Western Roman Empire
Delice Bette | May 2, 2023
The Western Roman Empire came to be established as a fully autonomous entity distinct from the Eastern part at the time of the death of Emperor Theodosius I (395), when the Empire was divided between his two sons and the West left in the hands of Honorius. Already earlier, on several occasions, the Empire came to be divided into several separate entities for administrative and military purposes, such as at the establishment of the tetrarchy.
However, from 395 onward, the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire no longer came to reconstitute themselves into a single entity; for this reason, traditionally, the date of Emperor Theodosius I’s death (395) is regarded by historiography as the beginning of the independent life of the western part of the Roman Empire.
However, the idea of unity remained firm in the consciousness for a long time to come, and it certainly had not yet died out when, in 476, the king of the Heruli Odoacer deposed the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustus, and remitted the insignia of the empire to the Eastern emperor Zeno. The latter continued to regard Italy and Rome, the cradle of Roman civilization, as a part of the empire, while Odoacer and later Theodoric, as patricians of Italy, officially acted as rulers on behalf of the ruler of Constantinople, although they were in fact autonomous rulers.
Still the Byzantine emperor Justinian attempted the reunification of the two parts after the end of the Western Empire, a project that, however, would end in the following centuries with the establishment of the reigns of the Franks, Visigoths, and Lombards, and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire.
Surface area and subdivision
At the time of Theodosius I’s death and the final division of the Empire into an eastern and a western part (395), the latter inherited the Praetorian Prefecture of Gaul and most of the Praetorian Prefecture of Italy, Africa and part of Illyria, while the East got the Praetorian Prefecture of the East and two Illyrian dioceses. In turn, the Prefecture of Italy consisted of four dioceses: Italy (that of Gaul by an equal number of dioceses: Gaul (two dioceses), Hispania and Britannia. It should be pointed out that Illyria had been divided between the two Empires and that this division was a source of continuous disputes that began to loom soon after Theodosius’ death.
By the end of the fourth century, the total area of the Western Roman area exceeded 2.5 million km² with a global population that is difficult to quantify but must most likely have been between 20 and 25 million.
In the following century throughout the Western Roman world there was a generalized demographic decline due to wars, famines, and epidemics. Indeed, the settlement of barbarian peoples in almost all regions of Western Europe and Africa failed to compensate for the losses that had mowed down the native population. The barbarian ethnic groups, generally of Germanic origin, represented, in almost the entire Roman West, a modest share of the total Roman or Romanized populations, in all probability no more than 7 or 8 percent in percentage terms.
To get an idea of the limited numerical size of these barbarian tribes, we will recall that when the Lombards penetrated Italy in the second half of the 6th century, their horde is believed to have consisted of about 120,000 including elders, women and children.
Between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century Rome was still the most populous city in the Empire (of both the western and eastern parts). During the reign of Valentinian I (364 – 375) it is estimated, on the basis of the annonary cards distributed, that the Urbe must have had no less than 800,000 inhabitants (but other sources give an even higher figure, see box). This figure remained virtually unchanged until the first sack of Rome by Alaric’s Visigoths (410). A certain demographic decline followed, but still by the mid-5th century it seems that the population of the city was not less than 650 000 It was not until the aftermath of the second sack by the Vandals (455) that Rome probably lost its rank as the first city of the Empire surpassed not only by Constantinople, but also by the populous metropolises of the East: (Alexandria, Antioch, and possibly also Thessalonica).
Italy could boast, in addition to Rome, a number of relatively populous and economically active centers, first and foremost Capua and Mediolanum (today’s Milan) – the latter also the imperial capital -, followed by Ravenna, Bononia (today’s Bologna), Augusta Taurinorum (today’s Turin) and Aquileia, which, however, was destroyed by the Huns around the mid-5th century. In the rest of the Western Empire, on the other hand, among the absolute largest cities were Carthage, which with its 150,000 to 200,000 inhabitants or more most likely constituted the second largest urban agglomeration in the Roman West, Leptis Magna (in Proconsular Africa) and Augusta Treverorum (today’s Trier). Ravenna, in particular, was one of the few Italian cities that continued to expand throughout the 5th century, reaching its greatest extent in the Gothic age, when the increase in population and urban territory necessitated an extension of the Roman city walls that eventually enclosed an area of 150 hectares.; in 402 it then became the capital of the Western Roman Empire and retained that rank even after 476, under Odoacer, the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines.
Carthage, on the other hand, in addition to having practically always had a clear commercial vocation, was located in the heart of a rich agricultural region and also exported its foodstuffs to the East. In Africa, three other medium-sized cities enjoyed a certain prosperity: Leptis Magna, the cradle of the Severan dynasty, which, after a period of decline, had experienced a certain revival in the Theodosian era; Timgad, an important Donatist center; and finally Caesarea (today Cherchell, in Algeria), which was the birthplace of Priscianus, who with Donatus was the greatest grammarian of late Latinity.
In the Illyrian region, perhaps the most important and populous city was Salona (in the immediate vicinity of present-day Split) in Dalmatia, with a population of more than 50,000, while the two frontier agglomerations of castrensian origin, Carnuntum and Aquincum (present-day Budapest), retained some strategic importance. Both of these centers possessed two amphitheaters, one for the garrisons stationed there and one for the civilian population. Carnuntum is described to us by Ammianus Marcellinus, in the second half of the fourth century, as a sleepy and degraded city, enlivened, however, by the presence of many military men encamped in the vicinity or residing in the settlement.
In Iberia, the city of Hispalis (present-day Seville) had undergone some development during the 4th century, establishing itself as the maximum population center of Betica, while Carthago Nova (Cartagena) continued to be the most important urban landmark in the Mediterranean-eastern area of the diocese. Of no less importance were Tarraco (Tarragona), Osca (Huesca) and Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza) in the northern part of the peninsula.
Among the most important and populous cities of the two Gallic dioceses was Augusta Treverorum (Trier, now in Germany), a former imperial capital since Tetrarchic times and, still around 400, the seat of prefecture. Arelate (Arles), established since the first half of the 4th century as the most dynamic urban center of southern Gaul, had also become, by the beginning of the next century, a prefecture capital. Maximum center of central Gaul was, in all probability, Lugdunum (Lyon).
In Britain the only city of any importance was Londinium, today’s London, followed by modestly sized urban cores, often of castren origin or developed on earlier Celtic settlements (such as Calleva Atrebatum, today’s Silchester). Aquae Sulis (Bath), on the other hand, was a spa center known since the first century. The abandonment of Britain by Roman garrisons in the early 5th century led to the decline of these centers, which continued through much of the High Middle Ages. London, left almost without inhabitants, had to be all but refounded by Alfred the Great in the 9th century.
Cities founded or conquered by the Romans in Italy ( cells with green background ) Cities founded by the Romans in the provinces of the Empire ( cells with yellow background ) Cities conquered by the Romans outside Europe ( cells with light blue background )
Prodromes of division (364-395)
A more pronounced division of the Roman Empire, after the administrative divisions of the previous decades, came with the accession to the throne of Valentinian I, created emperor at Nicaea in February 364. The new ruler had to take note of the impossibility of managing alone the delicate military situation that had arisen both along the Danubian and Rhenish frontier, in the West, because of the increasingly frequent encroachments of barbarian tribes, and on the Persian frontier, in the East, where the Sasanians had long since established themselves as the fiercest adversaries of Rome and its army. In the spring of that same year, Valentinian therefore associated his brother Valens as augustus, assigning him the eastern part of the Empire and keeping the western part under his control, a clear sign of the importance that the city of Rome still held at that time.
Valentinian I’s governmental activities, aimed at curbing the advance of the barbarians pressing on Germany’s borders, took the form of the construction of the mighty limes that stretched from the North Sea, at the mouth of the Rhine, to the Rhaetian Alps. Valentinian, like and even more than his predecessors, made frequent use of the recruitment of mercenaries into the army, resulting in many Germans gaining access to civil and military magistracies and the gradual “barbarization” of cadres in the administration, bureaucracy, and army. He died in 375 in Pannonia of a brain stroke. He was succeeded in the West by his son Gratian, while the East continued to be ruled by Valens.
Between the summer and fall of 376, tens of thousands of refugees, Goths and others, driven from their lands by Hunnic invasions, came to the Danube, asking the Roman emperor Valens for asylum, so that they would be allowed to settle on the southern bank of the Danube: the river would in fact protect them from the Huns, who lacked the necessary equipment to cross it in force. The emperor granted asylum on extremely favorable terms: the Goths were promised land to cultivate, grain rations, and enlistment in the Roman army as foederati. According to imperial propaganda, Emperor Valens had agreed to accept the barbarian peoples for the purpose of strengthening his army and increasing the tax base of the exchequer; according to Heather, however, Valens was almost forced to admit the Goths within the empire, as he did not have sufficient forces in the Balkans to prevent them from crossing the Danube; yet, unwilling to admit his own military weakness, he instructed court propagandists to magnify the potential positive aspects of admitting the Goths within the empire. Confirming that Valens tried as much as possible to limit the damage, however, only a portion of the Goths were allowed to ford the Danube.
In addition, all those welcomed into Roman territory were supposed to surrender their weapons, but some managed to get through, possibly due to the fact that river-crossing operations were speeded up to avoid a riot of the waiting Goths, thus preventing the immigrants’ equipment from being perfectly controlled. The presence of a populous settlement in a small area caused a food shortage among the Goths, which the Empire was unable to counter with either land to cultivate or promised supplies. The Roman logistical structure, which distributed supplies to several centers in order to achieve greater capillarity, was put under pressure: the Goths, with no more supplies, turned to eating dog meat, which was supplied to them at the price of one dog for each Goth child given up as a slave.
The mistreatment was such that the Goths eventually revolted, devastating the Balkans. Valens had underestimated the threat they posed in relation to his lifelong enemy, the Sasanians, and kept the presidential army in the east busy, nor were the troops in Thrace sufficient to inflict a decisive defeat on the Goths. At the same time, the latter were in an equally difficult position: in fact, the need to procure considerable amounts of food forced them to move in small groups, possible prey to attacks by Roman forces. Perhaps it was their intention to inflict such a defeat on their enemies as to impose on them terms not far from the agreement to enter imperial territory (the granting of land for cultivation), but they had to do so soon, before the arrival of more Roman troops.
Having made an unfavorable peace with the Persians, the emperor of the East was able to take the bulk of his army to the Balkans to finally put an end to the looting of the Goths. Arriving in Constantinople, Valens waited there for the arrival of the troops of Gratian, emperor of the West. Before Gratian arrived, however, Valens was informed by spies that the Goths numbered only 10,000, a report that later proved to be false. In the belief that he was outnumbered and unwilling to share the glory of a victory with Gratian, Valens imprudently confronted the Goths at Adrianople, losing and being killed in battle (August 9, 378). St. Ambrose saw in this momentous battle, ruinous for Roman arms, a sign of the imminent end of the world.
The world did not end but the Roman Empire was dealt a very severe blow. Gratian, son of Valentinian I and successor to his father at the age of sixteen, not feeling able to rule the empire along with his half-brother Valentinian II, only six years old, appointed Theodosius I as augustus in January 379, to whom he entrusted the dioceses of Macedonia and Dacia also threatened by the revolting Visigoths. The latter had penetrated the Balkans, devastating them horribly. The new emperor, when the army of the pars orientalis had not yet been fully reconstituted, was therefore forced to face the Goths with a heterogeneous force of no more than 10,000 men; in the clashes that followed (380) he had the worst of it, although he did not suffer heavy losses.
Thus it was that the Eastern Emperor was forced to resort to diplomacy, granting, in 382, the Goths the status of Foederati in exchange for peace. The foederati maintained a certain autonomy from Rome, paying no taxes to the empire, and, in exchange for compensation-in money or through land grants (hospitalitas)-would provide allied contingents to the imperial army during specific military campaigns. Such a system was actually a double-edged sword in that it merely substituted “violent invasion” for “peaceful” invasion, and could have led to the barbarians destroying the Empire from within. The rhetorician Themistius hoped that the Goths would soon be assimilated into Roman culture, as had happened in the past with the Galatians, and thus would no longer be a threat to the Empire, but he was belied by subsequent events. The Tervingi and Greutungi, from whose coalition the Visigothic people would originate, would soon carve out their own independent kingdom in Gaul and Hispania and contribute to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
On the religious side, after Theodosius’ rise to power, a gradual consolidation of Christianity, a cult already predominant at the time, was produced. Indeed, the new augustus favored its spread with the intention of converting it into the glue of the Empire (Edict of Thessalonica, 380), thus coming to replace the ancient beliefs and Arianism, by then openly opposed or outlawed.
In 383, the army of Britain had proclaimed Augustus a general of Hispanic origin, Magnus Maximus, who promptly landed in Gaul with an army to seize it. Gratian, from Trier, came to meet the usurper, but following numerous defections among his troops, he fell back on Lugdunum, where he died at the hands of an assassin, Andragazius. Magnus Maximus took advantage of this to occupy, in 387, Italy and Africa. Valentinian II, fearing for his own life, took refuge in Thessalonica. Theodosius, who, after Gratian’s death, had recognized Magnus Maximus as Augustus, associated his son Arcadius with the empire in 383. A few years later Magnus Maximus also, following his example proclaimed his son Flavius Victor Augustus. With the two young men came a very complex situation: as many as five people, including legitimate augustuses and usurpers, were, or had been placed, at the highest echelons of the Empire. Such overlapping of titles and offices did not last long. Theodosius defeated Magnus Maximus at Aquileia where the Hispanic general was executed (388), and the same fate befell his son Victor in Gaul. Valentinian II, was thus reinstated by Theodosius to his position as augustus of the western part of the empire.
Theodosius, the true political arbiter of the empire, sent Valentinian to Trier so that from this city he could rule the western part with the help of Arbogaste, but court intrigues probably led to the young emperor’s death a few years later (392). Theodosius, who had moved between Rome and Milan for three years, returned to settle in the east, away from the pressure and interference of Bishop Ambrose, whom he tried to resist by implementing a policy of restraint against ecclesiastical power. The Thessalonian massacre, however, gave Ambrose the opportunity to impose penance on the emperor, and by 390 Theodosius was forced to redefine his religious policy toward apostates, pagans, and heretics.
An edict, promulgated on February 24, 391, provided for the closure of all temples and banned all pagan worship, even if celebrated privately. The systematic persecution of non-Christian beliefs triggered a pagan backlash against Theodosius, especially in Italy. Returning to Constantinople, the emperor in fact had to face the protests of the currents advocating a now waning paganism, which had found in the rhetorician Flavius Eugenius, a staunch defender. Eugenius, with the support of Arbogaste and many members of the Roman senatorial class, was proclaimed Augustus of the western part on August 22, 392, but was not recognized as a colleague by Theodosius. The latter, on the contrary, associated Honorius, his second son, with the intention of placing him on the throne of the western part, and moved with an army toward Italy. At the Battle of the Frigid, not far from Aquileia, he defeated, on September 6, 394, the forces of Eugenius and Arbogaste.
Having eliminated his rivals, Theodosius remained sole emperor for only a few more months, for he died on January 17, 395. “With Theodosius,” Gibbon writes, “…the spirit of Rome also died. He was the last of Augustus’ successors who commanded armies in person at war and whose authority was recognized throughout the empire.” The latter was inherited by his two sons: to Arcadius, the eldest, went the pars orientalis, while the younger Flavius Honorius got the pars occidentalis. From this time the division was no longer reassembled and two distinct territorial aggregations began to take shape: a Western Roman Empire and an Eastern Roman Empire.
The reign of Honorius (395-423)
Honorius, like his brother Arcadius, did not inherit his father’s qualities. He was a religious and gentle ruler, but stubborn, incompetent
Having inherited the throne when he was only eleven years old, he was entrusted to the regency of the magister militum Stilicho, who had been chosen for this post by Theodosius since 393. Stilicho, the son of a Vandal and a Roman, thus found himself leading an empire certainly debilitated by long internal struggles and by the barbarian tribes of Germanic origin that pressed on its borders, but at that time still quite firm and in a more secure position than the wealthier but also more exposed East. In fact, the latter was perceived by the Latin-speaking soldiers defending the Danubian limes as “…the weakest part of the Empire, with its overcrowded cities and wimpy peasants.” Apparently, Stilicho claimed to have been appointed guardian and regent of both of Theodosius’ sons, and this soured his relations with the court of the eastern half of the Empire, since the regents of Arcadius had no intention whatsoever of ceding their power to Stilicho; another bone of contention with the Constantinople court was the question of the disputed dioceses of eastern Illyricum, transferred to the Eastern Empire under Theodosius I, but claimed for the West by Stilicho.
The quarrels between the two parts of the Empire were taken advantage of by the foederati Visigoths, who took the opportunity to revolt, appointing Alaric as their sole leader. According to several scholars, Alaric’s Visigoths were the same Goths who had defeated Valens’ army at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 and had been installed as foederates in the Balkans by Theodosius I in 382; they were employed by Theodosius I in the struggles against the Gallic usurpers Magnus Maximus (387-388) and Eugenius (392-393) and had suffered heavy losses during the Battle of the Frigidus in which, according to Paulus Orosius, Theodosius I had won two victories: one over the Gallic usurper Eugenius, and another over the Goth foederates serving in Theodosius’ army. According to Heather, the losses suffered in that battle prompted the Goths to revolt in an attempt to force the empire to renegotiate the foedus of 382 on terms more favorable to the Goths: it is not clear what the Goths were aiming at, but, in all likelihood, the Goth demands included the recognition of their own unique leader, and the appointment of him as magister militum of the Roman army.
Taking as a pretext the fact that Alaric had not been granted a command role in the Roman army (the post of magister militum, which had also been promised to him by Theodosius I), the Visigoths invaded Thrace and Macedonia: at the time there were suspicions of collusion with the Eastern praetorian prefect Flavius Rufinus, who had allegedly pushed Alaric to revolt. Stilicho intervened to rescue the Eastern Empire by marching with his forces against Alaric, but Arcadius, urged on by Rufinus, an enemy of Stilicho, ordered the eastern troops, who formed part of the latter’s army, to return to the East. For there was still fear in the East that in fact Stilicho was aiming to gain dominion over Constantinople as well. Stilicho obeyed and sent back the troops who had not in fact returned to the East after the Battle of the Frigid, weakening his army. Meanwhile, upon reaching Constantinople, the troops killed Rufinus: suspicions that they had been stirred up by Stilicho himself were high.
In 397, meanwhile, Alaric had invaded the Peloponnese, but was confronted by Stilicho, who, however, while encircling the enemy, hesitated to annihilate him, stalling; he probably intended to negotiate with Alaric an alliance against Constantinople. It was probably because of this meddling of Stilicho in eastern affairs that Eutropius, Arcadius’ new adviser, had him declared a public enemy of the Eastern Empire by the Senate of Constantinople. Meanwhile, Alaric, having come to an agreement with Arcadius, was appointed by the latter magister militum for Illyricum, which enabled him to reequip his army with new weapons.
In that same year contrasts between the two empires led to a revolt in Africa: in fact, the comes Africae Gildone transferred his obedience to the Eastern Empire, revolting and cutting off the supply of grain coming from Africa to Rome. Stilicho immediately reacted by sending Mascezel, who was Gildon’s own brother, against him. The revolt was immediately quelled and Africa returned to supply Rome and Italy with grain, although Mascezel perished under suspicious circumstances, perhaps murdered on Stilicho’s orders.
In the meantime, Alaric, strengthened by the Roman arms he obtained as military governor and still dissatisfied with the treatment he received from the Romans, soon moved toward Italy, overcoming the first Alpine foothills in the autumn of 401. The barbarian invasions had begun for the Roman West.
The Barbarian Invasions, which until then had affected more the eastern part of the Empire, invested, starting in the early fifth century, mainly the West. In the past, some scholars had explained this change of trend by assuming that the Eastern Roman Empire had found the strength to put in place, as early as 400-402, a drastic policy of purging the Germanic elements present in the upper echelons of the army; this would have been complemented by a shrewd Eastern policy aimed at diverting the looming threat to Constantinople away from Constantinople and toward the Western limes. In fact, the actual existence of an anti-Germanic party in Constantinople, which would have seized power following the defeat of Gainas by implementing a drastic policy of purging the barbarians, has been strongly doubted in more recent work; moreover, there is no evidence that Alaric was incited by Arcadius’s prime ministers to invade Italy, and alternative explanations have been formulated. It would seem that this change in trend should be traced rather to geographical reasons: the first wave of barbarian invasions had mainly affected the eastern part as the first Huns’ incursions had affected populations (in the early 5th century, the situation changed, due to a further shift of the Huns, which led them to settle, around 410, in the great Hungarian plain; this further migration of the Huns pushed the barbarian peoples located west of the Carpathians westward, leading them playfully to invade the western part, which was easier for them to reach than the pars orientis. The Bosporus Strait also protected the prosperous provinces of Asia from an invasion from Europe.
In the West the legions, consisting mostly of barbarian troops (in the East the proportion was slightly lower), were under the command of a high-profile general, Stilicho. This one, partly of Germanic origin (he was the son of a Vandal and a Roman), was kin to the imperial family (Emperor Honorius had married his daughter) and felt proud of the trust placed in him by the great Theodosius deservedly earned on the battlefields. It was Stilicho who confronted Alaric and his Visigoths after they, having crossed the Alps, had begun to occupy and plunder northeastern Italy (November-December 401), subsequently aiming at Milan.
Repeatedly defeated at Pollen (402) and Verona (403), the Visigoths fell back to Illyricum, while Stilicho guaranteed Alaric a fair amount of tribute in an attempt to keep him in check. However, the dynamics of these battles remain unknown: none proved decisive, and Alaric was always able to escape ultimate disaster. More than one historian believes that in reality Stilicho, short of soldiers, sought an accommodation and perhaps even an alliance with the powerful Visigothic army. In fact, sources narrate that Stilicho made an alliance with Alaric so that he would assist him in his attempt to wrest the disputed dioceses of eastern Illyricum from the Eastern Empire.
The danger incurred during the Visigothic invasion had demonstrated the vulnerability of the northeastern frontier, so much so that Honorius moved his capital from Milan in 402 to the safer Ravenna, defended by the natural barrage of the Po River and defended by the powerful Classis Praetoria Ravennatis, which with its control of the sea also ensured a secure connection with the rest of the Empire and the East.
In 405 Stilicho resumed plans against the Eastern Empire by exploiting his alliance with Alaric. In order to wrest eastern Illyricum from Arcadius, he ordered Alaric, appointed general of the Roman army for the occasion, to invade Epirus, a territory under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Empire; he also appointed Jovius prefect of the praetorium of Illyricum and sent him to Alaric, agreeing with the Visigoth king to join him in a short time with Roman troops to subdue the region under the control of Honorius. Following Stilicho’s order, Alaric abandoned “the region of the Barbarians on the borders of Dalmatia and Pannonia,” where he had settled following his retreat from Italy, and marched at the head of his own troops into Epirus, which he occupied while awaiting the arrival of Stilicho’s troops. Stilicho could not, however, carry out his plans hostile to the Eastern Empire because he was prevented from doing so by a new series of barbarian invasions.
In that same year, on Dec. 31, a barbarian horde of extraordinary proportions, consisting of Vandals, Alans and Suebi, driven westward by the Huns, crossed the frozen Rhine and penetrated Gaul.
In the last months of 406, the scant attention paid by Honorius’s government to Britain, which was increasingly threatened by the incursions of invaders and barbarian pirates, prompted the British legions to revolt, acclaiming as emperor first a certain Marcus, then, a few months later, a certain Gratian, and then, after the latter’s refusal to take action against the barbarians who had in the meantime invaded Gaul, the general Flavius Claudius Constantine. These, having crossed La Manica and landed at Boulogne, succeeded in temporarily halting the advance of the barbarians and taking control of most of the Empire: Gaul, Spain, and Britain.
