World History 1 153 - 10.1.3 The Fall of the Roman West

Theodosius I was the last emperor who reigned over a united empire. After his death in 395, power passed to his two sons; Arcadius ruled the eastern half of the empire from Constantinople, while Honorius controlled the western half from Ravenna in northern Italy. The geography of each region dictated its fate. With a shorter stretch of the Danube River to guard against foreign invaders, the East was able to thrive by paying off these groups with its wealth and discouraging them from entering their territory. The West suffered various setbacks along its more extensive and chaotic frontier that brought both political and social disruption. There were simply more foreign groups to contend with, and the traditional barrier of the Rhine and Danube Rivers was long and continuously crossed by Germanic groups during this period. The West was also less urbanized than the East, resulting in less social cohesion in parts of this region. This allowed different, outsider cultures to infiltrate and transform it (Figure 10.10).

A historical map of Europe is shown with longitude and latitude lines running throughout. It is labeled “The Germanic Kingdoms and the East Roman Empire in 526.” A scale is shown under a paragraph written about the map under the title. The map shows Europe, the northern area of Africa, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea. Ireland is outlined with light brown and labeled “Scots.” The northern half of the United Kingdom is outlined in light blue and labeled “Picts.” The southern western half of the United Kingdom is outlined in bright yellow and labeled “Britons” while the eastern half is highlighted pink and labeled “Angles and Saxons.” Denmark and the northern portion of Germany are highlighted pink as well and labeled with “Jutes” and Saxons” respectively. The rest of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France are highlighted yellow and labeled “Kingdom of the Franks.” A rounded “T” shaped area below that is highlighted dark yellow and labeled “Burgundians.” Portugal is highlighted pale brown and labeled “Sueves.” Spain and southern France are highlighted pale orange and labeled “Kingdom of the West Goths.” A slice of northern Spain is highlighted a cream color and labeled “Basques.” Italy, Sicily, and a large area to the east of Italy are also highlighted pale orange and labeled “Kingdom of the East Goths.” A thin area of northern Africa is highlighted pale blue and labeled “Kingdom of the Vandals.” Greece, Turkey, and a thin area of northeastern Africa are outlined in pale green and labeled “East Roman Empire.” The eastern area of Europe that is left is labeled “Slavic Peoples” with one area in southern Poland labeled “Lombards” with the word highlighted yellow and south of that in the Ukraine an area labeled “Gepids” with the word underlined in pale pink. Many cities and rivers are labeled throughout the map.
Figure 10.10 The increasing influx of Germanic peoples into the western empire brought about a fracturing of Roman power as a series of independent kingdoms took control of the Italian peninsula, Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium), the Iberian Peninsula, and North Africa. This map from cartographer William R. Shepherd’s Historical Atlas (1923) shows the Germanic kingdoms as they were in 526 CE. (credit: “Germanic kingdoms 526CE “ by Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As the western empire came into increasing contact with these outsider groups, the state dealt with them in various ways. It deemed many Germanic groupsfoederati, meaning they were bound by a treaty that allowed them semiautonomy in exchange for their military service on behalf of the Roman Empire. Mercenaries thus came from the various tribes and foreign states allied with the empire, serving alongside Romans in an increasingly diverse military. After completing their military service, foreign soldiers were given the opportunity to participate in Roman civic life, to live in Roman territory, and to integrate into Roman society. Some Germans were also able to settle in Roman territory, leading to periods of peaceful coexistence and cooperation, while others were not so fortunate because they were captured in conflict and forced into Roman households as enslaved people. As Germans were brought into the Roman cultural fold through various means, rivalries among ambitious and newly integrated outsiders often disrupted Roman society.

In the early 400s, Germanic groups made their way into Gaul and Italy, negotiating and fighting with the Romans. Originating in central Europe around modern-day Poland, the Vandals crossed the Rhine in 406, settling in Gaul before being pushed into Spain and finally forming a kingdom in North Africa. A notable Roman military commander of Vandal origin was Stilicho, who was appointed guardian of the young emperor Honorius. Stilicho had aims to control the western empire himself, having married into the imperial family and attained some popularity due to his military victories.

Stilicho fell out of favor, however, because of his mismanagement of another outsider group, the Visigoths, one of several Gothic groups from eastern Europe. The Visigoths had come into increasing contact with the Romans after crossing the Danube River in the fourth century, ultimately defeating Rome at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. By the early 400s, the Visigoth leader Alaric had negotiated various agreements with the Roman government to settle his people in Roman territory. Stilicho urged the Roman Senate to honor the agreements and pay Alaric to pacify him, which the Senate did despite preferring a military solution against the Visigoths. As the situation disintegrated, Stilicho was blamed for the unfavorable outcome, and his increasingly strained relationship with the Senate eventually resulted in his execution. Alaric then invaded Italy, attacking Rome over the course of three days in 410. Remembered as a seminal moment in the empire’s decline, this “sacking” of the city of Rome itself produced little physical damage but plundered a good deal of the city’s wealth and further damaged the prestige of the grand old city. After Alaric’s death soon thereafter, the Visigoths ultimately settled in Gaul as foederati of the Roman Empire.

Many of the migrations of Germanic peoples during this period were a result of the influx of the Huns. A nomadic group originating in the Eurasian Steppe, the Huns made their way west from central Asia toward Europe around 450. As they reached the edge of Europe, they conquered and occupied the frontiers of the Roman Empire, placing pressure on groups already there to move into the continent’s interior. These migrations eventually pushed Germanic groups and others into Roman territory. The Huns were led by their ruler Atilla, who gained a reputation among the Romans for being ruthless as he plundered much of Europe. Atilla oversaw a vast empire, conquering and integrating various peoples as the Huns moved westward. Reaching as far as Gaul, the Hun Empire ultimately collapsed due to Atilla’s death in 454.

Other migratory groups during this period settled in Gaul, including the Franks. A one-time ally of the Roman Empire, the Frankish kingdom eventually expelled the Romans and ruled the region in some form until the ninth century. Roman troops were likewise pushed out of Britain for the final time by the invasion of Germanic peoples who included the Angles and the Saxons. Coming from modern-day southern Denmark and northern Germany, they occupied southern Britain in the late fifth century. Originally two distinct groups, they are more commonly known as Anglo-Saxons, a name applied to them in the eighth century to distinguish them from similarly named Germanic groups on the European continent.

Dueling Voices

The End of Rome

Since the publication of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776, historians of Rome have debated what the fall of Rome actually means. An English historian during the Enlightenment, Gibbon presented it as a period of moral decline marked by barbarian invasions and an intolerant Christianity. Newer scholarship takes into account the primary sources from this period. More recent scholars ask what exactly “fell.” For example, many third- and fourth-century crises and reforms began much earlier, and the survival of paganism shows that Christianity’s rise was not inevitable.

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

—Edward Gibbon, TheHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776

To study such a period one must be constantly aware of the tension between change and continuity in the exceptionally ancient and well-rooted world round the Mediterranean. On the one hand, this is notoriously the time when certain ancient institutions, whose absence would have seemed quite unimaginable to a man of about [250 CE], irrevocably disappeared. . . . On the other hand, we are increasingly aware of the astounding new beginnings associated with this period: we go to it to discover why Europe became Christian and why the Near East became Muslim. . . . Looking at the Late Antique world, we are caught between the regretful contemplation of ancient ruins and the excited acclamation of new growth. What we often lack is a sense of what it was like to live in that world.

—Peter Brow, TheWorld of Late Antiquity, 1971

At the very same time as some sought new modes for understanding the classical elements of late antique culture, another revolution was taking place, . . . whose method was to seize as objects of study elements that were ‘new’ in Late Antiquity. . . . much of what has been identified as ‘new’ falls within the domain of religion, and within that sphere attention has focused on those Christian beliefs and practices that had some claim to novelty in this era: asceticism, monasticism, pilgrimage, and episcopacy foremost among them. But few things are new under the sun, and I worry that scholars, whether from ignorance or naïveté, or in pursuit of some contemporary agenda, too often have credited the ideologically motivated claims to novelty put forward by Christian polemicists at the time.

—Clifford Ando, “Decline, Fall, and Transformation,” Journal of Late Antiquity, 2008

  • How do the scholars quoted here differ in their approaches to the study of Late Antiquity?
  • Would they agree on what makes this period unique or the best way to study it? Why or why not?
This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax