In the end, the Roman Empire continued to prosper, and even expand, in the east for a thousand years, for reasons we shall explore presently (1.4.7). In the west, however, Roman imperial power was widely recognized to be in terminal decline. Historians are unable to agree on a precise date for the fall of the western empire, nor on the ultimate cause of this event. For our purposes, we shall suggest that this event could be seen as taking place on September 4, 476, when Romulus Augustus, the last western emperor, was overthrown by the German military ruler Odoacer (433–93), who was declared king of Italy. The admin- istrative changes Odoacer put in place within Italy effectively ended any idea of a “Roman Empire.” A nominal imperial center was maintained at the city of Ravenna for some time, but it never had the symbolic or actual power of Rome.
So why did Rome fall? In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), the British historian Edward Gibbon (1737–94) firmly – and not a little simplistically – identified the cause of Rome’s collapse as a loss of any sense of civic virtue among the Roman ruling class. Yet most recent historians have dissented from this somewhat superficial judgment.
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Some identify other single causes – such as civil wars sapping the strength of the army, or military discipline and loyalty being eroded through the increasing use of mercenaries. Others, however, suggest that the “fall of the Roman Empire” is better seen as an extended and complex process, with numerous landmarks along the way, and having multiple – rather than single – causes.