The Fall of Rome

Patrick Neylan provides a quick overview on the disintegration and fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire.

Rome spent the fourth century AD trying to organise itself to counter the growing threat from the Germans in the north and the Persians in the east. Recognising that one man could not run the empire alone, the Romans tried various forms of division until Constantine, the emperor who made Christianity the state religion, founded a ‘New Rome’ in AD 330 that bore his name: Constantinople. The empire gradually became accustomed to having two emperors and two capitals, until the split became permanent after the death of Theodosius in 395.

The separation happened at an inopportune time for the Western Empire and a good time for the East. The Emperor, Julian, had led an expedition to Persia in 363 that ended in disaster. Yet the humiliation on the Persian frontier did lead to a lasting peace, which, while unfavourable to the Romans, at least gave them a breathing space to tackle their problems in Europe. While the Romans tried to deal with the arrival of the Huns, the Persians were distracted by the threat from the White Huns on their eastern frontier.

The Huns and the Ostrogoths

The Huns had spent nearly four centuries vying with the Han dynasty in China before finally being defeated and moving westwards in the 3rd century, where they lived quietly in the area of modern Kazakhstan. Meanwhile the German tribes, frustrated in their efforts to break into the Roman Empire, had begun to expand eastwards. The most ambitious of them, the Ostrogoths, slowly spread across the Ukrainian steppe until they encountered the Huns in the area of modern Volgograd (which was, ironically, the limit of German eastward expansion in the 20th century, when the city was known as Stalingrad).

The reaction of the Huns was brutal and swift. The armies of the Ostrogoths were annihilated and a century of German expansion was obliterated in the space of three years. The Huns drove westward until they reached the Roman frontier on the Danube, enslaving or displacing the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Gepids and Lombards. Some fled north into Germany proper while others sought refuge across the Danube in the Eastern Empire.

The Romans, never the most respecting of barbarian cultures, mistreated the refugee Visigoths so badly that they rebelled. In 378, the Goths destroyed an East Roman army at the battle of Adrianople after which the Visigoths roamed the Roman Empire’s European provinces at will, marching into Italy shortly after other German tribes had crossed the Rhine into Gaul in 407.

The Sacking of Rome

Over the next 50 years, these new arrivals put their military prowess to good use, either serving the empire as mercenaries or carving out their own territories. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 before staking out their own kingdom in South-Eastern France and later Spain. The Suevi took a corner of Spain and the Vandals crossed into Northern Africa and made Carthage the capital of their new kingdom.

The Vandals sacked Rome in 455, a far more brutal affair than the Visigoths’ effort forty-five years earlier, and their name remains a byword for mindless destruction.

Meanwhile the Franks and Burgundians set themselves up in Gaul while isolated tribes of Angles and Saxons began their slow, piecemeal conquest of Britain, which the Romans had abandoned in 410. The only respite for the crumbling Roman Empire came with the collapse of the Hunnish empire following the death of Attila in 453.

The King of Italy

As the empire’s European territories fell away, the barbarian general in charge of Italy, Odoacer, deposed the last puppet emperor in 476 and set himself up as King of Italy. Odoacer is considered the first non-Roman to have ruled all of Italy. The imperial regalia were sent to Constantinople, and the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist.

Yet the Eastern Empire survived. Constantinople guarded the waterway of the Bosphorus and kept the invaders out of its richest lands in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Barbarian generals gained power in the city but were never strong enough to threaten the position of the emperor. While the cities of the West declined, urban life continued in the East and a form of Roman civilization survived there for another thousand years.

Patrick Neylan

See also Cincinnatus – the hero who saved Rome and
Marcus Tullius Cicero: A Life in Letters