Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Eyridiki Sellou | Feb 12, 2023

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The fall of the Western Roman Empire is formally fixed by historians on 476 A.D., the year 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 the latter failed to enforce its rule over its provinces and its vast territory was divided into different entities.

Modern historians have postulated several causal factors including the decline in the efficiency of its army, the health and numbers of its population, the crisis of the economy, the incompetence of the emperors, internal struggles for power, religious changes, and the inefficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from barbarian invasions, that is, from peoples foreign to Latin culture, also contributed greatly to the fall.

Although its legitimacy lasted for centuries and its cultural influence still lingers today, 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, although 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 finally fell after it was invaded by various non-Roman peoples in the fifth century and then deprived of its peninsular core at the hands of Odoacer's Germanic troops in revolt in 476. Both the historicity and the exact dates of this event still remain uncertain, and some historians deny that it can speak of the fall of the Empire. Even opinions remain divergent as to whether this fall was the result of a single event or a long and gradual process.

What is certain is that the empire even before 476 appeared much less Romanized than in previous centuries and increasingly characterized by a Germanic stamp, especially in the army, which formed the backbone of imperial power. Although the Roman West collapsed under the invasion of the Visigoths in the early fifth century, the overthrow of the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, was not accomplished by foreign troops, but rather by Germanic foederates organic to the Roman army. In this sense, if Odoacer had not renounced the title of emperor to declare himself instead Rex Italiae and "patrician" of the emperor of the East, the empire could even have been 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 conditioned 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. By the fifth century, in fact, peoples of Roman ancestry had been "deprived of their military ethos," as the Roman army itself was nothing more than a patchwork of federated troops of Goths, Huns, Franks and other barbarian peoples fighting 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 also been identified to explain the long crisis and final fall of the Western Roman Empire:

476, the year of Odoacer's acclamation as king, was thus taken as a symbol of the fall of the Western Roman Empire simply because from that time on, for more than three centuries until Charlemagne, there were no more Western emperors, while the Eastern Roman Empire, after the fall of the West, was profoundly transformed, becoming more and more Greco-Eastern and less and less Roman.

5th century barbarian invasions

While the political, economic, and social structure of the Western Roman Empire had already been crumbling and perilous for centuries (at least since the crisis of the 3rd century), what shattered it completely with the decisive shove, however, were the barbarian invasions that raged from the late 4th 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 looting bands of Huns attacked the Visigoths north of the Danube, prompting them to seek hospitality from Emperor Valens. The Visigoths, divided into two groups (Tervingi and Grutungi), were allowed into Eastern Roman territory, but following mistreatment, they revolted and inflicted a severe defeat on the Eastern Empire at the Battle of Adrianople. By the foedus of 382, they were granted settlement in eastern Illyricum as foederates of the Empire, with an obligation to supply mercenary troops to Emperor Theodosius I.

Around 395 the Visigoths, who had settled as foederates in Mesia, rebelled. attempted to take Constantinople, but were repulsed and then set about sacking 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 Regio X Venetia et Histria and subsequently besieged Mediolanum (402), the seat of the Roman Emperor Honorius, which was defended by Gothic troops. The arrival of Stilicho with his army forced Alaric to lift the siege and head for Hasta (Asti), where Stilicho attacked him at the Battle of Pollenzo, capturing Alaric's camp. Stilicho offered to return the prisoners in exchange for the return of the Visigoths to Illyricum. But Alaric, upon reaching Verona, halted his retreat. Stilicho then attacked him again at the Battle of Verona (in 403) forcing him to retreat from Italy. After Stilicho's assassination in 408, the Visigoths invaded Italy again, sacking Rome in 410 and then moving, under King Ataulphus, into Gaul. Defeated by the Roman general Flavius Constantius in 415, the Visigoths agreed to fight for the Empire in Spain against the Rhine invaders, gaining in return possession of Gaul Aquitaine as foederates of the Empire (418).

If the first "crisis" caused by the Huns led only to the Visigoths penetrating and gaining permanent settlement in the Empire, the shift of the Huns from north of the Black Sea to the great Hungarian plain in the early 5th century led to a far more serious "crisis." Between 405 and 408 the Empire was invaded by Uldinus' Huns, Radagaisus' Goths (405), and Vandals, Alans, Swabians (406) and Burgundians (409), pushed into the Empire by the Hunnic migration. If Radagaiso's Goths (who invaded Italy) and Uldino's Huns (who struck the Eastern Empire) were repulsed, the same was not true of 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 he suffered, Alaric returned to Italy in 408, succeeding in the sack of Rome two years later. By that date the imperial capital had moved from Milan to Ravenna for some years, but some historians candied 410 as a possible date for the fall of the Roman empire...

Deprived of many of its former provinces, with an increasingly pronounced Germanic imprint, the Roman Empire of the years after 410 had very little in common with that of previous centuries. By 410 Britain was almost completely empty of Roman troops, and by 425 it was no longer part of the Empire, overrun as it was by Angles, Saxons, Picts, and Scots. Much of Western Europe was now cornered by "all kinds of calamities and disasters," and was eventually divided among the Romano-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, for the formal approval of the emperor of the East, if not the emperor of the West.

After 410 the defense of what remained of imperial territory, if not of the Roman footprint, was carried on by magistri militum Flavius Constantius (410-421) and Aetius (425-454), who were able to effectively confront the barbarian invaders by making them fight each other. Constantius succeeded in defeating the various usurpers who had revolted against the bumbling Honorius and temporarily reoccupying part of Spain by pushing King Vallia's Visigoths 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. Certainly contributing to the limited successes of Constantius and Aetius were the Huns, the same people who had indirectly caused the crises of 376-382 and 405-408. In fact, the Huns, now settled permanently in Hungary, halted the flow of migration to the detriment of the Empire, since, wanting subjects to exploit, they prevented any migration by the subjugated populations. They also helped the Western Empire fight invading groups: in 410 some Hunnic mercenaries were sent to Honorius to support him against Alaric, while Aetius from 436 to 439 employed Hunnic mercenaries to defeat Burgundians, Bagauds, and Visigoths in Gaul, gaining victories against the latter at the Battle of Arles and the Battle of Narbonne; since, however, none of the external threats were permanently annihilated even with the support of the Huns, this help only minimally compensated for the harmful effects caused by the invasions of 376-382 and 405-408. Indeed, in 439 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 major threat to the Empire. In 451 Attila invaded Gaul: Aetius led against Attila's Huns a composite army, which also included previous Visigothic enemies: thanks to it at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, he inflicted such a resounding defeat on the Huns that they later, while still raiding important cities in northern Italy such as Aquileia, Concordia, Altinum, Patavium (Padua), and Mediolanum, never again directly threatened Rome. Despite being the only true bulwark of the empire, however, Aetius was assassinated by the very hand of Emperor Valentinian III, in a gesture that prompted Sidonius Apollinaris to remark, "I ignore, O lord, the reasons for your provocation; I only know that you acted like that man who hubs his right hand with his own left."

The Hunnic incursions, however, mostly harmed the Empire indirectly, distracting it from its struggles against the other barbarians who penetrated the Empire's interior in 376-382 and 405-408, and who in this way took advantage of them to further expand their influence. For example, Attila's Balkan campaigns prevented the Eastern Empire from helping the Western Empire in Africa against the Vandals: a mighty Roman-Eastern fleet of 1100 ships that had been sent to Sicily to recapture Carthage was hastily recalled because Attila threatened to conquer even Constantinople (442). Britannia, abandoned for good by the Romans around 407-409, was also invaded around the middle of the century by Germanic peoples (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) who gave rise to many small autonomous territorial entities (General Aetius in 446 received a desperate appeal from the Romano-Britons against the new invaders, but as he could not divert forces from the frontier bordering the Hunnic 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 thus 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 with Bagaudian separatist rebels or devastated by the wars of the previous decade (e.g., Attila's campaigns in Gaul and Italy) and thus could no longer provide tax revenues comparable to those before the invasions. It can be concluded that the Huns contributed to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, not so much directly (with Attila's campaigns), but indirectly, since, by causing the migration of Vandals, Visigoths, Burgundians and other peoples within the Empire, they had damaged the Western Roman Empire far more than Attila's military campaigns themselves.

The rapid collapse of the Hunnic Empire after Attila's death in 453 deprived the Empire of a possible valuable ally (the Huns), which, however, could also be transformed into a fearsome threat, to be pitted against the Barbarians stationed within the Empire. Aetius had achieved his military victories mainly through the use of the Huns: without the support of the Huns, the Empire was now unable to fight the immigrant groups effectively 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 managed to be crowned emperor precisely because of the military support of the Visigoths; the Visigothic king Theodoric II, however, although pro-Roman, expected something in return for his support of Avitus and thus obtained from the new emperor permission to conduct campaigns in Spain against the Swabians; the Swabians were eventually annihilated but Spain was devastated by Visigothic troops, who then obtained rich spoils.

A second problem consequent to 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 then, 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, as well as the Eastern Empire, now the Emperor also had to obtain recognition from the barbarian groups incorporated into the Empire (Visigoths, Burgundians, etc. ), increasing the risk of political instability.

Avitus' rule was short-lived: taking advantage of the absence of the Visigoths who had left for Spain, in 457 the Italic army generals Maggiorianus and Ricimerus deposed Avitus. However, the new emperor Maggioriano did not gain recognition in Gaul and Hispania: Visigoths, Burgundians and landowners, being followers of Avito, in fact revolted against Maggioriano. The new emperor, having recruited strong contingents of barbarian mercenaries, succeeded, with the strength of his army, in gaining the recognition of Visigoths, Burgundians, and Gallic landowners, recovering Gaul and Hispania for the empire. Maggioriano's plan, however, was to recover Africa from the Vandals, who in 455 had seized the last territories there controlled by the Empire; Maggioriano was in fact aware that without the tax revenue from Africa, the Empire could not 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. Maggioriano therefore had to give up the expedition and, back in Italy, was dethroned at the behest of Ricimerus (461).

Ricimer imposed Libius Severus as puppet emperor, but he was not recognized by either Constantinople or the commanders of Gaul and Illyricum (Aegidius and Marcellinus, respectively). To gain the support of the Visigoths and Burgundians against Aegidius, Ricimerus had to surrender Narbona (462) to the Visigoths and allow the Burgundians to occupy the Rhone valley. He soon realized his mistake by electing Emperor Severus and had him killed (465). The lack of political stability due to too many forces at play was leading to a deteriorating situation and a rapid succession of emperors; three things would have to happen to prevent the final fall of the Empire:

Ricimerus and the Eastern Roman Empire therefore 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 Basiliscus as commander-in-chief of the military expedition against Carthage. The plan was worked out in agreement between the Eastern Emperor Leo, the Western Emperor Antemius, and General Marcellinus, who enjoyed some 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 and advanced 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 brulottes at the unguarded enemy ships, 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 resulted in the rapid fall of the Western Roman Empire within eight years, as not only was the Empire's tax revenue 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 Empire. 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 barbarian raiders, as recounted in the Life of St. Severinus; at some point, with the discontinuation of pay, the Noricum garrisons disbanded, although they continued for some time to defend the region from raiders as city militias.

In Gaul, however, the Visigothic king Euricus, realizing 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 Antemius and the local garrisons. In 475 Emperor Julius Nepot recognized the Visigoths as a state independent of the Empire and all of Euricus' conquests. With the Empire practically reduced to Italy alone (with Dalmatia and northern Gaul still Roman but secessionist), tax revenues had dwindled to such an extent that they were not even sufficient to pay for the Roman army of Italy itself, now made up almost entirely of barbarians from beyond the Danube and once subjects of the Hunnic Empire. These troops of Germanic foederates, led by Odoacer, had been recruited by Ricimerus around 465 and had participated in the civil war between Ricimerus and Antemius, which 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.

In any case, while 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 much of the Balkans, invaded by the Slavs, as well as the prosperous provinces of Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, conquered by the Arabs. Despite the loss of much of its tax revenue, the Eastern Empire did not collapse: indeed, it even managed to partially recover during the 10th and 11th centuries under the Macedonian dynasty. The strategic location of the capital, protected both by the sea and by the mighty and almost impregnable Theodosian walls, certainly contributed to the survival of the Eastern Empire; but one 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.

Had the Western Emperor succeeded in preserving his effective authority, it cannot be ruled out that the Western Empire would have survived, perhaps limited to Italy alone; in the West, however, the Emperor lost all power to the benefit of army leaders of barbarian origin, such as Ricimerus and his successor Gundobado. Odoacer merely legalized a de facto situation, namely, the effective uselessness of the figure of the Emperor, now only a puppet in the hands of Roman generals of barbarian origin. Rather than a fall, the end of the Empire, at least in Italy, can be interpreted more as an internal regime change in which an outdated institution, which had lost all effective power to the Roman-Barbarian commanders, was ended. 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 consulate, and continued to rule Italy as an official of the Eastern Emperor while being de facto 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 empire's Germanic mercenary militia, led by the barbarian Odoacer, revolted against 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 imperial refusal to cede one-third of the Italic lands to the barbarian mercenaries. The army of Italy at the time seems to have consisted exclusively of Germans, especially, of Heruli, Scyrians and Rugi. When they made a request to Orestes that they be allowed to settle in Italy on the same conditions with which foederates in the other provinces of the Empire had been settled, receiving in addition one-third of the lands of the peninsula, Orestes refused, being determined to keep the soil of Italy inviolate. The refusal provoked an uprising of the mercenary soldiers, who elected their leader the Syrian Odoacer, one of Orestes' leading officers. Odoacer, at the head of a horde of Heruli, Turcilingi, Rugi, and Scyrians, then headed for Milan; Orestes, seeing the gravity of the revolt, took refuge in Pavia, which was, however, besieged and conquered by the rebels; Orestes was captured and, taken to Piacenza, executed (Aug. 28, 476). After that Odoacer headed for Ravenna: in the pine forest outside Classe (Odoacer later occupied Ravenna, where he captured Emperor Romulus Augustus, who could do nothing but abdicate and submit to Odoacer. Odoacer, however, having been a friend of his father Orestes, decided to spare his life by relegating him to a castle in Campania, called Lucullian (in Naples, where the present Castel dell'Ovo stands), and granting him an annual pension of 6,000 gold money.

