When did Rome fall? Perhaps a more appropriate question is: what is the Rome that fell? During the Republic and into the Empire, Rome was a city that, through alliances and conquest, grew to encompass the Italian Peninsula and then spread geographically into Western Europe, North Africa, and the Levant. The larger Rome grew the less Roman the empire became. Instead of conquering and instituting direct rule over the Provinces, Rome left local cultures intact and ruled indirectly through provincial governors. Yet, just as non-Greeks of the Greek empire were Hellenized, so the Provincial leaders of the Roman Empire were Romanized, meaning they were given a Roman education, spoke Latin, often held office in the Roman bureaucracy, and looked Roman. On the local level, the Provincials were taxed but, for the most part, left alone and hardly noticed Rome’s presence. Rome which began as a city became a Republic, then an Empire, and then an idea. With each new phase, the definition of Rome changed.
Historians referred to the Western Empire when answering the question, “when did Rome fall?” Tiberius first divided the Empire, but Diocletian received the credit for Rome’s division. After Diocletian, the empire was unified again but split permanently in 395 by Theodosius I. Regardless of who split the empire, its division showed that the empire was too big for one man to govern adequately. The point at which Rome outgrew itself is debatable. Machiavelli believed that the empire had grown too large when Rome expanded beyond the Italian Peninsula. After leaving Italy proper, the Empire gobbled up provinces which they could tax. Those in Italy became tax exempt and consequently spent more money on luxury items. The Italians became comfortable and were less inclined to leave Italy either to govern provinces or to fight in the army. The Empire relied on Provincials to fight and govern in the Provinces and eventually in the city of Rome. The Eastern Empire was not exempt from the West’s weaknesses, but lasted to 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Why did the East last nearly one-thousand years longer? The fact that the Eastern Empire was far wealthier than the West and the eastern capital, Constantinople, was impregnable played a part in the East’s longevity. Nevertheless, the Rome Empire had outgrown the ability to properly govern such a vast empire.
The third century was one of chaos and decay. Despite the fact that the empire lasted for another two hundred years, the decay of this century could never be undone. Some good emperors came on the scene and added years to Rome’s life. Before modern medicine, once gangrene set in, it was impossible to stop it completely. Despite amputating the infected limb, the patient eventually died. With the end of the Pax Romana, defending the Rhine-Danube boundary became more difficult. In order to keep the barbarians at bay, Rome garrisoned the army along its river boundaries. Keeping the army in one spot became increasingly expensive and taxes had to be raised. Since the tax was on land, once the citizens could no longer pay their taxes, they left the land vacant and untaxable. As more land fell out of taxation, the more taxes were raised. Apparently enough land was left vacant that Constantine felt he had to repopulate the Italian Peninsula by settling barbarians on the vacant land. The political administration of the third century was worse. During this time, Rome was ruled by incompetent emperors such as Caracalla and Severus Alexander and was in the midst of civil war. Also, the Barbarians crossed into the empire more frequently and were repelled less successfully. Occasionally strong emperors, such as Diocletian and Constantine, came to the throne and temporarily restored stability. Perhaps it was the actions of the good emperors that allowed Rome to continue another two hundred years.
In the end it was the Barbarians infiltration that brought the end of the Empire. The barbarians first appeared as auxiliaries and then federate contingencies within the army. As Romans became less inclined to serve in the army and legionnaires lied about the number of men in their legion. Rome looked more and more to the barbarians for defense against other barbarians.
In the East, the Visigoths petitioned the Eastern Emperor, Valens, to let them settle south of the Danube. Valens agreed but failed to uphold his word. In 378, the Visigoths killed Valens at Adrianople and roamed unhindered within the Balkan region. Under Theodosius I, the Visigoths established their own kingdom within the Empire. This was the first of the German states to take up residence in the Empire and eventually the first in a trend of independent German kingdoms. By the end of the fifth century, although the barbarian kingdoms of the Ostrogoths, Franks, Visigoths, and Burgundians had replaced what was once the Western Roman Empire, the East remained intact.
In the West, the barbarians infiltrated the army all the way to the top, and then infiltrated the bureaucracy. In the early fifth century, Stilicho, a barbarian and powerful Roman general, became the emperor’s regent setting a dangerous precedence of barbarians becoming the power behind the throne. Despite being a good leader, Stilicho allowed Alaric to remain in the Empire. Once in the Italian Peninsula, the Visigoths under Alaric sacked the City of Rome in 410. A few years later, the Vandals under Gaiseric took North Africa and its grain supply from Rome, severely weakening Rome’s Mediterranean trade routes. In 455, Gaiseric took Rome and sacked the city for two weeks. The capital was moved to Ravenna, and it would take centuries for Rome to fully recover. Ricimer succeeded Stilicho and Orestes succeeded Ricimer as the barbarian in power behind the throne. Under Orestes the barbarians took complete control of Roman Empire. Orestes set his son, Romulus Augustus whose mother was a Roman, on the throne. Romulus Augustus aspired to act as the emperor of Rome should, so his father deposed him, sent him Ravenna to live out his life, and took control of the empire himself. The final blow to the Roman Empire came from Odoacer, the Ostrogoth general in Italy. He besieged and took Ravenna and officially deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Roman to sit on the throne in the West. Thus, when he was deposed, Rome was then ruled by Barbarian kings and Rome became another Barbarian Kingdom.
With the Barbarian defeat of Rome and deposition of Romulus Augustus, Rome fell. It did not transition but was taken by force and became a Barbarian Kingdom under a barbarian king. Perhaps the people on the local level did not notice Rome’s fall. But on an administrative level it was hard to miss the Barbarian in the palace. With Rome’s irreversible weakening in the third century, the Barbarians saw the opportunity to either invade or infiltrate Rome. Those who infiltrated, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, did not mean to bring Rome’s fall, but they did. The invaders, especially the Vandals, full well intended to defeat Rome. In the end, Rome’s weakness, the infiltrating Goths, and the invading Vandals cause the decline of Rome.