Fall of the Western Roman Empire
The Fall of the Western Roman Empire (also called Fall of the Roman Empire or Fall of Rome) was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which it failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities. The Roman Empire lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control; modern historians mention factors including the effectiveness and numbers of the army, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperor, the religious changes of the period, and the efficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from "barbarians" outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse. The reasons for the collapse are major subjects of the historiography of the ancient world and they inform much modern discourse on state failure.
Relevant dates include 117 CE, when the Empire was at its greatest territorial extent, and the accession of Diocletian in 284. Irreversible major territorial loss, however, began in 376 with a large-scale irruption of Goths and others. By 476 when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus, the Western Roman Emperor wielded negligible military, political, or financial power and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman. Invading "barbarians" had established their own power in most of the area of the Western Empire. While its legitimacy lasted for centuries longer and its cultural influence remains today, the Western Empire never had the strength to rise again.
The Fall is not the only unifying concept for these events; the period described as Late Antiquity emphasizes the cultural continuities throughout and beyond the political collapse.
- 1 Historical approaches
- 2 Height of power, crises, and recoveries
- 3 313–376: Abuse of power, frontier warfare, and rise of Christianity
- 4 376–395; invasions, civil wars, and religious discord
- 5 Military, financial, and political ineffectiveness: the process of failure
- 6 395–406; Stilicho
- 7 408–410; the end of an effective regular field army, starvation in Italia, sack of Rome
- 8 405–418 in the Gallic provinces; barbarians and usurpers, loss of Britannia, partial loss of Hispania and Gaul
- 9 421–433; renewed dissension after the death of Constantius, partial loss of the Diocese of Africa
- 10 433–454; ascendancy of Aetius, loss of Carthage
- 11 455–456; failure of Avitus, further losses in Gaul, rise of Ricimer
- 12 457–467; resurgence under Majorian, attempt to recover Africa, control by Ricimer
- 13 467–472, Anthemius; an Emperor and an army from the East
- 14 472–476; the final emperors, puppets of the warlords
- 15 From 476; last Emperor, rump states
- 16 Legacy
- 17 See also
- 18 Notes
- 19 References
Since 1776, when Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Decline and Fall has been the theme around which much of the history of the Roman Empire has been structured. "From the eighteenth century onward," historian Glen Bowersock wrote, "we have been obsessed with the fall: it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears."
The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which it failed to enforce its rule. The Fall is not the only unifying concept for these events; the period described as Late Antiquity emphasizes the cultural continuities throughout and beyond the political collapse. The loss of centralized political control over the West, and the lessened power of the East, are universally agreed, but the theme of decline has been taken to cover a much wider time span than the hundred years from 376. For Dio Cassius, the accession of the emperor Commodus in 180 CE marked the descent "from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron". Gibbon started his story in 98 and Theodor Mommsen regarded the whole of the imperial period as unworthy of inclusion in his Nobel Prize-winning History of Rome. Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke argue that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in republican times. As one convenient marker for the end, 476 has been used since Gibbon, but other markers include the Crisis of the Third Century, the Crossing of the Rhine in 406 (or 405), the sack of Rome in 410, the death of Julius Nepos in 480, all the way to the Fall of New Rome in 1453.
Gibbon gave a classic formulation (now outdated) of reasons why the Fall happened. He began an ongoing controversy about the role of Christianity, but he gave great weight to other causes of internal decline and to attacks from outside the Empire.
The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.— Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West", Chapter 38
Alexander Demandt enumerated 210 different theories on why Rome fell, and new ideas have emerged since. Historians still try to analyze the reasons for loss of political control over a vast territory (and, as a subsidiary theme, the reasons for the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire). Comparison has also been made with the Han Empire in China, which re-established its Great Unity while the Mediterranean world remained politically disunited.
Alternative descriptions and labels
At least from the time of Henri Pirenne, scholars have described continuity of culture and of political legitimacy, long after 476. Pirenne postponed the demise of classical civilization to the 8th century. He challenged the notion that Germanic barbarians had caused the Western Roman Empire to end, and he refused to equate the end of the Western Roman Empire with the end of the office of emperor in Italia. He pointed out the essential continuity of the economy of the Roman Mediterranean even after the barbarian invasions, and suggested that only the Muslim conquests represented a decisive break with antiquity. The more recent formulation of a historical period characterized as "Late Antiquity" emphasizes the transformations of ancient to medieval worlds within a cultural continuity. In recent decades archaeologically-based argument even extends the continuity in material culture and in patterns of settlement as late as the eleventh century. Observing the political reality of lost control, but also the cultural and archaeological continuities, the process has been described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall.
Height of power, crises, and recoveries
Height of power
The Roman Empire reached its greatest geographical extent under Trajan (emperor 98–117), who ruled a prosperous state that stretched from Mesopotamia to the coasts of the Atlantic. The Empire had large numbers of trained, supplied, and disciplined soldiers, as well as a comprehensive civil administration based in thriving cities with effective control over public finances. Among its literate elite it had ideological legitimacy as the only worthwhile form of civilization and a cultural unity based on comprehensive familiarity with Greek and Roman literature and rhetoric. The Empire's power allowed it to maintain extreme differences of wealth and status (including slavery on a large scale), and its wide-ranging trade networks permitted even modest households to use goods made by professionals far away.
Its financial system allowed it to raise significant taxes which, despite endemic corruption, supported a large regular army with logistics and training. The cursus honorum, a standardized series of military and civil posts suitable for ambitious aristocratic men, ensured that powerful noblemen became familiar with military and civil command and administration. At a lower level within the army, connecting the aristocrats at the top with the private soldiers, a large number of centurions were well-rewarded, literate, and responsible for training, discipline, administration, and leadership in battle. City governments with their own properties and revenues functioned effectively at local level; membership of city councils involved lucrative opportunities for independent decision-making, and, despite its obligations, became seen as a privilege. Under a series of emperors who each adopted a mature and capable successor, the Empire did not require civil wars to regulate the imperial succession. Requests could be submitted directly to the better emperors, and the answers had the force of law, putting the imperial power directly in touch with even humble subjects. The cults of polytheist religion were hugely varied, but none claimed that theirs was the only truth, and their followers displayed mutual tolerance, producing a polyphonous religious harmony. Religious strife was rare after the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 (after which the devastated Judaea ceased to be a major centre for Jewish unrest). Heavy mortality from 165 in the Antonine Plague seriously impaired attempts to repel Germanic invaders, but the legions generally held or at least speedily re-instated the borders of the Empire.
Crisis of the Third Century
The Empire suffered from multiple, serious crises during the third century, including the rise of the Sassanid Empire, which inflicted three crushing defeats on Roman field armies and remained a potent threat for centuries. Other disasters included repeated civil wars, barbarian invasions, and more mass mortality in the Plague of Cyprian (from 250 onwards). Rome abandoned the province of Dacia on the north of the Danube (271), and for a short period the Empire split into a Gallic Empire in the West (260–274), a Palmyrene Empire in the East (260–273), and a central Roman rump state. The Rhine/Danube frontier also came under more effective threat from larger barbarian groupings, which had developed better agriculture and larger populations. The Empire survived the crisis of the third century, directing its economy successfully towards defence, but survival came at the price of a more centralized and bureaucratic state. Under Gallienus the senatorial aristocracy ceased to provide the senior military commanders, its typical members lacking interest in military service and showing incompetence at command.
