The Division and Fall of the Roman Empire
- Introduction: Violent Transformations
- Causes of the ‘Decline and Fall’
- The Division Between East and West
- The Military Explanation
- Stilicho and Alaric
- Further Invasions and the Collapse of the West
- Bibliography and Further Reading
- Appendix: Further Primary Sources for the Late Empire
1. Introduction: Violent Transformations
The political 'fall' of the Roman Empire (from 410 C.E.) has long been regarded as one of the pivotal events in world history. Ever since Edward Gibbon completed his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1788, there has been considerable debate on the causes for this 'event'. It must be stressed, first, that though there was a real decline of the political power and unity of the Western Roman Empire, the cultural heritage of the empire would persist in the West through the middle ages and in an altered form into the modern period (as noted by Brown 1971). The eastern portion of the empire continued as the relatively Byzantine Empire, which was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 C.E.. Second, it is wiser to speak of causes rather than any single cause; a series of interlocked conditions and their effects led to a radical change in the political condition of Europe during the 5th century. As noted by Michael Grant: -
Nor should we assume that the Germanic tribes consciously, at least at first, wanted the destruction of the empire. As noted by Gibbon: -
The Roman Empire in the late 4th century was still in many superficial ways strong. In 356 C.E., for example, the young Julian won a strong victory over the Germans in a battle near Strasbourg (Grant 1976, p28). Even as late as 363 C.E. the Empire was able to field major armies in the east which could successfully invade, if not permanently hold down, the Persians (see Ferguson 2005). In the west her difficulties were more severe, but Rome still held an extensively fortified northern frontier manned by several hundred thousand men, backed up by large mobile field armies. Valentinian I (C.E. 364-75), for example, would be able to defeat major German forces which broke across the Rhine and captured the fortress of Mainz (Grant 1976, p31), and in following years he was able to secure the Austrian and western Danube frontiers (Grant 1976, p32).
Nontheless, during the fifth century we find major incursions of 'barbarian' tribes, including Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Alans, Burgundians, Franks, Vandals, and Huns. Many answers have been given for this radically altered state of affairs. One is that the supposed strength of the empire was largely superficial, that the long-term sources of her strength had already been eroded, and that almost irreversible disunities had already undermined the empire's ability to direct and project its power. Figure I provides a time-line provides a summary of key events and reigns.
Figure I: Time-Line of Emperors and Key Events for Later 4th and Fifth Centuries. Eastern emperors are in square brackets. (following Grant 1976; Ferrill 1986)
376 Decisive defeat at Adrianople of Valens and Eastern army by immigrant Goths
[379-95 Theodosius I]
383-92 Valentinian II
394-95 Theodosius I
394 The defeat of Argobast and the pretender Eugenius at the battle of Frigid River by Theodosius
406-7 Penetration of Rhine frontier by mixed Germanic invasion force
[408-450 Theodosius II]
410 Rome sacked by Alaric and the Visigoths, who then moved through Italy.
412 Visigoths move into Gaul
425-55 Valentinian III
455 Petronius Maximus
[457-74 Leo I]
461-5 Libius Severus
[474 Leo II]
475-6 Romulus Augustus
476 Imperial Insignia of Rome sent back to Zeno
476 Kings and Popes rule Rome
2. Causes of the Decline and Fall
Claimed causes for the fall of Roman imperial power have ranged from notions of immorality and decadence, either due to too much ‘paganism’ (St. Augustine and St. Jerome), loose morals (the Christian writer Salvian), too much Christianity (the fifth century historian Zosimus), climatic changes, declining elite fertility levels, general population decline (especially rural population in the theories presented by Boak 1974, p110), or even to the idea that lead poisoning may have effected the upper classes and city populations (see Ferrill 1976, p17; Ward-Perkins 2005, p34).
Michael Grant (1976) lists some 13 major overlapping trends connected with the fall of the empire which are likely to have some validity. In brief they include: -
3) The continued growth of wide gulfs between the various classes of the empire, with the poor both unable and unwilling to meet the work and tax demands placed upon them. The decline of their status from that of a Roman citizen down to that of humiliores (with diminished rites) or as virtually unfree bonded labour (coloni) would not solve the decline in tilled land in the empire, nor its loss in revenues (Jones 1964, vol II, p1027; see further St Croix 1981; Garnsey 1970). More importantly, such a class would not feel any loyalty to the government which was both crushing and restricting them. It is not surprising that many in these repressed groups were willing to opt out and find other modes of life where possible, either on the estates of rich landlords, joining independent communities (see below) or via banditry.
