Destruction of the Roman Empire

Ancient Period, Feature

Teutonic Tribes Spread Out Through Europe

The history of civilization is, in reality, an account of the dominance of one nation after another. A nation rises to great peaks of power and civilization, establishes an empire over all the second-rate nations within its reach, passes through a relatively short period of majestic greatness, and then begins to decline towards mediocrity, or a position of no account, or annihilation. From time to time during this downwards progress, there are moments of apparent rebirth, or rather a renewal of strength and virility, which seem to hold the seeds of hope. Such upsurges of power, of new vigor, invariably prove to be the last flickers of authority condemned to extinction; their life is short, and when they die out, they leave the crumbling edifice of empire weaker than ever.

The great and magnificent Empire of Greece, which reached its peak of greatness during the period when Pericles of Athens was at the head of affairs, had already lost all claims to greatness when its neighbor to the west began to emerge as potential Imperial power. From the foundation of their city in 753 B.C., the Roman people had been compelled by an ever-increasing need for living-space to extend their frontiers. In a long and slow process covering seven hundred years, they conquered near neighbors and distant peoples, continuously extending the area over which their authority was effective. Simultaneously with this territorial aggrandizement, they developed a civilization which formed a stable foundation on which to build the edifice of the empire so that when they were at the peak of their authority they were also the leaders of culture.

The date at which Rome may be said to have assumed Imperial status was 31 B.C. In this year, the young triumvir Octavian defeated at Actium his colleague Antony, and Antony’s ally, Cleopatra, who had made a bid for supreme power. Octavian’s other colleague Lepidus, had already been forced by him into seclusion, so the Roman world, after years of struggle, was at last in the hands of a single man.

Octavian’s authority was unchallengeable, for he commanded both the Army and Rome’s financial resources. Assuming the name Augustus, which presently became the title of Rome’s chief ruler, by wielding an iron fist in a velvet glove, he gradually made his position unassailable and towards the end of a long reign he held sway over Spain, France and the Low Countries to the Rhine, Italy and the territories between the Danube and the Alps, the whole Balkan peninsula including Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine, and the North African coast from Egypt to the Atlantic. Such were the forces at his command that no barbarian was tempted to challenge him; and when he marched none but the Germans was able to resist him.

Augustus was without doubt the greatest among Rome’s rulers, and in no branch did his genius excel more than in organization and administration. He formulated for Rome a method of government which, if she adhered to it, could not fail to maintain her Imperial greatness.

Before he set about expanding his Empire he indulged Rome in a period of peace which lasted for almost twenty years. Peace automatically brought prosperity, which was promoted by the new security and freedom of intercourse in the whole Mediterranean area, an intercourse stimulated by the great road-construction scheme which Augustus inaugurated throughout the Empire.

One of the means by which he persuaded the Romans to accept his rule was an astute use of traditional religion. The Romans were an inherently pious people, and when Augustus encouraged the performance of ancient rites and the restoration of crumbling temples, he completely won over the large majority of his ordinary subjects. Gradually he introduced an innovation. On the death of Lepidus in 12 B.C., he took over the office of chief priest as well, and as time passed began to hint that the Roman ruler was, in fact, divine. However, he was not officially proclaimed a god until after his death.

This occurred in A.D. 14, and though he hoped he had introduced a dynasty which would automatically succeed him, he was followed by four rulers, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, who enveloped the Imperial throne in murders, persecutions, vengeances and suicides. After the suicide of Nero in A.D. 68 there were no fewer than four emperors in one year, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. The latter founded a new ruling house, and in the ten years of his government (during which his son and successor Titus captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70) he was able to restore some kind of stability to Rome and Roman rule.

But the glory of the age of Augustus was not to be regained until the reign of Antoninus Pius and his successors, between A.D. 138 and 180, which was a period of widespread prosperity, comfort and happiness unknown at any other time in Rome’s history.

This splendid period came to an end with the assassination of Commodus in 192, and once again a struggle for power resulted in a rapid succession of Emperors, most of whom met violent ends. The last of this line of Emperors was Caracalla, who attempted to win laurels in the East. When he was murdered, in 217, he was succeeded by his fourteen-year-old second cousin, the hereditary priest of the Syrian Sun-god, El Gabal, who took the name of Elagabalus and who introduced into Rome’s history one of the most curious and fantastic administrations imaginable. When he was murdered in 222, he was followed by his brother Severus Alexander, and though Alexander held the title of Emperor, the real ruler was his mother, Julia Mamaea, a very wise woman.

