The Fall of the Roman Empire

30-seconds summary of the previous episodes:

Rome had over 250 rulers since its foundation and the fall of the Empire in 476 CE when the last emperor was deposed. 

Romulus was the first of seven kings, overthrown in 509 BCE when Rome became a Republic. Authority has been held by two annually elected consuls. Still, provision was made for the appointment of a dictator in times of crisis.

The Roman democracy was entirely discarded in 27 BCE when absolute power was placed in the emperor’s hands.

By the min-2nd century BCE, Rome controlled the western Mediterranean, defending it with massive armies. 

The troops had more loyalty to the generals than to distant politicians. That’s how Caesar, from a soldier, became a dictator.

When in 44 BCE, Cesare became dictator for life, only to be assassinated a month later. The result was 17 years of civil war, which ended in 27 BCE when Augustus became Rome’s first emperor. 

  1. The 1st & 2nd century (aka The Roman Peace)
  2. The Greatest Emperors
  3. The 3rd century (aka The Fall of the Roman Empire)
  4. The 4th century (aka Rome becomes Christian)
  5. The 5th century (aka The Barbarians in Rome)
  6. Rome’s Legacy
  7. A Short Summary of the Ancient Western Civilisation

The Roman Peace

The Romans liked to think they were bringing Peace, law, and order to people who otherwise lived in barbarism. Romans spoke of the Roman Peace, though the Roman historian Tacitus, writing about Rome’s conquest of Carthage, put it somewhat differently:

They make a wilderness and call it Peace.


However, Augustus’ reign marked the start of 200 years of Peace, prosperity, and expansion known as the Pax Romana.

At its peak in 117 CE, Rome ruled an empire of 54 million people. Stretching from Scotland to Egypt and from Spain to modern-day Iraq. To the northeast, Rome was bounded by Rhine and Danube Rivers. Roman maps labeled the Mediterranean as “Mare Nostrum”: Our Sea. At its peak, the word Rome meant not just the city but the entire civilized Western world.

Trade thrived. Conquered peoples were welcomed into the fold of prosperity, linked by roads, common laws, common gods, education, and the Latin language. In this “global economy,” the Italian Peninsula became just one province of many in a worldwide empire, ruled by an emperor who had likely been born elsewhere.

And all of the wealth of this vast Empire flowed inward to the city of Rome. Rome was a bustling metropolis of more than a million people, a city faced with marble and gleaming bronze roofs and studded with Greek-style statues. Aqueducts brought fresh water to drink, fill the baths, and delight the citizens with bubbling fountains. Men flocked to the stadiums to bet on gladiator games. Chariot raced through paved streets, dodging herds of goats. Hot and tired tourists asked directions to their hotel while their slaves luged the luggage. 

The marketplace brimmed with exotic fruits, vegetables, and animals from every corner of the Empire. It was a dizzying maze of open-air plazas, pickpockets, temples, bathhouses, brothels, prostitutes, and street musicians. It was the wonder of the known world.

The Roman Empire even survived the often turbulent and naughty behavior of its emperors. (Their excesses of evil and cruelty are legendary, but the stories are likely exaggerated by early historians with a political ax to grind).

The Pax Romana’s unprecedented political stability was made possible in part by a relatively smooth succession of leaders. Most early peoples were ruled by kings and queens who insisted that they be succeeded by their own genetic offspring (whether qualified or not). Though they ruled with king-like powers, Roman emperors generally chose the most capable man and adopted him as a son. This is especially true of the second century’s finest emperors (Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius ..), none of whom had a son.

The Greatest Emperors of Ancient Rome

Augustus Caesar ruled 27 BCE – 14 CE. After eliminating his rival Marc Antony (and his lover Cleopatra), Augustus united Rome and became the first Roman emperor. His reign marks the start of 200 years of Peace and prosperity: the Pax Romana.

Tiberius ruled 14-37 CE. Augustus’ adopted son was the Caesar that Jesus Christ, Rendered Unto.

Render unto Caesar is the beginning of a phrase attributed to Jesus, which reads in full, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” It’s coming in response to a question of whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar.

Caligula, 37-41. He was not a nice person. He squandered Rome’s money, had sex with his sisters, tortured his enemies, had men kneel before him as a god. Caligula has become the archetype of a man with enough power to act out his basest fantasies. To no one’s regret, assassins ambushed him and ran a sword through his privates.

Nero, 54-68. Rome’s most notorious emperor killed his mother, kicked his pregnant wife to death. When Rome burned in 64 CE, Nero was accused of torching the city to clear land to build an even bigger house.

Titus, 79-81. Titus completed the Colosseum and defeated the Jews in Palestine. His victory is commemorated by the Arch of Titus in the Forum. During his reign, Mount Vesuvius exploded, burying Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

Trajan, 98-117. Rome’s expansion peaked under Spanish-born Trajan, the first emperor to come from the provinces rather than Rome. This conquering hero stretched Rome’s borders from Europe to North Africa to West Asia, creating a genuinely vast empire. The spoils of three continents were funneled into Rome. His conquests are carved into the 120-foot Trajan’s Column, a well-preserved monument in Rome’s center.

Hadrian, 117-138. A voracious tourist, Hadrian visited every corner of the enormous Empire. From Britain (where he built Hadrian’s Wall) to Egypt (where he sailed the Nile). To Jerusalem (where he suppressed a Jewish revolt), to Athens (where he soaked up the classical culture and played back-gammon). He scaled Sicily’s Mount Etna just to see what made a volcano tick. Back home, he beautified Rome with the Pantheon, his tomb (Castel Sant’Angelo), and his villa at Tivoli, a mini-theme park of famous places he’d visited. His beard, the first worn by an emperor, shows him looking like the wise Greek philosopher he imagined himself to be.

Marcus Aurelius, 161-180. Beset by barbarian attacks and an awful plague, the time of Marcus Aurelius’ reign marks Rome’s tipping point, as the Empire began its slow, three-century decline. The famous philosopher was a multitasker, writing his Meditations while at war securing the Danube frontier. His Danube campaign was commemorated by a column decorated with battle scenes (on Rome’s Piazza Colonna). A rare equestrian statue of Aurelius (now in Rome’s Capitol Hill Museum, with a copy in the adjacent square) was spared destruction by Dark Age Christians who mistook it for Constantine, the first Christian emperor.

Commodus, 180-192. Marcus Aurelius broke with tradition and chose his blood son to succeed him. Commodus was a palace brat who ran around dressed in animal skins and wielding a club, pretending to be Hercules. As emperor, he ushered in a period of instability and decline.

Septimius Severus, 193-211. This African emperor-general’s victories on the frontier earned him a grand triumphal arch in the Forum. Still, he couldn’t stop the Empire from starting to unravel.

Caracalla, 211-217. To strengthen Rome, Caracalla extended citizenship to nearly all free men in the Empire. But no amount of bathing at his vast Baths of Caracalla could wash away his dirty deed of murdering how brother and rival. Caracalla was one of a series of third-century emperors who were assassinated; he was stabbed in the back by an angry rival.

Aurelian, 270-275. Aurelian built a wall around Rome. The capital hadn’t needed a wall for the previous six centuries, but now the crumbling, stumbling city feared barbarian attacks.

Diocletian, 285-305. To try to control Rome’s decline, Diocletian split the sprawling Empire into two administrative halves. He ruled the east from Asia Minor. The city of Split, Croatia, was later built in and around his retirement palace. His works in Rome include the massive Baths of Diocletian (accessible today as the Octagonal Hall and Church of Santa Maria Degli Angeli). Diocletian was an avid persecutor of Christians; it’s poetic justice that his baths are now a church! 

Constantine, 306-337. The first Christian emperor is known as Constantine the Great. In the belief that the Christian God helped him defeat his rival Maxentius in 312, he legalized Christianity. In Rome, the Arch of Constantine celebrates Constantine’s victory. The churches he built, such as San Giovanni in Laterano, celebrate Christianity’s triumph. In 330, Constantine moved the Roman Empire’s capital to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), a decision that weakened Rome but built a solid foundation for the Byzantine Empire.

Romulus Augustulus, 475-476. Rome’s last emperor, 14-year-old, aka Little Augustus, was forced to abdicate by a barbarian chieftain, and the reign of Rome’s emperors was over.

3rd century: The Fall of the Roman Empire 

Rome peaked in the second century CE, under the capable emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. But in the third century, the great Empire started to fall apart.

First, the Empire was devastated by a series of epidemics of plague and malaria. The economy, increasingly dependent on booty and slaves, began to falter. Rome consumed everything and produced nothing. Rulers found it impossible to maintain a 10.000-mile frontier as barbarians pecked away at the borders, hoping for their slice of Rome’s pie.

Taxation rose to oppressive levels, and inflation skyrocketed to 1.000% during 20 years. To save money, the emperors debased the coinage, so there was hardly any silver in it.

Prices went through the roof!

Politically, the government had become more like a banana republic than a great empire. The Roman army could virtually handpick an emperor to be their frontman.

At one point, the office of the emperor was literally auctioned to the highest bidder. During one 50-year stretch, 18 emperors were saluted, then murdered, by fickle generals. The army was no longer a provider or protector; it was a dangerous and expensive problem.

To save an army pay, the Romans started taking prisoners to use as slaves and troops. Most of these foreigners were Germans, known as foederati. The Romans appropriated many of these foederati. So the Empire was becoming more German even before the real trouble began.  

Rome’s slow-motion fall, inspired emperors to try drastic solutions. Diocletian (248-305) instituted a caste system to maintain order and split the Empire into two administrative halves under two equal emperors.

His successor Constantine (306-337) eventually solidified the divide by moving the Empire’s capital from decaying Rome to a newly expanded city he called Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). 

In the fourth century CE, a fierce, warlike, and utterly ruthless people had come charging across Russia’s plains all the way from China: The Huns.

The Huns cut one German tribe, the Ostrogoths, to pieces. And made them a subject people. Now they were pressing hard against the Ostrogoths’ neighbors, the Visigoths. The Visigoths lived along the Danube, modern-day Romania, which meant they were close to the Roman frontier. The Visigoths decided to ask the emperor of the eastern Roman Empire, for asylum.

He denied doing a deal. The Visigoths were allowed to settle if they agreed to defend the Danube frontier against the Huns. This arrangement should have worked, but unfortunately, food got scarcer. Many unscrupulous Roman officials started to extort money out of these new arrivals. Not such a good idea.

The Visigoths turned on the Romans. With a little help from the Huns (who were only too pleased to stir things up), they defeated a large Roman army at Adrianople in Greece. Thousands of Romans were killed, including the emperor.

That outcome made the Romans sit up, they couldn’t ignore the Visigoths, but they couldn’t welcome them either. The Romans started paying the Visigoths protection money, which worked for a while, until the Visigoth king, Alaric, asked if he could be a general in the Roman army. The emperor said no. ‘All right,’ said Alaric, ‘you’ll be sorry.’ So Alaric got his Visigoths together, invaded Italy, and in 410 CE, they all entered Rome. And sacked it.

Rome’s intellectuals and merchants packed up and headed east. Almost instantly, the once-great city of Rome became a minor player in imperial affairs.

The eastern Byzantine half of the Empire would thrive and live on for another thousand years.

None of Rome’s internal problems were catastrophic in themselves, but the combination of them sapped Rome’s strength. The Empire would stagger on for another 200 years, shrinking in size and wealth. Meanwhile, Rome’s city was becoming a den of thugs, thieves, prostitutes, barbarian and Christians.

4th century: Constantine, the First Christian Emperor

Early followers of Jesus Christ had visited Rome following Jesus’ death, but attracted only a handful of converts. Unlike most foreigners, these Christians were persecuted severely by the Romans because their ‘jealous’ god refused to give them permission to worship the Roman emperor as a god on earth. Many were crucified, burned, and fed to the lions.

But by 300 CE, their numbers were growing, especially among Rome’s lower classes, who were inspired by the idea that anyone – slave, plebe, or barbarian – could attain salvation. Finally, they found a champion for their cause.

At sunset on October 27, 312 CE, two rival Roman armies were preparing to face outside Rome to determine the next ruler. Constantine gazed into the sun and saw a mysterious sign, convincing him that the Christian god was on his side. The next day, he led his troops into the Battle of Milvian Bridge and emerged victoriously. Constantine assumed power and promptly legalized the Christian faith. It was also a pragmatic move to support a growing, prosperous, and potentially law-abiding minority. 

The once persecuted cult quickly became a Europe-wide religion, and Jupiter and Juno were replaced by Jesus and Mary.

Catacombs in Rome

When you’re coming to Rome and have a way to freely move around the city, you should visit the catacombs.

The catacombs are burial places for (mostly) Christians who died in ancient Roman times. 

By law, no one was allowed to be buried within the walls of Rome. While pagan Romans were into cremation, Christians preferred to be buried. But the land was expensive, and most Christians were poor. A few wealthy landowning Christians allowed their lands to be used as burial places.

