The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Setting Them Up and Knocking Them Down

Any discussion of the fall of the Roman Empire needs an explanation of what the Roman Empire actually was and how it changed over time. From the time of middle of the second century BC to the end of the first, Rome was an Empire in the sense that it dominated vast expanses of territory and ruled over various peoples. What the Empire lacked was an Emperor. It got one in 27 BC with the elevation of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar, to the position of Princeps under the title Augustus. The Princeps was a constitutional office that was imbued with vast executive powers but which had no regular form of succession; the office was not "inherited" in the legal sense, though in practice, the son or adopted son of the previous Princeps received the Roman Senate's approval to claim the office. When there was no designated or readily apparent successor, powerful generals would take to the battlefield and fight one another for the top prize, which the Senate would almost always grant the victor for fear of reprisal if they did not. Eventually, this caused such a virulent form of political instability that the Roman Emperor Diocletian abolished the Principate system and installed the Dominate or Tetrarchy in which the vast Empire was split into four administrative districts, two of which were commanded by co-equal "Augustii" and two of which were led by "Caesars." When an Augustus died or retired, his Caesar would automatically succeed him and then name a Caesar in his vacated place, and the process would go on into perpetuity. Except it didn't work. Civil wars broke out constantly as a result of this policy and there was never a smooth transition from Augustus to the next. What the Dominate really accomplished was the fragmentation of the Empire and the regularization of inheritable succession, which helped to hasten the end of the Western portion of the Empire.

By the late fourth century, the main source of continuity from one ruler to the next was the court bureaucracy in Constantinople and in Ravenna (which had superseded the city of Rome as the administrative capital of the Western Empire). It thus became common for the Emperor's advisers to have more political power than the Emperor himself, which was not entirely a negative thing. Later Roman Emperors like Honorius were given to excessive indolence and preferred to let others deal with the matters of state. One reason for this was a trend that started with Nero of naming really young but genetically acceptable rulers; for example, Nero was one of the only surviving male descendents of Augustus, thus making him an appropriate figure to hold the Principate. Therefore, these young aristocrats were so accustomed to other people taking the responsibilities of the state on their own shoulders that it didn't really seem that important for them to actually do anything once they came of age. The case of Honorius is more relevant to the subject at hand because he came to "power" (if you can call it that) in the fifth century and did much to hasten the Fall of the West.

During Honorius' mismanaged and unsuccessful reign, he relied on a Vandal general named Stilicho as his chief minister. Edward Gibbon viewed Stilicho in a largely heroic light, and that's not entirely inaccurate, but there's no denying that Stilicho was an experienced political operator who looked out for himself first and foremost. Stilicho served Honorius because it benefited him to do so and there's a credible belief that he at some point intended his progeny to attain the purple. As an example of Stilicho's control of the state, he almost brought the Western Empire into war with the Eastern Empire despite the fact that the respective Emperors were brothers! The reason why? He disliked the Eastern Emperor's ministers. On the other hand, Stilicho was the one responsible for holding back the Ostrogoths and keeping Rome intact for the first decade of the fifth century. Then, in 408, Honorius killed the Empire's savior at the instigation of court intrigue. Before Stilicho died, Britannia's governor revolted against Honorius and took the legions stationed there into Gaul; without Stilicho's military knowledge, the Emperor was ill-equipped to fight back the challenge and as a result, Britannia was lost to Rome forever after that. Even worse, Alaric, the King of the Visigoths, took advantage of Stilicho's death and marched his men directly into Rome in 410. He sacked the city but did not attempt to "conquer" it in the sense of taking it over; this was a psychologically-damaging action designed to punish the Romans, and it worked. Roman morale was broken and it would not recover.

The void left by Stilicho's death in the West would not be filled until the 430s by Flavius Aetius. Like Stilicho, Aetius was a Roman military man of barbarian descent. He had lived amongst the Huns as a child, befriending a young Hunnic prince named Attila. In the aftermath of Honorius' death in 423, Aetius had declared for an usurper named Ioannes and had brought the Huns with him to back it up. Unfortunately for Aetius, Ioannes lost. He used his political skill to get in good with the new Emperor, Valentinian, and eventually rose to the same prominent position as Stilicho. In doing so, however, Aetius had to defeat Count Boniface, a powerful Roman military commander who was his rival to be the power behind the throne. In the course of their power struggle, Africa was lost to the Vandals. Things got continuously worse until the Western Roman Empire consisted of Italy and the Northeast corner of Gaul, which was not contiguous with the rest of the "Empire." This part of Gaul was known as the Domain of Soissons and was administered by a Roman dux named Aegidius. In 446, the surviving Romano-Britons sent a letter to either Aetius or Aegidius (it was addressed to a nonexistent person referred to as "Agidius, thrice consul") and described the perilous state of affairs in Britannia. It was known as the Groans of the Britons and contains a famous line referring to the Saxons: "the barbarians push us to the sea and the sea pushes us to the barbarians; either way, we are killed." It is unknown how or even if Aetius or Aegidius responded. One thing is for certain, however: neither of them ever sent any men into Britain to help.

