The fall of the Roman Empire has been a cultural touchstone in the West for centuries. It’s been used as a warning of what can happen to a society that gets off track. While lots of ink have been spilt on the topic –most famously, Edward Gibbon’s 6-volume epic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — archaeologists have made new discoveries in the past few decades that have given us fresh insights as to why the Roman Empire deteriorated and what that decline looked like.
My guest today recently earned his PhD from USC, specializing in the fall of the Roman Empire, and he’s begun putting his vast knowledge into an accessible and easy-to-digest podcast. His name is Patrick Wyman and his podcast is called The Fall of Rome. Today on the show, Patrick and I discuss the theories out there as to why the Roman Empire fell, the role of the barbarians in the fall, and what the fall of the Empire may have looked and felt like to Roman citizens at the time. We also discuss if there are any similarities between the Roman Empire and the United States, and if we’re following the same path that Rome did. A fascinating podcast that provides new insights on an important part of Western History.
- Why the fall or the Roman Empire is such a cultural touchstone in the West
- The various theories as to why the Roman Empire fell
- The recent discoveries in archaeology that have given us new insights about why the Roman Empire fell
- What do we mean exactly when we say the Roman Empire “fell”?
- The size and influence of the Roman Empire at its peak
- The incredible infrastructure of the Roman Empire that allowed goods to be quickly moved over vast distances
- Why the Roman Empire split into Eastern and Western empires
- When the fall of the Roman Empire began and ended
- What the barbarians were really like and their role in the fall of the Roman Empire
- The influence of barbarian culture on Roman military culture (and why Roman culture’s influence waned)
- The cause of the sack of Rome by the Goths
- Did Rome fall because of moral decadence?
- The role of declining civic engagement by Roman aristocrats in the fall of the empire
- What did the fall of the Roman Empire feel like to Romans? Did they know it was going on?
- The similarities between the Roman Empire and the United States
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
- Why Every Man Should Study Classical Culture
- My podcast with Nathaniel Philbrick about the “American Hannibal,” Benedict Arnold
- Trajan’s Wall
- Theodosius the Great
- Battle of Adrianople
- Byzantine Empire
- Sidonius Apollinaris
- My podcast with Carlin Barton about Roman Honor and the role of stoicism during the fall of the empire
- My podcast with Ted Lendon about the role of tradition in the Roman army
- Our series on manly honor
If you’re a fan of Roman history, I highly recommend checking out Patrick’s podcast The Fall of Rome. Each episode is about 30-45 minutes long and they’re jam-packed with interesting insights about this pivotal moment in Western history. The podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. The fall of the Roman Empire has been a cultural touchstone in the West for centuries. It’s been used as a warning of what could happen to a society that gets off track. While lots of ink has been spilled on the topic most famously Edward Gibbon’s six fall epoch “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, archaeologists have made new discoveries in the past few decades that have given us fresh insights as to why the Roman Empire deteriorated and what that decline looked like.
My guest today recently earned his PhD from University of Southern California. He specialized in the fall of the Roman Empire. He has begun putting his vast knowledge into an accessible and easy to digest podcast. His name is Patrick Wyman and his podcast is called The Fall of Rome. Today on the show Patrick and I discuss the theories out there as to why the Roman Empire fell, the role of the barbarians in the fall, we also talk about barbarian life, and what the fall of the empire may have looked and felt like to Roman citizens at the time. We also discuss if there are any similarities between the Roman Empire and the United States and if we’re following the same path that Rome did.
It’s a fascinating podcast that provides fresh and new insights on an important part of western history. After the show is over check out the show notes at aom.is/fallofrome where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Patrick Wyman, welcome to the show.
Patrick Wyman: Hey, thank you very much for having me on.
Brett McKay: You have a podcast that has come out fairly recently. I’m not sure how I discovered it originally, it’s called The Fall of Rome, but I’m glad I did because it’s completely fascinating. You’re taking listeners through the history of the fall of the Roman Empire. I think it’s an interesting topic because the fall of Rome has become this cultural touchstone in the west. It’s used as a warning for what can happen to a society as it gets off the right track. I’m curious, why do you think the fall of Rome has become such an indelible part of our cultural consciousness? Why are we always thinking about it?
Patrick Wyman: Well I think that there are a number of different dimensions to this. I think in a historical sense it goes back to the kind of structure of western education in the 18th and 19th centuries and the heavy emphasis on the classics, and the tendency of the educated classes in France and especially in Great Britain to see themselves as the heirs of Rome. They were engaged in processes of very consciously drawing parallels between their own times and the Roman Empire. Over the course of a couple of centuries that kind of worms its way into your cultural consciousness. I think that’s the first piece of it.
The second piece is that the Roman Empire is still the gold standard for imperial rule, for political control, for cultural greatness. I also think that there was a long running tendency to see Rome as the gold standard for what was possible with imperial rule. Culturally I think the Roman Empire was a touchstone for the kind of educated elites and increasingly the educated middle class in the west in the 18th and the 19th centuries because that was their educational background. They read Greek and Latin when they were going to school, so it was natural to draw parallels between their own time and the Roman Empire.
If you have the Roman Empire as a cultural touchstone through its literary products, through tours of Italy, the grand tour where you were going and looking at Roman monuments, it was natural to draw parallels between your own time and the Roman world. One of those things that you had to wonder about was, “Okay well if this lasted for so long why did it fall? Why did it crash?”. I think that Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the great works of western literature, kind of embedded that particular perspective, these deep ongoing questions of decline and fall. Now when we get into the 20th and the 21st centuries and you have the rise of the Soviet Union and the rise of the United States as the two superpowers of the world, now just the one superpower, you have to start asking those questions again because this is part of our cultural consciousness, this idea of the Roman Empire as the eternal unending empire. You have to ask questions about your own time, and that includes “how does it end?”.
Brett McKay: I think for Americans in particular Rome captures the imagination because our whole country was basically inspired by Roman governance or Roman culture. All the founders were steeped in that. They’d often call themselves the new Cato or the new Hannibal. They were the American Hannibal.
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, absolutely. These were not just like pieces of cultural DNA that were kind of floating beneath the surface. These were intentional parallels that the founding fathers were drawing, I think especially Jefferson. More than any other founding father he was the most steeped in these kinds of theories of governance.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the different theories about why the Roman Empire fell. There’s a ton of them out there. There’s tons of books about this where everyone is putting out a different theory. What are the most common theories of why the Roman Empire fell?
Patrick Wyman: They basically break down into two broad categories. I would say that the first category is the barbarians did it. This is that Rome was murdered, Rome was assassinated. This is especially common in French historiography. Then there’s the other which is that Rome was a creaking kind of rotten empire in the 4th and the 5th centuries and it died a basically natural death. Both of these perspectives in some way shape or form have to engage with the barbarians. Did the barbarians do it or was Rome just kind of waiting to be gently nudged over the edge?
I kind of tend toward a mixture of those two perspectives. I think that the Roman Empire in the 3rd, 4th and into the 5th century was a basically functional state as long as the people who are at the center of it were competent and did their jobs well, which was the case for most of the 4th century. In the 5th century when the people at the centers of power in both the west and the east were less competent external forces, the barbarians, trade shocks, plague, things like that could have a much more devastating effect.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you mentioned in your first episode, I believe, that there’s been new discoveries via archeology or just history that have challenged these ideas that it was the barbarians or it was just this sort of decay that happened. What’s changed in the past few years where historians like yourself and others are saying, “Well maybe it’s not those theories”? What new information has been uncovered?
Patrick Wyman: It’s largely archaeological. Most of it has to do with a few different things. I think first and foremost it’s with the barbarians that we have a much better understanding of the world beyond Rome’s borders and how closely tied together Rome and the barbarian world were. I mean it’s not like the legionaries were sitting on the frontier staring out into a vast unknown. They interacted constantly with the barbarians. Rome was heavily involved in kind of managing what went on beyond its borders whether through a combination of financial inducement, alliances and military force, that it has the carrot and the stick. This engendered really close connections between those worlds. Roman traders went out there to sell goods. They brought slaves back. Barbarians served in the Roman military in increasingly large numbers. These worlds were not in any way, shape or form unfamiliar to each other. I think that’s the biggest one. We understand how closely connected these worlds were to one another and how thin and permeable those boundaries were.
The second one has to do, I would say, with the scale of the Roman economy. We understand much better now because of really intensive increased excavations and a better understanding of all things pottery. Pottery is a proxy marker for exchange networks, that goods have to move in containers and in the roman world those goods moved in amphora. Amphora, little fragments of those pottery shards, tend to survive really well, so we can track in really great detail the movements of goods from one place to another. That gives us a really clear picture of the scale of the Roman economy. I think we understand how much bigger it was and how much more like our own economy it was than what came before and what came after it.
Brett McKay: Okay. We’ll get into more detail about the relationship between the Roman Empire and the barbarians, as well as the scale, the geography of the Roman Empire. Let’s talk about some definitions, some basic definitions first. What exactly do we mean when we say the Roman Empire fell? We throw that word around quite a bit, but I think most of us, most people have a vague idea of what it means. We know the Roman Empire doesn’t exist anymore, but what do we mean it fell? What was the process that went on?
Patrick Wyman: I was kind of remiss in answering your question about how views of these things have changed earlier. This is the big thing. What do we mean when we talk about the fall of Rome? It used to be that people thought in terms of a really drastic decline. The kind of push back against that in scholarly circles has been to treat this as a transformation, to say that instead of looking at these series of interlocking things that happened as a drastic decline and a drastic fall, because that implies a value judgement, to say that “No, just things changed”. I think that goes a little bit too far with it. I think it’s possible to overstate the case. I think in material terms, and in terms of quality of life in a lot of places things really did get worse.
With that said, to come back to the idea of fall, you’re talking about a lot of different things. I tend to take a broad view. I think that first of all you’re dealing with political transformations. Where once you had a unified state stretching from the north of Britain to the Sahara, it was replaced with a patchwork of individual kingdoms. That’s the first one. You have religious transformations. You have ethnic transformation, demographic transformations, rises in population in particular places but more generally decline in population. You have the end of urbanism, of city life in large stretches of what had been the Roman Empire.
