Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Army

    The rise and subsequent decline of Roman civilization is often held as the yardstick when evaluating changes in the virtues of modern society. The desire to avoid repetition of past failures and to gain a deeper understanding of the potential of human civilization often leads to comparisons between the fall of the Roman Empire and modern-day economic and social trends. Such comparisons are made all the more complicated by the common mistake of assuming that the Roman Empire actually collapsed when Germanic invaders occupied the City of Rome in 476 A.D. In fact, Rome had split into two separate empires. Both shared a common heritage and political structure and both suffered from a similar set of internal difficulties, yet the Eastern Empire survived and continued to flourish well into the fourteenth century. The failure of the military establishment in the Western Roman Empire to effectively secure its borders from Germanic invaders can be traced directly to profound changes in the Army’s mission, organization, and leadership over a several hundred year period.

    Efforts to pinpoint a specific cause for the collapse of the Western Empire are typically inconclusive. The elusive simple solution to the complex question of Roman decline has been the subject of debate among historians, philosophers, and political scientists for centuries. The culprit is generally accepted to be a vague combination of several social, economic, and political changes, challenges, and failures; yet many of the problems which were faced by both empires can be eliminated as a specific cause.

    During the Late Roman Empire, both East and West faced a serious decline in agricultural productivity as abandonment of farm land increased. Even Egypt, the fertile bread-basket of the Eastern Empire was not immune (Tainter 143). Both empires were agricultural economies with virtually no industry. Rapid inflation and urbanization in cities already ill-equipped to provide productive employment for the urban poor resulted in significant increases in the public dole for both empires. Both populations were decimated by war and the plague, although most historians assume greater population densities in the East. With few exceptions, neither developed and maintained a mechanism for peaceful transfer of power to qualified and dedicated successors. The entire Roman world-state had reached a point after the Pax Romana where there was no Carthage to hate and make war against, where logistics and communications requirements for effective provincial administration had reached the maximum limits of even Rome’s vast physical and political infrastructure, and where traditional Roman virtues were rapidly being replaced by the vices of greed and idiote. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, noted historian Edward Gibbons masterfully describes this decline of virtue:

"That public virtue which among the ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense of our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Such a sentiment, which had rendered the legions of the republic almost invincible, could make but a very feeble impression on the mercenary servants of a despotic prince" (1: 9).

    In fairness, Gibbon doesn’t imply that such changes are irreversible and goes on to describe a time when "For a while the angry and selfish passions of the soldiers had been suspended by the enthusiasm of public virtue" (281). In reality, most of these upturns in Roman virtue were short-lived and the overall trend was away from the classical values so eloquently depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid.

    The rise of Christianity is regularly singled-out as a dominant factor in the decline of the Roman world-state. True, Christian virtues were often at direct odds with classical Roman virtues; yet the Eastern Orthodox Church survived and prospered throughout the Byzantine Empire and still remains a significant force in modern Christianity. Although Christianity changed forever the face of western society, it has repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny ability to evolve and adapt to a changing political and cultural environment. In his book, The Later Roman Empire, Arnold Jones explains why Christianity bears little, if any, responsibility for the eventual fate of the Western Empire:

"Christianity prevailed earlier in the Eastern parts and obtained a more thorough hold. Monks and clergy were more numerous and more richly endowed, and thus a heavier burden on the economy. Theological controversy was more widespread and more embittered, and the repression of heresy demanded a greater use of force and provoked more hostility. In so far as the otherworldly attitude which Christianity inculcated weakened public morale, the East should have been more gravely affected." (Jones 1064).

    Economic turmoil is perhaps the most supportable reason cited for the collapse of the West. Imperial Rome prospered greatly during the Pax Romana and afterward during times of relative peace. The ever-increasing flow of gold and silver booty from conquered lands to Rome resulted in Roman citizens not having to pay taxes. Prolonged periods of war, on the other hand, prove extremely costly for any society. The costly campaigns of Marcus Aurelus (161-80 A.D.) eventually drained the treasury and caused him to set the dangerous precedent of selling imperial treasures and devaluing currency (Hadas 142). Rome had become so accustomed to the military as a revenue source that having to pay taxes to support the defense of the empire was not easily accepted, but the taxes and currency devaluations kept coming, more than ever.

