Brief History of the World Wiki
Decline of the Roman Empire
Period Classical Antiquity
Dates 363-476 AD
Preceded by
Christian Roman Empire
Followed by
End of Classical Antiquity
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls—the World.

–Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

The Decline of the Roman lasted from about 363 AD until 476 AD. It began with the end of the dynasty founded by Constantine the Great, which ushered in a critical stage that would ended with the fall of the Western Empire. It then ended when a Germanic general deposed the puppet boy Emperor Romulus Augustulus, which commonly designates the end of Classical Antiquity and beginning of the Middle Ages.

The sixty-year period of strong rule from Emperor Claudius Gothicus until Constantine the Great proved merely a pause in what can been seen as three-century-long period of decline for the Roman Empire. After 364, the unity of the Empire was in large measure an illusion; the Eastern and Western halves were only once more ruled by the same man and then only briefly. Their institutions diverged further and further. The crisis began in the 370s when pressure from the Huns, a formidable nomadic people from the central Asian steppes, began to spark a multi-generational migration of Germanic tribes of the region into Roman territory. In 376, the Visigoths were allowed to cross the Danube and take refuge in the Empire. This was a new departure; earlier barbarian incursions had been driven out or absorbed, but this was an entire Germanic nation settled within the frontiers. It soon led to trouble, that culminated in one of the most consequential Roman defeats in all their long history; the Battle of Adrianople. But even in the wake of this disaster, the Romans continued to fight among themselves; Emperor Theodosius, the man who stabalised things after Adrianople, fought two destructive civil wars in order to place his own ineffectual sons on both thrones. The irreversible territorial losses began in 406, when the Rhine frontier, denuded of soldiers sent to defend Italy against other barbarian, gave way and the Vandals and Alans flooded into Gaul, eventually reaching Spain. A year later Britain was essentially abandoned. Three years after that, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years by the Visigoths, who eventually settled as the new kingdom in south-western Gaul. Perhaps the mortal blow to the Western Empire came in 435, when the Vandals seized North Africa; for centuries, the Mediterranean had been a "Roman Lake", but now a hostile power roamed the shipping lanes, disrupting the West's economic basis. The Vandals were to stay there for nearly a century, and in 455 they too crossed to sack Rome, leaving their name to history as a synonym for mindless destructiveness. It is telling that when the greatest of the Hun assaults on Gaul came in 451 under Attila, it was turned back not by Roman, but by an army made-up primarily of Visigoths defending their new homeland. In 476, the last Western Emperor was deposed by a Germanic warlord, Odovacar. We should be clear that it was only West that had fallen; indeed the Eastern Roman Empire would endure for centuries, even if historians henceforth unhelpfully refer to it henceforth as the Byzantine Empire. Thus the map of Europe gradually settled into a new pattern, with the so-called Barbarian Kingdoms of the west, and the remnant of the Empire in the east centred at Constantinople.


Decline and Fall of the Western Empire[]

Edward Gibbon offered an explanation for the fall of the Western Roman Empire in his highly influential book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to him, it succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to internal decline and the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. He also began an ongoing controversy about the role played by Christianity.

The overthrow of the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 AD was considered an unremarkable event at the time, but it has since become generally accepted as the formal end of Western Roman Empire. What happened, put it succinctly, is that "barbarian" incursions from the north, although they had been a feature of most of imperial history, this time led to political breakdown: armies which did not call themselves Roman took over the different western provinces and carved out kingdoms for themselves. Historians have tried to explain the reasons why it happened ever since. Before discussing the root causes, we must be clear from the outset that half of the empire, the Eastern Empire ruled from Constantinople, carried on without major problems during the period of collapse in the west. Indeed the Eastern Empire - which by tradition is henceforth referred to as the Byzantine Empire - continued another thousand years, until the conquest of its last remnants by the Ottoman Turks in the mid-15th-century. Then the Ottomans used some of the basic fiscal and administrative structures of the Roman/Byzantine past in their own state-building, so in some senses, the Roman Empire lasted until the First World War, when the Ottoman state collapsed.

Inevitably, the decline and fall of something as monumentally complex as the Western Empire cannot be explained by a few simple causes. The prominent ancient historian Alexander Demandt has enumerated no less than 210 different causes. Yet most explanations would emphasis five broad factors, that each played off one another: political, economic, military, and social. Put simply, the political factors means that the government structure that Diocletian had established to stablise the Empire in the late 3rd-century, basically seized-up. At the top, there were a long series of wretched Emperors, with perhaps only Theodosius standing out as an exception, who declined through the stage from supremely powerful to being merely the equals with barbarian warlords, and then finally to their puppets. Meanwhile beneath that, the imperial bureaucracy slid deeper into disorder and corruption, and became increasingly unattractive to men of merit as a career. Even as the political system was crumbling, the economic crisis of the 3rd-century resumed in the 5th, with some subtle differences. It became more and more difficult to raise enough revenue to pay for the military machine. As spiralling inflation resumed, the very wealthy were somewhat insulated from the effects thanks to the the stable gold currency introduced by Constantine, while the middle classes were virtually wiped-out. To avoid the taxman, the super rich turned their agricultural estates into self-sufficient little fiefdoms, rather than producing for the market. With the poor masses now shouldering all the burdens of the state, they increasingly turned to rich patrons for relief, and in effect becoming serfs. Then of course there are the military factors. The legions had been the backbone of the Empire for a millennium, but Roman citizens were increasingly unwilling to serve; military life was harsh, dangerous, and offered few rewards. As a consequence, the imperial authorities increasingly turned to Germanic mercenaries. In effect, the Empire no longer had a national army; it could only pay for protection, an unsustainable model of self-defence.

