The question as to just why the Roman Empire fell; what caused it and, better yet, who caused it (if that can be ascertained) is indeed a question that should be posed within academic circles, for the knowledge of what happened is important to our world today lest we, somehow, repeat it. But, pardon the obvious pun here, the answer to that question has actually been rendered “academic” for some time since we actually have ample evidence showing what took place and how it all took place. Let me restate it in another way. We, today, KNOW what caused the fall of the Roman Empire precisely because of the incontrovertible evidence that is still extant.
If one approaches history as if it is a science, one will look at said evidence. A scientist will perform multiple experiments aimed at reproducing a given result in order to test any theory. If the results are not the same each time, something is wrong with the experiments and the evidence is rendered suspect. Thus, if a given set of events happened in history causing other events to take place at a later time, and this can be proven from the evidence on multiple occasions, then the evidence should be taken as indicative of producing a certain result or set of results. That said, an exact sequence of events can never be reproduced in history, so there will inevitably be differences in results in each case. Certain similarities should, however, remain for such observations to be considered valid. Thus, one cannot simply dismiss certain historical events as having meaning and real results just because one wishes to see the world in a certain way.
True to that which one would expect, many Christians today deny that early Christians had much, if anything, to do with the downfall of the Roman Empire. Most can be forgiven for this since they are actually oblivious to the history of the time. They have neither seen, nor do they care to see, the evidence. For them god is all that matters.
But, rather surprisingly, today one will also find a good number of atheists taking, more or less, exactly this stance along with the Christians. But I have found, more often than not, the atheist has actually looked at the evidence and has found ways to dismiss it. Clever argumentation has convinced many that there is no connection between Christianity and the downfall of the Roman Empire, no matter what the evidence may suggest. Better put, they posit that there is no connection between religion and the fall of the Roman Empire. And one even bemoaned the resurgence of the investigation of the connection by stating, basically, that in the last two centuries he thought that we had gotten away from the thesis of Edward Gibbon, but that progress in this way, such as it may be, has now been stifled by opening up the question once again or, better put, by those who once again posit that there really is a connection.
Back to scientific (actually, historical) evidence; it is truly astonishing to me that anyone can look at the world today, seeing the rise of the Islamic State (as just one example, but perhaps the best example) and not immediately draw the rational connection. That is, if they have studied history at all. The Taliban before them is yet another example. Many people focus on the fact that these are Islamic entities and draw the conclusion that the blame should be placed upon the Quran and the earliest Muslims as examples used to establish the Islamic State. The fault in this line of thinking is that they look no further.
But why are the Taliban and the Islamic State examples here? Quite simply put, because they have engaged in the same types of heinous acts, for all the world to see, that the early Byzantine Christians and their rulers engaged in. They each employed torture of those they disagreed with politically and religiously; employed mass executions following show-trials; employed strict codes of social conduct upon a previously relatively free society; employed prohibitive and punishing religiously-motivated laws aimed at establishing adherence to the supposed dictates of their god; outlawed things like dancing and singing (unless in the service of their god and then only on strict terms); changed the calendar to reflect THEIR religious holidays, eliminating previous holidays as being of the devil; closed, defaced and destroyed (as well as they could) ancient works of art, statues, and monuments, including temples and other religious sanctuaries; burned books and whole libraries; caused the populace to inform on each other so that many were arrested, tried, and executed on mere suspicion, and other assorted unspeakable barbaric things.
In each case those responsible engaged in what we term in our modern day to be “crimes against humanity”. So one can only imagine (because we don’t have films of it to watch with our own eyes) what massive social unrest caused by religious turmoil did to a society that was in no way prepared for this sort of thing.
