A History of Europe
Chapter 5: DECLINE AND FALL, PART II
180 to 476
(All dates are A.D. from now on)
This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:
The House of Valentinian
After the death of Jovian, the army had a long discussion, and decided to appoint Valentinian, another officer, as his successor. The new emperor was paranoid and hot-tempered, but an able administrator and general. He was the first emperor to reduce taxes in 40 years, and set up agents called "Defenders of the People" to deal with the grievances of the poor. Valentinian I (364-375) chose his younger brother Valens to rule the East, while he himself took charge of the West. He did this because there was now peace in the East, but the West was in peril; the Germans who had been peaceful for the past two generations were starting to make trouble again.
For some time it had been Roman policy to recruit Germans into the army, but the Empire was still having trouble dealing with other Germans. Since previous wars had left the frontier provinces depopulated, the emperors tried a risky form of coopting. They allowed friendly tribes to come in as foederatii, or allies. In return for a land grant just inside the frontier, the foederatii were expected to swear loyalty to the emperor and guard their territory against their intruding cousins. Previously, we saw Julian the Apostate try this with the Franks. The Franks probably resented being ground into submission, but honored their military obligations--if imperial forces were garrisoned nearby.
Valens (364-378) was a feeble ruler, who depended on Valentinian for advice; he also was a determined Arian who persecuted non-Arian Christians (by contrast Valentinian was a Christian, but neutral on the subject of the Trinity; he persecuted no one for his religious beliefs). The arrangement between the two brothers worked, though; in fact the dynasty they established was one of the longest-lived in Roman history, lasting for 93 years (364-457).
The first invasion Valentinian had to deal with came from the Alemanni, who broke over the Rhine and captured a key fortress. Then Britain was invaded by Saxons from the Continent and Picts from the north. Valentinian appointed his eight-year-old son Gratian (367-383) as co-ruler in the West, and moved his headquarters to northern Gaul, from which he could direct both cross-channel operations in Britain and campaigns against Germany. He ended up spending seven years on German soil, where he fought the Alemanni, enlisted the help of the Burgundians (hereditary enemies of the Alemanni), and admitted more German immigrants into Roman territory. Then he went to the upper Danube, which needed defense from raids by the Marcomanni, Quadi and Vandals. While there he met a delegation of Quadi, and their insolence so greatly enraged him that he broke a blood vessel and died. The Danubian soldiers declared his second son, four-year-old Valentinian II (375-392), co-emperor of the West with Gratian, and Gratian chose to accept this sudden elevation, perhaps because he knew the legions caused more trouble than usual when they didn't get what they wanted.
In the fourth century the Goths recovered from their defeats at the hands of the Illyrian emperors, and the Ostrogoths expanded, mainly at the expense of the Slavs. This expansion became explosive under a little-known king named Ermanaric (342?-372), forming an empire that levied tribute on all German and Slavic tribes between the Baltic and the Black Seas (modern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine). He also expanded across the Don to the Volga River, and occupied the Crimea, which had been a sleepy Roman protectorate for the past four hundred years. In the process he drove the Alans from the steppe to the north slopes of the Caucasus, and met the Huns on the opposite bank of the Volga.
To both the Romans and the Germans, the Huns were repulsive, frightening, and behaved atrociously. "They all have stumpy, powerful legs and a muscular neck," wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, a historian who lived in the late fourth century, "but are so disfigured and bent that they could be taken for two-legged beasts. They have become so hardened by their way of life that they need no fire or seasoned food but live on the roots of wild plants or the half-raw meat of any animal." They were illiterate and so filthy that they wore the same clothes until they rotted off, and were only comfortable on horseback. "They are no good at all fighting on foot," Ammianus continued, "but are perfectly at home on their tough, ugly horses, which they sometimes ride sidesaddle when they relieve themselves. It is on horseback that each one of his people buys and sells, eats and drinks, and bent across the narrow neck of his steed, takes a deep sleep." They flattened children's noses with boards and bandages, while youths scarred or burned their faces so they wouldn't have to shave. On top of all that, Huns were utterly ruthless warriors, who easily outran all their enemies and were deadly in the use of the bow and the lasso (which was used to capture or unhorse an opponent).
Gothic cavalry was good, but the cavalry of their steppe-dwelling teachers was better. Ermanaric found this out when he foolishly attacked the Huns. His disastrous defeat was followed by a Hun invasion that shattered his kingdom; Ermanaric reportedly cut his throat to avoid capture by the new, terrifying enemy. The Huns swept across the Ukrainian and Hungarian steppes to the Danube, enslaved the Goths and Gepids, and settled down with their flocks, now lords of a pasture that stretched farther than anyone could keep track of. In three years they had obliterated a century of German expansion (372-375).
While the Gepids remained where they were, the terrified Goths and Asding Vandals piled their possessions into their wagons and begged the Romans to give them refuge. Emperor Valens agreed to let them in, because he had plenty of abandoned land that needed resettling; the Goths were unlikely to pay taxes but they would make good recruits for the army. At any rate, he did not have enough guards to halt a horde crossing the frozen Danube in winter. Soon the scale of the migration, a full-blown Volkwanderung, was more than the Romans could cope with. German tribes were soon pouring across the whole length of the Danube: Vandals in Austria, Ostrogoths in Serbia, and Visigoths in Bulgaria. Once they settled the new foederatii, the Romans treated them like defeated enemies, rather than like allies. The Visigoths were never given enough land, their cherished weapons were confiscated, many of them were enslaved, and callous Romans sold them moldy grain at exorbitant prices. And with 200,000 people in the Visigoth camps alone, food ran out quickly; there was even a report of starving Goths trading their children for Roman dogs, which they promptly cooked in the stew-pot. Administration broke down, hunger turned to anger, the Germans began to seize the supplies they needed, both sides cried bad faith, and open warfare broke out in the Balkans.
For Valens this was really bad timing; he had just sent his best troops to Syria, for a rematch he was planning with the Persians. Since he could not ignore trouble so close to home, Valens went forth with a strike force in 378. His cavalry was inadequate even for scouting, so Valens relied on his infantry to do most of the work. His advisors urged him to wait for Gratian to bring reinforcements from the west, but Valens thought he had a numerical advantage, so he didn't want to share the victory he expected with anybody. He thought the Gothic force numbered 10,000, but it was really between 15,000 and 20,000, about the same size as the Roman army, and the men the Roman scouts missed were all cavalry. Near Adrianople he found the camp of the Visigoths, a wagon ring defended by what he took to be the whole tribe. But no sooner did he begin the attack when the missing Gothic horsemen swept out of their hiding places and threw the whole Roman army into confusion. The defeat was total; Valens and all his men were killed. Seven hundred years had passed since Rome's first legions marched against the Samnites; now the legionary passed into history. The soldiers who surrounded the next emperors were mainly German cavalrymen. The dragon of the German war-band replaced the Roman eagle.
Gratian chose Theodosius, a Spanish brother-in-law, to replace Valens in the East. Theodosius I and his father, Theodosius the Elder, had been Valentinian I's best generals. As emperor, the younger Theodosius (379-395) inherited a mess, but he had both the talent and resources to tidy it up. He used his wealth and Gothic-speaking priests to win friends among the Visigoths, and sent the army, under command of a Vandal named Stilicho, to forcefully deal with those barbarians who remained unfriendly. By 382, this mixture of diplomacy and blockade had pacified the Visigoths, and they returned to their settlements in Bulgaria. It worked because the Visigoths had no ability to take fortified towns, so they weren't able to profit from their victory. To keep the Empire secure, Theodosius enlarged the army some more, and passionately looked for new means to pay for it. In 383 he decreed that "no man shall possess any property that is exempt from taxation." A torrent of regulations and edicts took this to the limit; for example, they could now accuse a serf of theft if he tried to run away, because "he is stealing his own person."
