The Meaning of the Middle Ages
The Romans made treaties with certain German chieftains, allowing them to cross the river and become mercenary allies (called federates later in the fourth century) who fought to defend Rome against their own kinsmen. This was not an ideal arrangement, but it worked fairly well for two or three hundred years. The Romans never had as many soldiers as they needed, and as the population declined they relied more and more on German mercenaries. In 200 A.D. the proportion of Germans in the army may have been 5 to 10 per cent; in 400 A.D. it was perhaps somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent.
There was a serious shortage of officers, too, and in the later Empire they often were promoted from the ranks. (Constantine's father, for example, was a Balkan peasant who worked all the way up to assistant emperor.) These officers were able men, by and large, but they were Balkan peasants or Germans who had spent their entire lives in the army. They lacked education or training in the Roman traditions, and their loyalty was more likely to be directed toward the army itself than the Roman state. They served in the army to advance themselves, and if they were not successful they were apt to become dangerous. Certainly Vergil, or Cicero, or Livy meant little or nothing to these officers; they had no training in citizenship or devotion to the state. When it came to a crisis, the men on whom Rome depended (because of its system of recruitment) knew and cared nothing of Roman history, law, or tradition.
Like most empires, the Roman Empire required vast quantities of men and money simply for defense. It had an incredibly long frontier with few natural defenses (the Rhine-Danube system was a natural defense, but not a very good one—it could be crossed). The Empire stretched from Scotland to Central Asia, and from Austria into the Sahara—a fantastic extent. The Roman frontier was so long and open that three to five million men would have been necessary for a secure defense—and there were only fifty million citizens of the Empire. It might have been possible, in a society like the Republic as described by Livy, to mount such a defense, but the Romans of the Empire were not interested in joining the army. The old Roman aristocracy enjoyed fighting, but their descendants—and the other classes in society—did not.
The Roman army was chronically understaffed, and its leaders continually faced the problem of where their men might be most effective. The so-called military reforms of Constantine and Diocletian (early fourth century) were in a sense confessions of failure, for many legions were withdrawn from the frontier and stationed in central places from which they could move into trouble spots as these appeared. The Romans abandoned the stationary defense (which tney could not manage) for a more mobile policy. It was a good idea, but communications and transportation were not fast enough to move men to a battle before it was well under way if not over. At the Battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D., the first defeat of Rome by Germans, the emperor waited for reinforcements until he became impatient enough to go ahead without them and was killed and defeated. That battle was critical even though it settled nothing politically, because it showed the Germans that Romans were not invincible. Any German tribe, or volk, was tiny in comparison to Rome (perhaps 20,000 men at most), but even 20,000 men was more than Rome could usually put into the field at any one place or time. The Empire was not necessarily a hollow husk, but it was fatally unable to adjust its military system (in recruitment, tactics, and organization) to meet new challenges and changed circumstances.
There is one factor in the fall of Rome which is often overlooked or misunderstood, and that is the extent to which the Empire was ever a genuine unity. In the beginning, certainly, imperial unity was artificial, and in many ways this remained true to the end. The Romans were vicious, aggressive conquerors, but as rulers they were fairly beneficent—of necessity: they had neither the men nor the materials to run an oppressive regime. In the first two centuries A.D. the Roman rulers demanded very little of the conquered people. Taxes were extremely low (almost negligible); there was no real economic control or interference; the cities had self-government; people were allowed to speak their own languages and worship their own gods as long as they worshipped the emperor too (and here the Jews got into trouble). With only a few thousand aristocrats to govern its Empire, Rome could not establish the kind of stern, oppressive system that could enforce heavy demands. Individual aristocrats made large private fortunes out of the business of government, but they did so in an Empire which was not much more than a superficial political unity imposed upon the old Mediterranean variety of cultures, societies, and economies.
After 200 A.D., when the Empire began to get into economic and military trouble, the Romans began to demand much more. Heavy taxes were levied, and the emperor decided to put an end to local autonomy, partly in order to get more money out of the cities. Economic controls, such as Diocletian's edict on prices, were very unpopular. A tough, centralized administration was attempted and although this was never very successful (due to a primitive communications system), it was totalitarian in spirit if not in practice. Finally, when fanatic Christian bishops convinced the emperors in the late fourth century that there was only one true religion and all others must be proscribed, the Empire began to try to control thought. In the end, Roman Catholicism alone could be practiced in the West and Greek Orthodoxy in the East, and there was an end to freedom of religion and culture.
The new controls made people extremely restless and unhappy; they began to wonder what they were getting in return for their money and their loyalty (if any). The Empire was no longer providing protection in return for negligible taxes and a token allegiance; it was making severe demands on the populace. Furthermore, people had forgotten the horrors of war and foreign invasion during the long peace. The Germans did not look too frightening, and it was believed that taxes would be lower under their regime—as indeed they were! It is often said that the Romans of the late Empire lost their public spirit, but this is not to say that they had become corrupt. Indeed, in private morality they were much more puritanical under Christian rule than under the license and permissiveness of the first century A.D. However, the Empire had become a burden, and when great demands were made on its constituents the essential artificiality of the imperial structure was revealed. Many people had never been genuinely committed to Rome or involved with the Empire, and they were not very much distressed at the prospect of its defeat.