Christianity as a Prime Reason for the Fall of the Roman Empire
Some scholars place the founding of Rome to April 21, 753 B.C., but others dispute that date. As to Rome's demise, one scholar of note, historian Edward Gibbon, places the date of the fall of Rome on September 4, A.D., 476. Gibbon, who published what is considered the most authoritative book on Rome's downfall (The History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 4), has credibility that few historians have, so his date could be considered close to reality. Notwithstanding the exact date of Rome's fall, this paper delves into why Rome fell.
This paper asserts that a major reason for the fall of the Roman Empire was Christianity's emphasis on a spiritual kingdom, which weakened Roman military virtues and led to the demise of the Empire.
Several Reasons for the Fall of Rome
To be sure, there were other reasons that contributed to Rome's demise. There is ample scholarship to point to other events and trends in Rome that made contributions to the fall of Rome. At first Rome was kind to barbarians, referred to by N.S. Gill as "a variety and changing group of outsiders" and in fact Rome used barbarians as "…suppliers of tax revenue and bodies for the military," even giving them promotions to higher positions in the military (Gill, 2010). But in time, Rome lost territory to the barbarians and the Vandals.
In fact Vandals took territory from Rome in Africa, and other barbarians (the Sueves, the Alans and Visigoths) took Spain from the Empire, so one can see the narrowing of Roman territory had something to do with its fall. The Roman army grew "weak," according to Vegitius, writing in the 5th century, and the soldiers stopped wearing protective armor (Gill). Hence the Roman soldiers were "vulnerable to enemy weapons and to the temptation to flee from battle" (Gill). Moreover, many military leaders became "incompetent" and rewards for courage in battle were not distributed fairly, according to Vegitius (Gill).
Other reasons noted by Gill include: a) inflation (the government issued money that was inflated to the point of almost worthlessness); b) lead in drinking water (along with glazes that were on containers, lead was leached from water pipes and make people sick, killing many people); and c) division of the Empire (yes, Rome was split geographically, but also it was split culturally, causing divisions in values and approaches to holding on to power) (Gill).
As to the reasons given by iconic historian Edward Gibbon, he writes that the decline was "…the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest" (Gill). Gibbon also mentions that when the Roman army conquered people and territories in distant lands, the army "…acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries…" and the emperors back in Rome were "…reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy" (Gill). Hence, the readiness of the military government was "relaxed, and finally dissolved," due in part to the liberalizations brought into government by Constantine (Gill).
Christianity's Role in the Fall of Rome
Meanwhile, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity was Constantine. Not only did he first establish religious toleration (for Christianity), he "took upon himself the title of pontiff" (Gill). He liberalized privileges for Christians and acted as moderator of disputes between Christians. He wasn't technically a Christian until he became baptized just prior to his death.
William Edward Addis writes in the book Christianity and the Roman Empire that the Christian religion was "…a religion of power… [and it] changed the lives of multitudes" (Addis, 1893). People could learn to love God and Father as revealed through Jesus Christ, and the very power of the "gospel" had authority over the human heart, Addis explains. Christianity had extraordinary momentum at the time of Constantine because it had "…a special message for the poor, for the outcast and the slave," and moreover, because the poor "…were becoming more and more the overwhelming majority in the Empire," Christianity grew powerful as a spirit and as a practiced faith (Addis).
The poor and the downtrodden needed a savior to arrive on earth, and Christ turned out to be that Savior. Also, there was a policy of "…confiscation of large estates" by the Roman power structure, and the little farmer and business person ("small proprietors") were basically driven out by those who had accumulated a great deal of capital (Addis). On top of those terrible economic conditions, barbarians came into Roman territory which caused additional numbers of people to fall into pauperism, Addis continues.
His point is that because of the widespread pauperism -- which "had assumed alarming proportions" -- those individuals most seriously affected were becoming (or already were) Christians, since Christ had preached in favor of the underdog (Addis). It takes a great deal of "imagination" to appreciate the sense of "brotherly love" which Christianity brought to the poor; Addis says it was a "new creation" in the Roman Empire, and hence it was spreading with a ripple effect because the grim reality of difficult economic times brought with it a need for survival through salvation. Addis writes that when Christianity became the religion of the state, it did "…expel the most hideous forms of cruelty and of immorality," and that is a significant factor when inquiring as to the "…causes which made Christianity the religion of the Empire."
History Professor Peter Brown on Christianity and Rome
New "notions" about the use of wealth in Rome between the years 500 and 650 "proved decisive," according to Princeton University History Professor Peter Brown. Those notions had to do with the "destiny of the Christians"; and when the wealthy, upper class inhabitants of the Roman West become involved in the church (they had previously shunned the church and the poor), they stepped into leadership positions as bishops and Christian writers. This entry of "new wealth and talent into the churches from around the year 370 onward, rather than the conversion of Constantine in 312," was the true turning point which resulted in the "Christianization of Europe" (Brown, 2012, p. 528).
Once the Christian religion in Europe was bolstered by wealthy, powerful people (in addition to the poor and downtrodden that were already believers) the Christian community could begin to "think the unthinkable -- to envision the possibility of a totally Christian society" (Brown, 528). The Christian tradition of giving helped to break down some of the boundaries that had previously existed because "…all believers of all classes were encouraged to contribute to the care of the poor and the upkeep of the church and the clergy" (Brown, 528).
Along with the growth of the Christian community in the fifth century A.D. there was also the fading of the Roman world, Brown explains on page 529. Indeed, the "central institutions" of Rome lost "…much of their mystique," and in fact the tensions that resulted over the loss of income resulting from the "…widespread weakening of its authority in large areas of the West" contributed to the strain on Roman power and influence. But the imperial powers of Rome showed that they had "…no intention of surrendering" their authority to Christian bishops and in fact they were belligerently and stubbornly focused on survival at any cost (Brown, 529).
At the local level of Christianity there began to emerge a "consolidation," and the radical critiques of wealth were tossed out of the churches; for the writers of that time, they eschewed the previous denunciation of the "evil origins of wealth and insisted instead on total renunciation," emphasizing how wealth might be used to consolidate the Christian community in…