Late Roman Decline II


Aetius surveys the Catalaunian fields. Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443.

The first intimation of the end of empire came in 405–406, when swarms of tribesmen crossed the frozen Rhine and devastated Gaul. The Goths under their chieftain Alaric again rebelled, crossed the Alps and finally sacked Rome herself in 410. The last stupendous achievement by a western Roman general, Aetius, was to ally with the Goths in Gaul to inflict a decisive defeat on the fearsome Attila and his Huns (451) – the only time that Attila was ever defeated and a crucial victory that held the west for civilization.

Thereafter the end came swiftly, and the last Roman emperor of the west was deposed by a Gothic king ruling from Gaul in 476. This is the date traditionally given for the fall of Rome. A lot of nonsense has been written about the reasons for the fall of Rome; Gibbon famously attributed the fall to the triumph of the barbarians and Christianity. It would be fairer to argue that the Church had defended and salvaged Roman culture. Modern historians have imputed a huge number of reasons, while some have even denied that anything unusual happened at all, arguing that Constantine’s medieval court progressed simply to a German medieval court. It is unlikely that it felt that way to the citizens of Italy. The truth is that Rome’s barbarian armies could not withstand the larger numbers of barbarians from across the frontiers.

By now the Roman Empire had been divided permanently into two. In the east a series of dynastic emperors ruled from Constantinople over what was effectively a Greek dominion, in speech and in culture, later called the Byzantine Empire. At the beginning of the sixth century, the emperor Justinian decided that it was time to restore the Roman Empire to its old entirety. Troops were despatched to Africa to oust or rule the Vandal invaders, and then to Italy under the command of a very talented general, Belisarius. The armies of the latter, like those of Aurelian, were greeted with huge enthusiasm after they had driven out the barbarians occupying both lands. The local citizens had already had their fill of barbaric standards of justice, with lands seized and the violence and insolence of the invaders.

Justinian recovered ultimately most of the Roman Empire, excepting the north-western provinces (Germany, Britain, Gaul and Spain), yet the reconquered areas of the west proved to be impossible to hold. The emperor had assumed that the restoration of taxes from the west would pay to maintain the necessary garrisons there. But the lands had been so devastated by the constant fighting, and the peoples so impoverished, that the armies could not be paid properly. Locally recruited garrisons faded away slowly for lack of pay. The eastern troops were withdrawn to stabilize other frontiers and to meet the Persian threat.

It was the Lombards who finally wrecked any hope of reuniting the two halves of the Roman Empire. Originally a North Germanic people known to the Romans of the first century, they began a massive migration westwards towards the end of the fifth century. It is thought that the migration was motivated by poor harvests in their own lands. They reached Italy in about 569, and the city of Ticinum (Pavia) had fallen to them by 572. All of Italy had been weakened by the interminable struggles for control between the previous Gothic invaders and the Byzantine newcomers, now the government. The small garrison army of the latter could do little in the face of the Lombardian locusts, and was driven back to a handful of coastal towns. These towns could be supplied by the Byzantine navy, which ruled the waters of the Mediterranean.

The new Roman Empire controlled all the old eastern Roman Empire, northern Africa and the Mediterranean islands, and even added to the east, annexing all of Armenia from the Persians in 590. The Balkan provinces had been severely ravaged by incessant invasions heading west, but the eastern Balkan province of Moesia remained largely untouched, and was also held by the Byzantines. After thirty years of war, the exhausted Byzantine and Persian empires signed a peace treaty in 630.

But by now the Arabs were mobilizing under Islam and they swept suddenly eastwards and westwards. The Persian Empire collapsed completely. The old capital city of the Persians, Ctesiphon, and its counterpart across the Tigris, Seleucia (or Coche), were both destroyed by the Arabs when the Persian Empire fell. The Arabs built a new capital city some 12.4 miles (20 kilometres) to the north, which they named Baghdad.

The main Byzantine army was heavily defeated in 636 by the Arabs in the north of Jordan, and after that the Arabs swarmed all over the Middle East and northern Africa. It required only a 4,000-strong Arab army to take Egypt against weak Byzantine resistance in 639 or 640. Thus, within just ten years, ‘a combination of incompetence and apathy, disaffected soldiers and inadequate defensive arrangements resulted in a series of disastrous Roman defeats.’ Only the rump of the old empire remained, and the Byzantines had lost all the tax revenue and grain from Egypt. By 698, the old Roman town of Carthage in north-western Africa had fallen, at which time virtually no Latin-speaking lands remained to the Byzantines. Meanwhile, the Balkans had been lost to the Bulgars by 679.

Thus Justinian’s expanded eastern empire lasted fewer than 150 years, although the Byzantines retained Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica for centuries to come – long after all of northern Africa had been lost to the Arabs. The immediate Byzantine reaction was to hold fortified centres while avoiding set-piece battles with the Arabs. But finally the energetic emperor Leo III (717–741), and then his son Constantine V (741–775), managed to stop the rot. They checked the advance of the Arabs in open battles and recovered much of the Balkans from the Bulgars.

The Christian Byzantines, in slow decline, withstood the onslaught of Islam from the east for centuries, with the intermittent help, or hindrance, of the Crusaders. The last Roman emperor, Constantine XI, died in action at Constantinople when that great city fell in 1453 to the Turks, who were aided by gunpowder and cannon provided by rogue western traders. It was Gibbon who defined the 1,000-year period between the fall of Rome and the fall of Constantinople as the ‘Middle Ages’.

Aurelian’s original wall had not made a full circuit of the city, and this was completed in 402–403 under the emperor Honorius. It was rebuilt, perhaps after the earthquake of 502, by Theodoric the Goth as part of the general Gothic rebuilding programme in Rome. After little more than three decades, during the attempts by the eastern emperor Justinian to recapture Italy, his general Belisarius besieged Rome. The city would be taken and retaken at least three times. In 536 Belisarius overhauled the walls for defence against the Goths, but the Byzantines were ejected. Ten years later, having been damaged by the departing Goths, the walls were again repaired by Belisarius. The last recorded races at the Circus Maximus were run in 549.

Once more, the walls were repaired in the eighth and ninth centuries, against threats from seagoing Arabs and the intruding Lombard peoples, by the Christian popes who now provided virtually the only stable government in Rome. After St Peter’s Basilica had been looted by the Arabs in 846, the old wall was extended to provide protection to the Vatican (848–852).

The legacy that the fallen Roman Empire left to its European successors comprised Christianity and Roman Law. The latter was written down finally in definitive form as a digest under the great emperor Justinian (527–565), and was abridged separately by the Gothic kings for reuse in Italy in about 500. It was the rediscovery of a copy of Justinian’s Digest in northern Italy in about the year 1100 that invigorated the readoption of Roman Law within Europe. Roman Law is currently the basis of most European law, but not in England, where Saxon Law prevailed and was passed on to the majority of countries of the British Empire, including North America.

Christianity, with its central tenet of ‘love thy neighbour’, had a strong civilizing effect on the conquering barbarians that overthrew the western empire. The Goths, for example, had already largely adopted the religion by the time they settled in Gaul. Later medieval nobles would create ‘rules of war’ incorporating Christian elements into the age of chivalry and heraldry, providing a strong influence to tame actions even in this field.

And what was the legacy of the barbarians? What do you do when you have stolen everything from the civilized peoples of the Roman world, ruined their lands, destroyed their buildings and given nothing back? You have to start fending for yourself, that’s what. In the former province of Britain, the invading Anglo-Saxons built their mud huts amid the ruins of the greatest civilization that the ancient world had ever known. The structures of Rome and other cities were knocked down deliberately to furnish building materials for churches or farmsteads. Europe entered the Dark Ages.

Finally, what of the Sibylline Books? The last known consultation by the Senate of the genuine Sibylline Books was in 363, during the reign of the pagan emperor Julian. When the barbarians reached northern Italy, following their mass invasion across the Rhine in 405–406, the Christian emperor of the west, Honorius, ordered that the books be burned by his general Stilicho. They have never been seen again.


Europe in 477 CE. Highlighted areas are Roman lands that survived the deposition of Romulus Augustulus.


‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (G. Santayana, philosopher, 1863–1952).

The barbarians had overthrown the western Roman Empire, but they could offer nothing to replace it. The Saxons who invaded Britain violently in the fifth century, destroying the remnants of Romano–British society, dwelt in hovels while they watched the collapse of great, but unmaintained, Roman buildings and aqueducts. The ‘Dark Ages’ lasted for hundreds of years, say from 500 to about 1100 in the more distant parts of Europe. When Gibbon finished his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the end of the eighteenth century, many parts of the world were still unexplored. Gibbon therefore considered whether a new race of barbarians, hitherto unknown, could undo the civilization in Europe in the same way that Roman society had been ruined. He reasoned that technological developments in Europe, predominantly in weapons, ensured that no undiscovered race of barbarians could conquer Europe without first learning how to master the same or equivalent technologies. In other words, the barbarians would have first to become civilized before they could encompass the downfall of European civilization. One wonders what Gibbon would have to say about a Western civilization that sells sophisticated armaments to (relatively) barbarian potential enemies.

The second great lesson from the decline of the Roman Empire is the importance of ensuring that soldiers and their generals are subject to proper control by their masters. The English Civil War occurred nearly as soon as a general had a professional army to do his bidding, while rebellions in Africa and South America have been almost endemic. The only long-term solution appears to be to ensure that soldiers are drawn from the society they are supposed to defend, so that they are subject to peer pressure.

The third great lesson comes from the middle of the third century. Populations will take steps to find local solutions to pressing problems if the central authority will not act. Both the western and the eastern parts of the Roman Empire created their own governments, under Postumus in the west and Macrianus or Odaenathus in the east, when the acknowledged emperor failed to respond to invasions in these territories. The emperor, Gallienus, was perceived to be more interested in the suppression of invasions or rebellions elsewhere than in protecting the peoples of the west and east. He was actually removing their frontier troops, reducing their protection.