Any discussion of why the Western Empire fell would be incomplete without considering the social factors. The Roman world had many internal differences, but on one level it was strikingly homogeneous and one of the great geniuses of the Romans had always been their ability to incorporate new peoples into their ethnically diverse Empire, without being unduly weighed down by racial prejudice. But in the 5th-century, the Romans found themselves incapable of accepting their new Germanic population. There was a tradition dating back to at least the 1st-century AD of settling the Germanic invaders in corners of the Roman world, preferably after defeating them, and then using them as army recruitment grounds, at least until they lost their non-Roman characteristics. This "Germanisation" of the legions would only increase in time. During the Crisis of the 3rd-Century, it had not been Italians who led to the rebirth of Rome, but a group of Illyrian generals of peasant stock. As Rome reached a new crisis, the most capable men of the age - Stilicho, Aleric, Aetius, Genseric, Ricimer - were all Germanic stock, but thet found themselves either treated as antagonists or denied access to real imperial power simply because of their race. These social forces were exacerbated by the religious factors. Few historians now accept Edward Gibbon's argument that Christianity was a major cause of the decline and fall of the Western Empire, but it certainly did not help its longevity. The early Christian Church persecuted of pagan and heretical groups with a zeal unheard of in the earlier Roman times; religious tolerance except where it awoke public disorder had always been a hallmark of Roman rule. At a time when the Roman world needed unity, Christian dogmatism acted as a divisive force.

Finally we must consider why the Eastern Empire did not fall. The fate of the Western Empire was partially sealed during the reigns of Valens and Valentinian, when the East-West division became firmly entrenched as the permanent form of imperial administration. This made the Empire more easily governable in the short-term, but over time the two halves drifted apart. The East had many advantages, especially once a lasting peace had been established with Sassanid Persia in 380s. It had huge tracts of territory (Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt) that were largely untroubled by foreign invaders that acted as its economic engine, while at the same time access to the lucrative trade routes to and from the east (the Silk Road) were maintained. The court at Constantinople was thus much much wealthier than the Western court. Economic strength allowed the imperial bureaucracy to function far better, providing a lucrative career path for capable men; it would eventually evolve into the justifiably famous Byzantine bureaucracy. Wealth furthermore allowed the East to build better defenses on its one troubled frontier on the Danube, and to pay foreign mercenaries or placate barbarians with tribute. When the Huns, a formidable nomadic people from the central Asian steppes, arrived on the north side of the Danube River in the 370s, it sparked a multi-generational migration of the Germanic tribes of the region into Roman territory. The strength of the East essentially acted as a funnel, driving barbarians westwards into the Western Empire.

Valens and Valentinian (364-375 AD)[]

Two solidus of Valens and Valentinius

When Emperor Julian was killed during a campaign against Sassanids in 363 AD, a large Roman army was left deep in Persian territory. The army hastily elected the rather obscure officer Jovian as Emperor, who had little choice but to accept an unfavourable peace with the Sassanids, ceding territorial gains dating all the way back to Trajan; Armenia once again becoming a neutral buffer-state. To the honour crazed Romans, the terms were a humiliating capitulation. On his way back to Constantinople, Jovian desperately tried to shore-up his support, by reestablishing the religious primacy of Christianity, but the situation was hopeless. He was found poisoned in his tent shortly before reaching the capital, most likely after committing suicide. The role of choosing the new Emperor fell once again to legions, who elevated the well-respected general Valentinian (364-375) to the throne. As Emperor, one of his first acts was to elevate his brother Valens (364-378) as co-emperor; Valentinian would administer the Western Empire, while Valens took control over the Eastern Empire. This decision was hardly remarkable for the times, for imperial power-sharing now a well-established practice. But it proved in retrospect a milestone in Roman history. After 364, the east-west division of the Roman Empire became firmly entrenched as the permanent form of imperial administration; it would only be reunited once more, under Theodosius, and then only for a few months. Gradually the two halves would begin to inexorably drift apart, and by 395, they were acting less as halves of one empire, and more as rivals.


The years under Valens and Valentinian were a time of near ceaseless internal revolts and foreign incursions. Their election was almost immediately disputed by a cousin of Julian, Procopius (d. 366 AD), who had been considered a likely heir but was overlooked. In 365, he managed to bribe two legions assigned to Constantinople and sieze control of the Eastern capital. Valens was forced to turn his attention from keeping the Sassanids at bay, to dealing with the usurper. It took 12 months but Procopius was eventually defeated on the battlefield, and his regime crumbled; he was eventually delivered to justice by his own men and executed, with his head was sent to Valentinian in west for inspection. The rest of Valens reign was spent incessantly rushing between raids by the Goths on the lower Danube, and the machinations of Sassanid king in the east. Meanwhile in the west, Valentinian dealt his own series of uninterrupted crises. He himself spent much of his reign defending Gaul against repeated attacks across the Rhine by Germanic tribes, especially the Alemanni. He relied heavily on his right-hand-man, the brilliant general Theodosius the Elder (d. 375). Theodosius was first dispatched to Britain in 367 AD, where the depleted legions were coming under increasingly coordinated attacks from the Picts in the north, and seaborne Franks, Angles, and Saxons on the southern coast; the Angles and Saxon were tribal groups from the Jutland Peninsula (modern day Denmark), and would eventually be the inheritors of Roman Britain. Then in 372, Theodosius was sent to North Africa to suppress a revolt under the local governor; the province had long suffered from neglect, corrupt officials, and raids from the Moorish tribesmen of the interior. In 375, Valentinian was on the Rhine frontier when he died; according to the story, he literally burst a blood vessel in a rage, while trying to negotiate a peace treaty with a Germanic tribe. Valentinian is often considered the last truly capable ruler that the Western Empire would have.