All of Italy was in the hands of Odoacer, who was then proclaimed king by his soldiers. But the latter did not intend to rule Italy as the king of a barbarian horde comprising numerous 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 charade, perpetrated under his predecessors, of appointing a puppet emperor who in reality possessed no authority, all actual powers being held by the barbarian magister militum; he intended to rule Italy as magister militum and thus an official of the Emperor of Constantinople, while retaining the title of king of the barbarian troops that made up the army. With this in mind, Odoacer ensured that the deposition of Romulus Augustus took the form of an abdication, and induced the Roman Senate to send a delegation of senators, on behalf of Romulus, to Constantinople to announce the new order of things to the Eastern Emperor. The ambassadors of the Roman Senate, having arrived before the Eastern Emperor Zeno, informed him that:

At the same time other messengers, sent by Julius Nepot, arrived at Zeno's court to ask the Eastern Emperor for aid to help him recover the Western throne. Zeno declined the request for aid sent by Nepot, and reminded the Senate representatives that the two emperors they had received from the East had come to a bad end, one being 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 (Nepot) 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, although Odoacer had coins minted with his name. On May 9, 480, Nepot was killed near Salona by Counts Viator and Ovid. After his death, Zeno claimed Dalmatia for the East but was pre-empted by Odoacer, who under the pretext of avenging Nepot made war on Ovid and then conquered the region, which was annexed to Italy. Historian John Bagnell Bury therefore considers 480 as the year of the real end of the Western Empire.

Surviving for a few more years was the Kingdom of Soissons, the last enclave of the Western Roman Empire in northern Gaul, which in 486 was conquered by the Franks. It is important to note that because he had not obtained recognition from the Eastern Emperor, Romulus Augustus was regarded as a usurper by the court in Constantinople, which continued to recognize Julius Nepot, who ruled in exile in Dalmatia, as the legitimate Western Emperor and continued 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 considers it more likely that his coronation took place when he deposed Romulus Augustus and conquered Rome), he never wore purple or any other royal insignia, nor did he ever mint coins in his honor. This was because he had declared himself formally subordinate to the Eastern Emperor, 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 augusts. 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 one might retort that contemporary writers called Hesperium regnum (kingdom of the West) the provinces that had been, after 395, under the separate rule of an emperor residing in Italy, and by 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 who was the last legitimate emperor of the West, while Romulus Augustus was only a usurper. It should also be noted that, constitutionally speaking, Odoacer was the successor of Ricimerus, and that the situation generated by the events of 476 bears remarkable similarities to the interregnum intervals 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, although effective control of the western provinces was held by the barbarian magister militum Ricimerus. The situation in 476 was thus similar in many respects to that of 465-467: constitutionally, beginning in 476, Italy returned under the sovereignty of the ruling Roman Emperor in Constantinople, while 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 that an emperor from the western part would no longer be elected, and that for the first time Italy suffered, similarly to the other now-lost provinces, 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 key stage in the process of the 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 foederati in the other provinces. According to the scholar, the settlement of Odoacer's Germans represented the beginning of the process by which Italy would later end up in the hands of Ostrogoths and Lombards, Franks and Normans.

Registers of the Chancery of Ravenna and Malco.

The fact that the dethronement of Romulus Augustus coincided with the fall of Rome was not immediately recognized by the coevians, who did not recognize any real discontinuity. An initial confirmation is found by consulting the Consularia Italica, a chronicle compiled by the Ravenna imperial chancery itself. Although the defeat and killing of Orestes are described with a negative connotation:

There is not the slightest mention in even one line of the dethronement of Romulus Augustus and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Instead, a positive judgment is made of Odoacer:

This is because Romulus Augustus, having not 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 ended the millennial Roman state, but as the one who ended the tyranny and usurpation of Romulus Augustus. After all, a Western emperor, Julius Nepot, was still in office, albeit in exile in Dalmatia. Thus, in the view of the Chancery of Ravenna, the last Western Emperor was not dethroned at all in 476, ending the Empire; Julius Nepot, though 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 silent on the dethronement of the usurper Romulus Augustus, nevertheless records under the year 480 the assassination of Julius Nepot in Dalmatia: for that source he was the last Emperor of the West. However, as Zecchini notes, "not even the demise of Nepot is attributed an epochal or otherwise particularly important role." The version of the Ravenna bureaucratic records is thus the legal-constitutional one, which reflected the Constantinopolitan view that, even after 480, no Empire had fallen, since "there still remained in the East a Roman Emperor, Zeno, under whose scepter the two partes Imperii were automatically reunited in the absence of his Western colleague."

Even coeval Greek historians give no importance to 476 and consider the assassination of Julius Nepot in 480 a far more relevant event than 476. One can take as an example the historian Malchus, of whose work only fragments remain. In the summary of Malchus's work compiled by the patriarch of Constantinople Photius in the 9th century, there is not the slightest mention of the dethronement of Romulus Augustus, whereas Nepot's assassination is mentioned instead. This element is not decisive, for the failure to mention Romulus Augustus may have been a simple omission on the part of the patriarch, who was also summarizing, but fragments have survived of Malchus' work concerning the Roman Senate's ambassadorship in 476 announcing Odoacer's seizure of power. Malchus, while hostile to Emperor Zeno's policies, does not deviate from the official Byzantine version of 476 in this case; his judgment of Odoacer is positive and does not deviate from that of the Consularia Italica; like the Consularia Italica, Malchus also regards the events of 480 as more important than those of 476. Zecchini concludes that "Ravenna chancery, the Constantinopolitan court 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, leaving only one emperor, the eastern emperor, subsisting, created a new and in some respects worrying situation, but not to be considered at all definitive and irremediable."

Marcellin and Jordan

In the 6th 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 Goth historian Jordanes, who had evidently used Marcellinus as one of his sources. It should be noted that the year 709 of the founding of Urbe coincides with 43

In 519, in fact, Simmachus, a Roman senator who collaborated with Theodoric's Ostrogothic government in Italy, had compiled the Historia Romana, a lost work that, according to some conjectures, would have been the common source of Marcellinus and Jordanes. According to such conjectures, it would have started from Simmachus the opinion to consider the deposition of Romulus Augustus as the event that caused the end of the Roman state. The alleged opinion of Simmachus 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 rule of Theodoric, noted with bitterness that the Western throne had been vacant since 476, and that with the passage of time the possibility that it might be revived was becoming more and more tenuous. Marcellinus would only draw from that lost work, thus becoming the first Byzantine author to recognize in the deposition of Romulus Augustus the fall of the Western Empire. Marcellinus' words seem to describe the fall of the Empire as a now irreversible process.