The Roman world was a whole complex of different things that together made up the Roman Empire. It’s not just a political thing. If you want to define it really narrowly you can do that, but I think it’s a much broader kind of thing when we’re talking about the end of the roman world, the various structures and institutions and complexes that the Romans had built. To me, the biggest one is economic. The Roman world was defined by easy movement, communication and trade in large volumes from place to place. To me, the end of the Roman world is the end of that particular set of systems. The politics, while they’re important, are almost secondary to that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, going back to how big it is. You said it stretched from the Sahara to all the way to England. That’s north/south. How far east/west did it go?
Patrick Wyman: All the way from the very tip of Spain in the Atlantic to the Euphrates River in the east at its greatest extent. All the way basically from Iraq to Spain was part of the Roman Empire from the Sahara in the south to Great Britain in the north into the North Sea.
Brett McKay: You said that they’re able to move people, goods, communicate quickly. What did the Romans do that allowed them to do that across vast spaces of geography?
Patrick Wyman: Tremendous infrastructure, its infrastructure and scale. The Romans built exceptional ports. They built an unbelievable road system that still underpins the road system practically everywhere in western Europe. If you’re riding along a highway in Spain, France, Britain, Italy, chances are good that it follows basically the same route as the Romans laid out anywhere between 1800 and 2200 years ago. That’s the scale of the infrastructure achievement that the Romans built. It’s ports and the other part of it is state expenditure. The Romans for the purposes of the army, which was the single biggest institution of the Roman world, had to move massive amounts of food, supplies, people to do that. That created a kind of basic network of movement of goods and people from place to place on top of which private traders could build their own market. If you have huge ships transporting massive amounts of grain from Sicily or North Africa to Rome to feed the populous, it’s really easy to piggyback on top of the infrastructure that was built to do that to move other kinds of goods and people from place to place.
Brett McKay: It got so big that at one point they split it. Right? There’s the western Roman Empire and the eastern Roman Empire. When did that happen and why did it happen?
Patrick Wyman: The final split came in 395 with the death of Theodosius the Great, who was the last emperor to rule the entirety of both halves of the empire. His son, Arcadius took over in the east and his son Honorius took over in the west. The split goes back a fair ways before that too. For most of the 4th century, aside from the emperor Constantine, you had had separate emperors in the east and the west. When you have separate emperors in the east and the west the split that becomes formalized in 395 you have different courts built up around each of those emperors, you have different army units, you have different intuitions, each of which are looking to different poles of governance. You also have a cultural split between the two, that east is largely Greek speaking and the west is almost entirely Latin speaking in addition to the kind of local languages that were bubbling beneath the surface. You had cultural splits, but the final administrative split comes at the beginning of the 5th century.
Brett McKay: Why did that split happen? Did it just sort of happen naturally, it just got too big and they thought, “Okay we’ll put some guy in charge in that one area”, they were just trying to be pragmatic about it, is that what happened?
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, that’s basically it. The real beginning of the formal split goes back to the emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century, beginning of the 4th century. Diocletian totally reorganized from top to bottom the Roman state. He formalized this. He thought, Okay, well we need to have not one emperor, not even two emperors but four emperors, that you need to have a key emperor in the west and a key emperor in the east and then he needs to have a junior person under him. When you have that kind of administrative setup from the beginning, that creates a whole set of institutions around each of those emperors. The basic idea at that point was there’s just too much for any one person to handle here, and because if you delegate power to somebody else then they’re going to rise up, they’re going to try and usurp the thrown. The emperors were always, always, always to the very end of the empire more worried about a usurper than they were about any sort of potential external threat from the Persians, from any barbarian group, from whatever, because that was a threat to their basic legitimacy.
Brett McKay: With that threat in mind how did the two capitals, the various emperors, how did they interact with each other? Did they get along pretty well or were they always kind of like I don’t know about this guy. I got to get along with him because we’re on the same team, but that guy could take over.
Patrick Wyman: It ran the gambit. There was always a bit of weariness about it, but you had some cases of relatively close interaction between the two and cooperation between the two. The great irony of the mass of defeat of the emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, this huge turning point in Roman history, an emperor dies on the battlefield. The whole eastern Roman field army is destroyed on the battlefield. The great irony of that is that there was an army from the west that was coming to help the emperor Valens, but he decided that he couldn’t afford to take the hit to his reputation if he waited for that army. At some point there’s real cooperation, whether somebody like an incompetent like Valens could take it or not, that there was close cooperation. At other points there was almost open conflict between the two, especially if you had a usurper on one side or the other, that could engender military action from the other side. That happened on a couple of different occasions.
Brett McKay: Was the split a factor that played into the fall of Rome?
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, because the east was generally wealthier and its institutions were kind of better grounded. Also, just kind of by pure luck, over the course of the 5th century the east managed to find some really competent people to help run things, wherein the west those people just never really showed up. The west was always poor and it was always home to more usurpations. It was easier for pieces of the western empire to get kind of carved out. Also, most of the east was focused around the Mediterranean, when in the west the orientation of the frontier provinces of places like Britain and Gaul was not naturally toward the Mediterranean. That was kind of an artificial construct that you had to keep moving through the offices of the state large amounts of men and material to kind of continue to keep those places tied in. When those mechanisms started to break down a little bit it was really easy for those provinces to kind of spin off and spin away and reorient themselves in other directions.
It was just easier for the east to keep things grounded and keep things centered. Everywhere is closer to the Mediterranean, there’s more money, the cities are older and better established. On top of all that you have more competent people.
Brett McKay: The eastern empire, technically you could say it went on into the 1400s, right, the 13th century?
Patrick Wyman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: Do historians consider that part of the Roman Empire? When we say the Roman Empire fell, part of it continued for centuries longer. Again, I go back to the fact what do you mean by the Roman Empire fell when a part of it continued?
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, when we talk about fall we’re talking exclusively about the west. What remained in the east, the Byzantine Empire or the eastern empire, whatever we want to call it, was still the super power of the mediterranean world. It was still the most powerful state in the mediterranean world up until like the 12th or the 13th century. Up until the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, if you had to point to one individual state as being the most powerful and the most important one, it was the eastern empire because it had Constantinople, but also because it had this long tradition and this long history. They certainly considered themselves Romans to the extent that the Seljuk Turks in Anatole, who would eventually go on to found the Ottoman Empire, they called themselves the Seljuk’s of Rome. This was the reputations of that particular side of the empire even if in the west they weren’t necessarily considered to be Roman in the same way.
Brett McKay: Interesting. When did the fall of the empire begin? Why is that the starting point for you?
Patrick Wyman: I pick the entry of the Goths into the empire in 376. That for me is the starting point. You could go earlier. You could point to the crisis of the 3rd century when kind of everything went to hell in a hand basket all at once for the Roman world. I pick the entry of the Goths because at that point the empire was more or less stable. It was run by competent people. Things changed when the Goths entered. Through a series of things, none of which had to be inevitable. You have to remember with all of this there’s a lot of chance involved. This was the first time where you had a barbarian group having as much success as the Goths did, where they essentially forced a settlement. Before when barbarian groups had entered the empire they were either settled under negotiated terms, but clearly in a subordinate position, or they were defeated and driven back beyond, enslaved in large numbers.
The Goths were the first group to be able to some extent dictate the terms of their settlement, to form something like a separate power block within the empire. It was a blueprint that would be carried out by a number of different groups after that. I think that marks an important turning point in the relationship between the Romans and the people beyond the borders.
Brett McKay: Then at what year do you say it ended, and why do you pick that year?
Patrick Wyman: That’s a harder question. For me I pick the campaigns of Justinian in the 530s, so Justinian, the emperor in the east. Justinian went and reconquered large portions of the western empire. For me, that’s an important distinction. It forced people in the west to come to terms with the fact that for the past 60, 80, 100 years before that point they hadn’t been living in the Roman Empire anymore. For a long time people could kind of maintain the illusion that things had not really changed all that much, especially in Italy where you had a barbarian king, but that wasn’t really all that much different from a world where you had a puppet emperor and barbarian generals running things. When Justinian sent eastern Roman armies to reconquer the west, suddenly you had to come to terms with the fact that your whole mental framework was kind of off, that things had really changed whether you were aware of that or not. That for me is a really important kind of mental turning point.
Also, that’s the point where the kind of Roman world system or the easy connections between places, the easy movement of goods and people, where that started to change dramatically too. You also had a massive plague at that point that reduced populations. Justinian wars in and of themselves caused a great deal of damage in various places, again large population decline. That to me is the point where things have become so markedly different that we can talk about the end of the fall.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the barbarians. You use that, the entry of the Goths into the empire as the starting point of the fall of Rome. That’s the common error, that the barbarians came in and sort of took over the regime. What were the barbarians like? I think a lot of people when they hear the word barbarian they imagine guys eating meat off of bone, wearing wolf helmets or whatever on their head. Were they sort of these brutes or did they actually have a very sophisticated culture?
Patrick Wyman: They had a really sophisticated culture. They had well thought out laws. There were increasingly strong social hierarchies. These were organized societies. When I mentioned earlier the archeology that has come to light and the sophistication of the barbarian world, a large part of that has to do with we realize now how densely populated the barbarian world was. Its not like you crossed the border and things were deserted and you just had these little groups of fur wearing savages hanging out there. The density of settlement in the barbarian world is kind of staggering for us to think about. Anywhere where they have done detailed field surveys and tried to figure out how many people were actually living here at a given time, the answer has always been higher than anybody expected.
This was an increasingly populated and increasingly politically sophisticated world where over the course of the 3rd century, kind of as a result of Roman imperial weakness, and into the 4th century barbarian tribal confederations grew up beyond the boundaries of the empire. I mentioned before how the Romans had gone about managing the world beyond their borders. The way that they did that was to try to prevent any one king, any one tribal chieftain from becoming too powerful. You would subsidize some, you would attack others. You would try and co-opt still others by bringing their children into the empire or offering them ranks, titles, things like that. In the 3rd century when Roman attention was kind of focused inward it allowed the barbarian groups beyond the borders to become more powerful than they had ever been before. It allowed them to organize in the absence of Roman attention into larger, much more powerful confederations.
