Fall of the Western Roman Empire


The fall of the Western Roman Empire is formally fixed by historians on 476 AD, the year in which Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus. This was the result of a long process of decline of the Western Roman Empire in which it failed to enforce its rule over its provinces and its vast territory was divided into different entities. Modern historians have hypothesized several causal factors including the decline in the efficiency of its army, the health and numbers of its population, the crisis of its economy, the incompetence of its emperors, internal struggles for power, religious changes, and the inefficiency of its civil administration. Increasing pressure from barbarian invasions, i.e. peoples alien to Latin culture, also contributed greatly to the fall.

Although its legitimacy lasted for centuries and its cultural influence lingers to this day, the Western Empire never had the strength to rise again, no longer being able to dominate any part of Western Europe north of the Alps. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire survived and, though diminished in strength, remained an effective power in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries until its final fall in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks.

Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain the decline of the Empire and its end, from the beginning of its decline in the third century to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

From a strictly political-military point of view, the Western Roman Empire fell definitively after it was invaded in the fifth century by various non-Roman peoples and then deprived of its peninsular nucleus by the Germanic troops of Odoacer, in revolt in 476. Both the historicity and the exact dates of this event are still uncertain and some historians deny that it can speak of the fall of the Empire. They remain divergent even the opinions on the fact that this fall is the result of a single event or a long and gradual process.

What is certain is that even before 476 the Empire was already much less Romanized than in previous centuries and increasingly characterized by a Germanic imprint, especially in the army, which was the backbone of imperial power. Although the Roman West collapsed under the invasion of the Visigoths at the beginning of the fifth century, the overthrow of the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, was not carried out by foreign troops, but rather by Germanic foederati organic to the Roman army. In this sense, if Odoacer had not renounced the title of emperor to declare himself Rex Italiae and “patrician” of the emperor of the East, the empire could even be said to have been preserved, at least in name, if not in its identity, which had long since changed profoundly: no longer exclusively Roman and increasingly influenced by the Germanic peoples, who even before 476 had carved out large spaces of power in the imperial army and dominion in territories now only formally subject to the emperor. In the fifth century, in fact, the peoples of Roman ancestry had been “deprived of their military ethos”, as the Roman army itself was nothing more than a patchwork of troops federated with Goths, Huns, Franks and other barbarian peoples who fought in the name of the glory of Rome.

In addition to the Germanic invasions of the fifth century and the increasing importance of the barbarian element in the Roman army, other aspects have been identified to explain the long crisis and final fall of the Western Roman Empire:

The 476, the year of the acclamation of Odoacer king, was then taken as a symbol of the fall of the Western Roman Empire simply because from that moment on, for over three centuries until Charlemagne, there were no more emperors of the West, while the Eastern Roman Empire, after the fall of the West, was profoundly transformed, becoming more and more greek-oriental and less and less Roman.

Barbarian invasions of the fifth century

If the political, economic and social structure of the Roman Empire of the West was already crumbling and unsafe for centuries (at least since the crisis of the third century), to shatter it completely with the decisive blow were the barbarian invasions that raged from the end of the fourth century.

Such new and fatal invasions were the consequence of the migration of the Huns into the great Hungarian plain. 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 bands of looting 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. With the foedus of 382, they obtained to settle in the eastern Illyrian as foederati of the Empire, with the obligation to supply mercenary troops to the emperor Theodosius I.

Around 395, the Visigoths, who had settled as foederati in Moesia, rebelled. They attempted to take Constantinople, but were repelled and then gave themselves to sack much of Thrace and northern Greece. In the winter of 401-402 Alaric, having entered Italy, perhaps at the instigation of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius, occupied part of the Regio X Venetia et Histria and subsequently besieged Mediolanum (402), the seat of the Roman Emperor Honorius, defended by Gothic troops. The arrival of Stilicho with his army forced Alaric to lift the siege and head towards Hasta (Asti), where Stilicho attacked him in the Battle of Pollenzo, conquering the camp of Alaric. Stilicho offered to return the prisoners in exchange for the return of the Visigoths in Illyricum. But Alaric, arrived in Verona, arrested his retreat. Stilicho then attacked him again in the battle of Verona (in 403) forcing him to withdraw from Italy. After the assassination of Stilicho in 408, the Visigoths invaded Italy again, sacking Rome in 410 and then moving, under King Ataulfo, in Gaul. Defeated by the Roman general Flavius Constantius in 415, the Visigoths agreed to fight for the Empire in Spain against the invaders of the Rhine, obtaining in exchange the possession of Gaul Aquitaine as foederati of the Empire (418).

If the first “crisis” caused by the Huns led only the Visigoths to penetrate and obtain a permanent settlement in the Empire, the movement of the Huns from the north of the Black Sea to the great Hungarian plain, which occurred at the beginning of the fifth century, led to a much more serious “crisis”: between 405 and 408 the Empire was invaded by Uldinus” Huns, Radagaiso”s Goths (405), and Vandals, Alans, Swabians (406), and Burgundians (409), pushed into the Empire by the Hunnic migration. If the Goths of Radagaiso (who invaded Italy) and the Huns of Uldino (who struck the Eastern Empire) were repulsed, it was not the same for the Rhine River invaders of 406.

In that year, an unprecedented number of barbarian tribes took advantage of the frost to cross the frozen surface of the Rhine en masse: Franks, Alemanni, Vandals, Swabians, Alans and Burgundians swarmed across the river, meeting weak resistance at Moguntiacum (Mainz) and Trier, which were sacked. The gates for the full invasion of Gaul were open. Despite this grave danger, or perhaps because of it, the Roman Empire continued to be torn apart by infighting, in one of which Stilicho, Rome”s chief defender at the time, was put to death. It was in this troubled climate that, despite the reverses suffered, Alaric returned to Italy in 408, managing to score the sack of Rome two years later. At that date, the imperial capital had already been moved from Milan to Ravenna for some years, but some historians propose 410 as a possible date for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Deprived of many of its previous provinces, with an increasingly strong Germanic imprint, the Roman Empire of the years after 410 had very little in common with that of previous centuries. In 410 Britain was now almost completely empty of Roman troops and already in 425 was no longer part of the Empire, invaded as it was by Angles, Saxons, Picts and Scots. Much of Western Europe was now cornered “by all kinds of disasters and calamities”, and eventually was divided between the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms of the Vandals in Africa, the Swabians in northwestern Spain, the Visigoths in Spain and southern Gaul, the Burgundians between Switzerland and France and the Franks in northern Gaul. It was not, however, a sudden catastrophe, but rather a long transition: in fact, the barbarian armies-populations settled in their lands asking, however, the formal approval of the emperor of the East, if not of the West.

After 410 the defense of what remained of the imperial territory, if not of the Roman imprint, was carried out by the magistri militum Flavius Constantius (410-421) and Aetius (425-454), who were able to deal effectively with the barbarian invaders by making them fight each other. Constantius succeeded in defeating the various usurpers who had turned against the weak Onorio and temporarily reoccupy part of Spain pushing the Visigoths of King Vallia to fight for the Empire against Vandals, Alans and Swabians. Aetius, his successor, after a long struggle for power, achieved various successes against the barbarian invaders. To the limited successes of Constantius and Aetius certainly contributed the Huns, the same people who had indirectly caused the crises of 376-382 and 405-408. In fact, the Huns, by now permanently settled in Hungary, stopped the migratory flow to the detriment of the Empire, as, wanting subjects to exploit, prevented any migration by the subject populations. Moreover they helped the empire of West to fight the invading groups: in 410 some Hun mercenaries were sent to Honorius to support him against Alaric, while Aetius from 436 to 439 employed Hun mercenaries to defeat in Gaul Burgundians, Bagaudes and Visigoths, obtaining victories against the latter in the battle of Arles and in the battle of Narbonne; since, however, none of the external threats was definitively 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. In 439, indeed, Carthage, the second largest city of the Western Empire, was lost to the Vandals, along with much of North Africa.

Under Attila, then, the Huns became a great threat to the Empire. In 451 Attila invaded Gaul: Aetius led a composite army against Attila”s Huns, which also included his former enemies the Visigoths: thanks to it, in the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, he inflicted such a resounding defeat on the Huns that they later raided important cities in northern Italy, such as Aquileia, Concordia, Altinum, Patavium (Padua), and Mediolanum, but never threatened Rome directly again. Despite being the only true bulwark of the empire, Aetius was however assassinated by the same hand of the emperor Valentinian III, in a gesture that led Sidonius Apollinaris to observe: “I do not know, O lord, the reasons for your provocation; I only know that you have acted like that man who hocks his right hand with his left”.

The Hunnic incursions, however, mostly indirectly harmed the Empire, distracting it from its struggles against the other barbarians who penetrated into the Empire in 376-382 and 405-408, and who in this way took advantage of it 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: a mighty Roman-Eastern fleet of 1100 ships that had been sent to Sicily to reconquer Carthage was hastily recalled because Attila threatened to conquer even Constantinople (442). Even Britain, abandoned by the Romans around 407-409, was invaded around the middle of the century by Germanic peoples (Saxons, Angles and Jutes) who gave life to many small autonomous territorial entities (the general Aetius in 446 received a desperate appeal from the Roman-Britons against the new invaders, but, not being able to divert forces from the border with the Hun Empire, the general 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 was therefore forced to give up tax revenues from Spain and especially Africa, resulting in fewer resources available to maintain an efficient army to 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 southeastern Gaul ceded to the Burgundians, nearly all of Spain passed to the Swabians, and the more prosperous provinces of Africa occupied by the Vandals; the remaining provinces were either infested by the Bagaudian separatist rebels or devastated by the wars of the previous decade (e.g. Attila”s campaigns in Gaul and Italy) and therefore 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 populations within the Empire, they had damaged the Western Roman Empire much more than Attila”s military campaigns themselves.

