Decline of Classical Empires

So how did all of these incredible classical empires decline?

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

Fortunately for us but bad for them, most of the classical empires decline for very similar reasons. This makes it relatively easy to study if we’re willing to oversimplify a bit. And I am always in favor of oversimplification to make history slightly more palatable.

We can generalize the reasons for their decline into three main groups:

Border issues

First, they overextended their boundaries. Essentially the classical empires were too big for too long. At its height, the size of the Roman Empire was about 2 million square miles in size with 120 million people in its borders. Yeah, that’s about half the size of the United States today, but that’s an enormous amount of land and people to control with the technology they were working with at the time.

Remember, the Romans had set the precedent of paying their soldiers in land. This started a dangerous cycle where they would conquer land to pay their soldiers. And then they would need more soldiers to defend the new land. Also, they start outsourcing their army to other non-Roman groups who don’t care about allegiance to Rome. Yadda yadda yadda, they fall.  

Internal disputes

There were also a lot of internal disputes that caused problems. Most of these empires ruled a diverse population that became more diverse as they grew. It’s hard to keep people united under your rule if they don’t identify with you and your culture.

The capital cities of these empires were really far from most people that lived in the empire and over time, the leaders became more concerned with power struggles in the capital and were less connected to the people they ruled. 30-40 different Roman emperors were assassinated, for example. Over time, the people in the empire – many of which were not considered citizens and didn’t get all the same rights – grew tired of a bunch of rich politicians arguing over petty issues instead of governing. I’m sure y’all know how that feels.

External Threats

Finally, outside groups started showing up at the borders. Everywhere. You see, there was this group of highly skilled warrior nomads in northern Eurasia called the Huns. Under the leadership of people like Attila, they started spreading out of the Eurasian steppe and into everyone else’s business. They started invaded the Gupta Empire in India and the Han Dynasty in China (Everybody: “Let’s get down to business, to defeat the Huns!”). And they started pushing other groups in eastern Europe into the Roman Empire.

These people, generally referred to as Germanic peoples entered the Roman Empire in increasing numbers. Some were essentially refugees that had pushed out of their own land but others were invading groups who wanted to take advantage of the chaos in the cities.

end of the classical era

Finally, remember that because of things like the Silk Road, these classical empires were interconnected. So when one starts to experience problems, there is a domino effect that creates issues everywhere. When the Han Dynasty falls, the Silk Road sort of falls apart. It doesn’t stop existing but it’s way more of a Wild West than it was during the Classical Era. It’s going to be reunified as a Silk Road 2.0 next era thanks to the Mongols.

All of these factors, plus problems like environmental disasters and lead pipes, lead to the decline of the classical empires. It’s important that we understand that they declined, not fell. It might seem trivial but very few civilizations actually fall suddenly. Most have a period of decline that lasts decades or centuries and the people living in that period of decline don’t know that their declining. It’s not like the Romans walked outside one day and the Coliseum was suddenly in ruins. It was gradual and so, it wasn’t always taken seriously.

It’s at this point in my class that I get some worried looks from my students who seem to think that I’m implying that we might one day fall. I comfort them by telling them that we 100% will one day fall and it’s arrogant to think that we would be the only civilization ever to avoid that fate. Wait, is that not comforting? Sorry.

But historians take the long view and are often burdened by the super depressing truth that everyone else avoids. My mom shared a cartoon with me one time that said “People who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. And historians are doomed to watch it happen.” It was funny. Until it wasn’t.

Unity in the post-classical era

In order to avoid leaving y’all on that note, let’s talk briefly about why some of these regions were better able to stay unified even in the power vacuum that opens up when these empires fall. China and India, for example, maintain way more cultural unity even in periods of chaos than Europe does. We’ll get to it next time, but western Europe loses its mind when Rome falls.

But China and India have some stability and are able to pick back up with other empires and dynasties later. So why didn’t Europe stay Europe like China stayed China? Why does it fall apart into various kingdoms that will never be reunited?

Ethel (if you aren’t familiar with Ethel, I suggest you go back and listen to Episode 1) has a theory that I like. She proposes that China and India had religions or philosophies that had been well established for centuries – like 700+ years – that helped keep the people together even when the leadership fell. But Christianity had only arrived on the scene a few hundred years before Rome fell. And it didn’t become the official religion of western Europe until around 320 C.E., just 150 years before the final sacking of Rome. It’s a cool theory that makes sense to me but who knows?