Decline and Strains on the Roman Empire after Constantine

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Julian paganism

In the A.D. 5th century, Rome was sacked twice: first by the Goths in 410 and then the Vandals in 455. The final blow came in 476, when the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, was forced to abdicate and the Germanic general Odoacer took control of the city. Italy eventually became a Germanic Ostrogoth kingdom. But the decline of the Roman Empire had begun much earlier and the collapse of the empire in the west was more the result of a series of gradual adjustments rather than a catastrophic event or violent change. The historian Adrian Goldsworthy wrote that the barbarian invaders that ultimately brought Rome down “struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay."

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: In the A.D. 4th century, as political power shifted from Rome “to Constantinople, the church gradually replaced the declining civil authority at Rome. Meanwhile, the Germanic tribes, who lived along the northern borders of the empire and who had long been recruited to serve as mercenaries in the Roman army, began to emerge as powerful political and military forces in their own right. [Source: Christopher Lightfoot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

In the 370s, the Huns, horsemen from the Eurasian steppe, invaded areas along the Danube River, driving many of the Germanic tribes—including the Visigoths—into the Roman provinces. What began as a controlled resettlement of barbarians within the empire's borders ended as an invasion. The emperor Valens was killed by the Visigoths at Adrianople in 378 A.D., and the succeeding emperor, Theodosius I (r. 379–95 A.D.), conducted campaigns against them, but failed to evict them from the empire. In 391 A.D., Theodosius ordered the closing of all temples and banned all forms of pagan cult. \^/

After his death in 395 A.D., the empire was divided between his sons, Honorius (Western Roman emperor) and Arcadius (Eastern Roman emperor). The West, separated from the East, could not long survive the incessant barbarian invasions. The Visigoth Alaric sacked Rome in 410 A.D. and, in 476 A.D., the German Odovacer advanced on the city and deposed Romulus Augustulus (r. 475–76 A.D.), commonly known as the last Roman emperor of the West. Odovacer became, in effect, king of Rome until 493 A.D., when Theodoric the Great established the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy. The eastern Roman provinces survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., developing into the Byzantine empire, which itself survived until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.” \^/

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Books: “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon; “How Rome Fell” by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale University Press, 2009) has been described by the Washington Post as “meticulously researched. Complex and thought-provoking."

Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Edward Gibbon

On June 7, 1787, at the age of 50, Edward Gibbon wrote the last line of the final chapter of the sixth and last volume, of “ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from his house at Lausanne, Switzerland. He started the work in 1772. It took him 24 years to complete.

In the third volume of “ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon’s concluded "the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principal of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of the conquest; and, as soon as time or accident removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric-yielded to the pressure of its on weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long."

In the end he said "after a diligent inquiry" there are "four principal causes of the ruin of Rome, which continued to operate in a period of more than a thousand years...I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of materials. And, IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans."

Gibbon was independently wealthy, and had neither a wife nor children, which explains how he had the time and money to complete his monumental task. What made the work so revolutionary, other than its length, was the fact it focused on the tragic and humorous human aspects of history.

Decline and Disintegration of the Roman Empire in the A.D. 3nd Century

Some pinpoint the beginning of Rome's decline to death of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 180 when the Roman Empire was at its height. By the end of the third century A.D., the Roman Empire was being threatened by internal struggles, economic problem, external enemies and moral decay. Maintaining the huge empire had become increasing expensive as tax evasion and corruption were depriving the Roman treasury of money it needed. Faced with multiple problems and slow communications the emperors could do very little to help.

From A.D. 235 to the fall of the Western Empire in 476, there were few decades that were free of major civil conflicts. Between 235 and 285 over 60 men claimed imperial power — more than one per years. Historian Diana Preston wrote in the Washington Post, “For successive emperors the priority became simple survival, with no time to consider their real responsibilities, Though the following century saw a period of greater stability, the price was such a centralization of power that one imperial orator said bureaucrats had grown “more numerous that flies on sheep in springtime."