In addition to the evidence, which, thankfully, can be accessed from some ancient primary sources and which is, frankly, overwhelming, one can add the very statements of certain church leaders. If one has never read the diatribes of Ambrose of Milan one can be forgiven for not knowing that his view of Roman history was that it had come into existence solely to birth Jesus and his religion of Christianity and, now that Christianity was on the ascendency, the Roman Empire could, and should, simply die and fade away. One can also be forgiven, if one has never read Augustine’s hideous diatribe “The City of God against the Pagans”, for not knowing that he formulated the “theory” of the “just war” in which he explained that war was a good rather than an evil as long as it was employed for the ends of the Christian god and, therefore, the barbarian incursions of his time were being done according to the very will of god by barbarians who, incidentally, had already been converted to Christianity. These barbarians, of course, once reaching the city of Roma, sparing anyone who took refuge inside of a church or other Christian sanctuary (as instructed), and savagely murdering or enslaving all others! And when Augustine came to understand that Pagans who had taken refuge in this way and had thus been spared complained about the wanton destruction of much of the city, his response was that they had no right to complain since their lives had been spared and that they instead should be “grateful” for this as they had a second chance to embrace the one true faith! The Christian and, apparently, the atheist will tell you that these barbarian incursions were instrumental in the fall of the empire, but they will deny that Christianity had anything whatsoever to do with this. Yet the very writings of church leaders such as Augustine stand witness to the contrary.
No, those who dispute those such as Gibbon and his modern-day supporters will tell you that the empire died more from neglect than anything else and that the barbarian incursions simply finished it off. “It was slowly dying anyway”, they will say. They will also posit that religion in the West was slowly evolving toward a form of monotheism anyway and it didn’t really need Christianity to push it in that direction. As a history professor of mine used to say (to many things), “poppycock!” This scenario completely ignores the influence of Christianity. They prefer to persist in their fantasy that Christianity simply overcame the decadent Roman Empire with its myriad of false deities and teachings because the people were not satisfied with these things and were already looking for something new that they could truly believe in. They ignore the fact that, since it wasn’t gaining much ground, after 300 years Christianity employed force, persecution, harassment, intimidation, destruction, laws, and finally, barbarians to reach its goal of a Christian Roman Empire. Why, if Christianity was so wonderful and everyone was yearning for it did it have to employ these tactics? Because simply loving one’s neighbor just didn’t work (as if they actually tried this).
The Christian, for his or her part, will cry “persecution” at almost every opportunity. They will point to the early Christian martyrs, believing (and having you believe) that there were thousands upon thousands of them, tortured and killed at the behest of hateful Roman authorities. If for nothing else, they will insinuate, one should be a Christian because of such people as this who willingly gave their lives for the faith! Indeed, no other people ever did anything like this for their faith. Of course, they are unaware, intentionally or not, that many Jews in the centuries prior to Christianity also did the same. They are also unaware that several philosophers and their followers in the ancient world also gave their lives willingly for their ideals – these Pagans, who certainly didn’t die in the name of or for the sake of any god. They are also unaware that people died in droves for a religion so ridiculous that one would think that anyone would be able to see through it. That religion was called Manichaeism, founded by a self-appointed “prophet” named Mani (from which we get the word “maniac”). This religion, ridiculous as it was, eventually spread throughout the middle east and into the far east and southern Russia, becoming one of the greatest and most widespread religions in the history of the world. Yet few today have ever heard of it since it is virtually extinct today. The short point here is that people will willingly die for practically anything.
I will end with a statement made by Catherine Nixey in her wonderful book “The Darkening Hour”, following her not so convincing statement that Christianity could have been tolerant if only it had tried, she immediately countered her own statement by adding (p. 95) “For those who wish to be intolerant, monotheism provides very powerful weapons”. Yes, indeed, the latter is sadly very true. And that is the real truth to be extracted here. Indeed, some will loudly protest that “all religions” have “from the beginning of time” done the same types of things. The evidence proves otherwise. Why, because monotheism, by its very nature, is intolerant and that is shown by history. It is and has always been monotheism (at least in the Western world, for I don’t claim to be an expert on Eastern religious movements and philosophies) that has acted in such an atrocious manner. Not sometimes – every time. Thus, the scientific (and historical) query has come to only one, undeniable, conclusion. Christianity DID kill the Roman Empire. It didn’t do it out of neglect; it did so deliberately and strategically, bit by bit, until the empire was no more. To dismiss this takes a certain blindness that I cannot fathom, nor do I wish to contemplate further. This is THE historical lesson for our age, lest we repeat it.