Decline of the Roman Empire

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Decline of the Roman Empire

Post by Kitsune » 2008-06-04 06:33pm

If this is in the wrong forum because it likely is much opinion

There are an incredible number of theories to why the Roman Empire fell and just curious which ones people ascribe to themselves? Maybe a bit of why if possible?
Last edited by Kitsune on 2008-06-07 11:09pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by TC Pilot » 2008-06-04 08:18pm

Depends which one you mean: the one that fell in 475 or the one that fell in 1453. :P

In my own opinion, the Roman Empire was too great to be brought down by a single factor, though the death of Marcus Aurelius seems to be a good starting point to the decline. After him, the political instability of the Third century essentially wrecked the ability of a centralized authority to excercise effective control over all the empire's territory from a single location, something Diocletian attempted to fix with his political reforms. Unfortunately, his concept of four simultaneous emperors (not technically four, but the empire was split between them all administratively) never panned out.

Meanwhile, in the East, the Sassanids overthrew the rather benign Parthians, introducing an incredibly dangerous opponent on Rome's eastern frontier (dangerous as in crushed Roman armies and killed/humiliated/flayed a couple emperors), while Germannic raids around the Rhine and Danuba frontier remained an ever-present possibility, both of which required significantly more military spending. Then, more or less out of nowhere, barbarians exploded across the northern frontier, rampaging through Gaul, Hispania, and the Balkans, culminating in the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Until that point, the Roman Empire was still powerful enough to sustain itself. Afterwards, barbarian incursion was simply a brute fact, and Rome's power collapsed steadily (see Alaric's sack of Rome) until it simply ceased to exist in the western half.
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Post by Surlethe » 2008-06-04 10:50pm

I understand that it's commonly held that Rome was simply too large to sustain itself. Perhaps an analogy could be drawn to the USSR by saying it spent itself to death on military?
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Post by Fingolfin_Noldor » 2008-06-04 10:57pm

Surlethe wrote:I understand that it's commonly held that Rome was simply too large to sustain itself. Perhaps an analogy could be drawn to the USSR by saying it spent itself to death on military?
I think this is more linked to all the civil wars, and that all the rival generals raised armies of their own and plundered the land they held to raise funds to raise their armies.

But that is only one of many reasons. There's also the issue that the West wasn't as economically developed as the East and the urban culture of the Eastern half saved it from collapse until 1453 (or the 4th Crusade for that matter).
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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 04:30am

Surlethe wrote:I understand that it's commonly held that Rome was simply too large to sustain itself. Perhaps an analogy could be drawn to the USSR by saying it spent itself to death on military?
That is a rather....poor theory and usually advocated by people who cannot really pinpoint detailed reasons. Too large to sustain itself is especially a very poor theory considering that for over 400 years the empire had more or less the same territory and did not have any problems then.
Fingolfin Nordor wrote: But that is only one of many reasons. There's also the issue that the West wasn't as economically developed as the East and the urban culture of the Eastern half saved it from collapse until 1453 (or the 4th Crusade for that matter).
WHich is also very unsatisfactory, considering that there was a steep population decline in the dark ages. For example Korinth went from a population of over 100.000 to 5000 in the course of a single century. And we need not talk about what happened to Antiochia. If anything, urban culture is a detriment since one has to feed all those people after all. Besides, there was no urban culture anymore since the seventh century save in a few select cities like Constantinople, Thessaloniki and - though much reduced - Nikomedia.

The truth of the matter is that the east had it easy compared to the west. Not only did they have to fight fewer enemies, they were also quite happy to steer them in the direction of the west.