After the frontiers became quiet, several usurpers arose to threaten the imperial family. In 383 the troops in Britain, who never liked Gratian, proclaimed their allegiance to their general, Magnus Maximus ("Great the Greatest"). This rebel crossed the English Channel and occupied Gaul; Gratian sent an army to deal with him, but the soldiers switched sides, and not long after that Gratian was assassinated. Next Magnus Maximus negotiated a settlement with Valentinian and Theodosius, and both agreed to peace, out of concern for Valentinian's safety. The truce lasted for four years; then Magnus Maximus invaded Italy and Valentinian fled to the East. Theodosius staged a counterattack that defeated and captured the usurper, and subjected him to the capital penalty (388).(18) Valentinian returned to the West, and soon fell under the domination of Arbogastes, his Frankish general. One day in 392, Valentinian decided that Arbogastes was getting too powerful, and handed him a letter of dismissal, but the Frank threw it to the ground. Shortly after that Valentinian was found dead in his palace in southern Gaul; we don't know if he committed suicide or was murdered. Arbogastes then raised his own nominee, a popular orator named Flavius Eugenius, but just two years later Theodosius defeated the western army and had Eugenius put to death. Thus Theodosius got to rule the whole empire for the last five months of his life.
Meanwhile Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, became the first Christian clergyman with enough power to coerce a head of state. He supported Catholic Christianity even more enthusiastically than Theodosius did, and gained the image of a hero by staying in Milan when Magnus Maximus was in Italy. In 388 some monks in Mesopotamia burned down a synagogue; Theodosius tried to punish the bishop, and Ambrose refused to conduct the Mass until the emperor revoked both the punishment of the monks and an order to rebuild the synagogue at state expense.
Two years later Ambrose gave the emperor his greatest humiliation. It happened like this: Theodosius had put a Gothic general, Butheric, in charge of the Macedonian city of Thessalonica, and this general imprisoned a popular charioteer on a charge of homosexual rape. The Greek residents of Thessalonica were enraged when the charioteer missed the next race he was supposed to compete in, so a mob lynched Butheric and several prison guards. In response Theodosius allowed his soldiers to massacre 7,000 Thessalonian civilians, and Ambrose ordered the emperor, under threat of excommunication, to do public penance for this un-Christian act. He did, and the Christians of Milan watched the astonishing spectacle of a Roman emperor, stripped of all his imperial insignia, begging forgiveness for his sins in a church.
Prodded by guilt, and possibly by Ambrose, Theodosius attacked the enemies of Christianity vigorously after that. On February 24, 391, all pagan temples were closed. Pagans started practicing their rites outdoors, so on November 8, 392, Theodosius banned that practice, too. Shortly before his death (in January 395) he stripped the temples in Rome, dragged their idols through the streets, and ordered the senators to choose whether Jupiter or Jesus would rule the Empire; of course most of them converted (and so did any citizen who knew what was good for him!).
Theodosius I had ruled the whole empire effectively, but saw that neither of his sons was up to the task, so he willed that the Empire be divided between them: Ten-year-old Honorius (395-423) got the western half, eighteen-year-old Arcadius (395-408) got the eastern half. There was no cause for alarm among the public; the Empire had always come back together previously. Nor did anybody seem concerned that the administrations and finances of East and West remained distinct when one man ruled both. What was different this time was that the split became permanent. Neither East nor West could produce an emperor that was strong enough to rule the whole thing; both Honorius and Arcadius were weak and worthless, so their ministers and generals did the real work. The final act of Theodosius had the same result as Constantine's moving of the capital--the West was abandoned to strengthen the East. After 395 the West was effectively on its own, to fight its own battles, and work out its own destiny.
Over the years, historians have proposed more than 200 reasons why the Roman Empire collapsed. Some are sensible, like barbarian invasions and the government's chronic financial problems; others are absurd, like the idea that lead plumbing slowly poisoned everybody. Moreover, empires grow weak with age, but they do not get old the same way people do; each one falls for different reasons. With the Romans the decline started gradually, and it turned into a more rapid fall in the last quarter of the fourth century. The immediate cause of this was probably a shortage of cavalry; the lifestyle of the city and the farm would never let the Romans build a cavalry as experienced as those who lived the lifestyle of the steppes. Money was also a factor; cavalry made such a frightening hole in the budget that many bureaucrats wanted to skimp on horses. The reason why they were expensive was because each cavalryman needed more than one horse, to ensure that he would have a fresh mount available at any given time, and all these animals needed to be fed. In settled areas, the farmer needed most of his land to feed his family and pay the tax collector, leaving little to spare for horse pastures. However, on the plains of the Eurasian heartland, there was no shortage of grass for grazing, which helps explains why Central Asian nomads produced excellent cavalry, and why they usually ran into supply problems when they wandered off the steppes.
To cut costs, the emperor's treasurer would argue that hiring tribesmen for use in emergencies was cheaper than keeping a Roman cavalry on standby. And that was probably the only practical course, given the money available. But this also meant that when the infantry could no longer win battles, the army's leaders (and the emperor's closest advisors) would be non-Roman men who lived and fought in the saddle.
At this point it is appropriate to ask: were the German victories against the Roman Empire really a disaster for mankind? Those who got to know the Germans may not have thought so. The Germans could be violent, uncouth folks, but they were a good deal more faithful to their wives than their civilized counterparts. In addition, many Germans were Christians by this time; the fifth-century Christian monk Salvian noted that the "evil dens" and sins which marked Roman life could not be found where the barbarians ruled. In the late empire period Romans admired German men for their courage and strength, and German women for their blond-haired beauty; it was common for dark-haired ladies to wear blond wigs imported from the north. If you could travel back in time and visit a peasant working on land ruled by the barbarians, he would probably be shocked to know that he was now living in the Dark Ages. And as for the violence, remember that our accounts concerning the early Germans were written by people who not too long before got their jollies by throwing Christians to lions.(19)
Despite the drop in population that we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the Roman army was still larger than any enemy army, at least until the middle of the fifth century. However, this was offset by the fact that the Empire had a frontier ten thousand miles long, and enemies on most of it; it was too dangerous to concentrate the whole army at one spot, to eliminate a hostile tribe or nation (e.g., Persia) once and for all. Moreover, the specialization of civilized society worked to the barbarian's advantage. While every adult male German was at least a part-time soldier, the taxes and labor of more than a hundred civilians supported each Roman legionary. Professional soldiers are expected to have superior morale and experience, and can defeat several times their number of amateurs, but they can only do so while they are well equipped, and fourth-century battles like Adrianople showed that the legionaries' methods and equipment had become obsolete. By 400 A.D., the German soldier had a sword made of better steel, was well-dressed in scale armor (at the same time the Romans stopped carrying their shields, breastplates and spears because they complained that they were too heavy!) and was likely to have a horse. All the Romans had left in their favor were discipline and generalship, and when these failed, they hired Germans to fight other Germans.(20) This last strategy could only be a stopgap measure, for an indispensable soldier will try to get his own way if even his most unreasonable demands are not met. The Roman frontier ceased to be a barrier between civilization and barbarism, becoming instead a barrier between the unauthorized barbarians outside and the employed barbarians inside. In the end, the Western Roman Empire was destroyed by the German mercenaries that imperial necessity had created.
Because no man-made state lasts forever, we probably should not ask why Rome fell, but why the Empire's pieces never came back together again. China, for instance, fell apart and re-integrated many times. And the answer is that the Roman Empire did not have a homogeneous culture. The Italians lorded over half a dozen other major groups of people, each with its own language, history, customs and aspirations. From about 300 B.C. to 400 A.D., when the Italians had a higher population than the rest, they were able to bring them all under a single rule. Yet while the Italians imposed their view of order, the Celts, Germans, Greeks, Berbers, Egyptians and Semites kept their own gods as national symbols, giving them Roman names to make them look more respectable. Then after Rome fell, Europe's center of population moved from Italy to the Rhine valley, thereby preventing a complete recovery.(21) Consequently France and Germany became the main states of Europe in the centuries that followed.
In southern Italy, impoverishment and depopulation began long before the Pax Romana ended; as early as the reign of Augustus Gallic potters were producing a good imitation of Italian pots and plates, and the export trade of Campania gradually dwindled away afterwards. The expensive agriculture of Italy had already declined in the face of African and Spanish competition.(22) These troubles were of more than local importance, for Italy and Tunisia were the only western provinces with a level of civilization equal to the Greek-speaking East; elsewhere the population was too sparse and too unsophisticated to maintain the urban way of life. Cities were founded for administrative/defensive purposes, but few became self-sufficient; even apparently successful ones like Trier, Metz, Mainz, Mediolanum, Verona and Aquileia depended on business from the nearest army units for their prosperity.
The factory system never replaced individual labor in the ancient world because the self-employed artisan did not need much capital to set up a workshop; what he needed the most was skill. Though the eastern city dwellers continued to demand goods of superior workmanship, in the West such tastes were a recent and superficial acquisition. And the potters of Gaul weren't the only provincials who could make Italian-style crafts; in Africa we can follow the economic decentralization one stage further, for the Carthaginians first used imported Roman lamps, then made copies of them, and finally switched to homemade lamps that were crude but usable. This reversion from interdependence to self-sufficiency was a visible sign that people were moving out of the cities and fending for themselves.
That brings us to one more question: why didn't the eastern half of the Empire fall with the West? Because the East had been civilized longer, meaning that it had more people and more money. The Greeks and Phoenicians had colonized the Mediterranean basin and turned it into a single economic unit, paving the way for political unification under Rome. Then Julius Caesar marched beyond the lands drained by rivers flowing into the "Great Sea," and introduced Mediterranean culture to France and England. There it flourished among the upper class while politics favored it. When the Empire ceased to expand and the cost of defending it continued to rise, taxes were increased to unacceptable levels, which the East could afford but the West could not.
Once the division of the Empire became permanent and the West was deprived of support from the East, it collapsed in just a few decades. The East, by contrast, was always able to raise money from somewhere, and it had Egypt, the province with the most grain and a highly concentrated population, making it the most profitable province of all. Thus the East hired some of the invaders and bought off the rest, allowing it to survive ingloriously for a century, until Justinian came along and rebuilt the Empire along new lines.
The government worker likes the townsman because he is accessible and pays his taxes with cash. To gather a percentage of the produce of scattered, uncooperative peasants, to transport it to where it can be sold or put to use without wasting too much of it, yields a much poorer return than collecting taxes as money. City dwellers escaped the tax man by moving away, and farmers stopped coming to the cities. This resulted in a death spiral, where taxes were increased on those the tax man could reach, and those who could not pay their taxes/debts were likely to be thrown into slavery. Many farmers escaped their financial burden by deeding their land to a great landowner and working for him as a tenant (another forerunner of feudalism). Still others moved to barbarian-ruled areas or turned to a life of crime. Eventually the whole Western economy was taxed out of existence. Ammianus described the West as a land harassed by "the burden of tributes and the repeated increase in taxes . . . crushed by the severity of the dunning tax-collectors." And taxation was not the only example of government meddling, as it tried to get revenue out of towns that had run a chronic (but mild) deficit. Price-fixing made many professions profitless, and efforts to keep people working in those jobs by making them hereditary must have created many outlaws. The result was an Orwellian paradox, where citizenship became slavery and the free man wanted to become a serf.(23)
We already saw Rome begin the transition from a classical to a medieval society with Diocletian's reforms. With the tying of the peasants to the land came an end to the classical ideal of citizenship for all free men, as the new serfs were not much better off than the slaves of old. And with the conversion of the empire to Christianity, theology replaced philosophy as the main topic of intellectual discussion. A new society formed in the shell of the old, so that nothing remained of the old Empire but the Empire itself. In that sense, we should not see the Middle Ages so much as the troubled aftermath of classical civilization, but as the time when Christianity (and later Islam) triumphed over paganism.
1. John Chrysostom (350-407), a reluctant bishop of Constantinople, was the greatest Christian orator of the day. A native of Antioch, he was temperamentally unsuited to life in the imperial capital, and his sermons against the Empress Eudoxia and the corruption around him led to his exile twice. Today we remember him as an example of piety and courage, and hundreds of his eloquent sermons have survived, which earned him his Greek nickname of Chrysostom ("golden mouth").
2. Jerome (345?-420), an Italian who mastered both Hebrew and Greek, became the scholar who translated the Bible into the Latin text still used by the Catholic Church today, the Vulgate Bible.
3. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) probably did more than anyone else since the first century to put down in writing what Christianity was all about. As a youth he experimented with various religions and philosophies, including Manicheism and Epicureanism, until he became the imperial rhetorician for the city of Milan, where the eloquence of Bishop Ambrose convinced him that Christianity could be intelligent and that the Bible was not as barbaric as he originally thought. From 396 until his death he served as a bishop for the North African city of Hippo Regius. Two of his writings have become classics: Confessions, where he tells the story of his search for the truth, and The City of God, where he explains the Christian's duties as a citizen of this world and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. He also wrote against the heresies of his day, like the Donatists, and was one of the first Christians to advocate torture as a tool to make heretics repent.
4. Leo I, also known as Leo the Great, was bishop of Rome from 440 to 461. A key spokesman in the controversy concerning the person of Christ, he was the most powerful leader the Roman Church had seen up to this point. He also introduced the Petrine theory, which claimed that the Apostle Peter was the first bishop of Rome. Not long after that, bishops of Rome began to call themselves popes, meaning "papa." Thus, just like Israel once called for a human king to lead it, now the Church chose to have an earthly king, rather than wait upon the Lord for guidance.
5. Patrick (389-461) Originally a citizen of Roman Britain, Patrick was kidnaped by pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland at the age of sixteen. After six years of service as a shepherd he escaped back to the empire, but in a dream he heard the voice of the Irish calling him back, so in 432 he returned, founded several monasteries, and devoted the rest of his life to getting Christianity started in Ireland. The rest of the information we have on him is pure legend, but the Celtic Christian Church he founded preserved both civilization and Christianity after Anglo-Saxon barbarians obliterated them from most of neighboring Britain. For more about the best years in Irish history, read Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization.
Because of all this, Arcadius and Honorius were not getting along as well as brothers should. In 401 Arcadius figured out a way to turn his Gothic problem into an asset; he suggested to the Visigoth king Alaric that he ought to occupy Illyria in the name of the eastern emperor. Alaric agreed, since he wanted to obtain food and a better homeland for his people. For Arcadius this was a "two birds with one stone" deal; whether the Visigoths succeeded or failed he would no longer have them on his back, making trouble for the rest of his citizens.
Meanwhile in the West, Stilicho skillfully conserved and deployed his dwindling forces, using them to stave off disaster for a decade. Money was always a problem--once he had to strip the gold off Rome's most venerable temple to pay his troops. Most Germans at this stage probably would have wanted a job in the imperial army, but Stilicho could not afford that, so his policy was to hire some, pay others to act peaceful, and use intimidation or force (as a last result) to keep the rest away. This turned the German war-bands into mercenary organizations, which saw warfare as a kind of business. Battles are uncommon and not very bloody when mercenaries are involved on both sides. Not only is there the simple fact that those willing to kill for money are not willing to die for it, but there is a good chance that the conflict can be resolved if the commanders make a deal. And the typical mercenary does not want to kill another mercenary, if this year's opponents could be next year's allies--or employers. By playing off these soldiers of fortune effectively, Stilicho won every battle and thus kept a lid on the situation. In gratitude, the Romans built a splendid statue to him in the Forum of Rome, praising him for his bravery and loyalty, and noting the "exceptional love" which they held for him.
To stop the Visigoths, Stilicho called in the troops from the Rhine frontier. They defeated the Visigoths twice, in 402 and 403; in 405 he annihilated a formidable coalition of Ostrogoths, Quadi and Asding Vandals that had invaded Italy in the meantime. Still, the price was high. The next year saw the rest of the Marcomanni, Quadi,(24) and Vandals--Stilicho's own people--join forces with a clan of Alans from the Hun-dominated Caucasus, and move west. On the last day of 406 they swarmed across the undefended frozen Rhine at Mainz (see below). This time they brought their families and possessions, meaning that they intended to stay.
The barbarian invaders made such a mess of Gaul that the most notorious of them--the Vandals--gave their name to a word describing senseless destruction: vandalism. The only army left that could save Gaul was the garrison in Britain. This garrison was unreliable, though. Disappointed with Honorius and Stilicho, they had revolted and set up a soldier emperor of their own, a certain Marcus, in 406. A year later Marcus was murdered by an equally unknown pretender, Gratianus, who suffered the same fate at the hands of somebody named Constantine III four months later. This Constantine brought the army across the Channel to occupy Gaul; officially he was pacifying a province which the rulers of the West had abandoned, but he was actually seeking to have his usurped imperial title recognized by the Franks, Burgundians and Alemanni, who had taken advantage of the collapse of the frontier to annex the west bank of the Rhine. The Alans, Suevi and Vandals, rather than staying to fight, continued south, crossed the Pyrenees, and occupied two thirds of Spain (409).(25) In the end Constantine III was easily captured and executed, by an army sent from Italy that would have been better employed elsewhere (411). Meanwhile the abandoned Britons waited in vain for the Romans to come back, discarded their superficial Latin culture, and went back to the Celtic languages and tribal ways of the pre-Roman era.
