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
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. In 395, after winning two destructive civil wars, Theodosius I died, leaving a collapsing field army and the Empire, still plagued by Goths, divided between his two incapable sons. 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
* 1.1 Timespan * 1.2 Reasons * 1.3 Alternative descriptions and labels
* 2 Height of power, crises, and recoveries
* 2.1 Height of power
Crisis of the Third Century
* 3 313–376: Abuse of power, frontier warfare, and rise of Christianity
* 4 376–395; invasions, civil wars, and religious discord
* 4.1 Battle of Adrianople * 4.2 Partial recovery in the Balkans * 4.3 Civil wars
* 5 Military, financial, and political ineffectiveness: the process of failure
* 6 395–406;
* 6.1 Stilicho\'s attempts to unify the Empire, revolts, and invasions
* 7 408–410; the end of an effective regular field army, starvation
in Italy, sack of
* 8 405–418 in the Gallic provinces; barbarians and usurpers, loss of Britannia, partial loss of Hispania and Gaul
* 8.1 Settlement of 418; barbarians within the empire
* 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
* 10.1 444–453; attacks by the empire of
* 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
The Fall of the
Western Roman Empire
Gibbon gave a classic formulation 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
Alexander Demandt enumerated 210 different theories on why
ALTERNATIVE DESCRIPTIONS AND LABELS
Main article: Late Antiquity
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
Western Roman Empire
HEIGHT OF POWER, CRISES, AND RECOVERIES
HEIGHT OF POWER
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 organised 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 a 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
Judaea ceased to be a major centre for Jewish unrest).
Heavy mortality in 165-180 from 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. Map of
CRISIS OF THE THIRD CENTURY
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).
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
GROWING SOCIAL DIVISIONS
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. At least one late Roman writer complains of 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
History of late ancient Christianity
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
Franks on the lower left bank of the
their settlements required a line of fortifications to keep them in
check, indicating that
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
Julian (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 Julian was notable for his pro-pagan policies. All Christian sects were officially tolerated by Julian, 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.
Julian 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 and supplies 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 Jovian , 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 Julian 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 ; Ammianus described some as "enriched from the offerings of matrons, ride seated in carriages, wearing clothing chosen with care, and serve banquets so lavish that their entertainments outdo the tables of kings". 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. In contrast, during the
Cimbrian War , the
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
Theodosius had to face a powerful usurper in the West; Magnus Maximus
declared himself Emperor in 383, stripped troops from the outlying
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 Italy were never effectively garrisoned again. The Eastern and Western Roman Empire at the death of Theodosius I in 395
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