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The Fall of the Roman Empire in the West

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions on Thursday, 27 June 2013

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This edited article about the Roman Empire originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 306 published on 25 November 1967.

Sack of Rome 410, picture, image, illustration

The sack of Rome in AD 410 by the barbarian Alaric and his horde of Visigoths by Ron Embleton

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 B.C. Around this city was built the greatest Empire the world had known.

The grandeur of Rome was reflected in her conquests which, at their greatest extent (under the Emperor Trajan, A.D. 98-116) included Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain, Western Germany, Greece, Asia Minor, North Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine and the Mediterranean islands. The greatest of her rulers – Julius Caesar, Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine – rank among the greatest rulers of all time. Her scholars – Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Livy and Ovid – are still widely read.

Everyone has heard of the tremendous courage of the Roman legions and of the brilliant organisation of the Roman law and civil service. The bold and vigorous work of her artists and architects can still be seen in Rome, in the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the many temples and forums.

Of course, Rome went through hard times, and periods of bad government, but, in general, she remained strong while she was organised for expansion, and while the morale of her people was high. But having reached the fullest extent of her power, she outgrew her strength and her eventual decline was then inevitable.

Rome had internal problems. There was no fixed method of choosing the next ruler. The principle of hereditary monarchy was feared. This sometimes meant that a period of uncertainty and chaos attended the choice of a new Emperor. The imperial throne was within the reach of every ambitious soldier and many tried to win it.

Another growing problem for the Empire was the decline in the population of Italy. This basic pool of manpower for the Empire’s needs had been depleted by war.

What Rome lacked most of all was money to keep her civil administration and military system running smoothly. These had been the basis of her success.

The 3rd century A.D. marked a very low ebb for the Empire. There had been no large-scale loss of territory, but many districts had suffered from the backlash of war and famine, and plague had further decimated the population. Lands lay uncultivated, commerce was disrupted, and taxes collected with difficulty.

Two Emperors who did much to delay Rome’s progress along the downward path were Diocletian and Constantine the Great. Diocletian divided the imperial power between himself and three other men. The administrative reforms he put in motion were worthwhile but expensive, as were the four imperial courts, which cost a great deal to maintain.

Diocletian abdicated in 305 and 19 years later, Constantine, having defeated a number of rivals, gained sole power. Constantine’s regin is famous for two things: his adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire; and the building of a new capital, which he named Constantinople, on the Greek city of Byzantium.

Even from the time of Augustus, it had been the practice to allow barbarian tribes to settle within the frontiers of the Empire. This policy had been continued by succeeding Emperors. Barbarians found a place for themselves at court and made up a large proportion of the armies that were now fighting Rome’s battles for her.

The reason why these tribesmen turned so suddenly and so vigorously against the Empire at that particular moment was partly because it was so pitifully weak and partly because they themselves were being threatened from behind by the merciless and terrifying Huns. The barbarian people, called the Visigoths, appealed to Rome to be allowed to cross the Danube to escape from the Huns, but so many thousands of them crossed that it was impossible to settle them peaceably and they took up arms against Rome. The Roman Empire had now been divided into two parts, and the west Roman Emperor, Valens, was killed by the Visigoths on the field of Adrianople. The Visigoths then turned eastwards to Constantinople, then under the rule of Theodosius. Theodosius provided them with territory and they settled for a time peacefully. But when Theodosius died in A.D. 395, he was succeeded by his two ineffectual sons: Honorius in the west and Arcadius in the east. Honorius was under the thumb of an able barbarian general named Stilicho.

At about the same time, the Visigoths chose Alaric as their King. Alaric invaded Italy in A.D. 400, but was defeated by Stilicho. In 408, after Stilicho’s death, Alaric came back again and marched to Rome. The city was saved by the payment of a heavy ransom. Alaric wanted lands for his people, but Honorius would not grant him any. After further negotiations had failed, Alaric marched to Rome, took the city and sacked it. Shortly afterwards, Alaric died and the Visigoths left Italy.

Honorius died in 423, by which time a large part of the western Empire had passed out of his hands. Barbarians had settled in Spain and Gaul, and in 429, Gaiseric, King of the Vandals, crossed to north Africa. He built a fleet which terrorised Rome from the sea.

In 451, Attila the Hun invaded Gaul but, being defeated there, he turned to Italy instead, and his army ravaged the country. The Huns turned back from Rome without fighting and shortly afterwards, Attila died.

In Italy, the last of a line of shadowy Emperors was one named Romulus Augustulus. He was deposed by his German military chief, Odovacer, in the year 476. In that year the Roman Empire in the west is formally considered to have ended.

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