In the 450s, Aetius had his greatest moment: the defeat of the Huns at the Battle of Chalons. Later, the Huns menaced the Empire again, and though they were not militarily defeated, they abandoned the campaign. Aetius was riding high and like Stilicho, he too was slain by his Emperor. In contrast to Honorius, however, Valentinian personally killed Aetius with his own hand in the year 454. Upon the death of Aetius, one of Valentinian's ministers remarked that he was like the man who cut off his right hand with his left. In 455, Valentinian himself was killed by two of Aetius' former subordinates, leaving no clear successor. Valentinian was succeeded by the worthless Petronius Maximus, who reigned for about two months. A basically anonymous nobleman named Avitus succeeded Petronius with the support of the Visigothic king Theodoric II and he appointed another barbarian, Ricimer, to be his chief minister. Ricimer was now the most powerful man in the Empire and in 457, removed Avitus from power.

The Shadow Emperor

Ricimer appointed a general named Majorian to succeed Avitus, but this was immediately problematic as the new Byzantine Emperor, Leo I, did not regard Majorian as a legitimate claimant to the throne. He wasn't the only one; Avitus had been a Gaul and they viewed Majorian as causing the downfall of their posterboy. Aegidius was required to put down the Gauls despite the fact that he seems not to have really supported the Emperor himself. Under Majorian, North Africa and Spain were officially conceded as having been lost. Ricimer saw the writing on the wall and deposed his second Emperor, who died only a few days after his abdication in 461. He named another politician, Libius Severus, Emperor, but effectively kept him locked up while Ricimer actually managed the Empire. Again, Leo refused to recognize Libius. Libius died in 465 under unknown circumstances, and this time Leo intervened to put his candidate on the throne. The negotiations carried on until 467 when Ricimer finally accepted Anthemius and as a token of goodwill, married his daughter. Anthemius had been a consul and high-ranking military official in the East and had connections to Leo, so Leo felt he could trust him.

This trust was pretty misplaced. Anthemius had serious problems with the Vandals and could not mount an effective counterattack against them. His campaign to reclaim Africa was an abject failure and when he suffered from a debilitating illness, he evidently felt it was a magical conspiracy against him. He began a bizarre and arbitrary proscription, and Ricimer was determined to get rid of him. Ricimer publicly declared against Anthemius and the two men clashed in battle in 472. Leo sent a man named Olybrius to Italy to negotiate a peace, but because of his royal connections (he was related by marriage to the Theodosian dynasty), Ricimer seized upon him as a replacement for Anthemius. Olybrius was unwilling, but realized that he had no other choice. The revolt succeeded and Olybrius was duly installed as Western Emperor. Leo was incredulous; he couldn't believe that his negotiator had usurped his chosen candidate. He refused to acknowledge Olybrius, but it didn't really matter that much; both Olybrius and Ricimer were dead before the end of the year due to natural causes.

The End

Leo had no idea what to do; Ricimer's ambitious nephew, Gundobad, however, suffered from no such lack of imagination. He quickly took his uncle's position as head of the army and became the epicenter of power in Rome. He named a subordinate officer of his, a certain Glycerius, to be the new Emperor. Gundobad, however, lacked his uncle's stones and when Leo sent an army into Italy to overthrow Glycerius, he fled to Burgundy, of which his father was King. The man that Leo sent to Italy was Julius Nepos, who showed great clemency to Glycerius, who surrendered to him in 474. Glycerius became a bishop at Julius' suggestion and died peacefully in 480. Before Julius could be officially installed as Emperor, however, Leo died of old age in Constantinople. He was succeeded by his young grandson, Leo II, and his son-in-law Zeno. Thus Zeno officially recognized Julius as the new and rightful Emperor of the West. Unfortunately, by the next year, Julius Nepos had been deposed and sent into exile in Dalmatia (Croatia) where he exercised some degree of authority. Julius had been overthrown by Orestes, his half-Germanic head of the army. He installed his 13 year old son, Romulus Augustus, as Emperor in 475. Since Nepos was still alive and in power in Dalmatia, Zeno did not recognize Romulus.

