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Rome Before the Fall

The Roman Empire of the fourth century AD extended entirely around the basin of the Mediterranean Sea, including modern Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and North Africa. Modern France (called Gaul) and modern Spain and Portugal (Iberia) were entirely Roman. Modern England was Roman, but modern Scotland and Ireland were barbarian (non-Roman, or noncivilized). The northern borders of the empire were the Rhine and Danube Rivers. The lands north of these rivers were occupied by a variety of tribes of Scandinavian origin that the Romans called the Germans.

Rome was engaged in border skirmishes with the tribes north of the great European rivers. Strong emperors occasionally extended the empire over the rivers while weak emperors tended to lose those lands. The largest organized rival of the Romans was the Persian Empire to the east, occupying modern Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Persians were the political descendants of the Parthians who had revolted away from Greek rule following Alexander's conquests and thereafter resisted successfully Roman invasions.

The Romans had existed as an important power for over 1000 years. They had brought stability, prosperity, and order to the civilized West. Excellent roads connected the far reaches of the empire with the capital at Rome. These were built originally for military purposes but improved all communications and trade. Roman law kept the internal peace and 20 to 30 Roman legions defended the frontiers.

All was not perfect, however. Emperors held absolute authority. This worked well with good emperors, but incompetent ones could do great harm. The rules for succession to the throne were never clear, and debilitating civil wars often resulted. The bureaucracy that managed the empire on a daily basis grew more corrupt, increasing the dissatisfaction of the common citizen. The wealth of the empire gradually concentrated in the hands of a minority while a large slave population did most of the work. The borders of the empire were immense and put a strain on military resources (500,000 soldiers defended a frontier that required 3 million or more to be secure). Roman conquests had ceased in the second century AD, bringing an end to massive inflows of plunder and slaves. Taxes increased and production fell as the workforce declined. A plague may have killed 20 percent of the empire's population in the third and fourth centuries, further reducing trade and production.

In the late third century, the Roman Empire was split into eastern and western halves in an attempt to make for easier rule and better control. In 323 Constantine became emperor after a civil war and established his eastern capital at Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. During the next century the eastern and western parts of the empire gradually established separate identities, although nominally the same empire. These identities were partially due to the different pressures brought to bear on them from the outside and the local culture. The Western Empire was predominately Latin; the Eastern Empire was predominately Greek (although they referred to themselves as Romans). The Eastern Empire survived the cataclysm of the third and fourth centuries because it had a larger population (70 percent of the empire's total), better emperors, more money, and a far better army and navy.

Barbarian Invaders

Around the year 200 AD, nomadic tribes on the great grass steppes of Central Asia began migrating toward China, India, Persia, and Europe. The reasons for this migration are not fully understood. The largest group of nomads was the Huns. Their small stature and small ponies belied a fierce and determined ruthlessness. They terrified other tribes they encountered in their migrations, causing something like a domino effect. Moving west, the Huns displaced the Goths living northwest of the Black Sea, for example, who pushed south over the Danube into the Balkans lands ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire. More Huns moved toward the German plains, encouraging other Germanic tribes to cross the Rhine.

The Western Roman Empire was already weakened by this time from sporadic raids and invasions across the Rhine and Danube. Germanic tribes with growing populations coveted the sparsely occupied lands in Gaul and the benefits of being within the Roman Empire. By 400 the Roman army was already 30 to 50 percent German mercenaries. In desperation, some barbarian groups were enlisted into the Roman army as entire units to help defend against other groups. This was especially popular during civil wars of the fourth century, when pretenders to the throne in Rome needed to raise armies quickly. These barbarian units did not have the loyalty and discipline of the legions and kept their own leaders. This stopgap measure backfired when whole barbarian armies revolted. The Rhine and Danube frontiers dissolved and Germanic tribes moved into Gaul, the Balkans, and even Italy itself. The fighting was nearly incessant along the shrinking frontier and the number of loyal Roman troops continually diminished.

The last legions in Britain were withdrawn for service in Gaul in 410, abandoning that province forever. Saxon raids increased and became actual invasions. The Jutes, Frisians, and Angles, other Germanic tribes from the north German coast, joined the Saxons. Together they overwhelmed the Romano-British culture and took possession of what is today England (Angle-land).

The Eastern Roman Empire suffered through the loss of most of the Balkans but was able to deflect or bribe the barbarians before they could attack Constantinople. The invaders in this area were the Goths, who had become much more civilized through their contact with the Eastern Empire than had the Germanic tribes along the Rhine. The Goths came as settlers primarily, not conquerors.

During the fifth century Rome was sacked several times and the Western Empire ceased to exist effectively. Italy was repeatedly invaded and ravaged. In 476 the last recognized Roman emperor was killed. Italy and the old Roman Empire were now occupied by Germanic tribes. Despite a general wish by the barbarians to preserve the stability and order of the past Roman civilization, only vestiges of it survived the turmoil and devastation that followed the invasions. Most of Europe fell back into a much more primitive and barbaric period.

The Dark Ages

Following the fall of Rome, western Europe entered what has been called the Dark Ages. This name was applied partially because so much of the Roman civilization was destroyed and replaced by a more barbaric culture. The name was used also because so little written history survived from the period that shed light on the events that took place.


The predominant economic and political structure of the Middle Ages was feudalism. This system evolved in response to a breakdown in central authority and a rise in social chaos following the end of Roman rule. A hierarchy of strongmen in allegiance replaced the Roman system of emperor, senate, province, city, and town.

The Crusades

Making pilgrimages to holy sites had been a popular activity for European Christians for centuries. There were important religious centers in Europe but the most important site was the Holy Land in Palestine. The rise of the Seljuk Turks made travel to Jerusalem and other Middle Eastern locales suddenly much more dangerous. The Turks had little use for non-Muslims and ended the relatively peaceful relations between the Arabs and Christians. At the same time, the Turks put tremendous pressure on the Byzantines by capturing the valuable lands in Asia Minor. As a result, Pope Urban called for a Crusade by Christian warriors to recapture Palestine from the Muslims.

The call for a Crusade electrified the knights of Europe. They were strong believers, and the pope promised a heavenly reward for those who died in the cause. Of equal or greater importance was the opportunity to grab land and wealth abroad, rather than continuing to squabble with relatives and neighbors at home.

By 1097, an army of 30,000, including many pilgrims and camp followers, had crossed into Asia Minor from Constantinople. Despite feuding among the leaders and broken promises between the Crusaders and their Byzantine supporters, the Crusade stumbled forward. The Turks were just as disorganized, or more so. The Frankish heavy knights and infantry had no experience fighting the Arab light cavalry and archers, and vice versa. The endurance and strength of the knights won the campaign over a series of often very close victories. Antioch was captured through treachery in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099 by assault against a weak garrison. The Christians debased themselves after both victories by slaughtering many of the residents regardless of age, faith, or gender. Many of the Crusaders returned home, but a hardy band remained to set up feudal kingdoms similar to those in Europe.

The Crusader rulers of Palestine were greatly outnumbered by the Muslim population they attempted to control, so they built castles and hired mercenary troops to hold them. The culture and religion of the Franks was too alien to win over the residents of the area, however. From their secure castle bases, the Crusaders struck out to intercept raiding Arabs. For about a century the two sides engaged in a classic guerrilla war. The Frankish knights were powerful but slow. The Arabs could not stand up to charges by the heavy cavalry but could ride circles around them, hoping to disable their units and catch them in ambushes in the desert. The Crusader kingdoms kept mainly to the coast, from which they could get supplies and reinforcements, but the constant raids and unhappy populace meant they were not an economic success.

Orders of Christian warrior monks were formed to fight for the Holy Lands. The Knights Templar and Hospitillar were mainly Frankish. The Teutonic Knights were German. These were the fiercest and most determined of the Crusaders, but there were never enough of them to make the region secure.

