The deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 c.e. by the Gothic chief Odovacar marks the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the subsequent transition from classic antiquity to the Middle Ages. The deposition of Romulus Augustulus was a chronological benchmark that was conventionally established by later commentators to schematize complex historical events. Contemporary chroniclers took little notice of the fate of Romulus Augustulus. In a seminal article Arnaldo Momigliano referred to it as “the noiseless fall of an empire.” Chroniclers and laypeople alike had been far more traumatized by the Roman defeat at Adrianople (near Istanbul) in 378 c.e. in the East, the worst since Cannae, when Hannibal seriously threatened to overrun Rome, or by the Sack of Rome in 410 c.e. in the West. By the late fifth century c.e. barbarians had built their kingdoms within the imperial borders, most emperors were figureheads, and the imperial institutions had already crumbled.
Instead of a “fall,” it would thus be more appropriate to speak of a steady decline, with episodic recoveries, beginning with the successor of Hadrian (117–138 c.e.). The next emperor, the celebrated Marcus Aurelius (163–180), had to confront the first wave of invasions from the north, which were barely contained in northern Italy, while a catastrophic epidemic of plague visited the empire, and the traditional Eastern enemy, the Parthians, took advantage of the Roman weakness to launch a large-scale offensive campaign in the Middle East. The killing of his despotic and capricious son, emperor Commodus, in 193, marked the beginning of a long period of instability for the empire, which was ruled by very few capable men, who were mainly usurpers. Most of the emperors died a violent death, and the legions of Gaul time and again rebelled against Rome, while various remote provinces gained increased autonomy and sought to become independent.
It was only in 284 that Diocletian, a former slave from Illyria, restored order by enacting a series of important administrative, economic, and military reforms. When he died in 305, several aspirants to the throne set off a civil war that lasted for almost two decades, until Constantine the Great, in 323, managed to defeat all opponents. He moved the capital to Byzantium (now Istanbul, in Turkey), which was rechristened Constantinople so that the empire’s center shifted from West to East. Constantine took on the functions and prerogatives of an Oriental despot, reformed the army, and authorized the Christian cult, personally attending the Council of Nicaea in 325, which established the principles and dogmas of Christian orthodoxy. He died in 337, and his son Constantine II in 353 defeated another civil war for his succession. Meanwhile, pressure on the eastern and northern frontiers was mounting, as the cohesion of the empire weakened.
In 378 the Goths destroyed the entire eastern Roman army at Adrianople, and emperor Valens fell on the battlefield. His successor, Theodosius I, was the last great emperor to rule over the whole of the empire. Upon his death in 395 the empire was definitively split into the Western and the Eastern Roman Empires, governed by Theodosius’s heirs Honorius and Arcadius. While the eastern part withstood the Germanic and Hunnish invasions, the western part, which was the most coveted, rapidly collapsed. In 476 Odovacar sent the imperial insignia to Constantinople and ruled Italy on behalf of the Eastern Roman emperor. In Gaul, Spain, Britannia, and Africa, various Roman/Germanic kingdoms were founded; some, like the kingdom of the Franks, would play a central role throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.
Migrations Of Slavic And Germanic Peoples
The fall of the Roman Empire calls for a multicausal explanation. Augustus Caesar’s major accomplishment had been the creation of a sociopolitical entity that functioned smoothly for a couple of centuries. This prolonged period of peace and relative affluence generated a widespread sentiment of self-righteousness and invincibility. Many Romans believed that they lived in the best of all possible worlds, one that was immutable and unchallengeable (the so-called Roma aeterna). This presumption was seriously undermined toward the middle of the second century c.e., when Slavic and Germanic populations, moving from present Hungary, crossed the Roman fortified frontier (the limes), reaching northwestern Italy. This dramatic event had huge psychological repercussions. It not only shattered the feeling of safety and security of the Roman population; it also inflicted a terrible wound to the Roman model of civilization, a wound that, it turned out, could not be completely healed.
This moral crisis was aggravated by a pestilence that brought about a demographic collapse and the breakdown of the economy, which was heavily committed to crop production. The ensuing decrease of tax revenues forced the administration to levy new taxes to maintain the taxation yield. Unfortunately, such measures depressed the economy, while the inflation rate reached intolerable levels. The outcome was a disastrous economic crisis, the bankruptcy of small and middle-size rural businesses, and the pauperization of thousands of farmers, who in many cases turned into the serfs of rich landowners.
Central governments increased public spending, instituted primitive forms of welfare assistance, pegged prices, and fought inflation, but the concentration of wealth and political influence in the hands of local landowning dynasties called potentes (5 percent of the population controlled all the wealth of the empire) caused the evaporation of trust in the public institutions—no longer seen as protective and motivating—the erosion of civic spirit, and the progressive decline of Roman towns and cities, which were the backbone of the empire.