4) Above this mass of truly poor and oppressed people, there emerged an even more wealthy and powerful upper class. This comprised the senatorial classes of Rome and Constantinople, as well as a few very wealthy provincial land-owners. The members of these classes often owned huge estates, having swallowed up small landowners of earlier periods. Thus Rutillianus Namatianus (A Voyage Home to Gaul) on his voyage north along the coast of Italy can speak of huge estates where once there had been small villages. By the fifth century many of these became fortified homesteads, with the serfs and clients of senators acting as private armies to protect themselves against imperial tax collectors, conscription agents, or barbarians. There was also a trend for these wealthy land-owners not to be actively involved in government. This trend had begun in the third century with senators forbidden to hold military commands, but had become part of the culture of many elite Romans, whether pagan or Christians, who viewed public service as both demeaning and dangerous.
5) Grant (1976) also argues that during this period there was a massive decline in the Middle Class, the vigorous merchants and artisans of the cities, largely due to taxation and the onerous duties of being placed on local city boards (as noted by Grant 1976, p142, the legal Code of Theodosius II has 192 edicts obligating their service and restricting their freedom). While the very real plight of this group is amply demonstrated in our sources, Grant is over-estimating their numbers in the empire and in the antique world, perhaps following the emphasis on the Middle Class ahistorically suggested by Mikhail Rostovtsev (1957). On the other hand, it is true that tight taxation and stultifying regulations on all trades greatly hampered the economic vitality of cities throughout the empire, including those in Greece and Italy.
6 & 7) Grant (1976) thinks that the above problems led to a ‘credibility gap’ opening up between the people and the government, and between the people and the emperor. The numerous bureaucrats upon which the working of empire depended were viewed as being venal, self-interested and inefficient. Evasion was the social standard of conduct. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of the emperors, as revealed on their coinage, in the speeches made in their courts, and in their legislation, revealed a complete remoteness from the real suffering and plight of the people of the empire. Although these slogans must be treated as aspirations rather an descriptions (Grant 1976, p179), they were nonetheless so removed from the reality of the fifth century that they made the government at Rome, then Milan and Ravenna, seem irrelevant and absurd.
8) Another major cause was the growing split between the eastern and western empires, which on occasion tried to help each other, but whose interests in the end began to drift apart. As such, there was no consistent means of coping in a coordinated way with major challenges such as the Visigoths, and for the Eastern empire Rome took on a symbolic and historical meaning, rather than being a core component of the empire which must be defended at all costs (see Ward-Perkins 2005).
9) There was a failure to forge any overall alliance between the Germanic allies of Rome and the earlier Italian, Gallo-Roman and Greek societies into which they were introduced. Although Rome now relied for her northern defense upon large bodies of these Germans, had allowed many of them to settle in Gaul and the Balkans, and in the end would be forced to turn over one third of the land in Gaul and Spain for their use, there was no genuine cultural acceptance of Germans as equals. As early as Pliny the Elder and Tacitus (Germanica) there had been praise for their bravery and traditional virtues. Likewise, imperial leaders accepted their political and military usefulness. They were also viewed as being loyal once they had given their personal oaths, hence German troops had been used as bodyguards for the emperors during the early Principate. But even educated writers such as Symmachus, Orosius and Salvian would still find their personal habits and their 'friendship' distasteful (Grant 1976, pp218-220). Here the Romans had brought in a powerful ally whom they would neither assimilate nor appease. Only in later centuries would there be a two-way fusion based on the reality of Germanic military power and Roman culture, language and administrative forms (see Ward-Perkins 2005)
10) Grant also argues that both the pagan and Christian milieus of the
4th and 5th century would encourage a policy of political non-involvement
among elite Romans. This was certainly true among the more pure strands
of Christianity, as found in the ascetic movements in the east, especially
Egypt, and the growing monastic tradition in the west. Leading Christian
thinkers such as St. Augustine would have an ambiguous relationship with
the power of Empire, while other thinkers such as Ambrose, Orosius, and
Lactantius would regard the fall of empire as a necessary punishment for
sin and a prelude to the end of times prior to the last judgement. Lactantius
in the 4th century had written:
11) The state, already strongly autocratic, became even more intolerant of differences in viewpoints during the fourth and fifth centuries. In spite of some moderate emperors, e.g. Constantine and Valentinian I, there was an intensifying trend to punish the ‘pagan’, the heretic and the social non-conformist with a harsh and excessive application of 'law'. The relative religious moderation of the Hellenic, Hellenistic, and the late Republican ages would be eclipsed. This intolerance flowed over into the schisms within the Church, slowing down reconciliation between the Eastern and Western parts of the empire (see below), as well as fueling differences between the Christianity of Rome and important Christian creeds such at the Arianism, favoured by the Visigoths and the Vandals (see Ward-Perkins 2005, pp68-69; Matyszak 2004, p257).
