Socialist Worker

The fall of Rome

Chris Bambery looks at an excellent new history of the Roman Empire that charts the tensions that led to the collapse of Rome, which left a lasting impact on Europe

Issue No. 2143

With the world economy in freefall, it is not such a great leap of imagination to consider what the collapse of society might look like today.

Maybe a series of gradual changes would mean the disintegration of transport systems and food imports.

Townspeople may have to grow potatoes and beetroot to survive. Bands of people would be driven into rural areas by the search for food.

Local communities may put themselves under the “protection” of a leader who promised to defend them.

This is similar to how the Roman Empire passed away in western Europe some 1,600 years ago.

Many of us were taught in school that barbarian tribes swept over the Empire, destroying Rome for ever.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain, according to this version of history, ushering in the Dark Ages.

Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History Of Europe From 400 To 1,000 provides a very different picture.

It is one of a society slipping away – yet with former citizens of the Roman Empire refusing to believe it had gone and trying to recreate the old imperial order against all odds.

At the beginning of the fifth century AD the Roman Empire seemed set to continue forever.

Its boundaries remained as they had for centuries. Its armies still dominated any opposing forces and a centralised tax system ensured that soldiers stayed in the field.


But the Empire had changed. It had been divided into two – an eastern empire based on Byzantium (Istanbul) and a western empire based on Rome.

The emperor had become a military leader based on the frontiers far away from Rome, as wars with “barbarians” – a term for those who lived outside the Roman Empire – across the border increased.

The aristocracy was increasingly militarised as the army became an important career choice.

The senate still sat in Rome and would do so for a century more – even when power had long since deserted it.

The army contained growing numbers of “barbarians” and many had settled within the Empire with the agreement of the emperor. Military coups had become common and generals of barbarian origin were prominent, making and unseating emperors.

Romans and barbarians were not opposites. It was not about civilisation versus savagery. Over centuries of contact, trade and warfare the barbarians had adopted Roman ways.

The Roman Empire not only employed them, but adapted their own military organisation to mirror some of the barbarians’ ways.

Even the sack of Rome by a Visigoth army in 410 AD did not seem a conclusive end to the Empire.

The Visigoth leader Alaric had fought as a Roman general – though he commanded his own troops rather than integrating them into the legions. He did not want to destroy the Empire, but to force it to concede land to him.

But Alaric’s entry into Italy four years earlier had unleashed an important chain of events.

Roman legions were withdrawn from the defences on the Rhine boundary with Germany allowing barbarian tribes to cross into the Roman province of Gaul (today’s France). The Roman army in Italy fell into a feud between former barbarians and Romans, allowing Alaric to march on Rome.

A series of mini-states began to emerge and Roman generals and magnates began to reach accommodations with barbarian leaders.

Meanwhile one tribe pushed south into Spain and North Africa.

A bad miscalculation by the Roman leadership allowed a group known as the Vandals to capture the North African city of Carthage – near modern Tunis – in 439 AD. Chris Wickham argues this was the tipping point in Rome’s decline.

North Africa was important to Rome as a source of wheat and as a key area for raising taxes.

Without this Rome could not feed its citizens or pay its armies centrally. Trade in the western Mediterranean went into a long decline and the population of the cities began to fall.

Within 50 years the western empire was dead. The remaining Roman armies began to settle on whatever territory they could occupy because land was the only real source of wealth as trade receded.

Yet barbarians and Romans all still tried to operate Roman laws and system of governments.

Gaul was divided between Franks, Burgundians and Visigoths. The latter ruled areas that today make up Spain and Portugal.

Italy was dominated by the Ostrogoths. England, Wales and southern Scotland was made up of tiny “states” of Welsh speakers.

As Chris Wickham points out, “The larger western polities were all ruled in a Roman tradition, but they were more militarised, their fiscal structures were weaker, they had fewer economic interrelationships, and their internal economies were often simpler. A major change had taken place without anyone particularly intending it.”

There were repeated attempts to revive the old Roman Empire.

The eastern empire centred on Byzantium still existed, having withstood barbarian attacks. It secured peace with the Persian Empire on its eastern border and started expanding westwards.

In the first half of the sixth century Byzantine forces retook North Africa and then conquered most of Italy.

But the Byzantine empire would be driven back over the next century. The Lombards, a group who originated in northern Europe, invaded Italy and conquered all but the south of the peninsula.


Further wars with Persia left both empires exhausted. The rise of Islam in Saudi Arabia unleashed newly unified Arab armies that conquered Egypt, Palestine, and Syria as well as destroying the Persian empire.

The Arab forces would eventually conquer North Africa, Spain and Sicily. The Arabs took over the old Roman tax system, which gave them greater wealth and financial stability than their rivals (though frequent civil wars would prevent further expansion).

Byzantine power did partially recover, based on the Balkans, Greece and modern Turkey. But it could not hope to recover the western territories.

The old Mediterranean economy withered away as trade was disrupted.

Further west another new power was being born.

In the area between Paris and the Rhine a series of Frankish kings emerged. At different times these kings were able to use the relative wealth of that region to expand into modern France and Germany.

The process was disrupted by internal wars and dynastic changes, but in the second half of the eighth century one of these kings, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), established control over an empire including modern France, Belgium, Germany and Italy.

He was crowned as emperor in Rome by the Pope on Christmas Day in 800AD. In return the Pope was promoted as undisputed head of the church in Charlemagne’s realm. Until this point the bishop of Rome had been one leader of an increasingly divided Christian church.

Now the Roman Catholic church would dominate western Europe until the Reformation.

Charlemagne and his immediate heirs tried again to recreate what Rome had been. But centralised rule was impossible with such poor communications and with the economy and effective political control already broken down into local units.

The new empire took time to die – a century perhaps.

What emerged from it were much smaller units that gradually began to emerge in the Paris region. These would grow into the kingdom of France, various states in Germany (Saxony, Bavaria and so forth) and a myriad of city-states and duchies in Italy.

Permanent feature

War was of course a permanent feature of the whole period. As societies with weak state structures fought Charlemagne’s empire and its successor states, they began to copy the stronger state structure of their rivals.

In Central Europe, in Denmark and Anglo-Saxon England they drew on Charlemagne’s legacy. The rulers of what would become Russia and Bulgaria copied Byzantium, adopting its religion and alphabet.

Yet these kings relied on nobles to police their territories and to provide an army. These nobles had power of life and death over the peasantry.

By around 1000AD a qualitative change had occurred. Peasant labour was “unfree” – tied to a particular estate and having to provide a share of their crops or labour to the lord or the monastery that ruled them.

The contradiction between the slow emergence of states in Europe and localised (and militarised) power would take centuries to resolve but it was one of the factors in the demise of feudalism.

Few people had a concept of “Europe” in 1000AD.

For centuries more the Arabs would describe western Europeans as “Franks”. Religion was the dominant ideology and people identified themselves as being part of Christendom. The centuries that followed the collapse of Rome were the period of what we think of as the Middle Ages – with castles, knights, the Crusades and so on.

As Chris Wickham makes clear in this excellent book this era was the product of social and economic regression, war and the virtual enslavement of the mass of people.

It is, of course, unlikely that modern capitalist society would collapse through the same process of gradual changes and slow death.

It is far more likely to end with environmental disaster and war – or in successful revolution.

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham, is published in hardback by Allen Lane, £35, available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 »

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 17 Mar 2009, 18:45 GMT
Issue No. 2143
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.