The Fall of
the Roman Empire
Fall of Rome...
The year is 476 CE, a Barbarian chieftain named Odoacer has just deposed the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus. Placing himself on the Roman throne, Odoacer becomes king of Italy and September 4, 476 becomes the day the Roman Empire came to an end (the western half anyhow).
The Roman Empire had been bleeding a slow death for nearly 300 years. Wracked by civil wars, crazy emperors, and an empire that had just become too big to maintain, the death of the empire was a long time coming.
It Don't Mean a Thing
If You Can't Pay for Your Bling
For the last 300 years, much of Western Europe had been conquered and ruled by Rome. Romans believed that it was their duty to spread civilization throughout the lands they conquered. First came the forts to secure the area. Then came the settlers who built towns that would one day grow into big cities such as London, Cologne, and Paris. These cities were connected by Roman roads. Roman civilization spread in the form of public forums, aqueducts, temples, and baths.
Those Romans loved their bling as much as the next guy and trade boomed during the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Not only did the Roman cities trade with one another, but exotic goods like ivory from sub-Saharan Africa, spices from India, and silk from China flowed along the famous Silk Road. The Roman emperors understood the value that trade could bring and were eager to construct some of the best-paved roads on the planet. These roads served a dual purpose: helping to move soldiers quickly and connecting the distant cities together in a vast (and very profitable) trade network carrying goods and people to distant parts of the empire. But hidden in that precious cargo was an unwanted guest: fleas infested with the plague. Between 160-180 CE plague killed as many as 25% of the Roman population. The result for the survivors was a nightmare. Not enough people were left to farm or serve in the army. So, the Romans began to look outside of their borders to solve their labor shortage: to the people just across the Rhine and Danube Rivers whom the Romans so snobbily called “barbarians”.
For centuries Roman emperors spent money like there was no tomorrow. Emperors often tried to win over the hearts and minds of the masses by pumping lots of gold into grand building projects, and gladiatorial games. A stingy emperor was an unpopular emperor. The first two centuries of the empire everything was going just swell as the Roman coffers grew fat with barbarian booty. The lifeblood of the empire had been in conquest of new territory. For almost the entire 800 years of its existence, the Roman Empire seemed to be at war with somebody. The newly conquered territories would be absorbed into the empire. New land meant new citizens, and new citizens meant more tax revenue flowing into Rome. Up until the reign of Caracalla (198-217 CE) “real Romans”, meaning those lucky enough to have been born in Italy, paid really low taxes –if any at all. The big money maker came from taxing the people of the conquered provinces and the merchants. But the good times were coming to an end. The emperors of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries raised taxes to pay for all of this spending. This obviously was not a popular move and a few emperors paid for it with their lives.
Soldiers Gone Wild
With over one million miles of border to guard— stretching from the British coast to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq)— the biggest hotspots for trouble were with the mighty Persian Empire in the east and the Germanic tribes who lived north of the Rhine River in the west. The beating heart of the empire was its army. Half of the entire Roman budget was in keeping the armed forces beefed up. In addition to keeping out marauding bands of barbarians who had been known to cross the border to loot Roman farms or set up illegal settlements, the Roman army also act as a police force in the Roman settlements.
The Roman legion never could seem to find enough recruits to help maintain order and so it turned to hiring barbarians such as the Goths and Vandals and promised them land and citizenship in return. As an army can tell you, the problem with hiring a mercenary army is that they are only loyal until the money runs out.
Even the dimmest Roman emperors knew that their first priority was to keep the troops happy. When Septimius Severus passed on the imperial torch to his sons he told them to take care of the soldiers and ignore everyone else. The emperor knew that the fate of the empire rested on the shoulders of its soldiers. The problem is the soldiers knew it too. In the past, the Roman legion had been famous for its strict military discipline. Roman legionnaires enlisted for decades and were expected to act professionally— or else. The punishment for neglect of duty was a good flogging. If a unit mutinied, every tenth man would be put to the sword, which is where we get the word ‘decimation’ from. The Roman legion was a well-oiled killing machine.
But by the third century, the legions had become too independent and discipline was breaking down. Many Roman citizens on the frontier wrote letters to the government begging him to do something about their own soldiers who were sent to protect them. Soldiers out for quick denarii began raiding other Roman villages demanding food and supplies from the people, without even so much as a ‘thanks’ for gratitude. Things got so bad in some places that Roman villagers began fleeing at the sight of their own soldiers!Many commanders were keen to look the other way when their men committed crimes in exchange for their loyalty. Some commanders were even afraid of their own troops. Soldiers had been known to kill unpopular leaders or at the very least refuse to follow their orders. Popularity also had another benefit: being named the next emperor. In 3rd century civil wars popped up like weeds as generals and emperors fought one another for control of the empire.
The Romans could be an elitist bunch. Roman writers often justified their conquests of Barbarian lands by saying that they were bringing civilization to the savages. To the Romans their way of life meant civilization and the more nomadic you were the more Romans saw you as an animal. It wasn’t hard to tell a Barbarian apart from a Roman. They often wore their hair long, wore facial hair (the men that is)wore body tattoos, both men and women wore pants, andthey may or may not have had a certain odor to them (depending on if those Roman sources can be believed). Barbarians and Romans had a sort of love-hate relationship. Sometimes the Barbarians would trade peacefully with the Romans and sometimes they would simply cross the border to do a snatch and grab operation. The Romans might retaliate if the Barbarians got out of hand by burning their settlements and carrying off the population as slaves. But when possible it was best for everyone to stay on friendly terms.