Valens and Gratian (375-383 AD)[]

The Huns, the formidable nomadic people who played a crucial role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Valentinian was succeeded as Western Emperor by his teenage son Gratian (375-383 AD), but the new imperial arrangement barely had a chance to settle in; a storm-cloud was brewing in the north. The Huns were a formidable nomadic people who originated on the central Asian steppes. There were the first of a long line of such nomads who would dramatically effect European history, among them the Avars of the 5th-century, the Turks of the 11th-century, and most famously the Mongols of the 13th-century. The Huns were an enemy unlike anything before encountered by the Romans or the Germanic tribes, seeming to have been bred for warfare. They could use the bow from horseback with devastating effect, moved with extraordinary rapidity, and preferred to defeat their enemies by deceit, surprise attacks, and cutting off supplies. By the 370s, the Huns had migrated westward, establishing themselves on the Hungarian Plateau, where they began conquering Germanic tribes living outside of Roman borders, Many others were displaced from their homelands. In the summer of 376, a massive number of Visigoths, the western branch of the Goths, arrived on the Danube River appealing for shelter within Roman territory. The resettlement of "barbarian" tribes within the Empire was nothing new, indeed it had frequently been imperial policy all the way back to the reign of Tiberius in the early 1st-century. This process accelerated during the Crisis of the 3rd-Century, and then was fully embraced by Constantine the Great and his successors. Suitably pacified Germanic tribes were moved inside the Roman frontiers, as a means to eliminate them as a threat, to repopulate troubled regions, and to provide a fertile recruiting-ground for the legions. In the usual resettlement process, the tribes numbered in the thousands, were disarmed, were dispersed to live in small groups, and were obliged to adhere to Roman law.


The resettlement of the Visigoth was on a scale never seen before; not thousands, but tens of thousands. With the legions on the Danube already undermanned, what began as a controlled resettlement, quickly descended into a massive mismanaged influx of perhaps 200,000 men, women and children. This was an entire Visigoth nation living within the Roman frontieers, keeping their own laws, their own religion, and their own leadership; the chieftain Fritigern (d. 381 AD). The situation was then further exacerbated by unscrupulous Roman officials. The Roman state was to provide the newcomers with food until land was officially allocations, but officials instead sold it to the Visigoths at exorbitant prices; there are reports of starving Gothic families selling their children into slavery. While Valens' mobile forces were tied down on the Persian frontier attempting to withdraw from the harsh terms imposed on Emperor Jovian, in early 377 the Visigoths revolted. For the next two years, they cut a swathe of destruction across Thrace, while fighting a series of running battles with the Romans, with no clear winner. By 378, Valens himself was ready to march west with his legions, but the result was the disastrous Battle of Adrianople (378). Valans was justifiably cautious, first appealing to his western colleague to send additional legions. But the legions were delayed and delayed again; as soon as Gratian withdrew them from the Rhine, Germanic tribes would seize the opportunity to raid Gaul, and the legions were forced to return to deal with the incursions. In the end, Valans caved to the pressure of the local populace clamoring for action, and advanced to confront the Visigoths on his own, with the bulk of veterans of the eastern Roman army, some 25,000 men in all. Approaching the Gothic encampment a few miles north of Adrianople, the two armies seemed evenly march. The chieftain Fritigern made several attempts to delay the battle, repeatedly sending envoys to discuss peace. Eventually the battle began when the Roman cavalry, yearning for battle after months of delay, advanced without orders, and soon the two armies were joined. But Fritigern had been stalling for a reason. The Visigoth cavalry were scattered across the countryside foraging for supplies. For several hours, the Visigoths held the Romans until the unaccounted for cavalry suddenly arrived and crashed into the Roman rear. The result was a rout; only about a third of the Romans managed to escape the slaughter and Valens himself was lost in the fighting. He thus became the second Emperor to die on the battlefield, following the ignoble example set by Decius. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the Battle of Adrianople. According to the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus (d. 400), “No battle in our history except Cannae (216 BC) involved such a massacre”. Some modern historians traced the fall of the Western Empire to this one event. The Visigoths would never be expelled from the Roman Empire, going on to sack Rome in 410 BC, then settle permanently in south-western Gaul, and eventually become the inheritors of Roman Spain.

Theodosius and Gratian (379-383 AD)[]

Theodosius I, also known as Theodosius the Great, was the last emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western halves of the Roman Empire.

With Valen's death, Gratian turned to the most prominent general of the day, Theodosius (379-395 AD), the son of Valentinian's right-hand-man. As Eastern Emperor, Theodosius immediately set about rebuilding the shattered legions. That it would take him an entire year to raise and train a new army, clearly demonstrates the challenges of military recruitment in the Late Roman Empire. The legions had been the backbone of the Empire for a millennium, but Roman citizens were increasingly unwilling to serve. Life in the legions was dangerous and harsh, with none of the opportunities for plunder and self-enrichment of earlier times. Furthermore, self-interested rich landowners were doing everything in the power to hinder military recruitment. The large estates of the rich were increasing turning themselves into self-sufficient little fiefdoms, in an attempt to avoid the ever increasing taxes. They were naturally reluctant to lose their young workers to the legions. With Romans reluctant to serve, resettled Germans become an increasingly important recruiting-ground. This was a turning-point for the Roman legions; now whole tribes began to be enrolled as essentially mercenaries (foederati) serving under their own chiefs alongside the legions. Barbarians were thus recruited to fight against other barbarians. This "Germanisation" of the legions would cause problems, above all because the Romans could not look beyond their racial prejudices. During the Crisis of the 3rd-Century, it had not been Italians who led to the rebirth of Rome, but a group of Illyrian generals of peasant stock. As Rome reached a new crisis, the most capable generals of the day were all Germans, but the ruling class refused them access to real imperial power. Once Theodosius' new army was ready, he was smart enough not to risk it in a direct confrontation with the marauding Visigoths. Instead, he adapted an attritional strategy, keeping his army in the field to limit their movements, but avoiding open battle and winning a few minor skirmishes when opportunities presented themselves. It took three long years, but eventually the Visigoths settled into an uneasy peace, eight years after their initial revolt. Meanwhile in the West, Emperor Gratian at first took an active interest in governance, but gradually degenerated into lethargy, leaving the day-to-day running of the state to corrupt advisors. With Gratian increasingly unpopular, a revolt erupted in Britain in 383 under the renowned general Magnus Maximus (d. 388). The legions had never really warmed to the Emperor, who always preferred the luxuries and comforts of the palace, to the rough hardships of military life. When it came time to defend him or overthrow him, they quickly sided with Maximus; Gratian was eventually betrayed by his own legions, delivered over to rebels, and unceremoniously executed.

