Throughout human history, there has been a great multitude of civilizations that have risen to greatness and then eventually collapse into the proverbial dustbin of history. Long and lengthy tomes have been written on the various reasons for their rise, and probably many more have been written about their eventual collapse. There are many reasons for these collapses, such as plain and simple conquest by a rival power, State inefficiency, and corruption, climatic shifts, etc… However, probably one of the bigger reasons for civilizational collapse is the presence of uncontrolled population movements within a civilization. These are different from normal invasions by the fact that they are not just armies out to conquer, but entire groups of people out to settle in a new land. To examine this more fully examples in the form of the once-mighty civilization of Rome, both the Western and Eastern will be used, both of which experienced these uncontrolled migrations.
The civilization of Rome was centered around, well, the city of Rome. It went through several different phases in how it was ruled. The first phase is what can be termed the regal period, which began with the establishment of the city of Rome in 753 BC and lasted until 509 BC with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy in exchange for a republic. The first of its kind in recorded history, the Roman Republic would last from its establishment in 509 BC to its overthrow under Julius Ceaser in 46 BC. However, his successor Ceaser Augustus would be the one to officially establish Rome as an empire, making the changes of his predecessor permanent and establishing the line of the Ceaser’s.
Besides some relatively minor territorial changes, the map that we would come to see as the Roman Empire had been established by 27 BC. The Meditteranean was a Roman lake. At this point in history, Rome was at its peak. In the world, only the Chinese could compete with them in power, wealth, and culture. So the question remains, how did it end?
For the Roman State to keep control over such a large territory, it required the Romans to be able to keep control over large and disparate populations. In many cases, the Romans would attempt to ingratiate themselves with the conquered by allowing them to keep their customs, religion, etc… What’s one or two more gods to the pantheon?
However, a favored method was the slow Romanization of conquered peoples. Why would people resist the Romans when they were for all intents and purposes Roman? The Romanization of a population was a top-down affair, with the aristocratic portions of the conquered society being encouraged to adopt Roman ways. Taking a cynical view of this, the Roman historian Tacitus stated,
He [Agricola] wanted to accustom them [the Britons] to peace and leisure by providing delightful distractions. He gave personal encouragement and assistance to the building of temples, piazzas and town-houses, he gave the sons of the aristocracy a liberal education, they became eager to speak Latin effectively and the toga was everywhere to be seen.'And so they were gradually led into the demoralising vices of porticoes, baths and grand dinner parties. The naïve Britons described these things as 'civilisation', when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement.
The final step to this Romanization was the granting of Roman citizenship to certain high-ranking individuals. This had a myriad of perks that included freedom of travel and a certain level of legal protection. For centuries, the Romans effectively practiced this, however, this soon fell apart with the Migration Period in Europe.
Beginning in the 3rd century AD, the Migration Period was sparked off largely by the Hunnic invasions in the east, which began to push various Germanic and Slavic tribes towards the west; right into an already weak Roman Empire. These groups included the Gothic tribes, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, the Vandals, the Franks, and the Huns themselves. In later years, many more tribes would follow.
Already weakened by a myriad of internal problems, the Romans were ill-prepared to accept the streams of migrants that came with the Goths as they crossed the Danube in 376 AD. Unable to refuse their entry, they allowed the Goths to settle in the Balkans. However, after a series of political blunders by the Romans in their dealings with the newly settled Visigoths, the First Gothic War began in 376 AD. They would eventually invade Italy and sack the city of Rome itself in 410 AD. Then they would make their way to the Iberian Peninsula and establish a Visigothic kingdom.
This pattern would continue with other groups. The Visigoth’s cousins, the Ostrogoths would settle in Italy itself. The Vandals would go on to take Roman North Africa. The Franks would cross the Rhine to establish the Frankish Kingdom in Roman Gaul. The Angles and the Saxons would slowly invade and settle in Roman Britain. In each of these cases the State, in this case, Western Rome, was completely incapable of controlling the movements of these tribes, much less assimilate them. And as can be seen, they proved to be the final killing blow to the Western Roman Empire when the German chieftain Odoacer became “the first barbarian king of Italy” in 476 AD. Their Eastern brothers, the Byzantines would eventually meet the same fate.
The Byzantine Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire would last from 330 AD, with the founding of Constantinople, to 1453 AD, to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. While Rome burned in the west, The Eastern Roman Empire would continue to thrive for centuries to come. There were serious attempts by rulers like Justinian I to reconstitute the empire, though these ultimately failed. The barbarian invasions of the west did not leave the Byzantines unmarred though. Tribes like the Pechenegs, Bulgars, and others would continue to ravage their lands in the Balkans, with continuous efforts needing to be made by the Eastern Romans to keep them at bay. However, the worst was yet to come.
During the 10th century AD, there began a large movement of Turcic people groups from the Central Asian Steppe. During this time, the Ghuzz Turkic tribe would make its way down into Anatolia. Here they converted to Islam and began carving out an empire for themselves. Soon becoming known as the Seljuqs, after their founder, they defeated a Byzantine force at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. After this defeat, the way was open for the settlement of Turkic tribesmen in Anatolia.
For the next three centuries, the territory and power of the Byzantines would slowly be whittled down until finally, the Ottoman Turks put the final nail in the coffin by taking the once invincible city of Constantinople in 1453 AD. The Turkic migration, like that of the Migration Period in Europe centuries prior, had done the work of destabilizing empires.
It was not only the Byzantines who were affected by the Turkic migration but the Persian Sassanid Empire, as well as the already weakened Arab Abbasid Caliphate in Arabia. Both of these empires would be invaded and for centuries be dominated by the Turks, with much of the Arab world being dominated until the end of the First World War. However, neither were as transformed as that as the Byzantines. While a few Roman influences remained, the nature of Anatolia was fundamentally transformed by the Turkic invasions, with the once Christian empire becoming the center of Islamic power for centuries to come.
The Romans are far from the only example of uncontrolled population movements. However, no other paint is as clear a picture as that of the Romans. To be sure, other problems plagued the Western and Eastern Roman Empire; State inefficiency and corruption, military weakness, economic slowdown, etc… For the West, these population movements were the final nail in the coffin. For the East, they were the beginning of the end.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica, Roman Empire, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc, 11/1/19. Web. 12/16/19 https://www.britannica.com/place/Roman-Empire
Faulkner, Neil, Romanisation: The Process of Becoming Roman, BBC, BBC Inc. 2/1711. Web. 12/17/19. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/romanisation_article_01.shtml
Crabben, Jan V. D. Migration Age. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 15 Jul 2010. Web. 18 Dec 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/Migration_Age/
Cartwright, Mark. Byzantine Empire. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 19 Sep 2018. Web. 18 Dec 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/Byzantine_Empire/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Seljuq, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc. 6/1/18. Web. 12/17/19 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Seljuq