Ancient Civilizations: The End of the Roman Empire

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13090

It is said that Rome was not built in a day, and it didn't collapse in a day either. All good things must come to an end. Or, as the Romans would say, "Omnibus rebus bonis finis est!"


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Did you ever pile up your plate at a meal, seeing all the good things to eat, and then find that you couldn't finish it all?

Did anyone tell you that "your eyes were bigger than your stomach" or that "you bit off more than you could chew?"

Some historians believe that the Romans did the same thing. Watch Barbarians Rising: Rise and Fall of an Empire | History to find out more:

The Roman Empire came to an end slowly, over a period of 200-plus years, and there are many reasons why.

As you probably know from your study of history, empires tend to rise and fall. As an empire grows bigger, it becomes harder and harder to maintain.

  • Do you remember just how big the Roman empire was?

map of the Roman Empire at its height

That's a very large area to control, right? There were the people to unite and govern, the borders to guard, and the armies to pay. Eventually, Rome just could not manage it all.

So, let's look at some of the factors that caused the Roman Empire to come to an end.

Poor Leadership

After the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, things started to go badly for the Romans. He was the last of the strong and effective emperors. Rome entered a time of confusion and instability, when military leaders battled each other for power. The Roman army would back a certain man to become emperor. Then another group would oppose him, kill him, and bring in a new emperor. Most emperors of this period lasted only a short time in power, many only six months or so!

Money Problems

ancient Roman silver coins

While the expanding empire brought in wealth and slaves from the conquered areas, eventually Rome ran out of areas to conquer. Remember that it covered most of the "known world" at that time. And it cost a lot to maintain the empire. Many of the Roman emperors were foolish in their use of money, too, building grand palaces for themselves rather than using it to govern the people, pay the army, and build roads and bridges.

Weakening of the Army

ancient Roman legionary soldier

The once-great Roman Legions were weakening. Many Romans didn't want to serve in the army anymore, because it meant long months away from their families, and the pay was not that good either. So the empire had to hire outsiders to serve in its army. These foreigners did not have the commitment to Rome that the former Legions did, and their independent attitudes broke down the army's discipline.

Slave Labor

Mosaïque des échansons

Image by Pascal Radigue, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 3.0 license.

The Roman economy depended on slave labor. The Roman Legions brought home captives as slaves whenever they conquered a new territory. The slaves worked in the fields and crafted the tools and household items that Romans needed. However, when the empire stopped expanding, there were no new slaves arriving and, therefore, not enough workers to keep the economy going.

Splitting the Empire

The Emperor Diocletian thought he had a solution to Rome's problems: he would split the empire in two, making it easier to govern.

map of Western (green) and Eastern (red) Roman empires after 395 AD

Image by AKIKA3D, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but this eventually weakened the empire even more. The Eastern and Western Roman empires began to drift apart as the Eastern empire grew stronger, and the Western empire weaker.

While the Western empire came to an end in 476 AD, the Eastern empire lived on for another 1,000 years!

Persecutions of Christians

Christian martyr

Some historians actually blame the rise of Christianity for the decline of the empire claiming that, as more Roman citizens became Christians, they lost their loyalty to Rome along with rejecting Roman gods. And so the empire lost one of the things that united its people.

In the previous Related Lesson, found in the right-hand sidebar, you learned that the Colosseum Games included throwing criminals to wild animals to be torn apart. Many of these "criminals" were Christians, whose only crime was belief in Christ and refusal to sacrifice to pagan gods.

In reality, Christians were probably the most law-abiding and hardworking citizens the empire had. And the time, energy, and money spent tracking them down, persecuting, and executing them was surely wasted. Christianity would spread, despite the persecutions, and Rome would fall, despite killing its innocent citizens.



The word barbarian comes from a Greek word for babbler. That was what the Greeks called anyone who was not a Greek and did not speak their language. The Romans adopted the word and used it for those who lived outside the Roman Empire. These barbarians were Germanic tribes from northern Europe. (They're called Germanic because they spoke languages that were similar to modern German.) There were also Asian tribes from the East that attacked the empire. They all wanted Roman lands, and eventually they were able to overrun the Western empire and bring it to and end.

In 476 AD, a man named Odoacer from one of the barbarian tribes, removed Emperor Romulus Augustulus from his throne in Rome, and that was the end of the Western Empire.

You'll learn more about the barbarians when you pick a tribe to research in the Got it? section! So head over there next.

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