 1

  1. Pingback: Why did the Eastern Empire survive? « Carole's Stuff and Occasional Nonsense

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