It didn't really matter much anyway. Orestes had managed to infuriate the ones who had supported him all the way to the top. The Germanic mercenaries who had helped Orestes overthrow Julius were demanding payment for services rendered and he decided it would be a good idea to say "no." Unsurprisingly, this was not a good idea, and in 476, the Germans rallied under the banner of Odoacer and marched on Orestes. They killed him and marched on Ravenna with the intention of killing Romulus as well. When they got there and Odoacer saw how young he actually was, however, he took pity on him and allowed him to step down, which he did. Odoacer was now the King of Italy.

Julius Nepos begged Zeno for support to take back the capital, and although Zeno agreed that Julius was legally the Emperor, he was unwilling to provide anything other than moral support for his cause. Odoacer was a skillful politician and he appealed to Zeno's sense of vanity; he sent the Imperial regalia to Constantinople and "pleaded" to be recognized as the dux of Italy under his authority. Zeno wasn't fooled by this falsely obsequieous display, but he knew it would be impossible to dislodge Odoacer, so he accepted him in his position. In 480, Julius Nepos was killed by former supporters of his in Dalmatia over an unspecified dispute. Upon his death, Odoacer overran Dalmatia and added it to his territory. There ceased to be any Western Roman Empire at this point in time as the territory formerly governed by it irreversibly fractured into various independent states.

Even after the capture of Italy and the death of Julius Nepos, there was still one final outpost of Western Roman authority: the Domain of Soissons, now "governed" by Aegidius' son Syagrius. Syagrius still maintained his pretense that he was in some way acting in the stead of an Emperor in Ravenna, though clearly none existed. He had been independent of Rome since 464 and was known as the King of the Romans among his Germanic enemies after 476. His territory was invaded by Clovis, the Frankish warlord who had taken over much of Gaul and Germania. Syagrius was executed in 487 by the victorious Frank and with him, Rome really died in the West.

Did Rome Really Fall?

There is a significant movement in contemporary historiography to say that Rome did not "fall" in the sense that, say, the Third Reich fell at the end of World War II. Surely, the average citizen of what had formerly been the Roman Empire didn't notice that much of a change. When Rome first started losing significant portions of its territory in the fourth century, the economy underwent a profound transformation: Rome had previously been a specialized consumption economy in which the provinces produced and Italy consumed. During the Crisis of the Third Century, the currency collapsed and people began learning to fend for themselves and to become more agriculturally oriented. When Diocletian declared that professions were to be compulsorily inherited, it had the effect of locking people into place socially. When more and more territories began to be lost from the Empire, they were forced to either quickly adapt to the changing times by growing their own food or to relocate. Luxury for the most part gave way to practicality, not that the average Roman citizen knew anything about luxury to begin with. The various changes in administration, whether Frankish, Gothic, or Burgundian, were either irrelevant to most people's lives or were actually welcome changes since taxes became significantly less harsh under these "barbarian" rulers.

All of that aside, it's also important to remember that Rome had become two separate entities -- East and West -- and the East was still standing and was still calling itself "Rome." In this sense, Rome did not fall as such. What cannot be denied, however, is that the Western Empire ceased to be a political actor after Odoacer voluntarily gave up any claim to the Empire as an entity. The "fall" of the Western Empire was psychological and legal in nature. The Empire continued in the East as the Byzantine Empire, obviously, but to some degree it continues in the West and elsewhere today: most people in Western Europe speak a language descended from Latin and have a legal code derived from Rome's. The rituals of the Catholic Church are largely based on Imperial Roman court rituals, especially those established by Diocletian and maintained by his successors like Constantine. And past all that, something about the Roman Empire still fascinates us to this day. Is it because we all love a good tragedy? Or is it because we see ourselves in them? Whatever the case may be, as long as we still talk, think, and write about them, the Empire will never really fall.

Julio-Claudian Dynasty | Flavian Dynasty | Five Good Emperors | Severan Dynasty | Crisis of the Third Century | Constantinian Dynasty | Valentinian Dynasty | House of Theodosius | The Fall of the Western Roman Empire |


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