As half the Western Empire disappeared Honorius grew frightened, decided Stilicho had done this to give the Empire to the Vandals, and had him murdered (408). Then the treacherous emperor slaughtered many Germans who had settled in northern Italy. With those acts the Italian core of the Empire, for which so much had been sacrificed, was immediately forfeit. The Empire had existed for so long that no one could imagine an alternative; the barbarians did not want to destroy the Empire, they only wanted land and subsidies from it, and their leaders wanted nothing more than military commands within the framework of the imperial system. Once Stilicho was dead, the army of the West dissolved. The Visigoths entered Italy and besieged Rome; when the Romans warned Alaric that they outnumbered the attackers, Alaric responded by saying, "Then come out, the thicker the grass the easier the scything!" Eventually Rome gave the Visigoths what they demanded: 5,000 lbs. of gold, 30,000 lbs. of silver, 3,000 lbs. of pepper, 4,000 silks and 3,000 furs. Also significant, 40,000 malcontents joined Alaric's horde at this point: slaves, oppressed peasants, and German mercenaries outraged at the butchery of their families. Soon in Spain and Gaul, they would be welcomed as liberators in the same way.
In 409 Alaric came back, and was bought off by another ransom. In 410 the Western authorities, safe in their new capital at Ravenna(26), refused his latest demands, and Alaric took Rome by storm. He followed the standard practice in ancient times where he plundered the city for three days, then departed; he didn't touch church property, though, and spared civilians who took refuge in churches, because he and many of his men were Christians. Rome was no longer a political capital, but its sacking sent shock waves across the known world. It had been unthinkable; the Eternal City, which had resisted all attackers for eight centuries, had now fallen to an uncivilized conqueror. From far-off Bethlehem, St. Jerome lamented, "The city which has taken the world is itself taken!" No other event showed so well how weak the Empire had become--or how little time it had left.
Rome falls to the Visigoths.
In 408, Theodosius II became the next emperor of the East, at the tender age of seven. His father Arcadius had given him the title of Augustus when he was just one, and his youth allowed him to enjoy the longest reign (408-450) of the Roman era. Because he was obviously too young to rule, the praetorian prefect Anthemius governed at first, but then in 414, the Senate gave the title of Augusta to the emperor's sister, Aelia Pulcheria, and she became the official regent, though she was only two years older than him. Pucleria was an extremely devout Christian, to the point that she took a vow of virginity to avoid being forced into marriage. It was said that while she was in charge, the imperial palace resembled a convent, even when the emperor was there! After Theodosius grew up, he proved to be the reclusive, scholarly type, who liked to study theology, astronomy and history, so he continued to let Pulcheria run most affairs of state for the rest of his reign. Still, his academic pursuits led to one useful accomplishment; in 429 he appointed a commission to collect and organize all the laws passed since Constantine I. This produced a law code called the the Theodosian Codex, which was published in 438 and became the most important revision of Roman law, in the two centuries between Constantine and Justinian.
Meanwhile, tribes of Germans were now loose all over the West. In theory an emperor still ruled Italy, and by encouraging Germans to fight one another he could sometimes impose some order on the situation. Nevertheless, the real power now lay with the Germans.
By his own standards Alaric had failed; despite his successes, he had not given his people a home they could call their own. The main food-producing province of the Western Roman Empire was still North Africa, so he considered going there and diverting its food supply to his tribe. He marched to the toe of the Italian boot, only to discover that without a fleet, he couldn't even cross over to Sicily, let alone Africa. He started back, hoping to confiscate the ships he needed from a local seaport, but instead he fell ill and died. Legend has it that his retainers diverted the Busento River, so that they could bury Alaric and his treasure in the riverbed. However, the river nearly dries out every year, so now this seems like a waste of labor, if it really happened.
Alaric's brother-in-law and successor, Ataulf, was so impressed by the civilization he held hostage that he tried to win a home for the Visigoths through politics. In Roman service he took the Visigoths to Gaul, where they disposed of a rebel, a Gallo-Roman named Jovinus, whom the Alemanni and Franks had proclaimed emperor (413). Then they moved into Spain, where they attacked the Alan-Suevic-Vandal states set up by the invaders (414).
Like Stilicho and Alaric, Ataulf did not believe a German could take the throne for himself, but he saw an opportunity to marry into the imperial family and thus become the father of a future emperor. Accordingly, he told Honorius he wished to marry the emperor's sister, Aelia Galla Placidia, and thus form a Gothic-Roman alliance; he may have thought Honorius would accept because he had no heir of his own. Honorius rejected the offer but his headstrong sister, who was entirely willing, accepted. They celebrated the wedding in 414, with Ataulf donning Roman robes for the occasion. Yet only a year later a treacherous follower murdered Ataulf, so he left no heir to the imperial throne. Honorius chose a new brother-in-law more to his liking--a general with a Roman family tree--and though Placidia did not want to remarry, she eventually changed her mind and became the storm center of intrigues for the next 25 years as the regent of her useless son, Valentinian III.(27) Meanwhile the Visigoths, under a new chief named Vallia, campaigned in Spain as Roman allies; in 416 they destroyed the Alans and Siling Vandals. The Suevi and Asding Vandals were saved, though, by the Romans, who feared that the Visigoths were becoming too strong. In 418 they persuaded the Visigoths to call off their campaign and retire to a legal home in the valley of the Garonne River, in southwestern Gaul.
For the inhabitants of Gaul, the arrival of the Visigoths caused many dislocations, but not as many as expected. The newcomers demanded more than a third of the farmland, and naturally took the richest lands they could find. Thus, their principal victims were the biggest landowners; for them civilization as they knew it ended. But most Gallo-Romans had little to lose, and lost little. Officially the Empire, without using any of its own soldiers, had gotten the Visigoths to pacify the West. However, the truth of the matter was that the Visigoths had carved out for themselves a kingdom out of Roman territory, with its capital at Toulouse; moreover, the Visigoth marches had shown that the Romans could no longer protect their land or their people. Nothing could disguise the fact that the Roman Empire was now coming apart.
Gaiseric won because of three factors that he got to work in his favor:
To support his warriors, Gaiseric confiscated many Roman estates, and put the former owners (and many Catholic clergymen) to work on them. Consequently relations between the Arian Vandals and the Catholic ex-Romans were never better than strained. Gaiseric barely managed to keep this in check, and under his successors vicious persecutions took place, giving medieval hagiographers many grim tales for their stories of the saints.
Cruelty was just one sign of the swift degeneration that occurred among the Vandals after Gaiseric. The warriors, seduced by their new luxuries, grew weak, corrupt and disorganized. Thus they fell quickly when the Eastern Roman Empire conquered them in the sixth century, and soon they disappeared as a distinct people, leaving behind only a mixed population and lingering bitterness.
Attila's empire in 451. Aside from the British Isles, Scandinavia and parts of Russia, it covered all of Europe that the Romans didn't have already.
Though successful elsewhere, Attila, Gaiseric and the other barbarian kings faced a formidable opponent in Italy. This was Flavius Aetius, a Roman aristocrat who commanded the army during the reign of the last and least competent of the Valentinians, Valentinian III (425-455). Like Stilicho, Aetius was both admired and feared--and with good cause. High-handed and utterly unscrupulous, he thought nothing of letting the Vandals have North Africa, to get rid of a rival (the previously mentioned Boniface), and secure Vandal support against other enemies of Rome. Since Aetius personally owned some of the best lands in Gaul which the barbarians had not yet seized, many thought he was protecting his own interests at the Empire's expense. Yet what was good for Aetius was usually good for the Empire, and he defended the core of it so effectively that he postponed the Western Roman Empire's end beyond his lifetime. For that reason, he is often honored with the title, "the last of the Romans."
Aetius failed to dislodge the Vandals from Africa, but he was successful everywhere else. He temporarily forced German tribes like the Alemanni and Rugians back across the upper Danube. To the tried and true strategy of pitting German against German, Aetius added the fierce Huns as auxiliaries. In 436 he called in the Huns to crush the Burgundians, and they inflicted such devastation that in the next year the Burgundians abandoned their capital, Worms, crossed the Alps, and didn't stop until they reached Savoy, in southeastern Gaul. Later on, heroic legends surrounding this defeat would provide material for the Nibelungenlied, the famous German epic poem; in fact, Attila appears there, under the name of Etzel. Sometime after that, for reasons unclear to us, Aetius decided that the Burgundians could be useful defending the Empire and resettled them as foederates around Geneva (443). It may have been because for the Romans, any military victory at this point was a considerable achievement; records from the 440s show that money and manpower were in such short supply that new recruits were only called up in the most serious emergencies.(30) Later, Roman gold was used to bring down a Hunnish horde to crush a peasant revolt in Gaul, and then Aetius hired the Huns to make things miserable for his favorite enemies, the Visigoths. To residents of Gaul, the Hunnish remedy must have seemed worse than the German disease. Aetius, however, knew what he was doing; he had spent time as a hostage in the Hun camp, so he and Attila understood each other. For nearly twenty years Attila and Aetius had a fine business relationship. Once Attila sent as a gift to Aetius his most exotic slave, a Moorish dwarf.
The campaigns Attila undertook for Aetius gave him an appetite for more plunder. More plunder could not come from the Germans, only from the Romans, so in 443 Attila struck deep into the Eastern Roman Empire, burning Naissus (the birthplace of Constantine the Great) and pillaging Sardica (modern Sofia). He did not leave until the court of Constantinople offered him a tribute of 6,000 lbs. of gold, an annual subsidy of 2,100 lbs. of gold, and promised to dismantle its fortifications on the Danube, a move which left the Balkans defenseless. Four years later he returned, and found a country ravaged by earthquakes and plague. Nevertheless, the eastern Empire tried to resist, sending an army commanded by a Goth named Arnegisclus. The Goth put up a stubborn defense before he was killed and the army routed. But this time Attila did not press his advantage; apparently he had suffered severe losses in the fighting, and was afraid of plague spreading to his troops. On top of all that, the East was running out of money, forcing the new emperor, Marcian, to take a tougher stand against the Huns; as he put it, "I have iron for Attila, but no gold." Deciding the East was no fun anymore, he turned around and withdrew.
Until now the East had been a more attractive target than the West because the East had more money, and because Attila knew his friendship with Aetius would end when he struck west without the Roman commander's permission. He used love as his excuse. Honoria, the sister of Valentinian III, had been caught in a love affair with Eugenius, a palace steward. The servant was immediately executed, and the imperial family ordered Honoria to marry Flavius Bassus Herculanus, a wealthy but boring old senator with palsy. Rather than accept this fate, Honoria sent a eunuch named Hyacinth to Attila with a letter begging him to rescue her from her relatives. The letter came with a ring, which the Hun accepted as a marriage proposal. He then demanded the delivery of his new fianceé, along with half the territory of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. Valentinian refused and Attila declared war.(31)
In 451 Attila's Huns burst into Gaul and swept all before them. With the Huns came their German vassals: Ostrogoths, Gepids, Thuringians, Rugians, Sciri, Heruli and Alans. Now Aetius and the Visigoth king, Theodoric I, had no choice but to unite against an invader who could destroy them all. The "Roman" army led by Aetius was mostly Visigoths, with a motley assortment of Franks, Saxons, Burgundians, and Gaulish Celts. Attila fell back from Orléans (the westernmost point reached by any Asiatic conqueror), and the two forces met on the rolling Catalaunian plain, near modern Troyes. The resulting battle, incorrectly called the battle of Chalons, was a frightful slaughter (the Visigoth historian Jordanes wildly estimated that 165,000 were slain) that ended in a standoff--and Attila's retreat. Though the western allies claimed victory, Theodoric was killed and the great Hun's force was only slightly impaired.
The Huns at Chalons.
Attila came back in 452, this time invading north Italy. Ravenna's defenses were so tough that he didn't even try to take the western capital, but the previous capital, Milan, was still a very rich city, so Attila sacked that instead. Rome was his next target, but on the way he met Pope Leo I, who persuaded him to go back the way he came. Why Attila spared Rome was never made clear by either side. Some say he was overawed by the commanding presence of the leader of Western Christianity; cynics suggest that a big bag of gold changed hands at the meeting. Or maybe Leo played on Attila's superstition, warning that if Attila sacked Rome, his death would soon follow, like what happened to Alaric. Finally, it is possible that disease had broken out among the Huns, or that they were hungry (Italy was suffering from a famine at the time); in any case, it was a good idea to quit while they were ahead, and take their loot home.
While Attila had been away, the eastern emperor Marcian had launched some raids across the Danube, which threatened the home base of the Huns. Thus, when Attila got back, he decided that for 453 he would attack the East once more and teach Marcian a lesson. It never happened, though. Before this campaign could get underway, Attila married a German girl named Ildico and died of a hemorrhage on his wedding night.
Attila's empire disintegrated immediately. He left at least six sons, and three of them, Ellac, Dengizich, and Ernakh, fought over who would be king of it all. Seeing their opportunity, the Gepids revolted, got other Germans to join them, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Huns at the battle of the Nedao River (454). Ellac, the eldest son, was killed, and Ernakh began withdrawing Huns to the Ukraine. Dengizich, however, became the new high king. and he thought he could give the Huns another glorious reign. In 469 he demanded that the Eastern Roman Empire start paying tribute again. The Romans refused, Dengizich attacked, the Roman general defeated him, and the head of Dengizich--Attila's son--was sent to Constantinople, where it became a decoration at the circus. At last the Romans had their revenge. By 470 the last surviving Huns had returned to the Black Sea shore.
Like all German attacks on the Empire it appeared that the raiders were looking for loot, but what they really wanted was land. From the mid-fourth century on it ceased to matter whether the attackers were defeated or not; the Romans were so short on manpower that they settled defeated tribes within the Empire, in the hope that this would make good Roman citizens out of them. As a result Britain probably had a large German population on its east coast by the time the Romans left. For about thirty or forty years, though, Britons and Germans lived side by side happily.
Constantine III, the unsuccessful British rebel mentioned previously, left behind three sons: Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther Pendragon. Constans (Konstant Vynarch in Welsh) was the eldest, and he tried to avoid the perils of being a king by becoming a monk. However, Constans' son Vortigern would have none of this, because that would have caused the crown to pass to one of his uncles instead of to him. Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn Gwrthenav) persuaded Constans to leave the monastery and be king; he did, and quickly became a puppet in Vortigern's hands. Vortigern's men took control of key positions like the treasury, and he recruited a force of Pictish guards. Soon after that the guards murdered Constans. Vortigern had the killers beheaded, but everything went according to plan; now he had the crown. Since Aurelius and Uther were minors, their guardians took them to the Armorican peninsula of Gaul; from the 440s onward, many Britons would follow, to escape attacking Saxons. Thus Armorica, henceforth known as Brittany, quietly slipped from the Roman orbit into Celtic anarchy, the way Britain itself had a generation earlier.(32)
The Picts, annoyed that Vortigern had executed some of their comrades, began raiding again. To deal with this challenge, Vortigern made a move that forever changed British history: he brought in more German mercenaries to fight the Picts. These mercenaries soon crowned their chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, and after a successful campaign, Vortigern rewarded Hengist with land in Lincolnshire. Then the British and German leaders celebrated with a banquet, at which Hengist's beautiful daughter, Renwein (Rowena in some texts), served the wine. As she offered a golden goblet to Vortigern, the king was smitten with a great desire for her, and Hengist took advantage of the moment; he said that Vortigern could have her in exchange for the southeast corner of Britain (Kent). The king agreed, married Renwein, and ceded Kent to the newcomers. This offended many Britons, especially Vortigern's sons from a previous marriage: Vortimer, Katigern and Paschent.
Too late, the Britons woke up to the fact that their eastern seaboard was in the hands of an alien people. Germans started to pour in from the other side of the North Sea and move up the rivers into the heart of the country. They came from three tribes: the Saxons, the Angles (who gave the country its new name of Angle-land), and the Jutes.(33)
Vortigern did nothing to stop them, because his new marriage made him decidedly pro-German. When he refused to listen to the protests of his subjects, a group of them proclaimed Prince Vortimer king in his place. As king, Vortimer attacked the Saxons in Kent and won four battles, forcing many of them (including Hengist), to go back to Germany. He couldn't finish what he started, though, because his Saxon stepmother arranged to have him poisoned. Vortigern took back his crown, and invited Hengist to return. He came back with a large army; Britons and Saxons met to write a new treaty, and when Hengist gave the signal, the Saxons whipped out daggers and killed the unarmed British leaders. They spared Vortigern, but Hengist forced him to allow the Saxons to occupy the island's cities, and soon the Saxons were in London and York, destroying churches and terrorizing the locals. Vortigern fled to Wales, and tried to build a fortress in the remote mountains of Snowdonia, but even this went wrong--the walls kept sinking into the ground. Soothsayers told him that the only solution was to find a boy with no mortal father, kill him, and sprinkle his blood upon the stones.
Messengers went looking for a suitable human sacrifice. At Carmarthen, in southern Wales, they found a youth named Merlin; his mother claimed that the father was no man but an incubus (a demon that reportedly has sex with women). Thus enters the most mysterious character of the Arthurian legend, the enchanter. Merlin saved himself by revealing something the soothsayers did not know--the wall was unstable because it sat on top of a pool with two dragons in it. When the pool was drained, the two dragons--one white and one red--appeared and had a fight. The white dragon did well at first, pushing the red to the edge of the pool; then the red dragon recovered and drove back the white. Merlin interpreted this to mean the following: the white dragon stood for the Saxons, the red dragon for the Britons; currently the Saxons are doing well because of Vortigern's crimes and blunders, but soon the fortunes will be reversed.
Merlin went on to warn Vortigern that his doom was near. Sure enough, his uncles Aurelius and Uther were now grown up and heading back to Britain. Aurelius Ambrosius (Emrys Wledic in Welsh) was crowned king, and his forces besieged Vortigern in a fort near Monmouth; Vortigern perished when the attackers set the fort on fire. Then Aurelius defeated the Saxons, captured Hengist and had him put to death, and rebuilt the destroyed churches. His reign was a short one, though. Paschent, the last son of Vortigern, bribed a Saxon assassin to pose as a doctor when the king fell ill, and gave him poison instead of medicine.
All this time the German immigrants were making a determined effort to take the land from the Britons. The Jutes settled Kent and the Isle of Wight (the traditional date for their invasion is 449). The Saxons occupied the Thames valley and divided into west, middle, south and east groups (hence Wessex, Middlesex, Sussex and Essex). The Angles split into middle, north and east groups. The Angle kingdoms in the middle eventually coalesced to form Mercia, while the one north of the Humber River became Northumbria. The third Angle kingdom acquired a name that sometimes appears in modern geography--East Anglia.
While his brother was king, Uther was commander of the tribe on the border of England and Wales, the Silures. He got his surname--Pendragon--after a dragon-shaped comet appeared in the sky. Like Vortigern, he got in trouble by chasing the wrong women. In this case, he lusted after Ygerna, the beautiful wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Uther started eyeing her at the Easter gathering of the court, and his advances were so obvious that Gorlois left early, taking his wife with him. Uther took this as an insult, and sent Gorlois an ultimatum ordering him to return. Gorlois refused, and the king sent an army to ravage the duke's lands. Ygerna was put away in Tintagel Castle, located on a point of the coast which could only be reached by a narrow, easily guarded ridge; Gorlois figured that this would keep her safe while he engaged the royal army several miles away.
It didn't work because Uther wasn't with his troops. In the thick of the battle he sent for Merlin, and the magician gave Uther a potion which made him look exactly like Gorlois. While the real Gorlois was detained by the fighting, Uther, now effectively disguised, rode to Tintagel, fooled the duke's guards as he passed them, and found his way to Ygerna. Thinking he was her husband, she did not resist as he seduced her; consequently she conceived a son named Arthur. Gorlois was killed while the seduction was going on, so after Uther returned to his own shape, he claimed Ygerna and married her. Together they had a daughter named Anna, who married Budicius II of Brittany when she grew up; however, the narrative here is confused--one account asserts that later she took a second husband, Loth of Lodonesia, who went on to become king of Norway.
Uther reigned for fifteen years after Arthur was born. However, his health grew worse and he could not stop the Saxons, who brought in more reinforcements. Eventually the invaders disposed of Uther by poison, as they had done with Vortimer and Aurelius, but they could not stop the Britons from crowning Arthur king at Silchester. Though he was only a teenager, Arthur took the offensive at once. The Saxons had Pictish and Scottish allies and put up a fierce resistance, but Arthur defeated them in three battles, by the "River Douglas," near Lincoln, and in the Caledon Wood of Scotland; the Saxons handed over their treasures and promised to leave Britain.
It was a promise they didn't intend to keep. Trying to take Arthur by surprise, the Saxons turned around after they went out to sea, sailed west, and came ashore in Devon. There, near the Severn River and the ancient city of Bath, Arthur won the most important victory of his career. This battle, known as the siege of Mount Badon, we know almost nothing about today, not even the exact location. We do know that after a generation of defeats, the Britons had little to crow about, so this time they really did crow. According to legend, he went into battle with a shield that had a picture of the Virgin Mary on it, making sure everyone knew he was Christianity's champion. He also carried his famous magical sword, Excalibur (also known as Caliburn), which had been forged on an enchanted island, Avalon. Those Saxons who survived were reduced to powerlessness; Arthur then went north, chasing the Picts and Scots all the way to Loch Lomond, where he starved them to submission.(34)
Peace and stable government finally returned to England; Arthur married a lady of Roman descent, Guinevere, rebuilt more churches, and restored appropriated land to its rightful owners. Within a few generations the Britons were portraying Mount Badon as only one in a series of victories (twelve in all) won by Arthur. Then the stories got really wild. Arthur was supposed to have overcome the Saxons completely, made himself king of all England and then conquered much of Western Europe (Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Gaul).
Despite a lifetime of barbarian incursions, the Romans still regarded Gaul as theirs, and resented it when Arthur killed the local governor, Frollo, in battle. Frollo's appointed successor, Lucius Hiberius, sent envoys to Arthur with a letter criticizing him for not paying the customary tribute of Britain and seizing lands in Gaul. Hiberius demanded Arthur's immediate submission and threatened war if he didn't. Arthur decided to resist; he left his nephew Modred (Mordred) in charge of Britain and assembled a huge army in Gaul. The two sides met southeast of Paris and fought a big battle, in which Gawain, Arthur's other nephew, played an important part. The Britons won, and Arthur sent the corpse of Hiberius to Rome, telling the Senate they would get no other tribute from Britain.
Arthur spent the following winter subjugating Burgundy. His plan for next spring was to cross the Alps and march on Rome, the first step in a campaign to conquer both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. Before he could get started, however, news arrived that Modred had turned traitor; Modred had crowned himself king, persuaded the queen to live adulterously with him, and bribed a Saxon chief, Cheldric, to support him in return for part of Britain. Arthur headed west, catching up with Modred at Camlann (usually thought to be in Cornwall, but a location in Gaul is also possible). Modred was killed, while Arthur was mortally wounded. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was "carried off to the Isle of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to," but he ends the story without telling us whether he died or recovered there.
Recently Geoffrey Ashe, in his book, The Discovery of King Arthur, identified Arthur with one Riothamus, a British general who came to Gaul in 469-470 to help the Romans stop a Saxon invasion of the Loire valley; presumably the Romans gave him the Latin name of Artorius, hence Arthur. As for the rest of the story, many of King Arthur's accomplishments may be those of Charlemagne, transferred to him by folks who got the two leaders confused (an easy thing to do in those ignorant times). Stories about him spread to the Continent in the eighth and ninth centuries, when refugees from the crumbling British kingdom of Devon fled to Brittany in France. French poets are responsible for many of the more interesting parts of the King Arthur legend, including the Round Table, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. As a result, the half-mythical King Arthur is known by all of us today, while the real English kings who lived before Alfred the Great are only remembered by historians.
Valentinian III may have been an intellectual lightweight, but his death was a disaster, for with it the imperial family became extinct. And without a competent general, Italy was helpless before any invader. Petronius lasted on the throne for only 70 days in 455. He tried to secure his position by marrying Eudoxia, the widow of Valentinian, but instead of accepting one of the conspirators who killed her first husband, she sent a letter to Gaiseric, beseeching him to rescue her. The Vandal army and navy soon appeared at the mouth of the Tiber, and Petronius was stoned by rioting Romans. Because Pope Leo I had recently talked Attila out of sacking Rome, he tried his powers of persuasion on the Vandals, but all he got from them was a promise to kill nobody and to not burn down any buildings. Still, Gaiseric's men spent fourteen days in Rome, stripping more loot from the city than Alaric had done. Then they returned to Carthage with all they could carry and thousands of prisoners, one of them the empress.
The barbarians now helped themselves to whatever part of the Empire suited them. The first to do so were the Suevi, who had occupied most of Spain since the Vandals abandoned the peninsula. The Burgundians pushed south from Switzerland to the Mediterranean and west into Gaul, taking the future French provinces of Burgundy, Savoy, Dauphine and Provence (456). Although the Romans recovered Provence in 458, the Burgundians were strong enough to hold onto their other gains, and Vienne became the new capital of their kingdom. In 460 Gaiseric defeated a Roman invasion from Spain, after which he claimed the provinces of Numidia and Mauretania (modern-day Algeria and Morocco). By 462 his fleet had also conquered Corsica, Sardinia, and even Sicily. The Vandal kingdom now looked a lot like the empire Carthage ruled over at the beginning of the Punic Wars, but whereas the ancient Carthaginians had been traders, the Vandals were pirates. In Gaul, the Visigoths were now under their second great king, Euric (466-484). By 470 he had pushed the frontiers of the kingdom north to the Loire and east to the Rhone. Euric also pushed south into Spain (469-472), supposedly to recover it for the Empire, but he did not get rid of the Suevi. By the time the Visigoth campaigns ended, the Empire was so far gone that Euric chose to keep most of the Iberian peninsula for the Visigoths; however, he left Galicia and northern Portugal to the Suevi, and the Pyrenees mts. to the Basques. On the other side of the Rhone, he captured Provence, but gave it back in 475 when Julius Nepos, the second to last Western Emperor, formally recognized the rest of the Visigoth kingdom as a completely independent state, an ally of the Empire. In the north, the Franks and Alemanni advanced into northern Gaul more gradually. Only in Britain was the barbarian advance halted (Arthur's accomplishment), and that was just a temporary measure.
All that was left to the Western Roman Empire was Italy, part of northern Gaul (the Seine valley), Provence, Raetia, Noricum and Dalmatia. In this remnant a mixed force of barbarian mercenaries took charge. The last eight emperors were puppets of their barbarian generals, who appointed and deposed monarchs whenever they felt like it. After twenty-one years of this, Odoacer, a general of uncertain ancestry, seized power. Not willing to rule in the name of someone else, he removed the last emperor, a fifteen-year-old youth named Romulus Augustulus, and crowned himself king of Italy (476). Because the transition went smoothly, Odoacer did not bother to murder the boy; instead he gave him an annual pension of 6,000 gold pieces and packed him off to a villa near Naples.(35)
This event is the official "fall of Rome" marked in all history books. At the time, however, it made little difference in everyday life. Germans had already ruled the West for some time, and legally, the Western Empire lasted for a few more years. The East never recognized Romulus Augustulus as emperor, because the eastern emperors were related by marriage to his predecessor, Julius Nepos. This technicality allowed Julius Nepos to rule Dalmatia until his death in 480. In Gaul a Roman general named Syagrius ruled from Soissons until Clovis, the new king of the Franks, defeated him in 486. Finally, a "Roman-Moorish kingdom" existed in western Algeria until the 530s, but it did not claim any territory beyond North Africa, nor did its ruler claim to be a Roman emperor. Yet even after the "fall," the Empire haunted the West like a ghost for quite a while. No German king challenged the authority of the Eastern emperor, and no German felt he could call himself emperor until Charlemagne came along, three centuries later.
Marcian, like Theodosius II, did not have a son, so the military commander, a member of the Alan tribe named Aspar, chose one of his lieutenants, Leo I (457-474), to be the next emperor.(36) Aspar probably expected Leo to be a compliant figurehead, but once in power, Leo did not give him everything he wanted. In fact, he thought Aspar's barbarians were too strong, so he began offsetting their power by organizing a personal guard of soldiers from the Isaurian mountains, in southeastern Asia Minor. By Constantinople's standards, the Isaurians were barbarians, too (anybody who didn't speak Greek or Latin as a first language tended to get put in the "barbarian" category), but they were more loyal, and their location near the Persian frontier had made them the Empire's toughest soldiers. The captain of the new guards, Tarasicodissa, changed his name to a Greek one, Zeno, and married Leo's daughter, Aelia Ariadne. However, Aspar's ambitions had not been quenched, and a few years later, while Zeno was off fighting the Huns in Thrace, Aspar persuaded Leo to grant the title of Caesar to his own son, Patricius, and to give him Leontia, his last unmarried daughter (470).
There was a public outcry against giving such favors to a heretic, for both Aspar and Patricius were Arians. When Zeno heard about this, he hurried back and mobilized the Isaurians against Aspar. Aspar fled to a church, and was promised safe conduct by the emperor, only to be assassinated as soon as he gave himself up. Thus Leo replaced the barbarian influence over Constantinople with native-born troops. However, there was still one powerful barbarian leader in the provinces, Theodoric Strabo ("Theodoric the Cross-Eyed," no relation to the Visigoth kings named Theodoric). When Theodoric learned of Aspar's overthrow, he had himself proclaimed king of the Ostrogoths, and wasted two towns in Thrace, Philippopolis and Arcadiopolis. Leo ended up recognizing Theodoric's titles, and granted him a subsidy, when he agreed to fight all of the Empire's enemies except the Vandals.
Theodoric didn't want anything to do with the Vandals because of a recent disastrous expedition. In 468 the eastern and western halves of the Empire decided it was time to punish the Vandals for sacking Rome, and they combined their fleets and armies to produce a force of 1,113 ships and more than a hundred thousand men. This was the largest force the Empire ever assembled, and it should have been enough to wipe the Vandals off the map completely, but Leo's powerful empress, Aelia Verina, put her worthless brother, Basiliscus, in command. First the western fleet took Sardinia, and the eastern fleet landed in Libya; then both fleets headed for Sicily, where Basiliscus sailed directly from Constantinople and took over. At Cape Bon near Carthage, Gaiseric called for a five-day truce to negotiate a peace treaty. Basiliscus accepted, and in the middle of the talks, he was surprised by an attack from the Vandal navy. The Vandals used fire ships, drifting ships full of combustible materials, to help them destroy half of the Roman fleet. After briefly taking refuge in Sicily, Basiliscus returned to Constantinople, and hid in the city's main church, Hagia Sophia, not coming out until Leo promised to spare him; then he went into exile in Thrace. A second assault on the Vandal kingdom in 470 did no better. These defeats not only humiliated the emperors, but also bankrupted their treasuries.
Zeno was now clearly the power behind the eastern throne, and Leo tried to pass over him by bequeathing the imperial crown to his grandson, Leo II, the five-year-old son of Zeno and Aelia. However, just three weeks after Leo I's death, the Senate voted to make Zeno a co-emperor with the younger Leo (474). Before the year was over, Leo II died; some thought his father killed him, but this was never proven.
Zeno had some trouble with Theodoric at first, because the Ostrogoths now led the opposing faction in the army; in 475 the Ostogoths moved from Hungary to Moesia, the part of Bulgaria that the Visigoths had settled a century earlier. A more serious conspiracy, however, came from the royal family itself. His mother-in-law, Aelia Verina, was no longer the empress, and resented how her daughter received more status than she had, so she attempted to replace Zeno with her lover. She succeeded at first; in January 475, while Zeno was presiding over the games in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Aelia sent him a message warning that the people, army and Senate had all risen up against him. Already aware that he was unpopular because of his barbarian origins, Zeno fled to his native Isauria, without first checking to see if the report was true. However, the army, incredibly, chose Basiliscus instead of Aelia's lover for the throne, giving that bumbling fool another chance.
