What led to the fall of the great Roman Empire? To this day, historians still debate the cause. As the Roman Empire was a global superpower that spanned over three continents and lasted 1,101 years (625 BC – 476 AD) – a deep-seated issue must have been simmering under the surface for centuries. Some attribute the fall of the great empire to many things, one of which has a contemporary ring to it: The Roman Empire deteriorated due to oppressive taxation. Though perhaps not the core issue, the greatest burden to the average citizen could easily have been the extreme tax burden.
Roman totalitarianism was never popular among its people, but at the onset it did provide peace and order. The empire sustained itself on the rewards it reaped from war. The plunder and looting of territories and the enslavement of their people allowed the empire to stay in power for over a thousand years. Issues began to present themselves in the second century when the empire reached the limit of its expansion. With no new territories left to conquer, a policy was enacted of debauching the currency to fill the gap between rising expenditures and falling revenues. Inflation was the inevitable result. The once strong currency of the denarii transformed into something so worthless soldiers refused to be paid in it and tax collectors refused to accept it.
Those who once enjoyed taxation immunity in Italy now had to pay the government. Taxes soon switched from the denarii to clothing, barley, wheat, wine, meat, and oil. To implement this notable change in taxation processes, a new body of enforcement had to be created, which, of course, required additional taxes. Internal revolts and invading barbarians from neighboring lands required immediate attention, and those needed to be funded as well.
These tax reforms of Emperors in the 3rd century were so stringent that many people were driven to starvation and bankruptcy. The Roman Empire’s economy was in such a state of turmoil that farmers abandoned their lands to receive public entitlements instead. The government soon caught on and farmers were legally required to continue working and additionally their next generations coerced to continue in the same field of work. In the same vein, merchants and artisans were corralled into guilds and were indefinitely bound to their occupations. A downward spiral of oppressive tax enactments further isolated its people and the common sentiment was a hope that barbarians would save them from the debilitating regime. Some citizens simply left altogether. It got to the point where parents sold their children to pay taxes rather than be tortured due to nonpayment. Tax collectors would also face the death penalty if they did not gather the required quota.
The curtain fell on the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Citizens began starving in the wake of taxes, they began fleeing to outside the empire’s reach, and welcomed and aided the barbarians who would ultimately bring about the end of the Roman Empire.