Fall of Empires: Comparing the Collapse of the Mongols and Romans


Posted by Julian Wymanton on Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Throughout history, empires risen to immense power have dominated large territories and populations. Yet the mightiest realms eventually decline. This paper analyzes two of history’s largest land empires - the Mongols forged by Genghis Khan and the Romans under rulers like Augustus Caesar.

It inspects startling commonalities between their ascents, prosperous epochs, and ultimate collapses despite the empires emerging over a thousand years apart on different continents. Why did these sophisticated complexes fail? Could their demise have been averted? By charting the full life cycles of the Mongol and Roman imperial constructs, recurrent factors behind the fall of empires emerge.

Roman Empire Map of Roman Empire

The Rise of the Mongols and Romans

Founded in 1206 CE by the visionary Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire rapidly expanded from the steppes of Central Asia by exploiting superior cavalry mobility and battle tactics. Khan unified fractious nomadic tribes before launching ruthless invasions on all fronts, toppling major powers like the Xia and Jin in Northern China by 1234 CE while simultaneously driving west through modern Afghanistan and Iran (May, Timothy. “The Mongol Empire.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022).

At its peak, the Mongol Empire stretched over 9 million contiguous square kilometers - dwarfing even the British Empire’s span and constituting history’s largest land empire (“Largest Empires in Human History.” WorldAtlas, 2022). The Romans likewise aggressively expanded domains starting from small beginnings, moving from an Italian city-state to annexing Iberia, Britain, North Africa, the Balkans, and Levant under leaders like Augustus by 117 CE. Eventually the eastern and western Roman Empire controlled 5 million square km ringing the Mediterranean (Duiker, William and Jackson Spielvogel.

“The Essential World History, Volume I: To 1800.” Cengage Learning, 2016). Structured administration and cultural assimilation kept far-flungsubjects loyal. In times of strength, the Mongol and Roman imperial constructs projected authority across civilizations from the Sea of Japan to Britain.

Mongol Empire Map of Mongol Empire

Pax Mongolica - Economic and Cultural Integration

At their zeniths in the 13th and 2nd centuries CE respectively, the Mongol and Roman empires facilitated trade, technology transfer, and cultural blending through ensuring internal stability. The Mongols intentionally restarted the famed Silk Road trading network between Europe and China, constructing Yam way stations and sponsoring merchant caravans (“Mongol Empire: Rule and Empire Building” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022). Besides economic goods, technologies like block printing, gunpowder weapons, and the compass also flowed between civilizations.

Peaceful trade was further enabled by ‘Pax Mongolica’ as the Khans suppressed banditry across Asia (“Pax Mongolica.” Wikipedia, 2022). Meanwhile well-built Roman roadnetworks and sea routes circulated resources across the Mediterranean world. Common currencies and infrastructure like roads, aqueducts, sanitation systems unified millions from North Africa to Britain. Cultural hallmarks like the Latin language, Roman cuisine, dress, and customs also diffused widely (Duiker and Spielvogel, 2016). Trade and the emergence of trans-regional cultures promoted unity and discouraged revolt across distant realms under both empires.
Genghis khan empire at his death Genghis Khan’s Empire at His Death

The Slow Decline of Empires

However outward stability and success concealed fraying foundations over time. Both empires contended with rising domestic discontent and strengthening foreign challengers. For the Mongols, bloody successions between heirs of Genghis Khan created divisions between the Golden Horde faction in Russia and affiliates in Persia and China. Resistance movements in Korea, Vietnam, Java, and India also gradually expelled Mongol influence (“Mongol Empire: Decline and Fall” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022).

The Romans faced twin crises - civil wars from usurpers contested empire between 193 to 284 CE while foreign assaults multiplied along lengthy European and Middle Eastern frontiers from resurgent Germanic tribes and Persian dynasties (Duiker and Spielvogel, 2016). Other issues like currency devaluation sparked economic contraction and weakened defensive capacities. Population decline from the devastating Antonine Plague also damaged labor pools and manufacturing (“Antonine Plague” Wikipedia, 2022).Internal dysfunction and external threats arose in both empires.

