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December 31, 2018

The fall of the Roman Empire

Opinion

December 31, 2018

The history of the Roman Empire fascinates European nations. Many of them tend to admire those emperors and generals who defeated the so-called barbarian tribes, slaughtered and enslaved them, and plundered their wealth to build palaces, temples, forums or public places in cities.

The irony of history is that tribes that lived peacefully on the basis of their customs and traditions are often referred to as ‘barbarians’, while Roman emperors and aggressors who invaded their territories without any provocation are portrayed as civilised.

European nations were so deeply inspired by the Roman Empire that they borrowed most of their political institutions, such as the Senate, assemblies, laws, voting systems and veto powers. To keep its memory alive, they screened thousand of films on different aspects of Roman society.

Thousand of books based on archaeological evidence were published. Fictionalised history became quite popular among the people. Stage dramas were enacted, and paintings and sculptures immortalised various aspects of the Roman Empire.

In 800 AD, when Charlemagne became the emperor of the Carolingian Dynasty, he was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. This was an attempt to restore the memories of the Roman Empire. The title continued to retain its significance despite its political weaknesses that were satirised by Voltaire, who believed it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”. Finally, it was abolished in 1806 by Napoleon.

Europeans were so impressed by the power, greatness and glory of the Roman Empire that some of them found it hard to believe how it was defeated by the so-called barbarian tribes and eventually declined after it was divided between eastern and western empires. The western part was ruled by the Pope and the Catholic Church while the eastern part followed Byzantinian rites and observed orthodox Christianity. After discussing the rise of the Roman Empire, historians shifted their attention towards analysing the reasons for its decline. The first writer who discussed the breakdown of the Roman Empire was Montesquieu. He attributed the fall of the empire to political instability and the emergence of feudal states that caused social and economic crises.

The second historian who analysed the downfall of the Roman Empire was Edward Gibbon. He was inspired by the ruins of Rome and decided to write about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon didn’t discuss the earlier period when the Roman Empire was at its peak. Instead, he tried to trace the empire’s evolutionary decay. He explored the general causes for the decline of the empire, such as the rule of the army, the assassination of emperors, the increasing number of slaves, the destruction of agriculture, and the failure to defend its borders from the so-called barbarians. Gibbon also drew attention to other internal causes. These include the migration of peasants from villages to cities, class divisions, the poor management of sanitation facilities in major cities, and attempts to control mob riots.

Besides these factors, Gibbon criticised the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. When a pagan culture existed, Romans had the spirit to fight and displayed courage in the battlefield. Owing to the Christianisation of the empire, the spirit of war diminished because religion preached the importance of peace. This weakened the Roman Army and strengthened pagan barbarian tribes that defeated the once-mighty Romans.

Gibbon also points out that monasteries were founded across the Roman Empire to encourage young people to become monks and devote their lives in the service of their faith. This became a financial burden on the state.

Pagan Rome produced philosophy, literature, art and sculpture that enlightened society. However, Christian Roman society banned philosophy, art and literature and only concentrated on religious themes. It persecuted Pagan philosophers and closed those institutions that promoted the liberal arts.

Consequently, Roman society became intellectually barren and bankrupt. On the one hand, it lost its pagan heritage, and on the other its military no longer remained in a position to defend itself against the Sassanid rulers of the Persian Empire and the emerging Arab powers. The city of Rome was conquered by the Visigoths in 410 while the Eastern part of the Roman Empire continued to exist till 1453, when it finally surrendered to the Ottoman Empire. This resulted in the complete breakdown of the Roman Empire.

The fall of the Roman Empire offered many lessons for new imperial powers that occupied Asian and African countries in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘religion’, and considered the colonised groups to be uncivilised.

We have to change our approach towards history to make people realise that those who colonised Asian and African countries actually committed war crimes and genocide, while those who were persecuted and suffered at the hands of colonisers were champions of peace and only endured discrimination due to their lack of military strength.

Therefore, invaders should be condemned and their crimes should be exposed to the world so that people can become aware of their brutality.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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