Historians discuss and debate when the Roman Empire fell and why it fell. They rarely ask each other whether it fell. Surely it does not exist today, so at some time it must have fallen. The key is to find a date when it fell and then to offer reasons why it fell.
Diocletian divided the Empire into administrative halves in 286, governing the western half from Mediolanum (now Milan, Italy). Constantine built a new city in the eastern Empire, calling it New Rome, although it quickly became known as Constantinople. The city of Rome, then ceased to be the center of the Roman Empire well before the city was sacked by barbarians. Some historians push the decline and fall of Rome back into the 200s; others point to the collapse of the borders around the year 376 or the clear division of imperial authority in 395. Many place the end of Rome at the sack of the city by Alaric in 410 or that of Odacer in 476. Yet the continuity of Roman government in the eastern Mediterranean continued under the Byzantine emperors until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For that matter, a Frankish king named Charles considered the title of Roman Emperor to be worth receiving in the year 800. For that matter, a country called the Holy Roman Empire still existed on European maps a thousand years after Charles (or Charlemagne) was crowned in Rome; Napoleon might be considered the final conqueror to bring about the fall of Rome when he disbanded the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
For those who prefer to say that Rome fell some time before the year 500, many reasons can be offered as the cause of that fall. Those reasons include climate change, immigration problems, increasing taxation, rampart immorality, loss of the “will to power” due to Christianity, and even lead poisoning from Roman plumbing. Like most historical events, the fall of Rome (if it happened at all) probably had multiple causes. From a historical perspective, though, immigration problems may have contributed more than any other factor to large-scale changes in the Roman Empire.
At the same time that Rome prospered in the west, the Han dynasties were powerful in China. Among their rivals for power in eastern Asia were central Asian residents known to the Chinese as the Xiongnu. As China grew in size and strength, the Xiongnu were displaced; rather than battling China, they sought homes elsewhere. Some traveled south into India, bringing an end to the powerful Gupta Empire. Others pushed into northwestern Asia, displacing Germanic tribes who pressed on the borders of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the descendants of the Xiongnu also arrived in Italy, where (as in India) they were called Huns. But the leader of the Huns in Italy, Attila, turned away from Rome—according to some sources, after successful negotiations of Pope Leo. Roman power was not enough, though to prevent the arrival of Vandals, Goths, and other nations that sought to migrate into Roman lands.
The Vandals and Goths and others were fleeing the Huns and other enemies. They were looking for better places to live—more favorable climates, and more opportunity to raise food for themselves and their families. They valued Roman law, Roman civilization, and Roman culture. (All of them eventually became Christians.) They did not want to conquer or destroy Rome as much as they wanted to join Rome. Yet their presence on soil once claimed by Rome constituted, for Romans at the time and for most historians today, an invasion that brought about the fall of Rome.
The Romans struggled to prevent this immigration problem. They posted troops on the borders of the Empire. They built walls. One of their better ideas was to offer Roman citizenship to the immigrants provided they remain on the border and guard against new waves of immigration. All these efforts bought time to preserve the Empire. In the end, though, the immigrants overwhelmed Roman efforts to bar their entry. They made their home in western Europe and north Africa. In the absence of Roman authority, they established their own governments and preserved their various cultures.
Yet they did not destroy all that was Roman. In many ways, they adopted or imitated Roman law and bureaucracy. As already noted, they became Christians as the Romans had become Christians. They viewed themselves, not as the destroyers of Rome, but as the heirs of Rome. Even their language blended with the Latin language, creating Spanish and Portuguese and French and Italian from the mixture.
Maybe the change was inevitable. On the other hand, maybe the Romans could have done more to welcome the immigrants and to assimilate them into the Empire rather than fighting them and resisting them. In either case, the most valuable elements of Roman civilization—its ideas, its art, its technology—survived to improve the lives of many people for countless generations, continuing until and beyond the present time. J.