Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty

No empire, from Sargon’s Akkadian Empire to the Soviet Union, lasts forever. There’s always an expiration date.

Internal contradictions and structural tensions are built into the fabric of empire. By their nature, empires are assembled out of constituent pieces—diverse agglomerations of ethnic groups, places, and political systems—and those pieces are then tied together to the political center through some combination of military force, ideological consensus, and the material interests of local elites. Those ties, the seams within the fabric of the imperial system, are always vulnerable to tearing under the right circumstances.

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The Roman Empire was no different. To paraphrase the classicist Clifford Ando in a classic book on what held the Roman Empire together, the real question isn’t why it fell, but why it lasted so long in the first place. It wasn’t a given that the Empire had to last as a political until the fifth century AD.

While academic history doesn’t generally encourage the exploration of hypotheticals, they’re an intensely useful tool for thinking about these issues, as the eminent historian Walter Scheidel told me in a fascinating interview last month. When were the other times when the Roman Empire might have split into different pieces? What eventually brought it back together? With those things in mind, why didn’t the Roman Empire pull itself back from the brink in the fifth century?

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On a basic level, imperial unity was always more of a goal than a given. Usurpations were always something emperors had to worry about, and from the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180, the old guy in Gladiator) on, practically every ruler had to deal with at least one rival claimant. Frontier generals and their armies might be unhappy with their pay or position; provincial aristocrats grew tired of paying their taxes or of a lack of opportunities at the imperial court. The net result of this was that at any given point, one or more provinces might be answering to somebody other than the putative emperor.

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With that said, I see two real points where the Roman Empire was in serious danger of coming apart at the seams.

The first was in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination, when Lepidus, Mark Antony, and Octavian—soon to become Augustus, the first emperor—divided up the Roman world between them. Octavian got most of the west, Lepidus Africa, and Antony the east, from Greece to Syria along with the Egypt ruled in alliance with him by the famous Cleopatra. The ties that bound Rome to the east weren’t especially strong at this point, and much of the region wasn’t even administered directly; had Antony and Cleopatra survived, they might have built an empire ruled from Alexandria rather than Rome.

The second point was during the Crisis of the Third Century (traditionally 235-284 AD), when the frontiers dissolved and a succession of bad and unlucky emperors held the throne. By 270, the peak of this crisis, Gaul and Britain formed a separate political unit known as the Gallic Empire, and Spain held on only tenuously. Much of the east had fallen under the sway of the desert trading city of Palmyra, and whole provinces from Syria to Egypt—the wealthy, urbanized, cosmopolitan heartland of the eastern Mediterranean—were in danger of slipping away. Only good luck and a few competent emperors managed to quell the crisis.

In both of these cases, what saved the Roman Empire was wholesale reorganization, fundamental transformations of the political system. Augustus placated the army and built a brand-new imperial position for himself out of the powers of the old Republic’s magistracies, which he then underpinned with an all-out propaganda campaign. He co-opted the Senate and the aristocracy to run this new unit. After the Crisis of the Third Century, Diocletian built an authoritarian, bureaucratized political system, drastically expanding the army and the tax system to pay for it. He reformed the coinage and the administration and shrouded the imperial office in ritual and distance from the common people to restore its legitimacy.

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I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. I always wished that more professional historians tried to talk to the general public, so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.

In the fifth century, when the Empire was faced with an array of problems both internal and external, nobody stepped up with a vision for a fundamental transformation of the Empire. How and why that happened is the topic of this week’s episode of Fall of Rome, and if that sounds interesting to you, give it a listen. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, sound off in the comments.

You can also listen on iTunes, Google Play, Soundcloud, and Stitcher.