The increasingly ineffective Roman court. Via YouTube

One way of telling the story of the fall of the Roman Empire is to examine the lives and personalities at the very top of the political spectrum, the emperors, generals, court officials, and kings at the center of power who made the life-and-death decisions that reverberated throughout the Roman world. In this telling, it was the feckless emperors, venal court officials, and power-hungry Roman generals and barbarian kings whose personal qualities—both for good and for bad—drove the end of the Roman Empire as a political unit.

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That kind of Great Man (and rarely Great Woman) history has its uses. It makes for an entertaining narrative and can capture the contingency and lived experience of at least one slice of political life.

This kind of narrative has its drawbacks, though. The biggest one is the fact that a narrative can’t capture the full depth or complexity of the political environment in which the people at the top are making those impactful decisions that reverberate throughout the political sphere. Structures and institutions make up the bedrock of the political system on which that narrative can be built.

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This is the best lens for looking at the political fall of the Roman Empire. The calamitous fifth century, from the death of Theodosius the Great in 395 to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, was a time of structural stress. These foundations—the tax system, the army, and the legitimacy of the imperial government—first creaked under the weight of violence, disorder, and invasion, and then snapped before finally disintegrating altogether.

I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. It seems pretty silly to me that professional historians don’t actually talk to the general public—why would you spend decades working on something if you don’t want to tell people about it?—so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.

In this week’s episode, we discuss the fall of the structures and institutions that formed the foundation of the Roman Empire.

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This structural rot began at the very top, with a fundamental transformation of the political system. The later Roman Empire was increasingly centralized, with a large, professional bureaucracy built around the person of a competent adult emperor (Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian, Theodosius the Great) who could make decisive decisions and lead the army on campaign. After Theodosius died in 395, though, he was replaced by his two young sons, ushering in 60 years of rule by either child-emperors or former child-emperors who grew into incompetent adults.

It was the court officials and generals who held the real power behind the facade of these incompetent emperors-in-name. This wasn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster, but it turned out to be in practice, as the imperial court started to look more and more like just one more faction among many within the Empire. When competent adults did finally take back the imperial throne in the west, the office of emperor had been so degraded and stripped of its power by 60 years of puppet rule that it was too far gone to be useful.

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This created a basic issue of legitimacy—who got to be the emperor and why should anyone take orders from him?—but that was just one of the many problems facing the fifth-century political system.

A tax system of unparalleled effectiveness and complexity held the later Roman Empire together, transferring goods and money from place to place and region to region in staggering quantities. This tax system not only allowed for the supply and payment of a standing army that numbered as many as 600,000 troops, but also supplied the major cities of the Empire with grain and other necessities while paying for the bureaucracy that administered this complex system.

A system this intricate was also vulnerable to disruptions, though. Violence and disorder prevented the collection of taxes in wide swathes of the Empire, and once central authority returned, people weren’t enthusiastic about paying into government coffers again. Whole provinces were either granted away to barbarian armies (southwestern Gaul to the Visigoths) or were lost altogether (North Africa to the Vandals) over the course of the fifth century, further diminishing the tax base.

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Without the money to pay the professional soldiers of the standing army, the imperial government was increasingly forced to negotiate with these settled barbarians for the troops necessary to carry out their policy goals. Every military campaign therefore became an intense negotiation between equals rather than a case of generals issuing orders. Over time, these barbarian armies took on the shape of independent kingdoms, power blocs within the Empire that increasingly pursued their own policies and goals at the expense of the weakened imperial center. This dealt a further blow to the legitimacy of the imperial court and those claiming to be emperors.

There’s one incident that I’ve always thought perfectly captures just how far the imperial court had fallen by the 470s. There was a general named Gundobad who had been groomed by his ruthless uncle Ricimer to become the power behind the throne, the real ruler working through a puppet emperor. Gundobad found a patsy, a court official named Glycerius, and duly set about ruling through him. After a little while, though, Gundobad took stock of the situation and apparently didn’t like what he saw; instead, he picked up stakes and headed home to Gaul, where he pursued a claim to become one of the kings of the Burgundians. Gundobad literally decided it was better to be one of several rulers of a second-rate kingdom in Gaul than to be the power behind the imperial throne.

That’s how far things had deteriorated. There was no tax base, no standing army, no sense of legitimate imperial rule; all of the structures and institutions that had created the Roman Empire were gone.

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If this sounds interesting to you, give this episode a listen, and if you have any questions, sound off in the comments.

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

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Correction: Because of a typo, this blog originally said Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 376. He was deposed in 476.