A photo showing the crumbling ruins of the once majestic Roman aqueduct, serving as a reminder of the decayed infrastructure and economic instability, which contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.

What Were The Major Causes Of The Fall Of The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire, one of the most powerful civilizations in human history, collapsed after nearly 1000 years of rule. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to what caused the fall of Rome: internal turmoil with economic troubles and military overspending ultimately led to the empire splitting and the western half falling.

In this comprehensive guide, we will analyze the major causes that led to the decline and eventual fall of the mighty Roman Empire in great detail over the following sections:

Internal Turmoil and Political Instability

Constant Leadership Changes

The Roman Empire suffered from constant leadership changes and instability in its later years. In the span of just 50 years, from 235 CE to 285 CE, there were nearly 20 different emperors, most of whom were quickly deposed or assassinated.

This contributed to political turmoil, civil wars, and overall weakness of the central government. As new emperors rapidly rose and fell, they were unable to establish long-term dynasties or implement effective reforms.

Division of the Empire

In 395 CE, the Roman Empire was formally divided into Western and Eastern (also known as the Byzantine) empires. This division created two separate power structures and spheres of influence. It weakened the unity of the empire and made it more difficult to coordinate defenses against barbarian invasions or internal rebellions.

Over time, the Western Roman Empire decayed while the Eastern Empire remained intact for centuries longer.

Rebellions & Uprisings

As the Roman Empire declined, it faced increasing numbers of rebellions and uprisings, both internally and on its borders. For example, the Bagaudae were groups of peasant rebels in Gaul who revolted against economic hardships.

Germanic tribes like the Visigoths and Vandals also frequently rebelled and invaded Roman territories. These events drained Roman manpower and resources needed to defend other frontiers. By the early 5th century CE, Rome could no longer cope with the many pockets of resistance chipping away at its power.

According to some historians, the Roman policy of heavy taxation to fund its army and wars made the situation worse by sparking more unrest. Large Roman landowners also increasingly relied on oppressed slaves for agriculture and manufacturing, driving small farmers and workers into poverty and revolt.

Economic Troubles & Overspending

Coin Debasement & Hyperinflation

One major cause that led to the fall of Rome was a declining economy plagued by coin debasement and hyperinflation. As the empire expanded, it became increasingly expensive for Rome to fund its military campaigns and infrastructure projects.

To cope, the government steadily debased its silver currency by reducing the precious metal content in coins. This led to rampant inflation, with prices constantly rising while the intrinsic value of money drastically fell.

By the 3rd century AD, the silver content in a denarius coin was down to just 2-5% of its value in the 1st century! This hyperinflation wreaked havoc on economic stability.

Excessive Military Spending and Debt

Another related economic factor was Rome’s excessive military spending, which was funded by accruing massive public debt. At its peak territorial extent, the Roman army was a juggernaut consisting of over 300,000 soldiers deployed across three continents.

Fielding such a large standing army was hugely expensive for Rome, consuming about 75 percent of the annual imperial budget. When new sources of tribute from conquered lands began drying up, Roman emperors resorted to irresponsible borrowing to continue military funding.

By the end, debt payments took 50 percent of all tax revenue collected by the state. This overspending on militarism and debt crippled Rome’s economy.

Raised Taxes Overburdened Citizens

To fund its runaway spending, the later Roman state imposed increasingly heavy taxes on its citizens, stifling private enterprise and economic growth. Tax rates under the emperor Diocletian were so high that many citizens abandoned their land to avoid paying.

Production of goods and agriculture plummeted in response. High taxes also discouraged foreign trade, further weakening Roman commerce. This growing tax burden on overtaxed citizens and productive members of society was an important factor leading to economic decline.

Military Factors and Barbarian Invasions

Ineffective Leadership and Corruption

The Roman military declined in effectiveness over time due to weak and corrupt leadership. Many emperors and generals in the late empire period focused more on gaining personal wealth and power rather than defending the borders.

They often poorly managed campaigns and battles, leading to defeats against invading forces. According to historian Edward Gibbon, the decaying morality of leaders was a major factor in the fall of Rome.