    During the reign of Caracalla (211-17 A.D.), army pay was raised "50 per cent and…the bounties paid to barbarian chieftains to keep them from attacking weak points along the frontier. These bounties now began to equal the Army’s whole payroll" (Hadas 143). By the time of Diocletion (284-305 A.D.), Roman currency had been devalued so much that rather than accepting its own currency, "[The Empire] collected its taxes in the form of supplies directly usable by the military" (Tainter 139). An army needs food and water or it ceases to function. Roman frontiers needed more protection against Hunnic and Germanic invaders, though they seldom created enough income to cover the cost of their defense. The numerous necessary increases in the size of the Imperial Army and the increasing importance of cavalry only served to compound the problem. Ultimately the failure of any autocratic society rests on the shoulders of its leader and Imperial Rome certainly had its share of tyrannical despots who cared little for the welfare of the common citizen.

    Historian Arnold Jones noted that the "greatly increased proportion of cavalry to infantry…added substantially to the expense of maintenance: for the fodder of a horse cost as much as the rations of a man" (1035). As a result of increasingly larger military expenditures, the level of taxation continued to rise throughout the Late Roman Empire. While it may have been excessive taxation that eventually broke the back of the Empire, it was changes facing the Army that broke the budget.

    The role of the military leadership throughout the development of the Republic was to generate revenue through the plunder of conquered territories and, in effect, to act as the vehicle for continuous growth and expansion. As easy booty became scarcer, the vast legions of loyal Roman soldiers became idle and looked to their leaders for orders. These powerful generals tended to use the power of their armies to further their own political ambitions. The civil wars and rapid succession of emperors prior to Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) fostered an attitude that "[Emperors] were made and unmade at the whim of the Roman soldiers, who proclaimed and assassinated emperors mainly for their own profit" (Hadas 143). Though Diocletian provided strong leadership during his reign, this arrogant attitude of the military trying to dictate succession soon reappeared and "by 311 A.D. there were four rival Augusti" (Hadas 145).

    Gradually, as barbarian encroachment increasingly threatened Roman dominions, the mission of the Army shifted to establishing defensive posture along the frontier, far from the capital. "From Gallienus (260-8 A.D.) on, the civil and military functions of government were split. Within the military, the tactical was split from the stationary (Tainter 142)." An extensive network of garrisons and frontier outposts developed. While following the traditional Roman system of dispersing the troops along the frontier and then drawing from peaceful areas when needed for offensive operations or to reinforce weaker defensive positions, Diocletian "broke up commands of the legions into smaller units (Hadas 144)" and developed the comitatus (field army) into a "substantial mobile reserve (Jones 1035-36)." Constantine further strengthened the comitaus by withdrawing the best units from the limitanei (border troops). These actions did serve to fortify border defenses and may have helped prevent rival generals from acquiring sufficient power to challenge the Emperor, but eventually led to ineffective troop utilization. (Hadas 144). Some units were continually engaged in continual bloody border wars while others sat virtually idle.

    During the Republic, the Army had been comprised of citizen/soldier landowners led by nobles. Military service was both a civic responsibility and the ideal venue for public demonstration of one’s own pietas, gravitas, and constantia, the traditional Roman virtues. Participation in Roman conquests was also an effective means of securing one’s financial future. After Augustus (31 B.C.-14 A.D.) ended the civil wars that had ravaged Rome since the First Triumvirate, a smaller, professional career army was established. Beginning in the second century, Roman military forces underwent substantial changes in composition and structure, often referred to as the barbarism of the Army. From Hadrian’s (117-38 A.D.) time on, army units were raised as often as possible from the locality where they would be stationed" (Tainter 134). During a military build-up in response to the increasing pressures on the frontiers, Severus (193-211 A.D.) initiated a policy of recruiting barbarians into the ranks of the Army. He also made it possible for common soldiers to attain the higher rank of equestrian (Hadas 142). Herodian later concluded that Severus’ efforts to improve the pay, conditions, and privileges of military life, as well as allowing soldiers to live off-post with their wives, were "incompatible with military discipline and with preparedness and readiness for war. [Severus] was the first to undermine their famous vigor,…teaching them to covet money and turning aside to luxurious living. (qtd in Hadas 142)."

    Caracalla’s decision, in 212 A.D., to grant citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire was intended to increase the tax base (Hadas 143-44), but in practice had the result of diminishing the attractiveness of military service to both nobility and peasantry. Gibbon has this to say about the loosening of restrictions on citizenship:

"when the last enclosure of the Roman constitution was trampled down by Caracalla…the more polished citizens of the internal provinces were alone qualified to act as lawyers and magistrates. The rougher trade of arms was abandoned to the peasants and barbarians of the frontiers, who knew no country but their camp, no science but that of war, no civil laws, and scarcely those of military discipline" (1: 145).

    As a result of Probus’ (276-82 A.D.) daring, yet strategically questionable conquests into German home-lands, an additional sixteen thousand German recruits were disbursed throughout the empire. Probus’ expeditions into Germany were part of a larger scheme to settle the frontier with captive and fugitive barbarians bribed with land and cattle, in hopes of developing a continuous source for new recruits. Although tens of thousands of barbarians were transported, the results often failed to meet expectations. Still, most of the resettled peoples were resigned to make the most of a difficult situation and did not resist (Gibbon 1: 288). This demographic engineering served to further encourage the blending of Roman and Germanic culture and tradition.

    Around the end of the end of the third century, Diocletian essentially abandoned the frontier armies, which had been recruited primarily from the local populace, in the field to serve more as a local militia. Diocletian further undermined the army’s loyalty to the state by allowing a special tax to take the place of the universal obligation to military service. The tax was used to support the four major mobile armies of the comitatus, which were recruited outside Rome’s borders (Geer 273). By the time Constantine (306-37 A.D.) enacted policies which froze families in their occupations, tying the son of a farmer to the same land as the father and requiring the son of a soldier to become a soldier, the military incorporating larger and larger numbers of German troops. "Barbarian soldiers who displayed any military talents were advanced, without exception, to the most important commands" (Gibbon 1:542). Generals and high government officials with barbarian surnames no longer considered disguising their lineage. Although these barbarized Roman forces remained numerically and tactically superior until the end, there was little distinction between the barbarian invaders and the army itself. To make matters worse, units on the frontier would oftentimes "do as much damage to Roman communities as the aggressors" (Hadas 143).

    In the end, the agricultural economy of the Western Empire could not produce enough to support and maintain the military capability necessary to defend a vast empire in a hostile environment. It wasn’t the barbarization of the Army that led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, it was the barbarization of the Western Roman Empire itself. The remnants of the Army of the Western Empire, like so many armies since, mirrored contemporary society. There was little left in the fifth century to defend that was identifiably Roman. Though it is difficult to ascertain the motives of a long-dead emperor, one can easily conclude that as neither Diocletian nor Contantine preferred Rome as a capital or a residence, the establishment of the Eastern Empire may have been a strategic movement of the Empire eastward to the more desirable center of the ancient world and that the spin-off of the West as a separate sovereign nation, acting as a buffer between the Empire and the barbarian threat, was a retreat of far-sighted leaders to a more manageably-sized nation with more defensible borders.


Works Cited

Geer, Russell. Classical Civilization: Rome. New York: Prentice-Hall. 1940.

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York, 1845.

Hadas, Moses, et al. Imperial Rome. Great Ages of man: A History of the World’s Cultures. New York: Time-Life Books. 1965.

Jones, A. H. M. The Later Roman Empire 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 1964.

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988.

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