mercoledì 21 marzo 2007

Rome's Fall

It is often assumed that the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and therefore the transition from Classic Antiquity to the Middle Age, coincided with the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, in AD 476 by the Gothic chief Odoacer. However, the deposition of Romulus Augustus (476) should not be seen as a landmark event, but rather as a chronological benchmark that was conventionally established by later commentators to schematize complex historical events.

The fact of the matter is that contemporary chroniclers took little notice of the fate of Romulus Augustus. In a seminal article, Arnaldo Momigliano referred to it as “the noiseless fall of an empire”. Chroniclers and lay-people alike had been far more traumatized by the Roman defeat at Adrianople (near today’s Istanbul) in AD 378 in the East – the worst since Cannae, when Hannibal seriously threatened to overrun Rome – or by the Sack of Rome, in 410, in the West. By the late fifth century AD, Barbarians had built their kingdoms within the imperial borders, most emperors were figureheads, and the imperial institutions had already crumbled.

Instead of a “fall”, it would thus be more appropriate to speak of a steady decline, with episodic recoveries, which began with the successor of Hadrian (AD 117-138). The next emperor, the celebrated Marcus Aurelius (163-180), had to confront the first wave of invasions from the North, which were barely contained in Northern Italy, while a catastrophic epidemic of plague visited the empire, and the traditional eastern enemy, the Parthians, took advantage of the Roman weakness to launch a large-scale offensive campaign in the Middle East.

The killing of his despotic and capricious son, emperor Commodus, in 193, marked the beginning of a long period of instability for the empire, which was ruled by very few capable men, who were, in the main, usurpers. Most of the emperors died a violent death and the legions of Gaul time and again rebelled against Rome and arrogated to themselves the right to proclaim the new emperors, while various remote provinces gained increased autonomy and sought to become independent.

It was only in AD 284 that Diocletian, a former slave from Illyria, restored the order by enacting a series of important administrative, economic and military reforms. But when he died, in 305, several aspirants to the throne set off a civil war that lasted for almost two decades, until Constantine “the Great”, in 323, managed to defeat all his opponents. He moved the capital to Byzantium (now Istanbul, in Turkey), which was rechristened Constantinople – so that the empire’s centre of gravity shifted from West to East –, took on the functions and prerogatives of an Oriental despot, reformed the army, and authorized the Christian cult, personally attending the Council of Nicea, in 325, which established the principles and dogmas of Christian orthodoxy. He died in 337, and another civil war for his succession was brought to an end in 353 by his son Constant II. Meanwhile, the pressure on the eastern and northern frontiers was mounting, as the cohesion of the empire weakened.

In AD 378, the entire Eastern Roman Army was destroyed at Adrianople by the Goths, and emperor Valens fell on the battlefield. His successor, Theodosius, was the last great emperor to rule over the whole of the empire. Upon his death, which occurred in 395, the empire was definitively split into the Western and the Eastern empires, governed by Theodosius’s heirs Honorius and Arcadius.

While the Eastern part withstood the Germanic and Hunnish invasions, the Western part, which was the most coveted, rapidly collapsed. In 476, Odoacer sent the imperial insignia to Constantinople and ruled Italy “on behalf” of the eastern Roman emperor. In Gaul, Spain, Britannia, and Africa various Roman/Germanic kingdoms were founded; some had an ephemeral existence, other, like the kingdom of the Franks, would play a central role throughout the Middle Age and beyond.

Like any other complex socio-historical phenomenon, the “fall” of the Roman Empire calls for a multi-causal explanation. Augustus’s major accomplishment was the creation of a socio-political entity that functioned rather smoothly for a couple of centuries. This prolonged period of peace and relative affluence generated a widespread sentiment of self-righteousness and invincibility. Many Romans truly believed that they lived in the best of all possible worlds, one that was immutable and unchallengeable (the so-called Roma aeterna).

This presumption was seriously undermined towards the middle of the second century AD, when Slavic and Germanic populations, moving from present Hungary, crossed the Roman fortified frontier (the limes), reaching North-Western Italy.

This dramatic event had huge psychological repercussions, far greater than those commonly associated with the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. It not only shattered the feeling of safety and security of the Roman population, it also inflicted a terrible wound to the whole Roman model of civilization, a wound that, it turned out, could not be completely healed.

This moral crisis was aggravated by a pestilence that brought about a demographic collapse and the breakdown of the economy, which was heavily committed to crop production. The ensuing decrease of tax revenues forced the administration to levy new taxes, so as to maintain the yield of taxation. Unfortunately, such measures depressed the economy, while the inflation rate reached intolerable levels: the outcome was a disastrous economic crisis, the bankruptcy of small and middle-size rural businesses and the pauperization of thousands of farmers, who in many cases turned into serfs of rich landowners.

Central governments increased public spending, instituted some primitive forms of welfare assistance, pegged prices, and fought inflation, but the concentration of wealth and political influence in the hands of local landowning dynasties (called potentes) – five percent of the population controlled all the wealth of the empirecaused the evaporation of trust in the public institutions, no longer seen as protective and motivating, and now regarded as merely vexatious, the erosion of civic spirit, and the progressive decline of Roman towns and cities, which had heretofore formed the backbone of the empire.

The lack of significant technological innovation, especially in agriculture, sapped the strength of Roman society and forced thousands of farmers to live barely above subsistence, leaving them prey to exploitation. Simultaneously, Diocletian’s imperial reforms reduced the prospects of upward mobility, crystallized power relations, and concurred to prevent the formation of a new class of enterprising modernizers, who could have imposed radical changes in Roman society.

Finally, the sustained rise of inflation triggered the transition from a monetary economy, based on coins (denarius), which had greatly contributed to preserving the unity of the empire, to barter, that is, to a natural economy.

Predictably, the late Empire was a winter of discontent and instability, generally provoked by charismatic and unscrupulous military leaders, who proclaimed themselves to be the saviours of the glory of Rome, even though their plans involved insubordination, civil war, and the carnage of Romans and Germanic allies. It is only fair to say that the decline of the late Empire should be imputed, to a large extent, to the internecine fighting of the military, as civil institutions (like the Senate and the consul) lost their functions and influence.

Meanwhile, the struggle between Christian loyalists – those who sought a compromise with the heathen rulers – and Christian fundamentalists – those who were not prepared to sacrifice their autonomy and orthodoxy in exchange for social integration and a greater influence on the administration of public affairs, and were therefore openly antagonistic to the Empire both politically and ethically – saw, in the III century AD, the substantial victory of the loyalists. Christians remained the only powerful, efficient and cohesive organization of the empire and a constant challenge to the dominant views of the heathen leadership.

The authorities soon realized that the fabric of Roman society could not be “purged” from Christianity without causing the final collapse of Roman institutions. This is the reason why Roman emperors, starting from Constantine, reached a series of agreements with Christian loyalists, which ultimately led to the amalgamation of “Romanity” and Christianity in AD 391, when Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the State in return for its unstinting support of the Roman system. As a consequence of the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, the Church would take over most of the secular functions of the State,

By the end of the fourth century, for all its weaknesses, the empire was still immense, stretching from the Middle East to Caledonia (today’s Scotland) and from North Africa to the Black Sea. While the centre of gravity of the European Union is the Atlantic Ocean, which features some of the world's most heavily trafficked sea routes, Roman economy revolved around the Mediterranean basin. Romans never really attempted to conquer regions that lay too far from the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum) and the Black Sea, the only exception being Britain, which was rich in mineral deposits. Conversely, the large Central European rivers (Rhine, Danube) that nowadays traverse the core of the European Union, marked the Roman frontier, the outpost of civilization.

The Romans had created a huge commercial network across the Mediterranean, planting vineyards and olive groves, building villas, harbours and market towns. Merchant ships crossed the sea to supply Rome, a megalopolis of more than a million inhabitants.

We now call that period Lower Empire, evoking the idea of the unstoppable decadence of Rome, plagued by corruption, moral decay, and pointless theological disquisitions. But the two most serious plights were the disloyalty of generals and the poverty of “Barbarians”.

Troops were more faithful to their generals that to the emperors, and they often acclaimed their leaders as the only emperors worthy of their recognition. Such usurpations generally led to civil wars and widespread political instability. “Barbarians” looted frontier provinces and requested the payment of tributes in exchange for peace.

The empire had survived thanks to capable and rather tyrannical emperors/generals like Aurelianus, Diocletian, and Constantine. They had introduced conscription, doubled taxation, strengthened the bureaucracy and the secret police and, to stifle social protest, they had promulgated extremely severe laws against desertion, tax evasion, and political dissent (even an unfavourable premonition about the emperor’s life could cost a fortune-teller his life). They incarnated the notion of the “oriental despot” and militarized Roman society, but their recipe, a combination of pragmatism, far-sightedness, and callousness momentarily saved the unity of the empire and helped the economy to recover. The cost they paid was enormous: the alienation of the population from the political establishment.

The Roman Empire, now a multicultural and multi-ethnic society, was undergoing a thorough transformation, from a pagan to an essentially Christian community. Constantine issued the edict of Milan in 313, which granted religious freedom to all his subjects and empowered the Christian Church. Like his successors, he hoped that Christianity, with its vitality and fervour, would generate that unity of purpose that Roman secular institutions could no longer guarantee.

Various Germanic tribes and populations had been converted and were gradually changing their customs and mores. They were “romanizing” themselves. However, paradoxically, the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire was in part the result of the Gothic peaceful resettlement in the Balkans. At the time, Flavius Valentinianus, a brilliant general, had become emperor (AD 364) and, one month after his accession to power, he had appointed his brother Flavius Valens as the Eastern emperor, keeping the Western portion for himself. Valens was not a military man but he did his best to gain the favour of his subjects by fighting corruption, reducing taxation, and building a new aqueduct. However, people never really took a liking to him, also because he was a religious fundamentalist when conciliatory tones would have been far more advisable.

Moreover, he had to confront an usurper, Procopius, who had seized control of Constantinople while Valens’s army was marching towards the eastern front. Traditionally accustomed to attach far more importance to bloodlines than to state legislation, the Goths backed up Procopius because he was a relative of Constantine, an emperor with whom they had signed important agreements. However, when the Gothic reinforcements arrived, the insurrection had been nipped in the bud, and they were all enslaved. Then Valens ordered savage retaliatory attacks that brought the Goths to their knees in 369. But he did not exterminate them. Roman emperors were expected to display benevolence and generosity towards a defeated enemy, and a people who “never had a chance to be Roman” and crossed the frontier “in the pursuit of Roman happiness” (the Roman Dream).

A significant testimony of this tradition is provided by the orations dedicated to Valens by two heathen rhetoricians, during the campaigns against the Goths that would result in the military and political disaster of Adrianople, in AD 378.

The contrast between the merciless conduct of warfare and the political pragmatism of Roman bureaucrats and legislators, who pressed for economic sanctions and compulsory recruitment of young Goths to be used as cannon fodder in the Middle East, and the humanitarian and progressive slogans of the élite, intent on incorporating their Northern neighbours into Roman society, was truly noteworthy. Themistius, a senator and a philosopher, stated that just as the Romans strove to protect endangered species of animals in Africa and Asia, so the emperor should be praised for not annihilating the Goths, who are human beings, like the Romans, when he could (368-369). This oration, like several others, as for instance those delivered by Libanius, encapsulates the universalistic and civilising thrust of late Roman imperialism. Genocidal schemes, were probably envisioned by Roman generals, but they were unpalatable for a political leadership that offered security and literacy in return for loyalty, recruits and tax-money. Rome was to set an example for all other peoples.

When the Huns, a fierce nomadic population whose existence had never been recorded in Roman history, pushed the frightened Goths southwards, the gap existing between humanitarian rhetoric and Realpolitik became obvious. Thousands of starving Gothic refugees, fleeing from a cruel enemy, reached the riverbanks of the Danube and pleaded to be allowed to be relocated within the Roman borders. The emperor’s counsellors saw that as a huge opportunity: the Goths would be allotted less fertile lands and many of them would join the army and exempt from military service an equal number of Roman citizens. They were all transported across the river and immigration officers attempted to record their names in order to plan their re-settlement. But the sheer number of refugees and the confusion were so huge that they realised the futility of such an operation. They preferred to take advantage of the situation by accepting bribes and selecting slaves for their own villas.

