Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Fall of the Western Roman Empire

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To many historians, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE has always been viewed as the end of the ancient world and the onset of the Middle Ages, often improperly called the Dark Ages, despite Petrarch's assertion. Since much of the west had already fallen by the middle of the 5th century CE, when a writer speaks of the fall of the empire, he or she generally refers to the fall of the city of Rome. Although historians generally agree on the year of the fall, 476 CE, they often disagree on its causes. English historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote in the late 18th century CE, points to the rise of Christianity and its effect on the Roman psyche while others believe the decline and fall were due, in part, to the influx of 'barbarians' from the north and west.

Whatever the cause, whether it was religion, external attack, or the internal decay of the city itself, the debate continues to the present day; however, one significant point must be established before a discussion of the roots of the fall can continue: the decline and fall were only in the west. The eastern half - that which would eventually be called the Byzantine Empire - would continue for several centuries, and, in many ways, it retained a unique Roman identity.

External Causes

One of the most widely accepted causes - the influx of a barbaric horde - is discounted by some who feel that mighty Rome, the eternal city, could not have so easily fallen victim to a culture that possessed little or nothing in the way of a political, social or economic foundation. They believe the fall of Rome simply came because the barbarians took advantage of difficulties already existing in Rome - problems that included a decaying city (both physically and morally), little to no tax revenue, overpopulation, poor leadership, and, most importantly, inadequate defense. To some the fall was inevitable.

Unlike the fall of earlier empires such as the Assyrian & Persian, Rome did not succumb to either war or revolution.

Unlike the fall of earlier empires such as the Assyrian and Persian, Rome did not succumb to either war or revolution. On the last day of the empire, a barbarian member of the Germanic tribe Siri and former commander in the Roman army entered the city unopposed. The one-time military and financial power of the Mediterranean was unable to resist. Odovacar easily dethroned the sixteen-year-old emperor Romulus Augustalus, a person he viewed as posing no threat. Romulus had recently been named emperor by his father, the Roman commander Orestes, who had overthrown the western emperor Julius Nepos. With his entrance into the city, Odovacar became the head of the only part that remained of the once great west: the peninsula of Italy. By the time he entered the city, the Roman control of Britain, Spain, Gaul, and North Africa had already been lost to the Goths and Vandals. Odovacar immediately contacted the eastern emperor Zeno and informed him that he would not accept that title of emperor. Zeno could do little but accept this decision. In fact, to ensure there would be no confusion, Odovacar returned to Constantinople the imperial vestments, diadem, and purple cloak of the emperor.

Internal Causes

There are some who believe, like Gibbon, that the fall was due to the fabric of the Roman citizen. If one accepts the idea that the cause of the fall was due, in part, to the possible moral decay of the city, its fall is reminiscent of the “decline” of the Republic centuries earlier. Historian Polybius, a 2nd century BCE writer, pointed to a dying republic (years before it actually fell) - a victim of its declining moral virtue and the rise of vice within. Edward Gibbon reiterated this sentiment (he diminished the importance of the barbaric threat) when he claimed the rise of Christianity as a factor in the “tale of woe” for the empire. He held the religion sowed internal division and encouraged a “turn-the-other-cheek mentality” which ultimately condemned the war machine, leaving it in the hands of the invading barbarians. Those who discount Gibbon's claim point to the existence of the same religious zealots in the east and the fact that many of the barbarians were Christian themselves.

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To Gibbon the Christian religion valued idle and unproductive people. Gibbon wrote in his book The History of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity, may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While this great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion greatly insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol.”

He added that the Roman government appeared to be “odious and oppressive to its subjects” and therefore no serious threat to the barbarians.

Gibbon, however, does not single out Christianity as the only culprit. It was only one in a series that brought the empire to its knees. In the end, the fall was inevitable:

…the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest, and as soon as time or accident has removed artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

A Divided Empire

Although Gibbon points to the rise of Christianity as a fundamental cause, the actual fall or decline could be seen decades earlier. By the 3rd century CE, the city of Rome was no longer the center of the empire - an empire that extended from the British Isles to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and into Africa. This massive size presented a problem and called for a quick solution, and it came with the reign of Emperor Diocletian. The empire was divided into two with one capital remaining at Rome and another in the east at Nicomedia; the eastern capital would later be moved to Constantinople, old Byzantium, by Emperor Constantine. The Senate, long-serving in an advisory capacity to the emperor, would be mostly ignored; instead, the power centered on a strong military. Some emperors would never step foot in Rome. In time Constantinople, Nova Roma or New Rome, would become the economic and cultural center that had once been Rome.

Despite the renewed strength that the division provided (the empire would be divided and united several times), the empire remained vulnerable to attack, especially on the Danube-Rhine border to the north. The presence of barbarians along the northern border of the empire was nothing new and had existed for years - the army had met with them on and off since the time of Julius Caesar. Some emperors had tried to buy them off, while others invited them to settle on Roman land and even join the army. However, many of these new settlers never truly became Roman even after citizenship was granted, retaining much of their old culture.

Roman vulnerability became more obvious as a significant number of Germanic tribes, the Goths, gathered along the northern border.

This vulnerability became more obvious as a significant number of Germanic tribes, the Goths, gathered along the northern border. They did not want to invade; they wanted to be part of the empire, not its conqueror. The empire's great wealth was a draw to this diverse population. They sought a better life, and despite their numbers, they appeared to be no immediate threat, at first. However, as Rome failed to act to their requests, tensions grew. This anxiety on the part of the Goths was due to a new menace further to the east, the Huns.

The Goth Invasion

During the reign of the eastern emperor Valens (364 -378 CE), the Thervingi Goths had congregated along the Danube-Rhine border - again, not as a threat, but with a desire only to receive permission to settle. This request was made in urgency, for the “savage” Huns threatened their homeland. Emperor Valens panicked and delayed an answer - a delay that brought increased concern among the Goths as winter was approaching. In anger, the Goths crossed the river with or without permission, and when a Roman commander planned an ambush, war soon followed. It was a war that would last for five years.

Although the Goths were mostly Christian many who joined them were not. Their presence had caused a substantial crisis for the emperor; he couldn't provide sufficient food and housing. This impatience, combined with the corruption and extortion by several Roman commanders, complicated matters. Valens prayed for help from the west. Unfortunately, in battle, the Romans were completely outmatched and ill-prepared, and the Battle of Adrianople proved this when two-thirds of the Roman army was killed. This death toll included the emperor himself. It would take Emperor Theodosius to bring peace.

An Enemy from Within: Alaric

The Goths remained on Roman land and would ally themselves with the Roman army. Later, however, one man, a Goth and former Roman commander, rose up against Rome - a man who only asked for what had been promised him - a man who would do what no other had done for eight centuries: sack Rome. His name was Alaric, and while he was a Goth, he had also been trained in the Roman army. He was intelligent, Christian, and very determined. He sought land in the Balkans for his people, land that they had been promised. Later, as the western emperor delayed his response, Alaric increased his demands, not only grain for his people but also recognition as citizens of the empire; however, the emperor, Honorius, continually refused. With no other course, Alaric gathered together an army of Goths, Huns and freed slaves and crossed the Alps into Italy. His army was well-organized, not a mob. Honorius was incompetent and completely out of touch, another in a long line of so-called “shadow emperors” - emperors who ruled in the shadow of the military. Oddly enough, he didn't even live in Rome but had a villa in nearby Ravenna.