This is when we first start to see groups like the Franks and above all the Goths. This is when they appear in the sources. They appear in a context of Roman imperial weakness and diverted attention. They’re increasingly sophisticated. They’re increasingly tied into the Roman world. You can find more Roman coinage in the Gothic lands beyond the Danube from the 4th century than you can at the Roman provinces on the other side of the Danube in the 4th century. They’ve got monetary economies, large amounts of imports and exports. To me, the really interesting thing here is the kind of increasing military integration between the barbarians and the Romans. If you’re a Roman general and you need troops, you’re on the border in the 4th century, it’s a lot easier to recruit barbarians, people who have traditions of military service, who are not necessarily warlike by nature but are more socialized into that kind of violence, it’s easier to recruit them and train them and have them be your long service Roman soldiers than it is to try and recruit Roman provincials into the army.
Over the course of the 4th century and into the 5th century the line between a barbarian group and a Roman army becomes thinner and thinner and thinner and thinner. When you have … They’ll eventually sack Rome. At various points all they’re looking to do is get a proper Roman imperial billet. It’s basically a roman army that happens to be composed mostly of Goths. The line between a barbarian people and a Roman army is kind of thin. The Roman army adopts increasingly barbarian styles because they think they’re cool. They want to wear barbarian style clothing. They want to have, in some cases there are references to tattoos. They use barbarian names because they think they sound cool. They have a particular army style of Latin that’s heavily inflected with Germanic words. The barbarians and the roman military become increasingly hard to distinguish from one another because to be a barbarian is to be a soldier and to be a soldier is to be a barbarian. The kinds of identities get really intertwined with each other.
Brett McKay: Just to clarify, it sounds like … We say the barbarians lived outside the borders of the roman empire, but it sounds like if they lived in France, like the Goths who lived in what is now Germany, wasn’t those areas part of the Roman Empire geographically?
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, so they lived beyond the borders but the frontiers are pretty porous. You had large numbers of Goths who lived within the boundaries within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. You had large numbers of Franks who lived within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Even if those barbarian groups had their political leaders outside, the individual people and groups of people could and still did migrate regularly within the boundaries of the empire.
Brett McKay: Got you. You’re going back to those names. There’s an episode where you dedicate, where you kind of create a fictional barbarian, like was his life was like and what it would’ve been like. Can you talk about some of the names? They do sound kind of cool. What were some of the common names of barbarians that maybe a roman soldier might adopt for himself?
Patrick Wyman: The hypothetical Goth that I came up with, his name is Volafila. That was a fairly common Gothic name. There’s Marcomer, Claudio for the Franks. Rickymare, Gudebad, names like that. In this particular kind of militarized environment even people who weren’t of barbarian descent might give their children those names, again because I think they sounded cool. They thought that sounds like a military name, I’m going to name my child that. In the 6th century in Italy you have this blue blooded roman aristocrat who takes on some military roles, but he gives both of his sons who are blue blooded roman aristocrats like himself Gothic names. Again, they speak to a military kind of identity, to being kind of a bad dude.
Brett McKay: It’s interesting because to me that signifies that roman culture no longer resonated with Romans as much if they weren’t giving their children roman names. What was the culture of Rome at that time where they would want to take more influence from the barbarians instead of looking to Rome?
Patrick Wyman: One of the really interesting things that happens over the course of the 5th and the 6th centuries is that you do see a pretty, in some areas more so than others, a pretty tremendous cultural transformation. In some regions, lets say you’ve got an aristocrat who lives in kind of Southern Gaul, in what’s today Southern France, in Aquitaine near Toulouse. You’ve got this guy, he can kind of go about his business without really feeling like anything major has changed. He can still write letters to all of his friends, he still lives on a super luxurious estate. He’s still got a bath house at his villa. For people like that things didn’t really change all that much. In other areas, if you’re living in say the northern part of Gaul, in what’s today Belgium or part of the Netherlands, up to the border with the Rhine River, in that area you can’t really pretend that things haven’t changed. You’ve got a large amount of social instability that expresses itself through things like all of the sudden people start burying themselves with weapons. You only do that in a context where there’s social instability and things like that.
What you get through large parts of what had been the Roman Empire are some more militarized societies. If you had one of these aristocrats living in Northern Gaul, that guy couldn’t pretend that things hadn’t changed. He would need to take on more of a military identity. One of the ways to think about the fall of the Roman Empire is to look at masculinity and to say that it changes from a particularly civic brand of masculinity that’s focused around public service, oratory, literary skills and to say that it was replaced with a military brand of masculinity, that to be an important man in 6th century northern Gaul was to be a warrior in a way that to be a man in 4th century southern Gaul was to be a public figure, to be a public orator, to be a man of letters.
Brett McKay: Took control completely?
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, exactly. It was things that had previously been restricted to military contexts became more broadly dispersed throughout society. That’s one of the defining transformations of the roman world.
Brett McKay: What’s interesting, and you talk about in the podcast too, is that not only were the Romans being influenced by the barbarian’s culture, but the barbarians as well were taking on some of these roman cultural manifestations. You talk about how these barbarian kings would have roman type villas made of logs in their kingdom wherever they lived. What other ways were the barbarians taking on roman cultural status markers or social markers?
Patrick Wyman: In many places the markers that they adopt tend to come straight from the roman military. Barbarians were big on belt buckles and broaches. They were big on belt buckles and broaches that came from military contexts. When I was talking about how it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the difference between a barbarian and a soldier, that’s one of the things. The use of status markers that come out of the roman military, like if you’re a roman general you have a particular belt buckle that you wear. Well those became widely dispersed among the barbarians because I want to look like a roman general. Who doesn’t? Also, in broader terms for the most part you have barbarians giving up their own languages and speaking Latin. There’s no evidence of the Visigoths, the Visigoths who had entered the Roman Empire in 376, who sacked Rome in 410 and would eventually settle in southern France and then in Spain. There’s basically no evidence for the Visigoths speaking Gothic after they were settled within the Roman Empire, basically none. As far as I can tell they spoke Latin. That’s one example.
Archaeologically a bunch of these groups are just invisible. They completely adopted roman material culture. Why wouldn’t you? It’s nice to live in villas. It’s nice to have bath houses. Roman clothes are comfortable. It’s nice to eat off of fine ceramic dishware. Olive oil tastes really good. Fish sauce tastes good. Wine tastes good. Materially a lot of these groups become completely assimilated. It’s impossible to tell any sort of difference between them and the Roman population. They just blend in completely.
Brett McKay: Okay. Lets talk about the Goth coming into Rome. I think the idea when people think the Goths came in, we often imagine they came in with their wooden shields and swords and their pelts and they just sacked, started killing. The way you described it it was more of a mass migration into the Roman Empire. Why were the Goths wanting to migrate into the Roman Empire?
Patrick Wyman: There are a few things here. We have to bear in mind the closeness of the barbarian world and the Roman world. There was a long tradition of barbarian groups who were fleeing for whatever reason to seek refuge within the Roman Empire. There was a well established process for this. The Goths who entered in 376 did so because they were fleeing the Huns. The Huns had appeared not exactly out of nowhere, our sources make it sound like that but I don’t think that’s really the case. A nomadic step people had appeared kind of north of the Black Sea and inflicted a whole bunch of defeats on a particular group of Goths. Their response is the Roman world is here. We know that they’re always looking for soldiers. We can fight for them as soldiers and in return we’ll receive safety and land to settle.
What’s interesting here is it’s not like these were unknown groups and then all of the sudden there’s a whole bunch of fur wearing barbarians that show up on the shores of the Danube. It’s that they understood what they were asking for. The Romans understood what they were asking for, and through accident that process went awry and we end up with a roman emperor dead on a battlefield. What’s really striking to me is that everybody know what to expect from this. Everybody knew what they wanted because they were operating within the same kind of cultural reference frames for behavior.
Brett McKay: It sounds like they were refugees in a way.
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, basically. I think a lot of the barbarians who entered the Roman Empire were refugees. There are a lot of groups that entered the Roman Empire that they’re recorded going through one of these. Then we never hear from them again. They’re just assimilated. They blend into the background of the Roman world. I mentioned it exerted a tremendous acculturating influence on all of these groups that came in. A lot of them do enter the Roman Empire as refugees. Others as we get later into the 5th century more and more of them start to enter as kind of ready made military forces and that changes things. That changes the relationship quite a bit.
Brett McKay: The initial goal then wasn’t to sack Rome, take Rome?
Patrick Wyman: Oh god, no. They were looking for the safety that the Roman Empire provided. In a large part they wanted the material comforts that Rome provided. This was an aspirational thing. In migration theory you talk about push factors and pull factors, reasons why you want to leave and reasons why you want to go to a particular place. The Roman Empire was full of pull factors. There was greater opportunity. If you were a talented Goth living beyond the frontier you could join the Roman army and you could gain a life for yourself that would never have been possible beyond the frontier. I think to some extent you want to look at the barbarians entering the Roman Empire as aspirational immigrants. In large part they’re looking for a better life.
Brett McKay: What happened? What changed where it started out this aspiration, we just want to have part of the roman pie, to when the Goths sacked Rome in the 400s?
Patrick Wyman: The great irony of the Goth’s sack of Rome is that it was a failed negotiating tactic. The Goths who sacked Rome were led by kind a general, maybe a king called Alaric. He’s one of the most famous barbarians of antiquity, Alaric or Alaric if you want to put it that way. Basically he had accumulated a large army that was composed mostly of Goths, many of them the descendants of the Goths who had crossed in 376, the sack happens in 410 to give you a sense of the timing here. Basically they’re looking for a better deal from the Roman State. Alaric is looking for a military command. He’s looking for a place for his soldiers to settle.
That was a standard deal, if you were a soldier and you had served for some period of time you would probably get land to settle on. Alaric is looking to secure settlement terms for his Goths. He’s looking for a position for himself. His ambitions kind of grow over the course of this little rebellion. Eventually when they get into Italy he’s threatening Rome as a way of getting leverage in his negotiations with the Imperial court, not all that dissimilar from … The fact that they were Goths was almost irrelevant to this. He could’ve been any Roman general looking for a better deal from the court. This happened pretty regularly, which shows you just how screwed up things had gotten in the western empire by this point.
Eventually he threatens Rome twice, he gets bought off twice, but finally the negotiations break down again. He goes to threaten Rome and he’s like well I guess we just have to sack it this time. Still, by the standards of sacking a city it was a pretty peaceful sack. What the Vandals did to Rome in the 450s was much, much, much more devastating to the city than anything the Goths did in 410. They spared the churches. It probably wasn’t pleasant for the population of Rome, but all things considered as sacks go, if you had to get sacked Alaric and the Goths did a pretty gentle job of it.
Brett McKay: Okay. Get sacked by Alaric if you’re going to get sacked. Another idea that people put out there of why the Roman Empire fell is not so much because of external enemies. They just sort of pushed that. The reason why they were to fall so easily was that Romans had this moral decay within their culture and their society that made them vulnerable to these attacks. Is there any credence to that idea that Rome had disintegrated because of moral decadence?
Patrick Wyman: I don’t really think so. I think that if you want to look for … There are a couple of different ways to look at that. You could say to look at the idea of moral decay, on the one hand the idea of Edward Gibbon and other of these old school historians is that Christianity caused this decline. You can look at plenty of Christian late Roman generals and soldiers who were plenty good at their jobs. That did not seem to be a defining factor there. There’s also the idea that things had socially gotten so degenerate that that caused some sort of decline. I don’t think that’s true. I think if you’re looking for a kind of series of internal factors it would be A) politically speaking the weakness of the imperial court which grew evermore self interested, ever less able to deal with the series of challenges that were being presented to it which were increasingly difficult challenges over the course of the late 4th and into the 5th century.
To me the big thing that stands out is a decreasing investment of local aristocrats, not like the big land owners who were sitting in the senate in Rome, but civic leaders. They were increasingly less invested in taking care of their cities, that seems to me to be a big overarching change over the course of the 4th and into the 5th centuries. You couldn’t get people to fill the city magestricies. These local prosperous people who owned large amounts of land, who had little houses in the city, who invested their money in business operations in these cities, that they grew less and less interested in putting their resources to work for the people in those cities. Cities declined for a variety of reasons but I think that part of that is because people who a couple hundred years earlier would’ve been endowing buildings, would’ve been paying for games and festivals, things like that that his was part of the social compact between local elites and their cities, that breaks down. There are a whole bunch of reasons for that but the fact of it seems to me to be a really big deal.
If you’re looking for internal decline and decay outside the political sphere or outside the sphere of high politics, I think that’s where you see it, is this kind of breakdown of the ties between local aristocrats and their communities.
Brett McKay: Why is that? Why was there that lack of civic engagement? Did they just get too concerned with money and just enjoying their lives? What happened there?
Patrick Wyman: It’s a good question. I think you could point to a couple of different things. A big piece of it is the rise of the administrative state. Again, you can kind of point to the center for kind of long term ramifications for this, but in the early empire it was basically run as a racket between local aristocrats and a really, really small actual state. The whole Roman Empire in the 1st, 2nd, into the beginning of the 3rd centuries, the whole Roman state was basically run by a few hundred bureaucrats at the center, the emperor and then the army. The way that you did that was because the local elites of these individual cities, let’s say the most important people in Marce in southern Gaul or Toulouse or in Carthage, were all really invested in being the most important people in those cities. They were the ones who connected the individual people to the central state such as it was.
The average person would go their whole life without seeing a bureaucrat from the actual central government. Over the course of the 3rd century and into the 4th century this changed. The central government of the Roman Empire became much more heavy handed and much more involved in the day to day lives of the people of the empire. They kind of cut out these local civic leaders from that process. Those local civic leaders could take jobs in the Roman bureaucracy in this increasingly bureaucratic state, but that wasn’t the same thing as being a local civic leader. It’s the difference between saying I’m one of the five most important people in Carthage versus I’m an official of the Roman Imperial Government. It fundamentally changes the relationship between these important people and the cities that they live in.
At first that doesn’t seem like much of a difference but fast forward 100 years, it breaks the ties that bind those communities together.
Brett McKay: That’s really interesting. What did the fall of Rome feel like to the people living through it? Did Romans understand something is going on here? You mentioned earlier that for some people they did notice, for other people they didn’t notice. Were there some people who noticed that there was something going on and that things weren’t the same and things weren’t going to be the same after this?
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, absolutely. There were some people who did notice, especially in the 5th century. There are people who had come from the northern parts of Gaul who had kind of fled as refugees to the south who wrote these excoriating treatments of what was happening back in their home regions. There were definitely people who noticed that things were different. The flip side to that is that there were people who went out of their way to pretend that absolutely nothing was different. These hyper literate roman aristocrats in Gaul, this is the golden age of them writing letters to each other and engaging in literary production. I think in some ways it’s a way of reassuring yourself that things haven’t really changed all that much, that you can kind of go on with your life without having to engage with the fact that things are changing. Even then, after a certain point kind of had to come to grips with that.
The case study, there’s a guy named Sidonius Apollinaris who in kind of the waning days of the Roman Empire in the west had been the prefect of the city of Rome, he was from central France. He had tried to have this kind of normal career in the Imperial government but the fact that the whole imperial government was disintegrating meant that he had to go back home. He goes back home, he writes some letters, he becomes bishop of the city of Clermont. He’s still living like any other Roman aristocrat would have 100 years ago. Eventually though, the Visigoths come and try to take his hometown of Clermont. At this point, Sidonius, who’s a bishop has to organize the defense of the city from people who are supposed to be allies of the Central Imperial Government. There’s a whole process of cognitive dissonance that he has to deal with there where he has to realize things actually have changed.
Still, even into the 6th century in Italy there are aristocrats who are basically living exactly the same way that they always have. They’re reading the same books, they’re living on the same estates, social relations haven’t really changed at all, they can go to work for what looks a lot like an Imperial government if they want to. There’s a guy named Cassiodorus who wrote hundreds of letters for the Ostrogoths, the kings of Italy. He’s basically working just as he would have in an imperial chancery and in imperial archives 100 years before.
Some people are aware of it, others aren’t. I think a merchant who was living in the city of Arles on the southern French coast, like right at the mouth of the Rhone, so this huge commercial hub, I think that guy if he was born in 450 would notice any real meaningful change over the course of his life even if he lived to be 75 or 80.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting. I think it’s interesting too during this time … We had a classicist on our podcast a while back ago, Carlin Barton, who wrote about the concept of Roman honor. She makes the case that in late part of the empire, beginning about year 100 and going on that stoicism became really popular amongst the emperors and the elite. She argues that it was because of all this rapid change that was happening within the empire. Do you agree with that sort of hypothesis that stoicism became sort of the way the Romans managed themselves psychologically to counter all the change that was happening around them?
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, I certainly buy that up to an extent. I think up until the point where they started to buy in more to Christian theologies, I think up to that point for sure. You can still see large echos of stoicism in the writings of a guy named Symmachus, one of the most blue blooded of the blue blooded Roman senatorial aristocrats in the late 4th century, he was big into stoicism in large part because he had to deal first hand with these kind of changes. I think absolutely that hypothesis holds true then. When you get into the 5th century I think that stoic ideas tend to be replaced or heavily inflected with more Christian theologies. I think that that has more to do with the fact that bishops were becoming more important civic leaders. To that point if you’re going to be a bishop you probably better do some theological reading and writing too.
Brett McKay: Right. I guess you can make the case too that as the fall happened and this sort of military ethos began building up again amongst Romans that they would kind of reject stoicism and go back to that sort of primal honor which is the ethos of the warrior.
Patrick Wyman: Yeah, absolutely. That guy Sidonius Apollinaris that I mentioned, a totally civic minded, had no interest at all in military matters, none, so when he’s organizing the defense of Clermont it’s very clear from reading his letters that he has no idea what he’s doing. Sidonius Apollinaris’s son led a military contingent in a Visigothic army like 30 years after that. At that point you can start to see that kind of transformation of this old Roman style civic virtue into something more military. Slowly but surely you can see the process happening. You can trace it across generations. Where we have enough information to do it, you can see it happening. It’s a clear process.
Brett McKay: All right, so Patrick we’re going to do some fall of the Roman Empire parallelism. I don’t know if you’re a fan of this. People do that. Writers and pundits make the comparisons between Rome and America now, because America is the new Roman Empire. Some people argue we have a political empire, but definitely we have a cultural empire and an economic empire. Have you, based on your approach to the fall of Rome, do you see similarities between the “American empire” and the Roman Empire?
Patrick Wyman: Yes in the sense that we’re living in an increasingly uni-polar world where there really is not a super power to rival the United States. That I think is the best analog for, that the Roman empire is the best analog for us to try and understand our own position in the world. Thinking about the Roman Empire and thinking about America in the 21st century allows us to ask questions. That’s the great benefit of history is that it allows us to ask educated questions about ourselves. Even if you’re not going to find exact parallels, by thinking really hard about the parallel we learn something more about ourselves. I think asking what is a uni-polar world look like where you only have one real super power, asking that kind of question of how did the Romans deal with that, how did they manage the world beyond their borders allows us to learn some things about ourselves.
The Romans didn’t just put up walls and sit behind them and wait for the barbarians to come across. The Romans were engaged in actively managing what happened beyond their border. I think that that’s one distinct parallel between the United States and the Roman world. You have to see that they didn’t retreat inwards, they were actively involved in trying to keep under control what was happening beyond their world.
Brett McKay: Patrick this has been a great conversation. There’s a lot more we could get into and you do that on your podcast, so where can people listen to The Fall of Rome?
Patrick Wyman: My podcast, The Fall of Rome, can be found on iTunes, it can be found on Stitcher, it can be found on Google Play. Basically any platform from which you listen to podcasts it can be found there. I post pretty regular updates and I’m always down to talk about it on Twitter at patrick_wyman. You can send me messages on Facebook too. Search for my page there, Patrick Wyman. I will actually have a brand new episode coming up very shortly. As soon as we’re done I’m going to sit down and record the new one.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Patrick Wyman, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Patrick Wyman: Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Patrick Wyman. He’s the host of The Fall of Rome podcast. It’s available on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, wherever you can listen to a podcast. Check it out, it’s really great. After the show check out the show notes at aom.is/fallofrome where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or audio production needs check them out at creativeaudiolab.com. As always we appreciate the continued support. Until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 4, 2017