It actually used to be asked within my own lifetime why the Roman Empire fell; what caused its fall. I suspect that this question is still asked in some quarters even though the evidence that Christianity killed it is actually overwhelming and incontrovertible. In any court of law the verdict would be “guilty”. This may be difficult for some to accept, but it is nevertheless true. A handful of main points can be made to support this conclusion:
(1) From the very beginning Christians worked to disrupt society, starting with Judaism as a religion (which the Christians were still a part of). They did this mainly by allowing uncircumcised foreigners in and by stating that Jesus was a risen messiah. They quickly began to claim the Old Testament writings as their own while rejecting the special status of the Jewish people as God’s chosen. Ultimately they helped to cause the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple there in 70 CE.
Once they broke free from Judaism completely after the Parousia did not occur they moved on to disrupt the wider Roman world by emphasizing their rejection of divorce, showing little, if any, respect for Roman law or society, opposing sacrifices and refusing to take part in community activities or holidays, and being generally obnoxious and abhorrent in any number of ways. That they had set fire to Roma in 64 CE and almost destroyed her was practically a given in the minds of the folk. Yet they still expected to enjoy the same exemptions afforded to Judaism even after 70 CE and made a great issue of the fact that they were not.
In effect, they had worked to turn the Jews to Pagans and the Pagans to Jews by disrupting and altering their societal norms and standards. Courts were often pestered with Christians wanting to be martyred and the economy suffered because the Christians did not purchase victims for sacrifices. Still, these things by themselves really had little impact on the empire as a whole. If this had been the extent of things then both Christianity and the empire might have evolved into something different together.
(2) But, more came once Constantine I came to power. Although he was clearly not, at least completely, a Christian by the time he became emperor, he almost immediately began to take steps that would favor Christianity. He began a systematic process of destroying Pagan sanctuaries and holy places while at the same time often having the clergy in these temples killed! In addition, he robbed several temples of their treasures and in some cases caused parts of ancient temples to be reused to build Christian basilicas. The same took place in some cases with reference to Jewish Synagogues, which were also robbed of treasures and demolished to be replaced by basilicas. His successors, with the sole exception of Iulianus (Julian the Apostate) only intensified these efforts while also targeting Pagan books (in communal book burnings!) and libraries (several of which were ordered burnt to the ground!). And they also moved to enact increasingly severe laws against any and all Pagan practices. The wholesale destruction of the Pagan way came into full-force! It was gradually replaced by the decrepit and dysfunctional Christian system. The government seemed intent upon one thing only – the total destruction of anything Pagan, to the exclusion of practically anything else other than renewed efforts to attack and subjugate the Sassanid Empire to the East.
Moving the capital from Roma to Konstantinopolis (Constantinople) was truly the death-knell for the empire in the West although it lingered on for some time afterward. And the wholesale destruction was less pronounced in the West than in the East mainly because it was more difficult to convert the populace in the West than in the East. There were no roving mobs of Christian monks and other fanatics in the West such as were seen in the East, going around destroying everything they possibly could!
(3) So while the East was embroiled in rather constant religious and political turmoil punctuated by episodes of engagements with the Sassanids, the West crept along in general decrepitude. But even they still might have survived much longer than they did if not for the near constant barbarian invasions which, in fairness, also assaulted the East, but to a generally lesser degree. The one main exception being the uprising of the Visigoths which resulted in the near annihilation of Roman armies in the East!
And it MUST be understood here that EVERY SINGLE BARBARIAN TRIBE that invaded the empire had previously been converted to Christianity with only two exceptions; (a) the Franks who, once they were allowed to settle in Roman Gaul made little trouble and even made efforts to assimilate politically and religiously, adopting many Roman ways, and (b) the Huns who, although incredibly hostile and destructive, rather quickly fizzled out as a force to be reckoned with after the death of Attila, mainly thereafter becoming mercenaries within the Roman armies.
These Christian barbarians did something that barbarians of previous generations had never before done. They invaded, destroyed, looted, and STAYED. They didn’t leave because they had been already convinced that they as Christians were the inheritors of the Roman Empire since God was taking it away from the Pagans! So they simply didn’t leave! That, coupled with the sacking of Roma which was more of a shock than an actual event of destruction, was almost too much for the West.
(4) Add to all of this the rule of almost completely inept emperors coupled with a share of political and religious intrigue here also and you almost have it. Still, one must add to this scenario that even in their own writings (those mainly of Augustine and Ambrose) the Christians stated emphatically that it was simply time for the empire to die because it had served its purpose according to the will of God in that it provided a world conducive for the advent of Christ. In their minds there was nothing more for the empire to accomplish. So even in the West the stage was deliberately set for the demise of the empire by Christian theologians.
(5) After the fall of the empire in the West Konstantinopolis tottered on in almost total decrepitude even as its monks preserved some semblance of the ancient world’s knowledge and literature. The sole true exception to this decrepitude was the reign of Justinian I during which something like the old empire was recreated by dint of great effort and the cost of much blood! But once he died most of his gains were quickly abandoned forever.
The city of Konstantinopolis had the fortune of being virtually impregnable, so when the Islamic forces invaded Byzantine territories, united by religion essentially the same way that the earlier Christian Germanic barbarians had been, the Byzantines could afford to lose territory (which they did) and still survive. This Eastern empire had been weakened severely already in her final assault upon the Sassanid Empire in which both armies fought to almost complete destruction! This is one thing that truly paved the way for the Islamic invasions that came soon thereafter. Neither entity was really strong enough to fight them off anymore. Thus, the downfall of the Sassanids was rather quick. But Konstantinopolis still lingered on as a sick old man until the Islamic Ottoman Turks finally managed to breach its walls with the help of a new weapon – gunpowder.
The fact of the matter is that I remain quite astonished that the question was even still being asked within my own lifetime as to why the Roman Empire fell. And when the question was asked, they meant the empire in the West, for there was no real question as to what happened in the East. Even so, even to this day, those who may ask such a question hesitate to describe it as having anything whatsoever to do with religion directly. But this is just the truth!
During the early Dark Ages one could be excused for not having a real answer to this question because one would naturally have to accept whatever church authorities stated on the subject. And they certainly were not about to blame themselves! No, the Pagan world was corrupt and debauched! God decided that they must be destroyed for their wickedness and for their refusal to accept Christ! This is what the folk would have been told had they asked such a question and since they were mostly illiterate they could not have read anything to the contrary even if it had been available to them. Such knowledge only existed within the monasteries in the West or in the Vatican. And it was rarely consulted even there.
But then a “miracle” took place in that the West became reintroduced to its literary heritage, or what was left of it, via an amazing and hard to believe set of circumstances, by which this literary knowledge was brought back by way of the Islamic world! Almost instantly an insatiable appetite for more and more came into vogue and monasteries were searched for whatever they had, resulting in the Renaissance. This went toward increasing literacy among the masses, generally culminating in the Enlightenment. Thus, the Western world crawled back out of the Dark Ages, slowly, because of the reintroduction of ancient Greek and Roman literature!
In a few hundred years the new science of archaeology would be added to the mix, the result being that much of what was left of the ancient world would be dug up again and, in some instances, partially rebuilt. This also resulted in the fortune of finding the Rosetta stone, thus eventually reviving knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language which had been extinct for about a thousand years! The knowledge of the ancient world dramatically increased with this chance discovery. Later the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and also the Nag Hammaddi Manuscripts brought long-buried knowledge back to light. And since archaeological discoveries are still a fairly regular occurrence it seems that there must be more yet to find.
But such is the nature of humankind that we will often prefer to dwell in ignorance rather than upset our safe belief system. We will ignore new evidence and even sometimes say it is “of the devil” just to have someway to rationalize things. Sometimes a person’s determination to do so not only borders on, but often seems to actually embrace the medieval!
The truth is that much of what we have been taught through the centuries should and must be rejected or at least greatly modified in light of new factual evidence. To do otherwise would be a travesty! For if we don’t the ancient knowledge may yet still be destroyed because our precious beliefs may not allow it to exist for long. And the medieval world had one thing that we seem to lack. Because it had been held down for so long it had an insatiable desire for knowledge! We today have the disadvantage of being literally inundated with “knowledge” so that we often think that we don’t need to know any more than we already do and, after all, we can look it up on the internet. We don’t have to actually know anything! So as the internet continues to evolve and we consult it more and more often to the exclusion of any other means of obtaining knowledge or information we will trust it more and more and not even notice any subtle changes that may be made in information provided. Nor will we check or re-check anything. Thus it will eventually become just OK for original texts or archaeological finds to be discarded, destroyed, or no longer consulted in any way. Thus the docile know-nothing society that some have always wanted to create will be produced.
We must not ever forget the last Hierophant at Eleusis who, when he was confronted by Byzantine forces bent upon forcing him to forever close the sanctuary that had functioned there for thousands of years, exclaimed that the world had GONE MAD! Don’t let the ancient knowledge be forgotten again!