End of Empire: from Theodosius to Romulus Augustulus, AD 379–476

As the Goths destroyed the Eastern Roman army at Adrianople, the Germans stood poised on the Rhine and upper Danube to invade the West. They, too, were in flight from the Huns; they, too, had nowhere else to go. Gratian, desperate for a reliable colleague to take charge in the East, summoned Theodosius from his Spanish estates (to which he had retired after the execution of his father) and appointed him Augustus at Sirmium in the Balkans in January AD 379. Theodosius ruled in partnership with the House of Valentinian until the deaths of Gratian in AD 383 and Valentinian II in AD 392. He remained stoutly loyal, twice intervening against usurpers in the West, first Maximus in AD 388, then Eugenius in AD 394. Thereafter he ruled as sole emperor over both East and West; the last to do so, for at his death in AD 395 the empire was divided, never to be reunited.

Theodosius’s greatest challenge was to create a new army. He did so with ruthless efficiency. Draft-dodgers were combed out of offices and farms. Penalties were imposed on officials who tried to fob off recruiting officers with cooks, bakers and shop assistants. The mutilated – men would cut off their own thumbs to disqualify themselves – were forced to serve. Barbarians were enrolled on easy terms: a man might return to his tribe when he chose provided he supplied a substitute. But the units raised were inexperienced and unenthusiastic, and there were not enough of them: the simple fact was that the losses suffered at Adrianople could not be made good by traditional recruitment. The solution was to hire barbarians to fight barbarians – en masse.

The Roman army had always recruited barbarians on the empire’s frontiers. Some had acquired Roman citizenship and joined the legions. Many more had fought as ‘allies’ (socii), such as the Gallic and German cavalry employed by Caesar. Later, under Augustus and his successors, these ‘friendlies’ had been enrolled in regular auxiliary units, led by Roman officers and organized, trained and equipped to fight in Roman style. In the crisis of the 3rd century, however, when campaigning was relentless and attrition high, emperors had begun settling barbarians wholesale in frontier areas in return for military service (when they were known as laeti), or hiring the services of barbarian war-bands for the duration of a war (foederati). These emergency measures were manageable: the standing army was still formed of regular Roman soldiers, who formed a large majority of the empire’s fighting men, whereas the barbarians took service only intermittently, when called upon, and as a supplement to the main force. It was this that changed after Adrianople. Such was the empire’s desperate need of men that barbarian federates soon predominated over regular forces; such was the need, moreover, that the terms of service the emperor was compelled to offer amounted to a surrender of political authority.

Gratian and Theodosius made peace with the Goths. Many of the Visigoths still wished to settle, and they were welcomed along the lower Danube, where they filled much of the long gap left in the Roman frontier-line after Adrianople. Theodosius’s court poet praised his patron for populating a deserted country with former enemies. But the peace of AD 382 left these Goths governed by their own chiefs, subject to their own laws, and performing military service as allied contingents under their own leaders. The Gothic federate settlement of northern Thrace in AD 382 was something new: a state within a state, an armed body of men that lived on Roman territory but remained independent of Roman authority. The mechanism by which the Western Roman Empire would eventually break in pieces had begun to operate.

There was no alternative. Traditional recruitment could not make good the losses of Adrianople, and the federate system was a successful alternative. Without it, the empire would have succumbed sooner. In AD 386 an Ostrogothic assault on the lower Danube was thrown back by the Roman commander in Thrace – presumably at the head of an army of Visigothic federates. Eight years later, at the Battle of the River Frigidus, it was Theodosius’s Gothic federates who crushed the army of the western usurper Eugenius, reunited the broken empire, and ensured the final victory of the Christian Church over pagan reaction.

That crisis had been brewing for years. Neither of the western emperors had a strong base. Gratian was young, educated and a sports-lover; he preferred the company of senators and intellectuals to that of military men. His brother, Valentinian II, was still a child. When the Roman army in Britain proclaimed Magnus Maximus emperor, Gratian’s soldiers mutinied and killed him (AD 383). Theodosius rushed to restore stability, granting recognition to the new emperor, while shoring up the power of Valentinian’s regime in the Balkans. At first Maximus kept the peace, and the empire was ruled by a triumvirate of three emperors. But the defence of Britain, the Rhine and the upper Danube were heavy burdens on the western provinces. Maximus is charged in the ancient sources with raising income by arraigning wealthy men on trumped-up capital charges to secure the confiscation of their estates. Elevated by the officers and landowners of the West to provide greater security, Maximus was driven to plunder their property to maintain the army at the necessary level. This contradiction could be resolved only by war. But when Maximus invaded Italy, determined to gain control of rich heartland provinces, Theodosius marched against him. Maximus was defeated, forced to surrender, and then immediately executed.

Theodosius remained in Italy for three years, leaving the East under the nominal rule of his son, Arcadius, who had been proclaimed Augustus in AD 383. When he departed in AD 391, he left the young Valentinian II in the care of the Frankish field-marshal (magister militum) Arbogast. The arrangement broke down the following year: Arbogast quarrelled with his charge and killed him; he then proclaimed an upper-class intellectual and government official called Eugenius emperor in his place. Theodosius was compelled to march west again, determined to uphold the legitimate political order, restore the dominance of the military-bureaucratic complex, and defend the Church against pagan revival. The struggle for the heart and soul of the empire which had dominated elite politics for a century now reached its bloody climax. There was much at stake at the Battle of the River Frigidus in AD 394.

The pagan prejudices of the old western aristocracy had taken a battering from the House of Valentinian. Gratian had dropped the imperial title Pontifex Maximus, removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate House, and confiscated the revenues of the Vestals and other pagan priest-hoods in Rome. The petitions of pagan senators were ignored, whereas the outspoken Bishop of Milan, one Ambrose, was a close advisor of the emperor. In the East, Theodosius proved himself an equally resolute defender of both Church and Catholic orthodoxy (as represented by the Nicene Creed). He issued an edict in AD 380 which recommended the Catholic faith to all his subjects and proclaimed those who resisted ‘heretics’. In AD 381 he ordered all churches be handed over to Catholics and banned any other religious meetings. The Council of Constantinople in May AD 381 reaffirmed the Nicene Creed and encouraged purges of nonconformists. In all, Theodosius enacted no less than 18 edicts against heretics during his reign, usually only amounting to bans on meetings and the confiscation of premises, but sometimes, in the case of obscure (and radical) sects, ordering them to be hunted down and exterminated. Then, with the Church united, the target shifted from heretics to pagans. In AD 391 the emperor issued an edict from Milan banning all sacrifices and closing all temples. The following year, from Constantinople, a supplementary edict extended the ban to private ritual in the home, the penalty for violation being the confiscation of the property where the offence occurred. The Theodosian religious reform therefore threatened a major shift of wealth and power from one section of the Late Roman elite to another. It represented a further squeeze by the military-bureaucratic complex of generals, administrators and bishops linked with the court on landowners, hereditary estates and the old political establishment associated with the pagan priesthoods. This was the context for the revolt of Arbogast and Eugenius.

Eugenius restored the Altar of Victory to the Senate House. Arbogast threatened to stable his horses in churches and conscript the clergy into the army. The usurpers drew on three decades of accumulated bitterness against the House of Valentinian. Under them, the pagan aristocracy was roused for a final battle in defence of the ancient gods of Rome. The enemy was the semi-barbarian Christian ‘new men’ of Theodosius’s Eastern Empire. It was a measure of the age, however – of the withered power of Rome – that the leading champion of classical paganism was a Frankish general, and that the battle-line of Roman Christianity would be filled by federate Goths.

Arbogast knew his business. He chose a strong defensive position at the narrow entrance to an Alpine pass beside the River Frigidus, blocking the route of Theodosius’s army into Italy. He built a wooden fort with palisade and towers on high ground, and deployed his army in front of this, its flanks secure, its front protected by secondary earthworks. Theodosius was compelled to launch a frontal assault. Some 20,000 Gothic warriors mounted a series of attacks through the day, but all were beaten back, and by the end some 10,000 of them had fallen. The westerners celebrated. The eastern generals urged retreat. But Theodosius persisted – spending the night, it is said, in fitful sleep and prayer – and the following day the attack was renewed. The westerners were caught off-guard and weakened by defections (of Christians from the pagan ranks?), but the battle again raged for hours all along the line. Victory came when the Alpine Bora – a gusting cyclonic wind – whipped dust into the faces of the western troops, who, physically and mentally exhausted, broke and ran. The rout turned into massacre, the wooden fort on the hilltop was burnt, and the western leaders perished, Eugenius by decapitation, Arbogast by suicide. The Christian God appeared to have answered his faithful son’s prayers: Theodosius and his Church controlled the entire Roman world.

A few months later, Theodosius was dead. The empire was immediately divided – in the event, for the last time – between his two sons, the 18-year-old Arcadius (AD 395–408), who already ruled in the East, and the 11-year-old Honorius (AD 395–423) in the West. Neither emperor, even later when grown to manhood, was fit to govern; instead, the East was ruled by a succession of civilian ministers, the West by a succession of generals, sometimes of barbarian or part-barbarian origin. The dying Theodosius had made Stilicho, the son of a Vandal father and Roman mother who had commanded the eastern army at the Frigidus, guardian of both his sons. But the succession settlement was doomed from the outset: by the end of the 4th century AD, the Eastern and Western Empires had become separate entities, a split symbolized by the East’s immediate rejection of Stilicho’s regency.

East and West had always been different. The former was highly urbanized and prosperous, with a mainly Greek-speaking elite, and a history of civilization stretching back thousands of years. The latter was composed mainly of former barbarian lands where towns, classical civilization and the Latin language had arrived only with the Romans themselves. The foundation of Constantinople as a new imperial capital – complete with a government infrastructure to rival that of Rome – had merely widened an already existing political, socio-economic and cultural gulf. Crucially, on a crude estimate, while the East yielded about two-thirds of the empire’s total tax revenue, it required only about one-third of the imperial army for its defence. Except for the Syrian front facing the Sassanids, and the lower Danube front facing the Goths, both heavily defended, the Eastern Roman Empire was relatively secure against attack. The West’s Rhine and upper Danube frontier, on the other hand, ran right across continental Europe. The East, therefore, subsidized the defence of the West. Between the two regions lay the Balkans: a mountainous area with poor communications, restless imperial subjects, only superficial Romanization, and endless fighting due to barbarian incursions across the Danube and successive civil wars. The Balkans, then, was a barrier: and on the other side of the barrier were two very different worlds. When the eastern aristocracy rejected the authority of Stilicho and vested power in the hands of local politicians, it was protecting itself against the demands liable to be placed upon it by a western-based regent intent on the defence of the Rhine, the upper Danube and Italy. Not only was Stilicho denied the revenues of the eastern cities; his access to traditional army recruiting-grounds in the Balkans was contested by Constantinople.

As the East retreated into a form of Splendid Isolation, the Battle of the West began. It centred first on the Balkans and the threat posed by King Alaric of the Visigoths, who was at large in the region seeking a homeland for his people. While offering minimal assistance to Stilicho, the eastern regime sought to protect itself by bribing Alaric to go elsewhere, thus deflecting Gothic aggression away from Constantinople (and towards the West). Stilicho struggled to protect Italy and eject the Goths from the Balkans. When he failed – despite having defeated them on the battlefield more than once – he cut a deal: it was agreed in AD 405 that Alaric and his people would settle in Illyricum and that the king would be paid to keep the peace and guard Italy as magister militum of Illyricum. Stilicho’s weakness thus compelled him to concede a huge new federate settlement – a new state within a state – as the only way to protect the western heartland.