Overreliance on Mercenaries

As the empire expanded to cover more territory, the Roman military had to rely increasingly on hired mercenaries to supplement its ranks. While these fighters added numbers, they often lacked loyalty, discipline and training compared to Roman citizen-soldiers.

By the 4th century AD, nearly half the Roman army may have consisted of Germanic mercenaries. This dependency on unreliable mercenaries weakened Rome’s defense over the long run.

Barbarian Migrations & Attacks

In the 4th and 5th centuries AD, Rome faced increasing attacks along its borders from barbarian groups like the Goths, Vandals, Huns and Visigoths. These tribes were often pushed into Roman territory by factors like famine, overpopulation or conflict with other groups.

Though Roman legions won some early battles, the constant waves of migrating barbarians eventually overwhelmed defenses. For example, the Visigoths decisively defeated Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378, exposing the empire’s vulnerability.

Christianity and the Loss of Traditional Values

Rise of Christianity Changed Loyalties

The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE significantly changed the loyalties and values of the Roman population. As Christianity spread, more and more Romans converted and shifted their allegiance towards the Church instead of the Roman state (Ancient History Encyclopedia).

This erosion of traditional Roman religion and values planted the seeds for the empire’s eventual fall.

By the early 4th century CE, Christianity went from a persecuted minority to the dominant state religion. The emperor Constantine officially tolerated Christianity in 313 CE, and his successor Theodosius I made it the state religion in 380 CE.

This signaled a major shift – where Romans once held religious festivals and made offerings to Roman gods, now they attended Church services and studied the Bible. Their ethical values also changed from traditional Roman virtues like courage and duty, to Christian virtues like charity and humility.

Loss of Traditional Roman Virtues and Values

As Christianity displaced traditional Roman religion, many essential Roman social and political values eroded over time. Values like patriotism, civic duty, intelligence, and loyalty gave way to otherworldly Christian ideals.

This loss of traditional Roman virtues destabilized the empire in several ways.

For instance, Christianity preached peace over war. This changed the martial spirit and made Romans less willing to serve in the military and defend their nation. The army struggled to find native citizen recruits, and came to rely more on hired foreign mercenaries.

Likewise, wealthy Romans donated less for public works, as charity focused more on Church activities. The loss of civic virtues and patriotism weakened the bonds that tied Roman society together, leaving it vulnerable to internal corruption and external foes.

Environmental Factors

Disease Epidemics

One of the major environmental causes of the fall of Rome was repeated outbreaks of deadly diseases that decimated the population. Between AD 165-180, a devastating plague swept across the Roman Empire, causing huge loss of life.

This plague, now thought to have been smallpox, continued to crop up periodically over the next few centuries. Another major epidemic, the Plague of Cyprian, struck in AD 250-271 during the reign of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, at the same time as several barbarian invasions.

This plague was possibly a hemorrhagic illness and killed thousands of Romans each day for over 20 years, significantly weakening Roman society. According to some estimates, the population of the empire dropped from nearly 90 million people around AD 160 to only around 50 million by the mid 3rd century due to disease epidemics.

Climate Changes and Famine

The gradual cooling climate during the late Roman Republic and Imperial period, along with reduced fertility in Roman agricultural land, led to a number of serious famines. The most severe was the global climate events of AD 536-537 when unusual atmospheric effects caused a drop in global temperatures, leading to widespread crop failures in Rome and around the Mediterranean.

Combined with invasions destroying agricultural land and trade networks, this triggered a famine so terrible that contemporary accounts describe people selling their children into slavery in return for animal feed.

Scientific analysis now links this global cold snap to the possible eruption of a volcano in AD 536. These climate changes and famines seriously weakened the economic and social fabric of Rome at a crucial time when it faced increasing external pressures, further contributing to the empire’s eventual collapse.


In conclusion, the fall of the great Roman Empire occurred due to a combination of internal instability, economic troubles, overreliance on mercenaries, barbarian invasions, rise of Christianity changing loyalties, loss of values, disease epidemics, and climate changes causing famine.

The western half of the empire crumbled by the 5th century CE while the eastern Byzantine Empire continued for almost another thousand years before falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. The heritage and legends of the mighty Roman empire however live on and continue to fascinate people over two millennia later.

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