The lack of significant technological innovation, especially in agriculture, sapped the strength of Roman society and forced thousands of farmers to live barely above subsistence. Simultaneously, Diocletian’s imperial reforms reduced the prospects of upward mobility, crystallized power relations, and prevented the formation of a new class of enterprising modernizers who could have imposed radical changes in Roman society. Finally, the sustained rise of inflation triggered the transition from a monetary economy, based on coins (the denarius) — which had greatly contributed to preserving the unity of the empire—to barter and to a natural economy. The late empire was a winter of discontent and instability, generally provoked by unscrupulous military leaders, who proclaimed themselves to be the saviors of the glory of Rome, even though their plans involved insubordination, civil war, and the carnage of Romans and Germanic allies. The decline of the late empire should be credited, to a large extent, to the internecine fighting of the military, as civil institutions (like the Senate and the consul) lost their functions and influence.
The Rise Of Christianity
Meanwhile, a struggle ensued between Christian loyalists, those who sought a compromise with the heathen rulers, and Christian fundamentalists, those who were not prepared to sacrifice their autonomy and orthodoxy in exchange for social integration and a greater influence on the administration of public affairs. In the third century c.e., Christian loyalists gained a substantial victory. Christians remained the only powerful, efficient, and cohesive organization of the empire and a constant challenge to the heathen leadership.
The authorities soon realized that the fabric of Roman society could not be purged from Christianity without causing the final collapse of Roman institutions. This is the reason why Roman emperors, starting with Constantine, reached a series of agreements with Christian loyalists, which ultimately led to the amalgamation of “Romanity” and Christianity in 391, when Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the state in return for its unstinting support of the Roman system. As a consequence of the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, the church would take over most of the secular functions of the state.
By the end of the fourth century, for all its weaknesses, the empire was still immense, stretching from the Middle East to Caledonia (today’s Scotland) and from North Africa to the Black Sea. While the center of the European Union is the Atlantic Ocean, which features some of the world’s most heavily trafficked sea routes, Roman economy revolved around the Mediterranean basin. Romans never attempted to conquer regions that lay too far from the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum) and the Black Sea, the only exception being Britain, which was rich in mineral deposits. Conversely, the large central European rivers (Rhine, Danube) that traverse the core of the European Union marked the Roman frontier, the outpost of civilization. The Romans had created a huge commercial network across the Mediterranean, planting vineyards and olive groves, building villas, harbors, and market towns. Merchant ships crossed the sea to supply Rome, a megalopolis of more than a million inhabitants.
We now call that period “Lower Empire,” evoking the idea of the unstoppable decadence of Rome, plagued by corruption, moral decay, and theological disquisitions. But the two most serious plights were the disloyalty of generals and the poverty of barbarians. Troops were more faithful to their generals than to the emperors, and they often acclaimed their leaders as the only emperors worthy of their recognition. Such usurpations generally led to civil wars and widespread political instability. Barbarians looted frontier provinces and requested the payment of tributes in exchange for peace.
The empire had survived thanks to capable and tyrannical emperors-generals like Aurelianus, Diocletian, and Constantine. They had introduced conscription, doubled taxation, strengthened the bureaucracy and the secret police, and to stifle social protest promulgated extremely severe laws against desertion, tax evasion, and political dissent (even an unfavorable premonition about the emperor’s life could cost a fortune-teller his life). They incarnated the notion of the “Oriental despot” and militarized Roman society, but their recipe, a combination of pragmatism, far-sightedness, and callousness, momentarily saved the unity of the empire and helped the economy to recover. The cost they paid was enormous: the alienation of the population from the political establishment.
The Roman Empire, a multicultural and multiethnic society, was undergoing a thorough transformation from a pagan to an essentially Christian community. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which granted religious freedom to all his subjects and empowered the Christian Church. Like his successors, he hoped that Christianity, with its vitality and fervor, would generate a unity of purpose that Roman secular institutions could no longer guarantee.
The Barbarian Hordes
Various Germanic tribes and populations had been converted and were gradually changing their customs and mores. They were “Romanizing” themselves. Paradoxically, the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire was in part the result of the peaceful Gothic resettlement in the Balkans. At the time Flavius Valentinianus, a brilliant general, had become emperor (364), and one month after his accession to power he had appointed his brother Flavius Valens as the eastern emperor, keeping the western portion for himself. Valens was not a military man, but he did his best to gain the favor of his subjects by fighting corruption, reducing taxation, and building a new aqueduct. However, people never took a liking to him, in part because he was a religious fundamentalist when conciliatory tones would have been far more advisable.
Valens had to confront a usurper, Procopius, who had seized control of Constantinople while Valens’s army was marching toward the eastern front. Traditionally accustomed to attach far more importance to bloodlines than to state legislation, the Goths backed Procopius because he was a relative of Constantine, an emperor with whom they had signed important agreements. However, when the Gothic reinforcements arrived, the insurrection was nipped in the bud, and all were enslaved. Valens then ordered savage retaliatory attacks that brought the Goths to their knees in 369 but did not exterminate them. Roman emperors were expected to display benevolence and generosity toward a defeated enemy. A significant testimony of this tradition is provided by the orations dedicated to Valens by two heathen rhetoricians during the campaigns against the Goths that would result in the military and political disaster of Adrianople, in 378.