Even before the agreement could be finalized, the Rhineland defences collapsed under a great surge of invading Alans, Burgundians, Sueves and Vandals, who poured across the frozen river in the winter of AD 406– 407. As the hordes entered imperial territory, they took different routes, some penetrating deep into southern Gaul and eventually Spain. Britain, cut off, raised a usurper, Constantine III, to organize the island’s defence. Alaric compounded the crisis by demanding immediate payment of nearly 2,000 kg of gold in return for peace. The disaster shattered confidence in Stilicho’s government. He had many enemies in the western aristocracy, men who resented his barbarian origins, his dependence on Germanic troops, his intimacy with Alaric and the Goths. Now, as Stilicho struggled desperately to raise money and soldiers, the young emperor Honorius was persuaded that his military commander was plotting against him. In AD 408 Stilicho was overthrown in a palace coup orchestrated by a civilian minister, Olympius, who probably represented a faction of Roman courtiers and aristocrats hostile to ‘barbarian’ influence. Stilicho was executed, the families of federate soldiers were massacred, and the soldiers themselves fled to join Alaric.

The coup was a disaster. Its effect was to destroy the only solid pillar that had remained of the Western Empire’s state edifice: the power-nexus represented by Stilicho and his barbarian soldiers and allies. Olympius lacked the social, political and, above all, military support to establish a stable regime: he represented nothing more than the blind reaction of an embittered court elite whose world was falling apart. The succeeding ten years was a chaotic period of palace coups, usurper revolts and military defeats. When Alaric’s offer of peace in return for land and gold was rejected, the regime’s hollowness was at once exposed. The Goths marched on Rome and threatened to sack the city, forcing the Senate to pay out 5,000 lbs kg in gold, 30,000 lbs kg in silver, and much else in kind (AD 409). The power of the King of the Goths symbolized the rotten condition of the empire. With its resource-base crumbling and its military power shrivelled, the West had become entirely dependent on alliances with barbarian federates. The hordes breaking across the frontiers could be resisted only by hiring other hordes to fight them. To defend itself the empire had to authorize the construction of mini-states within its territory. The distinction between friends and enemies blurred. Alaric was sometimes an open enemy threatening pillage, sometimes a robber-baron extorting protection money, sometimes a highly paid mercenary captain. Weak and reactionary, the Western regime continued to wobble between conciliating and insulting Alaric. Finally, in AD 410, having placed the city under siege for the third time since Stilicho’s death, Alaric stormed into Rome and put it to the sack.

The psychological shock was immense. It was the first time in 800 years that a barbarian enemy had captured Rome. Alaric quickly withdrew with his booty, shortly afterwards died, and was succeeded by a brother, Athaulf, who decided in AD 412 to quit Italy and try his luck in Gaul. Even so, there could hardly have been a more potent symbol of imperial decline and of the degree to which the Western Empire had become prey to roving war-bands. Traumatized, sections of the fragmented western elite now coalesced around a new strongman: from AD 411–421, though the emperor Honorius continued to reign, the effective ruler of the West was a Roman general from Illyricum called Constantius. His pre-eminence was consolidated by the award of patrician status in AD 415, his marriage to the emperor’s half-sister Galla Placidia in AD 417, and, shortly before his death, his coronation as Augustus by his brother-in-law.

The Western Empire’s centre of gravity had shifted from the Balkans to its western provinces. The British usurper Constantine III had invaded the Continent in an attempt to restore Roman rule in Gaul and Spain, but his would-be empire quickly fell apart, with the secession of Britain and Brittany, a revolt by his own commander in Spain, and a large Burgundian settlement on the west bank of the Rhine. Into this maelstrom plunged Constantius in AD 411, determined to wrest back control of the western provinces for the legitimate regime of Honorius, now based mainly at Ravenna in northern Italy. Constantine III was besieged and eventually captured at Arles; he was dispatched to Italy and later executed. Gerontius, the rebel commander in Spain, found his army melting away, was forced to retreat, and later perished in a mutiny. The barbarian settlers, on the other hand, proved more intractable. They asserted their independence by creating their own usurper emperor – Jovinus – and only by hiring the services of Athaulf’s Goths, recently arrived in Gaul, was Constantius able to extinguish this new revolt. The Burgundian settlement was already too well rooted to be removed, however: the first of the Germanic states that would form the post-imperial world had come into existence. Soon there was a second. Having broken with his erstwhile ally Athaulf, Constantius had driven the Goths into Spain. This threatened the recent carve-up of territory in the peninsula by the barbarian hordes. When Athaulf was assassinated in AD 415, the Goths, under their new leader Wallia, were re-hired and charged with restoring imperial authority in Spain. This done, they were granted a permanent home in Aquitania (AD 418).

Relative stability returned for a time to the Western Roman Empire. But the face of it had been transformed. The Notitia Dignitatum, in the copy that survives, was regularly updated for the Western Empire until c. AD 425. Of the 180 field-army units listed, only 85 had been in existence before AD 395. The army seems, in other words, to have lost over half its strength – and in Gaul, in fact, almost two-thirds. The Rhineland frontier-army, moreover, is almost non-existent: in contrast to the scores of regiments listed for the Danube, a mere handful is recorded on the Rhine. The change was permanent. The tax-base of the Western Empire was fast degrading. In addition to the chronic problems of overtaxation, agri deserti, popular resistance and collapsing state authority, there was now the additional problem that great swathes of imperial territory had been surrendered, either because, as with Britain and parts of Spain, no resources were available for recovery, or because, as with Burgundy and Aquitaine, barbarian settlements had been granted. Even areas still under Roman control were often so devastated by war that they could pay nothing and their taxes had to be remitted. And despite the depth of the Western Empire’s crisis, many of the richest potential taxpayers avoided paying. Even the preamble of a contemporary law records how ‘the powerful refuse and the rich reject’ payment of taxes. Sometimes immunity was granted in return for service and support. But other times the authorities simply lacked any means of enforcement. Often local administration was little more than a racket run by the rich themselves. Under a weak state, the rich evaded tax one way or another, and the burden fell ever more heavily on the poor. But they, too, could resist.

A key ancient source for social conditions in the mid 5th century AD is the Gallic monk Salvian’s tract Concerning the Government of God. Salvian condemned the entire Late Roman establishment as oppressors of the rural poor: the rich were guilty of gross injustice and acted like a pack of brigands; Roman officials were corrupt, the taxes they imposed crippling; businessmen practised fraud and perjury; soldiers were plunderers. The result, wrote Salvian, was that the oppressed poor would flee for refuge to thebagaudae or the barbarians. Though given to rhetorical exaggeration, Salvian’s picture is borne out by other sources. References to the bagaudae reach a peak in the 5th century AD. We hear elsewhere of peasant communities willingly placing themselves under the authority of barbarian rulers. Nor was Salvian the only radical churchman denouncing the wickedness of the age. The Donatist Church still thrived in North Africa, and Pelagianism was widespread across the West. Pelagius was a British-born monk who argued that people had free will, could choose to act righteously, and in this way accumulate enough heavenly credit to ensure salvation. In contrast to conservatives like Augustine, who believed that sin was inevitable and God’s grace could be earned by faith and obedience alone, Pelagius maintained that people were responsible for their own actions and it was deeds not words that counted: a much harder road for the rich to tread, since it required them not merely to profess to be Christian, but also to actChristian.

We see much circumstantial evidence for the economic and social decay implicit in Salvian’s account. After AD 395 the government abandoned the issue of base coinage except for tiny nummi, and issues of silver became sparse and occasional. Only gold was minted regularly in large quantity – solidi (staters), semisses (half-staters) and tremisses (third-staters). The old tax-pay cycle that had driven the military-supply economy and pump-primed a host of subsidiary commercial exchanges was grinding to a halt. Of monumental building there was almost none; even in the great imperial capitals like Rome, Milan, Ravenna, Trier and Arles, buildings of the mid 5th century AD are virtually non-existent. Most towns, if they survived at all, had shrunk into small defended enclosures, usually centred on an episcopal church.