Wars of the Tetrarchy

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Contemporaries who lived through the third century upheavals looked back on the previous age as one of peace and prosperity, but in reality it could be said that Rome had lurched from crisis to crisis ever since its foundation in 753 B.C. There had always been famines and plagues, military disasters, civil wars, attempts to seize supreme power, rebellions within the provinces, raids and invasions from beyond the frontier, and migrating tribes pressing on the edges of the Roman world. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The Romans had dealt with all of these in the past and survived. The trouble was that in the third century many problems surfaced at the same time, some of them on a grander scale than ever before, and they proved more difficult to eradicate. Two of the most serious threats to the empire in the third century were the developments taking place among the tribes of the northern frontiers beyond the Rhine and Danube, and the growth of a formidable centralising power in the east.”

During this period the provinces began conducted business and trade between themselves, bypassing Rome and its middlemen. Roman citizens seemed to more interested in attending gladiator battles and participating in other forms of recreation than in soldiering, working or building.

Pressures from Germany

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “While Rome looked the other way, barbarian tribes grew bigger and more aggressive and coordinated. When troops were pulled from across the empire to beat back the Persians, weak points in Germany and Romania came under attack almost immediately. Michael Meyer, an archaeologist at Berlin’s Free University.” “The tragic point of their strategy is that the Romans concentrated military force at the frontier. When the Germans attacked the frontier and got in behind the Roman troops, the whole Roman territory was open.” Think of the empire as a cell, and barbarian armies as viruses: Once the empire’s thin outer membrane was breached, invaders had free rein to pillage the interior. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012]

“The inscription on a five-foot-tall altar uncovered in Augsburg by German workers in 1992 is a sort of epitaph for Hadrian’s grand idea, noting that on April 24 and 25, A.D. 260, Roman soldiers clashed with barbarians from beyond the German frontier. The Romans prevailed—barely.

“Their commander set up an altar to Victory. Reading between the lines reveals a different picture: The barbarians had been raiding deep into Italy for months and were heading home with thousands of Roman captives. “It shows the border is already collapsing,” says the German Archaeological Institute’s Hüssen.

“The empire would never be safe inside its shell again. Pressures on the frontiers finally became too great. Cities across the empire began building their own walls; the emperors scrambled to fight off regular invasions. The costs and chaos were crippling. Within two centuries an empire that once dominated an expanse larger than today’s European Union was gone.”

Greatness of Rome in the Days of Ruin

William Stearns Davis wrote: “Rutilius Numantius, a native of Gaul, but about 413 CE. the City Prefect of Rome, wrote this poem in praise of the city that he had seen plundered by Alaric. He was a pagan, one of the circle of literary men who fixed their eyes on the glorious past, and had no pleasure in Christianity. His tribute to the greatness of Rome is clear evidence that even the awful calamities of Honorius' reign did not shatter men's faith in the abiding majesty and empire of the Eternal City.

On “The Greatness of Rome in the Days of Ruin, Rutilius Numantius wrote in “On His Return, I.xi.47 (A.D. 413):
“Give ear to me, Queen of the world which you rule,
O Rome, whose place is amongst the stars!
Give ear to me, mother of men, and mother of gods!
Through your temples we draw near to the very heaven.
You do we sing, yea and while the Fates give us life,
You we will sing. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 318-319]

Labarum of Constantine

“For who can live and forget you?
Before your image my soul is abased---
Graceless and sacrilegious,
It were better for me to forget the sun,
For your beneficent influence shines
Even as his light
To the limits of the habitable world.
Yea the sun himself, in his vast course,
Seems only to turn in your behalf.
He rises upon your domains;
And on your domains, it is again that he sets.

“As far as from one pole to the other spreads the vital
power of nature, so far your virtue has penetrated over the earth.
For all the scattered nations you created one common country.
Those that struggle against you are constrained to bend to your yoke;
For you proffer to the conquered the partnership in your just laws;
You have made one city what was aforetime the wide world!

“O! Queen, the remotest regions of the universe join in
a hymn to your glory!
Our heads are raised freely under your peaceful yoke. "
For you to reign, is less than to have so deserved to reign;
The grandeur of your deeds surpasses even your mighty destinies.”

After Constantine's Death

After Constantine's death the empire splintered once again. Byzantium, renamed as Constantinople, became capital of the eastern empire which endured and grew into the Christian Byzantine civilization with endured another 1,000 years while the western empire weakened and declined.


