The Reasons Why Rome fell – Lead poisoning is often dismissed as a major cause for the decline of Rome, but the theory does have some merit

The Fall of Rome is a heavily debated topic with an extraordinary range of theories as to how such a great power ultimately fell, and how it either limped on or even how it still lives today. Some theories, such as contamination from lead pipes, seem outrageous, while others, such as the loss of civic virtue, could be applied to some modern nations. Here are some of the most common ideas about the Fall of Rome.

Keep in mind that many of the reasons identified for the fall are given as important contributors, not the sole cause. Most historians acknowledge that, while a variety of problems plagued Rome, the Barbarian invasions were the literal cause of Rome’s fall in the West.

1. Lead Poisoning

Let’s get this one out of the way first. Lead poisoning is often dismissed as a major cause for the decline of Rome, but the theory does have some merit. The Romans used lead in a variety of ways, many involving food and water.

A particular sweetener and preservative, Defrutum, was boiled down in specific lead pots, where extended cooking times aided in the lead contamination. This mixture was added to many wines and to extend the life of soldier’s rations. It was also mixed with a fish sauce whose popularity roughly equates to that of modern ketchup. It was also used in animal feed, where the lead could easily contaminate the meat and be absorbed by humans.

In addition, many water pipes were lined with lead and lead was used in storage amphorae. Lead also found its way into Roman makeup. Though all these cases only provide small amounts of lead, it could still prove to be dangerous. Lead stays in the body for a long time and even tiny amounts on a regular basis can build up to toxic levels.

Dioscorides noted lead's effect on the mind in the first century A.D.
Dioscorides noted lead’s effect on the mind in the first century A.D.

Lead poisoning would have caused infertility, a loss of memory and reduced cognitive ability, among many other symptoms, largely among the nobility. It is easy to see that if the population wasn’t sustained and the ruling classes were becoming steadily less intelligent, that could very well cause a breakdown leading to a much easier barbarian conquest.

Roman lead water pipes with taps. Photo Credit: By G.dallorto - Own work, Attribution,
Roman lead water pipes with taps. Photo source: G.dallorto

This theory has been heavily debated. Notably, the Romans were aware of lead and its impact on health. Lead pots seemed to have made the best tasting Defrutum, though it seems that other metals proved more practical or common.

Not all aqueducts had lead pipes, and even so the manner of water travel was not likely to pick up the lead. The water traveled fast enough to not stagnate over the lead but slow enough that crusts of sediment often built up in the pipes, naturally preventing most contamination. Though the debate continues, it is plausible that lead poisoning did have at least some impact on Roman people sometime during their decline.

2. Decline of Civic Virtue and Adoption of Christianity

Edward Gibbon, despite his many errors uncovered over the years, is still considered essential reading for a student of ancient Rome. His famous claim is simply that the Romans became soft. Romans of the Republic were brutal and stubborn; their stout resistance in the face of such legends as Pyrrhus and Hannibal built their future empire. The most embarrassing story of early Rome was the paying off of Brennus during his sack of Rome. After the encounter, the Romans treated the Gauls with extreme hatred and fought many successful campaigns against them.

Portrait, oil on canvas, of Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792).
Portrait, oil on canvas, of Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792).

Eventually, however, the Romans adopted Germans and others into their military. Despite early examples of the disadvantages of this – shown, for example, at the Teutoburg ambush – the Romans continued to employ foreign troops. True Romans were then too relaxed and weak to defend their empire, and paying off barbarians became a more common practice.

Gibbon also was a major proponent of how Christianity contributed to the decline of Rome. He essentially discussed how Christianity was a more accessible religion and the focus was too much on finding the happy afterlife than living in the present.

Though Gibbon’s views on the decline of civic virtue still hold some weight, the view on Christianity is often dismissed, especially as the Byzantine Empire was functionally a Christian Roman Empire in the East and had periods of great success. Civic virtue is harder to pin down than lead poisoning but often sounds reasonable in theory.

3. Military, Political and Economic Decline

Apparent bust of Sulla in the Munich Glyptothek.
Apparent bust of Sulla in the Munich Glyptothek.

Though each of these can be seen separately, they all fit well together to explain the fall. The Barbarism of the army is also used here, but the military decline can be traced back to the period before the Empire even started. Roman armies after Marius eventually became more loyal to their commanders than to Rome itself. This led to, for example, the seizing of Rome under Sulla, and Caesar’s ability to start a civil war.

This leads us on to the issue of political decline. Some historians, such as Adrian Goldsworthy, maintain that the Roman army was still effective and won great victories late into its lifespan, but that repeated civil wars greatly weakened the empire until its fall was inevitable.

This weakening is best exemplified by the crisis of the third century where the Roman empire erupted into civil war between three warring factions, leading to many opportunistic foreign invasions. The crisis was eventually resolved and many of the invading forces were soundly defeated by Rome’s armies, but the internal damage was done.