Constantius died in AD 421, Honorius two years later. The rule of the House of Theodosius was briefly disrupted by the usurpation of the emperor Johannes (AD 423–425), but was then restored with the elevation of Valentinian III (AD 425–455), son of Galla Placidia, nephew of Honorius. Valentinian was another boy-emperor, and his mother acted as effective regent. The new regime was threatened, however, by a new strongman: Aëtius. Having spent some years in his youth as a hostage of the Huns, when he formed a close relationship with their royal family, Aëtius had in recent times been acting as Roman ambassador to the Hunnic court. When news reached him of the coup at home, he enlisted the support of his Hunnic allies in negotiating a role for himself in the new government. For many years thereafter the politics of the western court was dominated by a factional struggle between the supporters of Galla Placidia and those of Aëtius. But his powerful allies gave Aëtius the edge. A leading figure in the politics of the Western Empire from AD 425 onwards, Aëtius enjoyed supreme power from AD 434 until his murder in AD 454. His long supremacy was dominated by the loss of North Africa, the attempt to maintain Roman influence in Gaul, and by the impact of the Huns on the disintegrating empire.

Large areas of Spain had remained under the control of Vandals and Sueves after the withdrawal of Wallia’s Goths in AD 418. The Vandals were settled mainly in the south, and in AD 429 a huge horde, recorded as 80,000 in total, so including perhaps 20,000 warriors, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into North Africa. A new, massive, highly disruptive folk-movement was under way. Though, unusually, we have a precise figure for the size of the horde at the beginning of the expedition, numbers are likely to have fluctuated greatly thereafter. Some will have settled quickly. Others will have broken away in subsidiary movements. More may have arrived later in secondary waves. Some, perhaps many, who were not Vandals at all, but soldiers of fortune picked up along the way, may have joined. Numbers and movements will have been influenced, too, by the rivalries of chieftains within the horde, each seeking to build and maintain his retinue by accumulating land, gold and men in a dynamic and highly fluid struggle for power. Perhaps, indeed, when Gaiseric, the Vandal king, decided to invade, his initial intention was only to raid and sate his warriors’ appetite for plunder before returning home to Spain. But the Vandals were lured on by the rich pickings of Roman North Africa, one of the great centres of classical civilization, and one little affected by the centuries of war that had ravaged Europe and the East. By AD 435 the Vandals were in control of Morocco and Algeria, and stood poised on the edge of the Tunisian heartland of Rome’s African empire. In AD 439 the great city of Carthage, ancient capital of the Province of Africa, and in recent times one of the well-springs of Late Roman Christianity, fell to the Vandals. There was no possibility of dislodging them. Attempts by expeditionary forces from both East and West to do so were beaten off. Soon the Vandals were attacking Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and eventually even Rome itself.

The Western Empire was, by mid-century, too embroiled in Gaul to challenge the Vandal advance. The Huns had been transformed from allies of the Western Empire into terrifying enemies. When a Christian hermit dubbed Attila ‘the Scourge of God’, the Hunnic king adopted the title with relish. He and his people, in the literature of the day, became synonymous with ugliness, filth, cruelty and ruthlessness. The Huns – illiterate, nomadic, pagan – were portrayed as the apocalyptic antithesis of civilization, religion and culture. Contemporaries viewed the decisive battle at Châlons in AD 451 between the Romans and the Huns as an awesome collision between civilization and barbarism. Yet Attila was a monster created by Rome.

The Kingdom of the Huns had evolved quite suddenly in the second quarter of the 5th century into a fast expanding and predatory empire. Militarily formidable, the Huns lacked political coherence. With their origins in the nomadism of the Central Asian steppes, they were essentially loosely organized and highly mobile masses of light horse-archers. They moved into Eastern and Central Europe as the resistance of the Goths collapsed, and then, intent on feeding off the riches of classical civilization, they began levying protection money. Repeatedly, when threatened elsewhere, Constantinople faced demands for payments to keep the peace in the Balkans, payments that became a regular and rising subsidy to the King of the Huns: 350 lbs of gold a year in the AD 420s; 700 lbs kg of gold a year in the AD 430s; 2,100 lbs of gold a year in the AD 440s, plus an immediate one-off payment of 6,000 lbs to seal the new agreement. Roman prisoners also became a source of income: they were ransomed for first 8, then 12, gold staters per man. For the Roman Empire this was, if unavoidable, disastrous. The subsidies fed the rising power of the Hunnic King, whose capacity to reward his followers, cement their allegiance, and recruit and arm fresh forces was enormously enhanced. By the middle of the 5thcentury AD, Attila controlled a huge Central European empire. Roman gold had created a barbarian super-state.

