The collapse of the Roman Empire in the West has been charted from many starting places. There are some who feel that the decline began with the first five emperors, who set the bar for decadence. A case can also be made for the even older practice of slavery, which made Rome rotten at the core. The advent of Christianity in the bosom of the Empire further eroded the authority of Rome. Finally, the barbarian hordes that had fought encroachment on distant borders began to sense weakness in the walls and marched toward the capital.

The movie called The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) chose to draw its line in the sand at the start of the career of Emperor Commodus (r. 180-192), who was later featured in the more powerful but wildly inaccurate film, Gladiator (2000). Commodus followed his father, Marcus Aurelius, onto the throne and began a downward trend that would lead to the division of the Empire into two parts, East and West.

Emperor Constantine halted the decline and reunited the Empire partly by way of converting pagan Rome to Christianity. It was a stunning move and required a period of adjustment. The movie called Constantine and the Cross (1962) dwells only on the Emperor’s personal shift of faith, leaving the wrenching changes to follow as a story untold on film. When Constantine died in 337 CE, civil war broke out in the Empire causing further divisions. Christianity thrived more immediately in the East than in the West.

It was movies like this that contributed to a general impression among non-scholars that the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of its legendary decadence in the fifth century of the Common Era. Anyone visiting Rome in our times has seen the ruins of the once great capital and wondered how it happened that the ancient Rome we see in the movies came to such a sad end. Very little from 2000 years ago remains intact.

Pantheon, built by Emperor Hadrian, c. 126 CE

Pantheon, built by Emperor Hadrian, c. 126 CE

It was the barbarians who finished the job, coming from all sides to dismantle what they could of the great city of Rome. They were followed by scavengers. The Circus Maximus was leveled to the ground. The ruins of the theater of Marcellus were eventually incorporated into a modern building. The Colosseum was famously used as a quarry by later generations of Romans trying to rebuild simpler lives. Of the few buildings that have survived, the Pantheon is outstanding.

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