Alaric sat outside the city, and over time, as the food and water in the city became increasingly scarce, Rome began to weaken. The time was now. While he had never wanted war but only land and recognition for his people Alaric, with the supposed help of a Gothic slave who opened the gates from within, entered Rome in August of 410 CE. He would stay for three days and completely sack the city; although he would leave St. Paul and St Peters alone. Honorius remained totally blind to the seriousness of the situation. While temporarily agreeing to Alaric's demands - something he never intended to honor - 6,000 Roman soldiers were sent to defend the city, but they were quickly defeated. Even though the city's coffers were nearly empty, the Senate finally relinquished; Alaric left with, among other items, two tons of gold and thirteen tons of silver.

Some people at the time viewed the sacking of the city as a sign from their pagan gods. St. Augustine, who died in 430 CE, said in his City of God that the fall of Rome was not a result of the people's abandonment of their pagan gods (gods they believed protected the city) but as a reminder to the city's Christians why they needed to suffer. There was good, for the world was created by good, but it was flawed by human sin; however, he still believed the empire was a force for peace and unity. To St. Augustine there existed two cities: one of this world and one of God.

Barbarian Invasions

Although Alaric would soon die afterwards, other barbarians - whether Christian or not - did not stop after the sack of the city. The old empire was ravaged, among others, by Burgundians, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, and Magyars. By 475 CE Spain, Britain, and parts of Gaul had been lost to various Germanic people and only Italy remained as the “empire” in the west. The Vandals would soon move from Spain and into northern Africa, eventually capturing the city of Carthage. The Roman army abandoned all hope of recovering the area and moved out. The loss of Africa meant a loss of revenue, and the loss of revenue meant there was less money to support an army to defend the city. Despite these considerable losses, there was some success for the Romans. The threat from Attila the Hun was finally stopped at the Battle of Chalons by Roman commander Aelius who had created an army of Goths, Franks, Celts and Burgundians. Even Gibbon recognized Attila as one “who urged the rapid downfall of the Roman empire.” While Attila would recover and sack several Italian cities, he and the Hun threat ended with his death due to a nosebleed on his wedding night.

The loss of revenue for the western half of the empire could not support an army capable of defending the already vulnerable borders.

Conclusion: Multiple Factors

One could make a sound case for a multitude of reasons for the fall of Rome. However, its fall was not due to one cause, although many search for one. Most of the causes, initially, point to one place: the city of Rome itself. The loss of revenue for the western half of the empire could not support an army - an army that was necessary for defending the already vulnerable borders. Continual warfare meant trade was disrupted; invading armies caused crops to be laid to waste, poor technology made for low food production, the city was overcrowded, unemployment was high, and lastly, there were always the epidemics. Added to these was an inept and untrustworthy government.

The presence of the barbarians in and around the empire added to a crisis not only externally but internally. These factors helped bring an empire from “a state of health into non-existence.” The Roman army lacked both proper training and equipment. The government itself was unstable. Peter Heather in his The Fall of the Roman Empire states that it “fell not because of its 'stupendous fabric' but because its German neighbors responded to its power in ways that the Romans could not ever have foreseen… By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was responsible for its own destruction.”

Rome's fall ended the ancient world and the Middle Ages were borne. These “Dark Ages” brought the end to much that was Roman. The West fell into turmoil. However, while much was lost, western civilization still owes a debt to the Romans. Although only a few today can speak Latin, it is part of our language and the foundation of the Romance languages of French, Italian, and Spanish. Our legal system is based on Roman law. Many present day European cities were founded by Rome. Our knowledge of Greece comes though Rome and many other lasting effects besides. Rome had fallen but it had been for so so long one of the history's truly world cities.

A Short Timeline of the Fall of the Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire was undoubtedly an earth-shattering occurrence in Western civilization, but there isn't one single event that scholars can agree on that decisively led to the end of the glory that was Rome, nor which point on a timeline could stand as the official end. Instead, the fall was slow and painful, lasting over a period of two and a half centuries.

The ancient city of Rome, according to tradition, was founded in 753 BCE. It wasn't until 509 BCE, however, that the Roman Republic was founded. The Republic functioned effectively until civil war during the first century BCE led to the fall of the Republic and the creation of the Roman Empire in 27 CE. While the Roman Republic was a time of great advances in science, art, and architecture, the "fall of Rome" refers to the end of the Roman Empire in 476 CE.

When Did Rome Fall?

In his masterwork, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon selected 476 CE, a date most often mentioned by historians.   That date was when Odoacer, the Germanic king of the Torcilingi, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor to rule the western part of the Roman Empire. The eastern half became the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul).

But the city of Rome continued to exist. Some see the rise of Christianity as putting an end to the Romans those who disagree with that find the rise of Islam a more fitting bookend to the end of the empire—but that would put the Fall of Rome at Constantinople in 1453!   In the end, the arrival of Odoacer was but one of many barbarian incursions into the empire. Certainly, the people who lived through the takeover would probably be surprised by the importance we place on determining an exact event and time.

The original showbiz dad

Romulus Augustus was actually dubbed Emperor by his dad, a guy named Orestes. Orestes had been a Roman military leader who had pretty much stolen the throne from Nepos, the former Western Roman Emperor. So when he handed the throne to his young son, the father/son duo was quick to discover that they had a hard time getting anybody outside of central Italy to take them seriously.

Meanwhile, the many tribes who had been immigrating to the territory got tired of being asked to fight for Rome without being granted lands of their own. So finally, led by Odoacer, the tribes rose up in rebellion, marched into Western Rome and took control. Fortunately for Romulus Augustulus, the invading Odoacer didn’t have to put up much of a fight in his quest to take over. In fact, he actually found young Romulus kind of cute and not only spared his life, but sent him off with money to start a new life elsewhere.

Fall of the Western Roman Empire

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To many historians, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE has always been viewed as the end of the ancient world and the onset of the Middle Ages, often improperly called the Dark Ages, despite Petrarch’s assertion. Since much of the west had already fallen by the middle of the 5th century CE, when a writer speaks of the fall of the empire, he or she generally refers to the fall of the city of Rome. Although historians generally agree on the year of the fall, 476 CE, they often disagree on its causes. English historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote in the late 18th century CE, points to the rise of Christianity and its effect on the Roman psyche while others believe the decline and fall were due, in part, to the influx of 'barbarians' from the north and west.

Why Rome Fell

Just like any normal civilization fall, the stories behind Rome’s decline are rooted in a plethora of internal and external factors. It’s hard to pinpoint one causative factor of Rome’s fall, but we do know that invasions, religion, imperial incompetence, diseases, and divisions were just some of the reasons why Rome fell.

Barbarian Invasion

Barbarians sacking Rome in 410 CE

Most people hold strong assertions that the underlying cause of the collapse of the mighty Rome was the empire’s inability to defend herself from the Barbarian invasion. For many centuries, Romans warred with Germanic tribal groups, but they didn’t succumb to them. But around 300 CE, Barbarians penetrated Rome and caused considerable havoc. In 410 CE, King Alaric of the Visigoths did the impossible thing when he literally conquered Rome and sacked them from the city.

