It is often assumed that the fall of the
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
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
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
It was only in AD 284 that Diocletian, a former slave from
In AD 378, the entire Eastern Roman Army was destroyed at
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
Like any other complex socio-historical phenomenon, the “fall” of the
This presumption was seriously undermined towards the middle of the second century AD, when Slavic and Germanic populations, moving from present
This dramatic event had huge psychological repercussions, far greater than those commonly associated with the terrorist attack on the
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 empire – caused 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
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
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
The Romans had created a huge commercial network across the
We now call that period Lower Empire, evoking the idea of the unstoppable decadence of
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.
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
Moreover, he had to confront an usurper, Procopius, who had seized control of
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
This was the last, short-lived attempt to reunify the
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