===================The End of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476)
The death of Theodosius the Great (AD 395) made the final division of the Roman Empire a fact, leaving the western half in a particularly risky position. Centuries earlier, when the Roman drive for conquest grinded to a halt, Rome largely abandoned its trademark expansionism and committed its military power to the consolidation of its frontiers. In Europe, the Roman legions were spread across the entire length of the Rhine-Danube frontier and supported brute force with skilful diplomacy. Rome played the numerous Germanic peoples across the border against each other by rapidly shifting alliances, bribing chieftains and encouraging the tribes’ petty quarrels. On the Roman side this created a stable situation which allowed for the regulation of border traffic and prevented any serious Germanic incursions into imperial territory. However, such policies steadily increased unrest and hostility across the border and could therefore only be maintained as long as Rome’s own internal troubles did not get out of hand.
This became painfully obvious during the third century. Civil wars, economic troubles and epidemics nearly crippled Roman authority to the point of complete collapse, giving the Germanic tribes a golden opportunity to assail the nigh undefended imperial frontiers. Though their empire was crumbling on an unprecedented scale, the Romans had turned the tide completely by the end of the third century, rebuilding the semi-republican Principate into the authoritarian Dominate. Nevertheless, the future proved anything but rosy, particularly in the west. Internal strife continued to eat away at Rome’s power and the Germanic attacks increased in both frequency and intensity. By the end of the fourth century, the Romans had begun to accept Germanic tribes into the empire, giving them lands to govern as Roman ‘allies’ (foederati
) and recruiting them into the Roman army, in hopes of keeping the barbarian influx under control.
However, the new Roman ‘allies’ proved to be as untameable as their brethren across the imperial frontier. Though the Western Roman leadership did its best to continue playing the barbarians against each other, it could not conceal the fact that the empire’s troubles were becoming too much to handle. When the Germanic tribes began setting up their own enclaves in the empire, the Romans could do little to prevent it and the de facto
independence of these barbarian dominions weakened the empire’s ability to raise taxes and recruit soldiers. On top of this, the grim prospects at the dawn of the fifth century caused the Roman senatorial elite to try and secure their personal power and wealth, thereby turning their back on the ailing western empire and leaving the central government nearly powerless.
New catastrophes now followed each other rapidly as the Germanic tribes continued pushing their advantage. Visigothic forces under the command of Alaric advanced into Italy and plundered Rome itself in AD 410. Though this was of little military importance, the symbolic value was immense – the fall of the ‘Eternal City’ shocked the Roman world in east and west. Having ravaged Italy, the Visigoths marched into and occupied southern Gaul, from where they expanded into Iberia. Simultaneously, the Vandals, Alans, Suebi and Burgundians breached the Rhine frontier and claimed vast territories in Central Gaul and Iberia. In AD 429, the Vandals crossed from Iberia into Northern Africa where they founded a kingdom centred on Carthage. The Vandal fleet furthermore dominated the Western Mediterranean and ultimately carried out an expedition against Rome itself, sacking the city in AD 455. The conglomerate of the Franks meanwhile established control of the empire’s northern provinces after about a century of gradual infiltration and colonisation. Much would be heard of the Franks in the following centuries.
At the empire’s northernmost reaches, beyond the Channel, Britannia lay open to attack. In the early fifth century, the Western Roman government recalled most of its remaining armies to Italy for the final defence of the Roman heartland. Considered an unimportant outpost by this time, the Romans charged the native Britons with defending Britannia and left, never to return. The Britons proved incapable of resisting the invading Saxons, Angles and Jutes, who gradually claimed the island throughout the fifth and sixth centuries.
Around AD 450, both the Romans and the Germanic peoples came under threat from the Huns, who raided the Balkans, Italy and Gaul under their leader Attila (the ‘Scourge of God’). The Hunnic onslaught was halted by diplomacy, huge tributes and the pyrrhic victories of the Roman-Germanic coalition, most notably at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (AD 451). The Hunnic Empire largely imploded after the death of Attila (AD 453), removing its threat. Nevertheless, the fate of the Western Roman Empire was irreversibly sealed by now: from Britannia to Africa, it had fallen apart into independent Germanic kingdoms under nominal imperial authority. The western empire had been reduced to its ravaged Italian heartland, the Gallo-Roman dominion of Syagrius and the province of Dalmatia under Julius Nepos. In AD 476, the remnants of the imperial government were swept aside when the Germanic mercenary Odoacer deposed the last (illegitimate) Western Roman Emperor, the child Romulus Augustulus, and claimed lordship over all of Italy. The eastern empire branded both Romulus and Odoacer as traitors and recognised Julius Nepos as the sole new emperor of the west. A hollow measure, for he was soon murdered and his Dalmatian dominion conquered by Odoacer (AD 480). When the Franks defeated Syagrius (AD 486), the final remnants of the western empire effectively ceased to exist.
Had the Roman Empire at last met its end now? Yes and no. The power of the western empire was utterly broken and would never rise again, but the transition of Late Antiquity into the Early Middle Ages had long begun and would continue for several more decades, even centuries. For the common people of the era, the events of AD 476 were almost purely symbolic and hardly impacted their lives. More importantly, the Germanic rulers considered themselves the heirs of the Western Roman Empire and they acknowledged the power of Constantinople in the east, where the Roman Empire continued to exist. The Latin-Christian culture thus did not at all disappear in the west, but became the fundament of what was to come...© 2013 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com