back to top

The Decline And Fall Of The Western Roman Empire, Explained By Minions

This is a complex issue, and therefore Minions should explain it.

Posted on

In 117 AD, the Roman Empire reached its greatest geographic extent, spanning 5 million square kilometres and enjoying unprecendented economic and cultural supremacy across Europe, Africa and Asia.

Its vast population was enjoying the spoils of trade from across the known world, spectacular civic projects and the protection of one of the most effective armies the world had ever seen.


But the impact of this campaign was significant. In 235 AD Emperor Alexander Severus had been deposed as a direct result of his focus on the Sassanid threat, instead of that from German barbarians.

The protracted conflict was also expensive, and lower tax revenue due to a continually debased currency meant it could not be shared among everyone. In the end, the army got the bulk of it.


As a result, over the course of decades, people began to leave the cities to practise subsistence agriculture, further stripping the empire of its income, and the cities of their population.

Diocletian, the emperor to end the war with the Sassanid Empire, brought some stability. He split the Roman Empire into four parts, with four rulers, to create the Tetrarchy.


These financial struggles meant spending on the Roman army, which had succeeded based on its dedication to a discipline and uniformity, was becoming harder to justify.

Tribes providing troops, from both within the empire and outside it, had significantly enhanced their military ability and economic freedom simply due to their proximity to the Romans.


Corruption had always been endemic but now tax revenues were lower than ever. This lack of funds forced the empire to reduce the size of the army, leaving the military completely ineffective.

Civil wars began again, with emperors being deposed regularly, while the loyalty felt to individual generals allowed them to use their armies to fight for their own interests.

The combination of a more effective barbarian fighting force, and an empire weakened from the inside, meant they were able to transform Roman territories into independent cities.

At this point, the lack of control and long-distance adminstration options meant large operations failed repeatedly - Africa, Carthage, more of Gaul and German territories were all lost over the next three decades.

In the last years of the empire, emperors were little more than puppets, agreeing to the demands of German warlords under threat from their much larger armies.

Note: This is one interpretation of events - there are many. This version primarily uses Peter Heather's, The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005) and Bryan Ward-Perkins's The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005).

Every. Tasty. Video. EVER. The new Tasty app is here!