The first event of grave importance after the reign of Constantine was the attempt of the Emperor Julian (A.D. 360-363) to restore the old pagan religion, for which attempt he has been called “the Apostate.” Julian was in many respects a man of ability and energy. He repelled the Alemanni who had crossed the Rhine, and made a vigorous campaign against the Persians. But he was by conviction a pagan, and in the struggle between Christianity and paganism he took the part of the ancient faith. He tried to undo the work of Constantine by bringing back paganism to its old position. The religious changes which he was able to effect in his brief reign were reversed by his successor Jovian (A.D. 363-364), and Christianity afterward remained undisturbed as the religion of the empire. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

After the death of Jovian the empire was divided between Valentinian and his younger brother Valens, the former ruling in the West, and the latter in the East. Valentinian died (A.D. 375), leaving his sons in control of the West, while Valens continued to rule in the East (till 378). Dr Jon Coulston of the University of St. Andrews wrote for the BBC: “During the fourth century, Germany across the Rhine and Upper Danube became a prime source of army recruitment, notably to the elite units of the emperor's comitatus. However, huge losses sustained in the late fourth century, notably at the Battle of Hadrianopolis (378 AD), forced the eastern government of the emperor Theodosius (ruled 379 - 395 AD) and his successors to rely increasingly on barbarian warbands brought wholesale and still under the command of their native leaders into the Roman army. This is reflected archaeologically across the northern provinces by the occurrence of cemeteries containing a barbarian rite of burial with military equipment, the latter being manufactured and supplied by the Roman state. In the fifth century, some of the Germanic war leaders became so dominant that emperors bestowed the highest titles on them and left military command almost entirely in their hands. [Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Julian’s Attempt to Bring Back Paganism

The Emperor Julian ("the Apostate") (born A.D. 332, ruled .361-d.363) ruled about three years about 25 years after Constantine’s death. A follower of Mithraism, which he called "the guide of the souls", he tried to undo the work of Constantine and led a concerted effort to re-instate paganism as the dominant religion in the empire. He may not have expected to uproot the new religion entirely; but he hoped to deprive it of the important privileges which it had already acquired. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]


Like all Emperors, Julian was Pontifex Maximus, Chief Priest of the State Religion. In a letter to Arsacius, he wrote: “The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. But the gifts of the gods are great and splendid, better than any prayer or any hope . . . Indeed, a little while ago no one would have dared even to pray for a such change, and so complete a one in so short a space of time [i.e., the arrival of Julian himself, a reforming traditionalist, on the throne]. Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause? [Source: Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315.

“Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us. It is not sufficient for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia [in modern Turkey] without exception. Either make these men good by shaming them, persuade them to become so or fire them . . . Secondly, exhort the priests neither to approach a theater nor to drink in a tavern, nor to profess any base or infamous trade. Honor those who obey and expel those who disobey.

“Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods. Accustom those of the Greek religion to such benevolence, teaching them that this has been our work from ancient times. Homer, at any rate, made Eumaeus say: "O Stranger, it is not lawful for me, even if one poorer than you should come, to dishonor a stranger. For all strangers and beggars are from Zeus. The gift is small, but it is precious." [Julian is quoting from the Odyssey, 14-531.] Do not therefore let others outdo us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness; rather, let us not quite abandon our piety toward the gods . . .

“While proper behavior in accordance with the laws of the city will obviously be the concern of the governors of the cities, you for your part [as a priest] must take care to encourage people not to violate the laws of the gods since they are holy . . . Above all you must exercise philanthropy. From it result many other goods, and indeed that which is the greatest blessing of all, the goodwill of the gods . . .

paganism in the provinces

“We ought to share our goods with all men, but most of all with the respectable, the helpless, and the poor, so that they have at least the essentials of life. I claim, even though it may seem paradoxical, that it is a holy deed to share our clothes and food with the wicked: we give, not to their moral character but to their human character. Therefore I believe that even prisoners deserve the same kind of care. This type of kindness will not interfere with the process of justice, for among the many imprisoned and awaiting trial some will be found guilty, some innocent. It would be cruel indeed if out of consideration for the innocent we should not allow some pity for the guilty, or on account of the guilty we should behave without mercy and humanity to those who have done no wrong . . . How can the man who, while worshipping Zeus the God of Companions, sees his neighbors in need and does not give them a dime--how can he think he is worshipping Zeus properly? . . .

“Priests ought to make a point of not doing impure or shameful deeds or saying words or hearing talk of this type. We must therefore get rid of all offensive jokes and licentious associations. What I mean is this: no priest is to read Archilochus or Hipponax or anyone else who writes poetry as they do. They should stay away from the same kind of stuff in Old Comedy. Philosophy alone is appropriate for us priests. Of the philosophers, however, only those who put the gods before them as guides of their intellectual life are acceptable, like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics . . . only those who make people reverent . . . not the works of Pyrrho and Epicurus . . . We ought to pray often to the gods in private and in public, about three times a day, but if not that often, at least in the morning and at night.

“No priest is anywhere to attend shameful theatrical shows or to have one performed at his own house; it is in no way appropriate. Indeed, if it were possible to get rid of such shows altogether from the theater and restore the theaters, purified, to Dionysus as in the olden days, I would certainly have tried to bring this about. But since I thought that this was out of the question, and even if possible would for other reasons be inexpedient, I did not even try. But I do insist that priests stay away from the licentiousness of the theaters and leave them to the people. No priest is to enter a theater, have an actor or a chariot driver as a friend, or allow a dancer or mime into his house. I allow to attend the sacred games those who want to, that is, they may attend only those games from which women are forbidden to attend not only as participants but even as spectators.”

Theodosius I (379-395)

Emperor Theodosius (379-95) was the last sole Roman emperor. He went on a massive pro-Christianity campaign. He shut down the Oracle of Delphi, terminated the Olympics and destroyed pagan temples. Following the death of Theodosius I, in 395, the Roman Empire was once again divided into different factions ruled by competing soldier-emperors.

Theodosius I

Theodosius I. succeeded Valens as emperor of the East. He was a man of great vigor and military ability, although his reign was stained with acts of violence and injustice. He continued the policy of admitting the barbarians into the empire, but converted them into useful and loyal subjects. From their number he reënforced the ranks of the imperial armies, and jealously guarded them from injustice. When a garrison of Gothic soldiers was once mobbed in Thessalonica, he resorted to a punishment as revengeful as that of Marius and as cruel as that of Sulla. He gathered the people of this city into the circus to the number of seven thousand, and caused them to be massacred by a body of Gothic soldiers (A.D. 390) [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~].

For this inhuman act he was compelled to do penance by St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan—which fact shows how powerful the Church had become at this time, to compel an emperor to obey its mandates. Theodosius was himself an ardent and orthodox Christian, and went so far as to be intolerant of the pagan religion, and even of the worship of heretics. In spite of his shortcomings he was an able monarch, and has received the name of “Theodosius the Great.” He conquered his rivals and reunited for a brief time the whole Roman world under a single ruler. But at his death (A.D. 395), he divided the empire between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, the former receiving the East, and the latter, the West.

Theodosian Makes Christianity the State Religion and Bans Paganism

Constantine I’s actions beginning in A.D. 311 paved the way for the toleration of Christianity but Christianity did not become the legal religion of the Roman Empire until the reign of Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395). He not only made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, he declared other religions illegal.

The Codex Theodosianus reads: “XV.xii.1: Bloody spectacles are not suitable for civil ease and domestic quiet. Wherefore since we have proscribed gladiators, those who have been accustomed to be sentenced to such work as punishment for their crimes, you should cause to serve in the mines, so that they may be punished without shedding their blood. Constantine Augustus. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. IV: The Early Medieval World, pp. 69-71.

“XVI.v.1: It is necessary that the privileges which are bestowed for the cultivation of religion should be given only to followers of the Catholic faith. We desire that heretics and schismatics be not only kept from these privileges, but be subjected to various fines. Constantine Augustus.

“XVI.x.4: It is decreed that in all places and all cities the temples should be closed at once, and after a general warning, the opportunity of sinning be taken from the wicked. We decree also that we shall cease from making sacrifices. And if anyone has committed such a crime, let him be stricken with the avenging sword. And we decree that the property of the one executed shall be claimed by the city, and that rulers of the provinces be punished in the same way, if they neglect to punish such crimes. Constantine and Constans Augusti.