The 40 or so known catacombs, circle Rome about three miles from the center. From the first through the fifth centuries, Christians dug an estimated 360 miles of tomb-lined tunnels with galleries’ networks as many as five layers deep. They burrowed deep for two reasons:

  1. to get more mileage out of the donated land
  2. to be near martyrs and saints already buried there

The tufa rock the Christians burrowed into was perfect for the job: it was soft and comfortable to cut but became very hard when exposed to air. Bodies were wrapped in line like Christ. 

Since they figured the Second Coming was imminent, there was no interest in embalming the body.

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, Christians had a new, exciting problem. There would be no more persecuted martyrs to bind them and inspire them. Thus, early martyrs and popes assumed more importance, and Christians began making pilgrimages to their burial places in the catacombs.

In the 800s, when barbarian invaders started ransacking the tombs, Christians moved the relics of saints and martyrs to churches’ safety in the city center. For a thousand years, the catacombs were forgotten.

What is the significance of catacombs?

In about 1850, they were excavated and became part of the Romantic Age’s Grand Tour of Europe.

Finding abandoned plates and utensils from ritual meals in the candlelit galleries led romantics to guess that persecuted Christians hid out and lived in these catacombs. This romantic legend grew. But catacombs were not used for hiding out; they were simply early Christian burial grounds. With a million people in Rome, the easiest way for the 10.000 or so early Christians to hideout wasn’t to camp in catacombs – everyone, including the government, knew about it – but to meet into the city.

Why did Christians draw symbols on the catacombs?

While empty of bones, the underground tunnels are rich in early Christian symbolism that functioned as a secret language. A dove symbolized the soul. You’ll see it quenching its thirst (worshipping), with an olive branch (at rest), or happily perched (in paradise).

Peacocks, known for their ‘incorruptible flesh’ symbolized immortality. With a lamb on his shoulders, the shepherd is the ‘good shepherd,’ the first portrayal of Christ.

The fish was used as a symbol because the first letters of these words in Greek ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior’ spelled ‘fish.’ The anchor is a cross in disguise.

The top museums of Ancient Rome

  • Vatican Museum
  • National Museum of Rome
  • Capitol Hill Museum
  • EUR museum (scale of ancient Rome)
  • Nationale archaeological museum

5th century: The Barbarians in Rome

Despite the efforts of Constantine and the Christians, Rome’s downfall was inevitable.

Let’s recap the problems: false economy, plagues, corruption, emperor-of-the-month coups, crumbling infrastructure, an overextended army, and the constant pressure from barbarian tribes on the fringes.

Rome’s legions began backpedaling, and the Empire dwindled until Rome was little more than the city itself, surrounded by a protective wall.

Barbarian tribes from Germany and Sia poured in to loot and plunder. The town was sacked by Visigoths (410) and vandalized by Vandals (455). The pope had to personally plead with Attila the Hun for mercy (451). A thousand years of tradition was disintegrating.

Finally, in 476, the last emperor sold his title for a comfy pension. Rome fell, plunging Europe into a thousand years of darkness.

Rome’s Legacy 

But Rome lived on. After Rome’s fall, her urban nobility fled from the cities, establishing themselves as the feudal lords of medieval Europe’s countryside. Latin, the Roman language, continued as the language of the educated and ruling classes.

The Christian church preserved much of Rome’s administration and sheer grandeur: Emperors became popes, senators became bishops, and Rome’s city remained the center of Christianity.

As the curators of Greek heritage, Rome preserved and passed down Greek statues, language and culture. The Greco-Roman mastery of art lay dormant for a thousand years before awakening again in Europe’s Renaissance, the rebirth of classical beauty. Rome’s architecture spawned everything from cathedral domes and Neoclassical temples to today’s stadiums and concrete patios. The roman system of law provided the foundation for most Western governments that followed.

Rome’s myths and the pantheon of gods have enriched literature. Her bad emperors have given us a lot of Hollywood movies.

Summary of Ancient Western Civilisation

Each of the ancient cultures influenced the following one. The early Mesopotamian cities came first, followed by the stable agricultural civilization of Egypt. The Minoans from Crete influenced the mainland Mycenaeans, who slowly evolved into the Greeks who brought about a Golden Age of culture.

Alexander the Great spread this culture by conquest throughout the Hellenistic world, which was later adopted by the growing Roman Empire. After Rome’s thousand-year-long rise and fall, Rome’s sacking marked the end of ancient Europe.

While culture moved progressively westward from Mesopotamia to Rome, central and northern Europe remained populated by barbarian tribes wallowing in prehistory … not yet civilized enough to write down their own history.

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