Theodosius and Valentinian II (383-392 AD)[]

Magnus Maximus had been a long time ally of Theodosius' family, having served under his father both in North Africa and Britain. He had clearly been partially motivated in his revolt, by the hope that he would be officially recognised as Western Emperor. He made repeatedly desperate appeals to Theodosius, but was rebuffed each time. The Eastern Emperor instead installed his own teenage son Valentinian II (375-392 AD) as Western Emperor, although for four years the young man controlled only Italy itself. During this time, Maximus proved himself a capable and popular ruler of Britain, Gaul, Spain and North Africa, and campaigned on the Rhine to great effect. Things finally came to a head in 387, when Maximus finally lost patience, and managed to force Valentinian out of Italy; afterwards he fled to the East. By this time, Theodosius finally had a freer hand in the East, having recently settled things with Sassanid Persia, with a peace treaty that as it turned out would last for over a century. Theodosius invaded from the east and decisively defeated Maximus at the Battle of Save (388), though he fought on for a few more months before dying in battle. Thus Valentinian II was finally properly installed over the Western Empire. As Emperor, the weak and ineffectual young man was little more than a figurehead, dominated by advisors appointed by Theodosius; principally the Germanic general Arbogast. By 392, Valentinian had grown frustrated with his role, and tried to dismiss Arbogast from office. When his order was completely ignored, the young man committed suicide. There followed yet another civil war and a brief interlude, before Theodosius named his younger son Honorius as Western Emperor.

St. Ambrose, one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century.

This period of imperial strife is also notable as an important time in the evolution of the Christian Church. This was principally because of one man; Bishop Ambrose of Milan (d. 397 AD). Ambrose first rose to prominence as chief advisor to Emperor Gratian, and was in part responsible for the unpopularity of his reign. He was a staunch anti-pagan, and used his position to attack the last vestiges of traditional paganism, targeting previously untouchable institutions like the priests of Jupiter and the Vestal Virgins; things that even predated the Roman Republic. Most controversially, in 382 he had the altar to the goddess Victory removed from the Senate House in Rome, a statue dating back to the 3rd-century BC and installed in the Senate by Augustus himself. The statue was widely seen as the personification of Rome's imperial power, and many Romans would later point to this moment as the reason for the fall of the Western Empire. Bishop Ambrose also believe that all men, Emperors included, must kneel before God. Theodosius was the Emperor who finally issued the Edict of Thessalonica (380), that officially made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, but even this didn't stop his frequent quarrels with Ambrose. In 388 in the city of Callinicum in Syria, Christians led by their bishop destroyed a Jewish synagogue. When Theodosius heard, he ordered the synagogue rebuilt at the expense of the bishop, but Ambrose compelled him to retreat from his position. Then in 390, the population of Thessalonica in Greece rioted at the presence of a local garrison made-up predominantly of German soldiers, and in the violence the garrison commander was killed. Theodosius overreacted to the loss of a very capable commanders, and ordered an immediate retaliation, that quickly turned into an indiscriminate massacre that left 7,000 people dead. To the amazement of contemporaries, Bishop Ambrose excommunicated the Emperor, and only readmitted him after a humiliating penance outside Milan Cathedral; Theodosius subsequently adopted Abrose's staunch anti-paganism. Bishop Ambrose had alleged a higher duty for his office than that owed to the Emperor; a precedence that other Popes would follow. In time other great men were to be tamed by excommunication or its threat; most famously in the Investiture Controversy almost seven centuries later. It was the inauguration a great theme of Western European history; a thousand years of the tension of spiritual and secular claims, the conflict between Church and state. This contrasted sharply with the Eastern Empire where the Emperors enjoyed almost limitless authority, blending both spiritual and secular power.

