The decline and fall of the Roman Empire

I've re-listening to a series of lectures by Professor Philip Daileader on late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Viola hasn't been that into them, she just reads her flip books while I stream them over the car stereo.

As anyone who has known me for a while can attest, I have an obsession with Latin and Romance languages, and I love piecing together the whole history of the transformation of Latin into its descendant languages. This process happened during late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, so one starting point is to look at what happened that caused the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The whole lecture series is amazing, but to be brief, according to Daileader, the question needs to be properly phrased as, "Why did the western half of the Roman Empire Fall and not the eastern half?" We must ultimately reject Edward Gibbons's famous hypothesis that it was the corrosive nature of Christianity on the civic life. The reason we re-phrase the question is because the eastern half, what we now call the Byzantine Empire, went on strong for a long time after 476, only ultimately succumbing to the Turks in 1452. That's quite a run for a Christian Roman Empire!

The barbarian invasions also were serious blows to the West, but they are in the end symptoms of deeper problem. The west had been experiencing serious urban decay since at least the first or second century (according to archeologists), and once Diocletian separated the two halves of the Empire, the poorer, less populated, already under urbanized West was very susceptible to outside pressures like barbarians crossing the Rhine and Danube rivers and could no longer rely on the wealth of the East to help defend their frontier.

The East also suffered this effect, but they started off with more people, more cities, more trade and commerce (and thus tax wealth), and importantly a smaller frontier with the barbarians. This is why the barbarian kingdoms of the early middle ages never reach out of the Balkans. They moved west because the Byzantines were able to defend their frontiers and it was easier to carve up the under-funded West.

Why the de-population began is a still under debate. Contemporaries believed that everyone was just moving out of the cities, but the archeological record proves that the countryside was dwindling in population as well. The best guess we have right now is epidemiological. Smallpox may have been just arriving from China at this time, and the bubonic plague has a famous history in the Late Middle Ages. It may have gained a foothold centuries earlier.

By the year 1000, Western Europe is looking decidedly Medieval. The nascent states of France and Germany are stepping out of the Carolingian period. Knights are donning their armor and saddling up on war horses. William the Conqueror is about to sail across the English channel and alter the history of England and bring it to the fore of Continental political and cultural life.

And Latin as a spoken language is dead. Everyone is instead speaking French, Italian, Provençal, Catalan, Rhaetian, Rumanian, and Castillian. Why this is so is fascinating to me. Even though I speak English, I can't read Beowulf, which was written in English. It would be easier for a modern Spanish speaker to read Julius Caesar, and substantially more time separates them than from me to Beowulf.

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