Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Roman Empire-Collapse of Complex Societies


Throughout human history, people have organized themselves into complex societies united by similar values and beliefs, which have attempted to survive the test of time, inevitably collapsing and placing the foundations of a new society. Such a cycle has been repeated over time yet the reasons and causes behind it are largely unknown and obscure. To understand and reveal these reasons/causes, cases of collapse must be studied, and a famous and perhaps infamous case study of collapse would be the ancient civilization, the Roman Empire.

However, it is important that we define the Roman Empire we are studying as technically, it can be argued that the Roman Empire evolved into the Holy Roman Empire through Charlemagne which is present in modern times through the independent Vatican City in Italy. Therefore, the collapse of the Roman Empire studied in this report is the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, as opposed to the Eastern Roman Empire. Also important is the definition of full-scale societal collapse: A drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity over a considerable area for an extended time.

Using and Analysing Frameworks

In order to better understand and interpret the collapse of such a society, we should construct a framework supported by the evidence presented. There are a few frameworks that we have studied; Joseph Tainter’s and Jared Diamond though there are many more. People have applied their framework to the Roman Empire’s collapse and developed different reasons as to the causes for collapse.

However, through the careful analysis of such theories we can dismiss some by analysing such theories for accuracy, bias and omission. For example, a well used theory is the Christianity theory (Edward Gibbon): That the infiltration of Christianity was linked to a loss of civic virtue in the Romans. However, if we include the evidence that the Eastern Roman Empire, which was dominantly Christian, and continued to survive for many more centuries, we can critically analyse and dismiss such theories. Furthermore, if we dig deeper into the evidence presented we can see that while Christianity did not contribute to a loss of civic virtue, it was a factor of the collapse of the empire (mentioned later). Additionally, we must take in consideration the context of which these frameworks come from and how they may affect the theories consturcted. For example, in Joseph Tainter’s context where climate and environmental change such as global warming is a popular topic and even part of modern culture, it is only natural to seek corresponding evidence to support this. Compared to a context where global warming is still relatively unknown, frameworks created in this context may not place such emphasis on climate and environmental change.

My Conceptual Framework

After reading, understanding and analysing the purported reasons for collapse, I have drawn up my own framework which encompasses all the apparent reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire. I have determined that the reasons fall into at least one of two categories; causes which originated from inside the society as opposed to causes from outside the society. However, we must remember that these two categories have a equal relationship, as something inside the society may affect something outside the society, which can come back to affect the society. For example, during the Cold War, the actions of a communist/capitalist country led to ‘cautionary’ action by the other (e.g. the buildup of nuclear weapons in both Turkey and Cuba). Branching from these two categories are sub-categories which better define the reasons for collapse. These are: Social, Political, Economical, Environmental and Military causes. It should be understood that such causes can be a combination of the two as a social trend can eventually transgress into a political problem which may contribute to a society’s collapse. For example, it is often argued the social structure and the Russian culture’s values and attitudes of a non-class based society and state-owned economy caused problems for the Soviet Union through bad economical management and corruption. Additionally, we must always consider the influence of outside factors on these internal problems. Expanding upon the theory of the USSR’s economical problems, it can also be argued that its social economical model was incompatible and unable to compete effectively on the free trade market which dominated the world at that time.

Reasons for the Roman Collapse

The reason why the collapse of the Roman Empire is so popular with many historians is the fact that the empire seemed to be so invincible and well prepared to deal with any conceivable problems before a sudden decline began and the empire collapsed. More importantly, the fall of the empire could not be attributed to one major problem, as the Germanic invasion was more of a coup de grace to an already weakened and dysfunctional empire. However, after researching a multitude of theories I believe it was a series of ongoing problems which caused one major problem which ‘broke the camel’s back’, except in this case, it was Rome’s back which these problems broke.

Interior Factors of Collapse

The first of Rome’s interior factors of collapse originates from its very founding. Originally, the area on which the first Romans settled was perfect for growing wheat and pasturing animals. They also drained the nearby marshes, creating more habitable land. This action was the beginning of Rome’s poor resource management and future environmental damage, as opposed to the Aztecs, which more or less adapted to their environment (e.g. Tenochtitlan; swamp).