Theodosius and Honorius (393-395 AD)[]

After the death of Valentinian II, a tense showdown ensued between Theodosius and Arbogast, rather similar to the one with Maximus. Arbogast was of Frankish ancestry so could not be Western Emperor himself, but neither did Theodosius officially name one, as he stewed on the rumour that young Valentinian had actually been murdered by Arbogast; most historians accept that it had genuinely been a suicide. After a three month stalemate, Arbogast tried to break the impasse by proposing a capable administrator called Eugenius as Western Emperor, and asked Theodosius to ratify the appointment. But Theodosius responded by preparing for yet another civil war. He gathered a large army, including allied Visigoths, and marched west against Eugenius and Arbogast. The two armies met at the Battle of the Frigidus (September 394 AD), a very close-run two-day affair. On the first day, Theodosius was repulsed with heavy losses, and Arbogast thought the battle all but over. But the next day, a ferocious winds blew, a local natural phenomena known as the Bora, that sent clouds of dust into the faces of the Western troops, allowing Theodosius to gain the decisive victory. After his victory over Arbogast and Eugenius, Theodosius spent the next four months restoring order in the West, acting as the sole Emperor of Roman Empire; he was the last man to hold that distinction; he eventually installed his own nine-year-old son Honorius (395-423) as Emperor of the West. But this second civil war would have profound negative consequences for the Roman Empire. Firstly, it left both the Rhine and Danube frontiers dangerously under-garrisoned for years to come. Furthermore, on the first day of battle, the casualties had fallen particularly heavily on the Visigoths, reawakening their resentment of the Romans; sixteen years later, they would extract their revenge in full. These problems would be for others to solve, because six months after the battle Theodosius himself fell ill and unexpectedly died, probably as a result of the exertion of the campaign. Theodosius was undoubtedly one of the most capable Emperors of the late Roman Empire, but his legacy is controversial. He is lauded for ensuring that the Empire didn't collapse in the wake of Adrianople, but also led the Romans into two civil wars against caparble men with extensive military and administrative experience, simply to place his own ineffectual young sons on the thrones. The Eastern Empire wouldn't have another half-decent Emperor for almost 60 years; the West never would.

Arcadius and Honorius (395-408 AD)[]


After Theodosius' death, his young sons, ten-year-old Honorius (393-423 AD) and eighteen -year-old Arcadius (395-408 AD) inherited the two halves of the Roman Empire. Neither ever showed any sign of fitness to rule, and their reigns were dominated by a revolving door of ambitious advisors, constantly cutting each other’s throats to take their turn as the power behind the throne. This also marked a deciding moment for the division of the Western and Eastern Empires; from this point on they would increasingly act less as halves of one Empire, and more as rivals. The first pair of ambitious advisors, Rufinus in the East and Stilicho in the West, were bitter personal enemies, who were more than willing to extend their rivalry into official state policy. Over time the two halves drifted further and further apart

Roman invasions.jpg

The beginning of the end for the Western Empire came at the dawn of the 4th-certury. The migration of the Huns into the Danube region had led to massive population shifts among the existing Germanic tribes, and the Visigoths had just been the first round. In the year 401 AD, the Western Empire was struck by a new wave of Germanic incursions, when three tribes (the Vandals, Alans and Suevi) flooded across the Rhine, preferring to take their chances with the Romans rather than the Huns. The Italian legions were promptly redeployed to Gaul, and eventually managed for now to turn this horde back, but this left the home peninsula virtually defenceless. First, the embittered Visigoths, now settled across the Adriatic in Illyria, took the opportunity to raid northern Italy in 402, under their formidable chieftain Alaric (410). Then in 405, the Ostrogoths, the eastern branch of the Goths, crossed the upper Danube and raided northern Italy in turn. These years of desperate defense of the home peninsula combined with the most dramatic invasion in all Roman history to make the fall of the Western Empire almost inevitable. The winter of 406 was unusually cold, and caused the River Rhine to freeze-over, opening the floodgates to any and all invaders. An enormous horde of Franks, Vandals, Alans, and Suevi overwhelmed Gaul, and rapidly remade the political map of the Western Empire. The Franks remained in north-eastern Gaul, becoming the dominant political and military force on both sides of the lower Rhine. The Alans, Suebi and Vandals meanwhile tried to invade northern Italy in turn but were repulsed, so instead cut a swathe of destruction across Gaul, before eventually reaching Spain by about 409. With Gaul in uproar, in 407 the senior commander in Britain led almost all his legions across the English Channel to help turn back the horde. This was not a formal abandonment of the province of Britannia, but it essentially marked the end of Roman Britain. Over the coming centuries, the island would gradually be inherited by Angles and Saxons of Jutland (modern day Denmark)

Theodosius II and Honorius (408-423 AD)[]

The Theodosian Walls made Constantinople almost impregnable to enemy sieges, and would save the city and the Byzantine Empire time and again over the next thousand years.

The year 408 AD saw a change of leadership in both halves of the Roman Empire. In that year, the Eastern Emperor Arcadius died after a largely unremarkable reign, during which the East was largely spared the difficulties faced by the West. This was due in part to Constantinople's greater financial resources. Now that a lasting peace had been reached with Sassanid Persia back in the 380s, huge tracts of territory (Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt) were virtually untroubled by intruders. It also meant that the lucrative trade routes to and from the east (the Silk Road) remained open. This allowed the East to pay for defences and foreign mercenaries, or to placate barbarian invaders with tribute. Arcadius was succeeded by a new child Emperor, his seven-year-old son Theodosius II (408-450). His reign is noteworthy for one of the most famous construction projects in world history; the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople. For the next thousand years, they would repelled every attempt to take Constantinople by land. Attackers would first face a 20-metre wide and 7-metre deep ditch that could be flooded. Behind that was the outer wall, which stood about 8 meters tall. About 20 meters behind that was an even larger inner wall, about 12 meters tall. 96 enormous towers were placed at intervals along the 3.5 miles of defences, standing 18 meters tall and holding a commanding view of over the outer wall and the ditch. It would take the invention of the cannon and then the construction of the largest cannon ever built by man, for the Ottoman Turks to finally breached the Theodosian Walls in 1453.

The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (c. 1890).

