Chapter 21

The Barbarians Are Coming! The End of Rome

In This Chapter

● How the barbarians started beating down the door

● Why Rome fell

● What happened to Western Europe after Rome fell

● How the Byzantines kept the flame of Rome alive

This chapter is about the last act in the great drama that was the history of a city called Rome. When Julian II died in 363 (see Chapter 20), Rome was, if we accept the traditional date of its founding in 753 BC, 1,116 years old. The Roman world stretched from Egypt and the Middle East to the British Isles and the furthest tip of Spain. It had gone through colossal change, but it was still essentially ‘Roman’, and the city of Rome was its spiritual heart.

But for more than a century, few emperors had done much more than pass through Rome. They spent most of their time campaigning or basing themselves closer to the frontiers. They’d shown that emperors could be made and die in places other than Rome, because the only power that mattered was military loyalty to the man who led the soldiers, wherever he was.

Constantine I (307-337) had made the most symbolic, permanent change for centuries. He’d recognised that Constantinople was the key to holding on to the Roman Empire because Rome had become more of an idea, a state of mind, than a physical place. Constantine’s contribution was enormous, but even he could do nothing about the mounting pressure on the frontiers from barbarians. Worse, his plan to divide the Empire between his sons led to more civil war and rebellions that only weakened the Roman world further. During the fourth century, the Western Roman Empire began to crumble under the barbarian onslaught, and in the end, Rome herself would fall.

A Rundown of Barbarians

The Romans called ‘barbarians’ anyone who wasn’t like them - that is, civilised, living in cities, with a taste for art and architecture, literature, and polite living. These included the inhabitants of some of their own remoter provinces, like the Britons, but mostly they meant tribes beyond the Roman frontiers of the Rhine and Danube. Naturally, the Romans were biased. Some of the barbarians were highly accomplished and could create great things, but what matters here is what the Romans thought of them.

The Romans had a thoroughly ambivalent relationship with the barbarians. For centuries, they had been trying to civilise tribes along the frontiers and had hired tribal warriors to fight in the Roman army in the hope that they would be an effective force against other barbarians trying to invade. By the fourth century, many people in the Roman world - especially in the frontier provinces - had barbarians amongst their ancestors. But everyone in the Roman world was terrified by the thought of the tribes beyond who were on the march in search of new lands and who saw the Roman Empire as either a place they were determined to be part of or as a place to sack and pillage.

The important thing to remember is that, although we have names for some of these barbarians, they were in a constant state of flux, moving about from place to place, forming alliances one minute and starting wars the next, with no regular chain of command or line of succession. The information we have about them is sporadic and incomplete, not least because we rely on Roman sources, and they were often fairly confused about who they were dealing with. No wonder the Romans who ruled by a system looked at barbarians with horror: They had no idea what to do with them or how to handle them.

Following are some of the most important barbarians. Notice how they fought one another as well as the Romans, and at times even joined the Romans:

● Goths: The Goths were divided into two: the Ostrogoths (‘Bright Goths’) and the Visigoths (‘Wise Goths’). The Ostrogoths lived where the Ukraine is today, and the Visigoths where Romania is, but they originally came from Scandinavia. By the mid-third century AD, the Goths were on the move towards the Roman Empire, pushed forward by the Alans, a tribe on the Asiatic steppes. In 251, the Gothic king Cniva killed the emperor Trajan Decius (refer to Chapter 19). Then they experimented with joining the Romans as confederates, but the Visigoths killed the emperor Valens in 378 (see the later section ‘Valens in the East’ for details of these events). In 410, the Visigoth chieftain Alaric sacked Rome, but after that, the Visigoths became confederates with what was left of the Western Roman Empire.

● Vandals: The Vandals were a German tribe who originated in Scandinavia and first turn up causing trouble under Marcus Aurelius (refer to Chapter 17) when they crossed the Danube. They fought their neighbours, the Visigoths, and the Romans as the mood took them. Apart from those who joined the Roman army (like Stilicho, discussed in the later section ‘Sacking Rome’), they were really just a nuisance till 406 when, pushed forward by the Huns, they crossed the Rhine with the Alans and Suebi and laid waste parts of Gaul and Spain. The Vandals were ruled in Spain by their king Gunderic until his death in 428, after which they moved to North Africa.

● Huns: Outstanding horsemen, the Huns first turn up in south-east Europe in the late fourth century. They drove the Visigoths out, forcing them to invade the Roman Empire, and later pushed the Vandals into Italy and Gaul. The most significant leader was Attila (434-453), but after his death the Huns were largely a spent force.

● Franks: The Franks were a collection of German tribes on the Rhine who started attacking Gaul and Spain in the late third century. Julian II (refer to Chapter 20) pushed back a major invasion in 355, and until 425 the Franks served under the Romans as confederate troops, helping to prop up the frontiers. In about 425, one of the new leaders, Chlodio, started a new invasion. By the end of the fifth century, the Franks had largely taken over Gaul which now bears their name: France.

● Alans: The nomadic Alans lived in southern Russia, trapped behind the Caucasus. The Roman Empire frequently fought off their efforts to break out, but in the end it was pressure from the Huns that forced them out. The Alans finally reached Gaul in 406 and Spain in 409, where they met the Vandals, after which they simply merged with them and disappear from history.