The Crisis of the Third Century is not often discussed, but put an incredible strain on the Roman Empire
The Crisis of the Third Century is not often discussed but put an incredible strain on the Roman Empire. historicair – CC BY-SA 3.0

Lastly, the economic decline of Rome is another important aspect. Rome’s economy had depended on plunder and slavery for centuries, so when conquests stopped, so did the economy. Influxes of gold and slaves could no longer stimulate an economy that had masses of poor crowding the cities and living on government rations.

The wealthiest elite was often exempt from the taxes which fell on middle-class farmers, forcing them to sell their property to be incorporated into the massive holdings of the rich. The out-of-business farmers moved to the city and contributed to the state problem of feeding the masses.

Emperors often had to put a ridiculous amount of money into the army, particularly the Praetorian Guard, just to ensure that they would not be assassinated, though many still were. Rampant spending led to the debasement of the currency, which in turn led to escalating inflation. In addition, corruption was endemic, especially in the west, making reforms to taxation even more difficult as administrators would still seek their illegal cut.

4. Disease

An interesting facet of the decline the impact of disease on the Roman Empire. It is agreed that depopulation of the West was a major occurrence, though how severe it was is still debated. It has been argued that sustained disease hit the Roman population hard enough to allow the barbarians to invade.

The geography of the Roman Empire is vital to this theory as many diseases are, at least at the start, confined to a localized region. The heart of Rome was Italy, which provided various diseases that the Romans were likely well resistant too. The borders of Africa brought about all sorts of tropical disease through trade. The Middle East provides its own types of disease and the Romans often traded as far as India and China and down the eastern coast of Africa.

Ancient plagues could be absolutely devestating due to the close quarters and lack of sound health practices
Ancient plagues could be absolutely devastating due to the close quarters and lack of sound health practices.

Two major plagues, the Antonine and Cyprian plagues, possibly of Smallpox, tore through the Roman empire in the second and third centuries. The cramped cities and extended trade networks contributed to their spread. Exact death tolls are difficult to know, but incursions by the Germans and Parthians were hard to counter because of the shortage of healthy troops.

One historian also reported that many towns were abandoned because they lost so many of their inhabitants. Unfortunately, the lack of hard numbers makes it hard to say how much disease impacted the actual fall, but from the sources, it seems to have been quite influential.

It is quite common to lump many of these theories together. The unqualifiable loss of civic virtue mixes with the cognitive and fertility declines of lead poisoning to weaken the very people who were the leadership of Rome. Added to that, unceasing civil wars, bringing about the deaths of countless Romans, and plagues which kill even more. Corrupt emperors who constantly debased the currency and bankrupted the treasury combined with the lack of driving ambition brought by Christianity. Put all these together and it’s a wonder the Empire lasted as long as it did. It’s also a pointed reminder that each individual factor could not have held as much sway as their authors argue. If they had, it’s hard to imagine the empire functioning for more than a year, let alone centuries.

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome; engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay. Photo Credit.
The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome; engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay. Wellcome Images – CC BY 4.0

But Did the Empire Even Fall?

To this question, some would say unequivocally yes, it fell in 476, when Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus. However, there is much more to the Roman Empire. As for the West, a few believe that the Empire was not replaced by conquering barbarians, but that the Romans and Germans transformed and merged cultures.

A widely held opinion is that the invading tribes often did not seek to destroy Rome, but rather to enjoy the benefits of the Roman Empire. This is often seen in the many examples of tribes simply requesting permission to settle just inside Roman territory.

Indeed, even after barbarians settled all of the Western Empire they still lived in a very Roman fashion in many places. Northern Africa plodded along in the Roman way for centuries in towns relatively untouched by the invasions. Charlemagne as a true Roman Emperor is a bit of a stretch but the idea does have some following.

The Byzantine Empire held great power through their history, and they would have been insulted to be referred to as anything but Roman
The Byzantine Empire held great power through their history, and they would have been insulted to be referred to as anything but Romans. Tataryn – CC BY-SA 3.0

The most obvious argument for the continuation of Rome is found in the Byzantine Empire, firmly known by its inhabitants as the Roman Empire. Those living under its rule had no doubt that they were Roman. The Byzantine Emperors ruled as Roman Emperors, and the people behaved as Romans, still obsessed with chariot races and grand buildings. This empire survived for many hundreds of years, though eventually came to an end with the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

Lastly, we have the shadow of the empire in the Catholic Church. Starting with the titles, the emperor of Rome had the title of Pontifex Maximus, chief priest. The title is often used for Popes now and throughout much of papal history. In fact, even the Pope’s Twitter handle is @pontifex. The structure of the Catholic Church is also very similar to the imperial governmental structure, especially with the central ruler of the Pope and the Cardinals as the Senate, though their  roles do not have the same function.

The Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople, by Eugène Delacroix.
The Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople, by Eugène Delacroix.

There are multiple theories on the Fall of Rome, and some may have not even been discovered or discussed yet. Some have a great deal of merit, some seem incredibly far-fetched, some must be applicable and it is almost inevitably some combination of these factors which led to the final end of the western roman empire.

It seems sensible that the Empire continued in some fashion with the Byzantines. One could trace the impact, legacy and its very continuation down to the Holy Roman Empire and even in the Russian title of Czar, though doing so can lead to the twisting of what the Empire really was.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online

Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE