Sunday, November 17, 2019

The End of Western Roman Empire Essay Example for Free

The End of Western Roman Empire Essay The Roman Empire, perhaps the strongest, most evolved and most consistently fascinating empire has been the subject of historical research and discourse than any other empires that the history of the world has seen. Its birth and its rise was a complex process involving a multitude of factors that came together to create a super-power the world had never seen; its decline – more complex still. It is difficult for historians and researchers to pin down the exact chief reason of its decline and highlight the one major cause that led to the downfall of the giant. From foreign invasions to incompetent emperors, from internal strife to crippled economy – all have been cited time and time again as the real culprits. The views are vast and varied and invariably historically supported by facts from the annals of history. However, the causes of Roman decline still remain debatable. Wickham (184) and Goffart (1981) have grappled with the issue of Roman decline in their own separate ways. While the former has recounted the changing economy of the Empire as a chief cause among many, the latter has listed foreign invasions as a major culprit. Wickham, in his article ‘The Other Transition: From the Ancient World to Feudalism’ has delineated the slow but sure changes in the economic fabric of the Roman society as it neared its downfall and the impact these changes had on the social, political, national and ideological front. The Roman Empire’s shift from an empire that thrived on taxes, to an empire that became dependent on the feudal system of governance for its sustenance, is the prime focus. Wickham has analyzed the underlying economic currents that shaped the Roman governance, and ultimately the Roman society, and concentrated solely on the economic process of change and its implications. The mode of production of the Roman Empire was perhaps one of the most important aspects in its economy and its shift from the slave traditions to serfdom and tenancy had deep ramifications. The writer has referred to a valid point once raised by Bloch who discussed how the number of slaves in the Roman Empire did undeniably increase during the great wars of the fifth to sixth centuries A. D but the increase in the number of slaves did not necessarily lead towards increased number of slave plantations. These slaves were primarily forced to participate in wars instead and the view that growing slavery in fifth and sixth century must naturally point towards a strengthening of the slavery structure is essentially flawed. In the early stages of development, Rome had become an exploitative state by nature where the government wealth came to be collected from tributes and taxes from cities, neighbouring states and the general public. This gradually developed into what Wickham calls ‘a wholesale taxation network’ coupled with slave plantations. By the end of the third century however, slave plantations had disappeared and the agrarian production depended more on tenants and the feudal mode of production. However, the Roman Empire, with its mind-boggling vastness, still depended on taxes for its support rather than land rents or serfdom. ‘The dominant source of surplus extraction in the late empire was not rent, but tax. ’ Taxation commanded the economy and was the economic foundation for the Roman State. By the fifth century however, things began to take a slow but decisive turn. The landed gentry, and even the general public for that matter, came under increased pressure as heavy taxes were imposed to not just take care of wartime expenses resulting from skirmishes with the Barbarians, but also to fill the pockets of the urban governments. The private land owners realized that the Roman patronage was too expensive as armies, bound to offer protection against the Barbarians, began to lose ground and military expenses bloated. Peasants too began to adopt rent-paying to powerful land-owners as opposed to paying taxes directly to the State. Wickham writes, ‘Benefits from the state had never justified the weight of taxes in the eyes of peasants, and nor did they any longer for landlords. ’ Hence, both the peasantry and the aristocrats sought refuge in a system that saved them from the back-breaking weight of taxes. When the aristocracy lost interest in the state and developed their own preoccupations, maintaining a feudal system on their lands, the state suffered enormously and when not supported by the peasantry – a group equally wary of taxation systems, the Roman Empire felt the reverberations. Walter Goffart (1981), on the other hand, focuses on an entirely different aspect of Roman decline in his work ‘Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians. ’ He admits, and sufficiently cites respected historians to strengthen his case, that the rise of Christianity and the Barbarians had undeniable, deep impact on the last few centuries of the great Rome and elects to focus on only one aspect out of the two. In Goffart’s opinion, the Barbarians put Rome in a complex quandary, yet it was the Romans who shaped the relationship and dictated the terms on which the mutual encounters were formulated. For Goffart, it is crucial to understand the dynamics of the Roman-Barbarian relationship by viewing it from the Roman side of the border. It is important to keep in mind, points Goffart, that the Barbarians were never ill-equipped to handle the Roman Empire and had continuously and with single-minded determination inflicted heavy damages to the vastly superior Roman army, yet it was the Roman Empire itself that gave them numerous openings to inflict losses. Gaining advantages from the internal strife and the preoccupation of the Emperors with politics and inner problems, the Barbarians shrewdly targeted an army that though well-equipped and colossal, was still insufficient to safeguard the vast borders. In addition, the mounting expenses of the armies made emperors reluctant to unleash brutal force on the war-mongering Barbarians as they realized that the tax-payers might be unable or unwilling to pay for wars on the frontier. In addition, as internal strife and rebellion increased, Barbarians were promptly employed by either the Emperor or the usurper to fight the wars on their behalf as Goffart comments, ‘Political competitors invariably occupied a higher place on the agenda than alien enemies; barbarians were the natural allies of emperors and usurpers alike in their fratricidal struggles for power. ’ Interestingly Goffart claims that the ability of the barbarians to assert themselves ‘hinged far less upon their strength and wishes than upon the response that the Roman government could make to them in the short and long run. ’ Even though addressing the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire is a common concern for both historians, it is the approach taken by them that differs. Where on the one hand Wickham believes that the shift in the economic setup of the Roman Empire from revenue-based governance to feudal form of governance brought about major changes and somehow contributed to the decline, Goffart, on the other hand insists that the long winding, never ceasing strife with the barbarians chipped away at the roots of the powerful empire. Admittedly, both agree that the causes delineated by them individually are not the sole ones but chief reasons among countless others. Both writers insist that the decline of the great empire was a slow process and was brought about gradually rather than suddenly. For them, destruction of an empire as vast as the Roman Empire could not have possibly been a sudden incident brought about by calamities or foreign aggression. Both have laid stress on the importance of social, cultural, geopolitical and economic changes brought about by changing internal or external realities to be the real culprit. For the historians, the system of governance and the mindsets of the ruling elite had a lot to do with the decline and waning of glory. For instance, discounting the importance of increasingly aggressive neighbours, internal strife, palace conspiracies or agrarian instability as sole causes, the writers hold that the last nail was hammered down by the supreme powers and their critically strategic mistakes, as in the words of Goffart, ‘The critical element, however, was neither Gothic strength nor deficient Roman means; it was a scale of imperial priorities in which the repose of the many had an absolute preference over the safety of a few. ’ Where on the one hand, both the historians have relied on famous classical historians such as Polybius, Cassius Dio, Herodian, Tacitus etc. , they have on the other hand cited extensively respected contemporary scholarship on the Roman history. Historians such as Piganoil, Haverfield, Haller and Dannenbauer, Hindess and Hirst, Perry Anderson and Finley etc. all are generously cited to support the theses. It is interesting to note that the reasoning employed by both historians is uniquely independent as they have drawn their own conclusions and at times chosen to take entirely differing views from previously accepted notions. For instance, Goffart claims that the common perception that the barbarians migrated towards the Mediterranean as a means of escaping the unfriendly Baltic regions is a flawed perception based solely on misguided views and shaky historical claims. The writer has also stressed on the need for objective analysis and has expressed open approbation of Sulpicius Severus, a much less noted historian, over the more widely respected Polybius, as a more dependent source. Both writers have shed light on issues hitherto neglected and taken a decidedly different stand on issues. Negating the widely held belief that the barbarians were in a way responsible for Roman downfall, Goffart insisted and proved by means of historical evidence that it was in fact the weakness and procrastination of the Emperors, who chose to first give precedence to warring with usurpers and rebels and employed the same barbarians in their internal strife instead of taking a stronger stand and not settling with cutting off portions of the territory in lieu of shaky peace. It was not the barbarian aggression, as is widely believed, that the Romans could not stand but their own errors that weakened them. Accounting the shift from the tax system to the feudal system, Wickham has demonstrated a fresher insight into the long-held and cemented perceptions regarding the economic realities of Rome between the third till the sixth century. Pointing out how the peasants began to avoid state taxes and sought refuge in the feudal system, Wickham has demonstrated the break that happened between the state and the aristocracy, as they now adopted the feudal system as undoubtedly profitable for them. References Goffart, W 1981, ‘Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians Author,’ The American Historical Review Vol. 86, No. 2, pp. 275-306. Wickham, C 1984, ‘The Other Transition: From the Ancient World to Feudalism Author,’ Past and Present, No. 103, pp. 3-36.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.