Reunification and political division
Aurelian reunited the empire in 274; and from 284 Diocletian and his successors reorganized it with more emphasis on the military. John the Lydian, writing over two centuries later, reported that Diocletian's army at one point totaled 389,704 men, plus 45,562 in the fleets, and numbers may have increased later. With the limited communications of the time, both the European and the Eastern frontiers needed the attention of their own supreme commanders. Diocletian tried to solve this problem by re-establishing an adoptive succession with a senior (Augustus) and junior (Caesar) emperor in each half of the Empire, but this system of tetrarchy broke down within one generation; the hereditary principle re-established itself with generally unfortunate results, and thereafter civil war became again the main method of establishing new imperial regimes. Although Constantine the Great (in office 306 to 337) again re-united the Empire, towards the end of the fourth century the need for division was generally accepted. From then on, the Empire existed in constant tension between the need for two emperors and their mutual mistrust.
Until late in the fourth century the united Empire retained sufficient power to launch attacks against its enemies in Germania and in the Sassanid Empire. Receptio of barbarians became widely practiced: imperial authorities admitted potentially hostile groups into the Empire, split them up, and allotted to them lands, status, and duties within the imperial system. In this way many groups provided unfree workers (coloni) for Roman landowners, and recruits (laeti) for the Roman army. Sometimes their leaders became officers. Normally the Romans managed the process carefully, with sufficient military force on hand to ensure compliance, and cultural assimilation followed over the next generation or two.
The new supreme rulers disposed of the legal fiction of the early Empire (seeing the emperor as but the first among equals); emperors from Aurelian (reigned 270–275) onwards openly styled themselves as dominus et deus, "lord and god", titles appropriate for a master-slave relationship. An elaborate court ceremonial developed, and obsequious flattery became the order of the day. Under Diocletian, the flow of direct requests to the emperor rapidly reduced and soon ceased altogether. No other form of direct access replaced them, and the emperor received only information filtered through his courtiers.
Official cruelty, supporting extortion and corruption, may also have become more commonplace. While the scale, complexity, and violence of government were unmatched, the emperors lost control over their whole realm insofar as that control came increasingly to be wielded by anyone who paid for it. Meanwhile, the richest senatorial families, immune from most taxation, engrossed more and more of the available wealth and income, while also becoming divorced from any tradition of military excellence. One scholar identifies a great increase in the purchasing power of gold, two and a half fold from 274 to the later fourth century, which may be an index of growing economic inequality between a gold-rich elite and a cash-poor peasantry.
Within the late Roman military, many recruits and even officers had barbarian origins, and soldiers are recorded as using possibly-barbarian rituals such as elevating a claimant on shields. Some scholars have seen this as an indication of weakness; others disagree, seeing neither barbarian recruits nor new rituals as causing any problem with the effectiveness or loyalty of the army.
313–376: Abuse of power, frontier warfare, and rise of Christianity
In 313 Constantine I declared official toleration of Christianity, followed over the ensuing decades by establishment of Christian orthodoxy and by official and private action against pagans and non-orthodox Christians. His successors generally continued this process, and Christianity became the religion of any ambitious civil official. Under Constantine the cities lost their revenue from local taxes, and under Constantius II (r. 337–361) their endowments of property. This worsened the existing difficulty in keeping the city councils up to strength, and the services provided by the cities were scamped or abandoned. Public building projects became fewer, more often repairs than new construction, and now provided at state expense rather than by local grandees wishing to consolidate long-term local influence. A further financial abuse was Constantius's increased habit of granting to his immediate entourage the estates of persons condemned of treason and other capital charges; this reduced future though not immediate income, and those close to the emperor gained a strong incentive to stimulate his suspicion of plots.
Constantine settled Franks on the lower left bank of the Rhine; their settlements required a line of fortifications to keep them in check, indicating that Rome had lost almost all local control. Under Constantius, bandits came to dominate areas such as Isauria well within the empire. The tribes of Germany also became more populous and more threatening. In Gaul, which did not really recover from the invasions of the third century, there was widespread insecurity and economic decline in the 300s, perhaps worst in Armorica. By 350, after decades of pirate attacks, virtually all villas in Armorica were deserted, and local use of money ceased about 360. Repeated attempts to economize on military expenditure included billeting troops in cities, where they could less easily be kept under military discipline and could more easily extort from civilians. Except in the rare case of a determined and incorruptible general, these troops proved ineffective in action and dangerous to civilians. Frontier troops were often given land rather than pay; as they farmed for themselves, their direct costs diminished, but so did their effectiveness, and there was much less economic stimulus to the frontier economy. However, except for the provinces along the lower Rhine, the agricultural economy was generally doing well. The average nutritional state of the population in the West suffered a serious decline in the late second century; the population of North-Western Europe did not recover, though the Mediterranean regions did.
The numbers and effectiveness of the regular soldiers may have declined during the fourth century: payrolls were inflated so that pay could be diverted and exemptions from duty sold, their opportunities for personal extortion were multiplied by residence in cities, and their effectiveness was reduced by concentration on extortion instead of drill. However, extortion, gross corruption, and occasional ineffectiveness were not new to the Roman army; there is no consensus whether its effectiveness significantly declined before 376. Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a professional soldier, repeats longstanding observations about the superiority of contemporary Roman armies being due to training and discipline, not to physical size or strength. Despite a possible decrease in its ability to assemble and supply large armies, Rome maintained an aggressive and potent stance against perceived threats almost to the end of the fourth century.
Julianus (r. 360–363) launched a drive against official corruption which allowed the tax demands in Gaul to be reduced to one-third of their previous amount, while all government requirements were still met. In civil legislation Julianus was notable for his pro-pagan policies. All Christian sects were officially tolerated by Julianus, persecution of heretics was forbidden, and non-Christian religions were encouraged. Some Christians continued to destroy temples, disrupt rituals, and break sacred images, seeking martyrdom and at times achieving it at the hands of non-Christian mobs or secular authorities; some pagans attacked the Christians who had previously been involved with the destruction of temples.
Julianus won victories against Germans who had invaded Gaul. He launched an expensive campaign against the Persians, which ended in defeat and his own death. He succeeded in marching to the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon, but lacked adequate supplies for an assault. He burned his boats to show resolve in continuing operations, but the Sassanids began a war of attrition by burning crops. Finding himself cut off in enemy territory, he began a land retreat during which he was mortally wounded. His successor Jovianus, acclaimed by a demoralized army, began his brief reign (363–364) trapped in Mesopotamia without supplies. To purchase safe passage home, he had to concede areas of northern Mesopotamia and Kurdistan, including the strategically important fortress of Nisibis, which had been Roman since before the Peace of Nisibis in 299.
The brothers Valens (r. 364–378) and Valentinian I (r. 364–375) energetically tackled the threats of barbarian attacks on all the Western frontiers and tried to alleviate the burdens of taxation, which had risen continuously over the previous forty years; Valens in the East reduced the tax demand by half in his fourth year.
Both were Christians and confiscated the temple lands that Julianus had restored, but were generally tolerant of other beliefs. Valentinian in the West refused to intervene in religious controversy; in the East, Valens had to deal with Christians who did not conform to his ideas of orthodoxy, and persecution formed part of his response. The wealth of the church increased dramatically, immense resources both public and private being used for ecclesiastical construction and support of the religious life. Bishops in wealthy cities were thus able to offer vast patronage. Edward Gibbon remarked that "the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity", though there are no figures for the monks and nuns nor for their maintenance costs. Pagan rituals and buildings had not been cheap either; the move to Christianity may not have had significant effects on the public finances. Some public disorder also followed competition for prestigious posts; Pope Damasus I was installed in 366 after an election whose casualties included a hundred and thirty-seven corpses in the basilica of Sicininus.
Valentinian died of an apoplexy while personally shouting at envoys of Germanic leaders. His successors in the West were children, his sons Gratian (r. 375–383) and Valentinian II (r. 375–392). Gratian, "alien from the art of government both by temperament and by training" removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate House, and he rejected the pagan title of Pontifex Maximus.