The murders of mother and son in 235 were followed by many other troubled successions. In the space of half a century, twenty-two Emperors were recognized in Rome, and as many more in the provinces.

By this time, it will come as no surprise to learn that the Roman Empire had gone into a decline. This was made inevitable by the continuous struggle for power which prevented any stability from being brought to administration and organization. Nevertheless, there came to the Imperial throne from time to time men of parts determined to fight back.

Roman authority reached its lowest ebb in A.D. 260. It was inevitable that the disorder into which the Empire had fallen should beckon Rome’s enemies, the most persistent of whom were still the Germans at the east and west ends of the Danube frontier. Dacia had to be abandoned to them by Decius, while, under his successor Valerian, the Goths, Alamanni and the Franks penetrated as far as Asia Minor, Spain and the Auvergne respectively. It was during peace talks with the Sassanid king Shapur that Valerian was kidnapped and presently died in captivity.

His son and successor, Gallienus, came to the throne in Rome’s darkest hour so far in her history, and he faced many raids by the Goths as far as Asia Minor and by the attempts of many usurpers, this period is known to historians as that of The Thirty Tyrants, to seize the Imperial power. Temporary regimes came into being, and included an Empire of the Western Provinces Postumus, and a large state governed from the Syrian caravan oasis of Palmyra, All these difficulties with which he was beset did not deflect Gallienus from his determination to bring the Empire back along the road to glory.

As a constant reminder to the people of his intention to this end, he had the slogan Peace Everywhere inscribed on his coins. In some strange way, the journey back was initiated and in the face of superhuman odds the goal was achieved, chiefly by the operations of four Emperors, all appointed by the Army.

Claudius II annihilated the Goths at Naissus; Aurelian, the Restorer of the World, decided to give up all claim to Dacia, but restored the Danube frontier, and overcame the fourth invasion by the Alamanni. In addition, he defeated the highly intelligent and scholarly Queen Zenobia, who from her state of Palmyra had seized the Eastern provinces, and in the same year, 273, he put an end to the Empire of Western Europe. Probus, who followed him, drove the Alamanni and Franks out of seventy towns which they had captured, while Probus’s successor, Carus, pushed the Sassanians, who ruled over a vast empire covering the whole of modern Arabia and Pakistan, back beyond Ctesiphon, in Iraq.

The disasters which had overtaken Rome during the last century and more, for one reason or another did not affect the Eastern provinces, which did not share in the decline and fall of the Western. One reason was that they suffered fewer invasions, and as a result they had little difficulty in maintaining their trade. Damage in the west became much more severe as the insecurity became permanent.

To support their efforts to stop the rot, the Emperors imposed increasingly heavy taxes, which they insisted should be paid in pure coin or bullion, and at the same time they depreciated the value of the silver currency. This policy of desperation was bound to have disastrous results in the long run, and in the middle of the third century, a total lack of confidence in the monetary policy caused the whole economic system to collapse. This brought about widespread poverty and misery.

And in their misery men began to look for comfort in religion. Christianity, with its gospel of kindliness, its sympathy for the poor and for women, was particularly attractive, and by degrees it drew ahead of other religions. So numerous did the Christians become and so widespread their communities, that when an Emperor had needed to distract the attention of the people from their miseries he organized persecutions of the Christians.

By the time Carus died in 284, the impossible had been achieved, and in form at least the Empire may be said to have been reunited. As this was what the last four Emperors had fought for, it may appear a little strange to find Diocletian, who, after Augustus, was the greatest administrative genius in the history of the Empire, should have decided that it was too large a unit to be governed effectively from one centre; though it must be said that by the new administrative arrangements he made, he also hoped to secure the succession and obviate the bloody struggles which had so marked the election of a new Emperor in the past.

The Empire was divided into two major parts, the Eastern provinces forming the Empire of the East, and the Western the Empire of the West, and over each part an Emperor, co-equal with his colleague, ruled. These two major divisions were then subdivided each into two, and over one part a Caesar governed. The Caesar was to succeed his Emperor when the latter died. The arrangement fell down, however, when Diocletian abdicated in 305, and Constantine, after some years of struggle with his colleague in the East, Licinius, seized the power.

