To meet its need for soldiers, Rome hired mercenaries, or foreign soldiers serving for pay, to defend its borders. Many were Germanic warriors who, according to some historians, felt little loyalty to Rome.

Political Turmoil

Political problems also contributed to Rome's decline. First, as the government became more oppressive and authoritarian, it lost the support of the people. Growing numbers of corrupt officials undermined loyalty, too. So did the frequent civil wars over succession. Rival armies battling to put their commanders on the throne weakened Roman power.

Perhaps most important, dividing the empire when it was under attack may have weakened it beyond repair. Faced with its own invasions, the richer and stronger eastern Roman empire did little to help the west.

Relief sculpture of men lining up and giving coin to a man collecting coins on a table, with a basket of coins nearby.

Romans line up to pay their taxes. The government, desperate for funds to support its massive army, imposed oppressive taxes on Rome's citizens.

Economic Causes

Rome faced widespread economic problems, including an ever greater tax burden on its people. To support the huge government bureaucracy and military that ruled the empire, Rome imposed heavy taxes. As the wealth of the empire declined, over-taxed farmers abandoned their land and the middle class sank into poverty. At the same time, reliance on slave labor discouraged Romans from exploring new technology. Rome, rich from its conquests, also lost a vital source of income as it lost territories. Finally, the population itself declined as war and epidemic diseases swept the empire.

Social Causes

For centuries, worried Romans pointed to the decline in values such as patriotism, discipline, and devotion to duty on which the empire was built. The upper class, which had once provided leaders, devoted itself to luxury and prestige. Besides being costly, providing “bread and circuses” may have undermined the self-reliance of the masses.

Did Rome Fall?

Although we talk of the “fall” of Rome, the Roman empire did not disappear from the map in A.D 476. An emperor still ruled the eastern Roman empire, which later became known as the Byzantine Empire and lasted for another 1,000 years.

The phrase “the fall of Rome” is, in fact, shorthand for a long, slow change from one way of life to another. In Italy, people continued to live much as they had before, though under new rulers. Many still spoke Latin and obeyed Roman laws.

Illustration of man in toga and crown seated in a shaded litter, lifted and moved by four servants.

Wealthy Romans enjoyed lavish lifestyles but often neglected their civic duties. The gap between rich and poor weakened the empire.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments