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The Fall of the Roman Empire
By Jacob Little
The causes and effects of the fall of the Roman Empire have fueled much scholarly and political
debate for centuries. In this paper, I examine the claims of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and a
contemporary of the sacking of Rome in 410 C.E, and Edward Gibbon, an 18th-century historian
and author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and seek to find a
synthesis of cause and effect between the two. Gibbon claims that Christians were largely at
fault for the fall of the Empire while Augustine seeks to lift blame from Christians. The sources
come from very different contexts, but both provide insight on a topic that has implications for
the present.
Little 1
Since its occurrence in 410 C.E., the causes and effects of the fall of Rome have fueled
scholarly debate on the subject. While the causes might be debated, its effects are clear. Rome
once stood as the preeminent civilization on earth. Its effects on the Western world are
numerous; law, language, technology, ideology and government in today’s Western world have
many roots in ancient Rome. Chris Scarre, author of the Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome, writes,
“Though Rome was no longer the imperial capital, the [sacking of Rome by the Goths] sent
shock waves through the civilized world” (132).
Indeed, how could such a city fall if it could boast such an impressive repertoire of
contributions, significant events, conquered territory, battle victories, influential leaders and vast
civil administration? The answer is indeed an elusive one, and requires the viewpoints of many to
form a consummate explanation. Perhaps the two most reputable sources are those by Edward
Gibbon, an 18th-century Roman historian, and St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and a
contemporary of the 410 sacking of Rome. St. Augustine wrote City of God as a response to
those who claimed Christians were to blame for the fall of Rome because their monotheistic
worship angered the gods such that they let Rome fall. Gibbon, in Christians and the Fall of
Rome, argues that Christians were indeed liable for the fall of Rome, not because the gods were
angered, but because of their impact on the religious, moral, social, military, and governmental
structures of the Roman Empire. The claims of both are worthy of scholarly attention and possess
valuable information to help the reader discover the role Christians played in the fall of the
Roman Empire in the West.
There are several distinct trends that caused the decline of the Roman Empire. Thomas
Cahill in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, outlines some of these trends. He points to
the following as causes: 1) weak borders which allowed intermingling between barbarians and
Romans, 2) changes in the population within the Empire, 3) an increasingly weak and ineffective
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bureaucracy, 4) avoidance of military service, 5) departure from central values, 6) failure to
recognize changes, 7) widening gap between rich and poor due to corrupt tax system, 8)
increasingly dictatorial rulers 9) ineffective legislation, and 10) rulers unable to relate with
ordinary life of civilians (Cahill 11-31). Such were the causes of the fall, but who was the main
promulgator of such changes?
Edward Gibbon and his charge that Christians were to blame
Gibbon seeks to prove that the growth of the Christian church and the changes this
growth wrought in the various structures of Rome led to the decline and fall of Rome. He begins
by listing the five secondary causes (the primary cause he says is “the doctrine itself” and “the
ruling providence of its great Author” (Gibbon 2)) of the growth of Christianity: “1) The
inflexible, and… intolerant zeal of the Christians…2) The doctrine of a future life…3) The
miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church, 4) The pure and austere morals of the
Christians, 5) The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an
independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire” (Gibbon 3). These factors
caused a growth in the population of Christians such that Christians constituted five percent in
Rome. While this might not seem overly sweeping a number, Gibbon writes that, “the same
causes which contributed to their future increase, served to render their actual strength more
apparent and more formidable” (84). Thus, Gibbon makes it clear that Christianity did have a
large and influential following in the Roman Empire from the death of Jesus onward.
The early Christian church, according to Gibbon, possessed many characteristics that
aided the causes of destruction as outlined by Cahill. He says the church strove hard to “guard
the chastity of the gospel from the infections breath of idolatry” (Gibbon 23). By doing so,
Christians deliberately set themselves apart from the majority of the polytheistic Roman
Little 3
populace. This did inevitably lead to persecution, yet Gibbon asserts that “the more they were
persecuted, the more closely they adhered to each other” (43). Nevertheless, this seemingly small
number of Christians who set themselves apart had a noticeable impact on the structures of
Rome. For one, Christians would not partake in any military service or civil administration
(Gibbon 50), thus weakening those internal structures. This, according to Gibbon, led to an
increasingly ineffective bureaucracy, a weak military and a shifting population due to the lack of
Christians who might otherwise have bolstered these various structures.
Gibbon also writes about “how loose, and how uncertain were the religious sentiments of
Polytheists” (71). Romans at this time were increasingly basing religion on ritual. There was very
little genuine belief. When Christianity entered the empire, it “obtained an easy triumph over the
folly of Paganism” (Gibbon 72). This increased the population of the early church. Furthermore,
a sense of removal from Roman culture created “a separate society” that “was obliged to adopt
some form of internal policy” (Gibbon 51). This included appointing ministers “entrusted with
“the temporal direction of the Christian commonwealth” (Gibbon 51). Gibbon asserts that this
church structure, coupled with a shift in primary allegiance among Christians, led to a decrease
in the number of people loyal to the Roman Empire and the rulers therein.
Gibbon claims that this church structure led to a political and social hierarchy. He says
those at the top shared “a love of power, which (under the most artful disguises) could insinuate
itself into the breasts of bishops and martyrs” with the goal “to increase the number of their
subjects, and to enlarge the limits of the Christian empire” (Gibbon 61). To add to this power,
Gibbon writes, “the Christians of Rome were possessed of very considerable wealth” (62). This
wealth and power of the early Christian church in Rome served to disperse power from the state
of Rome and confer it on the church. In Rome, there existed laws which prohibited real estates
from being provided to any corporate body, but “the progress of Christianity, and the civil
Little 4
confusion of the empire, contributed to relax the severity of the laws, and before the third century
many considerable estates were bestowed on the opulent churches of Rome, Milan, Carthage,
Antioch, Alexandria, and other great cities of Italy and the provinces” (Gibbon 64). It is not
unreasonable for Gibbon to claim that this independent church republic within Rome contributed
to the downfall of the empire in the various ways Cahill describes. An increasingly unwieldy
bureaucracy which yielded to the sways of the church, non-participation of Christians in military
and civil functions, widening gap between rich and poor, and increasing executive power (within
and outside) of the church all can be traced, to some extent, to the growing power of the early
Christian church.
These are the claims of Edward Gibbon, whose comments throughout the book suggest a
subtle hostility to the mores of the early church. Doubtless, his ideas have merit and should be
taken seriously, but what does someone with a different opinion say? St. Augustine was the
Bishop of Hippo when Alaric the Goth sacked Rome. He wrote City of God to refute the claims
of Romans that the fall of Rome was the fault of the Christians because they angered the gods
with their monotheism. Since Augustine writes as a contemporary of the sacking of Rome, his
view on the subject will take a fundamentally different form than Gibbon’s. Augustine too
presents worthy arguments that deserve study and contemplation in light of his particular
experience with the event.
Augustine’s first argument that Christians are blameless for the fall of Rome is the fact
that when Alaric and his Goths swept through the city, they spared anyone who sought refuge in
a church of God. Augustine writes with a tinge of frustration, the “escaped multitudes who now
reproach the Christian religion, and impute to Christ the ills that have befallen their city,… a
boon which they owe to the respect entertained for Christ by the barbarians…attribute [their life]
not to our Christ, but to their own good luck” (4). “Whoever does not see [that Romans live
Little 5
because of Christ]…is blind” (Augustine 9). Thus, Augustine’s first argument is that the Romans
owe their lives to Christ and the church, so they cannot complain that the invasion was the fault
of the church.
Next, Augustine uses the example of Troy to disparage the gods’ power. He says that,
since the gods let Troy fall, “what madness is it to suppose that Rome had been wisely entrusted
to these guardians” (Augustine 6). His point is clear; if the gods cannot protect Troy, they are
powerless and should not be worshipped anyway. Augustine wants, instead of passing the blame
on gods or Christians, to attribute the blame to other internal and external factors influencing the
functions of the Roman Empire.
Augustine gives several examples of afflictions that directly led to the downfall of Rome.
One of the main points he raises is that Roman culture and religion was thoroughly immoral. He
writes, “the Romans could not receive, nor reasonably expect to receive, laws for the regulation
of their conduct from their gods, since the laws they themselves enacted far surpassed and put to
shame the morality of the gods” (Augustine 53). If the gods have no morality, surely the
Romans, who take example from the gods, will not have pristine morals. Romans are simply
paying lip service to values long dead, yet acting in utterly vile ways. Thus, Augustine writes,
Romans “cannot complain against the Christian religions, as if it were that which gave offence to
the gods,…since the Roman immorality had long ago driven from the altars of the city a cloud of
little gods” (Augustine 64). In doing so, Augustine clears Christians from blame, while giving
immorality as one cause of Roman downfall. He also asserts that, “those who complain of
Christianity really desire to live without restraint in shameful luxury” (Merton 35). He asks them,
“why in your calamities do you complain of Christianity, unless because you desire to…lead a…
life without the interruption of any uneasiness or disaster?” (Augustine 35). Thus, an internal
factor that led to the fall of Rome was increasing ambivalence about the fate of Rome and a
Little 6
failure to recognize problems and deal with them.
Augustine also argues that calamities plagued the Empire and Republic long before Christ
came to earth. He writes, “The Roman republic had already been ruined by the depraved moral
habits of the citizens, and had ceased to exist before the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now
this ruin they do not impute to their own gods, though they impute to our Christ the evils of this
life…” (Augustine 69). Rome suffered defeats in the Punic Wars, endured hardship through the
civil wars between Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey and Octavian and Antony, Augustine
Furthermore, Augustine goes on to recall the early days of the republic. He details the
violent birth of Rome, the gross immorality of Romulus, the raping of the Sabine women, the
troublesome life under the kings, the turbulent first year of the consulship, conflict between plebs
and plebeians, civil strife and then rails at the gods for not being there or not fixing things during
this strife. Augustine writes, “Yet which of these disasters…would not be attributed to the
Christian religion by those who … accuse us, and whom we are compelled to answer? And yet to
their own gods they attribute none of these things, though they worship them for the sake of
escaping lesser calamities” (Augustine 108). If such calamities led to the downfall of Rome, the
gods should be blamed, Augustine states.
Augustine further argues that the long period of Roman supremacy was not brought about
through lesser gods, but was sustained by the true God. He writes, “Everything for which the
Romans thought they must supplicate so great a crowd of false gods, they received much more
happily from the one true God” (Augustine 141). He also speaks against belief in fate, which
rendered many useless due to the attitude it brought. Since Romans considered everything to be
fated, they simply let things happen, rather than fix them. This was a significant factor of Roman
downfall, according to Augustine, since it let to the erosion of the bureaucracy and military
Little 7
Augustine’s main point is that Christianity should not be blamed for the ills of Rome, and
if anything, the church saved what little was left of the Empire. This contrasts Gibbon’s main
point that the growing power of the church disrupted the structures of the Empire and led to its
downfall. While both men have valid points, the answer does not lie on one side or the other. The
fall of the Roman Empire in the west was caused by both the increasing power and influence of
the church, which Gibbon highlights, and a continuation of eroding morals, capricious gods, and
faulty reasoning on the Romans’ part, which St. Augustine argues.
The growing power of the Church as presented by Gibbon is hard to refute. Indeed, the
early Christians did cause division and strife in the Empire with their strict adherence to morality,
and their shunning of many who did not believe. Furthermore, their increased wealth and
influence throughout Roman culture, as portrayed by Gibbon, has merit as well. It is doubtful
that these factors in themselves led to the downfall of Rome, but when coupled with the events
and trends identified by Augustine, the downfall becomes more likely.
Augustine’s presentation of the already existing calamities that plagued the Roman
republic and empire from its inception proves that many of the trends that led to its downfall
were inherent throughout its history. Further, Augustine points out that Christians did indeed
save much of what was left of Rome after the sacking in 410. By sheltering many in the
churches, the Christians saved a large number of Romans from slaughter at the hands of the
Goths. Thus, Christianity did play some role in the fall of the Empire, but most definitely was not
the only cause.
The debate over the causes of the downfall of the Roman Empire will go on for many
years. Yet, Edward Gibbon, author of Christians and the Fall of Rome and St. Augustine, author
of City of God, together present a vivid picture of the social, religious, and cultural issues in
Little 8
Christian and Roman cultures which led to the demise of the Roman Empire. Today, the
buildings and statues of the once-great Rome still stand, if only as a symbol of the transience of
humanity, and a reminder for generations to come of the ways even the greatest of civilizations
can collapse upon themselves.
Little 9
Works Cited
Augustine. City of God. Trans. Marcus Dods. New York: Random House, 2000.
Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role
from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Gibbon, Edward. Christians and the Fall of Rome. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
Merton, Thomas. Introduction(s), Headings. City of God. New York: Random House, 2000.
Scarre, Chris. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.