376–395; invasions, civil wars, and religious discord
Battle of Adrianople
In 376 the East faced an enormous barbarian influx across the Danube, mostly Goths who were refugees from the Huns. They were exploited by corrupt officials rather than effectively resettled, and they took up arms, joined by more Goths and by some Alans and Huns. Valens was in Asia with his main field army, preparing for an assault on the Persians, and redirecting the army and its logistic support would have required time. Gratian's armies were distracted by Germanic invasions across the Rhine. In 378 Valens attacked the invaders with the Eastern field army, perhaps some 20,000 men – possibly only 10% of the soldiers nominally available in the Danube provinces – and in the Battle of Adrianople, 9 August 378, he lost much of that army and his own life. All of the Balkan provinces were thus exposed to raiding, without effective response from the remaining garrisons who were "more easily slaughtered than sheep". Cities were able to hold their own walls against barbarians who had no siege equipment, and they generally remained intact although the countryside suffered.
Partial recovery in the Balkans
Gratian appointed a new Augustus, a proven general from Hispania called Theodosius. During the next four years, he partially re-established the Roman position in the East. These campaigns depended on effective imperial coordination and mutual trust – between 379 and 380 Theodosius controlled not only the Eastern empire, but also, by agreement, the diocese of Illyricum. Theodosius was unable to recruit enough Roman troops, relying on barbarian warbands without Roman military discipline or loyalty. By contrast, in the Cimbrian War the Roman Republic, controlling a smaller area than the western Empire, had reconstituted very large regular armies of citizens after much greater defeats than Adrianople, and it ended that war with the near-extermination of barbarian supergroups, each recorded as having more than 100,000 warriors. Theodosius's partial failure may have stimulated Vegetius to offer advice on re-forming an effective army (the advice may date from the 390s or from the 430s):
From the foundation of the city till the reign of the Emperor Gratian, the foot wore cuirasses and helmets. But negligence and sloth having by degrees introduced a total relaxation of discipline, the soldiers began to think their armor too heavy, as they seldom put it on. They first requested leave from the Emperor to lay aside the cuirass and afterwards the helmet. In consequence of this, our troops in their engagements with the Goths were often overwhelmed with their showers of arrows. Nor was the necessity of obliging the infantry to resume their cuirasses and helmets discovered, notwithstanding such repeated defeats, which brought on the destruction of so many great cities. Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight. What can be expected from a foot-archer without cuirass or helmet, who cannot hold at once his bow and shield; or from the ensigns whose bodies are naked, and who cannot at the same time carry a shield and the colors? The foot soldier finds the weight of a cuirass and even of a helmet intolerable. This is because he is so seldom exercised and rarely puts them on.
The final Gothic settlement was acclaimed with relief, even the official panegyrist admitting that these Goths could not be expelled or exterminated, nor reduced to unfree status. Instead they were either recruited into the imperial forces, or settled in the devastated provinces along the south bank of the Danube, where the regular garrisons were never fully re-established. In some later accounts, and widely in recent work, this is regarded as a treaty settlement, the first time that barbarians were given a home within the Empire in which they retained their political and military cohesion. No formal treaty is recorded, nor details of whatever agreement was actually made, and when "the Goths" re-emerge in our records they have different leaders and are soldiers of a sort. In 391 Alaric, a Gothic leader, rebelled against Roman control. Goths attacked the emperor himself, but within a year Alaric was accepted as a leader of Theodosius's Gothic troops and this rebellion was over.
Theodosius's financial position must have been difficult, since he had to pay for expensive campaigning from a reduced tax base. The business of subduing barbarian warbands also demanded substantial gifts of precious metal. Nevertheless, he is represented as financially lavish, though personally frugal when on campaign. At least one extra levy provoked desperation and rioting in which the emperor's statues were destroyed. He was pious, a Nicene Christian heavily influenced by Ambrose, and implacable against heretics. In 392 he forbade even private honor to the gods, and pagan rituals such as the Olympic Games. He either ordered or connived at the widespread destruction of sacred buildings.
Theodosius had to face a powerful usurper in the West; Magnus Maximus declared himself Emperor in 383, stripped troops from the outlying regions of Britannia (probably replacing some with federate chieftains and their war-bands) and invaded Gaul. His troops killed Gratian and he was accepted as Augustus in the Gallic provinces, where he was responsible for the first official executions of Christian heretics. To compensate the Western court for the loss of Gaul, Hispania, and Britannia, Theodosius ceded the diocese of Dacia and the diocese of Macedonia to their control. In 387 Maximus invaded Italia, forcing Valentinian II to flee to the East, where he accepted Nicene Christianity. Maximus boasted to Ambrose of the numbers of barbarians in his forces, and hordes of Goths, Huns, and Alans followed Theodosius. Maximus negotiated with Theodosius for acceptance as Augustus of the West, but Theodosius refused, gathered his armies, and counterattacked, winning the civil war in 388. There were heavy troop losses on both sides of the conflict. Later Welsh legend has Maximus's defeated troops resettled in Armorica, instead of returning to Britannia, and by 400 Armorica was controlled by Bagaudae rather than by imperial authority.
Theodosius restored Valentinian II, still a very young man, as Augustus in the West. He also appointed Arbogast, a pagan general of Frankish origin, as Valentinian's commander-in-chief and guardian. Valentinian quarreled in public with Arbogast, failed to assert any authority, and died, either by suicide or by murder, at the age of 21. Arbogast and Theodosius failed to come to terms and Arbogast nominated an imperial official, Eugenius (r. 392–394), as emperor in the West. Eugenius made some modest attempts to win pagan support, and with Arbogast led a large army to fight another destructive civil war. They were defeated and killed at the Battle of the Frigidus, which was attended by further heavy losses especially among the Gothic federates of Theodosius. The north-eastern approaches to Italia were never effectively garrisoned again.
Theodosius died a few months later in early 395, leaving his young sons Honorius (r. 395–423) and Arcadius (r. 395–408) as emperors. In the immediate aftermath of Theodosius's death, the magister militum Stilicho, married to Theodosius's niece, asserted himself in the West as the guardian of Honorius and commander of the remains of the defeated Western army. He also claimed control over Arcadius in Constantinople, but Rufinus, magister officiorum on the spot, had already established his own power there. Henceforward the Empire was not under the control of one man, until much of the West had been permanently lost. Neither Honorius nor Arcadius ever displayed any ability either as rulers or as generals, and both lived as the puppets of their courts. Stilicho tried to reunite the Eastern and Western courts under his personal control, but in doing so achieved only the continued hostility of all of Arcadius's successive supreme ministers.
Military, financial, and political ineffectiveness: the process of failure
The ineffectiveness of Roman military responses from Stilicho onwards has been described as "shocking", with little evidence of indigenous field forces or of adequate training, discipline, pay, or supply for the barbarians who formed most of the available troops. Local defence was occasionally effective, but was often associated with withdrawal from central control and taxes; in many areas, barbarians under Roman authority attacked culturally-Roman "Bagaudae".
Corruption, in this context the diversion of public finance from the needs of the army, may have contributed greatly to the Fall. The rich senatorial aristocrats in Rome itself became increasingly influential during the fifth century; they supported armed strength in theory, but did not wish to pay for it or to offer their own workers as army recruits. They did, however, pass large amounts of money to the Christian Church. At a local level, from the early fourth century, the town councils lost their property and their power, which often became concentrated in the hands of a few local despots beyond the reach of the law.
The fifth-century Western emperors, with brief exceptions, were individuals incapable of ruling effectively or even of controlling their own courts. Those exceptions were responsible for brief, but remarkable resurgences of Roman power.
Without an authoritative ruler, the Balkan provinces fell rapidly into disorder. Alaric was disappointed in his hopes for promotion to magister militum after the battle of the Frigidus. He again led Gothic tribesmen in arms and established himself as an independent power, burning the countryside as far as the walls of Constantinople. Alaric's ambitions for long-term Roman office were never quite acceptable to the Roman imperial courts, and his men could never settle long enough to farm in any one area. They showed no inclination to leave the Empire and face the Huns from whom they had fled in 376; indeed the Huns were still stirring up further migrations which often ended by attacking Rome in turn. In any event, Alaric's group was never destroyed nor expelled from the Empire, nor acculturated under effective Roman domination.
Stilicho's attempts to unify the Empire, revolts, and invasions
Stilicho moved with his remaining mobile forces into Greece, a clear threat to Rufinus' control of the Eastern empire. Rufinus, lacking adequate forces, enlisted Alaric and his men, and sent them to Thessaly to stave off Stilicho's threat, which they did. No battle took place. Stilicho was forced to send some of his Eastern forces home. They went to Constantinople under the command of one Gainas, a Goth with a large Gothic following. On arrival, Gainas murdered Rufinus, and was appointed magister militum for Thrace by Eutropius, the new supreme minister and the only eunuch consul of Rome, who controlled Arcadius "as if he were a sheep". Stilicho obtained a few more troops from the German frontier and continued to campaign ineffectively against the Eastern empire; again he was successfully opposed by Alaric and his men. During the next year, 397, Eutropius personally led his troops to victory over some Huns who were marauding in Asia Minor. With his position thus strengthened he declared Stilicho a public enemy, and he established Alaric as magister militum per Illyricum. A poem by Synesius advises the emperor to display manliness and remove a "skin-clad savage" (probably Alaric) from the councils of power and his barbarians from the Roman army. We do not know if Arcadius ever became aware of the existence of this advice, but it had no recorded effect. Synesius, from a province suffering the widespread ravages of a few poor but greedy barbarians, also complained of "the peacetime war, one almost worse than the barbarian war and arising from military indiscipline and the officer's greed."
The magister militum in the Diocese of Africa declared for the East and stopped the supply of grain to Rome. Italia had not fed itself for centuries and could not do so now. In 398, Stilicho sent his last reserves, a few thousand men, to re-take the Diocese of Africa, and he strengthened his position further when he married his daughter Maria to Honorius. Throughout this period Stilicho, and all other generals, were desperately short of recruits and supplies for them. In 400, Stilicho was charged to press into service any "laetus, Alamannus, Sarmatian, vagrant, son of a veteran" or any other person liable to serve. He had reached the bottom of his recruitment pool. Though personally not corrupt, he was very active in confiscating assets; the financial and administrative machine was not producing enough support for the army.
In 399, Tribigild's rebellion in Asia Minor allowed Gainas to accumulate a significant army (mostly Goths), become supreme in the Eastern court, and execute Eutropius. He now felt that he could dispense with Alaric's services and he nominally transferred Alaric's province to the West. This administrative change removed Alaric's Roman rank and his entitlement to legal provisioning for his men, leaving his army – the only significant force in the ravaged Balkans – as a problem for Stilicho. In 400, the citizens of Constantinople revolted against Gainas and massacred as many of his people, soldiers and their families, as they could catch. Some Goths at least built rafts and tried to cross the strip of sea that separates Asia from Europe; the Roman navy slaughtered them. By the beginning of 401, Gainas' head rode a pike through Constantinople while another Gothic general became consul. Meanwhile, groups of Huns started a series of attacks across the Danube, and the Isaurians marauded far and wide in Anatolia.
In 401 Stilicho travelled over the Alps to Raetia, to scrape up further troops. He left the Rhine defended only by the "dread" of Roman retaliation, rather than by adequate forces able to take the field. Early in spring, Alaric, probably desperate, invaded Italia, and he drove Honorius westward from Mediolanum, besieging him in Hasta Pompeia in Liguria. Stilicho returned as soon as the passes had cleared, meeting Alaric in two battles (near Pollentia and Verona) without decisive results. The Goths, weakened, were allowed to retreat back to Illyricum where the Western court again gave Alaric office, though only as comes and only over Dalmatia and Pannonia Secunda rather than the whole of Illyricum. Stilicho probably supposed that this pact would allow him to put Italian government into order and recruit fresh troops. He may also have planned with Alaric's help to relaunch his attempts to gain control over the Eastern court.
However, in 405, Stilicho was distracted by a fresh invasion of Northern Italia. Another group of Goths fleeing the Huns, led by one Radagaisus, devastated the north of Italia for six months before Stilicho could muster enough forces to take the field against them. Stilicho recalled troops from Britannia and the depth of the crisis was shown when he urged all Roman soldiers to allow their personal slaves to fight beside them. His forces, including Hun and Alan auxiliaries, may in the end have totalled rather less than 15,000 men. Radagaisus was defeated and executed and 12,000 of the prisoners were drafted into Stilicho's service. Stilicho continued negotiations with Alaric; Flavius Aetius, son of one of Stilicho's major supporters, was sent as a hostage to Alaric in 405. In 406 Stilicho, hearing of new invaders and rebels who had appeared in the northern provinces, insisted on making peace with Alaric, probably on the basis that Alaric would prepare to move either against the Eastern court or against the rebels in Gaul. The Senate deeply resented peace with Alaric; in 407, when Alaric marched into Noricum and demanded a large payment for his expensive efforts in Stilicho's interests, the senate, "inspired by the courage, rather than the wisdom, of their predecessors," preferred war. One senator famously declaimed Non est ista pax, sed pactio servitutis ("This is not peace, but a pact of servitude"). Stilicho paid Alaric four thousand pounds of gold nevertheless. Stilicho sent Sarus, a Gothic general, over the Alps to face the usurper Constantine III, but he lost and barely escaped, having to leave his baggage to the bandits who now infested the Alpine passes.
The empress Maria, daughter of Stilicho, died in 407 or early 408 and her sister Aemilia Materna Thermantia married Honorius. In the East, Arcadius died on 1 May 408 and was replaced by his son Theodosius II; Stilicho seems to have planned to march to Constantinople, and to install there a regime loyal to himself. He may also have intended to give Alaric a senior official position and send him against the rebels in Gaul. Before he could do so, while he was away at Ticinum at the head of a small detachment, a bloody coup against his supporters took place at Honorius's court. It was led by Stilicho's own creature, one Olympius.
408–410; the end of an effective regular field army, starvation in Italia, sack of Rome
Stilicho's fall and Alaric's reaction
Stilicho had news of the coup at Bononia (where he was probably waiting for Alaric). His small escort of barbarians was led by Sarus, who rebelled. His Gothic troops massacred the Hunnic contingent in their sleep, and then withdrew towards the cities in which their families were billeted. Stilicho ordered that these troops should not be admitted, but, now without an army, he was forced to flee for sanctuary, promised his life, and killed.
Alaric was again declared an enemy of the Emperor. The conspiracy then massacred the families of the federate troops (as presumed supporters of Stilicho, although they had probably rebelled against him), and the troops defected en masse to Alaric. The conspirators seem to have let their main army disintegrate, and had no policy except hunting down supporters of Stilicho. Italia was left without effective indigenous defence forces thereafter. Heraclianus, a co-conspirator of Olympius, became governor of the Diocese of Africa, where he controlled the source of most of Italia's grain, and used that power in the interests of Honorius's regime.