Initial Factors for Collapse

The fall of Rome had very much to do with the rise of Rome. More specifically, how Rome became such an empire also influenced how it collapsed. Originally, the area on which the first Romans settled was perfect for growing wheat and pasturing animals. They also drained the nearby marshes, creating more habitable land. This action was a reflection of Rome’s future resource management and future environmental damage, as opposed to the Aztecs, which more or less adapted to their environment (e.g. Tenochtitlan; swamp). As time went on, Rome became a center of trade, growing in wealth and power but it was this that masked Rome’s early problems. Even in its infancy, Rome was highly dependent on the trade of allied trading partners, and was by itself, not self-sustainable. So when relations with their allies soured and as trade diminished, Rome was forced to take action and declare a war of conquest. This cycle of not being able to self-sustain itself caused Rome to launch successful conquests of Europe, Western Asia and North Africa.

How Initial Factors for Collapse Helped Cause Later Factors for Collapse

Such hostile takeovers proved to be the bane of Rome in the long run. As Rome required more resources from its newly conquered lands and more military campaigns were launched, high trade tariffs and high taxes were introduced. Understandably these conditions bred resentment and disloyalty within Rome’s citizens. This combined with their cultural differences split the empire into the Romans actually living in and around Rome, and the marginalized new Romans. And because they were considered as 2nd class citizens, and with no representation within the Roman governmental system more resentment began to build within these minorities. This is an example of how interior military action (the takeover of various societies) led to interior social unrest (which would cause future problems).

Additionally, such unrest began to expose the flaws in the Rome governing system. The Roman system of the Senate and various assemblies and organizational groups was created in the context of when Rome was still a small republic. When the context changed greatly with Rome expanding and thus having to govern a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities produced a huge numbers of logistical difficulties. The different cultures/ethnicities within the empire held different religions/values/attitudes as well as languages and economic systems (e.g. currency). Combined with the vast extent of the empire, the Roman governing system was seriously outdated and yet did not change with it. Further study of the Roman economic system revealed that it was pitifully simplistic and inefficient; based on plundering/acquiring new resources and never making anything new. All these reasons contributed to an inefficient governing and economic system. So here we can see a further extension of a ‘domino’ effect where military conquest led to social unrest and also economic and political problems. The economic and political problems can be compared to the modern EU. It faces similar and new challenges, but has addressed many/most of them. The EU has a standardized monetary system (Euro), member states with varying culture as well as having to deal with modern world complexity. It is through effective legislation and management that the EU has remained an efficient governing body. The same could be said with China and its attempts to standardize currency and language. The Ming and Qing dynasty as well as the People’s Republic of China all tried to accomplish standardization of the provinces by creating an official language which was a combination of the dialects of various provinces. This helped the government govern more effectively and efficiently. However, the Qing dynasty of China still collapsed, though it was more a consequence of factional in-fighting than bad government. All of these factors would sow the seeds of Rome’s later destruction.

The Weakening Effect Caused by Initial and Later Factors for Collapse

Eventually, Rome could not expand anymore, and was hit with a barrage of subsequent problems. The Persians to the east of Roman’s borders proved to be capable adversaries and the logistics factor was heavily in the Persian’s favour, as Rome had to deal with numerous problems. There was the opposition to the war in the Senate, a waning number of recruits and the physical problem of getting troops and supplies to where they were needed. So when Rome began to fail to expand, the failing economic system and environmental damage (mostly deforestation) were exacerbated. So instead of fixing the economic system, the government chose to increase taxes, hoping for a ‘quick fix’. The plan backfired horribly; higher taxes combined with social unrest/resentment already among the marginalized led to revolts and rebellions. And so Rome sent soldiers to enforce inefficient/broken Roman law and policies rather than changing its destructive ways. This tied up even more resources and soldiers so it became clear that more soldiers were needed to enforce law. Thus Roman was forced to recruit from its 2nd class citizens, which were more interested in elevating themselves than enforcing inefficient laws which their people suffered for. Also recruited were mercenaries, specifically Germanic mercenaries who had to be paid to ensure their loyalty. All of this had to be paid and supported for, increasing the strain on the Roman economy. Additionally, marginalized/conquered Romans began to make up the majority of the empire’s population. And over the years, this population advantage led to a growth in political power. However, they used this power to further pursue their own agendas as opposed to Rome’s wants/needs. Furthermore, they grew to hold more power in the military forces due to increased recruitment, and because of the way Roman government is structured (where the army has a large amount of influence on the emperor) political and social clashes began to appear.

So now the empire was beginning to have divisions in power. Not only that, but the introduction of Christianity to Rome was also damaging in that it clashed with previous Roman religion; creating more division. Inevitably, civil war began to break out with near regular occurrence. At one period of time, there were at least a dozen different factions vying for power in Rome. With the addition of plague there was a dramatic and quick breakdown of central authority. Even more disastrously, the split of the empire into East and West signaled the end of a Rome unified by its beliefs and values. So Christianity itself was not one of Rome’s problems, it was the clash and subsequent split of beliefs within Rome that was the problem. A similar situation was evident in England during the English Civil War. Another consequence of these civil wars is that various legions of soldiers which were originally tasked with protecting Roman borders to the north were called back to Rome to deal with/take part in the uprisings and coups.

Culmination of a Collapsing Empire and Outer Military Factors Accelerate Collapse

All of these factors transformed the empire into a weakened, disjointed group of squabbling factions and full scale collapse was inevitable. Rome began a slow decline before being accelerated into collapse when united Germanic tribes to the north of a now weakened border, swept into Roman Empire and looted many major cities and trading centers. Much of Rome was reduced to rubble but Roman culture lived on to influence future European societies centuries after its collapse.

A Reflection on Rome’s Inevitable? Collapse

Essentially, it was Rome’s failure to spread and encourage a set of relatively similar values and beliefs across its empire. This failure was caused by Rome’s poor resource management and poor economic system which caused Rome to go on sustained military conquests to acquire more resources. Examples of empires who managed to conquer their neighbours and yet maintain social stability include the Aztecs and Mayans. An example of isolated societies (with poor resource management and environmental damage) which were denied the option of military expansion is Easter Island, which collapsed rather quickly compared to Rome, despite facing the same problems. However, Rome’s poor governing and economic system led to actions which encouraged this social disparity. This problem was usually counterbalanced by Rome’s ability to acquire more resources through military conquest but when such military campaigns failed due to cost and logistical difficulties; more strain was placed on Roman society, igniting the social unrest into full scale revolts. Thus, clashes within society (e.g. Christianity) eventually and logically transgressed into clashes within Roman politics. And due to the poor political system, such factional clashes elevated into full blown civil wars similar to the English Civil War. Therefore there was a rapid breakdown of central authority through these divisions in politics and society which translated into divisions in the military which affected Rome’s ability to fend off invaders like the Germanic tribes to the north. So the Roman Empire collapsed due to its poor resource and economic system which led to social disparity which transgressed to social and political collapse. The process of collapse was simply accelerated by the Germanic invasion.

Conclusion: What can Contemporary Society Learn from the Roman collapse?

In today’s context of increasing globalization (specifically economic globalization), general mixing of cultures particularly in Australia, accelerated climate change, complex political systems and geopolitics we can learn much from the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Change in the Australian environment and world climate has accelerated at an alarming pace compared to the climate change during the Roman Empire. And with a growing world population, it is even more necessary to reconsider how we manage our resources, preferably utilizing them in a sustainable way unlike Rome, who because of poor resource management was forced into military conquest. Particularly in Australia, where agriculture is an important part of our economy, the effect the environment has is twofold. And as the demand for raw materials (which are abundant in Australia) grows in developing countries, the importance of using our resources wisely must and can work with economic rules.

Economic globalization is a growing trend that is expected to have a lasting impact on business. It is already apparent and already affects Australian business through the free trade agreements Australia has with certain countries (e.g. America) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Though globalization was unheard of during Roman times, the effect of its poor economic handling is just a sign of how important economic management is to the survival of a society such as Australia. However, it remains to be seen how much globalization will be affected by the global climate change.

Around the world we have seen a growth in immigration and migration. In Australia where immigration is booming, it is important that Australia manages these new people with different cultures and thus values and beliefs in an effective manner. This can be done by addressing these people’s values and beliefs and promoting new/existing roles within Australian society. Hopefully, this will preserve social unity, keeping Australia socially ‘stable’ in comparison to the Roman Empire, which failed miserably in this respect.

Also important is that Australia stays aware and retains its ability to adapt to a changing state of politics and power relations between nations. In a world where communication is becoming increasingly important, it makes sense for Australia to ‘keep in touch’ with the world. So far, Australia has attempted to reach out to its Pacific-Asia neighbours, specifically ones who will play an important role in the world such as China. Australia also has retained and strengthened its relations with the USA, which still remains a global ‘superpower’ for now.


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Wikipedia (2008 March) Western Roman Empire. Retrieved 4/12 from Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopedia:

Diamond, J. M. (2005) Collapse. New York: Viking Press

Wikipedia (2008 March) Qing Dynasty. Retrieved 15/3 from Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopedia:

MSNU (2001) Qing Dynasty. Retrieved 15/3 from MSNU:

Wikipedia (2008 March) Jared Diamond. Retrieved 7/12 from Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopedia:

Wikipedia (2008 March) Church of England. Retrieved 15/3 from Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopedia:

Wikipedia (2008 March) Globalization. Retrieved 17/3 from Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopedia:

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