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I have been reading the Byzantium books by Viscount (John Julius) Norwich, which is about, as the title implies, the Byzantine Empire. The book begins with the birth of Constantine, and the division of the Roman Empire (in 286) between several different co-emperors, by Diocletian, who had come to the conclusion that one emperor wasn't enough to govern such a large bit of real estate. Naturally, Lord Norwich includes a huge chunk of the first volume of this three-volume work to the latter days of the western Roman Empire, since the Roman Empire was the embryo from which the uniquely eastern Empire was born.

But he doesn't really cover (or maybe I just missed it) the $64,000 question: why did the western empire collapse? Why did it fall into chaos by 476, when the eastern half would endure, in some form or another, until 1453? It was the same empire, technically; whether there were two augusti or just one was simply a matter of administrative convenience. Zosimus, a pagan, summed up the whole thing in one word: Christianity. Edward Gibbon seems inclined to agree. I personally dont. But I still don't understand the situation entirely.

Is there a history buff in the house??

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What is going on in Europe now with the influx of people from other continents is very similar to the final decades of the Roman Empire before its division and fall.

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In the third and fourth centuries, the climate of Europe cooled. The peoples of northern Europe began to suffer crop failures due to a shorter growing season. They began to migrate south. The Romans tried to keep them out but the Roman army depended on wheeled transport. Their excellent road system was broken up by frost, meaning they were unable to respond in a timely fashion. This was complicated by the practice of hiring non-romans to serve in the army. Many of these went over to the other side to lead their cousins. The "barbarians" did not depend on wheeled transport. When they came to a section of road that had become a mud hole, they skirted around it. 

The eastern Empire was unaffected by the cooling and carried on.

Disclaimer: My source is my father who, in the early 1960's, told me of an article he had just read in Scientific American. We discussed it on a four hour car trip. I have been unable to find it in 50 years of searching. So, please correct me where my memory has failed.

Great topic, Sir James. Bernard would be proud. Sir Humphrey would probably just sniff dismissively.

 

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The key to this kind of history problem is figuring out why. ie. why did the northerners move south? I seem to recall reading about a super volcanic eruption in Indonesia, but I'm not sure. Something definitely caused Europe to enter a little ice-age. Had Hannibal tried to cross the alps a couple of centuries later, he would have failed due to the pass being closed by ice.

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I know that there were other barbarian nations on the move, like the huns, and the Goths, for example, were on the run from them. Still though, if they threatened the eastern and western portions of the empire alike, why did the west fall and the east didn't? The threat to both halves was the same, perhaps there was poor leadership among the western augusti?

Some of these barbarians claimed they were simply viceroys under imperial sovereignty, even if it was more a constitutional fiction. Emperor Zeno (474-491, with a brief interlude) didn't care for Odovacer taking over Italy and calling himself King, so he invited Theodoric the Ostrogoth to invade Italy, take it for himself, but swear fealty to Zeno as the legitimate emperor (as his viceroy). Coins under the reign of both barbarian leaders depicted not them, but the Emperor Zeno. Theodoric still appointed two consuls annually, and the Roman Senate continued to govern the bureaucratic machinery of Italy. Apparently, Theodoric also stopped calling himself "Patrician" of the Romans, and decided on calling himself King of Italy eventually. At first, it doesn't seem that much changed, did it? But Italy somehow was independent enough to tempt eastern emperor Justianian I to reconquer Italy for the "Roman" Empire (a Roman Empire which doesn't include Rome is pretty absurd, eh?)

I'm thinking that both empires encountered the same threats, but the eastern empire had better leadership. Am I wrong about that?

After all, the Goths invaded the east as far as the Peloponese (today's Greece). They almost got to Constantinople, in fact. 

"Byzantine" history, at least in the exclusive sense, probably begins with the reign of the Emperor Zeno. It was under him the west finally fell to the barbarians and the "Roman" empire became exclusively an eastern thing.