Constantine’s rule brought to the Empire one of those upsurges of renewed vitality to which we referred in our early paragraphs. Two measures of Constantine, in particular, heralded in a new era. In 312 he accepted Christianity, and accorded to Christian’s freedom of worship; while at the Council of Nicaea in 325 he made Christianity the chief religion of the Empire, and thus firmly established it in Europe.

Secondly, he realized that Rome was no longer central or capable of being easily defended from threats by the barbarians of the north, so he decided to convert the ancient city of Byzantium into the New Rome, which he renamed Constantinople. This move undermined the influence of Rome as the secular capital of the Empire; though later it was to acquire a new significance by becoming the headquarters of the Pope, the head of the Christian Church, which thus made it the spiritual capital of Christendom.

Constantine died in 337, and his three sons divided the Empire between them. Constantius became Emperor in the East, Constantine II Emperor of Illyria, and Constans Emperor of the West. A year after this partition Constans attacked and killed Constantine II and annexed his territories. This was the beginning of the renewal of the decline of the Western Empire, for the struggle for power started all over again.

The civil strife in the Empire tempted the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Goths, together with the Huns, to turn their attention to the Empire. It began in 365 when Procopius raised a revolt in Constantinople against the Emperor of the East, Valens. His revolt was only overthrown by the arrival of the Eastern Army from Syria. But he had called in the Goths to aid him, and Valens decided to cross the Danube on a punitive expedition. He drove the Gothic chief Anhanaric into the Transylvanian mountains and enforced peace.

Then came a cataclysm. The Huns began to move from the east of the Caspian Sea, and overthrew the Alan’s and the Ostrogoths; in 375 they defeated the Visigoths on the banks of the Dniester. This defeat resulted in the greater part of the tribe fleeing to the Danube and clamouring to be allowed to enter the Empire. Valens decided to grant their request on terms. It was a tremendous decision to allow so many former enemies to pass inside the Imperial defences, but there were empty territories which they could develop in Moesia, and, perhaps more important to Valens, they would provide welcome recruits for the army. Besides, they were largely Christians.

Provided they gave up their arms, they might come, Valens told them. But once they were across the Danube the arrangements broke down, for corrupt Imperial officials, in return for bribes, allowed them to keep their weapons.

It was inevitable that under these conditions a struggle should develop between the Visigoths and their hosts. War broke out, and they were joined by the Ostrogoths. Moesia and Thrace were attacked and laid waste and their population carried off as captives; but in the cities, the Roman troops held their own.

The enemy, however, was too strong to be overcome by the local forces, so Valens recalled an army from the eastern frontiers, and his nephew Gratian marched to his aid with his army from the West. Valens, who had reached Adrianople by the end of July, 378, decided most unwisely not to wait for Gratian to arrive, and on 9 August gave battle.

He was completely out-manoeuvred by the opposing armies led by Fritigern, the Visigoth leader; his cavalry were outmatched by the Ostrogoths cavalry, and his infantry mishandled. His defeat was inevitable, and he fell with two-thirds of his army.

This catastrophe was a major one, for paradoxically it marked not the fall of the Empire in the East, but of that in the West. For the Goths, now inside the Empire, turned their attention westwards, while the Eastern Empire continued to flourish until the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Byzantine Empire, as it later came to be known, collapsed with the capture of its capital, Constantinople, by the Turks in 1453.

Succeeding Western Emperors tried desperately to remedy the catastrophe, and though some may be said to have succeeded in part, they could never retrieve the former power. For the next hundred years the Empire crumbled inexorably away as the northern people gradually took possession of it. The Goths overran Italy and Gaul; the Franks and Alamanni seized the Rhineland’s; Vandals and Germans established themselves in Spain; the Vandals in North Africa.

The definitive end came when the young boy-emperor Romulus Augustulus, elected in 475, was captured in the following year at Ravenna, by King Odovacar, a German military leader, who thereafter became King of Italy. By an ironic fate, the last Emperor of the once mighty Roman Empire in the West bore the same name as the founder of the city, the people and the nation from which that Empire had sprung.