Meanwhile, other tribes had been informed that the border was open and the mass of refugees kept growing, until the alarmed Roman functionaries decided that the maximum quota had been reached and left thousands of now furious Goths on the other side of the Danube. Worse still, refugee camps were flooded with people who did not receive enough supplies because the commanding officers sold on the black market the provisions that had been destined to the refugees. When these were finally escorted to the relocation areas by the frontier garrisons, thousands of Goths who had been left out, crossed the river clandestinely.

Panic ensued amidst the Roman population, while the proud and desperate Gothic immigrants could no longer tolerate their debasement and destitution. A seemingly unstoppable snowball process led to war and to the Battle of Adrianople (378), where up to 40,000 Romans were killed, together with emperor Valens, who chose not to wait for the reinforcements sent by the Western emperor, because he desperately needed a decisive victory to shore up his position and prestige. St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and one of the fathers of the Catholic Church, called this battle “the end of all humanity, the end of the world,” while the most famous contemporay Roman chronicler, Ammianus Marcellinus, commented as follows: “Never, except in the battle of Cannae, had there been so destructive a slaughter recorded in our annals.”

After Adrianople, Rome lost its superpower status and was no longer able to keep in check the “Barbarians” by purely military means.

More and more Goths and Huns were absorbed by the Roman legions, or engaged as mercenaries and the Roman population felt increasingly insecure, threatened by their presence. Commentators lamented that emperor Theodosius I had allowed too many Barbarians, parvenus with their hands still covered with Roman blood, to reach the highest ranks of the army. How could Romans tolerate the arrogance of those Barbarians who dressed like Romans and spoke Latin only when they met Romans, and spent the rest of the time speaking their own language and deriding Roman customs?

It is undeniable that someone like Alaric, a nobleman who served for various years as a commander of Gothic mercenaries in the Roman army and, after Theodosius’s death, was elected king of the Visigoths, only to sack Rome in 410, confirmed this impression. Some “Barbarians” could be like a snake in the Roman bosom. But there were also loyal and brilliant generals like Flavius Stilicho, the son of a Vandal, who repeatedly defeated Alaric before 410, and could have deferred Rome’s ultimate humiliation if the anti-Barbarian party in Rome had not resolved to have him executed for treason, together with the families of those tribesmen serving in the Roman army who, subsequently, could only defect to Alaric.

Anyhow, we should not let ourselves be swayed by the contemporary obsession with ethnicity and make too much of these views, assuming that the anti-barbaric and racist lobby ruled Roman politics. It is far more likely that most such comments simply denoted the political expediency of ambitious men who had vested interests in arousing animosity to preserve the status quo. In point of fact, some of the most successful and loyal champions of Romanity were “Barbarian” generals, who thought, spoke, and acted like Romans, or mixed-blood like Stilicho and Aetius, “the last Roman”, who was the son of a Schythian and became the most powerful man in the Western empire. He was assassinated in 454 by emperor Valentinian III himself. This prompted Sidonius Apollinaris (430-489) to declare: “I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left”.

Aetius’s well deserved fame arose from his untiring effort to keep the empire together, with the help of various Barbarian tribes and, above all else, from the strategic victory he secured for the Roman/Gothic/Frankish Christian alliance against Attila’s Huns and their allies at the Catalaunian Fields (451) near Châlons-en-Champagne, the last major victory of the Western Empire.

We should also not overlook the part played by the Eastern Empire in the fall of the Western Empire. Eastern emperors like Zeno and Basiliscus and their political advisers realised that they could strengthen their power by gradually pushing less dependable mercenaries towards the West. This is one of the reasons why Alaric found himself leading an entire Roman army in the West. In all likelihood, the Eastern élite had come to the conclusion that Rome was doomed and that their best bet would be to secure for themselves the most prosperous portions of the Western Empire. This is precisely what Justinian, who became one of the greatest Roman emperors because he chose his courtesans, generals and wife with great acumen, achieved in the course of the sixth century, when he re-conquered Italy, Southern Spain, Northern Africa, Dalmatia, and most importantly, the Western Mediterranean.

This was the last, short-lived attempt to reunify the Roman Empire. After Justinian’s death, the Eastern Empire, which for a century continued to claim sovereignty over the West, although to no avail, became increasingly hellenized and greatly influenced the development of Eastern European cultures, while Barbarian and Western Romans lay the foundations of Western European civilization.

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