Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The End of Empire

I am reading The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly.

The Roman Empire came into being around the beginning of the Common Era with Julius and Augustus Caesar. The book focuses on Attila and the incursions of his forces into Roman territory in the fifth century, and continues to the fall of the western Roman empire towards the end of that century. Of course the Byzantine Empire in the east continued to regard itself as the Roman Empire for another millennium. (See the timeline.)

I have been trying to understand the forces involved in the fall of the empire rather than the specific leaders and events described in this book. In doing so, it occurs to me that the emphasis on the empire is associated with a concern for political institutions and benchmarks in the life and death of those institutions. That is rather an odd frame.

Think of the 20th century. Most of us (at least of a certain age) can trace our families over the course of the century. The family may have stayed in place or moved from country to city, from city to city or from country to country. It may have lived under one or several governments. Yet the view is the continuity from parents to children, from generation to generation. We think of the family members in 1900 as pretty much like those of 2000, although they may be more or less educated, or indeed speak different languages and be citizens of different countries. The family history perspective is one of continuity. This is in spite of the fact that there were two world wars, that the Nazi and Soviet empires came and went. (Indeed, I was surprised to think of the United States military expeditions into Europe in the two world wars as a parallel to the entry of the Huns into the Roman empire in the fifth century; in both cases the military expeditions were critical to the history of the continent even though they were not intended to conquer territory in order to hold it as part of an expanded empire.)

Roman Empire at its maximum extension

Archaeologists apparently have shown that the towns and cities in the area controlled by the Roman Empire declined in size in the latter years of empire and at the same time increased the size of their walls and fortifications. The implication is that the population density of southern Europe and North Africa was going down.

There seem to be several reasons that the population was going down.
  • There seems to have been a climate change that made the weather colder during the half millennium of the Western Roman Empire's life.
  • Familiar to readers of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the peoples of the time may have depleted their environment progressively over time until a climate change occurred which could not be survived at their peak population density.
  • Familiar to readers of William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples, the improved transportation and mobility developed by the Romans, combined with the increased urbanization, probably unleashed epidemics with unprecedented mortality within the empire. If people were seeking shelter from colder weather, that too may have increased the transmission of communicable diseases.
  • In the later days of empire, bringing food from where it was available to where it was needed became much more difficult.
The Romans were able to finance government during the expansion of Roman power by the loot and slaves acquired by conquest. Those sources failed when the Romans stabilized their frontiers, and in the latter times of the empire as its size decreased, the area under taxation decreased. Government expenditures grew with government income but did not decrease when government income went down. One of the responses to these trends was to debase currency, which had deleterious effects on trade. Of course, other impacts may have been to decrease government expenditures on transportation infrastructure. Reportedly, while the government increasingly had to recruit its military from outside of Latinized areas by increasing pay for the troops, it was also having to reduce the quality of weapons and armor due to lack of funding.

The Western and Eastern Roman Empires circa 476

The latter times of empire were also a time in which Vandals, Goths, Huns and other peoples were moving. One can assume that the climate that favored the Romans during the Republic may have helped increase the populations of the non-Roman tribal peoples, and that cooler climates may have encouraged their migration, and as some tribes moved they could force the movement of others that they were replacing. The peoples who were on the edges of the Roman Empire may not have been as much affected by the factors mentioned above as were the Romans. On the other hand, they may have had to develop military technology to withstand the Roman incursions and attempts at conquest. The invention of the stirrup in Northern Europe has been cited as contributing to the success of barbarian cavalry.

Thus the increasing military power of the barbarian tribes and the increasing vulnerability of the Romans led to contraction of empire, with still less imperial ability to resist the barbarian incursions and conquests, and eventually to the fall of the Roman government of the Western Empire. It seems quite reasonable to me that there would be many causes interrelated in complex ways.

It also seems quite reasonable that there would have been a lot of continuity. As English is a lot more common in continental Europe in 2000 than it was in 1900 (even though England and the United States hold no territory in continental Europe in 2000), so too Latin was more common in the area once held by the Western European Roman Empire after its fall. The people remained, and their culture combined elements from the Romans with those of the barbarian conquerors (and no doubt elements predating both, and new elements invented over time).

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