1902 Encyclopedia > Rome > Ancient Roman History - From the Death of Theodosius to the Extinction of the Western Empire (395-476 A.D.)

(Part 12)



Period II: 284-476 A.D.
(b) From the Death of Theodosius to the Extinction of the Western Empire (395-476 A.D.)

Fall of the Western Empire

Through more than a century from the accession of Diocletian the Roman empire had succeeded in holding at bay the swarming hordes of barbarians. But, though no province had yet been lost, as Dacia had been lost in the century before, and though the frontier lines of the Rhine and the Danube were still guarded by Roman forts and troops, there were signs in plenty that a catastrophe was at hand.

Distress of the Provinces in the 4th Century

From all the writers who deal with the 4th century comes the same tale of declining strength and energy. From Lactantius to Zosimus we have one long series of laments over the depression and misery of the provinces. To meet the increased expenditure necessary to maintain the legions, to pay the hosts of officials, and to keep up the luxurious splendour of the imperial courts, not only were the taxes raised in amount, but the most oppressive and inquisitorial methods were adopted in order to secure for the imperial treasury every penny that could be wrung from the wretched taxpayer. The results are seen in such pictures as that which the panegyrist Eumenius draws of the state of Gaul (306-312) under Constantine, in the accounts of the same province under Julian fifty years later, in those given by Zosimus early in the 5th century, and in the stringent regulations of the Theodosian code, dealing with the assessment and collection of the taxes. Among the graver symptoms of economic ruin were the decrease of population, which seriously diminished not only the number of taxpayers, but the supply of soldiers for the legions ; the spread of infanticide ; the increase of waste lands whose owners and cultivators had fled to escape the tax collector; the declining prosperity of the towns; and the constantly recurring riots and insurrections, both among starving peasants, as in Gaul, and in populous cities like Antioch.6 The distress was aggravated by the civil wars, by the rapacity of tyrants, such as Maxentius and Maximus, but above all by the raids of the barbarians, who seized every opportunity afforded by the dissensions or incapacity of the emperors to cross the frontiers and harry the lands of the provincials. Constantine (306-312), Julian (356-360), and Valentinian I. (364-375) had each to give a temporary breathing space to Gaul by repelling the Franks and Alemanni. Britain was harassed by Picts and Scots from the north (367-370), while the Saxon pirates swept the Northern seas and the coasts both of Britain and Gaul. On the Danube the Quadi, Sarmatae, and above all the Goths, poured at intervals into the provinces of Pannonia and Mcesia, and penetrated to Macedon and Thrace. In the East, in addition to the constant border feud with Persia, we hear of ravages by the Isaurian mountaineers, and by a new enemy, the Saracens.6

Barbarians within the Empire

Even more ominous of coming danger was the extent to which the European half of the empire was becoming barbarized. The policy which had been inaugurated by Augustus himself of settling barbarians within the frontiers had been taken up on a larger scale and in a more systematic way by the Illyrian emperors of the 3d century, and was continued by their successors in the 4th. In Gaul, in'the provinces south of the Danube, even in Macedon and Italy, large barbarian settlements had been made—Theodosius in particular distinguishing himself by his liberality in this respect. Nor did the barbarians admitted during the 4th century merely swell the class of half-servile coloni. On the contrary, they not only constituted to an increasing extent tho strength of the imperial forces, but won their way in ever-growing numbers to posts of dignity and importance in the imperial service. Under Constantine the palace was crowded with Franks.1 Julian led Gothic troops against Persia, and tho army with which Theodosius defeated the tyrant Maximue (388) contained large numbers of Huns and Alans, as well as of Goths. The names of Arbogast, Stilicho, and Rufinus are sufficient proof of the place held by barbarians near the emperor's person and in the control of the provinces and legions of Rome ; and the relations of Arbogast to his nominee for the purple, Eugenius, were an anticipation of those which existed between Ricimer and the emperors of the latter half of the 5th century.

Barbaric Invasions

It was by barbarians already settled within the empire that the first of the series of attacks which finally separated the Western provinces from the empire and set up a barbaric ruler in Italy were made,2 and it was in men of barbarian birth that Rome found her ablest and most successful defenders, and the emperors both of East and West their most capable and powerful ministers.