According to Zecchini, it is actually possible that the beginning of awareness about 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 on 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 later ones, Zeno and Anastasius, are given without numbering. It is possible that the author of the document, in avoiding numbering Zeno and Anastasius, intended to make a distinction between the true 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 "even before 518 it was clear in the West that Romulus Augustulus had been the last emperor of Rome." This view is further reinforced by a passage in the Life of St. Severinus compiled by Eugippius around 511, where it is stated that by that time the Roman Empire was past history ("...per id temporis, quo Romanum constabat Imperium...", translatable as "...because, in those days, in which the Roman Empire existed..."). So the Life of St. Severinus shows that as early as 511 the Empire of Rome was considered to have fallen in the West; according to Zecchini, however, one had to wait for the publication of Simmachus' Historia Romana for this idea to spread to the East, thanks in part to Marcellinus' Chronicle.

While both Jordan 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, however, recognize it as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire tout court; in fact, the eastern part of the Empire still existed. Indeed, Marcellinus calls the Byzantines "Romans," and so does Jordanes. In Romana, written in 551, Giordane states that the subject of his work would be "how the Roman state began and lasted, subdued practically the whole world, and would last to the present day in imagination, and how the series of kings would continue from Romulus, and, subsequently, from Octavian Augustus to Justinian Augustus." Giordane thus writes that the Roman Empire in 551 was still in existence, although the addition "in imagination" suggests that the Gothic historian thought the Empire was now a shadow of its former self, so much had it declined. In fact, the conclusion of the work is very pessimistic: after describing the ravages of the barbarians in all the provinces of the Empire, those of Totila's Ostrogoths in Italy, the Maures in Africa, the Sasanids 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 history of the consuls without disdain, and he will find a present-day 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. This is what we, to the best of our ability, have covered so that through reading, the diligent reader may gain a broader knowledge of such things."

Toward the end of the 6th 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 the Urbe, 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."

Cassiodorus and Isidore of Seville

In any case, although the interpretation of 476 as the date of the fall of the Empire of Rome had already begun to spread, both in the West and 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 at the hands of 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 7th century), which went all the way back 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; indeed, in the final part of the Chronicle, where each chapter was devoted to a Roman Emperor, after the chapter devoted to the joint reign of Honorius and Theodosius II, the Western Emperors subsequent to Honorius (apart from a brief mention for Valentinian III) are not even considered, in contrast to the Eastern Emperors, called "Roman Emperors" tout court by Isidore, to whom all subsequent chapters of the work are devoted.

Paul Deacon

The Lombard historian Paul Deacon, on the other hand, in his Historia Romana (written during the 8th century) attaches much importance to the date 476, regarded as that of the end of the Roman Empire based in the city of Rome, as is evident from two passages in the work:

However, Paul Deacon, as well as Jordanes and Marcellinus, regards the events of 476 as those of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, or the Roman Empire based in Rome, but not of the Roman Empire tout court, which formally continued to exist in the East: as Pohl notes, in fact, the phrase by which the Lombard author declares the Western Roman Empire to have fallen with Romulus Augustus "refers only to the Roman Empire in Rome," and for Paul the Deacon "the Empire clearly still existed, though only in the East." Confirming this, the Lombard author ends his work not with the dethronement of Romulus Augustus but with the Justinian reconquest of Italy, a sign that events after 476 in his view were also part of Roman history; according to Pohl, in fact, "it is no coincidence that the Historia Romana ended with the victory of Narzes in 552, which 'returned the entire res publica to the rule of the res publica.'" Indeed, in both the Roman History and the later History of the Lombards, Paul Deacon predominantly uses the term Romans to refer to the Byzantines. Jordan and Marcellinus (who, after all, is himself Byzantine, albeit Latin-speaking) also 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-speaking and not Latin-speaking, and were regarded as such in the West until the 8th century. It was only as a result of the papacy's alliance 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 barbarian invasions or migrations as the main reason for the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire, while acknowledging the internal limitations of the Roman state that facilitated the fall. Other scholars, on the other hand, have held that the decline and ruin of the pars occidentalis depended on internal causes, that is, on the great deep currents of social change that invested the economic-social structures and political institutions of the Late Roman Empire, to the point of causing its fall; however, according to some scholars, this would not explain why the Eastern Roman Empire, despite having the same internal problems as the Western Roman Empire (oppressive fiscalism, the cultural impact due to the expansion of Christianity, despotism), managed to survive until the 15th century. Still other scholars (such as Peter Brown) have, on the other hand, denied the decline and collapse of the Empire, asserting that rather than a fall, a great transformation had taken place, beginning with the barbarian invasions and continuing after the formal conclusion of the Western Empire with the Romano-Barbarian kingdoms. Brown argued that this transformation would take place without abrupt ruptures, in a climate of substantial continuity. This thesis is currently supported by many historians, including Walter Goffart.


The phase of the barbarian invasions that contributed to the final fall of the Western Roman Empire began in the late 4th century, when the Huns' movements into Eastern Europe eventually prompted other barbarian populations to invade the Empire's borders in order not to fall under the Hunnic yoke. The first glimpse of the greater strategic danger of the barbarian invasions of the 5th century than those of previous centuries came when the Goths inflicted a memorable defeat on the Roman army at the Battle of Adrianople (378), in which even Emperor Valens died. From then on, the barbarians were stopped with increasing difficulty, until they spread completely into the western part of the Empire in the 5th 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 downfall of the Western Roman Empire. For the Italian historian Santo Mazzarino (End of the Ancient World, Rizzoli, 1988), on the other hand, they only gave the final shove to a political, economic and social structure now as deeply worn out as that of the pars occidentalis. In fact, the empire's eastern provinces, which first suffered the brunt of the barbarians (the Visigoths at the end of the fourth century swept through Greece and the Balkans), did not disintegrate under those invasions, but were able to repel and encompass them, and then divert them to the western section, which instead fell apart altogether under that impact.

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 subsequent division into a pars occidentalis and a pars orientalis only hastened its ruin, favoring the invading barbarians. The English Enlightenment historian Gibbon argued that it was Theodosius' sons and grandsons who caused the ultimate collapse of the Empire: through their weakness, they abandoned 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 constant usurpations and the political overpowering of the army, which from the third century onward elected and deposed emperors at will, that deeply undermined the Empire's internal stability. The Western Roman Empire, less socially and culturally cohesive, less economically rich, less centralized, and worse organized politically than the Eastern Roman Empire, ended up paying for this underlying instability in the long run. It was thus the lack of army discipline, more pronounced in the Western than in the Eastern part, where central power was stronger, that proved to be one of the main causes of the empire's downfall.

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 descent (partly to fill the gaps caused by population decline and resistance to conscription on the part of Roman citizens), integrated into the army first as mercenaries alongside the legions and then, in increasingly massive forms, as foederati who retained their national ways of living and warfare. The result was a Roman army in name, but increasingly alien to the society it was called upon to represent and protect.