The rapid collapse of the Hunnic Empire after the death of Attila in 453 deprived the Empire of a valuable ally (the Huns), which, however, could also be transformed into a fearsome threat, to be opposed to the Barbarians settled within the Empire. Aetius had achieved his military victories primarily through the use of the Huns: without the support of the Huns, the Empire was now unable to effectively fight the immigrant groups and was therefore forced to incorporate them into the Roman government. The first to implement this policy was Emperor Avitus (who succeeded Petronius Maximus after the sack of Rome in 455), who was able to be crowned emperor precisely because of the military support of the Visigoths; The Visigoth king Theodoric II, however, although pro-Roman, expected something in return for the support of Avitus and obtained from the new emperor the authorization to conduct campaigns in Spain to damage the Swabians; the Swabians at the end were annihilated but Spain was devastated by the Visigoth troops who obtained a rich booty.

A second problem resulting from this policy of accommodation with the Barbarians was that the inclusion of the barbarian powers in the political life of the Empire increased the number of forces that had to recognize the Emperor, making the risk of internal instability greater: in fact, if before, the forces from which the Emperor had to obtain recognition were the landed aristocracies of Italy and Gaul and the field armies of Italy, Gaul, and Illyricum, in addition to the Eastern Empire, now the Emperor had to obtain recognition also from the barbarian groups incorporated into the Empire (Visigoths, Burgundians, etc. ), increasing the risk of political instability.

The government of Avitus lasted little: taking advantage of the absence of the Visigoths left for Spain, in 457 the generals of the Italic army Maggioriano and Ricimero deposited Avitus. The new emperor Majoran did not obtain recognition in Gaul and Hispania: Visigoths, Burgundians and landowners, being followers of Avitus, revolted in fact to Majoran. The new emperor, recruited strong contingents of mercenary barbarians, managed, with the strength of his army, to obtain the recognition of Visigoths, Burgundians and Gallic landowners, recovering for the Empire Gaul and Hispania. Majoran”s plan, however, was to recover Africa from the Vandals, who in 455 had taken possession of the last territories controlled by the Empire there; Majoran was in fact aware that without the tax revenue from Africa, the Empire would not have been able to recover. To this end, he set up a powerful fleet to invade Africa, but this, anchored in the ports of Spain, was destroyed by the Vandals with the help of traitors. Majoranus had to give up the expedition and, back in Italy, was dethroned at the behest of Ricimerus (461).

Ricimer imposed Libius Severus as a puppet emperor, but he was recognized neither by Constantinople nor by the commanders of Gaul and Illyricum (Aegidius and Marcellinus, respectively). In order to obtain the support of the Visigoths and Burgundians against Aegidius, Ricimerus had to surrender Narbonne (462) to the Visigoths and allow the Burgundians to occupy the Rhone valley. He soon realized his mistake by electing Severus emperor and had him killed (465). The lack of political stability due to too many forces at play was leading to a deterioration of the situation and a rapid succession of emperors; three things would have to happen to avoid the final fall of the Empire:

Thus, Ricimer and the Eastern Roman Empire agreed on a plan that would save the Roman West from ruin. In 467, a new Western Emperor, Antemius, was appointed, imposed from the East; in return, the Western Empire would get military support from the Eastern Empire for an expedition against the Vandals. According to Heather, a victorious expedition against the Vandals would have prevented the fall of the Western Empire:

Antemius arrived in Ravenna in 467, and was recognized as emperor in both Gaul and Dalmatia. The Roman-Gallic poet Gaius Sollius Sidonius Apollinaris dedicated a panegyric to him, in which he wished him success in his expedition against the Vandals. In 468, Leo chose Basilisk as commander in chief of the military expedition against Carthage. The plan was drawn up in agreement between the Eastern Emperor Leo, the Western Emperor Antemius and the general Marcellinus, who enjoyed a certain independence in Illyricum. Basiliscus sailed directly for Carthage, while Marcellinus attacked and conquered Sardinia and a third contingent, commanded by Heraclius of Edessa, landed on the Libyan coast east of Carthage, advancing rapidly. Sardinia and Libya had already been conquered by Marcellinus and Heraclius, when Basiliscus dropped anchor off the promontorium Mercurii, now Cape Bon, about sixty kilometers from Carthage. Genseric asked Basiliscus to give him five days to work out terms for peace. During the negotiations, however, Genseric gathered his own ships, filled some of them with combustible material and, during the night, suddenly attacked the imperial fleet, launching brulotti against the enemy ships, unguarded, which were destroyed. Following the loss of most of the fleet, the expedition failed: Heraclius retreated across the desert into Tripolitania, holding the position for two years until he was recalled; Marcellinus retreated to Sicily.

The failure of the expedition led to the rapid fall of the Western Roman Empire within eight years, since not only the tax revenue of the Empire was no longer sufficient to defend it from invaders, but the large sums spent sent the budget of the Eastern Empire into the red, preventing it from further helping the Western one. Because of the shortage of money, the state, for example, could no longer guarantee the garrisons defending Noricum regular pay or sufficient equipment to effectively repel the barbarian marauders, as narrated by the Life of St. Severinus; at some point, with the interruption of pay, the garrisons of Noricum disbanded, although they continued for some time to defend the region from the marauders as citizen militias.

In Gaul, however, the Visigoth king Eurico, realized the extreme weakness of the Empire and noting that the expedition against the Vandals had failed, between 469 and 476 conquered all of Gaul that still remained to the Romans south of the Loire, defeating both the armies sent from Italy by Antemio and the local garrisons. In 475 the Emperor Julius Nepot recognized the Visigoths as an independent state of the Empire and all the conquests of Euricus. With the Empire practically reduced to Italy (with Dalmatia and northern Gaul still Roman but secessionist), the tax revenue was reduced to the point that it was not even enough to pay the Roman army of Italy itself, now consisting almost entirely of barbarians from across the Danube and once subjects of the Hun Empire. These troops of Germanic foederati, led by Odoacer, had been recruited by Ricimer around 465 and had participated in the civil war between Ricimer and Antemius, which had ended with the killing of Antemius and the sack of Rome in 472. These foederati troops, having the Empire now having difficulty paying them, revolted in 476, eventually leading to the fall of the Empire in Italy.

However, if it is true that the invasions caused a collapse in tax revenues, with inevitable repercussions on the quality and quantity of the army, this factor alone does not make the final fall of an empire inevitable: the Eastern Roman Empire faced a similar crisis in the seventh century, when it lost control of most of the Balkans, invaded by the Slavs, as well as the flourishing provinces of Syria, Egypt and North Africa, conquered by the Arabs. Despite the loss of most of its tax revenues, the Eastern Empire did not collapse: indeed it even managed to partially recover during the tenth and eleventh centuries, under the Macedonian dynasty. The survival of the Eastern Empire was certainly due to the strategic position of the capital, protected both by the sea and by the mighty and almost impregnable Theodosian walls; but we must also consider the fact that in the East the Emperor had not lost authority to the barbarian leaders of the army, unlike his western colleague.

If the Western Emperor had been able to preserve his actual authority, it is not to be excluded that the Western Empire would have survived, perhaps limited to Italy; in the West, however, the Emperor lost all power to the advantage of the leaders of the army of barbarian origin, as Ricimer and his successor Gundobado. Odoacer did nothing but legalize a factual situation, that is the actual uselessness of the figure of the Emperor, now only a puppet in the hands of Roman generals of barbarian origin. More than a fall, the end of the Empire, at least in Italy, can be interpreted more as an internal change of regime in which it put an end to an institution now outdated and that had lost all effective power to the advantage of the Roman-barbarian commanders. Odoacer himself was not an external enemy but a Roman general of barbarian descent, who respected and kept alive Roman institutions, such as the Senate and the consulate, and continued to rule Italy as an official of the Eastern Emperor, while being effectively independent.

The deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 AD.

The year 476 is usually referred to as the end of the Western Empire: in that year the Germanic mercenary militia of the Empire, led by the barbarian Odoacer, revolted against the imperial authority and deposed the last emperor of the West, Romulus Augustus (although the latter was only a puppet emperor maneuvered by his father Orestes, commander in chief of the army); the reasons for the revolt were the refusal by the imperial side to give to the mercenary barbarians a third of the Italic lands. The army of Italy at the time seems to have been made up exclusively of Germans, in particular, Eruli, Sciri and Rugi. When they asked Orestes to allow them to settle in Italy under the same conditions with which the foederates in the other provinces of the Empire had been settled, and to receive a third of the lands of the peninsula, Orestes refused, being determined to keep the soil of Italy inviolate. The refusal provoked a revolt of the mercenary soldiers, who elected as their leader the scythian Odoacer, one of the main officers of Orestes. Odoacre, at the head of a horde of Eruli, Turcilingi, Rugi, Sciri, then headed towards Milan, Orestes, given the seriousness of the revolt, took refuge in Pavia, which was besieged and conquered by the rebels, Orestes was captured and brought to Piacenza, executed (August 28, 476). Odoacre then headed towards Ravenna: in the pine forest outside Classe (Odoacre later occupied Ravenna, where he captured the Emperor Romulus Augustus who could do nothing but abdicate and submit to Odoacre. Odoacer, however, having been a friend of his father Orestes, decided to spare his life, relegating him to a castle in Campania, called Luculliano (in Naples, where the current Castel dell”Ovo stands), and granting him an annual pension of 6 000 gold coins.

All Italy was in the hands of Odoacer, who was then proclaimed king by his soldiers. But Odoacer did not intend to rule Italy as the king of a barbarian horde comprising many Germanic nationalities; he intended to rule Italy as the successor of Ricimerus, Gundobadus and Orestes, that is, as an imperial official; in practice, Odoacer did not intend to detach Italy from the Roman Empire. However, Odoacer renounced the farce, perpetrated under his predecessors, of appointing a puppet emperor who in reality possessed no authority, all effective powers being held by the barbarian magister militum; he intended to govern Italy as magister militum and therefore an official of the Emperor of Constantinople, while retaining the title of king of the barbarian troops that made up the army. With this purpose, Odoacer made the deposition of Romulus Augustus take the form of an abdication, and induced the Roman Senate to send a delegation of senators, in the name of Romulus, to Constantinople to announce to the Eastern Emperor the new order of things. The ambassadors of the Roman Senate, having come before the Eastern Emperor Zeno, informed him that:

At the same time other messengers, sent by Julius Nepot, came to Zeno”s court to ask the Eastern Emperor for help to recover the Western throne. Zeno declined the request for aid sent by Nepot, and reminded the representatives of the Senate that the two emperors they had received from the East had made a bad end, being one killed (he then asked them to return Nepot to Italy and allow him to rule it as Emperor. However, he sent Odoacer a diploma conferring on him the dignity of a patrician, and wrote to him, while praising his conduct, asking him to prove his righteousness by recognizing the exiled Emperor (Nepotes) and allowing him to return to Italy.

Dalmatia remained, however, in the hands of Julius Nepot, who was still formally Western Roman emperor. However Nepot never returned from Dalmatia, even if Odoacer had coins minted with his name. On May 9, 480 Nepot was killed near Salona by the counts Viator and Ovida. After his death, Zeno claimed Dalmatia for the East but was anticipated by Odoacer, who under the pretext of avenging Nepot moved war to Ovid and then conquer the region, which was annexed to Italy. The historian John Bagnell Bury therefore considers 480 as the year of the real end of the Western Empire.

The Kingdom of Soissons, the last enclave of the Western Roman Empire in northern Gaul, survived for a few more years and was conquered by the Franks in 486. It is important to note that, since he had not obtained the recognition of the Emperor of the East, Romulus Augustus was considered as a usurper by the court of Constantinople, which continued to recognize as legitimate Western Emperor Julius Nepot, who ruled in exile in Dalmatia, continuing to claim the throne.

Although Odoacer is remembered as the first King of Italy (according to the anonymous Valesian, the coronation took place on August 23, 476, after the occupation of Milan and Pavia, but Muratori believes it is more likely that his coronation took place when he deposed Romulus Augustus and conquered Rome), he never wore the purple or other royal insignia, nor ever minted coins in his honor. This is because he had declared himself formally subordinate to the Emperor of the East, so he ruled Italy as a “patrician”.

The events of 476 have been considered “the fall of the Western Empire,” but according to J.B. Bury this view of events is inaccurate, as no empire fell in 476, let alone a “Western Empire.” The scholar states that constitutionally there was only one Roman Empire at the time, which was sometimes ruled by two or more augustuses. During periods of interregnum in the West, the Emperor of the East became at least nominally and temporarily the Emperor of the Western provinces as well, and vice versa. And although it could be replied that contemporary writers called Hesperium regnum (Western kingdom) the provinces that had been, after 395, under the separate government of an emperor residing in Italy, and with the fall of the Western Empire is meant the termination of the line of Western Emperors, it could be objected that 480 is the significant date, since it was Julius Nepot the last legitimate emperor of the West, while Romulus Augustus was only a usurper. It should also be noted that, from a constitutional point of view, Odoacer was the successor of Ricimerus, and that the situation generated by the events of 476 bears remarkable similarities to the intervals of interregnum during the period of Ricimerus. Between 465 and 467, for example, there was no emperor in the West; moreover, constitutionally, during that two-year period, the Eastern Emperor Leo I became the Emperor of the entire unified Empire, even though effective control of the western provinces was held by the barbarian magister militum Ricimer. The situation of 476 was therefore similar in many respects to that of the two-year period 465-467: from the constitutional point of view, starting from 476, Italy returned under the sovereignty of the Roman Emperor ruling in Constantinople, while the effective control of the territory was held by a barbarian magister militum, Odoacer, who ruled on behalf of Zeno. The only substantial differences, the first of which would prove relevant only in retrospect, were the fact that an emperor of the western part would no longer be elected, and that for the first time Italy suffered, like the other provinces now lost, the allocation of one third of the land to the barbarian foederati.

J.B. Bury however does not deny that the events of 476 were an event of fundamental importance, as they represent a fundamental phase in the process of dissolution of the Empire. In 476, for the first time, Barbarians were settled in Italy, receiving a third of the land, just as had happened to the foederati in other provinces. According to the scholar, the settlement of the Germans of Odoacre represented the beginning of the process by which Italy would then end up in the hands of Ostrogoths and Lombards, Franks and Normans.

Registers of the chancellery of Ravenna and Malco

The fact that the dethronement of Romulus Augustus coincided with the fall of Rome was not immediately recognized by the contemporaries, who did not recognize any real discontinuity. A first confirmation is had by consulting the Consularia Italica, a chronicle written by the same imperial chancellery of Ravenna. Even if the defeat and killing of Orestes are described with a negative meaning:

There is not the slightest mention in even one line of the dethronement of Romulus Augustus and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Of Odoacre is instead expressed a positive judgment:

This is due to the fact that Romulus Augustus, not having been recognized by the Eastern Emperor, was considered a usurper (he had usurped the purple from Julius Nepos, who was forced to flee to Dalmatia in 475). The Consularia Italica, therefore, conforming to the Byzantine version of events, describe Odoacer not as the one who put an end to the millennial Roman state, but as the one who put an end to the tyranny and usurpation of Romulus Augustus. Moreover, an Emperor of the West, Julius Nepot, was still in office, albeit in exile in Dalmatia. Therefore, according to the point of view of the Ravenna Chancellery, in 476 the last Western Emperor was not dethroned at all, putting an end to the Empire; Julius Nepot, although in exile in Dalmatia, was in fact still formally in office as Western Emperor and remained so until 480, when he was assassinated in a conspiracy. The Consularia Italica, if they are silent on the dethronement of the usurper Romulus Augustus, however, record under the year 480 the assassination of Julius Nepot in Dalmatia: for this source was the last emperor of the West. However, as Zecchini notes, “not even the disappearance of Nepot is attributed an epochal role or in any case of particular importance”. The version of the bureaucratic registers of Ravenna is therefore the juridical-constitutional one, which reflected the point of view of Constantinople, according to which, even after 480, no Empire had fallen, since “there still remained in the East a Roman Emperor, Zeno, under whose sceptre the two partes Imperii were automatically reunited in the absence of his Western colleague”.

Even contemporary Greek historians do not give any importance to 476 and consider the assassination of Julius Nepos in 480 an event far more relevant than 476. One can take as an example the historian Malchus, of whose work only fragments have remained. In the summary of Malchus”s work compiled by the patriarch of Constantinople Photius in the ninth century, there is not the slightest mention of the dethronement of Romulus Augustus, whereas the assassination of Nepot is mentioned. This element is not decisive, because the lack of mention of Romulus Augustus could have been a simple omission of the patriarch, who was also making a summary, but of the work of Malchus have survived fragments concerning the embassy of the Roman Senate in 476 announcing the seizure of power by Odoacer. Malco, although hostile to the politics of Emperor Zeno, in this case does not deviate from the official Byzantine version of 476; his judgment of Odoacer is positive and does not differ from that of the Consularia Italica; like the Consularia Italica, Malco also considers the events of 480 as more important than those of 476. Zecchini concludes that “the chancellery of Ravenna, the court of Constantinople and Byzantine public opinion did not give any epochal value to the fall of Romulus Augustus: they privileged, if anything, the year 480 as a date, which, by leaving only one emperor, the eastern one, created a new and in some ways worrying situation, but not to be considered definitive and irremediable”.

Marcellin and Giordane

In the sixth century, however, people began to realize that the Empire of Rome, despite the survival of the eastern part, was now history. The Chronicle of Count Marcellinus, an Eastern Roman chronicler of the Justinian era, reports under the year 476:

The same phrase is found in the Getica of the Gothic historian Giordane, who had evidently used Marcellin as one of his sources. It should be noted that the year 709 of the founding of the city coincides with the year 43.

In 519, in fact, Simmachus, a Roman senator who collaborated with the Ostrogothic government in Italy of Theodoric, had written the Historia Romana, a lost work, which, according to some conjectures, would have been the common source of Marcellinus and Giordane. According to these conjectures, Simmachus would have started the opinion to consider the deposition of Romulus Augustus as the event that caused the end of the Roman state. The presumed opinion of Symmachus would express the opinion of the Roman Senate, or at least of a fringe of it (consisting of the gens Anicia), which ill tolerated the government of Theodoric, noted with bitterness that the Western throne was vacant since 476, and that with the passage of time the possibility that it could be revived became more and more feeble. Marcellin would only draw on this lost work, becoming the first Byzantine author to recognize the fall of the Western Empire in the deposition of Romulus Augustus. Marcellin”s words seem to describe the fall of the Empire as an irreversible process.

