The Decline and Fall of Cultural Societies

The Spread of Epidemic Diseases: Diseases as well as religions traveled the silk roads and sea routes of the classical world. Viruses, bacteria, etc. were able to infest societies where the populace had no natural immunity to them with devastating results. The result was death on an unprecedented level. Among the diseases attacking classical societies were smallpox and measles, and possibly bubonic plague. Chinese and Roman populations declined sharply due to deaths from disease. The onset of epidemics and subsequent decline in population created instability in China after the fall of the Han dynasty and was a factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

It should be noted that estimates of populations are just that. There are no exact demographic statistics available. However there is sufficient information available to indicate the extent of damage by disease to individual societies.

The Roman population declined from roughly sixty million to forty five million in less than 200 years; a decline of twenty five percent. Smallpox was especially deadly in the period 164-180, C.E.; in fact it was the cause of death of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This, together with wars and invasion reduced the Roman population further to roughly forty million.

Epidemic diseases in China appeared somewhat later than in the Mediterranean. The Chinese population grew from fifty million at the beginning of the modern era to sixty million in 200 C.E. With the onset of epidemic diseases, this number decreased to roughly forty five million by 600 C.E.; a decrease of fifteen million people in four hundred years.

Declines in populations have economic, social, and even political effects. The Roman and Chinese economies contracted with the population; and both moved away from trade and exchange to self sufficiency.

China after the Collapse of the Han Dynasty: Political problems had already appeared in China by the time epidemic diseases found their way there. By the late second century, C.E., Han authorities no longer were able to maintain order. The central government dissolved within 100 years.

The collapse of the Han dynasty was largely because of internal problems which its rulers could not resolve. Among them:

Factions within the ruling elite. Marriage alliances between the elite and aristocratic families led to factions whose members attempted to advance their own positions in the government to the exclusion of others. The result was infighting and backstabbing among the ruling elite which reduced the effectiveness of the central government.

Inequitable land distribution. The usurper Wang Mang had tried to redistribute land in China but the program did not survive his own reign, which did not last long. During the last two centuries of the Han dynasty, large landowners attempted to gain influence in the government and by so doing, reduced their share of taxes and shifted the burden to the peasantry. They even formed private armies to advance their own interests. The peasants in particularly were disturbed by these developments, as they saw themselves under increasing pressure from taxation. The situation was soon exacerbated by the arrival of epidemic diseases which reduced the population significantly. A peasant uprising known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion (so called because the rebels wore yellow head bands, the color of Chinese earth and a symbol of their peasant origins.) The rebellion was quickly put down, but it was only a harbinger of more difficult times to come.

While the government was concerned with these difficulties, Han generals usurped political authority, such that by 190 C.E., the emperor was merely a puppet. The generals allied with wealthy landowners and established themselves as war lords. In 220, C.E. they formally abolished the Han dynasty and divided the empire into three kingdoms, known as the Wei, Wu, and Shu.

With the collapse of the Han dynasty, large numbers of nomadic peoples moved into China, which kept China from unifying for another 350 years. These nomads established large kingdoms which dominated much of northern China and the steppes. For several centuries afterward, China was ravaged by disorder as kingdom toppled kingdom. Nomadic invasions and war led to population declines; and the heartland was ravaged by marauding armies in search of food and plunder. However, despite the devastation of war, a number of social and cultural changes took place.

The nomadic people who invaded China became more and more sinicized. They took up agriculture and formed permanent settlements, married Chinese spouses and took Chinese names. They also wore Chinese clothes, ate Chinese food, and adopted Chinese customs. Further, they adopted Chinese education and became well versed in Chinese philosophy and literature. The distinctions between the traditional Chinese and the nomadic peoples became less and less obvious.

Confucian tradition lost much of its credibility. Confucius’ goal (and that of his followers) had been to move from chaos to stability during the Period of the Warring States. When the Han dynasty collapsed and order was no longer maintained, Confucianism seemed practically irrelevant. Those who might have followed Confucius in earlier days now turned to Daoism and Buddhism.

Daoism offered a way to find peace in a world torn asunder. It had originally been a speculative school of thought that appealed t the educated elite. With the fall of the Han, it became more of a religion than a philosophy. Sages promised salvation to those who followed its doctrines and rituals. They also experimented with spices, herbs and drugs to mix elixirs and potions that were supposed to confer health and immortality. Those afflicted by war and disease were quickly attracted to it.

Buddhism was even more important than Daoism. It had largely been the faith of foreign merchants, and had attracted little interest in China until about 400 C.E. The nomadic people who moved into China, however, gave it strong support, many of whom were familiar with Buddhism in central Asia. With missionary efforts, the religion attracted a following among the native Chinese. It became well established between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E. It later provided a cultural foundation for the restoration of a unified political order.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

It is probably a misnomer to speak of the "fall of Rome," it more correctly just decayed, and fell apart. They were not eventually overcome by an outside force; the Empire just changed in character, grew weaker and weaker, and in the end, it finally just was too weak to continue, and was a pushover. It was not just "one of those things," as the Egyptian Civilization had existed for over 3,500 years, and contributed much less.

It is a sobering thought to realize that, if the Roman Empire had survived as long as the Egyptian Empire, we would still be living under it; and would be for the next thousand years!!

So, the question becomes, "Why did Rome fall?

Although many scholars and moralists have interpreted the fall of the Roman Empire as an indication of the transitory nature of all things human, as well as an indication of the wages of decadent living, most theories about the fall of Rome are incredulous, if not downright silly. Some have claimed the empire fell because of lead poisoning; radiation from the bricks, the decadent lifestyle of the upper classes, etc. Edward Gibbon, a prominent scholar of the Enlightenment, wrote a lengthy treatise (three volumes of fine print) entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it he claimed that the Empire was doomed once it adopted Christianity. His argument was that the religion "corrupted the Roman mind and soul." He also detailed political and moral corruption in the Empire; and intended his work to be a warning to modern nations that it could happen again. In truth, there was no one cause which led the Empire to collapse; rather a combination of internal problems and external pressures weakened it and brought an end to the Western Empire. In the eastern Mediterranean, Roman rule (commonly known as the Byzantine Empire survived until November 1452.

Political changes were an important part of Roman collapse as it had been in the case of the Han dynasty. From 235 to 284 C.E., there were twenty six claimants to the throne of the Empire. Most of these "barracks emperors" were generals who seized power and held it until they were displaced by another general or their own mutinous troops. Of the twenty six, only one died of natural causes.

The sheer size of the Empire had made it largely unmanageable. Even when times were good and the Emperors could count on sufficient revenues and disciplined armed forces, the empire was simply too large to be managed from a single central location. As epidemic diseases spread through the empire, many regions moved towards self-sufficient economies as a matter of necessity for survival, which made the empire as a whole increasingly unmanageable.

The emperor Diocletian (r. 284 – 305 C.E.) attempted to solve the problem by dividing the Empire into Western and Eastern divisions. The West included Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain and North Africa. The East included Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, and Greece. A co-emperor ruled each division with the aid of a lieutenant. The two Emperors and their Lieutenants were known as tetrarchs, who managed the empire more effectively. Diocletian himself was a good administrator who brought the army into line and strengthened the imperial currency. He also forced the government to adjust expenses to its income and imposed price caps to prevent inflation.

Diocletian retired in 305 C.E., and this set off a bitter civil war to succeed him. In 306 C.E., Constantine, the son of Diocletian’s co-ruler, Constantius, staked his claim as sole Emperor. He defeated most of his rivals by 3313 C.E., but only defeated the last of them in 325 C.E.

Constantine claimed later that just before the Battle of Milvan Bridge, he had seen the sign of the Christian Cross in the sky, and under it the words, In hoc signo vinces. (By this sign, conquer.) Presumably, he vowed to become a Christian if he won the battle, which he did. By the Edict of Milan, issued in 324 C.E. Constantine legalized Christianity within the Empire. (His predecessor, Diocletian, had mercilessly persecuted Christians.) He never told anyone of his vision until he was on his deathbed, at which point he was baptized as a Christian.

After gaining power, Constantine built a new capital at the site of a fishing village known as Byzantium which he named for himself, Constantinople. The city was built on the Strait of the Bosporus, which links the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmora, and beyond to the eastern Mediterranean. By 340 C.E., Constantinople was the capital of a united Roman Empire.

Constantine faced the same difficulties as Diocletian with a declining population and a contracting economy. It became increasingly difficult to find the necessary resources to both govern and protect the Empire. During the fourth and fifth centuries, the need for protection from invading forces became critical.

The Germanic Invasions: Barbarian tribes had moved into the area as much as 150 years before. Had Rome been at its full strength, these tribes would have been a pushover for the Romans; but because of the decay of the society as a whole, this great civilization was unable to defend itself. It was like a sick old man, easy prey.

Barbarian was the term the Romans adapted from the Greeks, who said that people who spoke a foreign tongue sounded like the noise of sheep.

Among the tribes:

Goths: Western Goths called Ostrogoths; Eastern Goths called Visigoths. Franks: For whom France is named. Vandals: They were particularly bad about pillaging and destroying; hence our term vandalism. All of these people were farmers; they usually had small farms and villages which they worked. As their numbers grew, and as they found themselves forced westward, they gradually moved into Roman territory. They also were Christians, but a different form of Christianity than that practiced in Rome; theirs was the type that the Roman Church would have considered heretical; but they were Christian, none the less.

The Visigoths drew much inspiration from the Romans, and after they had settled and adopted agriculture, they adapted Roman law, translated the Bible into their language, and contributed large numbers of soldiers to the Roman army. The Romans discouraged them from settling within the Empire, however, in the interest of maintaining social order.

There were several others. All were being pushed ahead by a tribe that fought with them, who were the worst; perhaps the fiercest of them all, and these were the Huns. The Huns were a nomadic Mongolian people, who spoke a Turkish tongue. And were probably related to the Xiongnu who had occupied the Asian steppes west of China. In the fifth century, C.E., they were led by Attila, a warrior king who organized them into an unstoppable military force. He was particularly fierce; The Huns used to drink a liquor made from fermented mare's milk; and often ate raw horsemeat which they "heated" by placing it between their thighs and the horse.