Basiliscus soon showed the same poor judgment that had lost him the battle at Carthage; he encouraged the mob of Constantinople to lynch every Isaurian they could find in the city, had Aelia's lover put to death, and appointed an opponent of the Council of Chalcedon, Timothy II (also known as Timothy the Weasel), as Patriarch of the Alexandrian Church. From there, things only got worse. His tax collectors were brutal, keeping the citizens in a constant state of unrest. A fire raged through Constantinople, destroying Julian the Apostate's library and the Palace of Lausus, a building which contained one of the best collections of archaic and classical Greek sculptures. Timothy the Weasel enraged the people in the capital by persuading Basiliscus to abolish the Patriarch of Constantinople's office, because the current patriarch, Acacius, would not support the Monophysite heresy. The next time Acacius appeared in public, we was dressed for mourning, and in the west, Pope Simplicius remarked that an emperor should not make decisions on theological matters. Finally, he alienated both Theodoric and Illus, the Isaurian general who had helped him take over. By August of 476, Basiliscus was so unpopular that it only took a few gifts and promises from Zeno to make Illus switch sides. Soon Illus was marching on Constantinople with Zeno as his emperor, instead of Zeno as his prisoner. Basiliscus hurriedly canceled his edict against the Church, and sent out another army, but it went over to Zeno, too. Zeno entered Constantinople without opposition, Basiliscus fled to Hagia Sophia for the second time, and only gave himself up when Zeno promised not to shed a drop of his family's blood. To keep his promise, Zeno sent Basiliscus to Cappadocia, locked him up with his wife and son in a dry cistern, and let a rough Cappadocian winter do the dirty work.
Zeno's second reign (476-491) wasn't more trouble-free than the first reign. First and most importantly, the interruption by Basiliscus had kept the East from doing anything to save the West; one month after Zeno returned, the last western emperor was deposed. In 478 he had to put down another revolt from his mother-in-law, and Illus revolted against him in 484. Between revolts, Zeno encouraged a civil war between the two Ostrogoth leaders, Theodoric Strabo and a rival, Theodoric the Amal. This went on until Theodoric Strabo died, when he was trying to break an unruly horse and it threw him onto a spear. We'll hear more from the other Theodoric, soon to be called Theodoric the Great, in the next chapter.
On top of all this, Zeno remained unpopular for all his life. After he died in 491, a legend circulated that a voice was heard coming from his grave for three days, suggesting that he was buried alive, but nobody cared enough to try to rescue him. Still, he was the first emperor since Constantine I to leave either half of the Empire in better shape than it was in when he inherited it, and with the problems of barbarian invasions, declining population and a poor economy, that's no small achievement. The Western Roman Empire may have been no more, but Zeno's work made sure the Eastern Roman Empire would survive, as the only light of civilization in Dark Age Europe.(37)
This is the End of Chapter 5.
18. A pious Catholic, Magnus Maximus has the dubious distinction of being the first Christian to kill another Christian for heresy. The victim, Priscillian, was the leader of a strict ascetic movement in Spain. Accused of heretical beliefs and immoral behavior, he was executed with six associates in 384. He was involved with magic and the occult, but it appears that Priscillian's eccentric beliefs and practices offended Maximus the most. A bishop, Martin of Tours, strongly opposed both the execution and the fact that the trial was conducted by civil leaders, not members of the clergy. Most Christians were unwilling to go so far as to make the state play the role of executioner for the Church, but this event foreshadowed the medieval practice of handing over condemned heretics to be put to death by the state.
19. In fact, the gladiatorial games went on long after the empire officially became Christian. Those fights to the death, along with the chariot races, struggles between animals, and extremely immoral theater productions (check out Theodora's career in the next chapter), were so seductive that many Christians found the monastery the only place where they could escape their influence completely. St. Augustine tells how a young friend of his, Alypius, went to Rome to study law. At first he disliked the games as much as Augustine did, but his Roman friends eventually persuaded him to attend a spectacle. The performance so enthralled him that he went back many times afterwards, not only with his friends but also alone; sometimes he dragged other unwilling spectators with him.
20. The typical Roman soldier at the beginning of the fifth century was not an Italian with a helmet, breastplate, greaves, heavy shield, sword and iron-reinforced spear (pilum), but a smelly Visigoth who coated his long hair with rancid butter to keep it in place. The Italians remaining in the ranks adopted the barbarian costume of hide breeches and learned to holler war cries as ferociously as any tribesman. The imperial military budget became known as the fiscus barbaricus, and one mother whose son joined the army wrote that he had "gone off with the barbarians."
21. Today western Europe's center of population is still somewhere between France, Germany and Britain. Maybe that's why Brussels became the logical location for the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union.
22. There is no evidence to support the view that soil erosion and malaria played any part in the decline of Italian agriculture. It is more likely that those factors were a consequence of the decline, rather than a cause; later they prevented the recovery of abandoned land. By 192, so many Italian farms were deserted that the short-lived emperor Pertinax offered free land to anyone who was willing to move onto the farms and work them.
23. Even the tax collector was a victim of the system. He was required to deliver a fixed sum to the government, and if he failed to do so, the difference had to come out of his own pocket. Nor could he quit, because the law made his job hereditary. Thus, one could argue that the tax collector was under more stress than the citizens he squeezed.
24. The Germanic tribes of the upper Danube--the Marcomanni, Quadi, and those Alemanni who joined them--were known as the Suevi after this.
25. The Siling Vandals took the southern part of Spain, which got its name--Andalusia--from them. To the Alans fell the Roman province of Lusitania, modern Portugal, while the Suevi and Asding Vandals got the northwest corner, an area we call Galicia.
26. Honorius had moved from Milan in 404. Located in northeast Italy, Ravenna was made impregnable by three miles of swamp surrounding it. There Honorius spent most of his reign, so isolated from his people and their affairs that the only "Roma" he knew very well was a pet chicken by that name.
27. Valentinian was immediately preceded by two emperors: Constantius III, who shared the throne with Honorius for seven months in 421, and Johannes (423-425), a civil servant who usurped the throne, only to be deposed by the eastern emperor, Theodosius II.
28. One of those cities was Hippo, the home of St. Augustine. He died of a fever during the 14-month-long Vandal siege.
29. In case you were curious, Hungary is named after the Huns, but not the way that you think. The name comes not from the word "Hun" but from the Onogurs, one of the tribes that made up the Hun and Bulgar nations. Today's Hungarians are only partially descended from the Huns; their main ancestors were a Finnish tribe called the Magyars, so they call their country Magyarorszag. Also, you may be interested in knowing that before modern times, the Hungarian capital, Budapest, was two cities named Buda and Pest, and Buda's name came from Bleda, the ill-fated brother of Attila.
30. In the fifth century the Empire tried to pay its way by debasing the coinage again. Coins got so small that pea-sized ones, called minims, were issued.
31. Valentinian executed Hyacinth when he got his hands on him. Today Attila usually gets a bad press because of all the destruction his Huns committed, but his opponents, particularly Aetius and Valentinian, were really wicked schemers. I will venture to say that had I lived in the mid-fifth century, I would have been on Attila's side!
32. Vortigern played both a treacherous and tragic role in British history, making him a good subject for a play. Samuel Ireland, an eighteenth-century forger, thought Shakespeare should have tried it, and faked a Shakespearean tragedy about Vortigern to prove the point.
33. The Angles and Saxons came from southern Denmark and northwestern Germany, while the original home of the Jutes was Jutland, the part of northern Denmark that still bears their name. However, historians now believe that the Danes pushed the Jutes out before the fifth century, and that they lived on the coast of Holland (Frisia), until they joined the Anglo-Saxons.
34. The Scots were originally Ulstermen who sailed from northern Ireland to occupy the Argyll region in the fifth century; they set up an independent kingdom of their own in the sixth. If this fact doesn't confuse you, look at how confused Stellar & Yeatman got when they wrote about this in their satire on British history, 1066 And All That: "The Scots (originally Irish, but now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa)."
35. In one of the remarkable coincidences of history, the last emperor's name combined the names of the founder of Rome and its first emperor. The villa where he was exiled had once belonged to Lucullus, general of the late Roman Republic (see Chapter 3); today there is a twelfth-century Norman castle on the site. Romulus Augustulus was reported living as late as 511, but was considered so insignificant that nobody wrote down the date of his birth, or the date and place of his death.
36. Some call Emperor Leo I "Leo the Great." Don't confuse him with the pope by that name.
37. Contemporary observers saw the elimination of the West as a restoration of Roman Empire's unity; for the first time since Theodosius I there was only one emperor. However, historians continue to use the term Eastern Roman Empire after this, as a reminder of the many differences between the classical empire of the Caesars and the medieval empire of Constantinople.
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