TCPilot wrote:In my own opinion, the Roman Empire was too great to be brought down by a single factor, though the death of Marcus Aurelius seems to be a good starting point to the decline.
Oh God, not this gibbon-centric viewpoint again. This is just simply wrong on so many levels....
After him, the political instability of the Third century essentially wrecked the ability of a centralized authority to excercise effective control over all the empire's territory from a single location,
A most dangerous oversimplification.
something Diocletian attempted to fix with his political reforms. Unfortunately, his concept of four simultaneous emperors (not technically four, but the empire was split between them all administratively) never panned out.
What? Explain yourself here. The division of the empire in two halves worked very well in general.
Meanwhile, in the East, the Sassanids overthrew the rather benign Parthians,
Benign Parthians? Have you read any of the ancient sources?
introducing an incredibly dangerous opponent on Rome's eastern frontier (dangerous as in crushed Roman armies and killed/humiliated/flayed a couple emperors), while Germannic raids around the Rhine and Danuba frontier remained an ever-present possibility, both of which required significantly more military spending.
And your figures for that are from where, exactly?
Then, more or less out of nowhere, barbarians exploded across the northern frontier, rampaging through Gaul, Hispania, and the Balkans, culminating in the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Until that point, the Roman Empire was still powerful enough to sustain itself. Afterwards, barbarian incursion was simply a brute fact, and Rome's power collapsed steadily (see Alaric's sack of Rome) until it simply ceased to exist in the western half.


Until 400, the frontier of Gaul was more or less stable (I should really get that essay posted about the defense of gaul). Same with the balkans until Adrianople.
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Post by Fingolfin_Noldor » 2008-06-05 05:13am

Thanas wrote:WHich is also very unsatisfactory, considering that there was a steep population decline in the dark ages. For example Korinth went from a population of over 100.000 to 5000 in the course of a single century. And we need not talk about what happened to Antiochia. If anything, urban culture is a detriment since one has to feed all those people after all. Besides, there was no urban culture anymore since the seventh century save in a few select cities like Constantinople, Thessaloniki and - though much reduced - Nikomedia.

The truth of the matter is that the east had it easy compared to the west. Not only did they have to fight fewer enemies, they were also quite happy to steer them in the direction of the west.
Ok, so if urban culture wasn't the problem, was it because of the collapse of the tax collecting system? I remember reading somewhere that taxes became something very hard to collect in the West in no small part because the civil wars resulted in breakdowns in communication throughout the West.

And yes, I agree the East had it easy in terms of enemies, and also civil wars.

What book would you recommend reading? Something free of Gibbon's stupidity that is.
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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 07:22am

Fingolfin_Noldor wrote:Ok, so if urban culture wasn't the problem, was it because of the collapse of the tax collecting system? I remember reading somewhere that taxes became something very hard to collect in the West in no small part because the civil wars resulted in breakdowns in communication throughout the West.
There are many reasons for the decline. In fact, over 200 theories exist and the solution for the fall of the empire cannot be found in a single reason. To go into great detail would be too much, however I should note that the man who collected the 210 theories in a single book, Prof. Demandt, believes the germanic tribes to be the deciding factor. However, I do not concur with that assessment.

IMO the greatest problem were the civil wars, which simply butchered the roman army. People think Adrianople was the biggest tragedy - but only if you neglect to mention battles like Mursa, where three times the number of roman soldiers were lost.

What book would you recommend reading? Something free of Gibbon's stupidity that is.
I have listed a number of books here. However I would not call Gibbon an idiot. Without him, there would be no late antiquity as we know it and he is probably the most important roman historian to have ever lived besides Mommsen. Sure, most of his ideas are outdated, but every real student of history should have read his book. A link to an online edition is provided in the thread linked to above.

I would recommend A.H.M. Jones excellent book, though at over 150$ it is very expensive. But that is usually the case with books about rome - you can get the osprey stuff for very little money but for serious work you have to have big pockets.
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Post by Stark » 2008-06-05 07:32am

I think a problem with most 'why did the Roman empire fail' theories is that they simply try to pick the 'moment' the Roman empire went from being 'stable' to 'declining'. I don't think that's very realistic at all; if you removed any one factor, there's still many others pushing it in the same direction. To my rather shallow scholarship, the empire appears to have spent much of it's history in a rather unstable state - it didn't go from land of milk and honey to decaying due to one event. I'm not sure I agree with what many people define as 'the Roman empire' anyway; the date of 453 is after some concievable ends and before others, and perhaps this adds to what different historians consider the 'one cause' behind the decline.