The Roman Empire became vulnerable to attacks its troubles increased further when the Vandals attacked the Eternal City in 455 CE. In 476 CE, still not finished yet, King Odoacer cleared down the remaining legs of Roman rule in Italy when he rose up against Emperors Romulus & Augustulus. It’s no wonder why some historians state 476 CE as the exact year the Western Empire got annihilated.

Division and Cracks in Rome

The rulers of ancient Rome failed to pay heed to unity – “Divided we fall, united we stand”. When Emperor Diclotian controversially divided a once unified Rome into West and East during the late 3rd century CE, he created room for a quick fall of the Western side.

Government wise, the division favored the effective rule of both halves, but in the long, the two empires stood far apart. Instead of working together as Roman citizens, the West and East weakened their ties by engaging in minor conflicts over resources.

As time went on, the East grew stronger than the West. The weak Western Empire, therefore, became a vulnerable target to the Barbarian attacks. By the 5th century CE, the West had collapsed, but the East would go on to live for 1000 years before succumbing to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

Introduction of Christianity

Christianity became a turning point when it was introduced to the Romans as a new religion. When Emperor Constantine (306-337 CE) brought religious change (Christianity) to Rome, he was naïve about the long-term consequences of what he did. For centuries, Romans were used to the idea of many gods and goddesses (polytheism) emperors like Caligula even viewed himself as a god.

When Christianity came preaching a monotheistic (one) God, it was completely contrary to the established religious doctrines of ancient Romans. Consequently, Christians faced a series of persecutions. But they were once again saved by the anti-persecution principles of Emperor Constantine.

By embracing this new religion and throwing away their core traditions, Romans severely committed a suicidal change of faith. To speed up the Roman decadence, Christianity was made the empire’s main religion. This lessened the authority of their imperial rulers within an eye’s blink, Roman emperors became nobody. How could the empire have survived without a respected leader?

Lead Poisoning

Some historians move the fall issue from social problems to chemical poisoning. It’s unbelievable how ancient Romans played with the tail of a lion – they were drinking lead-infested water from water pipes. Even though ancient Romans supposedly had some knowledge of the dangers of lead, they went ahead to carelessly tamper with it.

With time their bodies absorbed and accumulated lethal amounts of the poisonous metal. Scholars argue that lead poisoning could have decreased the fertility rate and intelligence of Romans, leaving them with unwise population and leaders. In all, this might have contributed to their vulnerability and eventual breakdown.

Military Decay

Why Rome fell – Military Decay

According to historian Vegetus, the Roman army degraded internally. In the long absence of wars, the army retired to sleep without training. This made them ill-prepared for the invasions that finally came their way. They were struck down by relatively superior enemy weapons. This decay of the army was partly caused by incompetent leadership. Due to a lack of motivation (rewards), soldiers laid down their tools and lived as ordinary civilians.

Economic Downturn

After the reign of the Great Marcus Aurelius, Romans made little to no expansionism efforts. When you erect a building and leave it uncompleted at the peak, it would gradually fall down. This may have been the exact case of the Romans when they grew tired of expanding their empire.

Moreover, they spent lavishly at a time when gold supply to the empire was scaled down. The Roman currency lost its value when minting of their coins was done with little gold. In this vein, some theorists suggest that the empire collapsed on itself because it expanded so high. The bigger it got, the harder it became to govern.

Diseases and Misery

What can wipe out a civilization better than a disease? Historians think that massive depopulation hit hard at Western Rome, leaving them to be downtrodden by the Barbarian invasion. Between the 2nd & 3rd centuries CE, two catastrophic plagues visited the Roman Empire and killed the majority of its workforce. The Antonine & Cyprian epidemics were able to devastate Rome because of the empire’s extended trade links to China, India, and the East African coastline.

The number of Roman lives that were claimed by diseases was quite significant – some towns became empty, but exact death figures are unavailable. Consequently, the unhealthy Roman soldiers could hardly defend against the Barbarian invasion.


As the Roman Republic expanded, it reached a point where the central government in Rome could not effectively rule the distant provinces. Communications and transportation were especially problematic given the vast extent of the Empire. News of invasion, revolt, natural disasters, or epidemic outbreak was carried by ship or mounted postal service, often requiring much time to reach Rome and for Rome's orders to be returned and acted upon. Therefore, provincial governors had de facto autonomy in the name of the Roman Republic. Governors had several duties, including the command of armies, handling the taxes of the province and serving as the province's chief judges. [6]

Prior to the establishment of the Empire, the territories of the Roman Republic had been divided in 43 BC among the members of the Second Triumvirate: Mark Antony, Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Antony received the provinces in the East: Achaea, Macedonia and Epirus (roughly modern Greece, Albania and the coast of Croatia), Bithynia, Pontus and Asia (roughly modern Turkey), Syria, Cyprus, and Cyrenaica. [7] These lands had previously been conquered by Alexander the Great thus, much of the aristocracy was of Greek origin. The whole region, especially the major cities, had been largely assimilated into Greek culture, Greek often serving as the lingua franca. [8]

Octavian obtained the Roman provinces of the West: Italia (modern Italy), Gaul (modern France), Gallia Belgica (parts of modern Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), and Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal). [7] These lands also included Greek and Carthaginian colonies in the coastal areas, though Celtic tribes such as Gauls and Celtiberians were culturally dominant. Lepidus received the minor province of Africa (roughly modern Tunisia). Octavian soon took Africa from Lepidus, while adding Sicilia (modern Sicily) to his holdings. [9]

Upon the defeat of Mark Antony, a victorious Octavian controlled a united Roman Empire. The Empire featured many distinct cultures, all experienced a gradual Romanization. [10] While the predominantly Greek culture of the East and the predominantly Latin culture of the West functioned effectively as an integrated whole, political and military developments would ultimately realign the Empire along those cultural and linguistic lines. More often than not, Greek and Latin practices (and to some extent the languages themselves) would be combined in fields such as history (e.g., those by Cato the Elder), philosophy and rhetoric. [11] [12] [13]

Rebellions and political developments Edit

Minor rebellions and uprisings were fairly common events throughout the Empire. Conquered tribes or oppressed cities would revolt, and the legions would be detached to crush the rebellion. While this process was simple in peacetime, it could be considerably more complicated in wartime. In a full-blown military campaign, the legions were far more numerous—as, for example, those led by Vespasian in the First Jewish–Roman War. To ensure a commander's loyalty, a pragmatic emperor might hold some members of the general's family hostage. To this end, Nero effectively held Domitian and Quintus Petillius Cerialis, Governor of Ostia, who were respectively the younger son and brother-in-law of Vespasian. Nero's rule was ended by a revolt of the Praetorian Guard, who had been bribed in the name of Galba. The Praetorian Guard, a figurative "sword of Damocles", was often perceived as being of dubious loyalty, primarily due its role in court intrigues and in overthrowing several emperors, including Pertinax and Aurelian. [14] [15] Following their example, the legions at the borders increasingly participated in civil wars. For instance, legions stationed in Egypt and the eastern provinces would see significant participation in the civil war of 218 between Emperor Macrinus and Elagabalus. [16]

