Friday, January 13, 2006

The fall of the Roman empire?

I briefly touched in another forum upon my view of the 'fall of the Roman empire'. That view is that this term is rather a misnomer if one is talking about the fifth century AD. Of course, everyone knows the eastern empire continued until the fifteenth century, but the division into 'western' and 'eastern' empires, with one falling and one surviving seems to me a false one. I thought I might set out my view here in more detail.

I should state that Late Antiquity isn't really my period. However, I am told (by Penny Goodman) that my views are close to the modern orthodoxy on the period. I'm not really up with the current orthodoxy in this field. Most of the books on Roman emperors/general Roman history I have on my shelves end at AD 476 (even Averil Cameron's The Later Roman Empire tidies itself up then). About the only book I have consulted that emphasizes continuity in this area is John Julius Norwich's History of Byzantium, as fine a work of modern historiography as I know - the description of the final days of Constantinople is suffused with pathos, and very moving. Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire has been receiving good reviews, but I've not yet read it myself. My own views have been developed largely on the basis of reading those works that speak of the fall, and thinking, 'no, that's not right, surely'.

For a long time I was under the impression that Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire did what most modern histories of the Roman empire do - end with the deposition of the western emperor Romulus Augustulus in AD 476. But Gibbon doesn't. He takes the story all the way up to the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.

Good for Gibbon, I say.

As a school child and undergraduate, I was always taught that the Roman empire ended in the fifth century AD. The Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople was something different, something belonging to the different field of mediaeval history (and an aspect of mediaeval history I learned almost nothing about at school, as the lessons I had were only interested in the history of England). But as I've got older, I've come more and more to the conclusion that this is simply wrong-headed, a distorted western viewpoint. The bottom line is that the Byzantines did not see their empire as anything different. All the emperors up to Constantine XI saw themselves as heirs of Augustus. And they were all addressed as 'emperor of the Romans'. To see the emperors in Constantinople after AD 490 as being different, and to sneeringly describe their rule as a mere 'continuation' of the Roman empire, is a view that privileges the western European experience.

More sophisticated commentators tend to talk of 'the fall of the western Roman empire'. But even that seems to me a misnomer. It implies that the western empire was a separate political state. People talk of the 'formal division of the empire' on the death of Theodosius the Great in AD 395 (Francis Pryor does so in his recent book Britain A.D.).

But no such formal division ever took place. What happened was that Theodosius left the empire jointly to his sons Arcadius and Honorius. Arcadius' sphere of responsibility was in the east, and Honorius' in the west. But they were joint rulers of the empire, and legislation promulgated by one applied in the other's territory. It had been the case for much of the previous century that there had been more than one Augustus (the term used by then to designate the emperor), and that each Augustus had certain geographical responsibilities. But the empire remained one, and could in theory be reunited at any point. For the eighty years after Theodosius' death it wasn't, and each eastern and western emperor was replaced by another emperor whose responsibilities were only in half of the empire. Yet there remained co-operation, and each emperor took an interest in the appointment of his colleague. In particular, the eastern emperor, clearly the senior, took close concern over the appointment of the western Augustus, and anyone wishing to be western emperor who couldn't get Constantinople's approval wouldn't last long (I don't know of any evidence of the reverse taking place - when the eastern emperor Theodosius II died in AD 450, no-one seems to have been much concerned about any theoretical claims that Valentinian III in the west might have had, and Valentinian himself doesn't seem to have pressed them). So, there were two emperors, but the empire remained one.

What happened in the twenty years after the assassination of Valentinian III in AD 455 was that various Germanic warlords in the west tried to get their puppets appointed western Augustus, sometimes succeeding, but sometimes having to accept the eastern appointee. None of these lasted very long, because of a military crisis in the west. Sometimes, there were a few months when wasn't a western Augustus. But this wasn't considered a desperate problem, because there still was an emperor ruling the empire, and he would appoint a colleague when it became necessary.

This chaotic period is generally considered the 'fall of the west'. Clearly, there was fragmentation and loss of control in the western provinces, to the extent that by AD 476 the empire's authority in the west extended little beyond Italy. However, it seems to me that seeing the processes of the collapse of the Roman way of life in the western provinces as the fall of a separate western empire is a misleading way of looking at it. What was happening was not the fall of the western empire, but the empire losing control of the western provinces, being unable to sustain itself at its current size, and contracting until it stabilized around what had by then become the centre of imperial gravity. Many of the problems associated with understanding the fifth century go away if looked at from this perspective.

It has been noted by scholars that any explanation of why the western empire fell has also to explain why the east survived. But look at the empire as a unity, and ask the question, 'why did the empire lose control of the west?' and it becomes easier, I think. As the political centre of the empire moved east to Constantinople, so control of the western provinces became ever more problematic, until finally it collapsed altogether. As Richard Baker has reminded me, Constantinople would have been more concerned with the Persian frontier. A collapse in Gaul posed no immediate threat to Constantinople. A collapse in Mesopotamia and Armenia, on the other hand, would raise the spectre of Persians rolling up Anatolia (and a collapse on the Danube would similarly be a more immediate problem than anything in Germany or Gaul). Of course, the western Augustus would have had a different view, but, as noted, the western Augustus was the junior imperial partner.

Roman control in the western provinces did eventually end. But not in AD 476. That year did not mark the end of Roman control over Italy (never mind that Justinian would reconquer the peninsula in the next century). Yes, the 'last emperor', Romulus Augustulus, had been deposed, and the man who did it, Odoacer, did not seek to get a replacement appointed. But he still acknowledged the sovereignty of the eastern emperor, Zeno, who even forced Odoacer to issue coinage in the name of Julius Nepos, Augustulus' predecessor, who lived on in exile in the Balkans. So really Nepos was the last western emperor.