12 & 13) Michael Grant also argues that the entire trend of the mentality of the age undermined the notion of self-help. This could operate in two different ways, one as a mental orientation, the other a social one. There was a tendency to feel that problem was unsolvable, to place it at the feet of God or Providence, or, on the contrary, to look to great crises of the past which had passed away and argue that current troubles, too, would just pass away. Associated with this was very much an 'other worldly view', an argument that spiritual realities were more important than the physical world, and that any real solution must be concerned first with the condition of the individual soul and its relation with God. As such, there was no strong different between the condition of a slave or an emperor, and no strong different between the government of the empire or of some Germanic warlord. As such, all that mattered was that the soul could be kept untarnished from sin, and that any leader or state did not coerce people into unbelief or sin. Socially, other groups might have sought to opt out and form autonomous communities, deflecting both invading tribes and the imperial tax-payer where possible (see Ward-Perkins 2005). The Bacaudae in the fifth century (especially active in Gaul through 407-448) may represent one such group, joined by peasants and slaves, though their exact nature is unclear in the sources (Wade-Perkins 2005, pp15-16, pp45-48)
3. The Division Between East and West
The division between the eastern and western portions of the empire was already presaged by the recognition that one emperor, situated in Rome, could not effectively administer all the provinces, nor the wide-flung frontiers with their external threats. Diocletian attempted to reduce this problem in the setting up the tetrarchic system, whereby two senior emperors and two junior caesars controlled four large regions of the empire, supported by a strong army of some 400-500,000 professional troops (Ferrill 1986, p42). However, these regions were not intended to be strict and exclusive zones of administration, and the four tetrarchs supposedly shared power on a voluntary and mutually supporting basis. However, a division between east and west could already be seen in this administrative move. Likewise, this trend had already begun with the establishment of the eastern capital of Constantinople in 342 C.E., well-situated to control the Danube frontier, with access via Asia Minor towards the Persian frontier. The final split, however, did not occur until 364 C.E. when the vigorous Valentinian I appointed his brother Valens to command the eastern empire. In 395 C.E. Theodosius managed for a time to reunite the empires, but his dynastic policy, giving the east to his eldest son Arcadius, and the west to the younger Honorius, would spell the end of any possible unification (Grant 1976, p35). It was not so much dynastic disputes which tore these empires apart, as the competition of their respective Germanic military commanders, Stilicho for the west, Rufinus for the east, that would make it impossible for the two empires to deal adequately with the Goths (see below).
At first these two empires supported each other quite well, with parallel legislative measures and coinages; the two emperors were portrayed as colleagues supporting each other. They also gave each other supportive military aid through the late fourth century (see Ward-Perkins 2005). Furthermore, there was a tendency Constantinople to be too heavily fortified and too-effectively backed by strong naval forces for barbarian armies to crack – this meant that attacking forces would sometimes be deflected westwards towards the more vulnerable western Balkans and the Italian peninsula, e.g. the Goths and the Huns (see Matyszak 2004). However, the divisions between east and west were more than administrative. The east was a largely speaking Greek world strongly influenced by Hellenistic culture with its long tradition of city life and kingship; the west remained Latin as its administrative language, and was based on a civic life closer to Roman republican models. This gap between a ‘Latin’ west and ‘Greek’ east complicated diplomacy and religious relations from the fifth century onwards, making any deep urge towards re-uniting the two sides of the empire problematic.
There were cases of east and west trying to help each other, e.g. in 376 (against the Goths), following the events of 410, and again in 468 C.E. However, as the pressure on their northern frontiers increased, we find that the eastern and western emperors had too limited resources to effectively intervene to support a remote frontier. Furthermore, a dangerous rivalry soon developed, focusing on control of strips of land on their mutual frontier in the Balkans, and a willingness to deflect barbarian enemies, whether Visigothic, Vandal or Hun, onto the other empire. As we shall see below, this was exacerbated the ambitions of leading Masters of Soldiers, such as Stilicho, who were willing to use the mistrust between east and west to increase their own importance. The division and following distrust between the western and eastern empire would be one of the most decisive factors in European history. It allowed an independence Byzantine empire and culture to emerge, and was one of the major reasons for the political collapse of the Western empire. This would largely shape the political map of Europe for over twelve hundreds years, and would form the basis of the division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of Greece and Russia. Religious tensions were already evident in the 6th century, though the final split did not occur until the eleventh century (see Roberts 1985, pp151-163).