As the Empire expanded, two key frontiers revealed themselves. In the West, behind the rivers Rhine and Danube, Germanic tribes were an important enemy. Augustus, the first emperor, had tried to conquer them but had pulled back after the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. [17] Whilst the Germanic tribes were formidable foes, the Parthian Empire in the East presented the greatest threat to the Empire. The Parthians were too remote and powerful to be conquered and there was a constant Parthian threat of invasion. The Parthians repelled several Roman invasions, and even after successful wars of conquest, such as those implemented by Trajan or Septimius Severus, the conquered territories were forsaken in attempts to ensure a lasting peace with the Parthians. The Parthian Empire would be succeeded by the Sasanian Empire, which continued hostilities with the Roman Empire. [18]

Controlling the western border of Rome was reasonably easy because it was relatively close to Rome itself and also because of the disunity among the Germans. However, controlling both frontiers simultaneously during wartime was difficult. If the emperor was near the border in the East, the chances were high that an ambitious general would rebel in the West and vice versa. This wartime opportunism plagued many ruling emperors and indeed paved the road to power for several future emperors. By the time of the Crisis of the Third Century, usurpation became a common method of succession: Philip the Arab, Trebonianus Gallus and Aemilianus were all usurping generals-turned-emperors whose rule would end with usurpation by another powerful general. [19] [20] [21]

Crisis of the Third Century Edit

With the assassination of the Emperor Alexander Severus on 18 March 235, the Roman Empire sank into a 50-year period of civil war, now known as the Crisis of the Third Century. The rise of the bellicose Sasanian Empire in place of Parthia posed a major threat to Rome in the east, as demonstrated by Shapur I's capture of Emperor Valerian in 259. Valerian's eldest son and heir-apparent, Gallienus, succeeded him and took up the fight on the eastern frontier. Gallienus' son, Saloninus, and the Praetorian Prefect Silvanus were residing in Colonia Agrippina (modern Cologne) to solidify the loyalty of the local legions. Nevertheless, Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus – the local governor of the German provinces – rebelled his assault on Colonia Agrippina resulted in the deaths of Saloninus and the prefect. In the confusion that followed, an independent state known in modern historiography as the Gallic Empire emerged. [22]

Its capital was Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier), and it quickly expanded its control over the German and Gaulish provinces, all of Hispania and Britannia. It had its own senate, and a partial list of its consuls still survives. It maintained Roman religion, language, and culture, and was far more concerned with fighting the Germanic tribes, fending off Germanic incursions and restoring the security the Gallic provinces had enjoyed in the past, than in challenging the Roman central government. [23] However, in the reign of Claudius Gothicus (268 to 270), large expanses of the Gallic Empire were restored to Roman rule. At roughly the same time, several eastern provinces seceded to form the Palmyrene Empire, under the rule of Queen Zenobia. [24]

In 272, Emperor Aurelian finally managed to reclaim Palmyra and its territory for the empire. With the East secure, his attention turned to the West, invading the Gallic Empire a year later. Aurelian decisively defeated Tetricus I in the Battle of Châlons, and soon captured Tetricus and his son Tetricus II. Both Zenobia and the Tetrici were pardoned, although they were first paraded in a triumph. [25] [26]

Tetrarchy Edit

Diocletian was the first Emperor to divide the Roman Empire into a Tetrarchy. In 286 he elevated Maximian to the rank of augustus (emperor) and gave him control of the Western Empire while he himself ruled the East. [27] [28] [29] In 293, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus were appointed as their subordinates (caesars), creating the First Tetrarchy. This system effectively divided the Empire into four major regions, as a way to avoid the civil unrest that had marked the 3rd century. In the West, Maximian made Mediolanum (now Milan) his capital, and Constantius made Trier his. In the East, Galerius made his capital Sirmium and Diocletian made Nicomedia his. On 1 May 305, Diocletian and Maximian abdicated, replaced by Galerius and Constantius, who appointed Maximinus II and Valerius Severus, respectively, as their caesars, creating the Second Tetrarchy. [30]

The Tetrarchy collapsed after the unexpected death of Constantius in 306. His son, Constantine the Great, was declared Western Emperor by the British legions, [31] [32] [33] [34] but several other claimants arose and attempted to seize the Western Empire. In 308, Galerius held a meeting at Carnuntum, where he revived the Tetrarchy by dividing the Western Empire between Constantine and Licinius. [35] However, Constantine was more interested in conquering the whole empire than he was in the stability of the Tetrarchy, and by 314 began to compete against Licinius. Constantine defeated Licinius in 324, at the Battle of Chrysopolis, where Licinius was taken prisoner, and later murdered. [36] After Constantine unified the empire, he refounded the city of Byzantium in modern-day Turkey as Nova Roma ("New Rome"), later called Constantinople, and made it the capital of the Roman Empire. [37] The Tetrarchy was ended, although the concept of physically splitting the Roman Empire between two emperors remained. Although several powerful emperors unified both parts of the empire, this generally reverted in an empire divided into East and West upon their deaths, such as happened after the deaths of Constantine and Theodosius I. [38] [39]

Further divisions Edit

The Roman Empire was under the rule of a single Emperor, but, with the death of Constantine in 337, the empire was partitioned between his surviving male heirs. [38] Constantius, his third son and the second by his wife Fausta (Maximian's daughter) [40] received the eastern provinces, including Constantinople, Thrace, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and Cyrenaica Constantine II received Britannia, Gaul, Hispania, and Mauretania and Constans, initially under the supervision of Constantine II, received Italy, Africa, Illyricum, Pannonia, Macedonia, and Achaea. The provinces of Thrace, Achaea and Macedonia were shortly controlled by Dalmatius, nephew of Constantine I and a caesar, not an Augustus, until his murder by his own soldiers in 337. [41] The West was unified in 340 under Constans, who was assassinated in 350 under the order of the usurper Magnentius. After Magnentius lost the Battle of Mursa Major and committed suicide, a complete reunification of the whole Empire occurred under Constantius in 353. [40]

Constantius II focused most of his power in the East. Under his rule, the city of Byzantium – only recently re-founded as Constantinople – was fully developed as a capital. At Constantinople, the political, economic and military control of the Eastern Empire's resources would remain safe for centuries to come. The city was well fortified and located at the crossroads of several major trade and military routes. The site had been acknowledged for its strategic importance already by emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla, more than a century prior. [42]

In 361, Constantius II became ill and died, and Constantius Chlorus' grandson Julian, who had served as Constantius II's Caesar, assumed power. Julian was killed in 363 in the Battle of Samarra against the Persian Empire and was succeeded by Jovian, who ruled for only nine months. [43] Following the death of Jovian, Valentinian I emerged as Emperor in 364. He immediately divided the Empire once again, giving the eastern half to his brother Valens. Stability was not achieved for long in either half, as the conflicts with outside forces (barbarian tribes) intensified. In 376, the Visigoths, fleeing before the Ostrogoths, who in turn were fleeing before the Huns, were allowed to cross the river Danube and settle in the Balkans by the Eastern government. Mistreatment caused a full-scale rebellion, and in 378 they inflicted a crippling defeat on the Eastern Roman field army in the Battle of Adrianople, in which Emperor Valens also died. The defeat at Adrianople was shocking to the Romans, and forced them to negotiate with and settle the Visigoths within the borders of the Empire, where they would become semi-independent foederati under their own leaders. [44]

More than in the East, there was also opposition to the Christianizing policy of the Emperors in the western part of the Empire. In 379, Valentinian I's son and successor Gratian declined to wear the mantle of Pontifex Maximus, and in 382 he rescinded the rights of pagan priests and removed the Altar of Victory from the Roman Curia, a decision which caused dissatisfaction among the traditionally pagan aristocracy of Rome. [45] Theodosius I later decreed the Edict of Thessalonica, which banned all religions except Christianity. [46]

The political situation was unstable. In 383, a powerful and popular general named Magnus Maximus seized power in the West and forced Gratian's half-brother Valentinian II to flee to the East for aid in a destructive civil war the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I restored him to power. [47] In 392, the Frankish and pagan magister militum Arbogast assassinated Valentinian II and proclaimed an obscure senator named Eugenius as Emperor. In 394 the forces of the two halves of the Empire again clashed with great loss of life. Again Theodosius I won, and he briefly ruled a united Empire until his death in 395. He was the last Emperor to rule both parts of the Roman Empire before the West fragmented and collapsed. [39]

Theodosius I's older son Arcadius inherited the eastern half while the younger Honorius got the western half. Both were still minors and neither was capable of ruling effectively. Honorius was placed under the tutelage of the half-Roman/half-barbarian magister militum Flavius Stilicho, [48] while Rufinus became the power behind the throne in the east. Rufinus and Stilicho were rivals, and their disagreements would be exploited by the Gothic leader Alaric I who again rebelled in 408 following the massacre by Roman legions of thousands of barbarian families who were trying to assimilate into the Roman empire. [49]

Neither half of the Empire could raise forces sufficient even to subdue Alaric's men, and both tried to use Alaric against the other half. Alaric himself tried to establish a long-term territorial and official base, but was never able to do so. Stilicho tried to defend Italy and bring the invading Goths under control, but to do so he stripped the Rhine frontier of troops and the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi invaded Gaul in large numbers in 406. Stilicho became a victim of court intrigues and was killed in 408. While the East began a slow recovery and consolidation, the West began to collapse entirely. Alaric's men sacked Rome in 410. [50]

Reign of Honorius Edit

Honorius, the younger son of Theodosius I, was declared Augustus (and as such co-emperor with his father) on 23 January in 393. Upon the death of Theodosius, Honorius inherited the throne of the West at the age of ten whilst his older brother Arcadius inherited the East. The western capital was initially Mediolanum, as it had been during previous divisions, but it was moved to Ravenna in 402 upon the entry of the Visigothic king Alaric I into Italy. Ravenna, protected by abundant marshes and strong fortifications, was far easier to defend and had easy access to the imperial fleet of the Eastern Empire but made it more difficult for the Roman military to defend the central parts of Italy from regular barbarian incursions. [51] Ravenna would remain the western capital for 74 years until the deposition of Romulus Augustulus and would later be the capital of both the Ostrogothic Kingdom and the Exarchate of Ravenna. [52] [53]

Despite the moved capital, economic power remained focused on Rome and its rich senatorial aristocracy which dominated much of Italy and Africa in particular. After Emperor Gallienus had banned senators from army commands in the mid-3rd century, the senatorial elite lost all experience of—and interest in—military life. [54] In the early 5th century the wealthy landowning elite of the Roman Senate largely barred its tenants from military service, but it also refused to approve sufficient funding for maintaining a sufficiently powerful mercenary army to defend the entire Western Empire. The West's most important military area had been northern Gaul and the Rhine frontier in the 4th century, when Trier frequently served as a military capital of sorts for the Empire. Many leading Western generals were barbarians. [55]

The reign of Honorius was, even by Western Roman standards, chaotic and plagued by both internal and external struggles. The Visigothic foederati under Alaric, magister militum in Illyricum, rebelled in 395. Gildo, the Comes Africae and Magister utriusque militiae per Africam, rebelled in 397 and initiated the Gildonic War. Stilicho managed to subdue Gildo but was campaigning in Raetia when the Visigoths entered Italy in 402. [56] Stilicho, hurrying back to aid in defending Italy, summoned legions in Gaul and Britain with which he managed to defeat Alaric twice before agreeing to allow him to retreat back to Illyria. [57]

The weakening of the frontiers in Britain and Gaul had dire consequences for the Empire. As the imperial government was not providing the military protection the northern provinces expected and needed, numerous usurpers arose in Britain, including Marcus (406–407), Gratian (407), and Constantine III who invaded Gaul in 407. [58] Britain was effectively abandoned by the empire by 410 due to the lack of resources and the need to look after more important frontiers. The weakening of the Rhine frontier allowed multiple barbarian tribes, including the Vandals, Alans and Suebi, to cross the river and enter Roman territory in 406. [59]

Honorius was convinced by the minister Olympius that Stilicho was conspiring to overthrow him, and so arrested and executed Stilicho in 408. [60] Olympius headed a conspiracy that orchestrated the deaths of key individuals related to the faction of Stilicho, including his son and the families of many of his federated troops. This led many of the soldiers to instead join with Alaric, who returned to Italy in 409 and met little opposition. Despite attempts by Honorius to reach a settlement and six legions of Eastern Roman soldiers sent to support him, [61] the negotiations between Alaric and Honorius broke down in 410 and Alaric sacked the city of Rome. Though the sack was relatively mild and Rome was no longer the capital of even the Western Empire, the event shocked people across both halves of the Empire as this was the first time Rome (viewed at least as the symbolic heart of the Empire) had fallen to a foreign enemy since the Gallic invasions of the 4th century BC. The Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II, the successor of Arcadius, declared three days of mourning in Constantinople. [62]

Without Stilicho and following the sack of Rome, Honorius' reign grew more chaotic. The usurper Constantine III had stripped Roman Britain of its defenses when he crossed over to Gaul in 407, leaving the Romanized population subject to invasions, first by the Picts and then by the Saxons, Angli, and the Jutes who began to settle permanently from about 440 onwards. After Honorius accepted Constantine as co-emperor, Constantine's general in Hispania, Gerontius, proclaimed Maximus as Emperor. With the aid of general Constantius, Honorius defeated Gerontius and Maximus in 411 and shortly thereafter captured and executed Constantine III. With Constantius back in Italy, the Gallo-Roman senator Jovinus revolted after proclaiming himself Emperor, with the support of the Gallic nobility and the barbarian Burgundians and Alans. Honorius turned to the Visigoths under King Athaulf for support. [63] Athaulf defeated and executed Jovinus and his proclaimed co-emperor Sebastianus in 413, around the same time as another usurper arose in Africa, Heraclianus. Heraclianus attempted to invade Italy but failed and retreated to Carthage, where he was killed. [64]

With the Roman legions withdrawn, northern Gaul became increasingly subject to Frankish influence, the Franks naturally adopting a leading role in the region. In 418, Honorius granted southwestern Gaul (Gallia Aquitania) to the Visigoths as a vassal federation. Honorius removed the local imperial governors, leaving the Visigoths and the provincial Roman inhabitants to conduct their own affairs. As such, the first of the "barbarian kingdoms", the Visigothic Kingdom, was formed. [65]

Escalating barbarian conflicts Edit

Honorius' death in 423 was followed by turmoil until the Eastern Roman government installed Valentinian III as Western Emperor in Ravenna by force of arms, with Galla Placidia acting as regent during her son's minority. Theodosius II, the Eastern Emperor, had hesitated to announce the death of Honorius and in the ensuing interregnum, Joannes was nominated as Western Emperor. Joannes' "rule" was short and the forces of the East defeated and executed him in 425. [66]

After a violent struggle with several rivals, and against Placidia's wish, Aetius rose to the rank of magister militum. Aetius was able to stabilize the Western Empire's military situation somewhat, relying heavily on his Hunnic allies. With their help Aetius undertook extensive campaigns in Gaul, defeating the Visigoths in 437 and 438 but suffering a defeat himself in 439, ending the conflict in a status quo ante with a treaty. [67]

Meanwhile, pressure from the Visigoths and a rebellion by Bonifacius, the governor of Africa, induced the Vandals under King Gaiseric to cross from Spain to Tingitana in what is now Morocco in 429. They temporarily halted in Numidia in 435 before moving eastward. With Aetius occupied in Gaul, the Western Roman government could do nothing to prevent the Vandals conquering the wealthy African provinces, culminating in the fall of Carthage on 19 October 439 and the establishment of the Vandal Kingdom. By the 400s, Italy and Rome itself were dependent on the taxes and foodstuffs from these provinces, leading to an economic crisis. With Vandal fleets becoming an increasing danger to Roman sea trade and the coasts and islands of the western and central Mediterranean, Aetius coordinated a counterattack against the Vandals in 440, organizing a large army in Sicily. [68]

However, the plans for retaking Africa had to be abandoned due to the immediate need to combat the invading Huns, who in 444 were united under their ambitious king Attila. Turning against their former ally, the Huns became a formidable threat to the Empire. Aetius transferred his forces to the Danube, [68] though Attila concentrated on raiding the Eastern Roman provinces in the Balkans, providing temporary relief to the Western Empire. In 449, Attila received a message from Honoria, Valentinian III's sister, offering him half the western empire if he would rescue her from an unwanted marriage that her brother was forcing her into. With a pretext to invade the West, Attila secured peace with the Eastern court and crossed the Rhine in early 451. [69] With Attila wreaking havoc in Gaul, Aetius gathered a coalition of Roman and Germanic forces, including Visigoths and Burgundians, and prevented the Huns from taking the city of Aurelianum, forcing them into retreat. [70] At the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, the Roman-Germanic coalition met and defeated the Hunnic forces, though Attila escaped. [71]

Attila regrouped and invaded Italy in 452. With Aetius not having enough forces to attack him, the road to Rome was open. Valentinian sent Pope Leo I and two leading senators to negotiate with Attila. This embassy, combined with a plague among Attila's troops, the threat of famine, and news that the Eastern Emperor Marcian had launched an attack on the Hun homelands along the Danube, forced Attila to turn back and leave Italy. When Attila died unexpectedly in 453, the power struggle that erupted between his sons ended the threat posed by the Huns. [72]

Internal unrest and Majorian Edit

Valentinian III was intimidated by Aetius and was encouraged by the Roman senator Petronius Maximus and the chamberlain Heraclius to assassinate him. When Aetius was at court in Ravenna delivering a financial account, Valentinian suddenly leaped from his seat and declared that he would no longer be the victim of Aetius' drunken depravities. Aetius attempted to defend himself from the charges, but Valentinian drew his sword and struck the weaponless Aetius on the head, killing him on the spot. [73] On 16 March the following year, Valentinian himself was killed by supporters of the dead general, possibly acting for Petronius Maximus. With the end of the Theodosian dynasty, Petronius Maximus proclaimed himself emperor during the ensuing period of unrest. [74]

Petronius was not able to take effective control of the significantly weakened and unstable Empire. He broke the betrothal between Huneric, son of the Vandal king Gaiseric, and Eudocia, daughter of Valentinian III. This was seen as a just cause of war by King Gaiseric, who set sail to attack Rome. Petronius and his supporters attempted to flee the city at the sight of the approaching Vandals, only to be stoned to death by a Roman mob. Petronius had reigned only 11 weeks. [75] With the Vandals at the gates, Pope Leo I requested that the King not destroy the ancient city or murder its inhabitants, to which Gaiseric agreed and the city gates were opened to him. Though keeping his promise, Gaiseric looted great amounts of treasure and damaged objects of cultural significance such as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The severity of the Vandal sack of 455 is disputed, though with the Vandals plundering the city for a full fourteen days as opposed to the Visigothic sack of 410, where the Visigoths only spent three days in the city, it was likely more thorough. [76]

Avitus, a prominent general under Petronius, was proclaimed emperor by the Visigothic king Theodoric II and accepted as such by the Roman Senate. Though supported by the Gallic provinces and the Visigoths, Avitus was resented in Italy due to ongoing food shortages caused by Vandal control of trade routes, and for using a Visigothic imperial guard. He disbanded his guard due to popular pressure, and the Suebian general Ricimer used the opportunity to depose Avitus, counting on popular discontent. After the deposition of Avitus, the Eastern Emperor Leo I did not select a new western Augustus. The prominent general Majorian defeated an invading force of Alemanni and was subsequently proclaimed Western Emperor by the army and eventually accepted as such by Leo. [77]

Majorian was the last Western Emperor to attempt to recover the Western Empire with his own military forces. To prepare, Majorian significantly strengthened the Western Roman army by recruiting large numbers of barbarian mercenaries, among them the Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugii, Burgundians, Huns, Bastarnae, Suebi, Scythians and Alans, and built two fleets, one at Ravenna, to combat the strong Vandalic fleet. Majorian personally led the army to wage war in Gaul, leaving Ricimer in Italy. The Gallic provinces and the Visigothic Kingdom had rebelled following the deposition of Avitus, refusing to acknowledge Majorian as lawful emperor. At the Battle of Arelate, Majorian decisively defeated the Visigoths under Theoderic II and forced them to relinquish their great conquests in Hispania and return to foederati status. Majorian then entered the Rhone Valley, where he defeated the Burgundians and reconquered the rebel city of Lugdunum. With Gaul back under Roman control, Majorian turned his eyes to the Vandals and Africa. Not only did the Vandals pose a constant danger to coastal Italy and trade in the Mediterranean, but the province they ruled was economically vital to the survival of the West. Majorian began a campaign to fully reconquer Hispania to use it as a base for the reconquest of Africa. Throughout 459, Majorian campaigned against the Suebi in northwestern Hispania. [77]

The Vandals began to increasingly fear a Roman invasion. King Gaiseric tried to negotiate a peace with Majorian, who rejected the proposal. In the wake of this, Gaiseric devastated Mauretania, part of his own kingdom, fearing that the Roman army would land there. Having regained control of Hispania, Majorian intended to use his fleet at Carthaginiensis to attack the Vandals. Before he could, the fleet was destroyed, allegedly by traitors paid by the Vandals. Deprived of his fleet, Majorian had to cancel his attack on the Vandals and conclude a peace with Gaiseric. Disbanding his barbarian forces, Majorian intended to return to Rome and issue reforms, stopping at Arelate on his way. Here, Ricimer deposed and arrested him in 461, having gathered significant aristocratic opposition against Majorian. After five days of beatings and torture, Majorian was beheaded near the river Iria. [77]

