A History of Medieval Europe, RHC Davis
Look, I hope you aren’t expecting a six-volume masterpiece….
Davis summarizes the reasons for the fall (actually a slow, grinding, gradual decline) of Rome into four:
…by the beginning of the fifth century the Roman Empire had been suffering from economic decline for at least two centuries.
…the Romans were already being “barbarized.”
…the barbarians were already becoming Romanized
…the precise manner in which the barbarian settlements were made.
I will expand on one of these: the economic decline. Let’s just say it is expensive to run an empire.
The primary cause of the economic decline was that the Roman economy had become unproductive. Wealth was gathered via conquest; the people ate free corn from Africa and Sicily, selling nothing in return. The chief trade was money lending. When the frontier of empire could not be further extended, growth in this manner stalled – the unproductive Romans ran out of productive to consume.
What is one to do in such a situation? Debase, debase, and then debase some more, of course. The decline was long and slow, lasting not for decades but for centuries: from a silver denarius to a silver-washed bronze coin – maintaining, relative to gold, one fortieth of its value.
There was no crash; there was no collapse; there was (apparently) no hyper-inflation. Just a slow burn. The single-most important commodity in support of the division of labor was being mistreated, and the commodity just went along for the ride.
The wealthy bought land – it could not be debased; they moved from towns to the country – unknown at the time, but a necessary building block for future medieval life.
Further, the population in any case was declining; Davis says the reasons are not explained. However, he describes a system implemented by the government where sons were allowed only to take the profession of the father and marry daughters of others in the same profession. It isn’t difficult to imagine some might consider striking out for adventure elsewhere in such a scheme.
Rome continually made concessions of land to the barbarians in order to buy peace. I recall reading elsewhere that free Roman citizens voluntarily gave themselves to slavery to landowners given the life they faced in Rome; it was to both these barbarian landowners and the Romans who previously move to landed estates that they offered themselves.
Bit by bit, perhaps unnoticeable day-to-day or year-to-year, from all angles, the Empire was declining. Once the barbarians gained access to the Mediterranean, the entire Empire was doomed – control of the Mediterranean (along with the need for continual expansion) was the Roman Empire.
It wasn’t a fall, as in collapse; instead, a decline over an extended period of time. It takes a long time to fully consume the wealth produced over centuries. Of course, Rome continued in the East, in Constantinople, for another 800 years or more. But in Europe, Rome as Rome came to an end.