“XVI.vii.1: The ability and right of making wills shall be taken from those who turn from Christians to pagans, and the testament of such an one, if he made any, shall be abrogated after his death. Gratian, Valentinian, and Valens Augusti.

“XI.vii.13: Let the course of all law suits and all business cease on Sunday, which our fathers have rightly called the Lord's day, and let no one try to collect either a public or a private debt; and let there be no hearing of disputes by any judges either those required to serve by law or those voluntarily chosen by disputants. And he is to be held not only infamous but sacrilegious who has turned away from the service and observance of holy religion on that day. Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius Augusti.

“XV.v.1: On the Lord's day, which is the first day of the week, on Christmas, and on the days of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, inasmuch as then the [white] garments [of Christians] symbolizing the light of heavenly cleansing bear witness to the new light of holy baptism, at the time also of the suffering of the apostles, the example for all Christians, the pleasures of the theaters and games are to be kept from the people in all cities, and all the thoughts of Christians and believers are to be occupied with the worship of God. And if any are kept from that worship through the madness of Jewish impiety or the error and insanity of foolish paganism, let them know that there is one time for prayer and another for pleasure. And lest anyone should think he is compelled by the honor due to our person, as if by the greater necessity of his imperial office, or that unless he attempted to hold the games in contempt of the religious prohibition, he might offend our serenity in showing less than the usual devotion toward us; let no one doubt that our clemency is revered in the highest degree by humankind when the worship of the whole world is paid to the might and goodness of God. Theodosius Augustus and Caesar Valentinian.

“XVI.i.2: We desire that all the people under the rule of our clemency should live by that religion which divine Peter the apostle is said to have given to the Romans, and which it is evident that Pope Damasus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, followed; that is that we should believe in the one deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with equal majesty and in the Holy Trinity according to the apostolic teaching and the authority of the gospel. Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius Augusti.

“XVI.v.iii: Whenever there is found a meeting of a mob of Manichaeans, let the leaders be punished with a heavy fine and let those who attended be known as infamous and dishonored, and be shut out from association with men, and let the house and the dwellings where the profane doctrine was taught be seized by the officers of the city. Valentinian and Valens Augusti.

Another translation of “Theodosian Code XVI.i.2 reads: “It is our desire that all the various nation which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue to the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one diety of the father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in out judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that the shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation an the second the punishment of out authority, in accordance with the will of heaven shall decide to inflict. [Source: Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, (London: Oxford University Press, 1943), p. 31]

Praetorian Prefectures of the Roman Empire 395 AD

After Theodosius: A Divided Empire Once Again

The death of Theodosius in A.D. 395 marks an important epoch, not only in the history of the later Roman Empire but in the history of European civilization. From this time the two parts of the empire—the East and the West—became more and more separated from each other, until they became at last two distinct worlds, having different destinies. The eastern part, the history of which does not belong to our present study, maintained itself for about a thousand years with its capital at Constantinople, until it was finally conquered by the Turks (A.D. 1453). The western part was soon overrun and conquered by the German invaders, who brought with them new blood and new ideas, and furnished the elements of a new civilization. We have now to see how the Western Empire was obliged finally to succumb to these barbarians, who had been for so many years pressing upon the frontiers, and who had already obtained some foothold in the provinces. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

The great invasions which began during the reign of Honorius (A.D. 395-423) continued during the reign of Valentinian III. (A.D. 425-455). As Valentinian was only six years of age when he was proclaimed emperor, the government was carried on by his mother, Placidia, who was the sister of Honorius and daughter of Theodosius the Great. Placidia was in fact for many years during these eventful times the real ruler of Rome. Her armies were commanded by Aëtius and Boniface, who have been called the “last of the Romans.” [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

General Stilicho

The Vandal general Stilicho effectively ruled the western Roman empire (395 - 408 AD) on behalf of Theodosius's son, Honorius. He fought off the Goth Alaric, but lost influence when other barbarians overran the Rhine and Danube provinces. After Stilicho was executed, Honorius was powerless against Alaric who sacked Rome in 410 AD. [Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

When the youthful Honorius was made emperor in the West, he was placed under the guardianship of Stilicho, an able general who was a barbarian in the service of Rome. As long as Stilicho lived he was able to resist successfully the attacks upon Italy. The first of these attacks was due to jealousy and hatred on the part of the Eastern emperor. The Goths of Moesia were in a state of discontent, and demanded more extensive lands. Under their great leader, Alaric, they entered Macedonia, invaded Greece, and threatened to devastate the whole peninsula. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]


The Eastern emperor, Arcadius, in order to relieve his own territory from their ravages, turned their faces toward Italy by giving them settlements in Illyricum, and making their chief, Alaric, master-general of that province. From this region they invaded Italy, and ravaged the plains of the Po. But they were defeated by Stilicho in the battle of Pollentia (A.D. 403), and forced to return again into Illyricum. The generalship of Stilicho was also shown in checking an invasion made by a host of Vandals, Burgundians, Suevi, and Alani under the lead of Radagaisus (A.D. 406). Italy seemed safe as long as Stilicho lived; but he was unfortunately put to death to satisfy the jealousy of his ungrateful master, Honorius (A.D. 408). \~\

Slow Collapse of Rome: an Immigration Crisis?

Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “A two-stage process occurred between the battle of Hadrianople in 378 AD, when the emperor Valens and two-thirds of his army (upwards of 10,000 men) fell in a single afternoon at the hands of an army of Gothic migrants, to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus nearly a century later. “This process created the successor kingdoms. Stage one consisted of immigration onto Roman soil, followed by a second stage of aggressive expansion of the territory under the migrants' control. All of it was carried forward at the point of the sword. [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The central Roman state collapsed because the migrants forcibly stripped it of the tax base which it had used to fund its armies, not because of long-term 'organic' transformations. In this violent process of collapse, some local Roman societies immediately went under. In Britain and north eastern Gaul particularly, Roman landowners lost their estates and Roman culture disappeared with them. |::|

“In southern Gaul, Spain, and Italy, Roman landowners survived by coming to terms with the migrants. But to suppose that this was a voluntary process - as some of the revisionary work done since the 1960s has supposed - is to miss the point that these landowners faced the starkest of choices. As the central Roman state ceased to exert power in their localities, they either had to do such deals, or lose the lands that were the basis of their entire wealth. And even where Roman landowners survived, the effects of Rome's fall were nonetheless revolutionary. |::|

Roman-ness and Taxation

Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “In judging these effects, it is important to recognise two separate dimensions of 'Roman-ness' - 'Roman' in the sense of the central state, and 'Roman' in the sense of characteristic patterns of life prevailing within its borders. At the state level, the empire was not just replaced by mini versions of itself, even where Roman landowners survived. Within two generations of 476 AD, a new and weaker type of state structure had emerged right across the former Roman west. [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The old empire had employed two key levers of central power - large-scale taxation, two-thirds of which was then spent on maintaining the second lever, a large professional army. “This high-tax, high-spend structure meant that the Roman state both intruded itself bureaucratically into localities to raise taxation, and was also able, if necessary, to compel obedience to its demands by employing the army, which the taxation supported. The new states of post-Roman Europe were much weaker affairs. Even where other less important Roman institutions survived, the new kings had only much-diminished revenue rights and their armies were composed of semi-professional contingents of local landowners. |::|

“On the level of local 'Roman-ness' too, the revolution could not have been more profound. The characteristic patterns of local Roman life were in fact intimately linked to the existence of the central Roman state, and, as the nature of state structures changed in the post-Roman world, so too did local life. |The Roman city, for instance, was the basic unit of local administration through which taxation was raised. As central tax raising powers disappeared, so too did the need to keep the city, and by 700 A.D. it was history. |::|

“Many of the more advanced elements of the Roman economy, such as specialised production and long-distance trade, quickly disappeared too. The Roman state had subsidised large-scale transport structures for its own purposes, but these had also been used by traders. As this command economy collapsed, so did much of the trade dependent upon it. |::|

“Cultural patterns were also transformed beyond recognition. Roman elites learned to read and write classical Latin to highly-advanced levels through a lengthy and expensive private education, because it qualified them for careers in the extensive Roman bureaucracy. The end of taxation meant that these careers disappeared in the post-Roman west, and elite parents quickly realised that spending so much money on learning Latin was now a waste of time. As a result, advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for the next 500 years.” |::|

