Downfall: 5 Reasons Why the Roman Empire Collapsed

Pinterest - Diocletian
Pinterest – Diocletian

3 – The Split Empire

When Diocletian became emperor in 284 AD, he realized that it was no longer possible for one man to rule the vast empire. He made Maximian his co-emperor sometime in 285 AD with Empire split into east and west; Nicomedia was the original capital although it was changed to Constantinople in 330 AD. From this point onwards, the Senate would be ignored. In the past, it had advised the emperor on matters of state. The power of the empire was supposed to be based on an active military which became a problem when the empire’s military strength waned.

Some of the later emperors never even set foot in Rome and while the division offered an initial boost in strength, it ultimately made the Western Empire more vulnerable to attack. Rome had been having issues with Germanic tribes for centuries but was usually able to repel them or buy them off with land, an invitation to join the army or citizenship. The split became permanent in 330 AD.

Both halves of the empire prospered equally until the defeat of Eastern Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378 AD. East and West effectively broke apart due to internal and external problems during the reign of Theodosius I. During his spell as emperor (379-395 AD), the empire’s resources and boundaries became overstretched, and he spent much of his time spreading Christianity and stamping out pagan practices. The Gothic War was mainly fought by Eastern Empire forces, but it weakened the Empire in the West.

Theodosius was the last person to rule over a unified empire. Upon his death, the Western and Eastern parts were governed by separate emperors. During the 5th Century AD, certain rulers actually moved the seat of the Western Empire away from Rome with Ravenna and Milan serving as capital at different stages. The split worked well for the East which lasted another 1,000 years but the West completely crumbled.


  • swarm4

    Sounds like another empire I’ve heard of.

  • “While these new recruits were exceptional warriors, they had zero loyalty to the empire. In fact, they increasingly began to turn against their Roman counterparts.”

    There’s a lot more to that than this part of the article suggests. Many of them were loyal – in fact, when Goths finally took over the Empire they specifically preserved most Roman laws and traditions, and started restoring Roman buildings and monuments. The problem was that Rome wasn’t loyal to them. The Empire made promises to its Germanic soldiers, including promises of land (a standard reward for 20-year veterans) that they never ended up keeping. Alaric, the Goth who sacked Rome in 410, started out as a Roman officer and governor, but rebelled after (1) his soldiers stopped getting paid, and (2) they spent years waiting for land they were promised, and then were given land far from where they’d been promised. Alaric’s Goths wound up being stabbed in the back by both the Western and Eastern emperors.

    Another little-known fact is that most of the damage to the Empire in the 5th century, in the decades leading up to its fall, was only technically caused by Germanic tribes. I say technically because while they did the wrecking, they were doing it in the service of rich Romans who were fighting one another. A good recent look at this can be found in Peter Brown’s book Through the Eye of a Needle.

  • FeshonALfliP

    Can’t wait until it happens to the American empire.

    • Justin Michael Lane

      Which it won’t, most of us are loyal hard working people. Come take my land ????????

    • Thomassen Bart

      Why would you be excited to see an economic collapse of the USA? The results would be catastrophic for all.

    • danram

      Anyone seriously calling America “an empire” is a complete idiot. “Empires” are held together by force and the threat of force. What America has are alliances with other countries with similar interests and values. But any member of those alliances is free to leave any time they wish.

      • Thomassen Bart


      • Beedee50

        And of course the UNITED STATES government doesn’t hold its power by force and the threat of force. No no. Taxation, regulations, legislation, surveillance, the para-military police, immigration, warmongering all over the world, the prison system…these are all voluntary. No threats of force there, at all.

      • rayo

        The American empire was created by force. It is maintained by force.

        Your arrogance spouts from the barrel of a gun.

  • Lil_Nemo

    Notice the devaluation of the currency. the US dollar is now worth only about 5% of what it was when the FED was established.

    • danram

      Please. Most of that devaluation is due to inflation and the same can be said for every other currency in the world.

  • Craig Banholzer

    Taxes. Maintaining the borders required a lot of money. When Caracalla extended citizenship to all residents of the empire, he was attempting to enlarge the number of taxable individuals. Small landholders came to fear the tax collector more than the barbarians, and began to flee to the protection of large latifundia, laying the foundation of feudalism. Finally, because we need to recognize that only the western parts of the empire fell in the fifth century, we need to add the effect of the Arab invasion. The eastern empire rebounded under Justinian, and re-incorporated parts of the west. His successors fought fruitless wars with Persia, weakening the empire, and allowing the Arabs to quickly conquer Palestine, Egypt and most of Anatolia.

    • Thomassen Bart

      Collecting taxes was not a primary issue. A debasement of silver coinage was. This debasement accompanied by massive pay increases for the troops and subsequent inflation, seriously undermined the government’s ability to stabilize and control the empire and also led to a decrease in trade overall, which in turn created a vicious cycle of further debasement, inflation etc… Also, by the time of Caracalla, most people were paying some kind of tax. It did not depend on ones citizenship and expanding the tax base was likely not the primary motivation of the Emperor, for making everyone a citizen, though apparently a more inclusive citizenry allowed for greater taxing of inheritances, accelerating to 10%. He also increased taxes on freeing slaves to 5%, (which was regardless of citizenship).

      Small landowners were not in fear of tax collectors v. barbarians. This is blatantly false. Roman citizens did not prefer Barbarians to the tax man. Also, Latifundia had long been established prior the crisis of the 3rd or 5th centuries. The Latifundia did continue into the post empire and did serve as a basis for feudalistic economies and culture but they were not principally places of refuge from the barbarians; they were vast agricultural estates, not walled and generally worked by slaves.

      • Craig Banholzer

        I stand corrected. I have repeated the opinion of Peter Green, A Social History of Greece and Rome, perhaps in error.

        • Thomassen Bart

          It’s complex no doubt

          • Craig Banholzer

            Yes, which is why it is one of history’s great conundrums…..

  • Shirley Meier

    The military were making between 40 and 50 dinarii a day. It’s a falsehood to present one annual salary and all the rest as dailies.