In fact, according to Zecchini, it is possible that the beginning of awareness of finis Romae in the West predated the publication of Simmachus” work. He takes in support of his thesis the index of Roman emperors from Theodosius I to Anastasius, a Latin document compiled between 491 and 518; the list ended with a sentence stating that from 497 there would be no more emperors but only kings, and Theodoric was defined by the document as “king of the Goths and Romans according to Roman law”; moreover, the emperors are numbered only up to Romulus Augustus, while the following ones, Zeno and Anastasius, are reported without numbering. It is possible that the author of the document, by not numbering Zeno and Anastasius, intended to make a distinction between the real Emperors of Rome and the Emperors of the eastern part only, after the deposition of Romulus Augustus. Zecchini, on the basis of this document, deduces that “already before 518 it was clear in the West that Romulus Augustulus had been the last emperor of Rome”. This opinion is further reinforced by a passage in the Life of San Severino written by Eugippio around 511, where it is stated that at that time the Roman Empire was by then past history (“…per id temporis, quo Romanum constabat Imperium…”, translatable as “…because, at that time, when the Roman Empire existed…”). Therefore, the Life of St. Severinus shows that already in 511 the Roman Empire was considered to have fallen in the West; according to Zecchini, however, we had to wait for the publication of the Historia Romana of Symmachus for this idea to spread to the East, thanks also to the Chronicle of Marcellinus.

While both Giordane and Marcellin recognize 476 as the date of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, or the Roman Empire based in Rome, they do not recognize it as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire tout court; in fact, the eastern part of the Empire still existed. In fact, Marcellin calls the Byzantines “Romans” and so does Giordane. In Romana, written in 551, Giordane states that the subject of his work would be “how the Roman state began and lasted, practically subdued the whole world, and would last until today in the imagination, and how the series of kings would continue from Romulus, and, subsequently, from Octavian Augustus until Justinian Augustus”. Giordane therefore writes that the Roman Empire in 551 was still in existence, although the addition “in the imagination” suggests that the Gothic historian considered the Empire by now a shadow of itself, so much was declined. In fact, the conclusion of the work is very pessimistic: after describing the devastation of the barbarians in all provinces of the Empire, those of the Ostrogoths of Totila in Italy, the Maurices in Africa, the Sasanians of Cosroe I in the East and the Slavs in the Balkans, Giordane concludes: “such are the tribulations of the Roman state from the daily incursions of Bulgarians, Anti and Slavs. If anyone wishes to know them, consult the annals and the history of the consuls without disdain, and he will find a modern empire worthy of tragedy. And he will know how it arose, how it expanded, and how it subdued all the lands in its hands and how it lost them again to ignorant rulers. It is what we, to the best of our ability, have treated of so that, through reading, the diligent reader may gain a wider knowledge of such things.”

Towards the end of the sixth century, the ecclesiastical historian Evagrius Scholasticus reported the following commentary on the deposition of Romulus Augustus in his Ecclesiastical History:

Apart from the erroneous dating (Romulus Augustus was not deposed in 1303 ab urbe condita, but in 1229 b.u.c.), it should be noted that, while Marcellinus emphasized the fact that Romulus Augustus had been the last in the series of Western Emperors that began with Augustus, Evagrius contrasted him instead with the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus. It can be concluded, therefore, that while in the West it was emphasized that Romulus Augustus had been the last Emperor of the West, in the East, where the Emperors continued to reign, “attention was directed to the end of Rome as the seat of the Western Empire.”

Contemporary historiography

In any case, although the interpretation of 476 as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire had already begun to spread, both in the West and in the East, during the sixth century, not all sources considered it a relevant date. Cassiodorus, in his Chronicle, even, under the year 476, omits to report the dethronement of Romulus Augustus by Odoacer. This would be due to the fact that for Cassiodorus, who collaborated with Theodoric, the Goths continued the history of Rome, so “the deposition of Romulus Augustulus could not count for much in such a perspective”; moreover, Cassiodorus probably wanted to avoid the risk of passing off his employer (Theodoric) as an illegitimate ruler.

Even in the Universal Chronicle of the Hispanic Isidore of Seville (compiled in the seventh century), which reached up to the reigns of the Visigoth king Sisebuto and the “Roman” Emperor Heraclius I, the deposition of Romulus Augustus is not mentioned at all, unlike the Sack of Rome by Alaric I; On the contrary, in the final part of the Chronicle, where each chapter was dedicated to a Roman Emperor, after the chapter dedicated to the joint reign of Honorius and Theodosius II, the Western Emperors following Honorius (apart from a brief mention for Valentinian III) are not even taken into account, unlike the Eastern Emperors, called “Roman Emperors” tout court by Isidore, to whom all subsequent chapters of the work are dedicated.

The Lombard historian Paolo Diacono, instead, in the Historia Romana (written during the 8th century) gives much importance to the date of 476, considered as that of the end of the Roman Empire based in the city of Rome, as is evident from two passages of the work:

However, Paul Deacon, as well as Giordane and Marcellinus, consider the events of 476 as those of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, or the Roman Empire based in Rome, but not the Roman Empire tout court, which formally continued to exist in the East: as Pohl notes, in fact, the phrase with which the Lombard author declares the Western Roman Empire fell with Romulus Augustus “refers only to the Roman Empire in Rome” and for Paul Deacon “the Empire clearly still existed, even if only in the East.” To confirm this, the Lombard author ends his work not with the dethronement of Romulus Augustus but with the Justinian reconquest of Italy, a sign that even the events after 476 in his opinion were part of Roman history; according to Pohl, in fact, “it is not a coincidence that the Historia Romana ended with the victory of Narses in 552 which ”returned the entire res publica to the dominion of the res publica””. In fact, in both the Roman History and the later History of the Lombards, Paul Deacon predominantly uses the term Romans to refer to the Byzantines. Giordane and Marcellin (who is himself Byzantine, though of Latin language) do the same, as do the Latin-speaking western writers John of Biclaro, Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable, Gregory of Tours and Fredegarius. After all, the inhabitants of the Eastern Empire called themselves Romaioi (Romans in Greek), although predominantly Greek rather than Latin-speaking, and were considered as such in the West until the eighth century. It was only after the alliance of the papacy with the Franks, which resulted in the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans in Christmas 800, that those who until recently in Western sources were called Romans became Graeci and their empire Imperium Graecorum.

Some historians have identified the barbarian invasions or migrations as the main reason for the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire, while recognizing the internal limitations of the Roman state that facilitated the fall. Other scholars, however, have considered that the decadence and ruin of the pars occidentalis depended on internal causes, that is, the great currents of social change that affected the economic and social structures and political institutions of the Late Roman Empire, until the fall; however, according to some scholars, this would not explain why the Eastern Roman Empire, despite having the same internal problems as the Western one (oppressive fiscalism, Christianity, despotism), was able to survive until the fifteenth century. Still other scholars (such as Peter Brown) have, however, denied the decline and collapse of the Empire, stating that more than a fall had occurred a great transformation, which began with the barbarian invasions and continued after the formal conclusion of the Western Empire with the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms. Brown argued that this transformation would take place without abrupt ruptures, in a climate of substantial continuity. This thesis is currently held by a number of historians, including Walter Goffart.


The phase of the barbarian invasions that contributed to the final downfall of the Western Roman Empire began in the late 4th century, when the Huns” movements towards Eastern Europe eventually pushed other barbarian populations to invade the Empire”s borders in order not to fall under the Hunnic yoke. The first warning of the greater strategic danger of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century compared to those of previous centuries occurred when the Goths inflicted a memorable defeat on the Roman army in the battle of Adrianople (378), in which even the emperor Valens died. From that moment on the barbarians were stopped more and more difficult, until they spread completely in the western part of the Empire in the fifth century.

The barbarian invasions, therefore, were certainly the main external cause of the fall of the Empire. For the French historian André Piganiol (L”Empire Chrétien, 1947) they were, indeed, the exclusive cause of the ruin of the Western Roman Empire. For the Italian historian Santo Mazzarino (End of the Ancient World, Rizzoli, 1988), however, they only gave the final push to a political, economic and social structure now deeply worn out as that of the pars occidentalis. In fact, the eastern provinces of the Empire, which first suffered the impact of the barbarians (the Visigoths at the end of the fourth century spread to Greece and the Balkans), did not disintegrate under those invasions, but were able to reject and incorporate them, and then divert them to the western section, which instead under that impact broke down completely.

For Heather, the “internal limitations” of the Roman state facilitated the success of the Barbarians, but without the barbarian invasions (and consequent centrifugal forces due to their appropriations) the Empire would never have fallen solely due to internal causes:


According to several historians, the disproportionate size of the Empire made it ungovernable from the center and the consequent division into a pars occidentalis and a pars orientalis did nothing but accelerate the ruin, favoring the barbarian invaders. The Enlightenment English historian Gibbon argued that to cause the ultimate collapse of the Empire were the sons and grandsons of Theodosius: with their weakness, they abandoned the government to the eunuchs, the Church to the bishops and the Empire to the barbarians.

But more than the division itself, which ended up ruining only the western part, it was rather the internal conflicts, the continuous usurpations and the political power of the army, which from the third century onwards elected and deposed emperors at will, that deeply undermined the internal stability of the Empire. The Western Roman Empire, less socially and culturally cohesive, less economically prosperous, less centralized and less politically organized than the Eastern Roman Empire, ended up paying for this instability in the long run. It was therefore the lack of discipline of the army, more pronounced in the west than in the east, where the central power was stronger, to be one of the main causes of the ruin of the empire.

The lack of discipline, of course, also depended on the barbarization of the army, which over time became less and less Romanized and more and more made up of soldiers of Germanic origin (also to fill the gaps due to population decline and resistance to conscription by Roman citizens), integrated into the army first as mercenaries alongside the legions and then, in increasingly large forms, as foederati who retained their national ways of life and warfare. The result was a Roman army in name, but increasingly alien to the society it was called to represent and protect.

The economic scholar Angelo Fusari, has identified in the inability of the Roman economy to evolve into a dynamic economy during the Principality, despite the decentralized and light political structures of that period, the defect that will lead to the Roman decadence. The stagnation of technology, the absence of new markets, the lack of a “bourgeois” culture prevented the equestrian class, active in trade and industry, to anticipate the time of a “capitalist” development of the Roman economy. This window closed with the establishment of the Domination, which saved the Empire from disintegration and the economic and political crisis of the third century, but at the same time was characterized by economic dirigisme, administrative centralization and social regimentation. Well, while in the pars orientalis the totalitarianism of the Dominate was accepted without problems, also because of the identification of the Byzantine Church with the imperial power, the deference of the local aristocracy and the millennial tradition of oriental despotism, in the pars occidentalis the ancient Roman aristocracy and the Church of Rome frequently put themselves in the way of imperial power, often far from the Urbe (imperial seats in Milan, Trier and then Ravenna) despite the fact that Rome was still the most populated city in the Empire.

These political factors, which were grafted onto an economy impoverished by depopulation, the flight of settlers from the countryside and the bourgeoisie from the cities, citizens and peasants from a ruthless tax, helped to bring Roman society in Italy and the western provinces to a high level of instability. The rejection of central authority manifested itself in a war of all against all: the ancient Roman aristocracy against the leaders of an army now barbarized, landowners against the settlers who tried to escape from serfdom, citizens and peasants from the taxman. The Roman Empire of the West lived therefore a situation of endemic anarchy, which weakened the resistance of the Empire to the renewed pressure of the barbarians.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography, on the other hand, has focused on the profound economic-social issues that, from the third century onwards, led to the progressive decline in agricultural production, the crisis of trade and cities, bureaucratic degeneration and deep social inequalities, causing the Roman Empire to lose wealth and internal cohesion, particularly in the pars occidentalis, until its final fall in the fifth century. It was the economic and social crisis, in short, that in the long run fatally weakened the political and military structure of the Western Roman Empire, which, already torn apart by internal wars (see above) and devastated by frequent famines and epidemics (at the same time cause and consequence of the economic crisis and political instability), in the end was no longer able to successfully resist the barbarian invasions from outside.

According to historians of the Marxist school, such as Friedrich Engels, the Roman Empire fell when the slave mode of production, no longer nourished by the great wars of conquest, gave way to the feudal economic system based on the colonate and then on landownership and serfdom typical of the curtense economy of the Middle Ages.

The economist and sociologist Max Weber emphasized the regression from the monetary economy to the natural economy, a consequence of currency devaluation, galloping inflation and the crisis of trade also due to productive stagnation and the growing insecurity of trade.

For Russian historian Mikhail Ivanovich Rostovchev, it was the rebellion of the peasant masses (flight from the countryside) against the city elites that led to the loss of internal social cohesion.

For other historians, finally, it was the bureaucratic degeneration, characterized by endemic corruption and excessive tax burden on the middle classes, to produce the deep social divide between a small caste of privileged (aristocratic landowners and top of the hierarchy of bureaucratic and military) who lived in extreme luxury and the great mass of peasants and urban proletarians forced to daily survival, which eventually made the Empire lose the compactness necessary to avoid the collapse of the fifth century.

Recent archaeological excavations (in Antioch) and aerial surveys, however, have shown, Heather asserts, that the economy of the Late Empire underwent a marked recovery in the fourth century, both in the West and the East (although the East was more prosperous). However, this economic recovery was limited by a rather rigid “ceiling” beyond which production could not grow: in most provinces, production levels were already at their highest for the technologies of the time. The finances of the Empire and the connection between the administrative center and the various local realities were also based on the protection, with the army and the laws, of a small circle of landowners, who reciprocated the Empire by paying taxes. The arrival of the barbarians led to centrifugal forces that separated the local realities from the center of the Empire. When the barbarians occupied the internal areas of the Empire, the landowners – feeling defenseless and not being able to leave the area occupied by the enemy because their pre-eminence was based on their lands (real estate) that therefore they could not abandon – were forced to support the new masters, in an attempt to preserve their lands averting a possible confiscation. Moreover, the lower classes – oppressed by the late imperial fiscalism – supported the barbarian invaders.

An interesting hypothesis is that put forward by the historian Santo Mazzarino and taken up by the economist Giorgio Ruffolo: under the apparently homogeneous surface of the Hellenistic-Roman civilization, in reality, the ancient compressed nationalities gradually emerged. The effects of this push would have manifested themselves mainly in the fifth century in the West (in Gaul, Spain, Africa) and only in the seventh century in the East (in Syria and Egypt). This would explain the ease with which Romanized populations merged with Germanic conquerors in the West and Arab conquerors in the East.

According to Heather, only a few regiments were generally sufficient to quell internal revolts (Count Theodosius managed to quell a revolt in Britain in 368 with only four regiments), so without a massive external attack, autonomist drives could never have led to the collapse of the Empire; only if all the provinces of the Empire revolted all at once would such a collapse have been plausible.

Christianity is considered by some historians and philosophers (especially the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Edward Gibbon) the main cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. According to their theses, Christianity would have made the Romans militarily weaker, since by encouraging a life of contemplation and prayer and challenging the traditional pagan myths and cults, it had deprived them of the ancient fighting spirit, leaving them at the mercy of the barbarians (Voltaire claimed that the Empire now had more monks than soldiers). Moreover, the spread of Christianity had sparked religious disputes, which eventually made the Empire less cohesive, accelerating its ruin.

However, it seems rather hazardous to conclude that a force that acted in the sense of cohesion in the Eastern Roman Empire acted in the sense of disintegration in the Western part. We must not forget, however, that the ideologies formulated by intellectuals with regard to the emperors differed from empire to empire. The East adopted the ideology formulated by Eusebius of Caesarea (sacralized basileus), while the West adopted that of St. Ambrose and Augustine (imperator pius and not deified, subject to the Church of which he is guarantor). In fact, it is not by chance that it was in the West that Theodosius was forced to bow in supplication twice before the simple bishop of Milan, Ambrose. It is true, there are testimonies of open exultation of eminent Christians such as Tertullian or Salvian of Marseilles, in the face of defeats and invasions. But there are just as many testimonies of pain and bitterness, such as that of Saint Jerome. Or even the documented memories of bishops who led the armed resistance to the barbarians, replacing the fleeing Roman militia. St. Augustine, on the other hand, claimed that the only true homeland of Christians was the heavenly one and that the cities of mankind were ruined not by the fault of Christians, but by the iniquities of their rulers. It seems to be possible to say, therefore, that on the whole the Christians did not fight the barbarians (unlike in the East, where Christianity constituted something like a national movement decisively opposed to the barbarians), but neither did they sabotage the Empire.

The role of Christianity in having participated – not determined – the collapse of the Western Empire, should be re-evaluated today, paying particular attention:

An excellent field of investigation to understand the corrosive force of Christianity is that of Maggiorano”s laws (one of the most famous forbade women to become nuns before the age of 40, because, and the emperor well understood it, this was causing a decrease in births, at a time when Rome needed all the swords it could get).

The corruption and abandonment of the ancient republican customs that had made Rome great, as well as the despotism of the emperors, also had a considerable influence, according to some historians, on the decline and final fall of Rome. According to Montesquieu and other historians, due to the influence of the soft and corrupt oriental customs, Roman society ended up abandoning the traditional republican virtues that had contributed to the expansionism and solidity of the Empire. The first signs of decadence, therefore, would be had already in the first century AD, with the tyranny of emperors such as Nero, Caligula, Commodus and Domitian. A vision that the Roman historiography of republican ideology, close to the Senate or traditionalist (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Cassius Dione Cocceianus, Ammianus Marcellinus), had an interest in spreading. However, even in this case it does not explain why the despotic and Greek-oriental Byzantine Empire was able to resist very well to the barbarian invasions, unlike the Western Empire.

Roman-Barbarian kingdoms

The period following the deposition of the last emperor Romulus Augustus and the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD saw the stabilization of new kingdoms (called Latin-Germanic or Roman-Barbarian kingdoms), which had been forming in the former Roman provinces since the invasions of the fifth century and that, initially, had been formally dependent on the Empire.

The kingdom was the only new political institution developed by the invaders, although there were important differences within the Germanic peoples. In a nutshell, it can be said that the barbarian kingdom did not know the separation of powers, all concentrated in the hands of the king who had acquired them by right of conquest, to the point that public affairs tended to be confused with his personal property and the very notion of kingdom with the person who exercised political power and ensured the military protection of his subjects, from whom he demanded loyalty in return. The monarchy of the barbarian peoples was not territorial but national, that is, it represented those who were born in the same tribe.

Despite the destructive role that invading peoples often played in invaded lands, almost all of the new kingdoms were themselves extremely vulnerable and in some cases very small. Some, like those of the Burgundians in the Rhone basin or the Suebi (others, like those of the Vandals or Ostrogoths, collapsed under the onslaught of Byzantium, which attempted to rebuild the unity of the Empire. Those of the Visigoths in Spain and the Franks in the former Gallic provinces instead survived, both for the rapid integration between the resident population and the invaders, and for the collaboration with the Church and with exponents of the Latin intellectual world.

Italy under Odoacre and Theodoric

Among the various cases of Roman-Barbarian kingdoms, the case of the kingdom of Italy under Odoacer and Theodoric will be discussed in particular, partly because they kept the Roman system of government in force, and ruled the peninsula on behalf of the Emperor of Constantinople as patricians of Italy. Unlike the other regions of the Western Empire, at least nominally, Italy continued to be part of the Roman Empire with its seat in Constantinople, and Odoacer and Theodoric then from the constitutional point of view were nothing more than a kind of viceroys who ruled the peninsula on behalf of the Emperor of Byzantium. According to the scholar of Roman law Orazio Licandro, “first Odoacer and then Theodoric acted in the name and on behalf of the Roman Emperor – from that moment only and resident in Constantinople – as imperial officials (patricii and magistri militum praesentales): Rome and the West continued their existence even if now as a periphery of the imperial political power”.

Odoacer kept the Roman system of government intact, and ruled with the cooperation of the Roman Senate, whose members of the most influential senatorial families, such as the Decii and Anicii, received high honors and offices under Odoacer. For example, senators such as Basil, Venantius, Decius, and Manlius Boethius received the coveted honor of the consulship and were either urban prefects of Rome or prefects of the praetorium; Simmachus and Sividus were both consuls and prefects of Rome, while Cassiodorus received the position of minister of finance. While gratifying the senatorial families by granting high offices to the most influential members of the Roman Senate, Odoacer allowed the prefect of the city of Rome to remain in office for only one year, presumably to prevent any prefect from assuming political importance dangerous to the barbarian magister militum.

The Roman nobility was forced to contribute more to the maintenance of the military forces defending Italy. Landowners were forced to surrender one-third of their land to Odoacer”s barbarian soldiers and their families. However, it is possible that the needs of the army of Odoacer were met without a drastic application of the principle of partition. For if the landowners had been expropriated on a large scale, it would have been scarcely credible for them to have cooperated with Odoacer as loyally as the sources indicate.

After Nepot”s assassination, relations between Odoacer and Emperor Zeno improved, with the latter beginning to recognize the western consuls appointed annually by Odoacer. However, relations between the Emperor and his magister militum in Italy were always precarious, and in 486 there was the final break in relations. Odoacer was in fact suspected of having supported, even if only indirectly, the revolt of the general Illo, and, when Odoacer prepared an expedition in the Illyrian provinces of the Empire, at the time threatened by the Ostrogoths, Zeno tried to prevent it by inciting the Rugi to invade Italy. Odoacre anticipated their attack invading Norico, defeating them and destroying their kingdom. This alarmed Zeno, who decided to send against the Ostrogoths of Theodoric.

In the following years, the emperor of the East Zeno sent in Italy, to get rid of his uncomfortable presence, Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, to supplant the usurper Odoacer and rule the peninsula on behalf of the Byzantine Empire. Also in Italy, therefore, was formed a Roman-Barbarian kingdom as in Gaul, in Spain and in Africa. Theodoric showed that he wanted, and seemed able to achieve, the fusion between the Germanic minority and the Italic majority: he reunited all of Italy and even the islands under his sovereignty, gained international respect and prestige, sought and partly obtained the cooperation of the aristocracy, maintaining the structure of the Roman administration; moreover, although he was Arian, he established respectful relations with the Church of Rome.

The reign of Theodoric lasted thirty-six years and, in many respects, had no discontinuity with the policy of Odoacer. One of the first problems that Theodoric faced was the allocation of land to his people: the Ostrogoths, for the most part, expropriated of their land especially the Germans of Odoacer, many of whom were killed or expelled, although some of those who had submitted were allowed to retain their land holdings. The general principle was the allotment of one-third of the Roman estates to the Goths; but, as the commission whose duty it was to carry on the partition was under the presidency of a senator, Liberius, it may be assumed that the senatorial estates were spared as far as possible. In 497 the treaty between Zeno and the Emperor Anastasio defined the constitutional position of Teodorico. Under these conditions Italy formally remained part of the Empire, and was officially considered as such in both Rome and Constantinople. To seal the treaty, Anastasius I sent back to Italy the ornamenta palatii that Odoacer had sent in 476 to Zeno, who thus returned to Rome. The return of the ornamenta palatii to Rome in 497, according to the Roman legal scholar Horace Licander, had a considerable symbolic importance: with such a gesture, Emperor Anastasius not only sanctioned that, after the dethronement of Odoacer, in the West “there were no more usurpers,” but officially recognized Theodoric as the legitimate governor of Italy subordinate to the sole Roman Emperor residing in Constantinople; Licander concludes that under Theodoric “the pars occidentis continued to exist and had by no means been transformed into a Gothic kingdom.” Theodoric officially was magister militum and governor of Italy on behalf of the Eastern Emperor. In fact, however, he was an independent ruler, although he had a number of limitations to his power, which implied the sovereignty of the Emperor. Theodoric, in fact, never used the years of his reign to date official documents, as well as he never claimed the right to mint money except in subordination to the Emperor, but above all he never issued laws (leges) but only edicta. According to Roman law, in fact, to issue laws (leges) was the prerogative only of the Emperor, unlike the edicta, which could be issued by many high officials, such as the prefect of the Praetorium. All of Theodoric”s extant ordinances were not laws, but only edicta, confirming the fact that the Goth king, being constitutionally an official of Constantinople from the point of view of his Roman subjects, did not intend to usurp prerogatives unique to the Emperor and thus respected the superiority of the Emperor of Constantinople, whose viceroy he was. The fact that Theodoric could not issue leges but only edicta constituted a concrete limitation to his power: the edicta, in fact, could be issued on condition that they did not violate a pre-existing law; this meant that Theodoric could modify pre-existing laws in particular points, making them more severe or milder, but could not originate new principles or institutions; the edicts of Theodoric, in fact, do not introduce novelties and do not alter any pre-existing principle.

The right to appoint one of the consuls of the year was transferred by the Emperors Zeno and Anastasius to first Odoacer and then to Theodoric. Beginning in 498 Theodoric appointed one of the consuls. On one occasion, in 522, Emperor Justin allowed Theodoric to appoint both consuls, Simmachus and Boethius. However, Theodoric had a restriction in the choice of consul: he had to be a Roman citizen, not a Goth. However, in 519, there was an exception to the rule, with the appointment as consul of the son-in-law of Theodoric, Eutaric. However, to corroborate the fact that it was an exception to the rule, to make the appointment in that case was not Theodoric, but the Emperor himself, as a special favor to the Goth king. The limitations that excluded the Goths from the consulship also extended to civil offices, which were kept in force under the Ostrogothic government, as it had already been with Odoacer. There was still a prefect of the praetorium of Italy, and, when Theodoric conquered Provence, the office of prefect of the praetorium of Gaul was also restored. There was still a vicar of Rome, as well as all the provincial governors, divided into the three ranks of consulares, correctores and praesides. The offices of magister officiorum, two ministers of finance and quaestors of the palace were also maintained. Moreover, the Goths were excluded from the honorary dignity of patrician, with the exception of Theodoric himself, who had received it from the Emperor. The Roman Senate, to which the Goths, for the same principle, could not belong, continued to meet and perform the same functions that it performed during the fifth century. It was formally recognized by Theodoric as possessing an authority similar to his own. However, although all civil offices were reserved for the Romans, in the case of military offices, it was exactly the opposite. In fact, the Romans were completely excluded from Theodoric”s army, which was entirely Gothic. Theodoric was the commander of the army, as magister militum.

The numerous limitations of the Ostrogoths were due to the fact that they, just like the Germans previously settled by Odoacer, were not Roman citizens, but foreigners staying in Roman territory; in other words, they had legally the same status as mercenaries or foreign travelers or hostages who were in Roman territory, but could at any time return to their homeland across the Roman border. Consequently, laws that applied only to Roman citizens, such as those relating to marriage and inheritance, did not apply to the Goths. For the Goths were valid only the laws that were part of the ius commune, that is, those valid for all residents in Roman territory, regardless of whether they held Roman citizenship or not. With these assumptions, it is no coincidence that the edict of Theodoric was promulgated as part of the ius commune, as it was addressed to both Romans and Goths, and therefore had to be legally valid for both. The juridical status of the Goths was the cause of a further concrete restriction to Theodoric”s power: he could not confer Roman citizenship to the Goths, a faculty reserved only to the Emperor. Since they were not Roman citizens but mercenary soldiers, the Ostrogoths were judged by military courts; this was to comply with Roman law, which stated that soldiers should be judged by a military court. In this case Theodoric interfered in a concrete way with the rights of Roman citizens under his rule. All trials between Romans and Goths were brought before these military courts, led by a comes gothorum; a Roman lawyer was always present as assessor, but in any case these military courts tended to favor the Goths. Like the Emperor, Theodoric had a supreme royal court that could overrule any decision of a lower court. It can therefore be asserted that it was in the field of justice, as opposed to the domain of legislation, that the Germanic kings established their effective authority in Italy.

Besides being magister militum and patrician in the service of the Emperor of Constantinople, in whose name he governed his Roman subjects in Italy, Theodoric was also king of his people, the Ostrogoths. He, however, never assumed the office of rex Gothorum, but, like Odoacer, was limited to the simple title of rex. Probably Theodoric considered the word rex sufficiently appropriate to express the fact that he was in fact sovereign both of his Germanic subjects and of his Roman subjects, although in the case of the latter it was in fact a “quasi-sovereignty”, since Theodoric ruled them as a high official of Constantinople.

Theodoric, however, even if he preserved the late-antique Roman system of government, also brought innovations, placing side by side to the Roman institutions an administrative-bureaucratic apparatus managed by the Goths, with centralistic tendencies. According to Licandro, this was tantamount to transforming Italy into a Gothic protectorate with the formal assent of the Eastern Emperor. Under Theodoric, Italy was divided into comitivae, each under the supervision of a Gothic comes. The Goth comites also judged in trials between Goths, as well as in trials between Goths and Romans, though in the latter case flanked by a Roman assessor. The border areas, such as Rhaetia and Dalmatia, were placed under the command of duces or principes. Theodoric also entrusted to Goth officials of proven loyalty, the so-called saiones, the task of keeping strong ties between the center and the periphery.