The Crusader kingdoms survived for a while in part because they learned to negotiate, compromise, and play the different Arab groups off against each other. A great Arab leader appeared, however, who united the various Islamic groups. Saladin became Sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1174. In 1187 he won a great victory over the Crusaders in the desert and recaptured Jerusalem.

For another century the Europeans made several attempts to reassert control over the Holy Land and Jerusalem, with only a rare temporary success. Eight more Crusades followed and most failed to do more than get ashore and make some progress inland before being pushed back. The Fourth Crusade did not even reach Palestine. Under the guidance of the Doge of Venice, they sacked Constantinople instead, a blow from which the Byzantines never recovered. One of the worst Crusades was a Children's Crusade launched in 1212. Several thousand European children got as far as Alexandria in Egypt, where they were sold into slavery.

The legacy of the Crusades included a new hostility between Christians and Muslims, a deterioration of the feudal system, and exposure to new cultures. Feudalism declined because many lords went bankrupt, leaving their lands to their kings. Many serfs became Crusaders and never returned. New words entered the European languages, such as cotton, muslin, divan, and bazaar. Europeans brought back new textiles, foods, and spices. Demand back home for these new goods increased trade and contributed to the growth of the Italian trading city-states, especially Genoa and Venice. This demand was also the impetus for the great age of discovery that began in fourteenth century. Treasure brought home increased the local money supplies, aiding economic growth.

The Late Middle Ages 

The Dark Ages witnessed widespread disruption throughout Europe and the replacement of the previously predominant Roman culture with Germanic tribal culture. For 500 years Europe had suffered repeatedly from invasion and war. The life of the average peasant was rarely affected, however, and social stability and culture gradually recovered, although in new formats. By roughly the year 1000, Europeans were creating a new medieval civilization that surpassed the ancients in almost every way.

The Renaissance

Beginning in fourteenth-century Italy, Europe went through a transition over 400 years from medieval to modern times known today as the Renaissance, meaning a "rebirth" or "revival." The Renaissance is a nebulous concept for which there is no clear beginning or end. It does, however, usefully mark the complete recovery from the barbarism of the Dark Ages to the new advancement in all fields that transcended the achievements of the great ancient civilizations.

Many different factors at work in the Middle Ages contributed to this revival and new advancement. One was the renewed interest in learning. The first college at Oxford University was founded in 1264. By 1400 there were more than 50 universities in Europe. Education and debate were stimulated by access to ancient texts preserved by the Arabs and freshly translated into Latin. Europeans had made contact with the Arabs in the Holy Land, in Sicily, and in Spain. The rediscovered works of the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, for example, became the standard for teaching mathematics into the nineteenth century. The Arabs also transmitted a new system for numbers, the concept of the decimal point, and the concept of zero, all invented in India. The spread of learning accelerated rapidly following the invention of the printing press around 1450.

A second factor was the rising standard of living, especially in the great commercial cities of Italy. The Crusades had opened European eyes to the wealth of the East, especially silks, spices, and cotton. The merchants of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and other cities came to dominate the trade between Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. With the excess wealth they accumulated in business, these merchants began embellishing their homes and cities with art. Sculpture, painting, architecture, music, poetry, and literature found new expression, exhibiting an interest in subjects beyond the religious themes that dominated previously in the Middle Ages. Popular depictions of everyday life, romance, and adventure revealed that European culture was becoming more humanistic and less focused on religion.

The revival was also due to technological progress that led to more efficient production of goods and services. Manufacturing, farming, and trade all improved past the abilities of the ancients. The drive for profits encouraged inventiveness and exploration. A middle class of merchants and craftsmen began grasping political power commensurate with their economic power, at the expense of a declining nobility.

By roughly 1500 the nations of Europe were leading the world in many important technologies. Energies unleashed by the exploration of the world, the search for trade routes, the Protestant Reformation, and continued political competition in Europe itself would make Europe the dominant region of the world within a few centuries.