Stilicho was not as energetic as he had been with Radagaiso, and Gaul remained abandoned to barbarians and usurpers. The false news of Alaric’s supposed death and, more importantly, of Constantine III’s usurpation, forced Stilicho to cancel the Illyrian expedition in alliance with Alaric against the Eastern Empire. Stilicho nevertheless sent the Roman general of Gothic descent Saro to Gaul in 407 to put an end to the usurpation of Constantine III, but the expedition failed and Saro, defeated by the usurper’s generals, Edobicus and Gerontius, was forced to retreat in haste to Italy, even being forced during the retreat to surrender all the booty he had accumulated at the expense of the Bagaudi (brigands) in order to obtain permission from them to cross the Alps. Stilicho’s failure to arrive in Epirus also prompted Alaric to move into Noricum in 408, threatening to invade Italy if his demand for a payment of 4,000 pounds of gold “for services rendered,” i.e., arrears to the Gothic army for all the time spent in Epirus waiting for Stilicho, was not met. The Roman senate was confronted with a fait accompli and was persuaded to pay the 4,000 pounds to Alaric by Stilicho. Only a senator named Lampadius, according to tradition, had the courage to say that this was not alliance but slavery. According to Zosimus, Stilichoos intended to send Alaric to Gaul to fight the usurper Constantine III, gaining the approval of Honorius, who wrote to Alaric to inform him of his new assignment, but Stilicho’s assassination ruined everything.
In the same year Stilicho and Honorius had a heated discussion: his brother Arcadius having recently died, Honorius intended to travel to Constantinople to ensure the succession of his nephew Theodosius II, son of Arcadius but still at a young age; but Stilicho convinced him that the emperor’s presence in Italy at these delicate junctures (with Alaric and Constantine III lurking) was necessary and that he would go to the East himself to settle things. Having convinced Honorius, Stilicho made preparations to leave for Constantinople, but, Zosimus narrates, he delayed in carrying out what he had promised. It was a swan song for Stilicho: the weakness of the Western Empire, though attributable to a chain of events produced since the bloody Battle of Frigidus and culminating in the breakthrough of the Germanic border and the catastrophic invasion of Gaul in 406-407, was obvious. What is more, his non-Roman origin and Arian beliefs earned him hatred among the imperial courtiers, especially Olympius, who plotted against him in 408, spreading various rumors: that he had planned the assassination of Rufinus, that he was brigading with Alaric, that he had invited the barbarians in 406 to Gaul, and that he intended to head to Constantinople with the intention of putting his son Eucherius on the imperial throne. The army mutinied at Pavia on August 13, killing at least seven senior officers. What is more, Olympius managed to turn the Emperor Honorius himself against Stilicho, prompting him to write to the Ravenna army to capture the generalissimo. Although he could easily have avoided arrest and raised the troops loyal to him, he did not do so for fear of the consequences the act would have on the fate of the shaky Western empire. He was executed on August 23, 408, by Heraclianus, while his son Eucherius was assassinated shortly thereafter. A wave of violence broke out throughout Italy against the families of the barbarian foederati, who then went to swell the ranks of Alaric’s army.
Honorius, left without a viable military force with which to oppose the barbarians and the usurper Constantine, decided in 408 to associate the latter with the throne by recognizing him as co-emperor and associating him with the consulship for the following year.
Meanwhile, Constantine III, having elevated his son Constantus to the rank of Caesar, sent him to Spain, along with General Gerontius and the prefect of the praetorium Apollinaris, to put down the revolt organized by two of Honorius’ relatives, Verenianus and Didymus, who had assembled an army that threatened to invade Gaul and depose the usurper. Although the rebellious soldiers were joined by an immense mass of slaves and peasants, Constant’s army succeeded in putting down the revolt and capturing Verenian and Didymus, who were later executed in Gaul by order of Constantine III.
Meanwhile, Constant, on returning to Gaul, had unwisely left General Gerontius in Spain in command of Gallic troops, making the further mistake of replacing with troops of barbarian origin (the Honoriaci) the local garrisons that once guarded the Pyrenees. When Constantus, therefore, about to return to Spain, announced that he was dismissing Gerontius from command and replacing him with Justus, Gerontius reacted by revolting and proclaiming in turn emperor a man named Maximus. According to Zosimus’ confused account, Gerontius incited the invading Barbarians of Gaul to revolt against Constantine III to keep him occupied against the Barbarians. Incursions by the invading barbarians into Gaul prompted the inhabitants of Britannia and Armorica to revolt against Constantine III, ousting the Roman magistrates and forming their own government. The attempt to exploit the barbarians to win the civil war against Constantine III proved counterproductive, however, and in the last months of 409 Vandals, Alans, and Suebi, due to the treachery or negligence of the Honoriacian regiments garrisoning the Pyrenees, entered Spain, subduing it for the most part.
According to the account of the Spanish chronicler Idazio, in 411 the Vandals, Alans and Swabians divided by lot the conquered territories in Spain:
All of Spain, except Tarraconense, which remained with the Romans, was thus occupied by the Barbarians in the year 411, while Maximus’s legions marched on Gaul and, in the general chaos, Britain, left undefended and undefended against the incursions of Saxon pirates, rebelled, leaving the orbit of the empire (410). Over everything hung the threat of Alaric’s Visigoths, who in that same year, marched on Italy.
At that point the Western Empire found itself broken into three, prey to invasions and ruled by three warring emperors and one usurper: on one side Honorius, on the other Constantine III with his son Constant II, and finally Maximus.
Alaric, who had been promised gold and provisions for his people, as well as, in all likelihood, a military and civil office that would in some way formalize his functions as the Empire’s representative in Illyria, decided in 408, in the face of the general collapse of the Empire, to take for himself what he felt was his due.
Having crossed the Alps again, he descended as far as Rome with the intention of forcing the emperor to keep his promises so as not to see the heart of Roman civilization fall. Over the next twelve months, the Eternal City was besieged twice, until, faced with Honorius’ inaction, the Senate decided to come to an agreement with the invader: a large amount of gold was handed over to the barbarian leader, while praefectus urbi Priscus Attalus was acclaimed emperor, declaring Honorius deposed.
Long and inconclusive negotiations began from that moment between Alaric, appointed in the meantime by Priscus Attalus magister militum, and Honorius, until, tired of waiting for hesitant replies from Ravenna and exasperated by Attalus’s increasingly autonomous behavior, which had been unable to restore grain supplies to Rome, blocked by Comes Africae Heraclianus, who had meanwhile remained loyal to Honorius, Alaric broke off the delay in the spring of 410: deposed Attalus and again laid siege to Rome. Faced with the situation, Constantine III moved from Gaul, agreeing with Honorius’s comes domesticorum, Allobicus, to depose the bumbling emperor of Ravenna and succor the threatened Urbe. The death of Allobicus, however, promptly executed by Honorius, forced Constantine to abandon the plan when he had already reached Liguria: Rome was defenseless.
On August 24, 410, the Visigoths penetrated the Eternal City, subjecting it to sacking for three days. The news of the sack of Rome, the heart of the Empire, the sacred ground that had remained untouched by foreign armies for 800 years, had wide resonance throughout the Roman world and beyond. Eastern Emperor Theodosius II proclaimed in Constantinople-New Rome three days of mourning, while St. Jerome wondered bewilderedly who could ever hope to be saved if Rome perished:
Even the new religion, Christianity, seemed to be shaken by this, so much so that it prompted St. Augustine to write his masterpiece, De civitate Dei, in response to the many voices raised against the ungodly monotheists, who were accused of arousing against Rome the just punishment of the gods. In the first three books of the work, Augustine points out (citing episodes narrated by Titus Livy) to the accusing pagans that even when they were pagans, the Romans had suffered tremendous defeats, but without blaming the pagan gods for this:
Moreover, the catastrophe came just two years after the burning of the Sibylline books, ordered by the Christian Stilicho.
Alaric left Rome in early autumn and headed for southern Italy: he was taking with him not only enormous wealth but also a valuable hostage, the sister of Emperor Honorius, Galla Placidia. Alaric died a few months later in Calabria, being buried with all his treasure in the bed of the Busento River. The Visigoths, having elected Ataulfo as king, then marched north, heading for southern Gaul. The devastation caused during the march was extensive, to the point that in 412 Honorius granted the devastated provinces of southern Italy a reduction in taxes to one-fifth the norm for five years.
In 411 the politico-military situation finally reached an unlocking point. The armies of Maximus and Gerontius inflicted on Constantine’s a disastrous defeat at Vienne, capturing and executing Augustus Constant II himself and finally laying siege to Constantine at Arelate (today’s Arles), the residence of the emperor and his court. Honorius took advantage of the situation, sending the general Flavius Constantius to the site. The latter first defeated Maximus and Gerontius, forcing them to return to Hispania, where Gerontius committed suicide because he was forced by his troops, while Maximus abdicated, taking refuge among the barbarians. At this point, having rid himself of the Iberian usurper, Constantius then laid siege to Arelate in turn, taking Constantine prisoner and killing him on Honorius’ orders.
However, the usurpers Maximus and Constantine were soon replaced by two new rebels. In 412 the comes Africae Heraclianus proclaimed himself emperor, cutting off grain supplies to Italy, while in the north the death of Constantine III left a free hand to Burgundians and Alans along the Rhine frontier. These (led by Gundicaro and Goar, respectively) incited the legions stationed in the region to proclaim the general Jovinus emperor in Mainz, whom the Visigoths of Ataulphus attempted to join. Relations between Jovinus and the Visigoths turned into open hostility when Jovinus elevated his brother Sebastian to the rank of Augustus despite the failure of the Visigoth king to agree, who sent a message to Honorius promising to send him the heads of the usurpers in exchange for peace. Honorius accepted the agreement, and Ataulphus defeated and captured the two usurpers, whose heads, once beheaded, were sent to Ravenna. In the same year, in Italy, forces commanded by the usurper Heraclianus, who had landed to overthrow Honorius, were defeated, forcing the usurper to flee to Carthage, where he met his death. Flavius Constantius, fresh from his victory over Heraclianus, was rewarded with the incorporation of the immense wealth of the defeated usurper.
Honorius demanded at this point in exchange for peace the return of Galla Placidia, a hostage of the Visigoths since 410. Ataulphus, however, was unwilling to return his sister to Honorius unless in return the Romans fulfilled their promise to supply the Visigoths with a large amount of grain, a request the Romans had been unable to fulfill because of the blockade of grain supplies from Africa imposed by the usurper Heraclian. When the Romans refused to supply the Visigoths with the promised grain unless Galla Placidia was returned first, Ataulphus resumed the war against Rome (autumn 413), attempting to seize Marseilles but failing in the sortie thanks to the valor of General Boniface, who strenuously defended the city, even succeeding in the feat of wounding Ataulphus during the battle.
The following year the Visigoth king married Honorius’ sister Galla Placidia, who had been held hostage first by Alaric and then by Ataulfo himself since the days of the sack of Rome. Former emperor Priscus Attalus, who had followed his adopted people all the way to Gaul, celebrated the event by extolling the panegyric in honor of the newlyweds. Shortly thereafter, a son, named Theodosius, was born to the newlyweds. According to Heather, Galla Placidia’s marriage to Ataulphus had political ends: by marrying the sister of the Emperor of Rome, Ataulphus hoped to obtain for himself and the Visigoths a preponderant role within the empire, perhaps also harboring the hope that once Honorius died his son Theodosius, a nephew of Honorius who was half Roman and half Visigoth, would become emperor of the West since Honorius had had no children. However, every attempt by Ataulphus and Placidia to negotiate between the Visigoths and Rome failed because of Flavius Constantius’ opposition to the peace, and the untimely death of his young son Theodosius after not even a year of age scuppered all of Ataulphus’ plans.