Alaric and the Visigoths

The Visigoths whom Alaric led into Italy had been settled south of the Danube as the allies of the empire since the accession of Theodosius. The greater part of them were Christians at least in name, and Alaric himself had stood high in tho favour of Theodosius. The causes which set them in motion are tolerably clear. Like the Germans of the days of Caesar, they wanted land for their own, and to this land-hunger was evidently added in Alaric's own case the ambition of raising himself to the heights which had been reached before him by the Vandal Stilicho at Ravenna and tho Goth Rufinus at Constantinople. The jealousy which existed between the rulers of the Western and Eastern empires furthered hie plans. In the name of Arcadius,, the emperor of the East, or at least with the connivance of Arcadius':. minister Rufinus, he occupied the province of Illyricum, and from thence ravaged Greece, which according to the existing division of provinces belonged to the Western empire. Thence in 396 he retreated before Stilicho to Illyricum, with the command of which he was now formally invested by Arcadius, and which gave him the best possible starting point for an attack on Italy.3

Alaric in Italy

In 400 he led his people, with their wives and families, thoir waggons and treasure, to seek lands for themselves south of the Alps. But in this first invasion lie penetrated :io farther than the plains of Lombardy, and after the desperate battle of Pollentia (402) he slowly withdrew from Italy, his retreat being hastened by the promises of gold freely made to him by the imperial government. Not until the autumn of 408 did Alaric again cross the Alps. Stilicho was dead; the barbarian troops in Honorius's service had been provoked into joining Alaric by the insane anti-Teutonic policy of Honorius and his ministers, and Alaric marched unopposed to Rome. This time, however, the payment of a heavy ransom saved the city. Several months of negotiation followed between Alaric and the court of Bavenna. Alaric's demands were moderate, but Honorius would grant neither lands for his people nor the honourable post in the imperial service which he asked for himself. Once more Alaric sat down before Rome, and this time the panic-stricken citizens discovered a fresh mode of escape. Attalus, a Greek, the prefect of the city, was declared Augustus, and Alaric accepted the post of commander-in-chief. But the incapacity of Attalus was too much for the patience of his barbarian minister and patron, and after a few months' reign Alaric formally deposed him and renewed his offers to Honorius. Again, however, they were declined, and Alaric marched to the siege and sack of Rome (410). His death followed hard on his capture of Rome.

The Visigoths in Gaul

Two years later (412) his successor Ataulf led the Arisigoths to find in Gaul the lands which Alaric had sought in Italy. It is characteristic of the anarchical condition of the West that Ataulf and his Goths should have fought for Honorius in Gaul against the tyrants,6 and in Spain against the "Vandals, Suevi, and Alani; and it was with the consent of Honorius that in 419 Wallia, who had followed Ataulf as king of the Visigoths, finally settled with his people in south-western Gaul and founded the Visigothic monarchy.

Vandals, Suevi, and Alani in Spain

It was about the same period that the accomplished fact of the division of Spain between the three barbarian tribes of Vandals, Suevi, and Alani was in a similar manner recognized and approved by the paramount authority of the emperor of the West. These peoples had crossed the Rhine at the time when Alaric was making; his first attempt on Italy. A portion of the host led by Radagaisus actually invaded Italy, but were cut to pieces by Stilicho near Florence (405); the rest pressed on through Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees, and entered the as yet untouched province of Spain.

Death of Honorius (423 A.D.)

Honorius died in 423. His authority had survived the dangers to which it had been exposed alike from the rivalry of tyrants and barbaric invasion, and with the single exception of Britain no province had yet formally broken loose from the empire. But over a great part of the West this authority was now little more than nominal; throughout the major part of Gaul and in Spain the barbarians had settled, and barbarian states were growing up which still recognized the paramount supremacy of the emperor, but were in all essentials independent of his control. The question for the future was whether this relationship between the declining imperial authority and the vigorous young states which had planted the seeds of a fresh life in the provinces would be maintained.

Valentian III (423-455 A.D.)

The long reign of Valentinian III. (423-455) is marked by two events of first-rate importance,—the conquest of Africa by the Vandals and the invasion of Gaul and Italy by Attila.