● Alamanni: The Alamanni was a collection of Germanic tribes who crossed the Roman frontier in c. 260. They remained a constant problem thereafter, even though Julian managed a major defeat of them in 357 at Strasbourg. By the fifth century, they had settled in Alsace before being conquered by the Franks.

Going Downhill - Barbarians at the Door

After Julian II died in 363, the captain of his imperial guard, Jovian, was declared emperor. The first thing Jovian did was negotiate a humiliating peace to abandon all the Persian territory won since the time of Diocletian more than 60 years earlier. When Jovian later set out for Constantinople, he was suffocated in an extraordinary accident when a brazier was left burning in his bedroom. It was a bad time to lose an emperor. The barbarians were knocking at Rome’s door, and the next 50 years were going to be decisive.

Breaking the Empire into East and West

Valentinian was in Julian and Jovian’s army. Following Jovian’s death, Valentinian was made emperor at Nicaea. For one month, he was sole ruler of the Roman world from West to East, and he was the last there ever was. After four weeks in the job, he made his brother Valens co-emperor. Valentinian took the West and Valens the East. The division was permanent. Now Rome’s future depended on how the emperors dealt with the barbarians.

Valentinian I in the West (AD 364-375)

Valentinian based himself in Milan to be closer to the frontiers. He upgraded the soldiers’ status, providing them with tools so that they could farm during quiet periods. That meant higher taxes, but he softened the blow by limiting tax breaks for the rich. Valentinian loathed the wealthy and privileged, especially anyone who thought himself above the law. So he was especially concerned with the lot of ordinary people and made every one of the regional Praetorian prefects appoint a Defender of the People to protect their interests. Valentinian was also determined that Christianity not oppress other religions. So in 371, he declared that all religions would be tolerated and no-one should be made to worship any god other than the one he wanted to.

It was just as well Valentinian was in Milan and improving the army. He was faced almost immediately with a dramatic series of barbarian invasions. First the Alamanni crossed the Rhine, only to be beaten off by the Roman armies. Then in 367, a ‘barbarian conspiracy’ burst across Britain and devastated it. Valentinian had to send Count Theodosius to rebuild Britain’s defences and drive out the invaders. In 374, a swarm of Germans crossed the Danube. Valentinian fought back over the river, but when an embassy of Germans arrived to broker a deal the following year, they so infuriated Valentinian he burst a blood vessel and expired on the spot.

Valens in the East (AD 364-378)

Valens had his own problems. First he had to put down a rebellion by a soldier called Procopius who declared himself emperor. Next he crossed the Danube to head off a potential invasion by the Visigoths. Unlike Valentinian, Valens was a dedicated Arian and started a series of persecutions of orthodox Catholics.

Next the Visigoths and Ostrogoths invaded en masse, forced out of their own lands by the Huns of the North. They were allowed to settle in the Eastern Empire, but broke out into rebellion when they were oppressed and exploited. More German tribes crossed in behind them to add to the chaos.

The Aqueduct of Valens

The rebel Procopius had been supported by the city of Chalcedon. To punish Chalcedon, Valens destroyed their defences and used stones from the city's walls to build a mighty aqueduct in Constantinople. The aqueduct crossed a valley in the city between two hills, carrying water to a reservoir called the Nymphaeum Majus ('Great Fountain'). Eighty-six arches still stand in Istanbul today.

The Visigoths, having been pushed out of their territory by the Huns, became one of the most important threats to the Western Roman Empire. Once inside the Empire, they soon decided they wanted better land than the Balkans and headed for Italy.

Valens launched a hasty counter-attack and met the Visigoths at the Battle of Hadrianopolis in 378. Valens was catastrophically defeated and killed, and his body was never found.

At Last! Someone Who Knows What He's Doing: Theodosius I the Great (AD 379-395)

In 375, Valentinian’s sons Gratian, then 15 years old, and Valentinian II, aged 4, succeeded their father in the West (the two were half-brothers). In 378, with Valens dead, too, Gratian had the wit to see he was completely unable to cope with the whole Empire because they were both too young. He chose Flavius Theodosius, the son of the Count Theodosius sent to Britain after the disaster in 367, and made him Augustus in the East. Flavius Theodosius had been born in Italica in Spain, the same place as two of the greatest of all Roman emperors, Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (117-138), and in many ways he lived up to his predecessors’ reputations. (To read about Trajan and Hadrian, two of the ‘Five Good Emperors’, go to Chapter 17.)

Theodosius might have been forgiven if he had turned down his new job. His father, Count Theodosius, had been executed in about 375 on a charge of treason, and he had retired to Spain. But he accepted Gratian’s offer of a command on the Danube in 378 followed by promotion to being the Eastern Augustus in 379.

Hiring the Visigoths

Theodosius started out by fighting the Visigoths but found the job impossible. His solution was on the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ principle, except that he had the Visigoths join the Romans rather than the other way round. The Visigoths were made into federal allies within the Roman Empire. The deal was that they were given land in Thrace and in return provided soldiers (foederati, ‘federates’) for the Roman army and farm workers for the Roman economy.

It was a clever idea, bringing desperately needed reinforcements for the army. But it established the idea of independent barbarian states within the Empire, and it cost a lot of money. Theodosius declared that anything and everything could be taxed. Just how much freedom had been lost is summed up by the fact that now a tenant who left his land could be prosecuted for ‘stealing himself’ away from his job. Even tax collectors could be whipped for failing to collect everything due.

Breaking it up again: Revolts

In the West, Gratian’s government was really controlled by Ausonius who, as well as being a famous poet, was chief minister and also praetorian prefect over Gaul, Italy, and Africa. Gratian monitored the frontiers from his base at Trier.

In 383, disaster struck when a soldier in Britain called Magnus Maximus was declared emperor and promptly set out for the Continent to get rid of Gratian. Gratian was betrayed by his own troops, who went over to Magnus Maximus. One of them killed Gratian in 383. Maximus then added Gaul, Spain, and Africa to his new empire.

In 387, however, Magnus Maximus got too ambitious and invaded Italy. Valentinian II fled to Theodosius, who was really in charge of the Roman Empire. Theodosius marched west and destroyed Maximus at Poetovio in 388. Valentinian was made emperor of the West again, but in 392, he was throttled by his Frankish general Arbogastes.

Arbogastes wasn’t stupid enough to make himself emperor; instead he found a puppet in the imperial court called Eugenius and declared him emperor, while Arbogastes controlled everything. Theodosius refused to accept a barbarian general ruling through a puppet and invaded Italy in 394, defeated Eugenius’s army, and then executed Eugenius on 6 September 394. Arbogastes fled and committed suicide.

Death of Theodosius

Theodosius died four months later at Milan in January 395 from dropsy.

His sons Arcadius (aged 18) and Honorius (aged 11) succeeded him.

They’d already been made into Augusti. Arcadius (383-408) took the East and Honorius (393-423) the West. Being young, both were easily led by powerful men in their courts. Arcadius, controlled by a succession of Praetorian prefects, staggered on in the East until 408 when he was succeeded by his 7-year-old son Theodosius II. The real story (told in the next section), however, belongs to Honorius and his father-in-law, Stilicho.

Sacking Rome

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so the saying (actually a twelfth-century French proverb) goes. It wasn’t destroyed in a day, either. The end was humiliating and rather slow, but the key point is that, whereas Rome had once been the hub of the Roman world, now it was almost an irrelevance. Of course, it had tremendous symbolic importance, but in a practical sense it was a sideshow. One of the ironies is that it was the very barbarians the Romans had been trying to keep out who kept Rome going as long as it did.

Stilicho: Buying off the Visigoths

In 395 when Theodosius died, his son Honorius was only 11, so it’s no great surprise that the real power lay with Honorius’s Master of Soldiers and later father-in-law, a Vandal general called Flavius Stilicho.

Stilicho fought off a Visigoth invasion of Italy under Alaric in 402 at Pollentia (Pollenza), and then fought off an Ostrogoth invasion in 405 at Faesulae (Fiesole), but he was unable or unwilling to hold back the relentless Visigoths who now had their sights set on Italy. Stilicho kept letting them get away, because he had lurking ambitions to conquer the Eastern Roman Empire.

His chief rival was Rufinus, one of Arcadius’s officials.

In 406, a horde of Vandals and other tribes, including the Alamanni and Alans, crossed the Rhine and devastated Gaul. Stilicho did little or nothing to fight them off because he wanted to use his forces to attack the Eastern Empire.

In the meantime, he agreed to hand over a fortune in gold to the Visigothic leader Alaric, one of the Visigoths that Theodosius I had allowed to settle in the Roman Empire, who was demanding to be bought off. That only gave rise to suspicions that Stilicho was using Alaric to help make his (Stilcho’s) son emperor. His troops mutinied, and Stilicho was executed in 408.

During this period, the imperial court was in Ravenna in north-east Italy, protected by the swamps that surrounded the city. Ravenna’s late Roman churches and other buildings are some of the most magnificent surviving monuments from antiquity. They owe their preservation largely to their remote location.

As if the battles with the Visigoths weren’t enough, in 407, Britain produced yet another rebel, this time the so-called Constantine III whose sole appeal seems to have been his name, which reminded the troops of the great days of Constantine I. Spotting the chaos in Italy, Constantine III led another rebellious army into Gaul. By 409, he had seized Spain, too, but was overwhelmed by barbarians himself. He was defeated and killed by Honorius’s army in 411, which was remarkable given what had been happening in Rome in the meantime (explained in the next section).

Alaric and the fall of Rome in 410

In 408, Stilicho was murdered in a palace coup when the story got around that he might be planning to make his own son emperor with Alaric’s help. German troops in the Roman army, now terrified for themselves and their families, promptly joined Alaric and the Visigoths. With Stilicho dead, Alaric had no useful friends at the Roman court. He saw his chance and burst into Italy.

‘And when Rome falls - the World' (Lord Byron)

The Visigoths surged down to Rome and started a series of three sieges of Rome:

● In 408, after Stilicho’s execution, many families of federated barbarian troops were murdered. Those troops fled to Alaric, who set out to besiege Rome in September 408. Facing the prospect of starvation, the Senate ordered the payment of a huge ransom to persuade Alaric to withdraw.

All Alaric wanted was official recognition by Honorius. When that didn’t come Alaric besieged Rome again in 409.

● In 409, Alaric forced the Senate to come to terms. He put his own puppet emperor, Attalus, on the Roman throne. Attalus was hopeless, so Alaric deposed him and decided to open talks with Honorius in 410. Unfortunately, a rival Visigoth leader called Sarus used his influence to wreck the negotiations. Alaric decided that Honorius must have been responsible and set off to besiege Rome again as a punishment.

● In August 410, Alaric was let into Rome by traitors. For the first time since the Gauls sacked Rome in 390 BC (refer to Chapter 11), the city was captured by an enemy. Actually, the Visigoths did relatively little damage: They left churches alone and anyone taking refuge in them, for example. But they may well have burned down the Basilica Aemilia in the Forum, which was certainly destroyed about this time.

Galla Placidia's husbands

Galla Placidia married Alaric's successor, Ataulf, in 414. Honorius refused his consent, and his general Constantius drove Ataulf into Spain and had him murdered. Placidia was returned to the Romans by Ataulf's successor, Wallia. As a reward, he was allowed to set up a Visigothic state in Gaul.

In 417, Galla Placidia married the general Constantius. Their son Valentinian was born two years later. In 421, Constantius was made joint-emperor with Honorius but died later the same year. Things took an odd twist next when Honorius took a fancy to his half-sister Placidia. His public displays of 'affection' caused a public outcry and her fury, so she fled to Constantinople in 423, the same year as Honorius died.

The fall of Rome in 410 was a horrifically demoralising experience, not just for the Romans, but also for Roman citizens everywhere. It was, literally, like facing the end of the world.

Actually Alaric only stayed three days in Rome before heading off to southern Italy with Honorius’s half-sister Galla Placidia. He died before he could start a planned invasion of Africa and was reputedly buried under a river (the river was diverted first so that the grave could be dug).

Abandoning Britain

The year 410 was generally a bad one. In addition to the fall of Rome, Britain was also abandoned. Honorius told the island province to take care of its own defences, though actually the frustrated Britons had already thrown out the Roman officials a year before. What few troops were left were withdrawn. The rebel Constantine III had taken most of what was left.

Staggering On

For the rest of the fifth century, barbarians from central and northern Europe steadily moved into the Roman Empire. The fact that independent barbarian states had been established within the Roman Empire anticipated the future.

During this time, the sitting Roman emperors were not always the ones who held the real power.

In the East, Theodosius II (402-450) was Augustus, but the real power was held by his sister Aelia Pulcheria (ruling as co-regent from 414). She stayed in power for the rest of her life and died in 453. A devout Christian, she took a vow of chastity to avoid being forced into marriage. Many of her decisions were affected by her Christianity; she had Theodosius send the Jews of Constantinople into exile, for example.

In the West, the struggle for power continued:

● Johannes (423-425): Honorius’s secretary Johannes succeeded Honorius. The Eastern emperor, Theodosius II, sent an army to get rid of Johannes.

A Roman general called Flavius Aetius had fetched an army of Huns to support Johannes, but they turned up too late. Galla Placidia had paid off his Huns and sent him to deal with the Visigoths and Franks in Gaul.

● Valentinian III (425-455): Galla Placidia’s son Valentinian became Augustus of the West when they returned to Rome. Galla Placidia spent the next 12 years as regent in the West until she retired to building churches in Ravenna (she died in 450). The real power was then held by Aetius, the emperor’s Magister Militum (‘Master of the Soldiers’). There was no stopping the relentless disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. By 429, the Vandals under Gaiseric had crossed Gaul and Spain, and were conquering Africa, which they seized by 439.

By 429, Aetius could do nothing about the Vandals in Africa. But he did manage to push back the Germans, suppress peasant revolts, and defeated the Burgundians.

Attita the Hun (ruled AD 434-453)

Everyone has heard of Attila the Hun. Here’s the chance to find out what he did. Attila was brought up as a barbarian hostage at the court of the emperor Honorius. The idea was that he would grow up more sympathetic to the Romans, but it meant he also grew up knowing how the Roman world worked. In 432, Attila and his brother Bleda inherited control of the Huns from their uncle Ruga. They followed this up with an invasion of Persia, followed by assaults on the Roman Empire, crossing the Danube in 440 and sacking cities in Illyria. In 443, another invasion followed, climaxing in their siege of Constantinople which ended only because they hadn’t any proper siege equipment to scale the walls. In 447, Attila attacked the Roman Empire again and defeated a Roman army in Moesia before fighting his way south to Thermopylae in Greece. Constantinople was saved because the damage of 443 had been repaired, but the Eastern Empire agreed to pay Attila off.

Meanwhile, the Huns had been supplying the Western Roman Empire with troops. In 450, the Eastern Empire stopped the cash payments to Attila. Valentinian III ordered his sister Honoria to marry a Roman whom she disliked, so Honoria sent her ring to Attila and begged for rescue. Attila took this as an offer of marriage and demanded half the Western Empire as his dowry. Valentinian III said no to Attila, so Attila the Hun invaded the West.

In 451, Flavius Aetius defeated Attila at the Battle of Maurica (also known as the Battle of Chalons), the only time Attila was ever defeated. Attila withdrew but invaded Italy again in 452. Aetius used his troops just to harass Attila who was busy sacking various cities and demanding Honoria’s hand. Eventually a Roman embassy met up with Attila and persuaded him to give up. He pulled back and left. In 453, Attila died from a burst blood vessel. The Hun Empire collapsed as barbarian kingdoms often did because they were totally dependent on the prestige of particular leaders.

The murders of Aetius (AD 454) and Valentinian III (AD 455)

In 454, the general Flavius Aetius was murdered by Valentinian III for threatening the Emperor’s court eunuch Heraclius and the powerful Petronius Maximus (twice prefect of Rome and twice praetorian prefect of Italy). This ended the life of one of the most important men in Roman history over the preceding 20 years. And this time it was actually the emperor who did the killing, stabbing Aetius. The story goes that, after the killing, someone told Valentinian ‘with your left hand you have cut off your right hand’, meaning that Valentinian had now ruined his chances of ruling properly.

Petronius Maximus assumed he would now become the top man at Valentinian’s court, but the eunuch Heraclius told Valentinian this was a bad idea. In retaliation, Petronius hired two of Aetius’s soldiers to avenge their master. In 455 they killed Heraclius and Valentinian.

Petronius Maximus was proclaimed emperor on 17 March 455 and married Valentinian III’s reluctant widow, Licinia Eudoxia. But he lasted about 70 days because she sent a message to Gaiseric, the Vandal king in Africa. Gaiseric had his own designs on the imperial dynasty and had plans to marry his son Huneric to Valentinian and Eudoxia’s daughter Eudocia.

When Petronius heard the Vandals were on their way from Africa to Rome, he panicked and fled. But before he could get out of Rome, a mob killed him. Gaiseric arrived and carted off both Eudoxia, Eudocia, and her sister Placidia the Younger to Carthage. They were later released, and Placidia the Younger still had a part to play in Rome’s last act. (For another of Galla Placidia’s legacies, see the sidebar on ‘Buildings’).

Valentinian III’s death was a disaster for the West because it marked the end of a dynasty that could be traced back to Valentinian I and Valens, nearly a century earlier. For all its faults, the dynasty had managed some sort of central stability even though the power nearly always lay in the hands of men like Stilicho and Aetius, and the Western Empire had been steadily eroded by barbarian invasions.


The fifth century might have been a time of increasing chaos, but some of the great surviving buildings of the Roman world date from this era. Santa Sabina in Rome, begun in 422, is an immaculate basilican church largely in its original state, with columns dividing a nave and aisles. Galla Placidia's elegant brick cross-shaped and barrel-vaulted tomb in Ravenna is one of the great sights of the city, and its interior preserves all its wall and ceiling mosaics.

The next few emperors and the rise of Ricimer

Following Valentinian III’s death, a series of emperors claimed (or were persuaded to claim) the throne of the Western Roman Empire, which by that time didn’t amount to much more than Italy. All had to deal with the Magister Militum Ricimer, a general of mixed Visigoth and Suebian descent who was the real power in the West between 455-472. Here’s a quick rundown of the last Western Roman emperors:

● Avitus (455-456): The Visigothic king Theodoric II persuaded Avitus to take the throne. So crushed was the West that the new emperor resorted to stripping bronze from public buildings to pay the Goths in his army. It was too much for the Romans, who forced him to flee. He was later defeated and deposed by Ricimer, whom he had promoted.

● Majorian (457-461): Majorian, who had served under Aetius, followed Avitus. Majorian defeated the Vandals in Gaul, but thanks to treachery, his fleet, prepared in Spain to attack the Vandals in Africa, was destroyed before it left. Majorian was deposed and executed by the general Ricimer, who installed a puppet called Libius Severus.

● Libius Severus aka Severus III (461-465): The real power behind the throne was Ricimer. Practically nothing is known about Libius Severus as a result. It might have been Ricimer who killed him.

Anthemius (467-472): Leo I (457-474), who was now the Eastern emperor, appointed Anthemius himself. Anthemius was Leo’s son-in-law. He had been hoping to succeed Leo but accepted the Western throne.

He reached it in 467 and was immediately proclaimed emperor; his daughter even married Ricimer. A joint West-East expedition to attack Gaiseric and the Vandals in Africa ended in disaster when Gaiseric routed the Roman fleet. Events in Gaul further complicated things: The

Visigothic kingdom had been taken over by Euric who murdered his brother Theodoric II and started planning to seize the whole of Gaul and separate it from the Roman Empire. Euric defeated a Roman army. Bad feelings between Ricimer and Anthemius followed, and Leo I sent a man called Olybrius to sort out the quarrel between the two. Ricimer, however, decided Anthemius was a lost cause and set Olybrius up as a rival emperor. Olybrius happened to be married to Valentinian III’s daughter Placidia the Younger. Ricimer besieged Rome. Anthemius fled and disguised himself as a beggar but was found and executed. Ricimer died a few weeks later.

● Olybrius (472): Anicius Olybrius, a member of the senatorial Anicii family, died in 472 of natural causes only a few months after being made emperor. After Olybrius died, four months passed before anyone suitable to be made emperor could be found.

● Glycerius, Count of the Domestics (473-474): He was proclaimed emperor at Ravenna in 473 by the current Magister Militum, Gundobad (in post 472-473). Glycerius’s sole achievement was to persuade invading Ostrogoths to invade Gaul instead of Italy.

● Julius Nepos (474-475): The Eastern emperor Leo I refused to recognise Glycerius and sent Julius Nepos, his wife’s nephew, to be emperor instead. Gundobad abandoned Glycerius, who Nepos easily dethroned. Nepos took over in June 474. He lasted barely a year before the new Magister Militum, Orestes (475-476), led a rebellion.

The last emperor in the West: Romulus Augustus (AD 475-476)

Orestes, who led a rebellion against the emperor Julius Nepos, made his own 16-year-old son emperor. By some extraordinary coincidence, the boy’s name, Romulus Augustus, recalled the founder of Rome and also its first emperor. Of course, Orestes was the real power, and he ruled what was left of the Western Empire though Romulus Augustus lasted for less than a year. In August 476, Orestes’s barbarian troops rebelled, killed Orestes, and made their leader Odovacer king of Rome. Romulus Augustus was allowed to retire (he lived on till 511 at least).

It was 1,229 years since the traditional date of the founding of Rome and 985 years since the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, had been ejected.

Odovacer sent a senatorial deputation to Constantinople and declared the West no longer needed an emperor. Strictly speaking, Julius Nepos was, on paper, still the ‘legitimate’ emperor - if anyone could really be called that - but in Rome itself, the last one was Romulus Augustus.

The new Eastern emperor, Zeno (474-491), had no choice but to accept. He made Odovacer Magister Militum and incorporated the West into the East once more. Italy was now under the rule of Germanic kings, based at Ravenna, from 476.

Far from destroying Roman traditions, Odovacer (King of Italy 476-493) and Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths (King of Italy 493-526) went out of their way to preserve them. Odovacer continued the tradition of public entertainment in the Colosseum and even restored the ageing arena. Theodoric, despite fighting his way into power and murdering Odovacer, had been educated at Constantinople. He maintained Rome’s institutions under a system of law and did a good job of looking civilised, while at the same time bringing in 200,000 Ostrogoths. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Roman Empire in the West was over, though Rome remained home to the pope.

What Became of Rome's Western Provinces

The history of Western Europe after the fifth century is an incredibly complicated one and the subject for another, enormous, book. But in essence what happened is that the provinces of the Roman West simply fragmented into a huge variety of kingdoms, chiefdoms, dukedoms, and fiefdoms, though that process was already well advanced by the time Rome fell in 410 and even more so by 476.

The crucial difference from the days of Roman rule is that these various states depended far more on the prestige of their individual rulers, rather than institutions of government, and they laid the foundations for what Europe is today: a collection of different countries with their own languages, traditions, and identities. Here’s a rundown of what happened:

Italy: In 536, the Byzantines retook Rome (see the section, ‘In the East:

The Byzantine Empire’), but in 568, Italy was conquered by the Germanic Lombard peoples. In 756, the Papal States, ruled by the pope from Rome, were created. By 800, Italy was part of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Italy remained part of the Holy Roman Empire, but power struggles developed with the Papal States and the independent Italian cities. By the fifteenth century, Italy was made up of the rival kingdoms of Milan, Florence, Venice, Naples, and the Papal States. It took until 1870 for Italy to become one nation again for the first time since 476.

Britain: Britain had been cast off since 410. The Church remained in some control into the fifth century, but all the Roman towns, forts, villas, and infrastructure fell steadily into disrepair. It wasn’t till after the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century that England became ruled as a single nation. Wales was added in the fourteenth century. In 1707, Scotland was

joined to England and Wales to create Britain. Ironically, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain established a vast Empire that dwarfed the Roman Empire - remarkable for a place the Romans regarded as a barbaric nowhere on the edge of the world.

● Gaul: The Roman provinces of Gaul were overrun by Germanic tribes including the Franks. The Frankish king Clovis (481-511) founded a Christian Frankish kingdom with a capital at Paris, but it fell apart until Pepin the Short (751-768) reunified it and founded the Carolingian dynasty. His son Charlemagne created the Holy Roman Empire (refer to Chapter 1) in much of Western Europe.

● Spain and Portugal: In the fifth century, Visigoths and Vandals overran the Roman province of Hispania and created a Visigoth kingdom.

● Germany: Only small parts of Germany were ever in the Roman Empire. Charlemagne of the Franks took Germany into the Holy Roman Empire.

In the East: The Byzantine Empire

With the Western Empire no more, the East was left on its own. Historians call it the Byzantine Empire, from Constantinople’s old name of Byzantium, though the name wasn’t even coined until the sixteenth century AD, decades after it had ceased to exist. The Byzantines called themselves the Roman Empire because, as far as they were concerned, it was no more or less than a continuation of the old Empire. In fact, the East continued to behave as if Rome and the West were still a fully functioning part of the Roman world. The pope remained in Rome (in the West), and even Latin remained the everyday language of government in Constantinople despite the fact that most people in the East spoke and used Greek.

The truth is that the history of the Byzantine Empire is a whole massive story in its own right, but until someone writes The Byzantine Empire For Dummies the best I can offer is the briefest of brief summaries. It’s a story with its ups and downs, but the relentless fact is that the Byzantine Empire spent most of its time getting smaller, weaker, and poorer. To the Byzantines’ credit, it took another thousand years to come to an end.

Religious tensions

The Christian church had been good at producing reasons to split ever since Constantine I issued his Edict of Milan, which imposed religious toleration on the Roman Empire, back in 313 (refer to Chapter 20). Now was no different. Theodoric the Great, the Arian king of the West, was fairly inspired when it came to religious tolerance, but the Eastern church started to insist on everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak.


Justinian's wife Theodora (c. 500-548) was a considerable individual and a major force behind Justinian's throne. She started life as an actress, performing nude on stage - a career regarded then as tantamount to prostitution. She became a Monophysite (she believed that Christ had a single Divine nature), gave up the stage, and went to Constantinople where she worked as a wool spinner. Justinian came across her and had his uncle Justin I change the law so that he could marry a former actress. After saving the day during the 532 riot, she encouraged Justinian's building programme in Constantinople and supported his legal and religious reforms, though she remained a Monophysite till her death from cancer in 548.

The problem came over Christ’s ‘nature’: Did he have a single, Divine nature, or did he have a double nature, both Divine and Human (which was the Catholic Orthodox teaching)?

Monophysitism means the doctrine of ‘one nature’. Monophysites believed that Christ had a single Divine nature. Dyophysitism means the doctrine of ‘two natures’. Dyophysites believed Christ had a double nature: Divine and Human.

The Catholic Orthodox teaching (that Christ had a dual nature) held sway in Constantinople. They wanted everyone to follow suit so that the Western and Eastern churches could all operate together. The new Eastern emperor, Justin I (518-527), supported this policy. Theodoric in the West was upset by all this. Even so, Theodoric allowed Pope John I to visit Constantinople in 526, but was horrified to hear that John had been mobbed by enthusiastic crowds. When John returned to Rome, he was imprisoned and died, followed soon after by Theodoric. Theodoric’s dynasty gradually crumbled over the years that followed, while Justinian I started a massive campaign to recover the West.

Justinian I (AD 527-565)

If he had lived 400 years earlier, Justinian (Justin I’s nephew) would have been one of the great Roman emperors. As it was, he remains probably the most important Byzantine emperor and the one who did a huge amount to preserve much of what has survived from the Roman Empire.

Hopeful signs and good moves

One of the first things Justinian did was order the codification of Roman law (see Chapter 1). His Digest contains vast quantities of vital information about how the Roman world had run itself, while the various case histories preserve all sorts of examples of how Roman society had functioned in the days of the Republic and Principate.

Riot in Constantinople

Justinian wasn't a total success. The mob in Constantinople was divided into groups based on factions of circus supporters. They didn't like Justinian's ministers and rioted in 532, trying to set up another emperor and burning down large parts of the city. Justinian was only saved by his wife Theodora, who rallied the resistance, and by his generals Belisarius and Mundus, who attacked the crowd. Thousands were killed in the clampdown, but the destruction left room for great new building projects. This was when Constantius II's church of Santa Sophia was rebuilt into the form it survives in today.

With his general Belisarius (c. 505-565), Justinian started to recover the Roman Empire. In 530, Belisarius defeated the Persians, and in 532, the ‘eternal peace’ was signed. It didn’t last, but the border was fortified. Between 533-534, Belisarius defeated the Vandals in Africa. By 535, he had taken Sicily, and by 536, he led a victorious entry into Rome. In 540, the Ostrogothic capital at Ravenna fell. Belisarius had to leave to fight the Persians again. He was back in Italy in 544 to fight the Ostrogoths, but by then Justinian had started to get suspicious of Belisarius’s success. Another general, Narses, finally defeated the Ostrogoths and reorganised the government of Italy in 554. After that date, the Senate in Rome was never heard of again.

The Empire after Justinian

Justinian died in 565. He had ruled over more territory than any other emperor for 150 years. It’s an irony that his reconquest of the West ended the rule of Germanic kings in Italy who’d been looking after Roman institutions. It wouldn’t be until the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne that anything remotely resembling a Roman Empire would return to the West.

As for the Eastern Empire, it lasted another 900 years. But Justinian had overstretched its resources. Most of Italy was lost again by 570. Maurice Tiberius (582-602) managed to consolidate and hold on to the East, fighting back the Persians. But in the Balkans, he couldn’t hold back the Slav and Avar peoples which severely dented the Byzantine Empire’s prestige. More threats came from the Bulgars and the Muslims. In the eighth century, Leo III (717-741) and Constantine V (741-775) held back the Muslims. Constantine V also forced the Bulgars to a peace in 774. The coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in the West in 800 by the pope was another blow to Byzantine prestige.

A Macedonian dynasty of emperors, started by Basil I (867-886), heralded in a time when the Byzantines recovered their position. Basil made great advances in the East towards the Euphrates and used conversion to integrate

The Muslims

On the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632, the Islamic religion was confined to part of Arabia. But within 25 years, Islam had spread across the Middle East and Egypt. By 750, Muslims controlled all of the former Roman provinces of North Africa, Sicily, and most of Spain. By the late eleventh century, the Muslims were in Asia Minor (Turkey) and controlled almost all of it by 1250. The Byzantine Empire spent this time fighting an increasingly futile rearguard action, and in the end, Byzantium itself would fall to the Muslim Ottomans in 1453.

Slavic peoples into the Empire. Nicephorus II (963-969) took Cyprus and Antioch, which had been out of Byzantine hands for three centuries. John I Tzimisces (969-976) defeated the Russian prince Svjatoslav and advanced into Palestine, garrisoning bases all the way. By 1025, the Byzantine Empire was made up of what is now: southern Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.

Thanks to his epileptic fits, Michael IV, the Paphlagonian (1034-1041), relied on his brother John the Eunuch to run the Empire. John was a ruthless tax collector and the Slavs rebelled. Michael defeated the rebels, but the effort killed him. Byzantine power, increasingly depending on buying in mercenaries, was declining steadily.

The Great Schism of 1054

Under Constantine IX (1042-1055), the East and West churches finally split. Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Byzantine Patriarch Michael Cerularius, who excommunicated the Roman delegates to Byzantium (a patriarch was the name given to the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, the five chief sees of Christendom). The East and Western churches, now known as the Western Catholic Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox churches respectively, came to a sort of accommodation in 1274 when Michael VIII (1261-1282) recognised the papacy in order to get support for a war against his enemy, Charles of Anjou. But the real differences remained. Both claimed to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and it wasn’t until 1965 that the churches met and committed themselves to reconciliation, even though in the intervening centuries various members of the Eastern Orthodox Church had rejoined Rome and created the Eastern Catholic Church.

The toll of the Crusades

Under Constantine X (1059-1067), the Byzantine Empire suffered terrible setbacks but enjoyed a brief revival under Alexius I (1081-1118). The next problem came from the Crusaders. The Crusades were essentially armies that came from Western Europe to recapture the Holy Land from the control of non-Christians. That was the theory, but in practice a lot of the Crusaders were only really interested in fighting and looting. Here’s a quick rundown of the four Crusades:

● First Crusade of 1095-1099: During this Crusade, the Crusaders recovered Jerusalem and it culminated in an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire of the Germans.

● Second Crusade of 1144-1150: The Western crusaders had their eyes on Byzantium itself. Although the Eastern Emperor Manuel I (1143-1180) was able to hold them at bay, in doing so, he allowed the Normans to plunder Greece. The Byzantines suffered a total defeat at the Battle of Myriocephalon against the Turks, supported by the German Empire under Frederick Barbarossa (1155-1190), who was now an enemy.

● Third Crusade (1189-1192): This Crusade is known primarily for one of the crusaders - Richard I of England (1189-1199) - and was intended to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslim warrior Saladin. It didn’t, but an agreement was gained which allowed Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem.

● Fourth Crusade (1201-1204): This Crusade was a catastrophe for

Constantinople. Funded by the Venetians, the original plan was to invade Egypt to recover holy places, but the Venetians were determined to cash in on their investment and ordered the crusaders to sack Constantinople.

And that’s exactly what they did. The Byzantines fled, and the crusaders established a Latin dynasty of emperors in Byzantium.

The fall of Byzantium

Even though the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade, the last 250 years of the Byzantine Empire was a sorry tale of trying to fend off various would-be invaders. The last gasp at restoring the Empire came in 1261 when Michael VIII (1261-1282) retook Constantinople. His biggest threat came from the Norman Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, who was rounding up an alliance to attack the new Byzantium. Michael agreed to recognise the pope. This made the Byzantines furious (see the earlier section ‘The Great Schism of 1054’), but it did mean Pope Gregory X persuaded Charles of Anjou not to attack. Charles was overthrown in 1282.

It really was the last gasp. By the mid-1300s, all the Byzantines could do was watch what was left of their Empire disappear.

The end of the ancient World

The last Byzantine emperor was Constantine XI (1448-1453). It was his bad luck to preside over the end. The Sultan Muhammed II started his assault on Constantinople on 7 April 1453. Constantine heroically held out for seven weeks, but the city fell to a new discovery the great Roman Generals of the remote past, like Scipio Africanus and Caesar, or Emperors like Augustus and Vespasian, could never have dreamed of: gunpowder. The ancient world had met the modern world. Cannon fire breached the walls and, appropriately enough, Constantine died with a sword in his hand. His Empire consisted of little more than the city of Byzantium itself.

The Roman Empire, in its last guise as the Byzantine Empire, had finally fallen, 2,206 years after the legendary founding of Rome itself.

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