In the modern world, nation-states, empires, and civilizations are often compared to and judged by the perceived success of Roman culture. There is no doubt that Roman culture was successful and enduring, which has contributed to make Rome the “gold standard” by which most other societies are judged. In terms of longevity, few societies can beat Rome as the Roman Republic began in 509 BC and continued for nearly 500 years before transitioning into the Roman Empire, which saw its last western emperor abdicate his throne in AD 479. Rome is also admired today for its apparent modernity in the ancient world: the Romans brought to the world running water, concrete and a complex system of roads, republican government, and organized sports. Truly, among all the ancient peoples there is no doubt the Romans were the most “modern.” But perhaps just as intriguing as Rome’s longevity and modernity was its collapse.
The collapse of the Roman Empire has been the subject of immense interest among both professional scholars and lay people alike since Edward Gibbon’s multi-volume work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1789. In that monumental tome, Gibbon primarily attributed Rome’s decline to internal weakness and its citizens’ conversion from their native Indo-European religion to Christianity. Since Gibbon, countless books and academic articles have been written about the decline of Rome with several theories being advanced including: excessive immigration, slavery, the decline of the Roman family, and the use of lead pipes in aqueducts.
Today, most experts of Hellenic Civilization, which includes Rome, contend that Rome’s collapse was the result of several factors that combined to create a “perfect storm” of civilizational destruction. Some past scholars of “big history,” such as Oswald Spengler and to a lesser extent, Arnold Toynbee, have even argued that Rome’s downfall was unavoidable. But among all the factors that contributed to Rome’s ultimate demise, the economic factors are often overlooked. In particular, the role of inflation, which many believe to be endemic only in modern economies, played a fairly significant role that ultimately contributed to internal problems within Rome. Once the Roman economy was hopelessly ravaged by inflation, the borders of the empire were open for the Huns, Goths, and Vandals to take what they wanted.