In terms of the fall of the political structure of the western empire,
however, this division simply meant that the two units of empire would
not continue to effectively support each other against their northern threats,
nor provide support for legitimate claimants across both thrones.
4. The Military Explanation
Although the military explanation is considered as one of the features of the fall of Rome, as we have seen, writers from Gibbon to Grant argue that it would have been insufficient to bring the sophisticated military and political machine of the west into ruin. Arther Ferrill, however, has argued that the military causes have been underestimated by many modern writers and that the decisions of Roman generals and the erosion of their military power 'must be regarded as an essential component in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire' (Ferrill 1986, p7).
Roman military strength in the late empire relied on qualitative factors and a sophisticated support base:
In particular, any theory has to explain why the western empire fell but the eastern went on for almost another thousand years. Here strategic and military theories are quite successful. Basically, the eastern empire was less geographically vulnerable, managed to maintain a slightly stronger and better trained army, and managed by the fortifications of Constantinople to 'deflect' major enemies such as Alaric and the Goths and Attila and the Huns 'onto' its weaker western brethren (Ferrill 1976, p18; Jones 1964, vol II, p1027, p1030), though this may not have been intentional. In the words of A.H.M. Jones, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Huns 'all realised that Constantinople was too tough a nut to crack' (Jones 1964, II, p1031). Furthermore, the eastern empire, though it soon lost much of its tax revenues in the Balkans, was able retain a strong economic base in Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, allowing it to support strong armies (Wade-Perkins 2005, p61). By contrast, much of northern Italy, parts of Gaul and Spain, and eventually North Africa by the early fifth century had been subject to repeated incursions and then conquest, severely eroding the revenues and manpower available to the western empire (see Ward-Perkins 2005, p62).
We can examine some of these features through the events surrounding the Battle of Adrianople in 376 A.D. (where a large Roman army as destroyed by the Goths), which had a decisive bearing on our story, and which begins a hundred years of military decline (Ferrill 1986, pp14-15). In brief, the eastern empire was forced to admit a large, organized body of federate Germans within the frontiers of empire: when these began to act in an independent and hostile way, the western empire found itself unable to deal with simultaneous threats on the Rhine frontier, which collapsed in 406-7 C.E.
The Visigoths had been placed under enormous pressure by the migrations routes of the Huns from central Asia across the regions north of the Black Sea, who had displaced the Ostrogoths and then pushed the Visigoths onto Roman frontiers (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.1; Matyszak 2004, p257), which in turn forced the Alans to migrate as well (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.2). With the Huns putting so much pressure on the Visigoths they asked to be allowed to cross south over the Danube and be allowed to settle peacefully within the empire in Upper Macedonia (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.3-4; Ferrill 1986, p59). The eastern emperor Valens agreed to this proposal, partly to have a new body of good recruits for his border armies and for these groups to act as a buffer to external tribes (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.4; Matyszak 2004, p257). Ammianus Marcellinus specifically argues that these Goths were the very people 'destined to overthrow the Roman Empire' (31.4), largely because their migration and subsequent treatment was very badly handed. It possible that something like 200,000 people were involved in this migration (Ferrill 1986, p59). Ammianus recorded that imperial officials used the weakened and famished Goths upon their arrival in Thrace to make themselves rich. He states that:
The following battle between the Goths and Roman forces at Adrianople (Hadrianopolis) in August 378 C.E. was a disaster for the empire. Ammianus Marcellinus specifically blames Valens for a hurried encounter with the Goths before reinforcements could reach him from Gratian, 'whose exploits irked him, and who wanted a glorious victory of his own' (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.12). Some of Ammianus' views may have been formed in hindsight, but in any case, after sporadic attempts at negotiation, Valens' army marched out and encountered the enemy before they had properly formed their battlefront (Ferrill 1986, p62). Lightly armed skirmishers engaged too closely (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.12; Ferrill 1986, pp62-3), and were thrown back onto their own lines. Meanwhile, the Alan cavalry, allies of the Goths, arrived and managed to force the Roman cavalry away from their flanks. The left infantry flank was exposed and crushed, with the Roman soldiers being gradually worn down, with two-thirds killed by sunset (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.13; Ferrill 1986, p63). Valens died during the battle, his body not being recovered.