Economic scholar Angelo Fusari, identified the inability of the Roman economy to evolve into a dynamic economy during the Principate, despite the decentralized and light political structures of that period, as the flaw that would lead to Roman decadence. The stagnation of technology, the absence of new markets, and the lack of a "bourgeois" culture prevented the equestrian class, active in trade and industry, from anticipating the time for 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 it would be characterized by economic dirigisme, administrative centralization and social regimentation. Well, while in the pars orientalis the totalitarianism of the Dominate was accepted without problems, in part because of the identification of the Byzantine Church with 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 got 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, and of citizens and peasants from a ruthless taxation system, helped 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 leadership of a now barbarized army, landowners against settlers attempting to escape serfdom, and citizens and peasants from the taxman. The Western Roman Empire thus experienced a situation of endemic anarchy, which weakened the empire's resistance to renewed barbarian pressure.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography, on the other hand, has focused on the profound economic-social issues that from the third century onward led to the progressive decline of agricultural production, the crisis of trade and cities, bureaucratic degeneration and profound social inequalities, causing the Roman Empire, particularly the pars occidentalis, to lose wealth and internal cohesion until its final fall in the fifth century. It was the economic-social crisis, in short, that in the long run ended up fatally weakening the political-military structure of the Western Roman Empire, which, already torn apart by internal wars (see above) and ravaged by frequent famines and epidemics (at the same time the cause and consequence of the economic crisis and political instability), was ultimately no longer able to successfully resist 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 fueled by the great wars of conquest, gave way to the feudal economic system based on colonialism and thus the land lordship and serfdom typical of the curtense economy of the Middle Ages.

Economist and sociologist Max Weber pointed out the regression from the monetary economy to the natural economy, a consequence of currency devaluation, galloping inflation and the trade crisis also due to production stagnation and increasing insecurity of trade.

For Russian historian Michail Ivanovič Rostovcev it was the rebellion of the peasant masses (flight from the countryside) to the city elites that led to the loss of internal social cohesion.

For still other historians, finally, it was bureaucratic degeneration, characterized by endemic corruption and excessive tax burdens on the middle classes, that produced the deep social divide between a narrow caste of the privileged (latifundial aristocrats and the top echelons of the bureaucratic and military hierarchy) who lived in extreme luxury and the great mass of peasants and urban proletarians forced into daily survival, which eventually caused the Empire to lose the compactness necessary to avoid the collapse of the fifth century.

Recent archaeological excavations (in Antioch) and aerial surveys, however, have shown, Heather says, that the economy of the Late Empire underwent a sharp 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 strict "ceiling" beyond which production could not grow: in most provinces, production levels were already at the maximum for the technologies of the time. The empire's finances and the connection between the administrative center and the various local realities were also based on the protection, by army and laws, of an inner circle of landowners, who reciprocated the empire by paying taxes. The arrival of the barbarians led to centrifugal forces that separated local realities from the center of the Empire. When the barbarians occupied the areas inside the Empire, landowners - feeling defenseless and unable to leave the enemy-occupied area because their pre-eminence was based on their land (real estate), which they therefore could not abandon - found themselves forced to support their new masters in an attempt to preserve their lands by averting possible confiscation. In addition, the lower classes - oppressed by late imperial fiscalism - supported the barbarian invaders.

The barbarian invasions of the 5th century consequently caused an economic crisis in the western part of the Empire. The removal of several territories from the Empire's control by the barbarians and the momentary devastation of those only momentarily occupied caused a sudden collapse in tax revenues (up to 1

An interesting hypothesis is the one put forward by historian Santo Mazzarino and taken up by economist Giorgio Ruffolo: under the seemingly homogeneous surface of Hellenistic-Roman civilization, progressively compressed ancient nationalities actually emerged. The effects of this thrust would manifest themselves mainly in the 5th century in the West (in Gaul, Spain, Africa) and only in the 7th 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 usually 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 had revolted all at once would such a collapse have been plausible.

Christianity is considered by some historians and philosophers (especially the 18th century Enlightenment: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Edward Gibbon) to be the main cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. According to their theses, Christianity had made the Romans militarily weaker, since by encouraging a contemplative and prayerful life and challenging traditional pagan myths and cults, it had deprived them of their 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, hastening its downfall.

However, it seems rather far-fetched to conclude that a force that acted in the direction of cohesion in the Eastern Roman Empire acted in the direction of disintegration in the Western part. However, it should not be forgotten that the ideologies formulated by intellectuals regarding emperors differed from Eastern to Western empire. The East made its own the ideology formulated by Eusebius of Caesarea (sacralized basileus), the West, on the other hand, that of St. Ambrose and Augustine (imperator pius and not deified, subject to the Church whose guarantor he is). Indeed, it is no coincidence that it was in the West that Theodosius was forced to bend supplicant twice before the simple bishop of Milan, Ambrose precisely. True, there are accounts of open exultation by eminent Christians such as Tertullian or Salvian of Marseilles in the face of defeats and invasions. But there are just as many testimonies of sorrow and bitterness, such as that of St. Jerome. Or even the documented memories of bishops who led armed resistance to the barbarians, replacing the fleeing Roman militia. St. Augustine claimed, on the other hand, that the one and only true homeland of Christians was the heavenly one, and that the cities of men were ruined not by the fault of Christians, but by the nefariousness of their rulers. It seems to be safe to say, then, that on the whole the Christians did not fight the barbarians (unlike in the East, where Christianity constituted something akin to a national movement resolutely 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 reevaluated today, paying special attention:

An excellent field of inquiry to understand the corrosive force of Christianity is that of the laws of Majoranus (one of the most famous prohibited women from becoming nuns before the age of 40 because, and the emperor well understood this, this was causing a decrease in birth rates at a time when Rome needed all the swords it could get).

Corruption and the abandonment of the ancient republican customs that had made Rome great, as well as the despotism of the emperors, also had a major 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 Eastern customs, Roman society eventually abandoned the traditional republican virtues that had contributed to the expansionism and solidity of the Empire. The first signs of decadence, therefore, would be seen as early as the first century CE, with the tyranny of emperors such as Nero, Caligula, Commodus, and Domitian. This was a view that Roman historiography of republican ideology, close to the Senate or traditionalist (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Cassius Dione Cocceianus, Ammianus Marcellinus), had an interest in propagating. However, again it does not explain why the despotic, Greco-Eastern Byzantine Empire managed to resist barbarian invasions so well, unlike the Western Empire.

Roman-Barbaric kingdoms

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

The kingdom was the only new political institution devised by the invaders, although there were important differences within the Germanic peoples. Schematizing, it can be said that the barbarian kingdom did not know the separation of powers, all of which were concentrated in the hands of the king who had acquired them by right of conquest, to the point that the public thing tended to be confused with his personal property and the very notion of a kingdom with the person of the one who wielded 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 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, such as those of the Burgundians in the Rhone Basin or the Suebi (others, such as those of the Vandals or Ostrogoths, collapsed under the offensive 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, on the other hand, survived, both because of the rapid integration between the resident population and the invaders, and because of collaboration with the Church and with members of the Latin intellectual world.

Italy under Odoacer and Theodoric

Among the various cases of Romano-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 based in Constantinople, and Odoacer first and Theodoric later from a constitutional point of view were nothing more than a kind of viceroys who ruled the Peninsula on behalf of the Byzantine Emperor. According to the Roman legal scholar Horace Lycander, "first Odoacer and later Theodoric acted in the name and on behalf of the Roman Emperor-henceforth sole and resident in Constantinople-as imperial officials (patricii and magistri militum praesentales): Rome and the West continued their own existence albeit now as a periphery of imperial political power."

Odoacer kept the Roman system of government unchanged, 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 office 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 cede a third of their land to Odoacer's barbarian soldiers and their families. However, it is possible that the needs of Odoacer's army were met without a drastic application of the principle of partition. Indeed, if the landowners had been expropriated on a large scale, it would have been scarcely credible for them to have cooperated with Odoacer so loyally as it appears from the sources.

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 a final break in relations. In fact, Odoacer was suspected of having supported, even if only indirectly, the revolt of General Illo, and, when Odoacer mounted an expedition to the Illyrian provinces of the Empire, then threatened by the Ostrogoths, Zeno attempted to prevent it by inciting the Rugi to invade Italy. However, Odoacer anticipated their attack by invading Noricum, defeating them and destroying their kingdom. This alarmed Zeno, who decided to send Theodoric's Ostrogoths against him.

In the following years, the Eastern Emperor Zeno sent Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, to Italy to rid himself of his uncomfortable presence, so that he could supplant the usurper Odoacer and rule the peninsula on behalf of the Byzantine Empire. Thus, a Roman-Barbarian kingdom was also formed in Italy, as in Gaul, Spain and Africa. Theodoric showed that he wanted, and seemed capable of achieving, the fusion of the Germanic minority and the Italic majority: he united all of Italy and even the islands under his own sovereignty, gained international respect and prestige, sought and partly obtained cooperation from the aristocracy, and maintained the structure of the Roman administration; moreover, although he was an Arian, he formed respectful relations with the Church of Rome.

Theodoric's reign lasted thirty-six years and, in many respects, had no discontinuity with Odoacer's policies. One of the first problems that Theodoric faced was the allocation of land to his people: the Ostrogoths, for the most part, expropriated Odoacer's Germans in particular of their land, many of whom were killed or expelled, although some of those who had submitted were allowed to keep their land holdings. The general principle was the allotment of one-third of the Roman estates to the Goths; but since the commission charged with carrying out the partition was under the chairmanship of a senator, Liberius, it can be assumed that the senatorial estates were spared as far as possible. In 497 the treaty between Zeno and Emperor Anastasius defined Theodoric's constitutional position. 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, which thus returned to Rome. The return of the ornamenta palatii to Rome in 497, according to Roman legal scholar Horace Lycander, had 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 ruler 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 turned 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 emperor's sovereignty. Theodoric, in fact, never used the years of his reign for the purpose of dating official documents, as also he never claimed the right to mint coinage except in subordination to the Emperor, but most importantly he never issued laws (leges) but only edicta. Under Roman law, in fact, issuing laws (leges) was the prerogative only of the emperor, unlike edicta, which could be issued by numerous 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 enact leges but only edicta constituted a concrete limitation on his power: edicta, in fact, could be enacted as long as they did not violate a pre-existing law; this meant that Theodoric could modify pre-existing laws in particular points, making them stricter or milder, but he could not originate new principles or institutions; Theodoric's edicts, in effect, did not introduce anything new and did not alter any pre-existing principles.

The right to appoint one of the consuls of the year was transferred from Emperors Zeno and Anastasius first to 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 choosing the consul: he had to be a Roman citizen, not a Goth. However, in 519, there was an exception to the rule, with the appointment of Theodoric's son-in-law Eutaric as consul. However, to corroborate the fact that it was an exception to the rule, it was not Theodoric who made the appointment in that case, but the emperor himself, as a special favor to the Goth king. The restrictions that excluded Goths from the consulship also extended to civil offices, which were kept in place under Ostrogothic rule, as they had been under Odoacer. There was still a praetorian prefect of Italy, and, when Theodoric conquered Provence, the office of praetorian prefect of Gaul was also restored. There was still a vicar of Rome, as were all the provincial governors, divided into the three ranks of consulares, correctores and praesides. The offices of magister officiorum, the two ministers of finance and palace quaestors were also retained. 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, by the same principle, could not belong, continued to meet and perform the same functions as it did during the fifth century. It was formally recognized by Theodoric as possessing 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 rather foreigners sojourning on Roman territory; in other words, they legally had the same legal status as mercenaries or foreign travelers or hostages who were on Roman territory, but could at any time return to their homeland across the Roman frontier. Consequently, laws that applied only to Roman citizens, such as those relating to marriage and inheritance, did not apply to the Goths. Only laws that were part of the ius commune, that is, those that applied to all residents of Roman territory, regardless of whether they held Roman citizenship or not, were valid for the Goths. With these assumptions, it is no coincidence that Theodoric's edict was promulgated as being part of the ius commune, since it was addressed to both Romans and Goths, and therefore had to be legally valid for both. The legal status of the Goths was the cause of a further concrete restriction on Theodoric's power: he could not confer Roman citizenship on the Goths, a faculty reserved only for the emperor. Being not Roman citizens but mercenary soldiers, the Ostrogoths were judged by military courts; this was to conform to Roman law, which stipulated that soldiers should be judged by a military court. In this case Theodoric concretely interfered 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 every 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 ruled 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, limited himself to the simple title of rex. Theodoric probably thought the word rex sufficiently appropriate to express the fact that he was de facto sovereign over both his Germanic and his Roman subjects, although in the case of the latter it was in fact a "quasi-sovereignty," since Theodoric ruled them in his capacity as a high official of Constantinople.

Theodoric, however, although he preserved the late Roman system of government, also brought innovations, placing alongside Roman institutions an administrative-bureaucratic apparatus run by the Goths, with centralist tendencies. According to Lycander, this amounted to turning 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. Border areas, such as Rhaetia and Dalmatia, were placed under the command of duces or principes. Theodoric also entrusted Goth officials of proven loyalty, the so-called saiones, with the task of holding firm the ties between center and 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 there were probably no changes among subordinate officers either. Theodoric's goal was to civilize his people by integrating them into Roman civilization, but he made no concrete attempts to merge the two peoples-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, however, was tolerant, unlike that of the Vandals and Franks. His principle was not to force 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. An anecdote has been handed down in this regard that Theodoric had a Catholic deacon executed because he was guilty of converting to Arianism for the sole purpose of gaining the king's favor. Although there are doubts about the actual veracity of this anecdote, it nevertheless represents further confirmation of Theodoric's reputation as a religiously tolerant ruler. Although he never made a concrete attempt to merge the two populations, Theodoric nevertheless succeeded in his purpose of sticking to the difficult ideal, according to which he would treat every one of his subjects, whether Goth or Roman, without discrimination.

As soon as Justin I, Justinian's uncle, ascended the throne in 518, succeeding Anastasius, Theodoric entered into negotiations with the new emperor to determine who would be his successor on the Gothic throne. Theodoric, in fact, had no sons; in return, his daughter Amalasunta had received a Roman education, and had married Eutaric in 515, begetting a son, Atalaric, three years later. Theodoric intended that Atalaric should be the one 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 was also to be the emperor's viceroy and his magister militum in Italy. Justin I accepted Theodoric's plan and, as a sign of approval, designated Eutaric as consul for the year 519, although the Goths were strictly excluded from the consulship unless the Emperor himself designated 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 early 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 reestablishment of ecclesiastical unity was the first step to be taken to overthrow Gothic power. Indeed, the existence of the schism, 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 Arians, connected the persecution of Arianism with the reunion of the Church, and feared that imperial policy might cause the formation of an anti-Arian movement in Italy; as a result, 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 during 523, was viewed with distrust by the Goths, as he was considered part of that fringe that desired a closer dependence of Italy on imperial rule in order to gain more power and freedom for the Roman Senate.