At that point – it was still 414 – Ataulf proclaimed Priscus Attalus emperor again, in an attempt to rally opposition to Honorius around him. The advance of Flavius Constantius’ legions, however, forced the Visigoths to abandon Narbona and fall back to Spain, leaving Attalus in the hands of Honorius, who condemned him to the cutting off of two fingers on his right hand and exile on the Aeolian islands. Constantius’ tactic had been to block all ports and communication routes, preventing the Visigoths from receiving food supplies.In Spain, the Visigoths were so starved by Constantius’ tactics that they were forced to buy grain from the Vandals at an exorbitant price of one gold coin per trula of wheat (and for this reason the Vandals began to nickname them “truli”).
In 415 Ataulfo passed away near Barcelona, and his successor, Vallia, made peace with the empire, agreeing to return Galla Placidia to Honorius and fight as a federate the Barbarians in Spain in exchange for an immense amount of grain and the settlement of his own people in Aquitaine. Galla Placidia thus triumphantly returned to Italy, going in marriage in 417 to Flavius Constantius himself, who in the meantime was assuming an increasingly prominent position at court.
The Goths led by Vallia achieved promising but ephemeral long-term successes against the Vandals and the Alans in Hispania, as narrated by Idazio:
Having achieved these successes, thanks to which the Hispanic provinces of Lusitania, Carthage and Betica came back under precarious Roman control, in 418 Honorius and Constantius recalled, as had been established by the agreement of 415, the Visigoths to Aquitaine (a region of southern Gaul), in the Garonne valley, where the barbarians received-under the system of hospitalitas-land to cultivate. Aquitaine seems to have been chosen by Constantius as a land of settlement for the Visigoth foederates because of its strategic location: for it was not far from both Spain, where the Asdingi Vandals and the Swabians remained to be annihilated, and northern Gaul, where perhaps Constantius intended to employ the Visigoths to fight the separatist Bagaudian rebels in Armorica.
Although the establishment of the Visigoths in Aquitaine did not end Roman authority over the region for the time being, so much so that Roman governors continued to be elected in the provinces of Aquitaine for some time yet, the Visigoths did in fact constitute a centrifugal force that would soon permanently separate from the Empire first Aquitaine and then all of Gaul south of the Loire. According to Heather, “the Roman Empire was essentially a mosaic of local communities that to a large extent governed themselves, held together by a combination of military force and political barter: in exchange for tribute, the administrative center was responsible for protecting local elites.” This political barter was undermined by the appearance of the Visigoths: the landowners, left defenseless by the Empire and unable to run the risk of losing their main source of wealth, which was land, loosened their ties with the Empire and agreed to cooperate with the Visigoths, receiving in return protection, privileges and the guarantee that they would be able to keep their lands. The Constantius regime, in order to reestablish an understanding and commonality of interests with the Gallic landowners, some of whom, given the latitude of central Roman power, had shown pro-Barbaric or pro-Gothic tendencies, re-established the council of the seven provinces of southern Gaul in 418. The council of the seven provinces was held annually in Arelate for the purpose of discussing matters of general interest to the landowners of Gaul. The 418 session probably concerned the question of the settlement of the Goths in the Garonne valley in Aquitaine (provinces of Aquitaine II and Novempopulana).
In Gaul, meanwhile, Constantius sought to restore Roman authority, which in northern Gaul was only nominal, to the point that from then on it was referred to as “Ulterior Gaul” to distinguish it from southern Gaul (south of the Loire), where control by Ravenna authorities was firmer. In 417 Exuperantius fought local separatist groups (called Bagaudi) in Armorica (northwestern Gaul) that had revolted against central authority since 409, while around 420 General Castinus was sent against the Franks, who, along with the Burgundians and Alemanni, had settled in the area around the Rhine.
However, the Hispanic problem had not yet been resolved, not least because after the defeat, Vandal Silingi and Alani joined forces with the Vandal Asdingi, whose king, Gundericus, became king of the Vandals and Alani. The new Vandal-Alan coalition immediately attempted to expand into Galicia at the expense of the Swabians, forcing the Romans to intervene in 420: the Vandals were forced to abandon Galicia, migrating into Betica. In 422, the Roman-Visigoth coalition, led by General Castinus, attempted to annihilate the Vandal-Alans in a pitched battle, but the defection of the comes Africae Boniface due to a quarrel with Castinus and an alleged Visigoth betrayal resulted in a catastrophic defeat. Having failed the expedition, Castinus was forced to retreat to Tarragona and later to return to Italy.
During those years Constantius tried to take more and more control over Honorius, until on February 8, 421, he was proclaimed co-emperor as Constantius III. His reign was very short, however, and Constantius died suddenly and mysteriously that same year, just seven months after his acclamation. Upon his death, after quarreling with Honorius, his wife Galla Placidia fled to Constantinople, taking with her the two small children born of her marriage to Constantius.
Emperor Honorius, son of Theodosius, who finally remained undisputed ruler of the West, died of dropsy in Ravenna, August 15, 423, at the age of thirty-eight and after twenty-eight years of troubled reign, having outlived his brother Arcadius by fifteen years, his guardian Stilicho, and ten co-emperors and usurpers (Marcus, Gratian, Constantine III, Constans II, Maximus, Jovinus, Sebastian, Heraclianus, Priscus Attalus, and Constantius III), but above all the violation of the sacred soil of Rome. He left an empire deprived of Britain and occupied by the barbarians in parts of Hispania and Gaul, but substantially survived the great invasions, although because of the constant devastation by the barbarian hordes (which, among other things, had taken some provinces away from the Romans) tax revenues were diminished and with them the army was also weakened. According to the Notitia dignitatum, in fact, in 420 the Western field army consisted of 181 regiments, of which, however, only 84 existed before 395. Assuming that in 395 the western field army had approximately the same number of regiments as the eastern army (i.e., about 160), this means that the invasions had resulted in the loss of at least 76 Comitatenses regiments (equivalent to about 30,000 men, 47.5 percent of the total), which, due to budgetary problems, had to be replaced by promoting numerous frontier regiments to Comitatenses rather than by enlisting new troops. The number of true comitatenses (thus excluding frontier troops promoted to make up losses) had thus decreased by 25 percent (from 160 to 120 regiments).
The reign of Valentinian III and the age of Aetius (423-455)
When Honorius died, the only remaining emperor, his nephew Theodosius II, ruler of Constantinople, was slow to name a successor from the West. So in Rome the Senate decided to proclaim John primicerius notariorum, a Roman official of obscure origins, emperor of the West. The latter soon ran into trouble, however: the recently subdued Roman garrisons of Gaul rebelled, and the comes Africae Bonifacius cut off vital grain supplies to Rome, while Theodosius in Thessalonica elevated in 424 to the rank of Caesar his little cousin Valentinian III, son of Galla Placidia (repaired to Constantinople after the death of her husband Constantius III).
John therefore shut himself up in his secure capital, Ravenna, sending one of his young generals, Flavius Aetius, to Pannonia to solicit help from the Huns. The Eastern army laid siege to Ravenna, which finally fell after four months because of the corruption of the garrison. John was captured and deposed, had his right hand amputated, and was finally beheaded in 425 in Aquileia, while the infant Valentinian III was crowned emperor in Rome.
Meanwhile, Aetius, arriving too late to his rescue with a strong Hunnic contingent made an agreement with Valentinian’s regent, his mother Galla Placidia, to obtain the office of magister militum in exchange for disbanding his Hunnic army.
Flavius Aetius was a Latin from Moesia, coming from a family of castrensian traditions (his father, Gaudentius, had also briefly held the office of magister militum), and had spent much of his early youth as a hostage with the Hunnic tribes stationed beyond the Illyrian limes. Back home, he had embarked on a brilliant military career, establishing himself, in his early thirties, as one of the youngest and most promising generals of his time. With his appointment as magister militum after John’s death, he gained enormous power over the empire through his control of the army.
From then on and for some 30 years, Aetius dominated the political and military scene in the Roman West, despite the bitter hostility of the regent Galla Placidia and the emperor Valentinian.
With Valentinian III a gradual rapprochement took place between the two parts of the Empire, whose relations had been cooling during the last years of Honorius’ reign. This rapprochement was fostered both by the regent Galla Placidia and by Theodosius II, the Eastern Roman emperor, whose dynastic policies had strongly conditioned the accession to the throne of his cousin Valentinian and the deposition of the usurper John Primicerius, who nevertheless counted on the support of Aetius. In 437 Valentinian III married in Thessalonica the daughter of Theodosius II, Licinia Eudoxia, and the ties between the two branches of the Theodosian dynasty were further strengthened. In 438 the Theodosian Codex, the first major legislative recompilation of Roman law, was promulgated in Latin in both East and West, still perceived as integral parts of one great supranational entity. Codex was of particular importance to many Roman-Barbarian kingdoms of the time, which adopted it or were inspired by it in shaping their own legislation (think of the famous Roman Law of the Visigoths). In Italy and the East, the Codex was replaced in the following century by the far more famous Corpus iuris civilis (or Corpus juris civilis) promulgated, again in Latin, by the great Justinian, and which perhaps constitutes Byzantium’s greatest contribution to the construction of modern Western civilization.
The credit accrued by Theodosius II to Valentinian III, his son-in-law, was settled by the latter in 437, when the city of Sirmio, with some western Roman Illyrian territories (the subject of a dispute that had dragged on since 395), were ceded to the East. During the reign of the Byzantine emperor Marcianus, successor to Theodosius II, dispatches of actual forces from the East to the West ceased and aid was at best “diplomatic,” an opinion not shared by some scholars.
The struggles for the rank of generalissimo of the Empire between Aetius, Boniface and Felix (which lasted until 433) partially distracted the central government from the fight against the Barbarians, facilitating their successes. The Vandals were thus given the green light to raid and occupy southern Spain, with the seizure of Seville and Cartagena and the devastation of the Balearic Islands (425).
In the meantime, the rivalry between Felix (magister militum praesentialis in Italy) and Boniface (comes of Africa) began to produce deleterious effects for the empire: in fact, Felix soon decided to get rid of Boniface. Indeed, the latter enjoyed the open support of Galla Placidia, who had also assigned him the office of comes domesticorum. Felix exploited Boniface’s Arian faith to put him at odds with the orthodox Placidia, while insinuating that the latter was plotting to separate Africa from the empire. Finally, in 426, Galla Placidia resolved to declare Boniface hostis publicus, sending a powerful army to Africa the following year to subdue him. The legions were corrupted, however, and switched to Boniface’s side. When, however, a new army landed in Africa in 428, Boniface, in difficulty, reportedly asked, according to some sources, for help from Genseric’s Vandals, who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to move to his rescue. Upon their arrival in Mauretania (429), the Vandals are said to have learned that Boniface had made his peace with Galla Placidia, obtaining appointment as patricius, and that their presence was no longer required, but not at all intending to return to Spain, they began to ravage all of Africa. Some modern scholars, however, have found the story of Boniface’s betrayal told by Procopius and Jordanes to be unreliable, arguing that the Vandals would have invaded Africa on their own initiative, as they needed to settle in a place more protected from attacks by the Visigoths allied with the Romans, and Africa was an ideal place, being protected by the sea.
Having crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, the Vandals subdued Mauretania (429) and Numidia (430). The situation alarmed the Eastern Empire itself, so much so that Theodosius II sent his own magister militum Aspar to Africa to join Boniface with his troops against the Vandals. Unable, however, to curb the advance of the barbarians, the two were defeated a first time during 431-432, and Boniface was recalled to court in 432. Aspar, however, appears to have remained in Africa to continue military operations against the Vandals as he assumed the consulship in Carthage on January 1, 434. The diocese of Africa, with the exception of the major cities, was lost.
While the Vandals ravaged Africa, discord in Ravenna continued. Aetius succeeded in getting rid of Felix, having him executed on charges of conspiring against him (430). Later, when he was informed that Boniface, having returned to Italy, had obtained a promotion to general of the field army, he moved against him, killing him in battle near Rimini. After retreating to Pannonia, Aetius returned to Italy with a strong contingent of Hunnic mercenary warriors, forcing the new general Sebastian to flee to Constantinople and thereby gaining the rank of generalissimo of the Empire (433).
On February 11, 435, faced with the impossibility of conquering the major urban centers and the prospect of a new expedition from the East, Genseric resolved to accept foederate status for the Vandals. The Romans retained possession of the prosperous provinces of Proconsular and Byzacena as well as part of Numidia, while the Vandals were granted possession of part of Mauritania and the rest of Numidia.
By 435 Roman control over Gaul was precarious. Belgic Gaul and the area around the Rhine were being plundered and occupied by the Burgundians, Franks, and Alamanni; the Visigoths, stationed in Aquitaine, were attacking Septimania and the environs of Narbonne and Arelate in an attempt to gain an outlet to the Mediterranean, while Armorica had come under the control of the Bagaudi. The latter, according to the bishop of Marseilles, Salvianus, were the lower classes of the population, who, oppressed by the taxes and iniquities of the powerful, had no choice but to become brigands (“Bagaudi”) or flee to the Barbarians, who had now become, in Salvianus’ opinion, even more virtuous than the Romans. Several scholars have therefore interpreted, in a Marxian sense, the Bagaudian uprisings as a “class struggle” of the “oppressed” against the “powerful”; in reality, it seems that wealthy people also took part in the Bagaudian uprisings, which could mean that the “Bagaudians” were actually separatist movements, who, not feeling sufficiently protected by the Empire against external threats, decided to go it alone.
Realizing that he needed outside help to deal with such threats, Aetius turned to the Huns, who had already helped him in power struggles in 425 and 433 and who continued to provide him with military aid in Gaul: to gain their support, however, Aetius had to surrender Pannonia and Valeria to them around 435. Thanks to his alliance with the Huns, Aetius was able to annihilate, during 436
Aetius’ choice to employ a pagan people such as the Huns against the Christian (albeit Arian) Visigoths, however, found opposition from some, such as the bishop of Marseille Salvianus, author of De gubernatione dei (“The Government of God”), who argued that the Romans, by employing the pagan Huns against the Christian Visigoths, would only lose God’s protection. Christian authors were especially scandalized by the fact that Litorio allowed the Huns not only to make sacrifices to their pagan deities and to foretell the future through scapulimancy, but also to plunder imperial territory itself under certain circumstances. In 439 Litorio arrived at the gates of Toulouse, the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom, where he clashed with the Visigoths in an attempt to annihilate them for good: in the course of the battle, however, he was captured by the Visigoths, and this generated panic among the Hun mercenaries, who were defeated and routed. Litorio was executed. Litorio’s defeat and death prompted Aetius to sign a peace with the Visigoths reconfirming the treaty of 418, due to the emergence of the Vandals, who had conquered Carthage that very year.
Meanwhile, it seems that the situation underwent a slight improvement in Spain as well, where, with the departure of the Vandals for Africa, only the Suebi were left in Galicia. Merobaude’s panegyric asserts that in Spain, where previously “nothing more was under control … the avenging warrior reopened the once captive road and drove out the predator [actually gone to Africa on his own initiative], regaining the broken routes of communication; and the people were able to return to the abandoned cities.” It seems that Aetius’ intervention in Spain was limited to diplomatic negotiations with the Swabians so as to reach an accommodation between the Swabians and the inhabitants of Galicia, despite pressure from some Hispano-Romans, who would have preferred military intervention. However, Aetius did not intend to lose soldiers in the reconquest of an unprofitable province such as Galicia and merely restored Roman rule over the rest of Spain, which again began to bring tax revenues into the state coffers in Ravenna.
While Aetius was restoring order in Gaul, however, in Africa Genseric on October 19, 439, took Carthage, the capital of the Prefecture of the Praetorium of Africa, permanently ending any semblance of imperial power in the region. Having taken control of the many African ports, Genseric also set up his own fleet with which he began to engage in piracy, while domestically he began to repress orthodox Christianity in favor of the Arian faith of the Vandals. Taking advantage of his powerful fleet, as early as the following year the Vandals upped the ante by attempting to invade Sicily, but were repulsed thanks in part to reinforcements that arrived from the Eastern Empire.
Emperor Theodosius II sent a fleet of as many as 1100 ships to Sicily in preparation for a joint attack by the two halves of the Empire against the Vandals: but the expedition faded because of a massive Hunnic invasion in the Balkans by Attila, which forced Theodosius II to recall the fleet. The Empire was thus forced to negotiate a peace with the Vandals in 442, in which it regained Mauritania and part of Numidia, but recognized the Vandals’ possession of Proconsular, Byzacena, and the rest of Numidia. The Vandal king Genseric sent as a hostage to Ravenna his son Uneric, who became engaged to the emperor’s daughter, according to the terms of the treaty.
The loss of North Africa exacerbated the fiscal problem. The empire’s finances were based on the rents of large landed estates, which were provided, in return, with the protection guaranteed by the army. The loss of North Africa caused disastrous consequences for the state’s finances, reducing the tax base and forcing the state to increase the tax burden: the result was that the provinces’ loyalty to the central government was put to the test. Not only had the empire lost the most prosperous provinces in North Africa, but the provinces returned to the Romans under the treaty of 442, namely Mauritania and part of Numidia, had been devastated to such an extent by the war that their tax revenues had been reduced to 1
Having contained the Vandal threat, Aetius was then able to turn his attention to the north, where he allowed the surviving Burgundians to settle within the limes between Saône and Rhône, in the region called Sapaudia, founding a new allied Burgundian kingdom that could control the growing threat of the Huns (443). In 442, he decided to restore order to rebel-infested Armorica, allowing King Goar’s Alans to settle in the region. In 440 he settled some Alans led by Sambidas near Valence in the Rhone valley. These allocations of foederati barbarians, who were tasked with keeping the rebels at bay and defending the frontiers from other barbarians, generated protests from Gallic landowners, many of whom were dispossessed of their possessions by these groups of foederati. According to Halsall, “at this point, it appears that imperial policy in Gaul involved a withdrawal of the frontier from the … Loire to the … Alps, with groups of federates settled along that frontier to help defend it,” while the remnants of the Roman army in Gaul would have attempted to restore effective Roman authority in Ulterior (northern) Gaul.
The Hunnic threat, however, prevented him from sending substantial troops to Spain, where the departure of the Vandals and Alanians to Africa had enabled the Empire to recover the provinces they had occupied in Spain, provinces that remained threatened, however, by the Swabians stationed in northwestern Hispania. Thus, when King Rechila ascended the Swabian throne in 438, he launched expansionist campaigns against the Empire: with Aetius busy foiling the Vandal invasion of Sicily, the Swabians were thus able to occupy Merida (capital of Lusitania) in 439, and later Seville and the provinces of Betica and Carthage (441). The only Hispanic province still remaining under Rome’s control was Tarraconense, which, however, was infested with Bagaudian separatists. Aetius, after the treaty of 442, made small attempts to recover the provinces lost to the Swabians and to defeat the Bagaudi, sending commanders Astirius (441), Merobaude (443), and Vitus (446) to Spain. If the first two attempted to recover at least the Tarraconense from the Bagaudi, Vitus, more ambitious, led the Roman-Visigothic army against the Swabians but was annihilated by them. This failure was attributable at least in part to the fact that Aetius could not concentrate all his forces in the fight against the Swabians given the Hun threat.
In the late 430s, when the Hun king Rua died, his nephews Bleda and Attila succeeded him. Attila, a Hunnic prince with great ambitions, in short order got rid of his brother, unified the Hunnic tribes, and made himself recognized as the sole ruler (445). In 441-442 he attacked the Eastern Empire, forcing it to recall the fleet that was to recover Carthage for the West, and to pay heavy tribute. Theodosius II, however, after reinforcing his army, stopped paying tribute to Attila, convinced that Attila’s successes of 441-442 were due to the fact that the Balkans had been depleted of troops because of the expedition against the Vandals, and believing that with the Balkans undeveloped he would be able to repel the Hun king’s invasions.
In 447, faced with Theodosius’ refusal to pay him tribute, Attila again invaded the Eastern Empire, ravaging much of the Illyrian territories between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and inflicting two severe defeats on no less than two Eastern Roman field armies. He failed, however, to conquer Constantinople, whose formidable fortifications had recently been repaired after a severe earthquake damaged them. Theodosius was forced, however, to evacuate a five-day-wide strip of territory south of the Danube and to pay the Huns an annual tribute of 2,100 pounds of gold.
Valentinian’s sister Honoria had sent a request for help to the Hun king in the spring of 450, along with her own ring, because she wanted to escape the obligation of betrothal to a senator: hers was not a marriage proposal, but Attila interpreted the message as such, and she accepted, demanding half of the Western Empire as dowry. When Valentinian discovered the intrigue, it was only the intervention of his mother Galla Placidia that persuaded him to send him into exile, rather than to kill Honoria, and to send a message to Attila in which he absolutely disavowed the legitimacy of the alleged marriage proposal. Attila, not at all persuaded, sent an embassy to Ravenna to assert that Honoria was not at fault, that the proposal was legally valid, and that he would come to demand what was his right.
On the strength of an army said to have numbered 500,000 men, Attila crossed northern Gaul causing death and destruction. He conquered many of Europe’s great cities, including Reims, Strasbourg, Trier, and Cologne, but was defeated against the Visigoth and Burgundian armies commanded by General Flavius Aetius at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields.
In 452, Attila, still under the effects of the heavy defeat but not at all bent, invaded Italy, perhaps to claim again his marriage to Honoria, sacking and destroying Aquileia, Milan and other cities. Famous has remained the singular way in which he asserted his superiority over Rome: in the royal palace in Milan there was a painting depicting the Caesars seated on thrones and at their feet the Scythian princes; Attila, impressed by the painting, had it altered: the Caesars were depicted in the act of emptying supplicating purses of gold before the throne of Attila himself. His army, however, was decimated by starvation and disease, as cholera and malaria were raging in Italy, while the devastated Po Valley was unable to provide sustenance for the barbarian horde; in addition, the Eastern Empire had sent military aid to Aetius against the Huns. Attila, himself debilitated and fearing the arrival of aid from the Eastern Empire, accepted the truce proposed to him by an embassy of Valentinian III, led by Pope Leo I, who went to meet him near the Mincio River. The “fable that was depicted by the pencil of Raphael and the chisel of Algardi” (as Edward Gibbon called it) of Prosperus of Aquitaine asserts that the pope, aided by Peter the Apostle and Paul of Tarsus, persuaded him to turn off the city. In reality, it was logistical problems such as disease and food shortages that had affected his army that drove Attila’s hordes to retreat, certainly not the Pontiff’s intervention. Retreating to his Pannonian domains, Attila died in 453 while preparing a new invasion of the Empire.
By September 454 Aetius was at the height of his power, so much so that he was perhaps thinking of imperial succession for his son Gaudentius through the latter’s marriage to the emperor’s sister Galla Placidia. The praefectus praetorii Petronius Maximus and the primicerius sacri cubiculi Heraclius then instigated Emperor Valentinian by fearing that Aetius would soon prepare to depose him. In an excess of anger, Valentinian III fatally stabbed Aetius during an audience.
A few months later, the short-lived political alliance between Valentinian, Heraclius and Petronius Maximus, the latter irritated that he had not taken the place that had been Aetius’, broke down. On March 16, 455, two of Aetius’ legionaries belonging to the Emperor’s bodyguard, instigated by Petronius, avenged the murder of their commander by assassinating Valentinian and his powerful minister Heraclius in Rome on his way to the Campus Martius: with Valentinian’s death, the Theodosian-Valentinian dynasty in the West was extinguished.
The migration of the Huns to the great Hungarian plain had caused a new wave of barbarian invasions by numerous peoples, who, not repulsed by Roman armies, settled in imperial territory, contributing to the final fall of the Empire in the West and leading to the formation of Roman-Barbarian kingdoms.
The contribution of the Huns in the barbarian invasions can be divided into three phases:
Initially in the 370s, while most of the Huns were still concentrated north of the Black Sea, a few isolated looting bands of Huns attacked the Visigoths north of the Danube, prompting them to seek hospitality from Emperor Valens. The Visigoths, divided into two groups (Tervingi and Grutungi), were allowed into Eastern Roman territory, but following mistreatment, they revolted and inflicted a severe defeat on the Eastern Empire at the Battle of Adrianople (378). By the foedus of 382, they were granted settlement in eastern Illyricum as foederates of the Empire, with an obligation to supply mercenary troops to Emperor Theodosius I. Revolted a second time in 395 under Alaric I, the Visigoths moved west, being at first repulsed (after his assassination in 408, the Visigoths invaded Italy again, sacking Rome in 410 and then moving, under King Ataulphus, into Gaul. Defeated by the Roman general Flavius Constantius in 415, the Visigoths agreed to fight for the Empire in Spain against the Rhine invaders, gaining in return possession of Gaul Aquitaine as foederates of the Empire (418).
If the first “crisis” caused by the Huns led only to the Visigoths invading the Empire, the movement of the Huns from north of the Black Sea to the great Hungarian plain in the early 5th century led to a far more serious “crisis.” Between 405 and 408 the Empire was invaded by Uldinus’ Huns, Radagaisus’ Goths (405), and Vandals, Alans, Swabians (406), and Burgundians (409), pushed into the Empire by the Hunnic migration. If Radagaiso’s Goths, who invaded Italy, and Uldino’s Huns, who struck the Eastern Empire, were repulsed, Vandals, Alans and Swabians, having crossed the Rhine on Dec. 31, 406, never left the Empire again, settling in Spain in 409 after ravaging Gaul for about three years. The Vandals and Alans then moved to Africa in 429, conquering Carthage ten years later (439). From Carthage, practicing piracy, they then took possession of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, even sacking Rome in 455. Meanwhile, Franks and Burgundians had settled in the area around the Rhine, while Armorica and Britain had become independent of the Empire, although Armorica was later precariously reclaimed.
After indirectly provoking the crises of 376-382 and 405-408, the Huns, now permanently settled in Hungary, paradoxically not only stopped the flow of migration to the detriment of the empire, in that they wanted subjects to exploit and prevented any migration by the subjugated peoples, but also helped the Western Empire to fight the invading groups: in 410 some Hunnic mercenaries were sent to Honorius to support him against Alaric, while Aetius from 436 to 439 employed Hunnic mercenaries to defeat Burgundians, Bagaudians, and Visigoths in Gaul; since, however, none of the external threats were permanently annihilated even with the support of the Huns, this help only minimally compensated for the harmful effects caused by the invasions of 376-382 and 405-408.
Under Attila, then, the Huns became a major threat to the Empire, distracting it from the fight against the invaders who penetrated the Empire’s interior in 376-382 and 405-408, who in this way took advantage of them to further expand their influence. For example, Attila’s Balkan campaigns prevented the Eastern Empire from helping the Western Empire in Africa against the Vandals, and the Roman-Eastern fleet of 1100 ships that had been sent to Sicily to recapture Carthage was recalled precociously because Attila threatened to conquer even Constantinople (442). Britannia, abandoned for good by the Romans around 407-409, was also invaded around the middle of the century by Germanic peoples (Saxons, Angles and Jutes) who gave rise to many small autonomous territorial entities (Sussex, East Anglia, Kent, etc.), often fighting among themselves. General Aetius in 446 received a desperate appeal from the Romano-Britons against the new invaders; Aetius, unable to divert forces from the frontier bordering the Hunnic Empire, declined the request. Aetius also had to give up sending substantial forces into Spain against the Swabians, who, under King Rechila, had subdued almost all of Roman Spain, with the exception of Tarraconense.
The Western Roman Empire thus had to forgo tax revenues from Spain and especially Africa, resulting in fewer resources available to maintain an efficient army for use against the Barbarians. As tax revenues declined due to invasions, the Roman army grew weaker and weaker, facilitating further expansion at the expense of the Romans by the invaders. By 452 the Western Empire had lost Britain, part of southwestern Gaul ceded to the Visigoths and part of northeastern Gaul ceded to the Burgundians, almost all of Spain passed to the Swabians, and the more prosperous provinces of Africa occupied by the Vandals; the remaining provinces were either infested with Bagaudian separatist rebels or devastated by the wars of the previous decade (e.g., Attila’s campaigns in Gaul and Italy) and thus could no longer provide tax revenues comparable to those before the invasions. It can be concluded that the Huns contributed to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, not so much directly (with Attila’s campaigns), but indirectly, since, by causing the migration of Vandals, Visigoths, Burgundians and other peoples within the Empire, they had damaged the Western Roman Empire far more than Attila’s military campaigns themselves.
Vandal plundering of Rome (455)
The death of Valentinian III saw the extinction of the direct line of Theodosius’ descendants. However feeble the support of the dynastic concept and its continuity was thus also lacking. The successor Petronius Maximus, whose hand was behind the death of Valentinian III and who had quickly married his widow, remained emperor for about two months, from March 17 to May 31, 455. News of the landing of Genseric and his Vandals at Ostia provoked an uprising of the Roman population and the stoning of the emperor who was attempting to escape.
Genseric and his horde marched on Rome, which, without even attempting to defend itself, capitulated on June 2, 455. Genseric promised Pope Leo I that the physical integrity of the citizens would be respected, that the sacking would last a maximum of fifteen days, and that there would be no fires. The Vandals removed the removable and the transportable among the riches and works of art robbed in the city; not content with that, the barbarian ruler also dragged numerous eminent people as hostages to Africa to obtain their ransom.
Among the captives were Empress Licinia Eudoxia and her daughters Placidia and Eudocia. It is said that Licinia Eudoxia had herself called Genseric to avenge the murder of her first husband, while her daughter Eudocia was said to have been betrothed to Uneric, Genseric’s son, with whom she was actually united in marriage in the land of Africa. Genseric subsequently occupied the African provinces still in the hands of the Western Empire, as well as Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands.
The last emperors (455-475)
On the death of Petronius Maximus came to power Avitus, a Gallo-Roman of high-senatorial class appointed magister militum by Petronius, who had been acclaimed emperor at Arelate with the military support of the Visigoths and who, on entering Rome, succeeded in gaining recognition by the Roman army of Italy thanks to the imposing Visigothic army. Avitus was intent on taking action against the Swabians, who were threatening the Tarraconensis: he therefore sent the Visigoths to Spain, who, however, if they succeeded in annihilating the Swabians, plundered Hispanic territory and seized it at the expense of the Romans. In the meantime, he led a campaign in Pannonia against the Ostrogoths in the fall of 455, succeeding in bringing them back into obedience, at least nominally, while his general Ricimerus succeeded in repelling piratical incursions by the Vandals into Sicily and southern Italy. Avitus’s reign lasted only a little more than a year, however: disliked by the Roman ruling class and the army of Italy for his Gallic foreignness, the generals of the Italic army Ricimerus, nephew of the Visigoth king Vallia, and Maggiorianus revolted against Avitus; taking advantage of the absence of the Visigoths, who had left for Spain to fight the Swabians, they defeated him near Piacenza in 456 and deposed him. The power vacuum created fueled separatist tensions in the various barbarian kingdoms that were forming.
After a period of interregnum lasting more than eighteen months, made necessary because, before proceeding to appoint a new emperor, it was intended to wait for the assent of the Eastern Emperor, which did not then arrive, he was appointed emperor, then, Maggioriano who, supported by the Senate, engaged for four years in a careful and decisive action of political, administrative and legal reform, trying to eliminate abuses and prevent the destruction of ancient monuments in order to employ their materials for the construction of new buildings.
One of the first tasks facing the new emperor was to consolidate his rule over Italy and regain control of Gaul, which had rebelled against him after the death of the Gallo-Roman emperor Avitus; attempts to reconquer Hispania and Africa were plans ahead. He first ensured the security of Italy by defeating in the summer of 458 a group of Vandals that had landed in Campania. With a view to an expedition to Gaul, he reinforced his army, hiring a strong contingent of barbarian mercenaries comprising Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugi, Burgundians, Huns, Bastarni, Suebi, Scythians, and Alans, as well as reorganizing two fleets, probably those of Misenum and Ravenna, not intending to underestimate the military might of the Vandal fleet.
In late 458 Maggioriano led his army, reinforced by the barbarian contingent, into Gaul, driving out Theodoric II’s Visigoths from Arelate, forcing them to return to the status of foederates and to hand back the diocese of Hispania, which Theodoric had conquered three years earlier on behalf of Avitus; the emperor put his own former comrade Aegidius in charge of the province, appointing him magister militum for Gallias, and sent messengers to Hispania to announce his own victory over the Visigoths and the agreement reached with Theodoric. With the help of his new foederates, Maggioriano then penetrated the Rhone valley, conquering it by both force and diplomacy: in fact, he defeated the Burgundians and retook Lyons after a siege, condemning the city to pay a heavy war indemnity, while the Bagaudi were persuaded to side with the empire. Maggiorian’s intention, however, was to reconcile with Gaul, despite the fact that the Gallo-Roman nobility had taken Avitus’s side: significant is the fact that the Gallic emperor’s son-in-law, the poet Sidonius Apollinaris, obtained the right to declaim a panegyric to the emperor (surely much more effective was the granting of tax exemption to the city of Lyon.
Maggioriano then decided to attack Vandal Africa. Genseric, fearing Roman invasion, tried to negotiate a peace with Maggiorian, who refused it; the Vandal king then decided to destroy all sources of supply in Mauretania, as he believed that was the place where Maggiorian and his army would land to invade Africa, and he had his own fleet raid the waters near the landing area. Meanwhile, Maggiorianus was conquering Spain: while Nepozianus and Sunericus were defeating the Suebi at Lucus Augusti and conquering Scallabis in Lusitania, the emperor passed through Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza), where he made a formal imperial adventus, and had reached Carthage, when his fleet, docked at Portus Illicitanus (near Elche), was destroyed at the hands of traitors in the pay of the Vandals. Maggioriano, deprived of the fleet he needed for the invasion, called off the attack on the Vandals and set out on his way home: when he received Genseric’s ambassadors, he agreed to make peace, which probably included Roman recognition of the de facto Vandal occupation of Mauretania. On his return to Italy, he was assassinated by order of Ricimerus in August 461. The death of Maggioriano meant the final loss to the Vandals of Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, as well as of Spain to the Visigoths: in fact, after Maggioriano’s withdrawal from Spain, no other Roman official is attested in the sources in the Iberian Peninsula, making it clear that after 460 Spain was no longer – in fact – part of the Empire.
With the death of Maggioriano disappeared the last true emperor of the West. Ricimerus, related to the Burgundian and Visigothic royal houses, became the true arbiter of this part of the Empire, and from then on he appointed and deposed augusts on the basis of the most pressing political needs of the moment and his own personal gain.
In 461, Ricimerus elected Libius Severus as puppet emperor. The magister militum for Gallias Aegidius and the comes of Dalmatia Marcellinus, however, being loyal to Maggioriano, refused to recognize the new emperor, a puppet of Ricimerus; the latter reacted by appointing a new magister militum for Gallias, his supporter Agrippinus. Agrippinus turned to the Visigoths and with their help fought against Aegidius and his Frankish allies, led by King Childericus I: to gain their support, in 462 Agrippinus gave the Visigoths access to the Mediterranean Sea, assigning them the city of Narbonne, effectively separating Aegidius from the rest of the empire. Aegidius found himself ruling an autonomous Roman state in the region around Soissons: his independence was accentuated by the fact that he recognized no authority other than the distant authority of the Eastern Roman Empire. After Agrippinus, Ricimerus appointed magister militum for Gallias the Burgundian king Gundicus, husband of his sister (463).
By pitting the Burgundians and Visigoths against Aegidius, Ricimerus and Severus hoped to gain control over the still powerful army of Gaul, but Aegidius continued to be a thorn in Ricimerus’ side, going so far as to defeat the Visigoths in a major pitched battle at Orleans in 463, in which he also killed King Theodoric II’s brother Frederick. After this victory, Aegidius did not bring attacks against the Visigoths; however, it is known that in 465 he sent an embassy to the Vandals perhaps to seek their help against the barbarian populations stationed in Gaul. That same year, however, Aegidius died, possibly poisoned: he was succeeded first by the comes Paulus and then by his own son Siagrius. The Dominion of Soissons, the last Roman bastion in northern Gaul, fell only in 486, when it was conquered by the Franks.
In the meantime, the Vandals resumed their attacks against southern Italy and Sicily: in fact, Genseric, intended to place the Roman Olibrio on the Western throne, as he was related to him, and attempted to blackmail the Western Empire with looting raids: the Western Empire no longer had a fleet of its own to defend itself, and consequently implored help from the Eastern Empire, which, however, refused, both because it did not recognize Libius Severus as a legitimate emperor and therefore did not intend to intervene to rescue what it considered a “usurper,” and because of a peace treaty signed with the Vandals in 462, in which, in exchange for neutrality, it obtained the return of the imperial princesses.
Ricimerus realized that the elevation of Libius Severus to emperor had been detrimental to the Empire, for not only had it led to revolts in Gaul and Dalmatia by generals loyal to Maggioriano, resulting in the secession of those areas from the center of the Empire, but it had also forced Ricimerus to make further territorial concessions to the barbarian groups stationed there (moreover, in order to lift the Empire’s fortunes, Ricimerus needed the warlike support of the Eastern Roman Empire, which, however, did not recognize Libius as legitimate. Considering it therefore now deleterious to formally keep Libius Severus in power, Ricimerus had him killed in 465. There followed two years of interregnum, during which control of the Western Empire was formally exercised by the Eastern Emperor, Leo I, pending the appointment of a new Western Emperor, this time imposed from the East, and Ricimerus was forced, however, to accept this Byzantium-imposed augustus: Antemius.
In 467, the Eastern Emperor Leo I attempted to lift the fortunes of the Western Empire with a major joint action in an anti-Vandal capacity. The joint expedition of the two empires, however, was a disaster: in 468 a large joint fleet set up by the two empires was annihilated by the Vandals, who consolidated their rule over Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands, while the Eastern Empire, having emptied its treasury coffers for the setting up of the disastrous expedition, could no longer help the Western half. According to speculation by some scholars, the defeat of 468 was fatal for the Western Empire: for if it had in fact recovered Africa, in addition to eliminating the Vandal threat, it would have recovered an important source of revenue, thanks to which it could have had the possibility of gradually retaking first Spain and later Gaul; now, however, that the expedition had failed, the Western Empire was left with only Italy and little more, regions that provided too little revenue to be able to mount a large army capable of recovering the lost territories or at least capable of keeping the barbarians at bay.
The defeat of 468 was taken advantage of by the Visigoths of the new king Euricus, who ascended the throne in 466. In 469, desiring to form a kingdom completely independent of Rome, the new king invaded the provinces of Gaul still in imperial hands.Antemius attempted to halt the Visigoth king’s advance by allying himself with the Breton king Riotamus, but the latter was defeated by Euricus in 470 and sought refuge among the Burgundians. A year later, in 471, the Visigothic army won a clear victory over the imperial army near the Rhone: one of Antemius’s sons, Antemiolus, also lost his life in this clash. Having thus brought the boundaries of the Visigothic kingdom to the Loire, in the following years they also conquered the Auvergne, as well as conquering Arelate and Marseille (both in 476). The new king also achieved significant successes in Hispania, where he occupied Terragona and the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula (473), which by 476 already belonged entirely to the Visigoths, if one excludes a small Swabian enclave.
The defeats suffered compromised relations between Antemius and Ricimerus, who, at the head of two armies consisting mostly of barbarians (including the Heruli and the Scyrians of Odoacer, who sided with Ricimerus), faced each other at the gates of the Urbe. Antemius, with the support of the senate, barricaded himself in the city, which was besieged by Ricimerus and Anicius Olibrius, an augustus supported, it seems, by the Vandal king Genseric. After five months Rome fell (472) and for the third time since the beginning of the century was subjected to sacking. Antemius died and a few months later Ricimerus and Olibrius also died.
The candidate of Olibrio and his Burgundian ally Gundobado, the comes domesticorum Glicerius, was accepted neither by Leo I nor by his successor, Zeno, who imposed the magister militum of Dalmatia, Julius Nepot. The latter went to Rome to be crowned by an imperial envoy in 474 while Glycerius, having renounced all his rights to the throne, ended his days as bishop in the city of Salona.
Hostile to the Senate, in 475 Nepot had to endure the revolt of Orestes, a Roman patrician from Pannonia who had also served Attila some twenty to thirty years earlier. Orestes succeeded in imposing his son Romulus Augustus as emperor. However, the young man, under his father’s leadership, soon had to face a revolt by his troops from the Danubian area and made up of Heruli, Scyrians, and Rugi: they claimed land for cultivation in northern Italy, where they were stationed. The imperial refusal triggered a violent reaction: the barbarians appointed a soldier, Odoacer, as their duke. Orestes, repeatedly defeated by Odoacer, retreated to Pavia, relying on the city’s mighty fortifications. However, Odoacer besieged Pavia and took it, thus capturing Orestes, who was taken to Piacenza and beheaded. With the fall of his father, the infant Romulus Augustus, after only ten months of reign, was then stripped of his imperial title and confined to Baia in the villa that had been Lucullus’ with an income of 6,000 gold pieces. Odoacer also ordered the Roman senate to send an embassy to the Eastern Emperor Zeno:
Zeno also received on that same day an embassy from Dalmatia sent by Julius Nepot, aimed at obtaining money and soldiers from the Eastern Emperor to retake the Western throne. However, Zeno declined all requests for Nepot’s help, accepting Odoacer as governor of Italy on behalf of the Emperor, provided, however, that the barbarian formally recognized Nepot as Emperor of the West. Julius Nepot, while continuing to claim the title of Emperor of the West, never returned from Dalmatia and was killed in 480 by his own men; taking advantage of this, Odoacer invaded Dalmatia and subdued it. Later acclaimed as king by the barbarian peoples who had supported him, Odoacer became de facto ruler of Italy.
End of the Roman West (476)
The barbarian invaders had no deliberate intention of bringing about the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, intending only to settle on its territories and build an advantageous alliance with the Empire, preventing other barbarian immigrants from doing the same. Barbarian leaders such as Alaric or Ataulfo (and later, Theodoric himself), demanded nothing more than the enjoyment, for their own peoples, of the benefits of Roman civilization, which for them represented “civilization” par excellence, the only one with which they had had contact. Some Germanic peoples (Franks, Visigoths) had long since undergone a gradual process of Romanization and sent their sons to fight in the imperial armies, where they often reached the highest ranks in the army.
However, their violent action, which was necessary to force the Roman state to grant them settlement within the Empire, contributed on the whole, in addition to internal factors, to the fall of the Western Roman Empire: the plundering caused by the barbarians and the occupation of entire provinces resulted in fact in a substantial drop in the Empire’s tax revenues; in fact, agricultural production constituted no less than 80% of the Empire’s GDP, with the result that the provinces plundered by the Barbarians, with devastated fields, were no longer able to pay taxes at their former levels; it is believed that the tax revenues of the provinces most devastated by the raids decreased by 6
It should also be mentioned that, unlike in the East, where the Emperor Leo I had managed to get rid of the generalissimos of Germanic origin who intended to reign from behind the scenes in his stead (we refer in particular to Aspar), in the West the Emperor had lost all authority to the generals of barbarian origin, who eventually, with Odoacer, decided that one could also do without an emperor. Had the Western Emperor been able to preserve his effective authority, it cannot be ruled out that the Western Empire would have survived, perhaps limited to Italy alone; in the West, on the other hand, the Emperor had lost all power to the advantage of army leaders of barbarian origin, such as Ricimer and Gundobald. Odoacer merely legalized a de facto situation, namely, the effective uselessness of the figure of the Emperor, now only a puppet in the hands of Roman generals of Germanic origin. Rather than a fall, the end of the Empire, at least in Italy, can be interpreted as an internal regime change in which an outdated institution that had lost all effective power was brought to an end, to the advantage of the Romano-Barbarian commanders, who now considered the figure of the Emperor an insignificant puppet that could even be dispensed with.
The crisis not only political but also financial and economic of the 3rd century, (see: Crisis of the 3rd century) was followed by a moderate upswing in productive activities since the Tetrarchic era, which, however, mainly affected the eastern part of the Empire. Various factors contributed to curb this favorable economic conjuncture in the West, which managed to present some consistency only in a small number of areas: Carthage with Proconsular and Byzacena Africa, part of Gaul, and parts of Annonaria Italy (Northern Italy). In the years in which the Western Roman Empire began to conform (c. 395 – 400), its economy had long since taken on particular connotations that might here find the following summary:
It should not be forgotten that the tax burden, from the Diocletian era onward, was unceasingly increasing in order to meet the ever-increasing costs of maintaining an army now almost entirely made up of mercenaries and a bureaucratic apparatus that had developed out of all proportion (as the government needed more and more controllers to fight tax evasion and enforce laws across the vastness of the Empire). The increased tax burden soon became intolerable for the less affluent populations, while the wealthy relied on support and corruption; those who paid the cost were the middle class (small landowners, artisans, transporters, merchants) and local administrators (decurions), who were held accountable in their own right for the share of taxes set by the state (indition) to be borne by the community to prevent tax evasion. Public offices, previously coveted, meant burdens and ruin in the Late Empire. To halt the flight from the decurionate, the professions and the countryside, which became general precisely with the tightening of the tax burden between the third and fourth centuries CE, the state bound each worker and his descendants to the work they had done so far, forbidding the abandonment of the post they had occupied (the phenomenon of “forced professions,” which in the countryside would eventually initiate, through the colonate, what would be called “serfdom” in the Middle Ages).
When the Germanic peoples occupied the territories of the Western Empire, they faced a society deeply divided between a privileged minority and a mass of poor people. It is understandable, at this point, that many considered the arrival of the barbarians not so much a threat as a liberation from an increasingly intrusive and overbearing state (abuses by the army and the bureaucracy), which had lost all consensus among the poorer population, a part of which, exasperated by wars and the excesses of taxation, even took up banditry (in Gaul the rebellious peasants were called bagaudi, in Africa the circumcellion movement was born).
The beginning of a generalized economic crisis in the West did not occur, however, until after 410, during the reign of Honorius, due to the devastating effects of attacks by the Germans and the resulting slowdown in production. With Valentinian III (425 – 455) the situation became increasingly untenable. In fact, the looting caused by the Barbarians and the occupation of entire provinces led to a substantial decline in the Empire’s tax revenues; in fact, agricultural production constituted no less than 80 percent of the Empire’s GDP, with the result that the provinces plundered by the Barbarians, with devastated fields, were no longer able to pay taxes at their former levels; it is believed that the tax revenues of the provinces most devastated by the raids decreased by 6
Since a large part of the state budget was used to maintain the army, a substantial decrease in tax revenues led to a downsizing of the army: it is estimated that the fight against Germanic invaders in the period between 395 and 420 led to the annihilation of about 47.5 percent of the Western Comitatan regiments, losses that had to be made up mainly by the promotion of numerous frontier troops to Comitatans, rather than by the recruitment of new recruits of first-class soldiers, probably because of the decrease in tax revenues. So that although the Western field army in 420 was even numerically larger than in 395 (181 regiments as opposed to ca. 160 in 395), it was actually weaker because the number of regiments of “true” Comitatensians (thus excluding pseudocomitatenses) had dropped from 160 to 120.