As a declared 'enemy of the Emperor', Alaric was denied the legitimacy that he needed to collect taxes and hold cities without large garrisons, which he could not afford to detach. He again offered to move his men, this time to Pannonia, in exchange for a modest sum of money and the modest title of Comes, but he was refused as a supporter of Stilicho. He moved into Italia, probably using the route and supplies arranged for him by Stilicho, bypassing the imperial court in Ravenna which was protected by widespread marshland and had a port, and he menaced the city of Rome itself. In 407, there was no equivalent of the determined response to the catastrophic Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE, when the entire Roman population, even slaves, had been mobilized to resist the enemy.
Alaric's military operations centred on the port of Rome, through which Rome's grain supply had to pass. Alaric's first siege of Rome in 408 caused dreadful famine within the walls. It was ended by a payment which though large was less than one of the richest senators could have produced. The super-rich aristocrats made little contribution; pagan temples were stripped of ornaments to make up the total. With promises of freedom, Alaric also recruited many of the slaves in Rome.
Alaric withdrew to Tuscany and recruited more slaves. Ataulf a Goth nominally in Roman service and brother-in-law to Alaric, marched through Italia to join Alaric despite taking casualties from a small force of Hunnic mercenaries led by Olympius. Sarus was an enemy of Ataulf, and on Ataulf's arrival went back into imperial service.
Alaric besieges Rome
In 409 Olympius fell to further intrigue, having his ears cut off before he was beaten to death. Alaric tried again to negotiate with Honorius, but his demands (now even more moderate, only frontier land and food) were inflated by the messenger and Honorius responded with insults, which were reported verbatim to Alaric. He broke off negotiations and the standoff continued. Honorius's court made overtures to the usurper Constantine III in Gaul and arranged to bring Hunnic forces into Italia, Alaric ravaged Italia outside the fortified cities (which he could not garrison), and the Romans refused open battle (for which they had inadequate forces). Late in the year Alaric sent bishops to express his readiness to leave Italia if Honorius would only grant his people a supply of grain. Honorius, sensing weakness, flatly refused.
Alaric moved to Rome and captured Galla Placidia, sister of Honorius. The Senate in Rome, despite its loathing for Alaric, was now desperate enough to give him almost anything he wanted. They had no food to offer, but they tried to give him imperial legitimacy; with the Senate's acquiescence, he elevated Priscus Attalus as his puppet emperor, and he marched on Ravenna. Honorius was planning to flee to Constantinople when a reinforcing army of 4,000 soldiers from the East disembarked in Ravenna. These garrisoned the walls and Honorius held on. He had Constantine's principal court supporter executed and Constantine abandoned plans to march to Honorius's defence. Attalus failed to establish his control over the Diocese of Africa, and no grain arrived in Rome where the famine became even more frightful. Jerome reports cannibalism within the walls. Attalus brought Alaric no real advantage, failing also to come to any useful agreement with Honorius (who was offered mutilation, humiliation, and exile). Indeed, Attalus's claim was a marker of threat to Honorius, and Alaric dethroned him after a few months.
In 410 Alaric took Rome by starvation, sacked it for three days (there was relatively little destruction, and in some Christian holy places Alaric's men even refrained from wanton wrecking and rape), and invited its remaining barbarian slaves to join him, which many did. The city of Rome was the seat of the richest senatorial noble families and the centre of their cultural patronage; to pagans it was the sacred origin of the empire, and to Christians the seat of the heir of Saint Peter, Pope Innocent I, the most authoritative bishop of the West. Rome had not fallen to an enemy since the Battle of the Allia over eight centuries before. Refugees spread the news and their stories throughout the Empire, and the meaning of the fall was debated with religious fervour. Both Christians and pagans wrote embittered tracts, blaming paganism or Christianity respectively for the loss of Rome's supernatural protection, and blaming Stilicho's earthly failures in either case. Some Christian responses anticipated the imminence of Judgement Day. Augustine in his book "City of God" ultimately rejected the pagan and Christian idea that religion should have worldly benefits; he developed the doctrine that the City of God in heaven, undamaged by mundane disasters, was the true objective of Christians. More practically, Honorius was briefly persuaded to set aside the laws forbidding pagans to be military officers, so that one Generidus could re-establish Roman control in Dalmatia. Generidus did this with unusual effectiveness; his techniques were remarkable for this period, in that they included training his troops, disciplining them, and giving them appropriate supplies even if he had to use his own money. The penal laws were reinstated no later than 25 August 410 and the overall trend of repression of paganism continued.
Procopius mentions a story in which Honorius, on hearing the news that Rome had "perished", was shocked, thinking the news was in reference to his favorite chicken he had named "Roma". On hearing that Rome itself had fallen he breathed a sigh of relief:
At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Roma had perished. And he cried out and said, "And yet it has just eaten from my hands!" For he had a very large cockerel, Roma by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Roma which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: "But I thought that my fowl Roma had perished." So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.— Procopius, The Vandalic War (De Bellis III.2.25–26)
The Goths move out of Italia
Alaric then moved south, intending to sail to Africa, but his ships were wrecked in a storm and he shortly died of fever. His successor Ataulf, still regarded as an usurper and given only occasional and short-term grants of supplies, moved north into the turmoil of Gaul, where there was some prospect of food. His supergroup of barbarians are called the Visigoths in modern works: they may now have been developing their own sense of identity.
405–418 in the Gallic provinces; barbarians and usurpers, loss of Britannia, partial loss of Hispania and Gaul
The Crossing of the Rhine in 405/6 brought unmanageable numbers of German and Alan barbarians (perhaps some 30,000 warriors, 100,000 people) into Gaul. They may have been trying to get away from the Huns, who about this time advanced to occupy the Great Hungarian Plain. For the next few years the barbarian tribes who had crossed the Rhine wandered in search of food and employment, while Roman forces fought each other in the name of Honorius and a number of competing claimants to the imperial throne.
The remaining troops in Britannia elevated a succession of imperial usurpers. The last, Constantine III, raised an army from the remaining troops in Britannia, invaded Gaul and defeated forces loyal to Honorius led by Sarus. Constantine's power reached its peak in 409 when he controlled Gaul and beyond, he was joint consul with Honorius and his magister militum Gerontius defeated the last Roman force to try to hold the borders of Hispania. It was led by relatives of Honorius; Constantine executed them. Gerontius went to Hispania where he may have settled the Sueves and the Asding Vandals. Gerontius then fell out with his master and elevated one Maximus as his own puppet emperor. He defeated Constantine and was besieging him in Arelate when Honorius's general Constantius arrived from Italia with an army (possibly, mainly of Hun mercenaries). Gerontius's troops deserted him and he committed suicide. Constantius continued the siege, defeating a relieving army. Constantine surrendered in 411 with a promise that his life would be spared, and was executed.
In 410, the Roman civitates of Britannia rebelled against Constantine and evicted his officials. They asked for help from Honorius, who replied that they should look to their own defence. While the British may have regarded themselves as Roman for several generations, and British armies may at times have fought in Gaul, no central Roman government is known to have appointed officials in Britannia thereafter.
In 411, Jovinus rebelled and took over Constantine's remaining troops on the Rhine. He relied on the support of Burgundians and Alans to whom he offered supplies and land. In 413 Jovinus also recruited Sarus; Ataulf destroyed their regime in the name of Honorius and both Jovinus and Sarus were executed. The Burgundians were settled on the left bank of the Rhine. Ataulf then operated in the south of Gaul, sometimes with short-term supplies from the Romans. All usurpers had been defeated, but large barbarian groups remained un-subdued in both Gaul and Hispania.
Heraclianus was still in command in the diocese of Africa, the last of the clique that overthrew Stilicho to retain power. In 413 he led an invasion of Italia, lost to a subordinate of Constantius, and fled back to Africa where he was murdered by Constantius's agents.
In January 414 Roman naval forces blockaded Ataulf in Narbo, where he married Galla Placidia. The choir at the wedding included Attalus, a puppet emperor without revenues or soldiers. Ataulf famously declared that he had abandoned his intention to set up a Gothic empire because of the irredeemable barbarity of his followers, and instead he sought to restore the Roman Empire. He handed Attalus over to Honorius's regime for mutilation, humiliation, and exile, and abandoned Attalus's supporters. (One of them, Paulinus Pellaeus, recorded that the Goths considered themselves merciful for allowing him and his household to leave destitute, but alive, without being raped.) Ataulf moved out of Gaul, to Barcelona. There his infant son by Galla Placidia was buried, and there Ataulf was assassinated by one of his household retainers, possibly a former follower of Sarus. His ultimate successor Wallia had no agreement with the Romans; his people had to plunder in Hispania for food.
Settlement of 418; barbarians within the empire
In 416 Wallia reached agreement with Constantius; he sent Galla Placidia back to Honorius and received provisions, six hundred thousand modii of wheat. From 416 to 418, Wallia's Goths campaigned in Hispania on Constantius's behalf, exterminating the Siling Vandals in Baetica and reducing the Alans to the point where the survivors sought the protection of the king of the Asding Vandals. (After retrenchment they formed another barbarian supergroup, but for the moment they were reduced in numbers and effectively cowed.) In 418, by agreement with Constantius, Wallia's Goths accepted land to farm in Aquitania. Constantius also reinstituted an annual council of the southern Gallic provinces, to meet at Arelate. Although Constantius rebuilt the western field army to some extent – the Notitia Dignitatum gives a list of the units of the western field army at this time—he did so only by replacing half of its units (vanished in the wars since 395) by re-graded barbarians, and by garrison troops removed from the frontier.
Constantius had married the princess Galla Placidia (despite her protests) in 417. The couple soon had two children, Honoria and Valentinian III, and Constantius was elevated to the position of Augustus in 420. This earned him the hostility of the Eastern court, which had not agreed to his elevation. Nevertheless, Constantius had achieved an unassailable position at the Western court, in the imperial family, and as the able commander-in-chief of a partially restored army.
This settlement represented a real success for the Empire—a poem by Rutilius Namatianus celebrates his voyage back to Gaul in 417 and his confidence in a restoration of prosperity. But it marked huge losses of territory and of revenue; Rutilius travelled by ship past the ruined bridges and countryside of Tuscany, and in the west the River Loire had become the effective northern boundary of Roman Gaul. In the east of Gaul the Franks controlled large areas; the effective line of Roman control until 455 ran from north of Cologne (lost to the Ripuarian Franks in 459) to Boulogne. The Italian areas which had been compelled to support the Goths had most of their taxes remitted for several years. Even in southern Gaul and Hispania large barbarian groups remained, with thousands of warriors, in their own non-Roman military and social systems. Some occasionally acknowledged a degree of Roman political control, but without the local application of Roman leadership and military power they and their individual subgroups pursued their own interests.
421–433; renewed dissension after the death of Constantius, partial loss of the Diocese of Africa
Constantius died in 421, after only seven months as Augustus. He had been careful to make sure that there was no successor in waiting, and his own children were far too young to take his place. Honorius was unable to control his own court and the death of Constantius initiated more than ten years of instability. Initially Galla Placidia sought Honorius's favour in the hope that her son might ultimately inherit. Other court interests managed to defeat her, and she fled with her children to the Eastern court in 422. Honorius himself died, shortly before his thirty-ninth birthday, in 423. After some months of intrigue, the patrician Castinus installed Joannes as Western Emperor, but the Eastern Roman government proclaimed the child Valentinian III instead, his mother Galla Placidia acting as regent during his minority. Joannes had few troops of his own. He sent Aetius to raise help from the Huns. An Eastern army landed in Italia, captured Joannes, cut his hand off, abused him in public, and killed him with most of his senior officials. Aetius returned, three days after Joannes' death, at the head of a substantial Hunnic army which made him the most powerful general in Italia. After some fighting, Placidia and Aetius came to an agreement; the Huns were paid off and sent home, while Aetius received the position of magister militum.
Galla Placidia, as Augusta, mother of the Emperor, and his guardian until 437, could maintain a dominant position in court, but women in Ancient Rome did not exercise military power and she could not herself become a general. She tried for some years to avoid reliance on a single dominant military figure, maintaining a balance of power between her various senior officers, Aetius (magister militum in Gaul), Count Boniface governor in the Diocese of Africa, and Flavius Felix magister militum praesentalis in Italia. Meanwhile, the Empire deteriorated seriously. Apart from the losses in the Diocese of Africa, Hispania was slipping out of central control and into the hands of local rulers and Suevic bandits. In Gaul the Rhine frontier had collapsed, the Visigoths in Aquitaine may have launched further attacks on Narbo and Arelate, and the Franks, increasingly powerful although disunited, were the major power in the north-east. Aremorica was controlled by Bagaudae, local leaders not under the authority of the Empire. Aetius at least campaigned vigorously and mostly victoriously, defeating aggressive Visigoths, Franks, fresh Germanic invaders, Bagaudae in Aremorica, and a rebellion in Noricum. Not for the first time in Rome's history, a triumvirate of mutually distrustful rulers proved unstable. In 427 Felix tried to recall Boniface from Africa; he refused, and overcame Felix's invading force. Boniface probably recruited some Vandal troops among others.
In 428 the Vandals and Alans were united under the able, ferocious, and long-lived king Genseric; he moved his entire people to Tarifa near Gibraltar, divided them into 80 groups nominally of 1,000 people, (perhaps 20,000 warriors in total), and crossed from Hispania to Mauretania without opposition. (The Straits of Gibraltar were not an important thoroughfare at the time, and there were no significant fortifications nor military presence at this end of the Mediterranean.) They spent a year moving slowly to Numidia, defeating Boniface. He returned to Italia where Aetius had recently had Felix executed. Boniface was promoted to magister militum and earned the enmity of Aetius, who may have been absent in Gaul at the time. In 432 the two met at the Battle of Ravenna which left Aetius's forces defeated and Boniface mortally wounded. Aetius temporarily retired to his estates, but after an attempt to murder him he raised another Hunnic army (probably by conceding parts of Pannonia to them) and in 433 he returned to Italia, overcoming all rivals. He never threatened to become an Augustus himself and thus maintained the support of the Eastern court, where Valentinian's cousin Theodosius II reigned until 450.
433–454; ascendancy of Aetius, loss of Carthage
Aetius campaigned vigorously, somewhat stabilizing the situation in Gaul and in Hispania. He relied heavily on his Hunnic forces. With a ferocity celebrated centuries later in the Nibelungenlied, the Huns slaughtered many Burgundians on the middle Rhine, re-establishing the survivors as Roman allies, the first Kingdom of Burgundy. This may have returned some sort of Roman authority to Trier. Eastern troops reinforced Carthage, temporarily halting the Vandals, who in 435 agreed to limit themselves to Numidia and leave the most fertile parts of North Africa in peace. Aetius concentrated his limited military resources to defeat the Visigoths again, and his diplomacy restored a degree of order to Hispania. However, his general Litorius was badly defeated by the Visigoths at Toulouse, and a new Suevic king, Rechiar, began vigorous assaults on what remained of Roman Hispania. At one point Rechiar even allied with Bagaudae. These were Romans not under imperial control; some of their reasons for rebellion may be indicated by the remarks of a Roman captive under Attila who was happy in his lot, giving a lively account of
the vices of a declining empire, of which he had so long been the victim; the cruel absurdity of the Roman princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defence; the intolerable weight of taxes, rendered still more oppressive by the intricate or arbitrary modes of collection; the obscurity of numerous and contradictory laws; the tedious and expensive forms of judicial proceedings; the partial administration of justice; and the universal corruption, which increased the influence of the rich, and aggravated the misfortunes of the poor.
A religious polemic of about this time complains bitterly of the oppression and extortion suffered by all but the richest Romans, many of whom wished to flee to the Bagaudae or even to foul-smelling barbarians.
Although these men differ in customs and language from those with whom they have taken refuge, and are unaccustomed too, if I may say so, to the nauseous odor of the bodies and clothing of the barbarians, yet they prefer the strange life they find there to the injustice rife among the Romans. So you find men passing over everywhere, now to the Goths, now to the Bagaudae, or whatever other barbarians have established their power anywhere ... We call those men rebels and utterly abandoned, whom we ourselves have forced into crime. For by what other causes were they made Bagaudae save by our unjust acts, the wicked decisions of the magistrates, the proscription and extortion of those who have turned the public exactions to the increase of their private fortunes and made the tax indictions their opportunity for plunder?
From Britannia comes an indication of the prosperity which freedom from taxes could bring.
No sooner were the ravages of the enemy checked, than the island was deluged with a most extraordinary plenty of all things, greater than was before known, and with it grew up every kind of luxury and licentiousness.
Nevertheless, effective imperial protection from barbarian ravages was eagerly sought. About this time authorities in Britannia asked Aetius for help:
"To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons." And again a little further, thus: – "The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." The Romans, however, could not assist them ...
The Visigoths passed another waymark on their journey to full independence; they made their own foreign policy, sending princesses to make (rather unsuccessful) marriage alliances with Rechiar of the Sueves and with Huneric, son of the Vandal king Genseric.
In 439 the Vandals moved eastward (temporarily abandoning Numidia) and captured Carthage, where they established an independent state with a powerful navy. This brought immediate financial crisis to the Western Empire; the diocese of Africa was prosperous, normally required few troops to keep it secure, contributed large tax revenues, and exported wheat to feed Rome and many other areas. Roman troops assembled in Sicily, but the planned counter-attack never happened. Huns attacked the Eastern empire, and
the troops, which had been sent against Genseric, were hastily recalled from Sicily; the garrisons, on the side of Persia, were exhausted; and a military force was collected in Europe, formidable by their arms and numbers, if the generals had understood the science of command, and the soldiers the duty of obedience. The armies of the Eastern empire were vanquished in three successive engagements ... From the Hellespont to Thermopylae, and the suburbs of Constantinople, [Attila] ravaged, without resistance, and without mercy, the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia.
Attila's invasions of the East were stopped by the walls of Constantinople, and at this heavily fortified Eastern end of the Mediterranean there were no significant barbarian invasions across the sea into the rich southerly areas of Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. Despite internal and external threats, and more religious discord than the West, these provinces remained prosperous contributors to tax revenue; despite the ravages of Attila's armies and the extortions of his peace treaties, tax revenue generally continued to be adequate for the essential state functions of the Eastern empire.
Genseric settled his Vandals as landowners and in 442 was able to negotiate very favourable peace terms with the Western court. He kept his latest gains and his eldest son Huneric was honoured by betrothal to Princess Eudocia, who carried the legitimacy of the Theodosian dynasty. Huneric's Gothic wife was suspected of trying to poison her father-in-law Genseric; he sent her home without her nose or ears, and his Gothic alliance came to an early end. The Romans regained Numidia, and Rome again received a grain supply from Africa.
The losses of income from the Diocese of Africa were equivalent to the costs of nearly 40,000 infantry or over 20,000 cavalry. The imperial regime had to increase taxes. Despite admitting that the peasantry could pay no more, and that a sufficient army could not be raised, the imperial regime protected the interests of landowners displaced from Africa and allowed wealthy individuals to avoid taxes.
444–453; attacks by the empire of Attila the Hun
In 444, the Huns were united under Attila. His subjects included Huns, outnumbered several times over by other groups, predominantly Germanic. His power rested partly on his continued ability to reward his favoured followers with precious metals, and he continued to attack the Eastern Empire until 450, by when he had extracted vast sums of money and many other concessions.
Attila may not have needed any excuse to turn West, but he received one in the form of a plea for help from Honoria, the Emperor's sister, who was being forced into a marriage which she resented. Attila claimed Honoria as his wife and half of the Western Empire's territory as his dowry. Faced with refusal, he invaded Gaul in 451 with a huge army. In the bloody battle of the Catalaunian Plains the invasion was stopped by the combined forces of the barbarians within the Western empire, coordinated by Aetius and supported by what troops he could muster. The next year, Attila invaded Italia and proceeded to march upon Rome, but an outbreak of disease in his army, lack of supplies, reports that Eastern Roman troops were attacking his noncombatant population in Pannonia, and, possibly, Pope Leo's plea for peace induced him to halt this campaign. Attila unexpectedly died a year later (453) and his empire crumbled as his followers fought for power. The life of Severinus of Noricum gives glimpses of the general insecurity, and ultimate retreat of the Romans on the Upper Danube, in the aftermath of Attila's death. The Romans were without adequate forces; the barbarians inflicted haphazard extortion, murder, kidnap, and plunder on the Romans and on each other.
So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together. The troop at Batavis, however, held out. Some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italia to fetch the final pay to their comrades, and no one knew that the barbarians had slain them on the way.
In 454 Aetius was personally stabbed to death by Valentinian, who was himself murdered by the dead general's supporters a year later.
He thought he had slain his master; he found that he had slain his protector: and he fell a helpless victim to the first conspiracy which was hatched against his throne.
A rich senatorial aristocrat, Petronius Maximus, who had encouraged both murders, then seized the throne. He broke the engagement between Huneric, prince of the Vandals, and Princess Eudocia, and had time to send Avitus to ask for the help of the Visigoths in Gaul before the Vandals sailed to Italia. Petronius was unable to muster any effective response and was killed by a mob as he tried to flee the city. The Vandals entered Rome, and plundered it for two weeks. Despite the shortage of money for the defence of the state, considerable private wealth had accumulated since the previous sack in 410. The Vandals sailed away with large amounts of treasure and also with the Princess Eudocia, who became the wife of one Vandal king and the mother of another.
The Vandals conquered Sicily, and their fleet became a constant danger to Roman sea trade and to the coasts and islands of the western Mediterranean.
455–456; failure of Avitus, further losses in Gaul, rise of Ricimer
Avitus, at the Visigothic court in Burdigala, declared himself Emperor. He moved on Rome with Visigothic support which gained his acceptance by Majorian and Ricimer, commanders of the remaining army of Italia. This was the first time that a barbarian kingdom had played a key role in the imperial succession. Avitus's son-in-law Sidonius wrote propaganda to present the Visigothic king Theoderic II as a reasonable man with whom a Roman regime could do business. Theoderic's payoff included precious metal from stripping the remaining public ornaments of Italia, and an unsupervised campaign in Hispania. There he not only defeated the Sueves, executing his brother-in-law Rechiar, but he also plundered Roman cities. The Burgundians expanded their kingdom in the Rhone valley and the Vandals took the remains of the Diocese of Africa. In 456 the Visigothic army was too heavily engaged in Hispania to be an effective threat to Italia, and Ricimer had just destroyed a pirate fleet of sixty Vandal ships; Majorian and Ricimer marched against Avitus and defeated him near Placentia. He was forced to become Bishop of Placentia, and died (possibly murdered) a few weeks later.