Meanwhile in the Western Empire, for the first thirteen years of Emperor Honorius' reign, the real power behind the throne was a capable Vandal general called Stilicho (d. 408 AD). But Stilicho's ineffectual response to the barbarian hordes of 406 gave his enemies at court all they needed to turn the impressionable Emperor against him; in 408, he was arrested and put to death. But Stilicho had been the only thing keeping anti-barbarian racism in check, and a subsequent purge of his supporters quickly descended into a shocking and indiscriminate massacre of ethnic Germanic families throughout the Italian peninsula. Unfortunately for the Romans, karma is a bitch. The massacre prompted some 12,000 Germans serving in the legions as auxiliaries to flee Italy, making straight for their cousins settled across the Adriatic in Illyria, the Visigoths. The Visigothic leader Aleric wasted no time seizing the opportunity and in late 408 marched his army over the Alps into Italy, where he made a beeline directly for Rome itself. The city was put to siege, while protracted negotiations took place with Honorius in the imperial capital of Ravenna; the last capital of the Western Roman Empire. Aleric primarily wanted one thing; a legally recognised territory for his people to live in peace within the Roman Empire. Given the state of the Western Empire this wasn't much to ask, but the Western court inexplicably rejected all his demands. Talks eventually broke-down, and on 24 August 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome; the first sack of the greatest city of classical antiquity in almost 800 years. Slaves inside Rome opened a side-gate in the Aurelian Walls, and Alaric and his Visigoths to come flooding into the city. For three days, many of the city's great buildings were looted and pillaged, including the mausoleums of Augustus, Hadrian, and so many other great Roman figures; the ashes of the urns were scattered to the winds of time. By the standards of the day, the sack of Rome was nonetheless restrained; Alaric sent out word that churches were off-limits and encouraged citizens to take refuge in them. Nor was the sack a great blow in political terms, for Rome was by this time a backwater. But the event shocked people across both halves of the Roman Empire, sending them into a sort of confused despair. The sack was later used by both pagans and Christians to bolster their competing claims of divine legitimacy, most famously in St. Augustine of Hippo's fierce defence, The City of God, which went on to become foundational to Christian thought for centuries to come. Rome itself would never fully recovered, gradually dwindling from a population of perhaps one million at its height, to a low twenty-thousand during the Middle Age.


The Visigoths were eventually persuaded to leave the Italian peninsula, attracted by the opportunities in Gaul, which was in the process of remaking itself after years of chaos. In time, Emperor Honorius and Visigoths gradually developed positive working relations, when they helped him defeat and kill a usurper called Jovinus in 413 AD. In 418, the Emperor finally granted the Visigoths what they had always wanted; a legally recognised homeland within the Roman Empire, in Aquitaine in south-western Gaul. This was the start of the Visigothic Kingdom (418-720). There was strategy in this decision. The barbarians who had flooded across the Rhine in 406 (mainly Vandals, Alans, and Suevi), had established themselves in Spain, and were fast making West Empire financially untenable. For the West, the rich province of Hispania had long been its key source of tax revenue, well-insulated from foreign incursions. The Visigoths were thus tasked with helping the Romans regain control of Spain. True to their word, they launched a series of campaigns in Spain that were mostly successful, virtually annihilating the most powerful of the three tribes, the Alans; this perfect reasonable focus on the Alans rather than the Vandals, would in time have disastrous consequences for Rome.

Theodosius II and Valentinian III (423-450 AD)[]

Gaiseric, was the greatest king of the Vandals who reigned from 428-478, and would sack Rome in 455.

The death of Western Emperor Honorius in 423 AD was followed by a period of chaos, until the Eastern Emperor finally installed his six-year-old nephew Valentinian III (425-455) as Western Emperor by force of arms, against a local usurper; the boy's mother acted as regent during his minority. But in the turmoil of the transition, North Africa had gone into open revolt. This situation tempted the Vandals in Spain, who had been partially defeated but not subdued by the Visigoths in 417, to migrated en-masse across the narrow strait into north-western Africa, under perhaps their greatest king Gaiseric (d. 477). Their new territory of the Vandal Kingdom (435–534) was not in itself a very fertile one, but right on the edge of the Western Empire’s chief source of grain and tax revenue; the rich lands around Carthage (in what is now Tunisia). The Western imperial court should have done more to defend Carthage, but did not do so, choosing instead to focus on the crises on continental Europe, and Carthage duly fell in 439. That choice or error would be one of the major turning points in the ability of the Romans to control the terms of political change in the west. Without the wealth of Africa, the Western Empire began to run out of tax revenues. Moreover, Gaiseric treated the Romanised people of North Africa well, who seemed in turn to largely welcomed their new master, for the province had been perpetually ignored by the Western court. With the help of his new subjects, Gaiseric quickly turned the Vandals into a naval power in the western Mediterranean, using the ports of North Africa to raid as far as Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia. Historians since Edward Gibbon (d. 1794) have seen the capture of North Africa by the Vandals as the mortal blow to the Western Roman Empire in its struggle to survive. For centuries, the Mediterranean was a "Roman Lake", but now a hostile power roamed the shipping lanes, disrupted trade for both halves of the Empire. Despite this, the court in Ravenna had little choice but to formally recognise the Vandal Kingdom in 442, in order to keep the vital grain shipments flowing; in terms of halting Vandal raids, the treaty was honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God.

