The Fall Of The Roman Empire

The Fall Of The Roman Empire

The following is an edited transcript of Ben Shapiro’s new “Facts” episode: “The Fall Of The Roman Empire,” now available on DailyWire+.

Why did Rome fall? At its height, the Roman Empire was an unparalleled superpower, encompassing vast territories across Europe, Asia, and Africa. It boasted advanced infrastructure, a complex political system, and an extremely powerful military. However, by the fifth century A.D., the Empire was in severe decline.

So what exactly happened? That question has been asked by dozens of major authors over the course of centuries. For some, like Edward Gibbon, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was largely a question of moral turpitude or lack of civic virtue. For others, the fall was more about military overreach and environmental catastrophe. The truth is, like all history, it’s incredibly complicated.

Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Western Roman Empire — the territory comprising modern day Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, and much of Northern Africa — fell because of a confluence of factors. Those factors break down into essentially four: economic, governmental, environmental, and social. 

Let’s begin with the economic. 

The Roman Empire was a heavily centralized economy, with the Roman government setting prices, currency rates, and quotas. While early emperors had allowed some elements of the free market, later emperors began to squeeze outlying areas in favor of subsidies closer to home in an attempt to resolve financial issues. 

Roman emperors repeatedly reduced the silver content in coins, leading to rampant inflation. This erosion of monetary value, debasing the currency, severely weakened the economy and eroded trust in the government’s financial management. Without a free market, the heavy hand of the Roman military had to be applied more broadly in order to gain resources. That also meant higher costs. Meanwhile, taxes increased on the wealthy. The Empire also became more and more dependent on slaves, given that freedom and wages required a free market.

IURII BUKHTA. Getty Images. A treasure of Roman gold and silver coins.Trajan Decius. AD 249-251. AV Aureus.Ancient coin of the Roman Empire.Authentic silver denarius, antoninianus,aureus of ancient Rome.Antikvariat.

IURII BUKHTA. Getty Images.

Thanks to raging inflation and taxation increases, the Emperor Diocletian (218-305 A.D.) attempted price controls. More centralization of the economy followed in the footsteps of the failures of such measures. In the words of historian Bruce Bartlett, “In the end, there was no money left to pay the army, the forts or ships or protect the frontier.” Barbarian invasions, which were the final blow to the Roman state in the fifth century, were simply the culmination of three centuries of deterioration in the fiscal capacity of the state to defend itself.

WATCH: Ben Shapiro’s new FACTS episode: “The Fall Of The Roman Empire”

Next, let’s turn to the Roman government. 

As the Roman government became more and more centralized in terms of power, support of the army became the crucial factor in obtaining leadership. This meant that anyone who could gain credibility with the army could make a play for the throne. And that’s precisely what happened: repeated military coups. The third century A.D. saw 29 different emperors. Emperors were frequently overthrown or assassinated, leading to a rapid turnover of leadership. This political turmoil weakened the central authority and made it difficult to implement consistent policy.

The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate - painting by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844) Napoli, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

The division of the Empire into Western and Eastern Roman empires by Diocletian was intended to make administration more manageable. But it also created a rivalry between the two halves. While the Eastern Empire, which would become known as the Byzantine Empire, managed to survive for another thousand years, the Western Empire struggled to cope with internal divisions and external pressures. The importance of the army also meant a constant attempt to maintain military support, which meant both bribery and frequent military action.

The pressure from barbarian invasions further exacerbated the Empire’s woes. Various tribes, including the Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns, began to penetrate Roman territories in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D. and the Vandals in 455 A.D. were catastrophic blows that symbolized the Empire’s vulnerability.

Max Zolotukhin. Getty Images. Ruins in the Roman Forum under a picturesque sky.

Max Zolotukhin. Getty Images.

Now, the environmental.

Epidemics, such as the plague of Cyprian in the third century A.D., decimated the population, reducing the number of able-bodied men available for military service and labor. Additionally, soil depletion and deforestation from centuries of agricultural exploitation led to decreased agricultural productivity, contributing to food shortages and economic decline.

Finally, the social.

Edward Gibbon famously suggested that the moral character of the Roman people had been sapped over the course of centuries and military overstretch had brought home “the vices of strangers and mercenaries and thus first oppressed the freedom of the Republic and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple.”

Historian Victor Davis Hanson argues, “Clearly the pernicious effects of affluence and laxity, warped Roman sensibility and created a culture of entitlement. It was not justified by revenues or the creation of actual commensurate wealth, and the resulting debits, inflation, debased currency, and gradual state impoverishment, gave the far more vulnerable Western empire far less margin of error when barbarians arrived or rival generals marched on Rome.”

Crisfotolux. Getty Images. Relief panel with battle scene between roman cavalry and dacian barbarians, from beautiful Arch of Constantine in the center of Rome.

Crisfotolux. Getty Images.

Does any of that sound familiar? Too much affluence, too much laxity, a belief that wealth was simply a part of life as opposed to something to be created, high levels of taxation, centralized economics, imperial overstretch. All this sounds a little bit familiar. 

After the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., the Western Roman Empire fragmented into a patchwork of smaller, often competing kingdoms. This period, known as the early Middle Ages, or less accurately, as the Dark Ages, saw significant political, social, and economic transformations.

The centralized Roman administration collapsed, leading to a decline in urban centers, trade, and literacy. Germanic tribes like the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Franks established their own kingdoms on former Roman territories. The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, continued to thrive, preserving much of Roman culture and knowledge. The Catholic Church emerged as a unifying force in Europe, providing stability and continuity with spiritual and administrative roles. 

This era set the stage for the development of medieval Europe, characterized by feudalism, the rise of monasticism, and the gradual fusion of Roman, Christian, and Germanic traditions. The collapse of Rome wasn’t merely a sudden event, but a gradual decay fueled by internal corruption, economic instability, and the erosion of foundational values.

Today, we stand at a crossroads where similar challenges threaten our stability. The Roman Empire teaches us that no civilization, regardless of its power and influence, is immune to decline if it fails to uphold the principles of responsibility, civic virtue, cultural integrity, and freedom.

It’s incumbent upon us to learn from history, to strengthen our institutions, and to foster a society that values freedom, resilience, and relentless pursuit of truth. By doing so, we can ensure that our legacy is not one of downfall, but perhaps of enduring greatness.

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