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The Consequences Of The Fall Of

The consequences of the fall of Rome are evident in the European system as we understand it today, as the Empire’s ‘institutions survived in name ’. There are three key aspects of the European system that can be attributed to the legacy of the Roman Empire, all of which relate to one common factor: Christianity, namely Catholicism. It is important to evaluate the fall of the Roman Empire and its broader significance first in the context of Watson’s spectrum and pendulum, as well as the subsequent ‘Dark Ages’ that followed the empire’s fall. Moreover, the rise of Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire respectively are a fundamental component of the long-term consequences of the fall of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, the role of the Papacy was intrinsic to the development of the view of religious legitimacy informing political legitimacy as it came to be viewed in the European system as well. It is clear, then, that the chief consequence of the fall of the Roman Empire was the enduring and expanding nature of its Christianity.

Adam Watson’s spectrum and pendulum accounts for the development, evolution and fall of the Roman Empire. Watson provides a spectrum and pendulum upon which the various states of political entities can be ‘mapped out’ throughout history in a bid to ascertain the organization and balance of power within an entity at a given time ; it is important to note that Watson’s spectrum and pendulum is not intended to give an infallible interpretation of the status of a political entity, but rather to demonstrate its fluidity and ‘swings’ to any point on the pendulum depending on the conditions under which the entity operates. Security, stability and legitimacy are key determinants in the positioning of a political entity on the spectrum and whether an entity’s position will shift, and so the loss of any of these factors in the Roman Empire had undoubted consequences not only for the Empire itself, but for the European system that developed in the centuries after its fall. Arguably as a result of factors such as imperial overstretch and a lack of communication between Rome’s imperial centre and its peripheral territories, what emerged from the Fall of Rome was a division of the empire into east and west. In the east, the Byzantine Empire adopted Greek Orthodoxy, and in the west the Western Roman Empire retreated to paganism whilst also maintaining Roman Catholicism, until the Empire’s eventual demise in 476AD; it was this continued presence of Roman Catholicism that carried into what is now referred to as Western Europe. Watson suggests that Byzantine’s influence and legitimacy is rooted in its Greek Orthodoxy, proposing that the marriage of faith and political power in their emperor Basileus, who was also considered the leader of the Church, meant that religion and political authority operated somewhat symbiotically to consolidate not only the emperor’s control, but the legitimacy of the Empire as a whole, just as Roman Catholicism had done in the Roman Empire at a point in time . The significance of this is that, of course, Orthodox Christianity is still prevalent in the European system today, in particular ‘inherited by Russia…still in some ways [colouring] the outlook of the Russians on the world ’. Catholicism, too, is not only religiously significant but culturally as well, permeating many facets of European life and history, as the universal ‘Latin-speaking Church, directed from Rome, was the most specific survival of the lost imperium, and transmitted a sense of universality and common membership to all Latin Christendom ’. Catholicism emerged as a dominating sect of Christianity earlier than Orthodoxy did, as ‘the Bishop of Rome put himself in a position to be recognized as the supreme Patriarch, “the Pope” ’. The power of the Papacy as its own entity has been repeatedly consolidated throughout history, from the Renaissance period to its position as an obstacle to Italian Unification in the 19th century. The Pope, and by consequence the Catholic church, had a monopoly on knowledge through its power to censor and manipulate information, as well as informing various aspects of civilian life, including culture. The role of the Papacy will be further explored throughout the rest of this essay.

Despite the continued legacy of Catholicism and Orthodoxy following the Fall of Rome, this was insufficient to sustain the survival of the Western Roman Empire, as its fall ‘was directly the result of military conquests by barbarian forces ’, which in turn led to imperial overstretch and an exhaustion of material and financial resources, as well as military power . It has been argued that despite the Roman Empire’s breakthroughs in infrastructure, health, sanitation and other things of the like, these pioneering efforts were mitigated once Western Europe descended into an unstable period that is referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’, thus ‘[falling] to the onrush of barbarism ’ that had led to the Fall of Rome in the first place. Despite Rome’s innovation in buildings and infrastructure, people reverted back to paganism and a feudal manner of living, as well as undermining Roman efforts to increase education; literacy rates plummeted once it was no longer compulsory to pursue an education as it had been in Rome.

Western European monarchies developed from the influx of barbarism and tribal-like in-fighting that existed during the ‘Dark Ages’, the most notable repercussion of this being the crowning of Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. This was a turning point in the consolidation of the union between European monarchies (and political institutions) and religious authority; from the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor came a shift in the Dark Ages from an independent system to that of a suzerain nature, given that the Church and Charlemagne ‘pooled’ their sovereignty to maximize their authority altogether; this aligns with Watson’s aforementioned view that legitimacy is a key factor in the sustainability of a political entity’s position on his spectrum and pendulum. By consequence of this newly formed union, feudalism gained prominence as an economic system that continued in European nations such as Russia until the 20th century. This relates to the Fall of Rome as a key feature of its legacy was the survival and growth of Catholicism, which played a role in the development of the European system despite Catholicism’s decline during the Dark Ages due to the Holy Roman Empire’s restoration of the Church’s prominence alongside Charlemagne , leading to ‘the population [remaining] or [becoming]…Catholic…organized and represented by the administrative machinery of the Catholic Church ’. This continued in the medieval period, where ‘the nobility shared the government of medieval Christendom with the Church ’. Thus, Roman Catholicism undoubtedly played an intrinsic part in the evolution of the European system as we understand it today.

The role of Christianity in the development of the European system is also evident when looking at the Crusades as a key case study. Pope Gelasius acknowledged in 494AD that “the two powers by which this world is chiefly ruled” are “the sacred authority of the clergy and the imperial power” . The Crusades, started by Pope Urban II in 1095 were ‘proclaimed by the pope, preached and organized by the clergy…open to all Christians…not a matter for unilateral decisions by a lay ruler for its own advantage ’. The impact of the Crusades on the European system was the establishment of what came to be the feudal system that became an indefinite fixture of society in the medieval period and for years to come. Moreover, the Crusades not only led to the movement of trade and materials, but also opened the floodgates to an influx of new knowledge that had not reached the region prior. Thus, the Christian crusades, a result of the continuation of Catholicism and Orthodoxy following the fall of Rome, had a fundamental role in shaping European society as we currently know it to be.

It is evident, then, that the key consequence of the fall of the Roman Empire was the continuation and spread of Christianity, namely Catholicism and the Orthodoxy. Christianity evolved and gained increasing significance as it developed not only as a religious force, but a fundamental vessel for political authority, legitimacy and change. Watson’s spectrum and pendulum effectively accounts for Rome’s growth from an independent ‘city-state’ to an empire, as well as the region’s shifts following the Empire’s collapse, such as when the Papacy and Charlemagne together formed a suzerain form of rule. The Dark Ages were another key consequence of the Fall of Rome that saw many of the Empire’s breakthroughs devolve, whilst the Latin language remained prevalent. Arguably the most important act that Rome’s legacy of Christianity fulfilled was the Crusades, which served as a trade and informational breakthrough that ultimately led to the formulation of various facets of the European system throughout the centuries that followed it. It is clear, therefore, that the Roman Empire (and later Byzantium’s) development and acceptance of Christianity had undoubted consequences on the religious, cultural and political atmosphere that led to the modern European System, making the regional split and rise of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy arguably the greatest ‘consequences’ of the Fall of Rome, as the Empire came to be seen in retrospect as ‘the cradle of Europe and Christianity ’.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.