Collapse Edit

The final collapse of the Empire in the West was marked by increasingly ineffectual puppet Emperors dominated by their Germanic magister militums. The most pointed example of this is Ricimer, who effectively became a "shadow Emperor" following the depositions of Avitus and Majorian. Unable to take the throne for himself due to his barbarian heritage, Ricimer appointed a series of puppet Emperors who could do little to halt the collapse of Roman authority and the loss of the territories re-conquered by Majorian. [78] The first of these puppet emperors, Libius Severus, had no recognition outside of Italy, with the Eastern Emperor Leo I and provincial governors in Gaul and Illyria all refusing to recognize him. [79]

Severus died in 465 and Leo I, with the consent of Ricimer, appointed the capable Eastern general Anthemius as Western Emperor following an eighteen-month interregnum. The relationship between Anthemius and the East was good, Anthemius is the last Western Emperor recorded in an Eastern law, and the two courts conducted a joint operation to retake Africa from the Vandals, culminating in the disastrous Battle of Cape Bon in 468. In addition Anthemius conducted failed campaigns against the Visigoths, hoping to halt their expansion. [78]

The trial and subsequent execution of Romanus, an Italian senator and friend of Ricimer, on the grounds of treachery in 470 made Ricimer hostile to Anthemius. Following two years of ill feeling, Ricimer deposed and killed Anthemius in 472, elevating Olybrius to the Western throne. [80] During the brief reign of Olybrius, Ricimer died and his nephew Gundobad succeeded him as magister militum. After only seven months of rule, Olybrius died of dropsy. Gundobad elevated Glycerius to Western Emperor. The Eastern Empire had rejected Olybrius and also rejected Glycerius, instead supporting a candidate of their own, Julius Nepos, magister militum in Dalmatia. With the support of Eastern Emperors Leo II and Zeno, Julius Nepos crossed the Adriatic Sea in the spring of 474 to depose Glycerius. At the arrival of Nepos in Italy, Glycerius abdicated without a fight and was allowed to live out his life as the Bishop of Salona. [81]

The brief rule of Nepos in Italy ended in 475 when Orestes, a former secretary of Attila and the magister militum of Julius Nepos, took control of Ravenna and forced Nepos to flee by ship to Dalmatia. Later in the same year, Orestes crowned his own young son as Western Emperor under the name Romulus Augustus. Romulus Augustus was not recognised as Western Emperor by the Eastern Court, who maintained that Nepos was the only legal Western Emperor, reigning in exile from Dalmatia. [82]

On 4 September 476, Odoacer, leader of the Germanic foederati in Italy, captured Ravenna, killed Orestes and deposed Romulus. Though Romulus was deposed, Nepos did not return to Italy and continued to reign as Western Emperor from Dalmatia, with support from Constantinople. Odoacer proclaimed himself ruler of Italy and began to negotiate with the Eastern Emperor Zeno. Zeno eventually granted Odoacer patrician status as recognition of his authority and accepted him as his viceroy of Italy. Zeno, however, insisted that Odoacer had to pay homage to Julius Nepos as the Emperor of the Western Empire. Odoacer accepted this condition and issued coins in the name of Julius Nepos throughout Italy. This, however, was mainly an empty political gesture, as Odoacer never returned any real power or territories to Nepos. The murder of Nepos in 480 prompted Odoacer to invade Dalmatia, annexing it to his Kingdom of Italy. [83]

Fall of the Empire Edit

By convention, the Western Roman Empire is deemed to have ended on 4 September 476, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, but the historical record calls this determination into question. Indeed, the deposition of Romulus Augustus received very little attention in contemporary times. Romulus was a usurper in the eyes of the Eastern Roman Empire and the remaining territories of Western Roman control outside of Italy, with the previous emperor Julius Nepos still being alive and claiming to rule the Western Empire in Dalmatia. Furthermore, the Western court had lacked true power and had been subject to Germanic aristocrats for decades, with most of its legal territory being under control of various barbarian kingdoms. With Odoacer recognising Julius Nepos, and later the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as his sovereign, nominal Roman control continued in Italy. [84] Syagrius, who had managed to preserve Roman sovereignty in an exclave in northern Gaul (a realm today known as the Domain of Soissons) also recognized Nepos as his sovereign and the legitimate Western Emperor. [85]

The authority of Julius Nepos as Emperor was accepted not only by Odoacer in Italy, but by the Eastern Empire and Syagrius in Gaul (who had not recognized Romulus Augustulus). Nepos was murdered by his own soldiers in 480, a plot some attribute to Odoacer or the previous, deposed emperor Glycerius, [86] and the Eastern Emperor Zeno chose not to appoint a new western emperor. Zeno, recognizing that no true Roman control remained over the territories legally governed by the Western court, instead chose to abolish the juridical division of the position of Emperor and declared himself the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. Zeno became the first sole Roman emperor since the division after Theodosius I, 85 years prior, and the position would never again be divided. As such, the (eastern) Roman emperors after 480 are the successors of the western ones, albeit only in a juridical sense. [87] These emperors would continue to rule the Roman Empire until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, nearly a thousand years later. [88] As 480 marks the end of the juridical division of the empire into two imperial courts, some historians refer to the death of Nepos and abolition of the Western Empire by Zeno as the end of the Western Roman Empire. [85] [89]

Despite the fall, or abolition, of the Western Empire, many of the new kings of western Europe continued to operate firmly within a Roman administrative framework. This is especially true in the case of the Ostrogoths, who came to rule Italy after Odoacer. They continued to use the administrative systems of Odoacer's kingdom, essentially those of the Western Roman Empire, and administrative positions continued to be staffed exclusively by Romans. The Senate continued to function as it always had, and the laws of the Empire were recognized as ruling the Roman population, though the Goths were ruled by their own traditional laws. [90] Western Roman administrative institutions, in particular those of Italy, thus continued to be used during "barbarian" rule and after the forces of the Eastern Roman empire re-conquered some of the formerly imperial territories. Some historians thus refer to the reorganizations of Italy and abolition of the old and separate Western Roman administrative units, such as the Praetorian prefecture of Italy, during the sixth century as the "true" fall of the Western Roman Empire. [84]

Roman cultural traditions continued throughout the territory of the Western Empire for long after its disappearance, and a recent school of interpretation argues that the great political changes can more accurately be described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall. [91]

Eastern vs Western Roman Empire Compared

When the Roman Empire dissolved into Eastern and Western entities, the East became the Byzantine Empire while the West forged a new identity tied to the Latin Church.

The disintegration of the Roman Empire began in earnest during the 3rd Century. As frontiers along the Rhine River began to crumble, barbarians from the Germanic regions began to cross into Roman territory. Poor imperial leadership, often resulting in civil war between competing would-be emperors, contributed to the growing weakness.

Although many of the early barbarian groups had no specific desire to conquer Rome, they were enticed by Roman civilization and prosperity while frequently fleeing other barbarian groups moving into Central Europe from the east. By the 4th Century, following the reign of Constantine the Great, the last emperor to rule over a unified Rome, the division between east and west was complete.

East vs West in Latter Imperial Times

The Eastern Empire was vastly different from the West. The East contained the largest population centers and the wealthiest cities. The moving of the capital to Constantinople by Constantine added the element of prestige and signified the importance of the East. Dominated by ancient civilizations that predated Rome, the East was far more eclectic and open to competing philosophies and religious ideals. The Christian population in the East, for example, was substantially higher than in the West.

The West was more prone to barbarian incursions as Germanic tribes invaded Gaul and eventually Italy during the 5th Century. Western legions were often composed of barbarian recruits, men that had no loyalty to Rome nor shared common interests related to imperial goals. As civil government crumbled, the Catholic Church emerged as both civil and spiritual leader under the auspices of local bishops whose seats coincided with the Roman civitates.

Although the Byzantine Emperor Justinian attempted to reunify the empire in the 6th Century, barbarian groups like the Lombards, Allemani, Vandals, and Franks continued to separate the West from the East. This separation resulted in the remnants of the Western Empire transforming into a new civilization independent of the rise of the Eastern Byzantine Empire.

Religion, Law, and Culture

Western European civilization has been defined as the product of Roman culture, the Christian Church, and barbarian culture and traditions. In the West, Latin Christianity dominated religious tradition while in the East, Orthodoxy emerged as the primary religious faith tradition. The East refused to acknowledge the Roman pope or pontiff as the supreme head of the Christian Church, vesting authority instead in the Patriarch of Constantinople who was appointed by the emperor.

The East continued to practice Roman law, codified in the 6th Century by Justinian. This code would not be reintroduced in the West until the 11th and 12 Centuries. Western law was an amalgamation of pagan Germanic law, based on the Wergeld model, and Canon Law. With a liberal dose of superstition, such as trial by water and compurgation, post-Roman western law lost the Roman element of due process.

Which Empire Ultimately Survived?

Despite clear advantages connected to Imperial Rome, the Byzantine Empire, although lasting until 1453, disintegrated rapidly. By the 11th Century, Byzantine emperors frantically requested military assistance from the West to contain Muslim advances, notably after the battle of Manzikert in 1071. By 1453, only Constantinople remained.

In the West, however, Muslim attempts to conquer were repelled decisively such as at Tours in 732 by Charles Martel. In many ways, the cohesiveness of the Roman Empire was replaced by the Catholic Church which was forced to forge alliances with strong secular rulers like Charlemagne. While the East struggled, the West was transformed. It can be argued that, at least on one level, the fate of East and West was intimately tied to religion and the role of Christianity, a fact acknowledged by Eastern emperors soliciting western military support via the Medieval papacy.

Ancient Rome

Rome ruled much of Europe around the Mediterranean for over 1000 years. However, the inner workings of the Roman Empire began to decline starting around 200 AD. By 400 AD Rome was struggling under the weight of its giant empire. The city of Rome finally fell in 476 AD.

The Peak of Roman Power

Rome reached its peak of power in the 2nd century around the year 117 AD under the rule of the great Roman emperor Trajan. Virtually all of the coastline along the Mediterranean Sea was part of the Roman Empire. This included Spain, Italy, France, southern Britain, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and northern Africa.

  • The politicians and rulers of Rome became more and more corrupt
  • Infighting and civil wars within the Empire
  • Attacks from barbarian tribes outside of the empire such as the Visigoths, Huns, Franks, and Vandals.
  • The Roman army was no longer a dominant force
  • The empire became so large it was difficult to govern

In 285 AD, Emperor Diocletian decided that the Roman Empire was too big to manage. He divided the Empire into two parts, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. Over the next hundred years or so, Rome would be reunited, split into three parts, and split in two again. Finally, in 395 AD, the empire was split into two for good. The Western Empire was ruled by Rome, the Eastern Empire was ruled by Constantinople.

Map of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire right before the fall
by Cthuljew at Wikimedia Commons

The "fall" of Rome discussed here is referring to the Western Roman Empire which was ruled by Rome. The Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantium Empire and remained in power for another 1000 years.

The City of Rome is Sacked

The city of Rome was thought by many to be unconquerable. However, in 410 AD, a Germanic barbarian tribe called the Visigoths invaded the city. They looted the treasures, killed and enslaved many Romans, and destroyed many buildings. This was the first time in 800 years that the city of Rome had been sacked.

In 476 AD, a Germanic barbarian by the name of Odoacer took control of Rome. He became king of Italy and forced the last emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustulus, to give up his crown. Many historians consider this to be the end of the Roman Empire.

With the fall of Rome, many changes occurred throughout Europe. Rome had provided a strong government, education, and culture. Now much of Europe fell into barbarianism. The next 500 years would be known as the Dark Ages of Europe.

Writings of J. Todd Ring

“The Goths remained on Roman land and would ally themselves with the Roman army. Later, however, one man, a Goth and former Roman commander, rose up against Rome – a man who only asked for what had been promised him – a man who would do what no other had done for eight centuries: sack Rome. His name was Alaric, and while he was a Goth, he had also been trained in the Roman army. He was intelligent, Christian, and very determined. He sought land in the Balkans for his people, land that they had been promised. Later, as the western emperor delayed his response, Alaric increased his demands, not only grain for his people but also recognition as citizens of the empire however, the emperor, Honorius, continually refused. With no other course, Alaric gathered together an army of Goths, Huns and freed slaves and crossed the Alps into Italy. His army was well-organized, not a mob. Honorius was incompetent and completely out of touch, another in a long line of so-called “shadow emperors” – emperors who ruled in the shadow of the military.”

– Donald L. Wasson, The Fall Of The Western Roman Empire

As I’ve said, history is repeating itself.

A shadow government, a military industrial corporate security complex, rules a decaying Western empire, while the peoples’ needs are met with snears akin to, “Let them eat cake”.

An empire in decline, the Western (pseudo-democratic, crypto-fascist) corporate empire, facing both growing internal revolt and rising external competition, reacts in desperation with ever more desperate measures, like a wounded, dying beast, lashing out.

“By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was responsible for its own destruction.” Peter Heather summed it up well. And again, it must be seen, it is happening again, as a new empire repeats the mistakes of the past.

The over-reaction, the hubris, the over-reach, both internally and externally and above all, the callous and imperious, brazen heavy-handedness, will only hasten the decline and collapse of this latest of empires, which is the Western empire of corporate oligarchy.

Would-be God-kings never learn.

The Roman Empire fell for a number of reasons, including simple brain poisoning due to foolish choices of consumption (sounds familiar: lead goblets then, pesticides and junk food now). However, among the various causes, chief was internal decay. (Echoes, then as now: a culture of materialism, perpetual distraction, bread and circuses, and spiritual decay.) But a stubborn refusal to meet the legitimate desires and needs of the people, was key to the collapse and fall of the empire. (Again, a mirror image, and an echo.)

We will see the same again soon. It may take fifty years, or it may take five, but the new empire of global neofeudal corporate rule will fall, sooner or later. It is only a matter of time.

For the sake of the people, for the sake of us all, and for the sake of the Earth, let us pray it is soon. And we must do more than pray.