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Seth Cassel
November 2005

The Decline of the Roman Army and Society: Causes for the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire

A decline of two elements of the Western Roman Empire, the Roman army and Roman society, weakened the Empire to the point where external attacks, which had previously been repelled, successfully overran the Empire. The Roman army and society declined in the time from 180 AD to the overthrow of Augustus in 476 AD. Problems within the army and society invited attacks from outside that would eventually destroy the Western Roman Empire. The doors were open to barbarian invasions from the Huns and Germanic groups such as the Vandals, Lombards, Alamanni, Goths, Franks, and Burgundians to attack the Western Roman Empire. These groups brought the final blow, overrunning the Empire's towns and cities, meeting little resistance from the Roman army. Eventually, barbarians dethroned the last Roman Emperor, when Germanic mercenaries led by Odovacar overthrew Romulus Augustus on September 4, 476. This event is commonly called the end of the Western Roman Empire. Despite the eventual failure of the Roman army to protect against such invasions, the army had been an effective military force in earlier times.

The attacks on the Roman Empire during these earlier times, before the decline, were repelled because the Empire had a powerful army. One example of the might of the Roman army was during the three Punic Wars that spanned from 264 BC to 146 BC, when the Roman Empire fought Carthage, the other Mediterranean super-power at the time. With an overwhelming army and navy, the Romans were able to defeat Carthage. Defeat was possible because the Roman Empire was strong at the time; they had the army and manpower to bounce back from losses and still have a powerful force. Another example of the strength of the Roman army was in the Gallic Wars, from 58 BC- 51 BC, when the Romans defeated the people of Gaul. Caesar and his Roman army were able to win "due to a combination of clever politics, effective campaigning and greater military capability than their Gaulish opponents." The Roman Empire was able to defeat their enemies during the Empire's prime because of their superior, effective army, but during its decline, the quantity and quality of the Roman army worsened.

During the decline, the Roman army had been severely weakened to the point where invaders that could have previously been defeated by the Empire were eventually able to destroy it. Ultimately, the Roman Empire collapsed because of "the general failure of its armies to perform the tasks that were required of them." One reason for the breakdown of the army was that the Roman legions would fight in civil wars over their choices for Emperor because they were unhappy with the weaker Emperors that were frequent in the later Roman Empire. "These struggles served as an irresistible invitation to German and other enemies to break into the distracted provinces." Although the civil wars served as a distraction to the Roman army, the wars also had a detrimental effect on the army because they damaged its manpower, both in quality and numbers.

The Roman army during this time was divided into the high quality soldiers, called the field force, and the lower quality soldiers, referred to as the frontier force, who did not fight as much as the field force. The frontier force was mainly deployed to local garrisons that were not as volatile as the places where the field forces fought. Because of the civil wars between the legions and the battles against outside invaders and enemies of the Western Roman Empire, the field force was considerably weakened and greatly reduced in number. The field force had to take second-rate soldiers from the frontier force, thus lowering the quality of the army. The waning quality of the Roman army was not its only concern; there were also not a sufficient number of new soldiers being drafted.

The Roman army never saw a regular draft, which would have strengthened their ranks in number. When drafting was carried out, many of the categories of people were excused from serving. Senators and bureaucrats were among those freely exempt, but even cooks, bakers, and slaves did not have to join the military. Those who were called up to serve in the Roman army did everything to escape it, from amputating their own thumbs to deserting. Eventually, the Emperors resorted to "commute the military obligations of Roman provincials for gold." This gold was then used to buy German mercenaries to take the spots of Romans, but this was only a temporary solution to the decaying Roman army. The Romans were prejudice against the Germans. Therefore, this relationship eventually was not beneficial because the Germans became disheartened and undependable. This added to the internal disunity in the army, created by civil wars and manpower problems. This dilemma mortally injured the Roman army and rendered it incapable of protecting the Empire, but problems in their weakened society also contributed to its decline.

Troubles in the Roman army were one cause for the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but a different reason that led to the collapse was problems in Roman society. The Roman army and society depended on each other for survival, but they were essentially different elements of the Roman Empire. Roman society developed problems in the poor, middle, and upper classes, which, like the Roman army, contributed to the Empire's downfall. Further problems that society faced were increased religious and racial tensions.