Isn't it freakin wild, though, that the first and last rulers of Rome were named Romulus? MInd blown.

 

Edited by JamesHackerMP
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9 hours ago, JamesHackerMP said:

I have been reading the Byzantium books by Viscount (John Julius) Norwich, which is about, as the title implies, the Byzantine Empire. The book begins with the birth of Constantine, and the division of the Roman Empire (in 286) between several different co-emperors, by Diocletian, who had come to the conclusion that one emperor wasn't enough to govern such a large bit of real estate. Naturally, Lord Norwich includes a huge chunk of the first volume of this three-volume work to the latter days of the western Roman Empire, since the Roman Empire was the embryo from which the uniquely eastern Empire was born.

But he doesn't really cover (or maybe I just missed it) the $64,000 question: why did the western empire collapse? Why did it fall into chaos by 476, when the eastern half would endure, in some form or another, until 1453? It was the same empire, technically; whether there were two augusti or just one was simply a matter of administrative convenience. Zosimus, a pagan, summed up the whole thing in one word: Christianity. Edward Gibbon seems inclined to agree. I personally dont. But I still don't understand the situation entirely.

Is there a history buff in the house??

The West had a far weaker economy and had been very disaffected for a very long time (Gallic Empire, various British breakaways etc etc, the Germans found it easier to break through in the West, and were already relatively civilized, Constantinople had enormously better defences, and by the time the Huns were driving everyone else westward, what, really. had Rome to offer the West any more except forced military service, having to do the same job as your father and pay very high taxes for no defence worth speaking o?.    If I'd been back there I' have preferred Christianity and barbarism every time.  Emperors were a costly hobby.

Edited by Penderyn
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10 hours ago, JamesHackerMP said:

Is there a history buff in the house??

There's no one answer.  While I"m not a scholar, I understand that Toynbee had a model of 'challenge and response'.  I have also read Jared Diamond's "Collapse" which talks about such things.  

Our society today is arguably more integrated globally, and better equipped to assess external threats via democracy.  Unfortunately, the challenge we are now faced with is that democracy itself is becoming infected and its foundations are being eroded within and without.

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The standard answer is that they spread too far, too fast, and their people became jaded and avoided military service. The Romans relied more and more on mercenaries while various incompetent emperors engaged in hedonism and placated the masses with circuses and gladiators. There was massive political instability too. Rome had 20 emperors in 75 years. Corruption was rampant, the economy deteriorated and it got harder to pay the mercenaries - or their own troops. Without military expansion they ran out of slaves to do work, and the mercenaries wound up destroying them.


The eastern empire went the same route, but not for a while. It eventually was betrayed and Constantinople was sacked by one of the crusades whose leaders were paid off by, I believe, the Venetians. It never really recovered from that, and a period of rule by Europeans and unstable emperors, and the Muslims overran them.

Edited by Argus
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Michael, this is the one I asked the moderators to remove. Are you still a moderator? I guess now the only option is to combine both threads or something. Something weird happened after I posted this thread and it duplicated it.

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22 hours ago, Michael Hardner said:

There's no one answer.  While I"m not a scholar, I understand that Toynbee had a model of 'challenge and response'.  I have also read Jared Diamond's "Collapse" which talks about such things.  

Our society today is arguably more integrated globally, and better equipped to assess external threats via democracy.  Unfortunately, the challenge we are now faced with is that democracy itself is becoming infected and its foundations are being eroded within and without.

The book I'm reading points to the late classical little ice age and the Plague of Justinian as putting the kibosh on the whole set up.    It reckons the plague killed off something like 60% of the population.    I think those features would be enough to see off all but very strong societies like Byzantium, which limped on some shape. 

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At ant rate; the barbarians rolled in and it fell like a house of cards? Is that the basic answer as far as tactical reasons? (Tactical, mind you.)