This was one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history, with the result that the Romans were unable to stop attacks throughout Thrace, and even an attempt to take Constantinople had to be beaten off by allied Saracen troops (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.16). Fortunately, the Goths had neither siege trains nor adequate naval forces (Ferrill 1986, p64). Throughout the eastern cities many other Gothic immigrants who had already arrived were collected together and massacred (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.16), but this was far from a final solution.
In 382 C.E. the new eastern emperor, Theodosius, had to accept the Gothic presence in the Balkans, so long as they provided soldiers and extended the agriculture of the region (Grant 1976, p34). What was unusual was that they were allowed to settle under their own laws with their own leaders, intact as a separate people with their own cohesion (Ferrill 1986, p69).
In the west, after Gratian's death, the young Valentinian II was 'supported' by the master of Soldiers Arbogast: it was probably Arbogast who had the young emperor killed, then through the pagan rhetorician Eugenius took control of Italy and the Spanish provinces (Grant 1976, pp34-5). Theodosius in 394 C.E. moved eastward against this 'upstart' pagan dynasty, bringing with him a large army and managed to decisively defeat Arbogast's forces in a bloody and crucial battle held north of Aquileia, in the Alpine passes above the head of the Adriatic (Ferrill 1986, p71). In doing so we can see how the times had changed. Theodosius largely relied on the 20,000 federate Goths who came with him to give him a bloody victory (Ferrill 1986, p69-74). If for a short time Theodosius was sole emperor of east and west, his appointed his sons Honorius and Arcadius soon succeeded him as separate rulers of these two regions.
We can gain a clear idea of Theodosius' reliance on 'barbarian' forces from a panegyric delivered to the emperor on behalf of his consilium (advisory council) and the Senate of Rome sometime during 389 C.E.. It was spoken by a professor or rhetoric from Gaul, Pacatus, and labours the following points: -
5. Stilicho and Alaric
Stilicho, half Roman and half-Vandal, became at first a Field Marshal for the region of Thrace (Ferrill 1986, p88), then Master of Soldiers under Theodosius I, and had married his niece Serena. There is little doubt about Stilicho's great abilities and his initial loyalty to the house of Theodosius. Stilicho was certainly regarded by western court poets such as Claudian as a fearless defender of Rome (Claudian First Book Against Rufinus, lines 261, 274, 332, Second Book Against Rufinus, lines 225ff), while it is argued that he would have destroyed Alaric and the Goths completely if it weren't for the actions of his opponent Rufinus, an adviser in the eastern court, who persuaded the eastern emperor to order Stilicho to leave the Balkans (Claudian First Book Against Rufinius, line 21; Claudian On Stilicho's Consulship, I, lines 112-115). The writings of Claudian may have been viewed as useful promotional tools by Stilicho, who immediately after Claudian's death had all his 'political poems', minor pieces and unfinished works republished (Cameron 1970, p227). Such court propaganda aside (discussed in detail by Cameron 1970), Stilicho's motivations may have been more complex.
Upon the death of Theodosius, Stilicho claimed to be regent not just for Honorius in the east, but also for Arcadius in the east, a claim which was strongly rejected by Arcadius' courtiers, especially Rufinus and then Eutropius. There are major disputes between modern historians about the character and motivation of Stilicho: -
2) Was he actively hostile to the eastern empire, hoping to take territory from it, or was this friction merely the product of different imperial policies?
3) Did he, after defeating Alaric, King of the Goths, several times on the battlefield, let him escape in order to use him as a pawn against the eastern empire and against those senators opposing him in Rome?
4) Did he intend to make his son, the grandson of Theodosius, emperor?
