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The end of the Roman Empire has lessons for modern Europe

February 21, 2015

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476AD was a big year in the history of Europe, marking as it did the final end of the Western Roman Empire.  Edward Gibbon, the 18th century author of the magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, thought it was down to the influence of Christianity on the Roman state.  Other more recent commentators have put it down to lead piping and the deleterious impact that would have on the mental capacity of the Roman leadership.  Whichever way it happened, it remains one of the seminal events of western history.

I was lucky to have been able to study this period at University and have recently reacquainted myself with some of the issues by reading The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather, Professor of Ancient History at King’s College, London.  For anyone interested I would really recommend this accessible account of those events.

The period is fascinating from a number of perspectives.  First because of the nature of the sources from which it is possible to reconstruct what happened.  It is a point in history where our view of events goes in and out of focus with great frequency.  At times we have very detailed information about what took place, drawing from historians and other contemporary sources.  At other times, particularly in the 5th century, the trace goes almost completely cold.  Some sources are only available to us by the chance of having been incorporated into later collections or in one case, being recycled with later works written on the back of earlier texts.  Archaeology, increasingly, has helped fill in some of the gaps and to broaden our perspective of the late Roman world by drawing in the day to day lives and transactions which do not make their natural way into the history books.

There is much need to thread different sources together, to make indirect connections  between sources, to judge not what is necessarily true but what is plausible.  This is a period where the historian needs also the skills of a Sherlock Holmes and it makes its study, as a result, a compelling intellectual puzzle.

But this is also a fascinating period because it entails one of the great discontinuities of western history.  Over a century between 375 and 475 one of the greatest military, political and administrative powers which Europe has known went from rude health to extinction.  For much of Romanised Europe, Britain included, this century marked the virtually total collapse not just of the Roman state but also of the systems of economic and political sophistication which that state had fostered.

That phenomenon is characterised by the fate of Roman London.  At the end of 4th century London was still a thriving metropolis, boosted by its role as a crucial link in the supply chain for the Roman army on the Rhine.  50 years later it was a ghost town.  The extensive use of coinage and literacy disappeared and while decline was not as rapid in all parts of Roman Britain as perhaps once historians thought much of what would have been thought as civilised life quickly vanished.  Even in Italy and the South of France where the impact of the end of the Empire was not so dramatic the world of the 470s was still radically different from that of a century before.

The third fascination is piecing together the reasons for the end of the empire, and in this seeing issues which are not unique to the Romans but resonate with the contemporary world.

The end of the Empire like many major historical events does not have one cause but is, rather, the consequence of different shocks and pressures coming together at the same time.  This was a period of major population movements with armed barbarian (their word not ours) communities, themselves under pressure from other groups further east, entering the empire and slowly establishing their own independent authority.

Just as importantly this was a state collapsing under the pressure of declining tax receipts and which could no longer afford the military muscle which preserved the pax romana which, in turn, supported the infrastructure on which Roman civilisation was based.

Thirdly this was a state bedevilled by periods of political instability.  In those times, even in the 5th century, when the empire was under strong leadership it made remarkable progress, despite declining military and other resources, in putting under check the pressures it was facing. Famously it was even able to defeat the Huns in 451 and 452 who had struck fear across the contemporary world.  At other times the state turned into itself in periods of infighting and instability, undermining fatally its ability to respond to external threats.

Finally like many historical events chance played its part.  A well organised attempt to recapture the provinces of Northern Africa in 440 had to be abandoned because at the point the Hunnic invasion was threatening the Eastern Empire.  If you are any good you can always manage a single problem but those who have to face multiple threats at the same time will often run out of luck at some point.

So what do these far off events tell us about Europe at the beginning of the 21st century?   We too live in challenging times with multiple external threats be they economic stagnation, climate change, extremism or regional conflict.  We face questions about the continuing affordability, in the wake of an ageing population and declining economic prosperity of the civilisation we created in Europe after the Second World War based on the principle of universal welfare.  We are dealing across Europe with a decline in public trust in political authority.

History swings between eras where millennialist interpretations of events abound and those which like the Europe of 1914 sleep walk into catastrophe.  Reacquainting myself with the history of the end of the Roman Empire is a chilling reminder of how the mighty can fall.  The threats facing us in modern Europe are also great and we cannot take for granted that the responses to them will be easy or necessarily successful. If we value the civilisation we have built and enjoy we have to be prepared to dig deep to save it.

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One Comment
  1. Excellent post – interesting and well-argued.

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