I recently watched the whole of Stefan Molyneux’s two-and-a-half hour lecture on the fall of Rome and the parallels to modern times.
It is definitely required viewing. Molyneux offers a well researched, information packed video that explains and contextualizes huge swaths of history.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I have a deep interest in Roman (and Byzantine) History. That said, when I first saw the video listed I was wary to watch it. Usually these sorts of analyses make fundamental flaws on the history. Fortunately, Molyneux didn’t make these kinds of mistakes and made the video enjoyable to watch.
Molyneux’s conclusion, in the nutshell, is that culture within the empire became tribal and the people within preferred local rule to Imperial rule. I’d largely agree.
In fact, there are a few points where I think Molyneux left support of his argument on the table.
During the Crisis of the Third Century the Roman Empire broke up into three parts as it faced three concurrent attacks across the Rhine, Danube and Tigris. A decade later, The Roman Empire was reunited and continued on for another century, weaker than it had been, but still politically united.
Also, following the fall of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire was able to reassert dominance over the parts of the West which were still culturally Roman, specifically Italy, Africa and part of Spain.
The areas which were settled by Saxons, Franks and Visigoths (Britain, France, Spain) weren’t interested in coming under the fold. (NB: the Franks de jure, but definitely not de facto, acknowledged the rule of the Emperor in Constantinople)
This large, but still somewhat rump empire lasted until the Arab invasions, when the Roman Empire was reduced to the Balkans and Anatolia. That’s why I usually put the date of the fall of the Roman Empire to the Battle of Yarmouk.
In addition to this main point, the things that led to the dissatisfaction of the Roman people with their Imperial government are incredibly well-documented by Molyneux. These are important because it helps to understand how and why things started to break down in the first place. The Fall of Rome took 300+ years, but it happened nevertheless.
Towards the end of the time period known as the Five Good Emperors, things began to get worse for the Romans. First a disaster would happen, and the recovery wouldn’t be all of the way to where they had been before. The recoveries slowly instituted feudalism in Europe and paved the way from Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages.
I don’t blame Molyneux for not mentioning all of the individual things that added up to the fall, that would muddy his overarching point: that once things tipped for the Roman Empire, it was just a matter of waiting until the cultural cohesion of the Empire was no more.
I think two things ought to be mentioned that went unaddressed in the video, that aren’t very informative to modern readers, but were key contributors to the fall of Rome.
The first is that with a static frontier and trade between tribal nations and the Empire, tribal nations were able to improve their station greatly over the course of four centuries. When Caesar invaded Gaul he faced unarmored warriors armed with iron against the armor and steel of the legions; the Germanic tribes that came later used steel and had equipment nearly as good as the Romans. That’s a result of the vast disparity equalizing over centuries of relative stability. Civilizational osmosis as one might call it.
The second is that when Rome started to decline it was alongside two horrific plagues. Starting with the Antonine Plague (probably smallpox or measles), The Roman Empire would lose one-third of its population, then 15 years later, twenty-five percent. This obviously drastically decreased Roman manpower and economic output. Seventy years later, the Cyprian Plague (probably smallpox) hit, wiping out Roman populations for another twenty years. This depopulated Britain, Spain and France and allowed barbarians, unaffected by these plagues, to move in without displacing anyone.
These two effects contributed greatly to the ultimate fall of the Empire. Nevertheless, Molyneux’s point remains correct: the people living in the Roman Empire stopped being culturally united and so when local rule became necessary, the bonds within the empire broke down.
All in all, I can definitely say this is a must-watch video for anyone who looks to better educate themselves about the world. It is a long video, but it is definitely an important one.