In the year 410 A.D. the Visigothic King, Alaric was running away from the Huns, and tempted by Roman Wealth, attacked and sacked Rome itself. In 450 A.D. the Vandals crossed over from North Africa and attacked Rome also. These attacks did not destroy Rome, but severely weakened it. Rome managed to keep the Huns away by paying them tribute; huge amounts of Gold. This just cost more money; the Romans had to raise taxes to pay the tribute.
At one point Attila attacked Rome itself; and would have destroyed it; but the City had been stricken with a plague The Pope met with Attila, and managed to persuade him to stay away because of disease. They would have attacked it again, if circumstances had not intervened. The only thing that saved Rome from the Huns was that Attila died suddenly, and the Huns retired to elect a new leader.

Attila died on his wedding night. (It was his fifth wife, and he was well into his fifties). He had engaged in a round of heavy drinking, passed out, and apparently suffered a nose bleed in his sleep while unconscious, and choked on his own blood. He was buried with five of his horses.


In 455 the Vandals sacked Rome. This attack was particularly vicious. The Huns themselves invaded the Empire, and attacked Rome itself. These were Germanic people from the East who were migrating West. The Romans had fought with them for many years, and had managed to keep them under control. With Civil war in Rome, the Roman legions were not only unable to hold them off; they actually recruited Germanic soldiers to fight for them in a mercenary sense. They allowed them to settle inside the Empire, but tended to treat them cruelly.

Over time, the Germanic tribes grew stronger, and their demands increased. Finally, in 476 A.D., an Ostrogothic King, Odoacher, forced the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, a feeble minded teenage boy to abdicate. He forwarded a message to the Emperor in the Eastern Empire that he was now the sole Roman Emperor. At that point, the Western Roman Empire was at an end.

The Germanic tribes who had moved into the Empire had established settlements throughout the Empire, and gradually moved about at will. Roman authority dissolved, and the nomadic people built successor states in regions that were formerly subject to Roman control. Vandals and later Visigoths moved into Spain. Franks moved into Gaul, from which it was later named France. Tribes known as Angles and Saxons as well as Jutes (from Jutland in Scandinavia) invaded the Roman province of Britannia. It later was known as "Anglaland" (England.) Visigoths, Vandals, and Lombards moved into Italy.

Cultural Changes in the Late Roman Empire: The Germanic tribes who moved into the old Roman Empire adapted Roman law, thereby preserving one of the most important features of Roman society. The mingling of Roman and Germanic traditions led to the birth of the Medieval age in Europe.

Christianity was the most prominent survivor of the Empire. The religion had been legalized by Constantine; but in 380 C.E., the emperor Theodosius had proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. (NOTE: This was almost one hundred years before the abdication of the last Roman Emperor.) By the middle of the fourth century, Christians held important positions Imperial favor helped win an enormous number of converts.

Over time, Christianity attracted converts who were articulate and delivered the message to the intellectuals of the Empire. Earlier Christians had been mostly poor, as it had been to them that the religion appealed. Many philosophers and educated people considered it unsophisticated and unbelievable. As it grew and reasoned doctrines developed, the intellectual elite took more of an interest in it.

Among the most important of these was St. Augustine of Hippo, who had belonged to a Manichaean community but became disillusioned with it. He converted to Christianity while studying in Italy and for the remainder of his life, worked to reconcile Christianity with Greek and Roman philosophical traditions, especially the Platonists. His writings made Christianity an intellectually respectable alternative to Hellenistic philosophy and other religions of salvation. His most famous work was The City of God, in which he attempted to explain the meaning of history and the world from a Christian point of view.

Tremendous differences in interpretation of doctrine occurred in the early church. Intense debate centered on the nature of Jesus, was he God, man, or God and Man. The role of women in the church was also a matter of great debate. To standardize belief, the early Church established five religious authorities: the bishop of Rome and the patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Each presumably had the same authority as the others; however the Bishop of Rome gained more prestige than the others, as he claimed to be the spiritual descendant of St. Peter, and since he sat at Rome, the original imperial capital. Beneath the five authorities were bishops who presided over districts known as dioceses, which included all the prominent cities of the old Roman Empire. Church councils were assembled to settle disputes and determine which doctrines would prevail. Among the more important were the council of Nicaea, (325) and Chalcedon, which determined that Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time. Some splinter groups, such as the Nestorians and Arians (whom many German tribes had followed) held that Jesus was either one or the other, but not both. The Council of Nicaea was largely responsible for determining the books which would be included in the Holy Bible, and also set the formula by which date for the celebration of Easter would be determined.

Eventually, the Bishop of Rome became the spiritual leader of the western regions of the empire. He was called the Pope, for the Latin papa, meaning "father." Although the Roman Empire crumbled and faded away, Roman Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic Church (the word "Catholic" means "universal") provided the foundation for cultural unity in former Roman lands.