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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 07:37am

Stark wrote:I think a problem with most 'why did the Roman empire fail' theories is that they simply try to pick the 'moment' the Roman empire went from being 'stable' to 'declining'. I don't think that's very realistic at all; if you removed any one factor, there's still many others pushing it in the same direction. To my rather shallow scholarship, the empire appears to have spent much of it's history in a rather unstable state - it didn't go from land of milk and honey to decaying due to one event. I'm not sure I agree with what many people define as 'the Roman empire' anyway; the date of 453 is after some concievable ends and before others, and perhaps this adds to what different historians consider the 'one cause' behind the decline.
Stark, I share your opinion in everything except the unstable state - only to our modern eyes would the roman empire ever be considered unstable. And another thing is that nowadays we tend to view the roman empire as a single faction, calling it unstable when there was - for example - fighting in gaul. But what of the other territories? They wouldn't be unstable because gaul was unstable. North Africa flourished in the so-called unstable times, even becoming the most massively populated area of the empire.
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Post by Stark » 2008-06-05 07:42am

I know what you mean, but I was speaking generally internally, politically or economically. Like I said, I'm not particularly well read in this period (aside from Gibbon and bits of Mommsen) but it seems that much of the empire's history there was some pressing social or economic issue threatening ruin or disaster.

Of course you're right that this is our modern, hindsight perspective (as if any other ancient society was particularly stable). It's not as if the Roman empire was as outwardly unstable as the Byzantine, which expanded and contracted geographically, economically and militarily many times.

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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 07:57am

Stark wrote:I know what you mean, but I was speaking generally internally, politically or economically. Like I said, I'm not particularly well read in this period (aside from Gibbon and bits of Mommsen) but it seems that much of the empire's history there was some pressing social or economic issue threatening ruin or disaster.
Sure. But that is bound to happen when you have an empire encompassing all of Europe, Northern Africa and most of the Middle East. There's bound to be a disaster everytime. Yet the frequency of the disasters and the solutions rather point to me a very stable state, even by modern standards.

Take for example the reign of Julian. During the six years he was in power (first as Ceasar, than as Augustus) there were two barbarian invasions, several border skirmishes, a war with persia and one famine which was pretty much confined to Antiochia.

That are maybe two disasters per year. How many do we get nowadays? How many did the British empire face?

I would be very careful with calling the empire unstable, since we tend to forget that we are reading about several centuries of history and then go "OMG. There were x disasters in the fourth century" (Not you Stark, I am exaggerating a general sentiment I hear everyday). Now compare this to the number of disasters and political changes which happened in Europe in the twentieth century. I think the argument can be made that compared to that, the Roman empire was much more stable.
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Post by Stark » 2008-06-05 08:05am

Agreed; this is why I find the idea of finding the 'one' crisis that began the 'decline' of the empire kinda silly - there were so many pressures on the empire at any time, internal and external, that to say one by itself (or one decision, or one battle) was the 'turn of the tide' seems overly simplistic and romanticised, particularly when it involves picking out one decision-maker for 'dooming the empire'. Sometimes it seems like quite a smug 'if x had done y the empire need not have fallen' sort of thing.

I say 'unstable' simply because my reading gives me the impression not of a monolithic giant bestriding the world, but a complex organisation so large that a constant effort was required to maintain it, wheras many seem to consider it in terms of our own societies.

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Post by Kitsune » 2008-06-05 09:26am

Gibbon bothers me in his argument of "loss of civic virtue among the Roman citizens"
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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 10:38am

Stark wrote:Agreed; this is why I find the idea of finding the 'one' crisis that began the 'decline' of the empire kinda silly - there were so many pressures on the empire at any time, internal and external, that to say one by itself (or one decision, or one battle) was the 'turn of the tide' seems overly simplistic and romanticised, particularly when it involves picking out one decision-maker for 'dooming the empire'. Sometimes it seems like quite a smug 'if x had done y the empire need not have fallen' sort of thing.
I think we are in total agreement here...and this is also the reason I find most "alternate history" dreadful. No matter how much one can try to blame a person, in an empire which had that much redundancy and fail-safe devices blaming one person seems insulting to the whole idea of the roman empire itself. That is what always distinguished the romans from the other nations to me - they were able to keep going despite the worst idiots being in command.
I say 'unstable' simply because my reading gives me the impression not of a monolithic giant bestriding the world, but a complex organisation so large that a constant effort was required to maintain it, wheras many seem to consider it in terms of our own societies.
Bravo. That is exactly the image you are supposed to get. And that is exactly why the empire flourished in the first place - because it was always adapting, always changing. The Empire was so flexible that it adopted a whole alien belief system and managed to use it to further the aims of the empire. Unlike those states that did not change and therefore were replaced (Parthia being one example).