In AD 447 Attila attacked across the Danube again. The Romans were defeated, and, after further Balkan devastation, Constantinople yet again accepted the Huns’ terms, which this time included the cession of a huge belt of territory on the south bank of the Danube ‘five days’ journey in depth’. Then, suddenly, Attila’s attitude to the Eastern Empire changed from predatory menace to conciliation. Eager to turn West, he secured his rear by offering Constantinople a moderate final settlement. Why he turned West, we do not know. Certainly, the Huns knew much about Gaul: many had fought there as federate allies of Aëtius in the AD 430s and 440s, participating in his campaigns against Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians and bagaudae. Probably, quite simply, the riches of Gaul, even the impoverished Gaul of Late Antiquity, seemed to offer more lucrative returns than the bribes and plunder to be had in the Balkans.

The pretext for invasion was a dispute between two Frankish chieftains on the lower Rhine, one of whom appealed for support to Aëtius, the other to Attila. The Huns moved first. A great invasion force first crushed the King of the Burgundians and conquered Eastern Gaul. It then split into three armies, one to protect the Huns’ Frankish allies and guard Attila’s right flank in the north, another to hold down the Burgundians and guard the left flank in the south, the third to push forwards in the centre towards Orleans, the territory of the Visigoths, and the prospective conquest of Western Gaul. But as Aëtius and King Theodoric of the Visigoths advanced against him, Attila fell back eastwards, ordering a concentration at Châlons-sur-Marne – a central position to which his northern and southern armies could march, and an area of wide open country ideal for massed cavalry action.

Châlons was a medieval battle. Both armies formed up in three separate battle-groups, and each fought its own engagement. The great majority on both sides were barbarian warriors organized in clans and tribes under kings and chieftains. Aëtius and the regular Roman troops were deployed on the right of the Romano-Gothic line, Theodoric and the Visigoths on the left, with the Alans (whose loyalty was suspect) sandwiched in the centre. Attila commanded the Huns in the centre of his own line, while Ostrogoths, Gepids and other subject peoples of his empire formed the wings. The battle, fought with aggression and determination on both sides, lasted two days. On the first, Attila launched furious but unsuccessful attacks on the Romans and the Alans, but the Ostrogoths on his right flank collapsed before the onslaught of Theodoric’s Visigoths. Exposed to the danger of a devastating flank attack by Gothic cavalry on his embattled centre, Attila engineered a fighting retreat to his fortified camp, keeping the Goths at bay with massed archery. The following day he stood on the defensive in a great wagon laager. In the centre was a huge pyramid of wooden saddles. Around it were ranged the king’s spoils and wealth. Perched on the sides were his wives. And on the summit was Attila himself, directing the battle, but ready to be consumed in a vast conflagration should the laager fall. The pyramid was his funeral pyre.

It was not needed – not yet. The Romano-Gothic army was traumatized by its grim struggle. Its assaults on the second day of the battle were repulsed, and Attila was allowed to extricate his army and escape eastwards. Perhaps, indeed, Aëtius wished it so. Roman power, reduced largely to a matter of bargains and bribes, had come to depend on a balance of power among the barbarian polities that now dominated Europe. With Attila so diminished, perhaps it was better that he survived as a counterweight to the Romans’ victorious Visigothic allies. In the event, however, Attila died two years later, and his empire, which had formed so fast and covered such a swathe of Europe, fell to pieces as its subject peoples rose in revolt against their masters.