The situation deteriorated further with the Vandal conquest of North Africa: the loss of such prosperous provinces (and their tax revenues) was a severe blow to the Western Roman Empire, which, finding itself in serious economic difficulty as a result, was forced to revoke all the tax benefits enjoyed by the landowning classes and to revoke all the decrees of exemption or tax reduction issued earlier. However, this attempt to cut expenses and maximize revenues did not prove sufficient to make up for the losses incurred, so that, as admitted in a decree of 444, the state was no longer able to maintain a large army. Despite attempts to impose new taxes so as to improve the budget, by about 450 the empire had lost about 50 percent of its taxable base, and, because of the steady decline in tax revenues, the Roman army had become all but impotent in the face of immigrant groups.
Finally, the irrationality with which public money was very often managed at the time should be noted: at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, the state still had to take charge, by means of free distributions of wheat and other basic necessities, of a substantial number of destitute, idle and other individuals who led a parasitic existence. This phenomenon, which arose in the late Republican age, assumed a not inconsiderable burden on the exhausted public coffers of the time. Indicative in this regard is the case of the city of Rome, which counted among its resident population, in 367, as many as 317,000 entitled to this form of maintenance. This is a huge figure especially when one considers that Rome’s total population was around 800,000 to 1,000,000 and that of Italy (with Sicily and Sardinia) revolved around 6.5 million. This constant hemorrhaging of public money, in addition to being a heavy burden on the Treasury, was taking human and financial resources away from the development of the city of Rome and Italy and the defense of Roman Europe and Africa.
Beginning in the last decades of the fourth century and continuing until the deposition of Romulus Augustus by Odoacer, and beyond, the West is traversed by cultural, artistic, religious, and philosophical ferments that gave rise to a veritable renaissance of Roman thought of Latin expression, which in the previous century and a half had been somewhat overshadowed by that of the Greek language. Some historians call it the Theodosian (or Constantinian-Theodosian) Renaissance, but there are those who prefer to call it Late Antique because it was not confined to the reign of this emperor, expanding with its last protagonist, the philosopher Severinus Boethius, beyond the threshold of the sixth century.
Thinkers and literati
At the end of the fourth century, and for many centuries to come, Rome was still a prestigious ideal reference point not only for the West, but also for the East. One almost gets the impression that its loss of political importance, definitively sanctioned as early as the Tetrarchic era, had almost assured it a role as a supranational symbol of a waning empire. It was then that the myth of Rome was forged. A famous historian writes in this regard, “The myth of Rome, which was to beset the men of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – Rome aterna, Rome conceived as the natural apogee of civilization destined to perpetuate itself forever – was not created by the subjects of the classical Roman Empire, it was inherited directly from the tenacious patriotism of the Latin world of the late fourth century.”
Some great men of culture of Greco-Eastern origin felt this call and chose Latin as their language of communication. This is the case of the Greek-Syrian historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who decided, after a long period of militancy as an army officer, to move to Rome, where he died around the year 400. In the Eternal City he wrote his masterpiece Rerum gestarum libri XXXI, which has come down to us in incomplete form. This work, serene, impartial, vibrant with deep admiration for Rome and its civilizing mission, constitutes a document of exceptional interest, given the delicate and tormented historical moment examined (from 354 to 378, the year of the Battle of Adrianople).
The last great pagan poet, the Greek-Egyptian Claudian (born c. 375), also adopted Latin in most of his compositions (his output in Greek was undoubtedly less significant), deciding to spend the last years of his short existence in Rome, where he died in 404. An eclectic and restless spirit, he drew inspiration, in his vast production aimed at extolling Rome and its empire, from the great Latin (Virgil, Lucan, Ovid, etc.) and Greek (Homer and Callimachus) classics. Among the literati from the western provinces of the Empire, we cannot forget the Gallo-Roman Claudius Rutilius Namazianus, who in his short De reditu suo (c. 417) paid a vibrant and moving tribute to the city of Rome, which he had been forced to leave in order to return to his homeland, Gaul.
The last great pagan rhetorician who lived and worked in this part of the Empire was the Roman patrician Simmachus who died in 402. His Epistulae, Orationes, and Relationes provide us with valuable evidence of the deep ties, still existing at the time, between the Roman aristocracy and a still living pagan tradition. The latter, so well represented by the vigorous and vibrant prose of Symmachus, provoked the violent reaction of the Christian Prudentius, who in his Contra Symmachum stigmatized the pagan cults of the time. Prudentius is one of the greatest Christian poets of antiquity. Born in Calagurris, Spain, in 348, he died around 405 after a long and troubled pilgrimage to Rome. In addition to the aforementioned Contra Symmachum, he is the author of a number of poetic compositions of an apologetic or theological nature including a Psychomachia (Battle of the Soul), a Hamartigenia (Genesis of Sin) and a Liber Cathemerinon (Hymns to be recited daily).
Great development took place in the West, at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries, in the theological and philosophical thought of the Latin-speaking church fathers on which three great personalities excel: St. Ambrose (died 397), St. Jerome (347-420) and St. Augustine (354-430).
The former, from Trier, gave an extraordinary impetus to the progressive enfranchisement of the Church of Rome from imperial power, thanks in part to his privileged relationship with both Gratian and Theodosius I and, upon the latter’s death, with the regent Stilicho. His output is vast and includes exegetical, ascetical and dogmatic writings, as well as numerous speeches, epistles and hymns. He was in fact the founder of Latin-language hymnography of religious content.
St. Jerome, a native of Stridon, a city located between Pannonia and Dalmatia, was one of the greatest scholars of his time. It was he who translated the Old Testament from the original Hebrew into Latin. His translation, the famous Vulgate, widespread throughout the medieval age, was the only one to be officially recognized by the Church during the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Jerome is also remembered for the De viris illustribus, a collection of news, biographical data, and reflections on the most significant Christian authors of the first four centuries of the vernacular era.
Finally, in the Roman West lived and worked St. Augustine, the philosopher and theologian who, in the history of Christianity, holds a place second only to that of St. Paul and was the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. He was perhaps the highest mind expressed in Latin literature and was “…able to construct a philosophy unequaled by any contemporary Greek.”
A native of Tagaste, Numidia, Augustine stayed for some years first in Rome, then in Milan, where he was able to meet St. Ambrose and receive baptism from his hands (387). Returning to Africa, he was ordained a priest (391) and later appointed Bishop of Hippo. In this city, besieged by Vandal hordes, Augustine died in 430. Of his enormous output, the Confessiones, the undisputed masterpiece of all Latin-language memoirism (written in 397 – 398) and the De civitate Dei, which came into being to defend Christians against accusations that they were responsible for the sack of Rome in 410, should be noted. The work expanded over the years (413 – 427) to include the most varied topics (philosophy, law, metaphysics, etc.) becoming a true Summa Theologica of the great African thinker.
Profoundly influenced by Augustine was the Iberian priest Orosius (active until about 420), who was also his friend as well as fellow believer. Orosius wrote at Augustine’s invitation the Historiarum adversus paganos libri septem (418) long historical-theological account that runs from Adam to the year 417 and hinges on the concept of providence, dear to the great bishop of Hippo. The Galloromans John Cassian (c. 360-435) and Claudian Mamertus (died c. 475) were also influenced by him.
In the western part of the Empire, unlike in the Roman East, official language and language of use coincided. Indeed, Latin imposed itself in every sphere of public and private life, even if in regional and provincial ways that cannot always be easily documented. The persistence of some pre-Roman idioms (of mainly Celtic and Phoenician origin) must still have been of some importance in rural areas, but in urban realities it was much more limited. The same knowledge of Greek, once so widespread among the patrician class, had become restricted during the 4th century (or perhaps even earlier) to intellectuals and men of culture (men of letters, philosophers, etc.) not without significant exceptions. In fact, Augustine himself, one of the highest minds of his time, lamented the poor knowledge he possessed of the Greek language. Beginning around 406, the entry and settlement in the Empire of predominantly Germanic ethnic populations broke the linguistic compactness of this part of the Roman world. Even so, however, Latin continued to be the only language of writing and culture in the western part of the Empire.
With the gradual establishment of Christianity, the birth and development of an early Christian art began, beginning in the first half of the fourth century, which would experience its greatest flourishing in Italy and particularly in the cities of Rome, Ravenna, and Milan. This new art form will find its highest expression in the basilica, a typical Roman building of meeting and gathering of the citizenry, used by Christians for worship. The first such building was, in all probability, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, erected by Constantine I in the third decade of the fourth century and entirely rebuilt in the Renaissance period. Also from the fourth century in Rome are the basilicas of St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran, and St. Sabina. In Ravenna, the imperial capital since 402, building activity was particularly intense throughout the 5th century. The basilicas of St. John the Evangelist (c. 430), St. Agatha Major, and Santa Croce are from this period, as are the famous Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Orthodox Baptistery (451-460).
The interior decorations of these Ravenna architectural masterpieces are still permeated by severe Roman realism and are not affected by the influences of Byzantine art (still in gestation) that would only begin to be perceptible in the Theodoric era (493-526). In Milan, also the imperial capital during the 4th century, the basilica of San Lorenzo was built (4th century, but with some parts, such as the chapel of San Sisto, from the 5th century) known for its extraordinary mosaics (first half of the 5th century). In the other Western Roman provinces artistic activity seems to have come to a halt during the 4th century. From this period are two celebrated monuments of late Roman times: the basilica of Leptis Magna, erected by Constantine I on an earlier 1st-century structure, and, also from the Constantinian period, the Porta Nigra in Trier. Also in Trier, which, let us not forget, was also an imperial residence from Tetrarchic times, one can still admire the Basilica, known as the “Aula Palatina,” a mighty brick structure from the 4th century.
The policy of toleration and, in many cases, open support for Christianity inaugurated by Emperor Constantine I was consolidated during the fourth century (with only one short-lived setback during the brief reign of Julian). In 380 Emperor Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the empire in its Nicene formulation. Both paganism and the Arian heresy were from that time openly persecuted.
It is not easy to establish the real size of Christian communities in the Western Roman Empire on the eve of the barbarian invasions, but in all likelihood these represented more than half the population of the territories that were part of it. Christianity was certainly more widespread in urban than rural areas and, territorially, more in the vicinity of the Mediterranean (Africa, eastern and southern Hispania, southern Gaul, Italy, Dalmatia) than in Central and Atlantic Europe.
The population of the city of Rome was overwhelmingly Christian, but part of the senatorial aristocracy, supported by their clientele, continued to hold on to the old pagan cults for a few more decades. The situation came to be complicated during the fifth century by the settlement of many peoples of Germanic ethnicity and Arian religion in much of the western Roman territories. Their conversion was in many cases slow and could not be fully accomplished until the late 7th century.
- Impero romano d’Occidente
- Western Roman Empire
- ^ Secondo Santo Mazzarino, l’Oriente romano aveva già assorbito nel 387-388, per volere di Teodosio, la prefettura illirica. Cfr. Santo Mazzarino, L’Impero romano, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1990, vol. 2, p. 739. ISBN 88-420-2401-5
- Roman Governors.
- Samarin 1968, σελίδες 662–663.
- Eck 2002, σελ. 15f.
- Taagepera 1979, p. 24.
- Bury 2005, p. 110.
- Deliyannis 2010, pp. 153–156.
- Hallenbeck 1982, p. 7.
- „Hesperium Romanae gentis imperium“ (Marc. Com. ad ann. 476).
- Eunapios, Historien, Fragment 85 (Blockley).
- Chris Wickham: The inheritance of Rome. A History of Europe form 400 to 1000. Penguin Books, London 2009, ISBN 978-0-7139-9429-2, S. 78.
- Gildas 27.
- Vgl. zu dieser Phase ausführlich Dirk Henning: Periclitans res publica. Stuttgart 1999. Eine zusammenfassende Darstellung bietet Henning Börm: Westrom. Von Honorius bis Justinian. Stuttgart 2013, S. 94 ff.