Seeing Rome as a giant made of granite is a mistake many students make and it is probably the hardest to beat it out of their head. Yet they are not wholly at fault as Roman propaganda (and therefore most of the sources) make sure to paint Rome as a conservative, everlasting demigod.



Kitsune wrote:Gibbon bothers me in his argument of "loss of civic virtue among the Roman citizens"
Maybe you could extrapolate a bit more than a one-liner? Like why does he bother you? And what is your counterpoint?
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Post by Raesene » 2008-06-05 10:54am

Fingolfin_Noldor wrote: What book would you recommend reading? Something free of Gibbon's stupidity that is.
I'm not a student of history, but I liked Peter Heather's "The Fall of the Roman Empire".

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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 11:10am

Raesene wrote:
Fingolfin_Noldor wrote: What book would you recommend reading? Something free of Gibbon's stupidity that is.
I'm not a student of history, but I liked Peter Heather's "The Fall of the Roman Empire".
Peter Heather has an excellent reputation, but his domino theory sounds somewhat old. Essentially he is claiming the sassanids forced the empire to stretch its forces, which in the long term left it unable to defend itself against the barbarians who had advanced economically and were pressured by the huns. The latter part is actually nothing new and has been claimed for centuries.

Heather rejects the civil wars as a cause of the decline which is a somewhat curious notion. He may be right that he barbarians were the reason, but I believe them to be the straw that broke the camel's back instead of being the load of weight. He also ignores the strain christianity put on the society, as well as the enormous accumulation of wealth in the hands of the aristocracy. However, his book is a good read nonetheless (I still prefer Jones, though).
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Post by Kitsune » 2008-06-05 03:22pm

Thanas wrote:Maybe you could extrapolate a bit more than a one-liner? Like why does he bother you? And what is your counterpoint?
That opinion would seem to be simplistic and seems to be the resort of many people over many times frames.....It always seems to be a reason people give.

I tend to think of it as three hard factors - Civil Wars, Invasion/ external threats, and ecological factors. These would be hard pressed for any nation to deal with and the huge size, attempting to keep a army to deal with threats, an almost free falling economy, and no expansion to keep the economic system propped up would seem to be factors which exasperated the situation.
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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 05:00pm

Kitsune wrote:
Thanas wrote:Maybe you could extrapolate a bit more than a one-liner? Like why does he bother you? And what is your counterpoint?
That opinion would seem to be simplistic and seems to be the resort of many people over many times frames.....It always seems to be a reason people give.
But it is also true - in the time of Symmachus, the senators for the most part seem to be fat sloths and nothing more.
I tend to think of it as three hard factors - Civil Wars, Invasion/ external threats, and ecological factors. These would be hard pressed for any nation to deal with and the huge size, attempting to keep a army to deal with threats,
I don't think it is that easy. Especially since it does not explain the miraculous resurgence in the period from 350 - 370.
an almost free falling economy,
This clearly was not the case. We have regions booming like never seen before in the 4th century. Case in point: North Africa and Syria.
and no expansion to keep the economic system propped up would seem to be factors which exasperated the situation.
Please explain to me why the roman economy needed expansion, or why the roman state needed to expand anyway. Furthermore, you seem to think of the roman economy like today's economy, which was not the case.
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Post by Kitsune » 2008-06-05 05:17pm

Thanas wrote:But it is also true - in the time of Symmachus, the senators for the most part seem to be fat sloths and nothing more.
The question is how much power did the Senators really have...the Empire had been autocratic since Augustus. They seemed to be there more to make a good show than anything else.
Thanas wrote:I don't think it is that easy. Especially since it does not explain the miraculous resurgence in the period from 350 - 370.
Resurgence or bailing......I am also talking about not just one of these factors but all three striking at once and then striking repeatedly. Maybe it can be weathered once but twice, three, four, ect.....
Thanas wrote:This clearly was not the case. We have regions booming like never seen before in the 4th century. Case in point: North Africa and Syria.
The roman emperor would periodically bring all of the coinage back and remelt it back and put less silver in the coinage. He also would not accept his own coinage back. According to Daileader, it was not until Constantine that at least a gold standard was stablized.
Thanas wrote:Please explain to me why the roman economy needed expansion, or why the roman state needed to expand anyway. Furthermore, you seem to think of the roman economy like today's economy, which was not the case.
Actually today, Conquests usually cost the invader. In Roman times, you can steal the treasury of the other nations, make slaves, and steal natural resources.
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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 06:17pm

Kitsune wrote:
Thanas wrote:But it is also true - in the time of Symmachus, the senators for the most part seem to be fat sloths and nothing more.
The question is how much power did the Senators really have...the Empire had been autocratic since Augustus. They seemed to be there more to make a good show than anything else.
Which is exactly what Gibbon is critizsing - that the senate which had supplied the leaders of the early empire was now just a show. (Which fits well his focus on Marcus Aurelius since the process of castrating the senate was finished under his successors)
Resurgence or bailing......I am also talking about not just one of these factors but all three striking at once and then striking repeatedly. Maybe it can be weathered once but twice, three, four, ect.....
Again, show me the details.
The roman emperor would periodically bring all of the coinage back and remelt it back and put less silver in the coinage. He also would not accept his own coinage back. According to Daileader, it was not until Constantine that at least a gold standard was stablized.
So what? Coinage is now supposed to explain a decline of the economy...and why there was a booming economy in the fourth century? How is your point even related to your claim of a failing economy?
Actually today, Conquests usually cost the invader. In Roman times, you can steal the treasury of the other nations, make slaves, and steal natural resources.
And how is that supposed to point to a decline of the empire when the empire had not been expanding significantly since Hadrian? Are you trying to paint a picture of a roman economy in steady decline since the second century? That would be beyond stupid.

Furthermore, your point is very much an oversimplification. Britain was a huge net loss and only made money in the third century. Dacia cost a fortune and the primary aim was to remove the most dangerous germanic tribe in existence. And Parthia wrecked the roman economy due to the plague. So please do not paint a picture of invasions bringing back a profit because that is simply not true per se. Only the second invasion of Parthia brought back a net profit.

And those invasions I listed - they were done in the first-second century, when soldiers were pretty cheap to come by. Now in Late Antiquity, you have specialized combat troops, highly effective enemies etc. Campaigning cost a fortune.

As for slaves, here is a fun fact - during the fourth century we see a huge "overproduction" in slaves. Why? Because there were so many germans to go around. Heck, under Stilicho, the price for gothic slaves actually fell to a third of the market price. Nevermind the effects of the campaigns of Julian, Dagalaifus etc.
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TC Pilot
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Post by TC Pilot » 2008-06-05 06:35pm

Thanas wrote:Oh God, not this gibbon-centric viewpoint again. This is just simply wrong on so many levels....
It's a starting point, and I thought I also said "as good a place as any to start". I felt it neccesary to include the Crisis of the Third Century, and I also don't particularly like the Severans.
A most dangerous oversimplification.
Perhaps, though I think it's safe to say Diocletian felt that was the case.
What? Explain yourself here. The division of the empire in two halves worked very well in general.
Except the division of the empire into halves more resembled a dynastic succession split rather than Diocletian's Tetrarchy.
Benign Parthians? Have you read any of the ancient sources?
"Rather" is perhaps not clear enough where "relatively" is.
And your figures for that are from where, exactly?
Peter Heather's Fall of the Roman Empire.
Until 400, the frontier of Gaul was more or less stable (I should really get that essay posted about the defense of gaul). Same with the balkans until Adrianople.
Yep.
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Post by Kitsune » 2008-06-05 07:13pm

The information about what happened in the Third Century can be be easily found. There was a multitude of crisis then.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_of_ ... rd_Century
It supports the multitude of invasions, internal crisis, and the debasement of currency.

My suggesting is that after that, it was just trying to stem the tide of collapse. This is really about the western half not about the eastern half which held on for another 1000 years.

You need to show me how the economy was booming after the Third Century not just sort of hanging on. According to what I have seen, both Diocletian and Constantine tried to force people to stay in certain jobs as well as keeping people fixed to their parcels of land

If what you say is correct, originally slaves were more profitable but became unprofitable.
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Post by Thanas » 2008-06-05 08:20pm

TC Pilot wrote: It's a starting point, and I thought I also said "as good a place as any to start". I felt it neccesary to include the Crisis of the Third Century, and I also don't particularly like the Severans.
It is also wrong. Yes, the third century was bad, but nowhere near does it resemble a roman "decline" like we see in the end of the fourth or fifth century.
Except the division of the empire into halves more resembled a dynastic succession split rather than Diocletian's Tetrarchy.
Why? The procedure is the same. You have one Ceasar and one Augustus, with the former replacing the latter. Granted, you do not have a succesion of the "best", but the succession procedure is the same. Diocletian's tetrarchy is btw far more than just the reorganization. You also have the restructuring of the provinces, the forming of mobile armies etc. One can even make the argument that the empire of the second century and the tetrarchy are two different states.
Benign Parthians? Have you read any of the ancient sources?
"Rather" is perhaps not clear enough where "relatively" is.
Well then, how are the Parthians in any way benign? They were certainly far more aggressive than the average German tribe of their time.

And your figures for that are from where, exactly?
Peter Heather's Fall of the Roman Empire.
Numbers and cite please.

Kitsune wrote:The information about what happened in the Third Century can be be easily found. There was a multitude of crisis then.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_of_ ... rd_Century
It supports the multitude of invasions, internal crisis, and the debasement of currency.
It is also wikipedia. I need a serious source, not some half-assed encyclopedia. I am also not disputing that the third century was a time of crisis, yet it does not prove that the roman empire was in steep decline. In fact, the longest lasting peace on the eastern frontier was after Diocletians time, Rome started integrating Barbarians again ( they were even almost succesful in the case of the most warlike of the german tribes, the Alamanni) etc.

You cannot really say that the Roman empire was in decline based on evidence of the third century. That's like saying American influence is in steep decline since Vietnam.
My suggesting is that after that, it was just trying to stem the tide of collapse. This is really about the western half not about the eastern half which held on for another 1000 years.
Ah, the outdated beliefs of the semi-last century. How I love those. Really, have you read any new books at all?
You need to show me how the economy was booming after the Third Century not just sort of hanging on.
I shall have a cite for you by tomorrow.
According to what I have seen, both Diocletian and Constantine tried to force people to stay in certain jobs as well as keeping people fixed to their parcels of land
Yes, but those measures are solutions to a crisis and not an indicator for the continuance of those.
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A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! - Chief Judge Haywood
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Post by TC Pilot » 2008-06-05 08:43pm

Thanas wrote:It is also wrong. Yes, the third century was bad, but nowhere near does it resemble a roman "decline" like we see in the end of the fourth or fifth century.
Nor did I say it did. Though I can't say I care much, since you're only justification for objecting to me starting my rather short, broad narrative is that it resembles where Gibbon started.
Why? The procedure is the same. You have one Ceasar and one Augustus, with the former replacing the latter. Granted, you do not have a succesion of the "best", but the succession procedure is the same.
Yes. Your point? I said it didn't pan out. It didn't.
Well then, how are the Parthians in any way benign? They were certainly far more aggressive than the average German tribe of their time.
Do you really not understand what "relatively" means? Beyond the constant battles over which side's puppet ruled Armenia and a few exceptions like Trajan's territorial acquisition, there was no serious concern that the Parthians could or would push the Romans out of Syria or Asia Minor. The Parthians also never captured a Roman Emperor (or flayed one, according to Lactantius) or killed others.

Numbers and cite please.
Can't. I don't own the book nor do I have access to it.
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Post by Maxentius » 2008-06-05 09:11pm

Kitsune wrote:The information about what happened in the Third Century can be be easily found. There was a multitude of crisis then.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_of_ ... rd_Century
It supports the multitude of invasions, internal crisis, and the debasement of currency.
For what it's worth, Kitsune, avoid using Wikipedia at all costs. If you need a general source for Roman history, www.roman-empire.net is a vastly superior place to go.

At the risk of parroting Thanas, there's really no real place and time that you can pin the beginning of Roman decline on. Once again, at the risk of 'me-too'ing, the Crisis of the Third Century was a crisis - nothing more. The Empire was easily just as strong and centralized under Diocletian as it was at any point during the previous century and a half, I'd say. Julian's Persian campaign was utterly devastating, etc, etc.

My opinion is that the Empire only began to show signs of serious erosion under the Theodosian/Valentinian dynasties.
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