I am concentrating on the western empire's fall; though not in a vacuum. I have brought up the eastern or Byzantine Empire for a good reason, however. Byzantium was having rapid regime changes as well at the same time. The reason for Theodoric entering Italy to overthrow Odovacer was because Zeno (eastern Emperor) had to get rid of the goths (and Theodoric). The abdication of Romulus as last western Emperor occurred during the reign of Emperor Basiliscus, who overthrew Zeno, and then Zeno returned. Clearly, the eastern remnant, in my opinion, was experiencing the same instability as the west. Yet it survived, and the west collapsed. 

There has to be a better reason than the invading barbarians, since the east experienced the same invasions but survived, whereas the west foundered.

Perhaps there were some strategic decisions the western emperors made that were critical errors in judgment, and the eastern emperors did not make those mistakes?

I know of the third century crisis: but that crisis was all over the empire, east and west. Again, they shared many of the same crises. In fact, the east was at the end of what Jonathan Harris referred to as "an ethnic bowling alley". Just like the west. The Goth Alaric, before sacking Rome, sacked cities in the Peloponese ara of Greece (eastern half). Yes, there were the "bread and circuses" of Rome; but the same was in the eastern empire with its famed chariot races. In fact, the two factions of chariot teams-come-political demes, known as the Blues and the Greens, were often rowdy, disruptive, and outright rebellious. The only thing keeping them from overthrowing the government in Constantinople was the fact that they almost never worked together. (Eventually of course they DID, in an episode known as the Nika Revolt, work together in revolt, and damn near ended the reign of Justinian I.)

So again, you see what I mean? The halves of the empire shared the same problems: instability, barbarians on the loose, financial problems, emperors who were stupid (Viscount Norwich describes eastern Emperor Arcadius as "in fact stupider than he looked...people who met him found it surprising that he was actually his father's [Theodosius] son...")

From what I have read, you would think Constantinople would have fallen long before Rome (or Ravenna). The west may have had the Visigoths and the Vandals to worry about, but the east had the Sassanid Persians. Eventually, they did manage to swallow about half of the Byzantine empire before Heraclius managed to recover it. (Short lived it was, as the Muslims invaded soon after.) And then there is Harris's "ethnic bowling alley" to consider. 

I fully understand Argus' statement about "too far too fast". That's probably why Diocletian reorganized the empire and divided into four prefectures with four "tetrarchs". (Didn't last too long, of course.)

Some people still think "Christianity" toppled the empire. I disagree, and so do most historians. It gave strength to the empire, and breathed new life into it. The barbarians who sacked Rome were Christians, even though they were Arian rather than Nicean/Chalcedonian Christians. It anchored the eastern empire for centuries to come. Again, it didn't help in the west, and there were likely as many Christians in the west by the time of Alaric's sack of Rome (under emperor Honorius) as there were in the east. Constantine's conversion didn't automatically make the whole Roman world Christian, but it started a gradual process by which the entire empire threw off paganism for Christianity.

BTW I think we've started a really good intellectual discussion here. I hope we can keep it going!!! Sorry for the verbosity of this post, by the way....

I guess remove the OTHER THREAD with the same title, now. Or perhaps combine the threads, can that be done? I again apologise that I ended up duplicating the OP into two separate threads. That's what happens when you try to do this stuff on a tablet.

Edited by JamesHackerMP
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6 hours ago, JamesHackerMP said:

There has to be a better reason than the invading barbarians, since the east experienced the same invasions but survived, whereas the west foundered.

Perhaps there were some strategic decisions the western emperors made that were critical errors in judgment, and the eastern emperors did not make those mistakes?

....

Some people still think "Christianity" toppled the empire. I disagree, and so do most historians. It gave strength to the empire, and breathed new life into it. 

"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

- Christian Bible (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

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10 hours ago, Bonam said:

the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,

But that is the way to bet.

Empires tend to be weakened by the expense and can be victims of their own success. Another example is the British Empire. The roman army ended up with few soldiers with combat experience because of a century of peace and nepotism in the officer corps. Experienced officers and soldiers tended to be barbarian mercenaries. The military engineers could not keep up with the disintegration of the military infrastructure (roads) due to climate change. Finally, the northern Europeans were forced to move south or starve.

 

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On 3/23/2018 at 8:05 PM, JamesHackerMP said:

I have been reading the Byzantium books by Viscount (John Julius) Norwich, which is about, as the title implies, the Byzantine Empire. The book begins with the birth of Constantine, and the division of the Roman Empire (in 286) between several different co-emperors, by Diocletian, who had come to the conclusion that one emperor wasn't enough to govern such a large bit of real estate. Naturally, Lord Norwich includes a huge chunk of the first volume of this three-volume work to the latter days of the western Roman Empire, since the Roman Empire was the embryo from which the uniquely eastern Empire was born.

But he doesn't really cover (or maybe I just missed it) the $64,000 question: why did the western empire collapse? Why did it fall into chaos by 476, when the eastern half would endure, in some form or another, until 1453? It was the same empire, technically; whether there were two augusti or just one was simply a matter of administrative convenience. Zosimus, a pagan, summed up the whole thing in one word: Christianity. Edward Gibbon seems inclined to agree. I personally dont. But I still don't understand the situation entirely.

Is there a history buff in the house??

 

Partly...

The influx of Goths and other foreigners into the Empire as tacit citizens destroyed the once very effective legion system. As you noticed, this was a Western Empire problem. Roman legions were reduced to little more than armed mobs. The original legion system under the Republic required that the soldier be a landowner and an actual Roman citizen...ie born in Italy. This was eventually watered down to a citizen of the Empire...and then pretty much anybody who could hold a sword.

Edited by DogOnPorch
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On ‎24‎/‎03‎/‎2018 at 3:12 AM, JamesHackerMP said:

I know that there were other barbarian nations on the move, like the huns, and the Goths, for example, were on the run from them. Still though, if they threatened the eastern and western portions of the empire alike, why did the west fall and the east didn't? The threat to both halves was the same, perhaps there was poor leadership among the western augusti?

Some of these barbarians claimed they were simply viceroys under imperial sovereignty, even if it was more a constitutional fiction. Emperor Zeno (474-491, with a brief interlude) didn't care for Odovacer taking over Italy and calling himself King, so he invited Theodoric the Ostrogoth to invade Italy, take it for himself, but swear fealty to Zeno as the legitimate emperor (as his viceroy). Coins under the reign of both barbarian leaders depicted not them, but the Emperor Zeno. Theodoric still appointed two consuls annually, and the Roman Senate continued to govern the bureaucratic machinery of Italy. Apparently, Theodoric also stopped calling himself "Patrician" of the Romans, and decided on calling himself King of Italy eventually. At first, it doesn't seem that much changed, did it? But Italy somehow was independent enough to tempt eastern emperor Justianian I to reconquer Italy for the "Roman" Empire (a Roman Empire which doesn't include Rome is pretty absurd, eh?)

I'm thinking that both empires encountered the same threats, but the eastern empire had better leadership. Am I wrong about that?

After all, the Goths invaded the east as far as the Peloponese (today's Greece). They almost got to Constantinople, in fact. 

"Byzantine" history, at least in the exclusive sense, probably begins with the reign of the Emperor Zeno. It was under him the west finally fell to the barbarians and the "Roman" empire became exclusively an eastern thing.

Isn't it freakin wild, though, that the first and last rulers of Rome were named Romulus? MInd blown.

 

As I say, because the West was hugely poorer and more disaffected, whereas the East was far better off and far better armed.   Stilicho as one of the best leaders the Romans ever had - 'leadership' tends to depend on more basic factors, like wealth.    Basically, the plague of Diocletian  did for both (60% death rate doesn't leave many to fight) but the east was hugely further forward economically.

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Yeah when you have more money you can equip yourselves better....OK, makes sense so far.

Reply on the other thread please if you wish to discuss the topic further. I accidentally made a duplicate post, and I asked if this one could be removed but the moderator hasn't done it.