The poor were unfairly taxed by the Emperors to support the army and the Empire. "Almost all the population of the Empire, at least some 90 percent, lived by farming on little more that a subsistence level, though its tax burden may have been slightly less than 90 percent." The poor were thus driven lower into poverty and this had repercussions throughout Western Roman society. Most had been farmers of small plots of land, but once the powerful landowners bought them up, they had few choices. They could continue to live on the farms as little more than slaves or work for the landowners in feudal arrangements, either way losing most of their freedoms. Another option they had was to go into the cities and try to find work there. Naturally, this lowly position in society disheartened the poor; therefore, they also did not join the army as they used to. The situation of the poor also disrupted the peace as they joined guerrilla groups and traveled as gangs of robbers and bandits. The Emperors forced the poor into a position where it was nearly impossible to make a meager living, pushing them into abject poverty and criminal acts, making them disconcerted with the Empire.

The Emperors of the Western Roman Empire also ruined the middle class, which had always been the backbone of the Roman Empire. By taking tax revenue from the cities, where most of the middle class resided and worked, Constantine the Great sapped most of the wealth out of the cities and therefore affected the middle-class, taking jobs away from them. The middle class, lacking work, was forced to take on jobs that the aristocrats did not want to do, such as councilors and tax collectors. They were given "personal liability for their whole region's tax deficits, which they were often quite unable to make good." Thus, the people of the middle class were driven deeper into poverty. Also, these new jobs made them hated by those below them in the social order, and they were made to stay at these posts under the threat of law. Therefore, a vital part of any society, the middle class, was alienated and destroyed, further damaging the Western Roman Empire.

The aristocrats of the Roman Empire were both the landowners and the Senators, who were influential, but corrupt. The landowners lived away from larger cities and did not influence the government. They had their own private armies that helped them resist taxation and become nearly separate city-states, further disuniting the Western Roman Empire. They bought up land and pushed their owners off. The Senators, who had always been subordinate to the Emperor, gained power during the decline of the Western Roman Empire and as the poor got poorer these rich aristocrats, became even richer. The Senators and others in civil service were corrupt. They were focused on personal gain. "Wealthy figures… bought house after house and field after field, ejecting their former owners and absorbing entire hamlets into their own insatiable hands." The Senators were not focused on making laws to improve Roman society. The landowners and Senators of the Empire were corrupt and mainly interested in accumulating wealth.

Above the landowners and Senators in society were the Emperors, who, in the later Roman Empire, were, for the majority, isolated from their constituency in the Western Roman Empire. The Emperors of the later Western Roman Empire "were so hopelessly cut off from the thoughts and feelings and needs of their subjects." Most of the Emperors during this time were disconnected from the world by their courts and excessive wealth. This made them unaware of the problems in society and the needs of their people and army, "making recovery out of the question." Not only were there problems in each of the classes, including the seclusion of the Emperor, but there were also tensions among the people in Roman society.

Religious and racial tensions among the people further added to the problems in society that, like the problems in the Roman army, contributed to the Western Roman Empire's collapse. The Roman Empire had long believed in paganism; however, Constantine the Great, ruling from 306 - 337 AD, converted to Christianity and gradually converted the empire to the same faith. This was done to unify the Empire under a single religion. However, instead of bringing about unity, it brought disunity. Some of the Empire's populous wanted to hold on to their pagan beliefs. The state, which had combined with the church, would not let them. For example, Theodosius I, ruling from 387-95 AD, forbade pagan worship altogether under the threat of dire penalties. The civil authorities too vigorously carried out their duties of conversion thus causing hostilities amongst the populous and hatred toward the Emperor and his government. Not only did the Christian government alienate pagan worshippers, but also they were religiously intolerant of the Jews and Manicheans. Furthermore, there were racial tensions between the Romans and Germans. Many Germans gradually had become part of the Roman Empire. The Romans also used the Germans in their armies, but they avoided what could have been a beneficial relationship with them. In fact, the Romans viewed the Germans with contempt and treated them as second-class citizens, adding to tension in the populous. For example, in 370 a law "deliberately failed to tolerate intermarriage between Roman citizens and German immigrants." It has been said that, "Rome's downfall was accelerated by its total failure once the Germans had been admitted within the Empire, to assimilate them by blending the two races." The Germans in Roman society resented the way the Romans treated them and this made them less supportive of the Empire. The tensions within the Empire due to religious and racial prejudices by the Romans made many people unsupportive of the Roman cause and created unrest in the populous that contributed to the decline of the Western Roman Empire.

The decline, and eventual collapse, of the Western Roman Empire was due to problems in two elements of the Empire, the army and society. The troubles in the Roman Army were due to civil wars and a decrease of the quality and quantity of soldiers protecting the Empire. There were also problems in the poor, middle, and upper classes combined with racial and religious tensions among the people, which together contributed to a decline in society. A weakened army and a problematic society caused a decline in the Western Roman Empire, which opened the doors to barbarian invasions that eventually led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD.

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