Vandal Conquest of Africa

The Vandal settlement in Africa was closely akin in its origin and results to those of the Visigoths and of the Vandals themselves in Gaul and Spain. Here as there the occasion was given by the jealous quarrels of powerful imperial ministers. The feud between Boniface, count of Africa, and Aetius, the " master-general" or "count of Italy," opened the way to Africa for the Vandal king Gaiseric (Genseric), as that between Stilicho and Rufinus had before set Alaric in motion westward, and as the quarrel between the tyrant Constantine and the ministers of Honorius had paved the way for the Vandals, Sueves, and Alans into Spain. In this case too, as in the others, the hunger for more land and treasure was the impelling motive with the barbarian invader, and in Africa, as in Gaul and Spain, the invaders' acquisitions were confirmed by the imperial authority which they still professed to recognize. It was in 429 that Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, crossed with his warriors, their families and goods, to the province of Africa, a province hitherto almost as untouched as Spain by the ravages of war. Thanks to the quarrels of Boniface and Aetius their task was an easy one. The defenceless province was easily and quickly overrun. In 435 a formal treaty secured them in the possession of a large portion of the rich lands which were the granary of Rome, in exchange for a payment probably of corn and oil. Carthage was taken in 439, and by 440 the Vandal kingdom was firmly established.

Attila and the Huns

Eleven years later (451) Attila invaded Gaul, but this Hunnish movement was in a variety of ways different from those of the Visigoths and Vandals. Nearly a century had passed since the Huns first appeared in Europe, and drove the Goths to seek shelter wTithin the Roman lines. Attila was now the ruler of a great empire in central and northern Europe, and, in addition to his own Huns, the German tribes along the Rhine and Danube and far away to the north owned him as king. He confronted the Roman power as an equal; and, in marked contrast to the Gothic and Vandal chieftains, he treated with the emperors of East and West as an independent sovereign. His advance on Gaul and Italy threatened, not the establishment of yet one more barbaric chieftain on Roman soil, but the subjugation of the civilized and Christian West to the rule of a heathen and semi-barbarous conqueror. But Rome now reaped the advantages of the policy which Honorius had perhaps involuntarily followed. The Visigoths in Gaul, Christian and already half Romanized, rallied to the aid of the empire against a common foe.

Battle of Châlons

Attila, defeated at Chalons by Aetius, withdrew into Pannonia (451). In the next year he overran Lombardy, but penetrated no farther south, and in 453 he died. With the murder of Valentinian III. (455) the western branch of the house of Theodosius came to an end, and the next twenty years witnessed the accession and deposition of nine emperors.

Sack of Rome by the Vandals. Ricimer Supreme in Italy.

The three months' rule of Maximus is memorable only for the invasion of Italy and the sack of Rome by the Vandals under Gaiseric. From 456-472 the actual ruler of Italy was Ricimer, the Sueve. Of the four emperors whom he placed on the throne, Majorian (457-461) alone played any imperial part outside Italy. Ricimer died in 472, and two years later a Pannonian, Orestes, aspired to fill the place which Ricimer had occupied. Julius Nepos was deposed, and Orestes filled the vacancy by proclaiming as Augustus his own son Romulus.

Orestes the Panonian

But Orestes's tenure of power was brief. The barbarian mercenaries in Italy determined to secure for themselves a position there such as that which their kinsfolk had won in Gaul and Spain and Africa. Their demand for a third of the lands of Italy was refused by Orestes, and they instantly rose in revolt. On the defeat and death of Orestes they proclaimed their leader, Odoacer the Rugian, king of Italy.

Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus laid down his imperial dignity, and tho court at Constantinople was informed that there was no longer an emperor of the West.

King Odoacer

The installation of a barbarian king in Italy was the natural climax of the changes which had been taking place in the West throughout the 5th century. In Spain, Gaul, and Africa barbarian chieftains were already established as kings. In Italy, for the last twenty years, tho real power had been wielded by a barbarian officer. Odoacer, when he decided to dispense with the nominal authority of an emperor of the West, placed Italy on the same level of independence with the neighbouring provinces. But the old ties with Rome were not severed. The new king of Italy formally recognized the supremacy of the one Roman emperor at Constantinople, and was invested in return with the rank of " patrician," which had been held before him by Aetius and Ricimer. In Italy too, as in Spain and Gaul, the laws, the administrative system, and the language remained Roman. But the emancipation of Italy and the Western provinces from direct imperial control, which is signalized by Odoacer's accession, has rightly been regarded as marking the opening of a new epoch. It made possible in the West the development of a Romano-German civilization; it facilitated the growth of new and distinct states and nationalities; it gave a new impulse to the influence of the Christian church, and laid the foundations of the power of the bishops of Rome.

Chronological Table of the Roman Emperors

== TABLE ==

(H. F. P.)


2. Eumenius, Paneg. Vet., vii. For Julian's administration in Gaul see Ammianus, xv.-xvii.; Julian's own oration to the Athenian senate and people, Juliani Opera (ed. Hertlein, Leipsic, 1875) pp. 346 sq.; Zosimus, ii. 38. Of. Gibbon, ii. 333, 412 ; Jung, Roman. Land-schaften, 264, 265 ; Hodgkin, i. 600 sq.
3. Gibbon, ii. 323.
For the Bagaudte, see Gibbon, ii. 69, and Jung, op. cit., 264, where the authorities are given.
5 In 387 _o Hodgkin, i. 178.
6. Amm. Marcel., xiv. 4.

1 Amm., xv. 5.
2 Accounts of the leading ancient authorities for the period 395-476 will be found prefixed to the several chapters in Hodgkin's Italy and her Invaders, vols. i. ii. (Oxford, 1880), especially vol. i. pp. 234, 277. Among standard modern authorities are Gibbon, vol. iv.; Tillemont, Histoire des Empereurs, vol. v.; Milman, Latin Chris-tianity, vol. i.; Thierry, Trois Ministres des fils de Theodose (Paris, 1865), and Histoire d' Atlila ; Ranke, Weltgeschichte, vol. iv.,—compare especially his criticisms (iv. (2) 249 sq.) on Eusebius, Zosimus, Pro-copius, Jordanes, and Gregory of Tours. For the barbarian migrations see Wietersheim, Oesch. d. V olkerwanderung.
3 Hodgkin, op. cit., i. 275.
According to others, 403; Hodgkin, i. 310.
5 For these " tyrants " see an article by Prof. Freeman in the first number of the new English Historical Review (Jan. 1886), pp. 53-86.
6 For the treatment of Rome by Alaric, see Hodgkin, i. 370, with Gibbon, iv. 101, and Ranke, Weltgeseh., iv. 246. Allowance must be made for the exaggerations of the ecclesiastical writers.
The capital of the new state was Tolosa (Toulouse).
s Jung, Die Romanische Landschajten, 73 sq.
For the connexion between his movement and those of Alaric and of the Vandals, see Hodgkin, i. 282, 304 ; Gibbon, iv. 46.
The Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain by Constantine in 409; Jung, 305.

Hodgkin, ii. 233-290 ; Gibbon, iv. 176-188, 256; Jung, 183. The leading ancient authority is Procopius. See Ranke, iv. (2) 285 ; Papencordt, Gesch. d. Vandal. Herrschaft in Africa.
Prosper, 659 ; Ranke, iv. (1) 282.

For the decisive battle of Chalons, see Gibbon, iv. 234 sq.;
Hodgkin, ii. 138, note A, 161, where the topography is discussed.
4 Hodgkin, i. 531.
5 Majorian was the last Roman emperor who appeared in person in Spain and Gaul.
6 Hodgkin, i. 531.
The nationality of Odoacer is a disputed point. Hodgkin, i. 528 ; Ranke, iv. (1) 372.
Gibbon, iv. 298. The authority for the embassy to Zeno is Malchus (Müller, Fragm. Hist. Gr., iv. 119).
Gibbon, iv. 302 ; Jung, 66 sq.; Bryce, Holy Roman Empire, 24-33. See also ROMAN LAW.

The above section of the article ROME was written by: Henry Francis Pelham, M.A., LL.D., F.S.A.; President of Trinity College, Oxford, from 1897; Camden Professor of Ancient History, University of Oxford, from 1889; Tutor of Exeter College, 1869-90; University Reader Ancient History, 1887; Curator of Bodleian Library, 1892; author of Outlines of Roman History, The Imperial Domains and the Colonate, The Roman Frontier System.

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