Postscript – the Triumph of the Barbarians

It is not generally recognized today just how catastrophic for the future of civilization was the final collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. Contrary to general belief, it is prolonged periods of stability that result in the greatest human advancement, not the pressure of wars. Economic prosperity advances on all fronts when ordinary people can prepare long-range plans or can enjoy the luxury of leisured thought about life’s problems. The economic affluence of Britain, and the huge scientific advances of the nineteenth century, were greatly dependent upon the long period of unbroken peace under Queen Victoria.

The Pax Romana had created for about four centuries a settled condition – for most of the empire’s population – in which trade could flourish to the advantage of all, and new inventions could spread rapidly. The propagation of Christianity was perhaps the empire’s greatest achievement. When the barbarians marched in for the last time, trade collapsed and non-military inventions died.

The names of some of the invading tribes still echo through the ages as bywords for death and destruction – the Vandals and the Huns. The reputation of those old Roman foes, the Goths, has fared better. According to one of their own chieftains, he entered the remnant of the empire as a would-be plunderer, but recognized in time the value and the achievement of what he would destroy. And thus he stayed his hand. By now, constant contact between Romans and Goths had largely civilized the latter anyway, and many had converted to Christianity. Gothic kings ruled Rome herself after the last emperor had been deposed, and today we associate the Gothic name more with architecture than with pillage.

Even so, the areas controlled by the Goths were as uncertain of their futures as those held by the other barbarians, while the eastern Roman Empire lapsed into introspection and lethargy. Much Roman literature was lost, as were many Roman inventions from the old, great empire. Worst of all was the loss of economic efficiency with the collapse of international markets. Pottery and glassware were still manufactured, but were no longer of the old high standard, nor were they widely distributed. Glass would no longer appear in window frames. Tribes on the periphery of the empire would abandon even those advanced farming techniques that the Romans had taught them.

The collapse of trade routes and safe lines of communication reduced greatly the scale of building in brick or stone. The necessary raw materials simply could not be moved from quarries to building sites. In Rome herself, older monuments and buildings were knocked down to provide materials for new churches and new dwellings. The creation of the fine old country villa, with baths, mosaics and underfloor heating, ended and would not be seen again until the nineteenth century. The generally good hygiene practices of the Romans, engendered by flowing (piped) drinking and washing water, public baths and good medical treatment, had also gone, as had the plentiful supply of food known to be necessary to create resistance to illness.

The great public records were upheld no longer, and literacy was not now widespread. In the general collapse of law and order, the Roman attempts at early police and fire-fighting forces were seen no more. Roman roads and viaducts (for conveying fresh water) were allowed to disintegrate, where previously they had been maintained regularly. Again, it was not until the nineteenth century that these deficiencies were made good again.

And what of the loss of inventions? In more recent years, though, marine archaeology on the wrecks of Roman ships in the Mediterranean has discovered that each ship has a lump of rusted iron next to the steersman’s post. The Romans had the magnetic compass. The barbarians lost it. A similar fate befell the secrets of Roman concrete and mortar. It was necessary to analyse chemically the mortar in Hadrian’s Wall recently in order to discover the mystery of its extraordinary longevity. The Romans produced a concrete that could even be used underwater.

The Baths of Caracalla at Rome were one of the wonders of the medieval world. No one could understand how the long, unsupported concrete beams could stand up under their own weight. In the end, they collapsed. Subsequent investigation showed that the beams were made of iron-reinforced concrete. When the iron finally rusted, the concrete beams fell down. Today we use steel-reinforced concrete for much the same kind of purpose.

The Romans used water for power, as in water mills and various hydraulic machines. They employed springs in their carriages, again confirmed only from some recent archaeological finds in Germany. This technique had also to be rediscovered centuries later. The carriages were used on the impressive network of well-constructed Roman roads. Even Roman surveyors used methods subsequently forgotten and rediscovered, and they drew accurate maps. The Romans did not believe that the world was flat.

It is surprising to discover that the Romans never invented the printing press. They had advanced as far as putting several inked seals onto a wooden bar so as to make multiple official stamps on documents, but there is no evidence of printing. Despite their high levels of literacy, they never found it necessary to put individual letters, instead of seals, onto their wooden bar. When slave labour is cheap, the need for labour-saving devices becomes greatly reduced. Those who wanted a copy of a book simply asked their slaves to copy the original.

The barbarians are sometimes credited with bringing an end to slavery in the Roman Empire, but the Christian empire was improving the lot of the declining number of slaves and had already terminated gladiatorial contests. Europe did not recover the state of civilization enjoyed by the Roman peoples until the nineteenth century. Even today, many parts of the world remain more backward than the Roman era. That was the achievement of the barbarians.

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