The continuity of Odoacer”s administration with that of Theodoric was facilitated by the fact that some of Odoacer”s Roman ministers came under the service of the Ostrogothic ruler, and probably there were no changes among the subordinate officers either. Theodoric”s goal was to civilize his people by integrating them into the Roman civilization, but he made no concrete attempts to merge the two populations: his only goal was to ensure that the two nations could live together peacefully. And so it was that Romans and Ostrogoths continued to be divided by religion and legal status, living together as two distinct and separate peoples. Theodoric”s religious policy was tolerant, however, unlike that of the Vandals and Franks. His principle was not to impose by force the conversion to Arianism, but to tolerate all religions, as he considered it an injustice to force his subjects to convert to Arianism or any other religion against their will. In this regard, an anecdote has been handed down according to which Theodoric had a Catholic deacon executed for having converted to Arianism in order to gain the king”s favor. Even if there are doubts about the truthfulness of this anecdote, it represents a further confirmation of Theodoric”s reputation as a religiously tolerant king. Although he never made a concrete attempt to merge the two populations, Theodoric succeeded in his intention to stick to the difficult ideal, according to which he would treat all his subjects, whether Goths or Romans, without any discrimination.

As soon as Justin I, uncle of Justinian, ascended the throne in 518, succeeding Anastasius, Theodoric began negotiations with the new emperor to determine who would be his successor on the Gothic throne. Theodoric, in fact, had no sons, in compensation his daughter Amalasunta had received a Roman education, and had married in 515 Eutaric, generating a son, Atalaric, three years later. Theodoric intended for Atalaric to succeed him. Although it was the right of the Goths to choose their own king, the choice had to be made with the consent of the Emperor, as the future king would also be the viceroy of the Emperor and his magister militum in Italy. Justin I accepted the plan of Theodoric, and, as a sign of approval, designated as consul for the year 519 Eutaric, although the Goths were strictly excluded from the consulship, unless it was the Emperor himself to designate them.

The ecclesiastical reunion between Rome and the East, accomplished through Justinian and Pope Ormisda, in a short time produced a change in the tolerant policy of the Goth king. According to JB Bury, although Justinian, at the time of the first years of his uncle”s reign, had probably not yet decided to abolish the Gothic viceroyalty in Italy and reassume the direct authority of the Emperor in Italy, it was evident that the re-establishment of ecclesiastical unity was the first step to be taken to overthrow the Gothic power. The existence of the schism in fact, even if it did not reconcile the Italic Catholics with the Gothic administration, tended to make them less willing to form close political ties with Constantinople.

Beginning in 523, relations between Ravenna and Constantinople became more complicated. Gothic circles, suspicious of the edicts that Justin had issued against the Aryans, connected the persecution of Arianism with the reunion of the Church, and feared that the imperial policy might cause the formation of an anti-Aryan movement in Italy; consequently, Theodoric and part of the Gothic nobility began to distrust the Senate, and in particular those senators who had played a role in ending the schism. Even the new Pope John I, who succeeded Pope Ormisda in 523, was viewed with distrust by the Goths, as he was considered part of the fringe who wanted a closer dependence of Italy on the imperial government, in order to obtain more power and freedom for the Roman Senate.

Thus it was that, when some letters of the Roman Senate addressed to the Emperor were intercepted, some passages of the letters were interpreted as prodigal to the government of Theodoric, and the position of the patrician Faustus Albinus was particularly compromised. Albinus, accused of high treason, was defended by Boethius, who boldly claimed that the entire Senate, including Boethius himself, was responsible for Albinus” actions; this defense was considered a confession of guilt by Boethius and the entire Senate, and Boethius himself was accused of high treason, arrested and removed from office, and replaced by Cassiodorus. Boethius was executed for high treason, while the subsequent fate of Albinus is unknown. While Boethius was on trial, the senators, alarmed at his fate, declared themselves blameless, thus repudiating Boethius and Albinus. The only one to expose himself in an attempt to defend the two tried was the head of the Senate, Simmachus, who paid for his choice, being arrested, taken to Ravenna, and executed.

It is possible that these events had some connection with an imperial edict issued around this time, which threatened the Arians with severe punishment, excluded them from public offices and the army, and closed all their churches. However, the exact date of the decree is not known, and it is not possible to determine with certainty whether it might have influenced Theodoric”s policy prior to Boethius” execution. In any case, Theodoric, alarmed by the decree, decided to act as protector of the Aryans who were subjects of the Eastern Empire by sending an embassy to Constantinople in 525 to protest the decree. He chose as ambassador Pope John I, who, accompanied by a retinue consisting of some bishops and eminent senators, was received with all honors in Constantinople, where he remained for at least five months, celebrating Christmas and Easter in the Church of St. Sophia. The pontiff succeeded in persuading the emperor to restore all their churches to the Aryans and to allow them to return to their former duties, but he refused to allow the Aryans who had converted to return to their ancient faith. In any case, Theodoric”s main request had been met by the Emperor. However, when the Pope returned to Ravenna in May, he was arrested and imprisoned, and perished a few days later (May 18, 526). Theodoric succeeded in imposing Felix IV, who was a pro-Gothic pontiff, on the papal throne (July 526). Seven weeks later, however, Theodoric, suffering from dysentery, perished on August 30, 526. Before expiring, he designated Atalaric as his successor, requiring him to maintain good relations with the Senate and the Roman people, and to show respect to the Emperor at all times.

Theodoric was succeeded by Atalaric, under the regency of Amalasunta. She had received a Roman education in Ravenna, and was determined to unite the Italians and the Goths into one nation, to keep on good terms with the Emperor and the Senate. The Roman people received from her ample assurances that there would be no difference in treatment between Romans and Goths. Amalasunta was determined to give her son and king an education worthy of a Roman prince, and she entrusted him to three Gothic tutors, who shared her policy and were supposed to educate him. The Gothic nobility, however, did not share Amalasunta”s ideas: they saw themselves as victors residing in the midst of a vanquished population, and believed that a Gothic king should receive a more Spartan education; instead of learning literature, which might make him weak and effeminate, he should train in strengthening his physique and in the military art. And so it was that when they openly protested the education received by Atalaric, Amalasunta, in fear of being dethroned, decided to agree to their demands: Atalaric, however, could not withstand the Spartan education that the Gothic nobles intended to give him, his physical health deteriorated rapidly and, in 534, expired.

The Gothic nobility could not stand the government of Amalasunta and soon she discovered a plot against her. She then wrote to Justinian, asking him if he was willing to receive her in Constantinople in case of need; the Emperor replied positively, and prepared a residence in Dyrrhachium for the reception of Amalasunta during her eventual journey to Constantinople. Amalasunta, however, succeeded in suppressing the revolt by having the three principal conspirators executed, so she had the ship that was to take her to Dyrrhachium recalled, and remained in Ravenna. Amalasunta had a cousin, Theodatus, who had received a classical education and was devoted to the study of the philosophy of Plato; he possessed estates in Tuscia, and had expanded them in a brutal way to the detriment of other landowners, causing the protests of the inhabitants of Tuscia, who complained to Amalasunta; she forced her cousin to make some restitution of lands unjustly confiscated, causing his hatred towards his cousin. However, he was not, by nature, ambitious to reign; his ideal was to spend his last years of existence in lust in Constantinople; in fact, it is said that when two eastern bishops had come to Rome for theological matters, Theodatus instructed them to deliver a message to Justinian, proposing to give him his estates in Tuscia in exchange for a large sum of money, the rank of senator, and permission to settle in Constantinople. Along with these two bishops, Alexander, an imperial official, had arrived and accused Amalasunta of hostile conduct. Amalasunta replied to the accusations, recalling her services in favor of the Emperor, for example allowing her fleet to land in Sicily during the expedition against the Vandals. In reality, Alexander”s complaints were only a diversion; the real purpose of Alexander”s visit was to conclude a secret agreement with the regent, whose position was becoming even more shaky following the deterioration of her son Atalaric”s health. After receiving messages from Amalasunta and Theodatus, Justinian sent a new agent to Italy, Peter of Thessalonica, a skilled diplomat.

In the meantime Atalaric died. Amalasunta, then, contacted her cousin Theodatus, offering him the title of king, on condition that she would reign in his name. Theodatus pretended to accept, and was proclaimed king; however, Theodatus did not waste much time in getting rid of his cousin; he allied himself with the relatives of the three Goth conspirators who had been executed by Amalasunta, and had her imprisoned on an island on Lake Bolsena in Tuscia. She was forced to write a letter to Justinian, assuring him that she had suffered no wrong. In the meantime, the ambassador Peter was on his way to Italy, when news arrived of the killing of Amalasunta. Peter then came before Theodatus and told him in the name of the Emperor that the assassination of Amalasunta implied a “war without truce”. Justinian used the murder of Amalasunta as a pretext to declare war on the Ostrogothic kingdom. He intended to bring Italy back under the direct rule of the Empire.

Justinian I, in fact, had set as his supreme goal the reunification of the ancient Roman Empire. After having encouraged the old Roman aristocracy not to collaborate with Theodoric, the Byzantine armies directly invaded Italy. The imperial “reconquest” of Italy, after a long war lasting almost twenty years, represented the ruin of the peninsula: its wealth and its cities were devastated, the population was massacred.

The demographic decline reached its peak after the Gothic War. The long centuries of wars, famine and pestilence had caused the halving of the Italian population: from 8-10 million inhabitants of the Augustan age, after the Gothic War Italy had no more than 4-5 million inhabitants.

The consequences of the war were felt in Italy for several centuries, also because the population, in order not to be involved, had abandoned the cities to take refuge in the countryside or on the better protected fortified hills, bringing to completion the process of ruralisation and abandonment of urban centers begun in the 5th century. Even if the figures of the victims reported by Procopio are perhaps exaggerated, it can be estimated that a good part of the Italian population had been decimated by the sieges, the famines and the plague.

