The Fall Of The Roman Empire

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The Fall of The Roman Empire

The fall of the Roman Empire is an event that has captivated the interest of humanity throughout the years. It is often regarded as one of the most crucial and significant events in the history of the human race[1], and as such is the subject of much debate and postulation. The main theories[2] can almost be divided cleanly into two schools of thought. These are theories that examine the nature of society - including the military - and theories that examine the nature of the historical context. Individually, however, the effects of social context on these theories - regardless of whatever category they may fall under - are evidenced in different ways, depending on the aims and purposes of history according to different historians, and the different backgrounds of those historians.

The first school of thought draws on a wide variety of socio-political factors in apportioning a cause to the fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps the most notable of these theories is the one provided by Edward Gibbon, in his A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “The story of its ruin”, he explains, “is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it subsisted so long.” Gibbon places a great amount of blame upon the shoulders of Christianity. He claims that the rise of the fledgling religion caused a moral decay that left people more focused on “the great object of religion”, or the afterlife, and less worried about fulfilling their civic duty to Rome. This had a flow-on effect, of sorts, to all other aspects of society, especially the military. Gibbon claims that the concepts of peace, tolerance and love that inevitably came with Christianity were the main factors that caused army recruitment levels to drop to an unsustainably low number, and reduce the empire's ability to resist the invasions that, eventually, brought about its end. Given Gibbon's social context, attributing the fall of the Empire to the rise of organised religion would have been a natural reaction. His was a time of change, and it should come as no surprise that Gibbon saw it fit to excoriate the church for "supplanting in an unnecessarily destructive way the great culture that preceded it"; and re-exposing the crimes of the church "for the outrage of [practicing] religious intolerance and warfare". Gibbon's stance against religion was heavily influenced by his status and social context as an enlightenment reader, in that he branded religion as a tragedy of human intelligence and desperation; "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion."

Gibbon's theory itself has been criticised heavily, over the years. While his style and technique were impressive, and difficult to fault, he fails to explain why the Eastern Empire subsisted, even though it was equally - if not more - Christian than the Western Empire, and thus is not generally viewed as valid by contemporary historians. The effect of social context on ...
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