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9 hours ago, JamesHackerMP said:

er, what's that have to do with the fall of the western Roman Empire?

Your question states that the two halves of the empire found themselves in similar positions, and yet one fell while the other persevered, and tries to find a reason why. The point I was trying to make was that there isn't always a good clear-cut reason, "time and chance happeneth to them all" as the quote says (I remembered it randomly when I was reading your post and then you mentioned Christianity). Why was the British revolution peaceful while the French was bloody? Why did America rebel while Canada remained content? Why did the tech industry develop in Silicon Valley rather than anywhere else? The course of history can be changed by a single decision, by the courage or cowardliness of a single front line soldier, by the sour mood on a certain day of a certain politician, by someone getting sick and missing an important meeting, etc. It's not a very satisfying answer, but it is a fallacy to assume that every historical event can be understood as the direct and reasonable result of measurable factors like population, economic performance, quality/quantity of military armaments, etc. 

Dozens (or perhaps hundreds) of books have been written on the fall of the Western Roman Empire analyzing the various factors and causes. It is, after all, one of the most pivotal events in the history of human civilization, probably along with the Bronze Age collapse, the Mongol Invasions, the discovery of the New World, and WWII. The more of them you read, the more you will understand that there is no agreement on a single factor or group of factors. 

Edited by Bonam
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13 hours ago, Bonam said:

Your question states that the two halves of the empire found themselves in similar positions, and yet one fell while the other persevered, and tries to find a reason why. The point I was trying to make was that there isn't always a good clear-cut reason, "time and chance happeneth to them all" as the quote says (I remembered it randomly when I was reading your post and then you mentioned Christianity). Why was the British revolution peaceful while the French was bloody? Why did America rebel while Canada remained content? Why did the tech industry develop in Silicon Valley rather than anywhere else? The course of history can be changed by a single decision, by the courage or cowardliness of a single front line soldier, by the sour mood on a certain day of a certain politician, by someone getting sick and missing an important meeting, etc. It's not a very satisfying answer, but it is a fallacy to assume that every historical event can be understood as the direct and reasonable result of measurable factors like population, economic performance, quality/quantity of military armaments, etc. 

Dozens (or perhaps hundreds) of books have been written on the fall of the Western Roman Empire analyzing the various factors and causes. It is, after all, one of the most pivotal events in the history of human civilization, probably along with the Bronze Age collapse, the Mongol Invasions, the discovery of the New World, and WWII. The more of them you read, the more you will understand that there is no agreement on a single factor or group of factors. 

To start off with, the Eastern Empire was hugely more prosperous and the Empire offered free trade, whereas in the West it offered nothing but gross exploitation. with Italy by this time marginal.    Health amongst Romans was always very bad, and the climate change that set the Huns moving killed a lot of them off even before the Plague of Diocletian destroyed the very basis of anything but a primitive peasant culture in the West.

 

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OK, that is startng to make some sense. If you have better stability, and more money (or wealth, rather) you can field a better army and fend off the barbarians, even when they intrude as far south as Athens, or park themselves right outside of Constantinople.

What's really weird is the situation at the "end" of the western empire. There really weren't any western emperors after a certain point that weren't just the puppet of barbarian strongmen who, not being "roman", couldn't take the crown themselves. I forgot who the last western augustus was who was actually nominated by the one in Constantinople rather than propped up by one of the aforementioned strongmen. 

Naturally, the "fall" was a gradual process. Norwich hints that nothing really changed when Romulus abdicated. It was a case of SSDD in Italy.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Are any of you familiar with John Julius Norwich's Byzantium series? He wrote it in three volumes ("Byzantium: the Early Centuries", "Byzantium: the Apogee" and "Byzantium:the Decline and Fall") but later condensed them into a single paperback, "A Short History of Byzantium". 

It's a fascinating read, though I have only got through the first volume (and before that, the short version of the whole). 

Funny how they'd slit people's noses to keep them off the throne.

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