The Goths may have originated from the area of Poland or perhaps from Gotland in Sweden, moving southeastward and becoming two related grouping, the Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) and the Visigoths (Matyszak 2004, p257). During their stay in the Black Sea area, they had learnt the art of heavy cavalry warfare (perhaps from the Scythians), and could field large, mobile armies (Matyszak 2004, p261). It was these same Gothic peoples who had in 395-396 C.E. headed down to ravage southern Greece (Matyszak 2004, p262), and then in 401 moved on to invade the richer Po river valley in northern Italy. Stilicho defeated them in 402 A.D., forcing them out of Italy for a time. Soon after, Stilicho had to cope with a massed invasion of Ostrogoths and others into Italy, defeating them near Florence (Grant 1976, p37), but was unable, or unwilling, to stop a massed invasion in 406-7 across the frozen Rhine by Vandals, Suevi, Alans and Burgundians, who swept down into and occupied large sections of Gaul (Ferrill 1986; Wade-Perkins 2005). The Rhine frontier was no longer Rome's frontier, while Stilicho's armies remained in northern Italy. After 406 the Goths had moved into Noricum, not far north, and demanded 4,000 pounds of gold in return for an alliance to help with the crisis - Stilicho urged acceptance of this alliance (Ferrill 1986, pp100-1). This outraged the 'nationalist' anti-barbarian party in Rome even further. But fatally, when the eastern emperor Arcadius died in 408 C.E., Stilicho urged Honorius to send him east to establish a regency over the young Theodosius II. Stilicho now looked excessively ambitious and seemed to be ignoring the real crisis in Gaul. He lost the support of the courtiers and a portion of the army and rumours were circulated that he was aiming for the throne (Matyszak 2004, p264). He was executed in Ravenna in August 408. A pogrom was then launched in northern Italy against the families of the German soldiers serving in the Roman army (Ward-Perkins 2005, p27). Shortly thereafter thirty thousand allied barbarian soldiers moved north to ally themselves with Alaric (Ferrill 1986, pp101-102). One of the most intriguing and competent men in the history of the west had died, and with him fell the last possibility of a lasting concord between Rome and the Goths.
In 409 the Goths moved back into Italy, and after negotiations with the western Emperor Honorius broke down, turned south to blockade and then sack Rome on the 24th of August 410 C.E. The fate of Rome as capital of the western empire and as a Roman and Christian symbol shocked contemporaries:
The level of violence involved has been debated, based on the view that the Goths mainly took removable wealth and as Christians limited their violence, in particular respecting the churches and those who had found sanctuary in them (see Matyszak 2004, p267). St. Augustine, seeking to explain how the Christianized Roman Empire could nonetheless fall, argued that:
The Germanic presence within the border of the empire and the army had
been strong for over a century. Now the myth of the imperial invincibility
of ‘eternal Rome’ collapsed as a result of the events of 376-410 C.E. Here
we can see many of the 'causes' linking internal decline with military
collapse. The Roman army lacked the internal manpower and wealth to maintain
an army sufficiently strong to resist the combined efforts of several barbarians
peoples. It had long relied on barbarian auxiliaries and conscripts. Now
whole federate peoples with their own social structure and leadership intact
had been moved within the frontier. Far from being assimilated and accommodated,
they were abused and misused by an imperial system used to exploitation
and corruption (see Ste Croix 1981). Furthermore, the eastern empire by
virtue of its own defensive strength deflected some of these peoples onto
the west, while in turn the western court had connived through Stilicho
at forcing a new unity on the eastern court. All the players, as it turned
out, underestimated the threat of Germanic kings such as Alaric. Soon thereafter
the Western court would try to isolate itself in the security of Ravenna,
and virtually abandon Britain and Gaul, in due course losing control of
Spain and Africa as well and finally Italy itself.
6. Further Invasions and the Collapse of the West
For a time an alliance was patched up between Rome and the Goths, with their leader Ataulf marrying the emperor Honorius's sister Galla Placidia. Spain and Gaul were partly stabilized by the presence of Gothic armies, though the Burgundians created a separate kingdom centred on the city of Worms on the Rhine (Ferrill 1976, p122). However, from 416 C.E. we find Alan and Vandal forces penetrating south into Spain, while by 429 the Vandal king Gaiseric had assembled some 80,000 people ready to invade north Africa, most of which they held by 432, a situation which the Roman government was forced to accept by 435 (Ferrill 1986, p137). In 439 C.E. Carthage, one of the most developed of provincial cities, fell to the Vandals, and most of north Africa was in their hands (Wade-Perkins 2005).