Thus it was that, when some letters from the Roman Senate addressed to the emperor were intercepted, certain passages in the letters were interpreted as prodigal to Theodoric's rule, and the position of the patrician Faustus Albinus was particularly compromised. He, accused of high treason, was defended by Boethius, who boldly argued that the entire Senate, including Boethius himself, was responsible for Albinus's actions; this defense was regarded as a confession of guilt on the part of Boethius and the entire Senate, and Boethius himself was accused of high treason, arrested and dismissed from his offices, 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 their own 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 leader of the Senate, Simmachus, who paid for his choice by being arrested, taken to Ravenna, and executed.

It is possible that these events had some connection with an imperial edict issued around that 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 may have influenced Theodoric's policy prior to the execution of Boethius. 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 Pope John I as ambassador, who, accompanied by a retinue consisting of a number of bishops and eminent senators, was received with full honors in Constantinople, where he stayed for at least five months, celebrating Christmas and Easter in the Church of St. Sophia. The pontiff succeeded in persuading the emperor to return all their churches to the Aryans and allow them to return to their ancient positions, but he refused to allow the Aryans who had converted to return to their ancient faith. In any case, Theodoric's main demand 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, seized with dysentery, perished on August 30, 526. Before he expired, he designated Atalaric as his successor, requiring him to maintain good relations with the Senate and the Roman people at all times, 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 Italics and Goths into one nation, to keep on good terms with the emperor and the Senate. The Roman people received extensive assurances from her 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 to acculturate 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 they believed that a Goth 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 Atalaric received, Amalasunta, in fear of being dethroned, decided to acquiesce to their demands.Atalaric, however, could not withstand the Spartan education that the Gothic nobles intended to impart to him, his physical health deteriorated rapidly, and in 534 he expired.

The Gothic nobility resented Amalasunta's rule, and she soon discovered a conspiracy hatched against her. She then wrote to Justinian, asking if he would be willing to receive her in Constantinople should the need arise; the emperor responded positively, and prepared a residence at Dyrrhachium for Amalasunta's reception on her eventual journey to Constantinople. Amalasunta, however, succeeded in suppressing the revolt by having the three main 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 Plato's philosophy; he owned estates in Tuscia, and had brutally expanded them to the detriment of other landowners, causing protests from the inhabitants of Tuscia, who complained to Amalasunta; she forced her cousin to make some restitution of unjustly confiscated lands, causing him to hate her. However, he was not, by nature, ambitious to rule; his ideal was to spend his last years of existence in lust in Constantinople; indeed, it is said that when two eastern bishops had come to Rome on theological matters, Theodatus instructed them to deliver a message to Justinian, proposing that he cede his estates in Tuscia to him in exchange for a large sum of money, the rank of senator, and permission to settle in Constantinople. Along with these two bishops had come Alexander, an imperial official, who accused Amalasunta of hostile conduct. Amalasunta replied to the accusations, recalling her services on behalf of the emperor, such as allowing her fleet to land in Sicily during the expedition against the Vandals. In reality, Alexander's complaints were merely 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 as her son Atalaric's health deteriorated. After receiving messages from Amalasunta and Theodatus, Justinian sent a new agent to Italy, Peter of Thessalonica, a skilled diplomat.

Meanwhile, Atalaric passed away. Amalasunta then contacted her cousin Theodatus, offering him the title of king, on the condition that she would in fact 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. Meanwhile, the ambassador Peter was on his way to Italy when news came of Amalasunta's murder. Peter then, having come before Theodatus, reported to him on behalf of the Emperor that the murder of Amalasunta implied a "war without respite." Indeed, 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.

Indeed, Justinian I had set as his supreme goal the reunification of the ancient Roman Empire. After incentivizing the old Roman aristocracy not to cooperate with Theodoric, 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 riches and cities were devastated, the population was massacred.

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

The consequences of the war were felt over Italy for several centuries, partly because the population, in order not to get involved, had abandoned the cities to take refuge in the countryside or on the better-protected fortified heights, bringing to completion that process of ruralization and abandonment of urban centers begun in the fifth century. Although the casualty figures reported by Procopius are perhaps exaggerated, it can be estimated that much of the Italian population had been decimated by the sieges, famines, and plague.

The city of Rome, which still had between 600,000 and one million inhabitants in the fourth century, had dramatically dropped to 100,000 inhabitants by the beginning of the reign of Theodoric, who, all caught up in the mission of restoring Roman glories, had ordered a series of great works in the Urbe: walls, granaries, aqueducts, and the abandoned imperial palace itself 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 opposing armies. In the years around 540, after Totila's reconquest, the city was practically abandoned and headed for desolation: many of its surroundings had turned into unhealthy swamps, the population by then reaching no more than 20,000, mostly thickened around St. Peter's basilica. An inglorious end for the caput mundi that had dominated over much of the known world.

While some propaganda sources speak of a prosperous 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 Narses and his subordinates rebuilt, in whole or in part, many cities destroyed by the Goths, Italy failed to regain its former prosperity. In 556, Pope Pelagius complained in a letter to the bishop of Arles about the condition of the countryside, "so desolate that no one is able to recover"; precisely because of the critical situation in Italy, Pelagius was forced to ask the bishop in question to send him the crops from the papal estates in southern Gaul, as well as a supply of clothing, for the poor in the city of Rome. A plague epidemic that depopulated Italy from 559 to 562 also contributed to the worsening conditions in the country, which was already tested by Byzantine fiscalism; it was later followed by a famine.

Rome also struggled, despite promised funds, to recover from the war, and the only repaired public work in the city of which there are records is the Salarian Bridge, destroyed by Totila and rebuilt in 565. The war made Rome a depopulated and ruined city: many monuments deteriorated, and of the 14 aqueducts that before the war supplied water to the city now only one, according to historians, remained in operation, the Aqua Traiana repaired by Belisarius. For the Roman Senate also began an irreversible process of decline that ended with its dissolution around the beginning of the 7th century: many senators moved to Byzantium or were massacred in the course of 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 while taking in many refugees from the countryside. The decline did not, however, involve all regions: those less affected by the war, such as Sicily or Ravenna, do not seem to have been greatly affected by the devastating effects of the conflict, maintaining their prosperity.

Church assets also suffered the consequences of the war: in 562 Pope Pelagius complained, writing to the prefect of the praetorium of Africa, Boethius, that because of the devastation caused by the long and destructive war he now received proceeds only from the islands and areas outside Italy, it being impossible, after twenty-five continuous years of war, to obtain them from the desolate peninsula; and, as the Church's proceeds were needed to feed the poor population of Rome, it too would suffer; however, Pelagius and the Church were able to overcome the crisis and recover, partly due to the confiscation of the Arian Church's property, which passed to the Catholic Church.