Meanwhile, in the two generations since the Huns arrived on the north side of the Danube River, they had steadily carved-out a large territory stretching from the Alps to the Caspian Sea. The impact of the Huns was an epoch defining moment for the Roman, but thus far it had only been indirect; the migration of the native tribes of the region into Roman territory. That began to change around 425 AD, when the Huns began demanding large sums of tribute from Constantinople, in return for remaining on their side of the great river. The Eastern Empire had, up until now, largely been spared the difficulties faced by the West, and her greater economic might allowed the Eastern court to agree to the term without much difficulty. This new status quo endured until 434, when the Huns got a new ruler with a much more aggressive posture; Attila the Hun (d. 453). One of his first acts was to demand double the annual tribute from the Eastern Empire. Constantinople reluctantly agreed, and for the time-being Attila was good to his word, leaving the Eastern Empire alone while he turned his attention to Sassanid Persia. But after five years fruitless campaigning in the east, Attila returned and in 441 commenced a series of hit-and-run raids south of the Danube. The most shocking thing for the Eastern court, was that the Huns sacked some of the strongest and best fortified cities, including Sirmium which had often been used in the past as an imperial capital. Retreating safely behind city-walls had been the standard imperial response to barbarian raids for decades, since none of the others had been capable siege-craft; it remains something of a mystery how the Huns became so good at sieges. Faced with the stark reality of Hun power, Emperor Theodosius II agreed to another doubling of the annual tribute. Attila was again good to his word and wouldn't return to Roman territory until the Romans themselves broke the treaty in 447. The humiliated Eastern court spent the next four years reinforcing the defences along the Danube, and then cut-off the tribute to the Huns. It mattered little to Attila, who led his forces across the Danube, sweeping away the Roman defences with ease, and leaving the road to Constantinople wide open. He was turned back by the mighty Theodosian Walls, but nothing else seemed to stop him. Dazed and traumatised, the Eastern court agreed to yet another doubling of the annual tribute; 2,100 pounds of gold every year.

Marcian and Valentinian III (450-455)[]


Thus far Attila the Hun had focused his attention entirely on the Eastern Empire. Despite a complicate succession crisis in the Eastern court from which Theodosius' brother-in-law Marcian (450–457 AD) became Eastern Emperor, from 450 Attila began to prepare a massive invasion of the West. His reasons are unclear; in all likelihood, Constantinople was now seen as a compliant cash-cow, and the West simply provided new opportunities. According to the dubious Roman story, Attila was actually invited; he received a marriage proposal from the sister of the Western Emperor Valentinian, begging him to rescue her from a loveless marriage, and Attila demanded half the Western Empire as her dowry. Whatever the truth of this story, it was certainly little more than a pretext for the Huns. By the mid-5th century, the tottering Western Empire had been stabalised somewhat in recent years, thank to the capable general, Flavius Aetius (d. 454), who was the power-behind-the-throne throughout much of the reign of Western Emperor Valentinian III. Aetius was actually a Roman aristocrat, who had been drafted in his youth to serve as a hostage on behalf of the Roman Empire; a long-standing tradition to ensure compliance with treaties. He spent three years living with the Visigoths and then some five years with the Huns. These early experiences, the positive ties he forged with the barbarians, put Aetius in a unique position to manage the 5th-century Empire. He could do nothing to prevent the Gaul becoming a tapestry of Germanic tribes: the Visigoths were established in Aquitaine in the south-west, the Franks dominated the north-west, and Burgundians and other tribes were settled on west of the Rhine. Nevertheless, Aetius manage the situation about as well as one could hope given the resources at his disposal, campaigning successfully against the various tribes to force them into alliances with the Emperor of the west, as well as to keep them from expanding their territory. In 450, with Attila preparing to invade the West, Aetius worked furiously to persuade all the peoples of Gaul, Roman and German alike, to join forces to defend their own homeland. Attila's invasion was first forced to retreat from the city of Orléans, and then fought to a stalemate at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (June 451), one of the largest battles of late antiquity. With this, Attila decided to withdraw from Gaul. Although the Huns had at no point been defeated, their aura of invincibility was shattered.

Attila took his revenge the next year, this time invading Italy itself. The Huns crossed the Alps into the Po Valley, where they sacked the great cities of Aquileia and Milan. With the tribes of Gaul unwilling to help, Aetius could only run a guerilla campaign to harass the Attila's supply-lines. The road to Rome now lay open, but Attila was eventually persuaded to turn back and withdraw from Italy. The Christian Church would give all the credit to Pope Leo I (d. 461 AD) who led a emissary to Attila begging him to sparing the Holy City; in truth the Huns were almost certainly bribed to leave. Attila would never returned again, for he died just 6 months later. According to the traditional account, Attila the Huns choked to death in a drunken stupor while celebrating his latest marriage; this story is almost certainly untrue since a remarkably similar tale was told about Alexander the Great. His death would mark the end of the Hunnic threat. A great revolt by the Huns’ subjects and internal squabbles between Attila's many sons finally broke them. By the end of the century they had effectively faded from history; in Central Asia, their original homeland, new confederations of nomads were forming to play a similar part in the future. The next few years would see two more momentous deaths. Flavius Aetius had more or less single-handedly held the Western Empire together for over two decades, and saved both Gaul and Italy from the Huns. But Valentinian III had always feared the ambitious general, and encouraged by scheming courtiers, personally stabbed Aetius to death in 454. Less than a year later, Valentinian was himself assassinated by supporters of the dead general.

Marcian and Petronius Maximus (455)[]

Genseric Sacking Rome, a painting by Karl Briullov.