One of the other major challenges to the Roman Empire was the movement of the Huns westward. They were a steppe people who had originated in inner Asia, and are probably the descants of the Hsiung-Nu who had threatened the Chinese empire hundreds of years before (Matyszak 2004, p270). For a time the Romans were willing to use groups such as the ‘White Huns’ as a threat to the Persian Empire, and in the early fifth century had paid subsidies to the Huns to secure the empire’s northern frontiers (Matyszak 2004, p272). This peace could not be sustained and from 447 the Huns attacked Constantinople (but did not breach the walls), ravaged Greece and sought territories on the middle reach of the Danube river (Matyszak 2004, p273). Under their brilliant King, Attila, they then targeted the western empire, first moving his massive army, combined of Huns and vassal Ostrogoths, Gepids and Alans, into Gaul. However, the city of Orléans withstood a siege, and Roman forces of under Aetius came to its relief. The Huns were then forced to turn back from northern Gaul due to a defeat by a combined Roman, Gothic, Alan and Frank army. This Battle of Chalôns (fought on the Catalaunian Plains in September 451) was crucial, forcing the Huns north of the Rhine and stabilizing Gaul for a time (Matyszak 2004, p276).
But Attila then moved into Italy (452 C.E.), savaging the northern cities, and heading towards Rome, once again claiming that he sought the hand of Honoria, sister of Valentinian. Honoria had apparently made such an invitation after her forced seclusion following an illicit affair (see Matyszak 2004, p274). Legend has it that Pope Leo convinced Attila not to sack the city, but logistic problems, bribery, and the plague decimating his army were more likely causes (Ferrill 1986, p151). It was left to a major naval expedition by the Gaiseric's Vandals to enter the city in 455 C.E., which was not effectively defended. Later attempts by Rome and Constantinople in 468 to evict the Vandals from North Africa would fail, while in 474 the Gothic leader Euric would declare his large kingdom in Gaul totally independent of Rome. Meanwhile, military 'Master of Soldiers' such as Ricimer and the Burgundian Gundobad controlled Italy.
In the end, the German troops in Italy tired of their puppet emperors, who were controlled by their owb military commanders. One of their leaders, Odoacer, after a successful military coup, took direct control of affairs:
During the following centuries Italy would be ruled by kings, whether Goths, Ostrogoths or Lombards. Only for a short time in the 6th century would the eastern empire be able to reassert itself. Meanwhile, Gaul would settle down to new patterns of accommodation between tribesmen and the Gallo-Roman population (Goffart 1980, pp3-39). With the emergence of Clovis as King of the Franks in 481, a new phase of nation building would begin in the west.
However, the reality of the collapse of Roman power within the century from 376 to 476 C.E. should not be underestimated. As noted by Arther Ferrill: -
The final decline of political western unity is one of the great formative
dramas in world history. Not only does it remind us that periods of relative
stability and welfare, such as the 2nd century empire (Ferrill 1986, p12)
can radically decline, but it also formed the basis of Late Antique culture
and the following Middle Ages. Indeed, the two centuries after the collapse
of the western empire shaped the beginnings of the modern map of nations
of Europe (see Ferrill 1986). The dream of western political union, of
course, was not dead. It was implicit in Christian theories underpinning
the influence of the Pope and Church across Christendom, while from 800
C.E. onwards the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ retained a shadow of this legitimacy
7. Bibliography and Further Reading
ANONYMUS VALESII Excerpta Valesiana, (first editor 1636, H. Valesius), London, Loeb 1939 [Access via http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Excerpta_Valesiana/home.html]
BOAK, Arthur E. Manpower Shortage and the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Westport, Greenword, 1974
BROWN, Peter Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, London, Faber & Faber, 1967
BROWN, Peter Authority and the Sacred, Cambridge, CUP, 1995
BROWN, Peter The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, N.Y., Columbia University Press, 1988
BROWN, Peter The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, London, SCM Press, 1981
BROWN, Peter Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine, London, Faber & Faber, 1972
BROWN, Peter The World of Late Antiquity A.D. 150-750, London 1971
CAMERON, Alan Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius, London, OUP, 1970
CLAUDIAN Poems, Volumes I & 2, trans. N. Platnauer, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1963
CUNCLIFFE, Barry Greeks, Romans and Barbarians: Spheres of Interaction, London, Batsford, 1988
DUNCAN-JONES, Richard The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies, Cambridge, CUP, 1982
EUGIPPIUS The Life of St. Severinus, translated by George W. Robinson, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1913 [http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/severinus_01_intro.htm]