Burden of Taxation on the Provinces and Barbarians

James Harvey Robinson wrote: “It was inevitable that thoughtful observers should be struck with the contrast between the habits and government of the Romans and the customs of the various barbarian peoples. Tacitus, the first to describe the manners and institutions of the Germans with care, is frequently tempted to compare them with those of the Empire, often to the obvious disadvantage of the latter. Salvian, a Christian priest, writing about 440, undertook in his book Of God's Government to show that the misfortunes of the time were only the divinely inflicted punishments which the people of the Empire had brought upon themselves by their wickedness and corruption. He contends that the Romans, who had once been virtuous and heroic, had lapsed into a degradation which rendered them, in spite of their civilization and advantages, far inferior to the untutored but sturdy barbarian.

Salvian wrote in “The Government of God” (c. A.D. 440): “In what respects can our customs be preferred to those of the Goths and Vandals, or even compared with them? And first, to speak of affection and mutual charity (which, our Lord teaches, is the chief virtue, saying, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another "), almost all barbarians, at least those who are of one race and kin, love each other, while the Romans persecute each other. For what citizen does not envy his fellow citizen ? What citizen shows to his neighbor full charity? [Source: Salvian (A.D. c.400- after 470), “The Burden of Taxation” (c. A.D. 44), James Harvey Robinson, ed., “Readings in European History: Vol. I:” (Boston:: Ginn and co., 1904), 28-30]

[The Romans oppress each other with exactions] nay, not each other : it would be quite tolerable, if each suffered what he inflicted. It is worse than that ; for the many are oppressed by the few, who regard public exactions as their own peculiar right, who carry on private traffic under tile guise of collecting the taxes. And this is done not only by nobles, but by men of lowest rank; not by judges only, but by judges' subordinates. For where is the city - even the town or village - which has not as many tyrants as it has curials ? . . . What place is there, therefore, as I have said, where the substance of widows and orphans, nay even of the saints, is not devoured by the chief citizens? . . .

“None but the great is secure from the devastations of these plundering brigands, except those who are themselves robbers. [Nay, the state has fallen upon such evil days that a man cannot be safe unless he is wicked] Even those in a position to protest against the iniquity which they see about them dare not speak lest they make matters worse than before. So the poor are despoiled, the widows sigh, the orphans are oppressed, until many of them, born of families not obscure, and liberally educated, flee to our enemies that they may no longer suffer the oppression of public persecution. They doubtless seek Roman humanity among the barbarians, because they cannot bear barbarian inhumanity among the Romans. And although they differ from the people to Whom they flee in manner and in language; although they are unlike as regards the fetid odor of the barbarians' bodies and garments, yet they would rather endure a foreign civilization among the barbarians than cruel injustice among the Romans.

“So they migrate to the Goths, or to the Bagaudes, or to some other tribe of the barbarians who are ruling everywhere, and do not regret their exile. For they would rather live free under an appearance of slavery than live as captives tinder an appearance of liberty. The name of Roman citi'en, once so highly esteemed and so dearly bought, is now a thing that men repudiate and flee from. . . .

“It is urged that if we Romans are wicked and corrupt, that the barbarians commit the same sins, and are not so miserable as we. There is, however, this difference, that the barbarians commit the same crimes as we, yet we more grievously. . . . All the barbarians, as we have already said, are pagans or heretics. The Saxon race is cruel, the Franks are faithless, the Gepidae are inhuman, the Huns are unchaste, - in short, there is vice in the life of all the barbarian peoples. But are their offenses as serious as ours? Is the unchastity of the Hun so criminal as ours? Is the faithlessness of the Frank so blameworthy as ours? Is the intemperance of the Alemanni so base as the intemperance of the Christians? Does the greed of the Alani so merit condemnation as the greed of the Christians? If Hun or the Gepid cheat, what is there to wonder at, since he does not know that cheating is a crime? If a Frank perjures himself, does he do anything strange, he who regards perjury as a way of speaking, not as a crime?”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardianand various books and other publications.

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