Aëtius too died soon after the battle. The butt of much jealousy at court, where many spoke against him, the mighty general was suddenly accused of treason and murdered by the emperor (AD 454). The emperor himself was shortly afterwards assassinated in a revenge killing by Aëtius’s retainers (AD 455). There followed a rapid succession of undistinguished emperors, nine (more or less) legitimate rulers in 21 years, of whom no less than six died violently. The dominant figure, Ricimer, the last of the great generalissimos of the Late Western Empire, was, like Stilicho half a century before, a barbarian. Making and unmaking emperors, embroiled in endless court intrigue, constantly shoring up the rickety edifice of power that supported him, Ricimer presided helplessly over the final collapse of the Western Empire. He represented a wafer-thin carapace of military strength hollow beneath: a court, several capital cities, some thousands of armed men, an historic claim to world empire – but, lacking any real economic, social or political base, liable to crumble to nothing at the slightest blows.

These fell swiftly. Diplomacy and carefully controlled projections of such military force as remained allowed the Western Empire to preserve fragments of authority across its former domains for a time. But gains were momentary. When Vandal raiding was extended into the Eastern Mediterranean, it provoked a joint operation by both Eastern and Western Empires in AD 468, but it ended disastrously, and Vandal power in the Mediterranean was further entrenched. There were energetic Roman campaigns in Gaul in the late 450s AD, but within a few years the expanding Visigothic kingdom had taken Arles, an imperial capital, the principal seat of what had remained of Roman authority in Gaul, one of the greatest centres of classical culture in the West. More often than not, territory was absorbed rather than conquered. Gallo-Roman landowners agreed, through force of circumstance, to divide their estates with barbarian ‘guests’. Germanic kings converted, became patrons of the Church, and entered into alliance with local bishops. The infrastructure of estates, churches and urban-based administration and tax-collection were appropriated by the new rulers. A classic reversal took place: once the empire had sought to ‘Romanize’ the barbarian chieftains it conquered; now the barbarian conquerors of the empire helped themselves to the Romanitas of their new subjects. Before long, Germanic kings were busy at the game of making and unmaking Roman emperors.

The death of Ricimer, the last of the great strongmen of the West, in AD 472 heralded the end. The Western throne was disputed between the remnants of the Roman aristocracy, the Germanic kings and Constantinople. There were five emperors in as many years. The last was Romulus Augustulus (AD 475–476). His authority over Italy rested on the support of King Odoacer and his Germanic federate army. When the king demanded for his followers the same treatment as had been granted to their compatriots in Gaul – a one-third share in estates – he was rebuffed. He responded by removing the emperor and seeking to place himself on the throne. When his appeal to the Eastern Emperor for recognition and legitimacy was turned down, he restyled himself ‘King of Italy’. The Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist. Its territories had become a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms.

The Vandals ruled Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. Odoacer ruled Italy, Illyricum, and what was left of Raetia and Noricum. The Visigoths ruled a huge area centred on south-west Gaul. The Burgundians held most of the rest of Gaul, except for Brittany, which had been settled by British exiles, and the lower Rhine, which was Frankish. A small Romanized enclave controlled by Syagrius in northern Gaul was absorbed by the Franks in AD 486. The Visigoths ruled most of Spain, except for the north-west, where there were Suevian and native Vascon territories. Britain was divided into numerous, obscure petty-states, some British, some Anglo-Saxon. In many places, a Romanized elite culture survived under the authority of new rulers. But even this was gradually transformed – given new shapes and meanings in a changed and changing world. And elite culture is not the same thing as Roman imperial power and a social order based on cities, villas, and a municipal oligarchy of landowning gentry. The Roman Empire defined in these terms had been in decline since expansion ended in the 2nd century AD. If it survived beyond the 5th century in some form in the East – a much-mutated form – it did so only because the West had been cast adrift. Once, Rome had been powerful enough to conquer the East and take possession of its riches. Now, without those riches, Rome could not stand, and the Western Roman Empire was consumed by its barbarian enemies amidst the indifference of its people. The story that had begun at Rome in 753 BC ended there in AD 476.

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