HISTORY OF THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
On this date, September 4, 476 AD, Odoacer captured the city of Ravenna and deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus, marking the Fall of the Roman Empire. What do we mean by the Fall of the Roman Empire?
What do we mean by Roman Empire?
This part of the statement needs clarification first. When we say Roman Empire, we’re really only talking about the “Western Roman Empire.”
There was another Roman Empire?
Correct. Kind of.
Since the time of Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century, the Empire was so large that it was usually managed by two co-ruling emperors:
- one in the Latin-speaking West, usually in Rome, but sometimes in Mediolanum (Milan) or Ravenna
- the other in the Greek-speaking East, in Constantinople or Nicomedia.
Following the time of Emperor Theodosius I, it was permanently divided into western and eastern spheres, the whole still referred to as the Roman Empire with two co-equal rulers rather than one. Sometimes they got along, being of the same family; sometimes they sought to kill each other, and occasionally succeeded.
At other times, especially during and following the reign of Diocletian, there were 4 rulers or a tetrarchy. In both the west and east there was an Augustus, as well as two subordinate Caesars.
You’ll remember from our discussion of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste and the aftermath to the story of Easter how Emperor Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome in the early 4th century. Subsequently, in 324 AD, he moved the capital of the Empire to the east, to Byzantium, the “New Rome,” renamed Constantinople, and which we now know as Istanbul. This capital of the Eastern Roman Empire survived was the largest and most prosperous city in Europe for almost a millennium, until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks.
What do we mean by Fall?
This is the more difficult part of the question, “what do we mean by Fall?” Historians point to many “Falls” of the Roman Empire. By the late 400s, the Western Roman Empire no longer wielded sufficient financial, political, or military power to effectively control the domains of Europe that were described as Roman.
On this date in 476, an expedition by a military leader named Flavius Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor. Where Odoacer came from is contested. He’s usually called German or a Goth. He’s always called a “barbarian” and was depicted as such on his coin… with a mustache. The Romans borrowed the word barbarian from the Greeks, where it meant someone who could not speak their civilized language but instead made sounds like “bar bar…”
He defeated the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus, who, despite his noble-sounding name, was a minor, having been placed on the throne less than a year earlier by his father, a Roman general. Augustulus (“little Augustus“), as he was known to his friends, was thus the last emperor of antiquity; after him was what we call the medieval period, or the Middle Ages… or sometimes the Dark Ages.
Odoacer, following his success, took the name “King of Italy” (Latin: rex) and considered himself a client king of Emperor Zeno in Constantinople. Odoacer made his capital in Ravenna; the island city considered the last capital city of the Western Roman Empire.
Odoacer enjoyed the support of the Roman Senate, who allowed him to pass out land to his followers unhindered. Though he was considered a Christian, he was an Arian Christian. This was a popular form of Christianity, but Arias had been condemned as a heretic where he was present at the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine in 325, and his form of theology was condemned again in 381 at the Council of Constantinople. Nevertheless, Odoacer got along well with the more orthodox Christian leaders.
Sacking of Rome
But while Odoacer may have been the “barbarian” to finally take Rome, he did not ravage the city of Rome as other invaders had. In 410 AD, the Visigoths under the leadership of Alaric performed the Sack of Rome. He had already taken much of Greece, including Athens, as he moved west.
The city of Rome had a population of about 800,000, making it the largest city in the world. After two years of besieging the city, Alaric first controlled Rome’s Tiber River, strangling supplies into the city. The city offered Alaric a ransom to lift the siege, but it was not enough. He entered the city and pillaged it for three days, ransacking many great buildings, including imperial mausoleums. Roman citizens were sold into slavery; others were killed.
Even this was considered a restrained sacking, as some of the major basilicas were preserved, and there was no wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants. Nevertheless, many refugees fled to Africa, Egypt, and the East. The British monk Pelagius witnessed the siege and wrote to a friend:
This dismal calamity is but just over, and you yourself are a witness to how Rome that commanded the world was astonished at the alarm of the Gothic trumpet, when that barbarous and victorious nation stormed her walls, and made her way through the breach. Where were then the privileges of birth, and the distinctions of quality? Were not all ranks and degrees leveled at that time and promiscuously huddled together? Every house was then a scene of misery, and equally filled with grief and confusion. The slave and the man of quality were in the same circumstances, and every where the terror of death and slaughter was the same, unless we may say the fright made the greatest impression on those who had the greatest interest in living.
Even St. Augustine, living in Hippo in northern Africa, could see the impact of the sack on a city that had not been taken by an army for eight centuries, and it spurred him to write The City of God.
But a siege of even greater severity occurred when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455 and spray-painted the buildings with what later became known as “graffiti.” OK, just kidding about the graffiti, but we get the word “vandalism” from the Vandals.
Did Rome ever really Fall?
Some historians claim that Rome did not fall so much as transform and that, in a sense, it continues today. While the legitimacy of the Western Empire may have only lasted for a couple of centuries longer as the Ostrogothic kingdom, its cultural influence remains to this day. Within the basin of Europe defined by the Mediterranean Basin, Roman methods of manufacture, trade, and architecture, widespread secular literacy, written law, and an international language of science and literature continued. However, they began to decline with the passing of years and the forgetting of the methods of mastery.
Many of the Roman curia or court systems appeared in the Roman Catholic Church. And the United States has a Senate!
Roman styles of architecture continued to a degree in Europe, though much of the high culture and literature remained alive only in the Eastern Roman Empire. With the Fall of Constantinople, many scholars fled to Europe, especially northern Italy, along with their classic Greek and Latin literature.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian