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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

The Roman Empire At Its Height

In many ways, the Roman empire remains the model for Western civilization. The question why the empire fell is an important one because many people believe that the answer might reveal a flaw or weakness in Western civilization itself. This question may or may not have an answer, but we have to understand the nature of the empire before considering how and why it fell.

1. The Roman empire was not unique. It was one of the classical empires of the Old World. These empires -- Han China, Mauryan India, Sassanid Persia and the Rome -- arose in the period 200-100 BC, and were characterized by the fact that they were formed by the union of at least two widely disparate geographical regions. Han China had arisen in the valley of the northern, Huang-ho River and had conquered the southern Yang-tze River valley; Mauryan India had expanded from the valley of the Indus River to occupy the valley of the Ganges River; the Persians, inhabitants of mountains and plateau of what is now the nation of Iran, had gained control of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; the Romans, inhabitants of a small town in Italy, in the western basin of the Mediterranean, had manages to conquer first the entire western basin, and then the eastern basin of this almost land-locked body of water.

2. Let's consider the differences between the western portion of the empire, centered on the western Mediterranean, and the eastern portion, which included lands that had been deeply influenced by Greek culture.

Comparison of the Eastern and Western Portions of the Roman Empire
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3. The regions that comprised these classic empires, including the Roman empire, were so different that they had to be united by forces, and the imperial governments kept them together by capitalizing on any natural features that they had in common, and by establishing and maintaining common institutions throughout their lands. Interestingly enough, each of the empires used basically the same unifying institutions: a common language, currency, system of weights and measures, networks of roads and canals, standing army, centralized authority and a professional civil servants, etc. The unifying factors in the Roman empire were:


Most of the population of the Roman empire lived within easy reach of the Mediterranean, and the imperial government promoted and protected sea-trade and naval communications between the various parts of the empire.
Land communications were made easier by the constructions of an extensive system of roads and bridges


Absolute rule embodied in an emperor who, in the state-sponsored emperor cult was considered to be a god
Trained bureaucracy
Well-developed written laws
Uniform system of local government based upon the civitas (municipality and surrounding countryside).


The large standing army was concentrated on the frontier and defended the interior of the empire against foreign invasions.
When not fighting, the army built roads, bridges, canals, aqueducts, and other public works throughout the empire
Units were allowed to remain in permanent garrisons over long periods of time and so built very Roman towns along the very edge of the empire. This helped to romanize those peoples living far from the economic and cultural centers of the empire.

Wherever it was sent, the Roman army provided local inhabitants an example of Romanitas, the sense of belonging to a great civilization


The Romans established Latin as the common and official language of the empire, but also adopted Greek culture and, in a form called Graeco-Roman, spread a common literature, architecture, art, etc., throughout the empire.


Uniform currency
Uniform system of weights and measures
An economic balance was maintained between the wealthy and productive East and the relatively poor and backward West. The East was taxed heavily, and the money transferred to the West, which used the money to purchase goods from the East.


The Romans established a strict policy of religious toleration.
They themselves freely adopted and adapted the gods and goddesses of the people they conquered, a process called syncretism
They promoted a certain degree of commonality by establishing and promoting emperor worship, which acted much the same as patriotic rituals -- saluting the flag, the formulaic pledge of allegiance, standing when singing the national anthem, reverence for the cloth of the flag -- are intended to promote feelings on national unity among citizens.


Pax romana (Roman peace): The Romans brought an unprecedented degree of peace and security to the lands of their empire, and their citizens and subjects fully appreciated that these blessings were dependent on the continued unity of the empire.
Romanitas (the sense of being roman) was a deeply-held sentiment and outlived the empire itself by a matter of centuries.

But such institutions required attention and constant effort to maintain. A weakness in the Roman imperial system led to internal wars and civil strife that eventually made it impossible for the imperial government to support these institutions and policies as it once had.

3. The Romans were unwilling to give up their reverence for Rome's long tradition of republican government even when such a form of government could no longer survive.

Augustus Caesar converted the Republic into an empire in about14 BC by concentrating the major offices of the Republic in his own person and maintaining the fiction that he was preserving and maintaining the Republic.

Under such a policy, he was unable to establish a stable system of imperial succession, and struggles for power eventually began to drain the empire of its strength.

69 AD: civil war among the frontier legions to raise an emperor.
69 - 192: Era of military emperors
193 - 197: Civil war of Septimius Severus
258 - 283: Era of the Thirty Tyrants
283: Breakdown of the imperial system of frontier defense, and Germanic raids throughout the western portions of the empire
283: Diocletian becomes emperor and begins sweeping reforms in the imperial system.

4. To all intents and purposes, the Roman empire established by Augustus Caesar, what people generally think of when they talk of the glory that was Rome had come to an end by the 280's.

So, one possible answer to the question of when the Roman empire fell would be "sometime around AD 284." Why did it fall? The imperials system had proven unable to maintain internal peace and order, and it could no longer maintain the institutions and policies upon which its unity, security, and prosperity depended.

What followed it? "Another Roman empire."

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.