The city of Rome, which still had between 600,000 and one million inhabitants in the fourth century, had dramatically decreased to 100,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the reign of Theodoric, who, all taken by the mission of restoring the Roman glories, had arranged a series of major works in the City: walls, granaries, aqueducts and the same imperial palace, abandoned, on the Palatine. Theodoric”s dream, however, was thwarted precisely by the Gothic War, during which Rome was besieged three times and twice conquered by the opposing armies. In the years around 540, after the reconquest of Totila, the city was practically abandoned and sent to desolation: many of its surroundings were transformed into unhealthy swamps, the population now did not reach more than 20 000 inhabitants, densified mostly around the basilica of St. Peter. An inglorious end for the caput mundi that had dominated over much of the known world.

While some propaganda sources speak of a flourishing and reborn Italy after the conclusion of the conflict, the reality must have been quite different. Justinian”s attempts to combat tax abuses in Italy were in vain and, although Narsete and his subordinates had rebuilt, in whole or in part, many cities destroyed by the Goths, Italy was unable to recover its ancient prosperity. In 556 Pope Pelagius complained in a letter to the bishop of Arles about the conditions of the countryside, “so desolate that no one is able to recover”; because of the critical situation in which Italy was, Pelagius was forced to ask the bishop in question to send him the crops of the papal patrimony in southern Gaul, as well as a supply of clothes, for the poor of the city of Rome. To worsen the conditions of the country, already tried by the Byzantine fiscalism, contributed also an epidemic of plague that depopulated Italy from 559 to 562; to it, moreover, followed then also a famine.

Even Rome struggled, despite the funds promised, to recover from the war and the only public work repaired in the city of which we have news is the Salario bridge, destroyed by Totila and rebuilt in 565. The war made Rome a city depopulated and in ruins: many monuments deteriorated and of the 14 aqueducts that before the war provided water to the city now only one, according to historians, remained in operation, the Aqua Traiana repaired by Belisarius. Also for the Roman Senate began an irreversible process of decline that ended with its dissolution in the early seventh century: many senators moved to Byzantium or were massacred during the war. Rome, at the end of the war, had no more than 30,000 inhabitants (as opposed to 100,000 at the beginning of the century) and was on its way to complete ruralisation, having lost many of its artisans and merchants and having at the same time welcomed many refugees from the countryside. The decline did not involve, however, all the regions: those less affected by the war, such as Sicily or Ravenna, do not seem to have been significantly affected by the devastating effects of the conflict, maintaining their prosperity.

The patrimony of the Church also suffered the consequences of the war: In 562 Pope Pelagius, writing to the prefect of the praetorium of Africa Boethius, complained that because of the devastation caused by the long and destructive war he now received income only from the islands and areas outside of Italy, since it was impossible, after twenty-five continuous years of war, to obtain it from the desolate peninsula; However, Pelagius and the Church were able to overcome the crisis and recover, thanks also to the confiscation of the goods of the Arian Church that passed to the Catholic Church.

On August 13, 554, with the promulgation in Constantinople by Justinian of a pragmatic sanctio pro petitione Vigilii (“Pragmatic sanction on the requests of Pope Vigilius”), Italy was made to re-enter, although not yet completely pacified, in the “Roman” domain; with it Justinian extended the legislation of the Empire to Italy, recognizing the concessions made by the Goth kings with the exception of the “unclean” Totila (whose social policy was then canceled leading to the restoration of the senatorial aristocracy and forcing the servants freed by Totila to return to serve their masters), and promised funds to rebuild public works destroyed or damaged by war, ensuring also that would be corrected abuses in the collection of taxes and would be provided funds to promote the revival of culture.

Narsete still remained in Italy with extraordinary powers and reorganized the defensive, administrative and fiscal apparatus; in defense of the peninsula were allocated four military commands, one at Forum Iulii, one at Trento, one at the lakes Maggiore and Como and finally one at the Graie and Cozie Alps. Italy was organized in prefecture and divided into two dioceses, which in turn were divided into provinces. Sicily and Dalmatia, however, were separated from the Prefecture of Italy: the first did not become part of any prefecture, being governed by a praetor dependent on Constantinople, while the second was aggregated to the Prefecture of Illyricum; Sardinia and Corsica were already part, since the time of the Vandalic war (533-534), of the Prefecture of the Praetorium of Africa. According to the “Prammatica Sanzione” the provincial governors would have been elected by the local populations, i.e. the notables and the bishops; however, doubts arose about the actual application of this principle, since the provincial governors had long been controlled by the central authority.

If we believe the “Prammatica Sanzione”, the taxes were not increased compared to the Gothic period, but evidently the damages caused by the devastation of the war made it very difficult to pay them and, moreover, it seems that Narsete did not receive subsidies from Constantinople, but had to provide by himself for the maintenance of the army and the administration. In 568 Justin II, following the protests of the Romans for the excessive fiscal pressure, removed from the office of governor Narsete replacing him with Longino.

With the Byzantine victory in the Gothic War Italy did not have, however, the desired stability nor was reformed the Roman Empire of the West: the peninsula was in fact invaded in 568 by a new Germanic population, the Lombards, which will determine a deep historical split of the country, divided into areas under Lombard rule and territories still in Byzantine hands. This led to an era in which only the Eastern Roman Empire remained standing, since then defined by modern historiography as the Byzantine Empire rather than the Eastern Roman Empire.

Byzantine attempts to reconstitute the Western Empire

In 527 Justinian I was crowned Emperor of the East. In the course of his long reign, he succeeded in reconquering a large part of the Western Empire, including Rome: he took Italy from the Ostrogoths, North Africa from the Vandals and Southern Spain from the Visigoths. The Mediterranean Sea returned to be so the mare nostrum of the Romans. But only for a short time: the conquests of Justinian were in fact ephemeral, because of the appearance of new enemies (Lombards, Avars, Arabs, Bulgarians). The Western Roman Empire, however, risked being reborn during the sixth century. In fact, the emperors of the East Tiberius II, first, and Maurice, then, had the project to divide the Empire into two parts: a western part, with Rome as capital, and an eastern part, with Constantinople as capital. Tiberius II reconsidered and appointed the general Maurice as sole successor. The same Maurice, who had expressed in his will the intention to leave the western part to his son Tiberius, while the eastern part would go to the eldest son Theodosius, was killed along with his family by a rebellion.

The Western Roman Empire was reborn de facto for a year on December 22, 619, when the eunuch exarch of Ravenna, Eleutherius, had his troops crown him emperor of the West under the name Ismailius.. On the advice of the archbishop of Ravenna, Eleutherius decided to march on Rome to legitimize his power with the traditional ratification by the Senate. This idea of his to march on Rome, according to historian Bertolini, “revealed an awareness of what Rome, the first seat and cradle of the empire, always represented as the perennial guardian of the ancient imperial tradition. It also proved that a senate always existed in Rome and that it was still attributed the prerogative of being the depository of sovereign power in competition with the emperors, and the legal capacity to validate the proclamation of a new emperor. The senate of Rome, in fact, and not the pope, had the archbishop of Ravenna and the rebel exarch in mind.” However, upon reaching Castrum Luceoli (near present-day Cantiano), Eleutherius was killed by his soldiers.

Franks, Ottomans and Russians

In addition to the Byzantine Empire, the sole and legitimate successor of the Roman Empire after the fall of its western part, three other state entities claimed the inheritance. The first was the Carolingian Empire, which explicitly aimed at a grand project of reconstitution of the Empire in the West: a symbol of this aspiration was the coronation of the Frankish king Charlemagne as “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800. The second was the Ottoman Empire: when the Ottomans, who based their state on the Byzantine model, conquered Constantinople in 1453, Muhammad II established his capital in the city and proclaimed himself Emperor of the Romans. Muhammad II also made an attempt to take possession of Italy in order to “reunify the empire”, but the papal and Neapolitan armies stopped the Turkish advance towards Rome at Otranto in 1480. The third to proclaim itself heir to the Empire of the Caesars was the Russian Empire, which in the 16th century renamed Moscow, the center of Tsarist power, the “Third Rome” (Constantinople being considered the second).

Excluding these last three states, which claimed to be successors to the Empire, and taking the traditional date of the founding of Rome as true, the Roman state lasted from 753 BC to 1461, the year in which the Empire of Trebizond (the last fragment of the Byzantine Empire that escaped the Ottoman conquest in 1453) fell, for a total of 2,214 years.

Holy Roman Empire

At Christmas 800, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III. Later Otto I of Saxony, in the 10th century, transformed part of the old Carolingian Empire into the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Emperors considered themselves, like the Byzantines, the successors of the Roman Empire, thanks to the papal coronation, although from a strictly legal point of view the coronation had no basis in the law of the time. However, the Byzantines were governed by the Empress Irene, illegitimate in the eyes of Western Christians as a woman, apart from the fact that in order to seize power and rule alone she had killed her son Constantine VI. Moreover, Byzantium had no military means, nor a real interest, to assert its reasons.

The Holy Roman Empire experienced its period of maximum splendor in the 11th century when, together with the Papacy, it was one of the two great powers of early medieval European society. Already under Frederick Barbarossa and the victories of the Communes, the Empire began to decline, losing real control of the territory, especially in Italy, in favor of the various local autonomies. Municipalities, lords and principalities, however, continued to see the Empire as a sacred supranational body from which to draw formal legitimacy of their power, as evidenced by the many imperial diplomas granted at great cost. In essence, however, the Emperor had no authority and his office, if not held by individuals of particular strength and determination, was purely symbolic.

In 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia the feudal princes became practically independent from the Emperor and the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to a simple confederation of states only formally united, but de facto independent. However, it continued to exist formally until 1806, when the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte forced Emperor Franz II to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire and become Emperor of Austria.

Voltaire mocked the Holy Roman Empire with the famous statement that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”


  1. Caduta dell”Impero romano d”Occidente
  2. Fall of the Western Roman Empire