FERGUSON, R. James Rome and Parthia: Power Politics and Diplomacy Across Cultural Frontiers, Research Paper No. 12, The Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bond University, Australia, December 2005 [http://www.international-relations.com/rp/Parthia-NewWB.htm]
FERRILL, Arther The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, London, Thames and Hudson, 1986
GARNSEY, Peter Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970
GIBBON, Edward The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 7 volumes, London, OUP, 1903
GOFFART, Walter Barbarians and Romans A.D. 418-585: The Techniques of Accommodation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1980
GRANT, Michael A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome, N.Y., Charles Scriberner's Sons, 1985
GRANT, Michael The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal, Radnor PA, Annenberg School of Communications, 1976
JONES, A.H.M. The Later Roman Empire 284-602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, 2 vols, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1964
KATZ, Solomon The Decline of Rome and the Rise of Mediaeval Rome, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1955
LEWIS, N. & REINHOLD, M. Roman Civilization: Sourcebook II, The Empire, N.Y., Harper, 1966
MATYSZAK, Philip The Enemies of Rome: From Hannibal to Attila the Hun, London, Thames & Hudson, 2004
PACATUS Panegyric to the Emperor Theodosius, trans C.E.V. Nixon, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1987
ROBERTS, J.M. The Triumph of the West, London, BBC, 1985
ROSTOVTSEV, Mikhail Ivanovich The social and economic history of the Roman Empire, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1957
RUTILIUS NAMATIANUS A Voyage Home to Gaul, in Minor Latin Poets, trans. by J. & A. Duff, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1954
SOCRATES SCHOLASTICUS The Ecclesiastical History, Revised by A. Zenos, Grand Rapids, Eardmans, 1957
STE. CROIX, G.E.M. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests, London, Duckworth, 1981
ST. AUGUSTINE The Confessions, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961
ST. AUGUSTINE The Confessions and The City of God, trans. by M. Dods, Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952
ST. JEROME Select Letters of St. Jerome, trans. by F. Wright, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1963
TACITUS Agricola, Germanica & Dialogus, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1970
THOMPSON, E.A. "Early Germanic Warfare", Past and Present, 14, 1958, pp2-29
WARD-PERKINS, Bryan The Fall of the Roman Empire and the End of Civilization, Oxford, OUP, 2005
WILLIAMS, Stephen Diocletian and the Roman Recovery, N.Y., Methuen, 1985
Appendix: Further Primary Sources for the Late Empire (see Grant 1985)
Epitome: A short history of the empire down to Theodosius I, only at the start based on the Caesars of Victor. [See A BOOKLET ABOUT THE STYLE OF LIFE AND THE MANNERS OF THE IMPERATORES, Abbreviated from the Books of Sextus Aurelius Victor, Translated by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College Translated Texts, Number 1 Canisius College. Buffalo, New York. 2000. Access via http://www.roman-emperors.org/epitome.htm]
Eutropius Breviarum. A Fourth century court official of Valens wrote a survey (Breviarum) of Roman history till 364 C.E. [See Abridgement of Roman History, translated, with notes, by the Rev. John Selby Watson, London, Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Convent Garden. 1853. Access via http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/eutropius/index.html]
Festus Breviarum. Fourth century survey (Breviarum) down till 364 C.E.. [See Brevarium of the Accomplishments of the Roman People, translated by Thomas M. Banchich and Jennifer A. Meka,
Canisius College Translated Texts, Number 2, Canisius College, Buffalo, New York, 2001. Access via http://www.roman-emperors.org/festus.htm]
Herodian of Antioch History of the Roman Empire. Wrote Roman History from the death of Marcus Aurelius (180) down to 238 C.E. [Access via http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Herodian_Roman_Histories]
Justinian I the Great: Collections of Laws, the Codex (2 editions), the Digest, Institutes, Novels.
John Malalas: Lived circa. 491- 578 C.E. His Chronographia begins with creation and ends in 563 C.E.
Notitia Dignitatum: Record of Official Posts, list of senior state and military posts of Empire, in 395 C.E. [Access via the Medieval Sourcebook at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/notitiadignitatum.html]
Panegyric to Constantius I: Written in Treviri, by an anonymous Gallic orator. The 8th in a series of 12 Panegyrici Latini extending from Trajan to Theodosius I.
Roman Law of the Visigoths: (Lex Romana Visigotorum or Breviary of Alaric, or Breviarium Alarici)
Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Volume I-III, trans. D. Magie, Cambridge MA, Harvard University, 1921-1923 [See http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/home.html]
Theodosius II: Codex Theodosianus, 438
Ulpian: died in 223. 280 works recorded. Excerpts from 1/3 of Justinian's Digest.
Vegetius: late 4th century. Military historian, De Re Militari [see the translation at http://www.pvv.ntnu.no/~madsb/home/war/vegetius/]
Journey to the West: Essays in History, Politics and Culture,
Copyright © 1998, 2006 Dr. R. James Ferguson