Modern depiction of Roman legionaries Modern Depiction of Roman Legionaries

Loss of Central Control

As supervision from capital Karakorum and Rome weakened, local Mongol Khans and Roman governors increasingly acted independently to address regional issues, ignoring decrees to further personal interests. For example, the Il-Khanate Mongols in Persia adopted Islam and formed diplomatic ties with European crusader states against the Great Khan’s directives to avoid entangling alliances (“Ilkhanate”, Wikipedia, 2022).

In the Roman world, generals like Stilicho and Aetius raised legions to battle Germanic tribes when imperial authorities proved unable to send reinforcements against the roaming threats (Duiker and Spielvogel, 2016). These autonomous strongmen contested succession after Genghis Khan and usurped power from figurehead emperors. Civil wars erupted between claimants who battled over fragments of empire stretching from Scotland to Syria (Rome) and Siberia to India (Mongols). Refortifying frontiers or managing holdings became impossible.

Final Collapse

By the mid-1400s CE the once omnipotent Mongol Empire shrinked to the small realm surrounding the capital Karakorum before vanishing under Manchurian rule in 1635 CE (“Mongol Empire: Decline and Fall” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022). In the same manner, only the city of Constantinople remained of the vast eastern Roman Empire by 1453 CE when Ottoman Turkish cannons finally breached its walls, ending imperial ambitions (Duiker and Spielvogel, 2016). Analysis reveals how overload from wrestling internal dysfunction plus assaults from aggressive outsiders eager to capitalize on weakness sealed the demise of even these legendary empires.

Despite separation in eras and geography, the sophisticated Mongol and Roman empires followed remarkably parallel centralization, expansion and prolonged consolidation preceding slow spirals into political discord, civil war, and fragmentation that dissolved dominions once projecting formidable power. Strategists must recognize reinforcing success by balancing projection of core authority across vast terrain with feasible decentralization is essential for enduring empire across centuries and structures on such enormous scales.

Mounted Warriors Pursue Enemies: Illustration of Rashid-ad-Din’s ‘Gami’ at-Tawarih Mounted Warriors Pursue Enemies: Illustration of Rashid-ad-Din’s ‘Gami’ at-Tawarih

Frequently Asked Questions

How did the Mongols and Romans administer provinces?

Both delegated regional government to local aristocrats or installed loyal provincial governors rather than directly ruling territories thousands of miles from the capital. As long as taxes flowed and order was maintained, a degree of autonomy was granted.

What role did trade play in tying the empires together?

Lucrative trade enriched merchant classes and elites who then backed imperial rule to ensure stability and access to foreign markets. Trade also spread ideas and culture, making distant lands feel tied to the center. However economic declines could weaken loyalties.

How were the Mongols and Romans able to maintain mighty armies?

Both rigorously trained peasant levies, drawn from lands they controlled. The Mongols granted loyal warriors and their descendants tax exemptions, incentivizing service. The Romans paid barbarian mercenaries and bribed tribes to not attack weakened frontiers.

Why couldn’t civil wars be prevented by reforms?

Frequent successions forever created new claimants to power. Local strongmen also inevitably defied ever-weakening central authority. Once military confrontation began, cycles of vengeance made reconciliation impossible between Mongol Khans and Roman emperors.

Could allying with enemies have saved the empires?

Potentially - the Mongols eventually allied with Tibetan Buddhists and Song Imperial China, absorbing knowledge that strengthened rule. Romans enlisted Germanic tribes rather than fighting them. However rather than saving Rome and the Mongols, such former foes eventually turned dominate.


Duiker, William and Jackson Spielvogel. “The Essential World History, Volume I: To 1800.” Cengage Learning, 2016.

“Antonine Plague.” Wikipedia, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonine_Plague. Accessed 17 Dec 2023.

“Ilkhanate.” Wikipedia, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilkhanate. Accessed 17 Dec 2023.

“Largest Empires in Human History.” WorldAtlas, 2022, https://www.worldatlas.com/geography/largest-empires-in-history.html. Accessed 17 Dec 2023.

May, Timothy. “The Mongol Empire.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/place/Mongol-empire. Accessed 17 Dec 2023.

“Mongol Empire: Decline and Fall.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/place/Mongol-empire/Decline-and-fall. Accessed 17 Dec 2023.

“Mongol Empire: Rule and Empire Building.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/place/Mongol-empire. Accessed 17 Dec 2023.

“Pax Mongolica.” Wikipedia, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Mongolica, Accessed 17 Dec 2023.