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Fall of the Western Roman Empire

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Fall of the Roman Empire (or Decline) is a historical term of periodization which describes the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. A traditional date was September 4 476 when the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire was deposed; however there are many other theories—German Professor Alexander Demandt published in 1984 a collection of 210 theories on why Rome fell.1

The term was first used and coined by Edward Gibbon in the 18th century in his famous book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but he was not the first, and not the last to speculate on why and when the Empire collapsed. It remains one of the greatest historical questions, and has a tradition rich in scholarly interest, seeming to be relevant to every new generation, and a seemingly endless supply of theories on why it happened, if at all.

Mainstream theories

Influential theories and theorists include:

  • Edward Gibbon essentially placed the blame on Christianity, saying Christianity sapped the will of Roman "civic duty" (that is, military service); and made the populace less interested in the worldly here and now and more willing to wait for the rewards of heaven.
  • Henri Pirenne published the "Pirenne Thesis" in the 1920s which has remains influential to this day. It holds that the Empire continued, in some form, up until the time of the Arab conquests in the 7th century.
  • Historians of Late Antiquity, such as Peter Brown, have turned away from the idea that the Roman Empire "fell". They see a "transformation" occurring over centuries, with the roots of Medieval culture contained in Roman culture. This is a gradual process with no clear break.

Theories tend to reflect the eras in which they are developed. Gibbon's criticism of Christianity reflects the values of the Enlightenment; his ideas on the decline in martial vigour were a warning to the growing British Empire. In the 19th century socialist and anti-socialist theorists tended to blame decadence and other political problems. More recently, environmental concerns have become popular, with deforestation and soil erosion proposed as major factors, and epidemics such as malaria also cited. Ideas about transformation with no distinct fall owe much to postmodern thought, which rejects periodization concepts (see metanarrative). What is not new are attempts to diagnose Rome's particular problems, with Juvenal in the early 2nd century, at the height of Roman power, criticizing the peoples' obsession with "bread and circuses" and rulers seeking only to gratify these obsessions.

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