One of these friendly barbarians was a group known as the Goths, a people with mysterious origins, but by the time of the Romans, had settled into farming villages just north of the border in what is now Bulgaria in the lands north of the Danube River. The barbarians and Romans lived in peace for the most part. Roman merchants went into barbarian villages to trade and barbarians immigrated into Roman territory in search of a better life. Many men joined the army or worked as servants on the lands of wealthy patrician landowners. In fact so many Goths had moved in looking for work that the name Goth became a synonym for slave. One wealthy patrician wrote that every Roman household of even modest income had at least one Gothic slave. No matter how hard they might have tried to fit in, the barbarians were always seen as being second-class citizens.
Now the Romans world was turned upside down as hostile Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Saxons, Franks, and Vandals were in open rebellion against the Romans who had mistreated them for centuries. By 410 CE, a cunning Goth (not the Marilyn Manson type of goth) chieftain named Alaric entered the city of Rome and for three days gave his soldiers the green light to grab anything that wasn't bolted down, so to speak. The sacking of Rome left the already weak Roman Empire in shambles. In its place a new social order would emerge that would transform the history (and fairytales) of European culture.
Now that Rome was officially dead there was no one to maintain the roads, the aqueducts, the forums, and arenas. Many of the great monuments fell into disrepair. Even the great Coliseum was used as a trash dump and a place to graze animals. No centralized government meant that there was no one to pass laws, maintain order, and punish criminals. Travel became dangerous as bandits roamed the roads between cities and villages. Many people abandoned the cities to try their hand at farming. In these dark ages, strong barbarian leaders from the different Germanic tribes (the same ones who had been attacking Rome) began fighting one another for control of what was once Roman territory. Having no Roman army meant that soldiers hired themselves out as mercenaries, fighting for whoever would hire them.
Not Real Goths
The Great Divide
In 293, the Emperor Diocletian realized that something had to be done and so he came up with a brilliant plan that would divide the empire into two halves: Eastern Rome and Western Rome. Each half would be ruled by its own emperor; Diocletian would oversee the eastern half while his co-emperor supervised the goings-on of the west. Diocletian of course made sure that he remained Numero Uno and could replace the co-emperor on a whim. The plan was supposed designed to solve a fatal flaw that all big empires face: you can only grow so much until you get too big for your own good. The sheer size of the empire made policing it a nightmare. The army simply couldn't keep up.
Of course, we know that the Diocletian’s plan worked—for about 50 years—until things began to go horribly wrong. The two Roman emperors often clashed and tried to gain sole power for themselves. Seriously, no one saw that coming?
In 324 CE, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Constantine, built a new capital – Constantinople, named after himself (how original). The Western Emperor kept his capital in Rome. The problem with this is obvious. There was no longer just one empire, but two- both calling themselves Rome.
But not all Romes are created equal. The Eastern Empire, with its glitzy new showcase capital at Constantinople, was wealthy and powerful. With direct access to the trade routes from Asia and the Middle East it could collect the taxes needed to pay for new building projects and keeping those soldiers loyal. The western empire kept this up until the money ran out in the 4th century.
The western Roman emperors found their world falling apart. Unable to cash in on the trade with Asia, it found itself unable to pay its armies to defend its borders. Barbarian mercenaries who were never all that loyal to Rome in the first place, began to raid Roman settlements in search of quick loot. One by one the provinces in the frontier were ripped away by barbarian warlords who set up their own kingdom. Gaul (France), Hispania (Spain), and Britain were in the hands of barbarians like the Vandals and Saxons and Goths. What’s that beeping you ask? That’s the Western Roman Empirehas begun to flat line. The final disaster is just around the corner.
The End is Near!
Around 380 CE, the worst disaster struck in the form of barbarians so terrifying just hearing their name could make your blood freeze. We’re of course talking about the Huns. The Huns were the ancestors of that other Asian terror— the Mongols. Like their Mongol descendants, the Huns had no use for farming settlements or permanent towns. These people were sheep herders who lived in the saddle and, according to Roman sources, smelled like their herds too. It was also said that the sight of a house frightened the Huns. This is probably a stretch, but we do know that when the Huns rode into a settled farming village they killed all of the men, rounded everyone else up as slaves, and burned down the rest. What’s even more frightening is that nobody could stop them. In 380, tens of thousands of Goths fled south to the Danube River, the border of Rome. They were virtually begging for the Romans to let them in. And the Romans agreed…but with a few strings attached.
The Romans had a huge immigration crisis on their hands. refugees were set up into
By 400 CE, the Goths were fed up with their Roman allies and were now attacking Rome itself. These barbarians often had little to lose by attacking Rome. They had lost their land to the invading Huns and many were on the verge of starvation.
In 476, the Gothic King Odoacer overthrew the last Roman Emperor and made himself king of Rome. For three days, the Goths went on a looting spree that would make a Black Friday sale at Walmart pale in comparison. By the time the Goths left, the Western Roman Empire was dead.
Bring on the "Dark Ages"!
The Huns---like their Mongol cousins-- were nomads from the Asian Steppe who has been migrating west for the last few centuries. When they finally arrived in Eastern Europe it was like tossing a cat into a mouse party.
Ah Venice, with your romantic gondola rides down canals filled the sounds of accordion music and the smells of overpriced espresso.