457–467; resurgence under Majorian, attempt to recover Africa, control by Ricimer
Majorian and Ricimer were now in control of Italia. Ricimer was the son of a Suevic king and his mother was the daughter of a Gothic one, so he could not aspire to an imperial throne. After some months, allowing for negotiation with the new emperor of Constantinople and the defeat of 900 Alamannic invaders of Italia by one of his subordinates, Majorian was acclaimed as Augustus. Majorian is described by Gibbon as "a great and heroic character". He rebuilt the army and navy of Italia with vigour and set about recovering the remaining Gallic provinces, which had not recognized his elevation. He defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Arelate, reducing them to federate status and obliging them to give up their claims in Hispania; he moved on to subdue the Burgundians, the Gallo-Romans around Lugdunum (who were granted tax concessions and whose senior officials were appointed from their own ranks) and the Suevi and Bagaudae in Hispania. Marcellinus, magister militum in Dalmatia and the pagan general of a well-equipped army, acknowledged him as emperor and recovered Sicily from the Vandals. Aegidius also acknowledged Majorian and took effective charge of northern Gaul. (Aegidius may also have used the title "King of the Franks".) Abuses in tax collection were reformed and the city councils were strengthened, both actions necessary to rebuild the strength of the Empire but disadvantageous to the richest aristocrats. Majorian prepared a fleet at Carthago Nova for the essential reconquest of the Diocese of Africa.
The fleet was burned by traitors, and Majorian made peace with the Vandals and returned to Italia. Here Ricimer met him, arrested him, and executed him five days later. Marcellinus in Dalmatia, and Aegidius around Soissons in northern Gaul, rejected both Ricimer and his puppets and maintained some version of Roman rule in their areas. Ricimer later ceded Narbo and its hinterland to the Visigoths for their help against Aegidius; this made it impossible for Roman armies to march from Italia to Hispania. Ricimer was then the effective ruler of Italia (but little else) for several years. From 461 to 465 the pious Italian aristocrat Libius Severus reigned. There is no record of anything significant that he even tried to achieve, he was never acknowledged by the East whose help Ricimer needed, and he died conveniently in 465.
467–472, Anthemius; an Emperor and an army from the East
After two years without a Western Emperor, the Eastern court nominated Anthemius, a successful general who had a strong claim on the Eastern throne. He arrived in Italia with an army, supported by Marcellinus and his fleet; he married his daughter to Ricimer, and he was proclaimed Augustus in 467. In 468, at vast expense, the Eastern empire assembled an enormous force to help the West retake the Diocese of Africa. Marcellinus rapidly drove the Vandals from Sardinia and Sicily, and a land invasion evicted them from Tripolitania. The commander in chief with the main force defeated a Vandal fleet near Sicily and landed at Cape Bon. Here Genseric offered to surrender, if he could have a five-day truce to prepare the process. He used the respite to prepare a full-scale attack preceded by fireships, which destroyed most of the Roman fleet and killed many of the men. The Vandals were confirmed in their possession of the Diocese of Africa and they retook Sardinia and Sicily. Marcellinus was murdered, possibly on orders from Ricimer. The Praetorian prefect of Gaul, Arvandus, tried to persuade the new king of the Visigoths to rebel, on the grounds that Roman power in Gaul was finished anyway, but he refused.
Anthemius was still in command of an army in Italia. Additionally, in northern Gaul, a British army led by one Riothamus, operated in imperial interests. Anthemius sent his son over the Alps, with an army, to request that the Visigoths return southern Gaul to Roman control. This would have allowed the Empire land access to Hispania again. The Visigoths refused, defeated the forces of both Riothamus and Anthemius, and with the Burgundians took over almost all of the remaining imperial territory in southern Gaul.
Ricimer then quarreled with Anthemius, and besieged him in Rome, which surrendered in July 472 after more months of starvation. Anthemius was captured and executed (on Ricimer's orders) by the Burgundian prince Gundobad. In August Ricimer died of a pulmonary haemorrhage. Olybrius, his new emperor, named Gundobad as his patrician, then died himself shortly thereafter.
472–476; the final emperors, puppets of the warlords
After the death of Olybrius there was a further interregnum until March 473, when Gundobad proclaimed Glycerius emperor. He may have made some attempt to intervene in Gaul; if so, it was unsuccessful.
In 474 Julius Nepos, nephew and successor of the general Marcellinus, arrived in Rome with soldiers and authority from the eastern emperor Leo I. Gundobad had already left to contest the Burgundian throne in Gaul and Glycerius gave up without a fight, retiring to become bishop of Salona in Dalmatia.
In 475, Orestes, a former secretary of Attila, drove Julius Nepos out of Ravenna and proclaimed his own son Flavius Momyllus Romulus Augustus (Romulus Augustulus) to be Emperor, on October 31. His surname 'Augustus' was given the diminutive form 'Augustulus' by rivals because he was still a minor, and he was never recognized outside of Italia as a legitimate ruler.
In 476, Orestes refused to grant Odoacer and the Heruli federated status, prompting an invasion. Orestes fled to the city of Pavia on August 23, 476, where the city's bishop gave him sanctuary. Orestes was soon forced to flee Pavia when Odoacer's army broke through the city walls, and his army ravaged the city. Odoacer's army chased Orestes to Piacenza, where they captured and executed him on August 28, 476.
On September 4, 476, Odoacer forced then 16-year-old Romulus Augustulus, whom his father Orestes had proclaimed to be Rome's Emperor, to abdicate. After deposing Romulus, Odoacer did not execute him. The Anonymus Valesianus wrote that Odoacer, "taking pity on his youth", spared Romulus' life and granted him an annual pension of 6,000 solidi before sending him to live with relatives in Campania. Odoacer then installed himself as ruler over Italia, and sent the Imperial insignia to Constantinople.
From 476; last Emperor, rump states
By convention, the Western Roman Empire is deemed to have ended on 4 September 476, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself ruler of Italia, but this convention is subject to many qualifications. In Roman constitutional theory, the Empire was still simply united under one emperor, implying no abandonment of territorial claims. In areas where the convulsions of the dying Empire had made organized self-defence legitimate, rump states continued under some form of Roman rule after 476. Julius Nepos still claimed to be Emperor of the West and controlled Dalmatia until his murder in 480. Syagrius son of Aegidius ruled the Domain of Soissons until his murder in 487. The indigenous inhabitants of Mauretania developed kingdoms of their own, independent of the Vandals, with strong Roman traits. They again sought Imperial recognition with the reconquests of Justinian I, and they put up effective resistance to the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb. While the civitates of Britannia sank into a level of material development inferior even to their pre-Roman Iron Age ancestors, they maintained identifiably Roman traits for some time, and they continued to look to their own defence as Honorius had authorized.
Odoacer began to negotiate with the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Zeno, who was busy dealing with unrest in the East. Zeno eventually granted Odoacer the status of patrician and accepted him as his own viceroy of Italia. Zeno, however, insisted that Odoacer had to pay homage to Julius Nepos as the Emperor of the Western Empire. Odoacer never returned any territory or real power, but he did issue coins in the name of Julius Nepos throughout Italia. The murder of Julius Nepos in 480 (Glycerius may have been among the conspirators) prompted Odoacer to invade Dalmatia, annexing it to his Kingdom of Italia. In 488 the Eastern emperor authorized a troublesome Goth, Theoderic (later known as "the Great") to take Italia. After several indecisive campaigns, in 493 Theoderic and Odoacer agreed to rule jointly. They celebrated their agreement with a banquet of reconciliation, at which Theoderic's men murdered Odoacer's, and Theoderic personally cut Odoacer in half.
The Roman Empire was not only a political unity enforced by violence. It was also the combined and elaborated civilization of the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It included manufacture, trade, and architecture, widespread secular literacy, written law, and an international language of science and literature. The Western barbarians lost much of these higher cultural practices, but their redevelopment in the Middle Ages by polities aware of the Roman achievement formed the basis for the later development of Europe.
Observing the cultural and archaeological continuities through and beyond the period of lost political control, the process has been described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall.
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