Petronius Maximus (455 AD), the wealthy senator who had been behind the assassination of Valentinian III, secured for himself the throne of the Western Empire by means of bribery. He only reigned for 77-day, but this was long enough to bring disaster on Rome. In order shore-up his legitimacy, Maximus forced the former Emperor's widow to marry him; she was also the daughter of former Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. But he was not content to stop them. Wanting to firmly intertwine his own family with the Theodosian Dynasty, he then married his son to Valentinian's daughter, Eudocia. But in the process this cancelled a previous betrothal to the heir to the Vandal Kingdom. Vandal King Genseric (d. 477) did not take kindly to this change of plans, and immediately mustered an invasion force to sail for Italy. With Rome effectively defenceless, panic gripped the city and many of its inhabitants took to flight. As Maximus was attempting to make his own escape, he was set upon by an angry mob and stoned to death; his body was thrown into the Tiber, where the bodies of condemned criminals were typically thrown. Days later, the Vandals met no resistance as they entered Rome, and over the next two weeks systematically stripped the city of all its wealth. Even the gilded copper roof of temple of Jupiter was hauled off to the Vandal capital of Carthage. The horror at the sack still echoes today in our word "vandalism" to describe any act of willful mindless destructiveness. The Vandals also took with them the prize they had come for in the first place, the former Emperors daughter Eudocia; she later married Genseric's son as had previously been agreed.

Last Emperors of the Western Empire (455-476)[]


When the Vandals withdrew from Rome and sailed back to Carthage, they left behind a traumatised Roman population and an imperial power vacuum. There followed a protracted power struggle between the two most prominent generals of the day, Avitus (d. 457) and Ricimer (d. 472), who controlled the legions of Gaul and Italy respectively. Avitus initially prevailed but was ultimately unable to assert his authority over Italy, and was assassinated. As a Romanised German, Ricimer couldn't be rule in his own right, so settled on raising Majorian (457-461) as a puppet Western Emperor. Majorian is the first of the final grab-bag of utterly forgettable Western Emperors, without real authority or even a real empire to rule, that finally winks out of existence at Romulus Augustulus. The year 457 also brought a new emperor in the other half of the Empires. In the East, Emperor Marcian died and his death marked the official end of the Theodosian Dynasty after almost a hundred years. The Eastern imperial court debated for eleven days, before crowning the Thracian general Leo I (457-474). He would be the first of a series of capable Eastern Emperors, who would oversee the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire.


For the next sixteen-years, Ricimer effectively ruled what remained of the Western Empire, but it was now a pale shadow of its former sense. Britain and North Africa were gone. Spain was being slowly but surely conquered by the Visigoths, extending their territory south from Aquitaine. And most of Gaul was split between Germanic tribes, who refused to recognise Majorian and weren't even nominal allies any more. One of the few exceptions was north-wested Gaul, where the Roman general Syagrius (d. 486 AD) established the Roman rump state of Soissons (457–486). Thus Ricimer and Majorian basically controlled Italy, and only Italy, although they did vigorously attempted to reassert imperial authority over Gaul with some limited success. They also began preparing a fleet to attack the Vandal North Africa, but before they could, the entire fleet was destroyed, allegedly by traitors paid by the Vandals. For unclear reasons, Ricimer eventually fell-out with Majorian, arresting and executing him in 461; we can only speculate from what happened next, that Majorian turn-out to be too much of his own man. Ricimer always wanted to rule in his own right, and after Majorian appointed a more malleable puppet, Libius Severus (461-465). This coup prompted both Soissons in north-western Gaul and Illyria across the Adriatic to switching their allegiance to the Eastern Emperor, and the Western Empire yet again got a little bit smaller. When the docile Severus eventually died of natural causes, Ricimer proceeded to rule the West for eighteen months without an Emperor, perhaps testing the waters for claiming the throne himself despite his Germanic descent.

By 467 AD, this situation had become intolerable for Eastern Emperor Leo I, with the Vandals seeing the vacant Western throne as an opportunity to extend their piracy in the Mediterranean as far as Greece. These raids convinced Leo that it was finally time to launch a great military expedition to retake North Africa. Needing to secure his supply-lines from Italy, Leo decided that it was finally time to name a Western Emperor, Anthemius (467-472), a successful general with family ties to the Theodosian Dynasty. Anthemius marched into Italy at the head of a modest army, but rather than fight, Ricimer agreed to an uneasy alliance. In the spring of 468, a great Roman armada set sail from Constantinople having been assembled at vast expense. This should have been an overwhelming force; an army 100,000 strong and 1,100 ships. At first the invasion went well. The army was successfully deposited in North Africa to besiege Carthage by land, while the fleet blockaded the city by sea. With the noose tightening, Vandal King Gaiseric laid his plans carefully. First, he opened peace negotiations with the Romans, and then in the midst of the talks, suddenly attacked on the unsuspecting Roman fleet with fireships. The Romans lost over half their fleet, the rest were driven off, and the campaign quickly fizzled-out. This unmitigated disaster would leave the Eastern Empire on the verge of bankruptcy for years to come.

Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire.

After the failed joint expedition, Ricimer soon tired of Anthemius. He tried but failed to assassinate him in 470 AD, prompting two years of civil war between the pair, interspersed with uneasy truces. In 472, Anthemius was finally defeated and killed, but the victory proved hollow; just a month later Ricimer suffered a stroke and died. With his death, it was finally time for the Western Roman Empire to blinked out of existence with little more than a whimper. The last few years were marked by a complicated internal struggle between Ricimer's lieutenants, while a series of short-lived puppets sat on the Western throne. In the end, the Germanic general Odoacer emerged victorious, during the reign of the boy Emperor Romulus Augustulus (475-476 AD); his name brings us full-circle to the founder of the Empire and the founder of Rome itself. On 4 September 476 AD, Odoacer seized the imperial court in Ravenna, and compelled the boy to abdicate the throne. He then collected up the imperial regalia and sent it to the Eastern Emperor Zeno (474-491 AD), with a message that there was no longer any need for a Western Emperor. Although the abdication of the puppet boy Emperor was considered an unremarkable event at the time, it soon began to designate the official fall of the Western Empire in the popular imagination. It now was for the inheritors of the Western Empire to determine the future.