On August 13, 554, with Justinian's promulgation in Constantinople of a pragmatic sanctio pro petitione Vigilii ("Pragmatic sanction on the claims of Pope Vigilius"), Italy was brought back, though not yet fully pacified, into "Roman" rule; with it Justinian extended the legislation of the Empire to Italy, recognizing the concessions implemented by the Goth kings with the exception of the "unclean" Totila (whose social policy was then annulled leading to the restoration of the senatorial aristocracy and forcing the serfs enfranchised by Totila to return to serve their masters), and promised funds to rebuild public works destroyed or damaged by the war, guaranteeing also that abuses in tax collection would be corrected and funds would be provided to promote the flourishing of culture.

Narses still remained in Italy with extraordinary powers and reorganized the defensive, administrative and fiscal apparatus; four military commands were stationed to defend the peninsula, one at Forum Iulii, one at Trent, one at Lakes Maggiore and Como and finally one at the Graian and Cottian Alps. Italy was organized into a 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 former did not become part of any prefecture, being governed by a praetor dependent on Constantinople, while the latter was aggregated to the Illyrian prefecture; Sardinia and Corsica had already been part, since the time of the Vandal war (533-534), of the Praetorian Prefecture of Africa. According to the "Prammatica Sanzione," provincial governors were to be elected by the local people, i.e., the notables and bishops; however, doubts arose about the actual application of this principle, since provincial governors had long been controlled by the central authority.

If the "Prammatica Sanzione" is to be believed, taxes were not increased in comparison with the Gothic period, but evidently the damage caused by the ravages of war made it very difficult to pay them, and, for that matter, it seems that Narsees did not receive subsidies from Constantinople, but had to provide for himself for the maintenance of the army and administration. In 568 Justin II, following protests from the Romans about excessive taxation, removed Narsees from his post as governor, replacing him with Longinus.

With the Byzantine victory in the Gothic War, however, Italy did not have the hoped-for stability, nor was the Western Roman Empire reformed: in fact, the peninsula was invaded in 568 by a new Germanic population, the Lombards, who would bring about a profound historical split in the country, divided into areas under Lombard rule and territories still in Byzantine hands. This led to a time when only the Eastern Roman Empire remained standing, since then referred to 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. He succeeded in reconquering during his long reign much of the Western Empire, including Rome: he took Italy from the Ostrogoths, northern Africa from the Vandals, and southern Spain from the Visigoths. The Mediterranean Sea thus became once again the mare nostrum of the Romans. But only for a short time: indeed, Justinian's conquests proved ephemeral, due to the appearance of new enemies (Lombards, Avars, Arabs, Bulgarians). The Western Roman Empire, however, risked revival during the 6th century. In fact, the Eastern emperors Tiberius II, first, and Maurice, later, had plans 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 General Maurice as sole successor. Maurice himself, who had expressed in his will his intention to bequeath the western part to his son Tiberius, while the eastern part would go to his eldest son Theodosius, was killed along with his family by a rebellion.

The Western Roman Empire was reborn de facto for a year on Dec. 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 there was always a senate in Rome and that it was still attributed the prerogative of being the repository of sovereign power in competition with the emperors, and the legal capacity to validate the proclamation of a new emperor. To the senate of Rome, in fact, and not to the pope, certainly had the archbishop of Ravenna as well as 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 its inheritance. The first was the Carolingian Empire, which explicitly aimed at a grand project of reconstituting the Empire in the West: symbolic of this aspiration was on Christmas Day 800 the coronation as "Emperor of the Romans" by Pope Leo III of the Frankish king Charlemagne. 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 seize Italy so as to "reunify the empire," but papal and Neapolitan armies stopped the Turkish advance toward 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 Rome's founding as true, the Roman state lasted from 753 B.C. to 1461, when the Trebizond Empire (the last fragment of the Byzantine Empire that escaped Ottoman conquest in 1453) fell, a total of 2,214 years.

Holy Roman Empire

At Christmas 800, King Charlemagne of the Franks 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 papal coronation, although from a strictly legal point of view coronation had no basis in the law of the time. However, the Byzantines were ruled then by Empress Irene, illegitimate in the eyes of Western Christians as a woman, beyond 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 any real interest, to make its case.

The Holy Roman Empire experienced its heyday 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 territory, especially in Italy, to the various local autonomies. Communes, lords and principalities however continued to see the Empire as a sacred supranational body from which to derive formal legitimacy of their power, as evidenced by the numerous imperial diplomas granted at great cost. In essence, however, the emperor had no authority and his office, unless held by individuals of particular strength and determination, was purely symbolic.

In 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia the feudal princes became virtually independent of the Emperor and the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to a mere confederation of only formally united but de facto independent states. It continued to exist formally, however, until 1806, when French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte forced Emperor Francis 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. Fall of the Western Roman Empire
  2. Caduta dell'Impero romano d'Occidente
  3. ^ Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, p. 361.
  4. ^ Matyszak, p. 231.
  5. ^ Numerous literary sources, both Christian and pagan, falsely attributed to Theodosius multiple anti-pagan initiatives such as the withdrawal of state funding to pagan cults (this measure belongs to Gratian) and the demolition of temples (for which there is no primary evidence).[140] Theodosius was also associated with the ending of the Vestal virgins, but twenty-first century scholarship asserts the Virgins continued until 415 and suffered no more under Theodosius than they had since Gratian restricted their finances.[141] Theodosius did turn pagan holidays into workdays, but the festivals associated with them continued.[142] Theodosius was associated with ending the ancient Olympic Games, which he also probably did not do.[143][144] Sofie Remijsen [nl] says there are several reasons to conclude the Olympic games continued after Theodosius I, and that they came to an end under Theodosius the second, by accident, instead. Two extant scholia on Lucian connect the end of the games with a fire that burned down the temple of the Olympian Zeus during Theodosius the second's reign.[145]
  6. Numerous literary sources, both Christian and pagan, falsely attributed to Theodosius multiple anti-pagan initiatives such as the withdrawal of state funding to pagan cults (this measure belongs to Gratian) and the demolition of temples (for which there is no primary evidence).[140]
  7. Theodosius was also associated with the ending of the Vestal virgins, but twenty-first century scholarship asserts the Virgins continued until 415 and suffered no more under Theodosius than they had since Gratian restricted their finances.[141]
  8. Glen Bowersock, "The Vanishing Paradigm of the Fall of Rome" Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1996. vol. 49 no. 8 pp. 29-43.
  9. Momigliano, 1973.
  10. Vgl. die Beiträge in Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz (Hrsg.): Der Untergang des Römischen Reiches. Darmstadt 2022.
  11. Bryan Ward-Perkins: The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford 2005.
  12. Kyle Harper: Climate, Disease and the Fate of Rome. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 2017, ISBN 978-0-691-16683-4; dt. Übersetzung: Fatum. Das Klima und der Untergang des Römisches Reiches. Beck, München 2020, ISBN 978-3-406-74933-9.
  13. Guy Halsall: Movers and Shakers. The Barbarians and the Fall of Rome. In: Early Medieval Europe. Band 8, 1999, S. 131–145.
  14. Henning Börm: Ein Zeitalter der Bürgerkriege. Der Untergang des Römischen Reiches und die Erosion der Zentralgewalt. In: Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz (Hrsg.): Der Untergang des Römischen Reiches. WBG, Darmstadt 2022, S. 244–253.

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