The contrast between the merciless conduct of warfare and the political pragmatism of Roman bureaucrats and legislators, who pressed for economic sanctions and compulsory recruitment of young Goths to be used as cannon fodder in the Middle East, and the humanitarian and progressive slogans of the elite, intent on incorporating their northern neighbors into Roman society, was truly noteworthy. Themistius, a senator and a philosopher, stated that just as the Romans strove to protect endangered species of animals in Africa and Asia, so the emperor should be praised for not annihilating the Goths in 369, who are human beings, like the Romans. This oration, like several others, as for instance those delivered by Libanius, encapsulates the universalistic and civilizing thrust of late Roman imperialism. Roman generals probably envisioned genocidal schemes, but they were unpalatable for a political leadership that offered security and literacy in return for loyalty, recruits, and tax money. Rome was to set an example for all other peoples.
When the Huns, a fierce nomadic population whose existence had never been recorded in Roman history, pushed the frightened Goths southward, the gap existing between humanitarian rhetoric and Realpolitik became obvious. Thousands of starving Gothic refugees, fleeing from a cruel enemy, reached the riverbanks of the Danube and pleaded for acceptance within the Roman borders. The emperor’s counselors saw a huge opportunity: The Goths would be allotted less fertile lands, and many of them would join the army and exempt an equal number of Roman citizens from military service. They were transported across the river and immigration officers attempted to record their names in order to plan their resettlement. But the sheer number of refugees and the confusion were so huge that they realized the futility of such an operation.
They opted to take advantage of the situation by accepting bribes and selecting slaves for their own villas. Meanwhile, other tribes had been informed that the border was open and the mass of refugees kept growing until the alarmed Roman functionaries decided that the maximum quota had been reached and left thousands of furious Goths on the other side of the Danube. Worse still, refugee camps were flooded with people who did not receive enough supplies because the commanding officers sold the provisions that had been destined to the refugees on the black market. When they were finally escorted to relocation areas by the frontier garrisons, thousands of Goths who had been overlooked crossed the river clandestinely.
The Battle Of Adrianople
Panic ensued amid the Roman population, and the proud and desperate Gothic immigrants could no longer tolerate their debasement and destitution. A seemingly unstoppable process led to war and to the Battle of Adrianople (378), where up to 40,000 Romans were killed, together with emperor Valens, who chose not to wait for reinforcements sent by the western emperor because he desperately needed a decisive victory to shore up his position. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and one of the fathers of the Catholic Church, called this battle “the end of all humanity, the end of the world,” while the most famous contemporary Roman chronicler, Ammianus Marcellinus, commented as follows: “Never, except in the battle of Cannae, had there been so destructive a slaughter recorded in our annals.” After Adrianople, Rome lost its superpower status and was no longer able to keep the barbarians in check by purely military means.
More and more Goths and Huns were absorbed by the Roman legions or engaged as mercenaries, and the Roman population felt increasingly insecure and threatened by their presence. Commentators lamented that Emperor Theodosius I had allowed too many barbarians, parvenus with their hands still covered with Roman blood, to reach the highest ranks of the army. How could Romans tolerate the arrogance of those barbarians who dressed like Romans and spoke Latin only when they met Romans, and spent the rest of the time speaking their own language and deriding Roman customs?
It is undeniable that someone like Alaric—a nobleman who served for various years as a commander of Gothic mercenaries in the Roman army and, after Theodosius’s death, was elected king of the Visigoths, only to sack Rome in 410—confirmed this impression. But there were also loyal and brilliant generals like Flavius Stilicho, the son of a Vandal, who repeatedly defeated Alaric before 410 and could have deferred Rome’s ultimate humiliation if the antibarbarian party in Rome had not resolved to have him executed for treason, together with the families of those tribesmen serving in the Roman army who subsequently could only defect to Alaric. Some of the most successful and loyal champions of Romanity were barbarian generals, who thought, spoke, and acted like Romans, or mixed-blood generals like Stilicho and Aetius, “the last Roman,” who was the son of a Schythian and became the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. Emperor Valentinian III assassinated him in 454. This prompted Sidonius Apollinaris (430–489) to declare: “I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left.”
Aetius’s well-deserved fame arose from his untiring effort to keep the empire together, with the help of various barbarian tribes and, above all else, from the strategic victory he secured for the Roman-Gothic-Frankish-Christian alliance against Attila’s Huns and their allies at the Catalaunian Fields (451) near Chalons-en-Champagne, the last major victory of the western empire.
This was the last, short-lived attempt to reunify the Roman Empire. After Justinian’s death the eastern Byzantine Empire, which for a century continued to claim sovereignty over the West, although to no avail, became increasingly Hellenized and greatly influenced the development of eastern European cultures, while barbarian and western Romans lay the foundations of western European civilization.
- Banaji, Jairus. Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001;
- Clarck, Gilian. Christianity and Roman Society. cambridge: Cambridge University Press, n.d.; Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Macmillan, 2005;
- Hingley, Richard. Globalizing Roman Culture: Unity, Diversity and Empire. New York: Routledge, 2005;
- Kagan, Donald. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Why Did It Collapse? Boston: Heath, 1962;
- Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.