I don't want to minimize the importance of what happened in AD 476 (or AD 480, when Nepos was murdered). It was a significant change in the way Roman rule was exercised in the west, a transformation from direct rule to vassal kings and one which was largely forced upon the empire rather than being of its choosing. But it was a change, and not the end. Roman rule was flexible enough to accommodate vassal kings, and this had been a method used throughout Roman history (so, maps of the extent of Roman rule at the empire's height ought to - but rarely do - include the Crimea, where Roman emperors determined the rulers of the Bosporan kingdom). That this had now happened to the metropolitan territory of the empire must have been a psychological blow, but I think it shows the strength of the empire that it could survive such a blow. No western emperor was appointed after Nepos' death, presumably because Zeno felt that the new system and the collapse of Roman control through much of the western provinces meant that one was no longer needed (and I daresay even he thought 'for now', and was open to restoring the post should the need arise). Odoacer, and then Theoderic the Ostrogoth, acted as Constantinople's servants, in much the same way as the western Augustus had, save that these men were clearly not the emperor's equal. One can certainly argue that the acknowledgement of Roman authority by these Germanic kings was somewhat nominal, and that largely they did what they wanted to - certainly Justinian felt that the situation wasn't acceptable, and re-established direct rule. But one shouldn't completely ignore the lip-service paid, and the fact that clearly Odoacer and Theoderic felt that they had, or indeed needed, to be seen to act in the emperor's name.

So, the Roman empire did not fall in AD 476, but changed. The emperors continued to have authority in Rome - when the Pantheon was given to the Pope in the early seventh century, it was the emperor Phocas did so, on a visit to Rome. Roman authority in the city was not really ended until the eighth century, and a Byzantine presence in southern Italy lasted until the Normans drove them out in the eleventh century. The Roman empire's fall came in AD 1453. When Charlemagne was crowned Augustus by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day AD 800, from which event the Holy Roman Empire began (something else about which I was shamefully not taught in history classes at school), it was not the revival of a title and empire long departed, but a direct challenge to an empire that still existed. (In fact, the throne at Constantinople was occupied at the time by the Empress Irene, which in Leo's eyes meant that it was empty, so he elevated the Frankish king in order that there should be an emperor. The Byzantines told him to get stuffed.) William the Conqueror, Robert the Bruce and Geoffrey Chaucer all lived in a world where the Roman empire still existed. Richard the Lionheart even went there, and Harald Hardrada, loser at Stamford Bridge, worked for the Romans for a time. Remember that, when you next think about the Romans, and how remote they seem.


Carla said...

Interesting point about the non-division of the empire after Theodosius, thank you. I'm no classicist and had been under the impression (from books like Francis Pryor's) that it was a formal political division, reflecting the different defensive needs of different parts of the empire (e.g. the 'western' empire needed to worry about the Rhine frontier and the 'eastern' empire needed to worry about the Danube frontier and neither wanted to be distracted by the other's problems).

Do we know if/when Byzantium accepted that the loss of the former western provinces was going to be permanent, rather than temporary? Byzantine luxury artefacts from the later 6th century have been identified in archaeological digs along the western seaboard of mainland Britain, and I've seen it argued that this indicates that the Byzantine emperors were cultivating diplomatic ties with the elites in post-Roman Britain. As it roughly coincides with Justinian's reconquest of Italy, this could be taken to imply wider territorial ambitions, possibly even an idea of regaining all the western provinces. I remember thinking this was an interesting idea and being half-persuaded. Do you think it has any substance?

Anonymous said...

As a matter of curiosity, did the Visigothic and Merovingian states continue to give nominal recognition to the Emperor in the same way that the Odoacer and Theuderic did?


Tony Keen said...

Carla - I'm even less informed about the development of the empire after 476 than I am about the run up, but I think in practical terms it must have been clear that the west was lost by the time of the Bulgar settlement in the Balkans in the seventh century. The presence of the Byzantine artefacts in Britain doesn't necessarily prove direct diplomatic connections, as opposed to trading links (compare a Spartan bronze krater found in central Gaul, which is not generally taken as demonstrating direct political contact with Sparta). On the other hand, when Belisarius was rolling up Africa and Italy, I can quite see that Justinian might have thought that potentially they could go further, and restore the empire as it had been.

Chris - The earliest Visigothic kingdoms in the west did acknowledge the authority of the empire, creating a complicated situation in Gaul where the province was divided between Germanic kingdoms and areas that were under the direct rule of Rome (some of these not very practically, as they were far removed from Italy). In 476, however, Euric rejected the authority of the emperor Julius Nepos, and became fully independent. It was into this political situation that the Merovingians came, so the Roman empire was never really a poltical issue for them.

Gabriele C. said...

That are some thought provoking ideas you have here. I'll surely check out the books you mention (except Gibbons which I have). I've a novel about the Visigoths in my working files, so this concerns me, and to end the Roman Empire with a specific date looks like one of those classification things anyway. Like starting the Middle Ages (German counting) with the baptizing of Chlodwig and end them with Luther putting up his theses on that door in Eisenach.

But no Charlemagne in British schools? I'm shocked. Of course, German history was the major part in our lessons, but we did learn about Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, the Magna Charta and other important incidents in British history.

Tony Keen said...

Gabriele - Mediaeval history as taught in English schools is (or was) incredibly insular. In my school history lessons, the history of mediaeval France was only really touched upon insofar as it impacted upon English history, and the rest of Europe, including the Holy Roman Empire, to which I was referring, were utterly neglected. As for Charlemagne, no I wasn't really taught about him either, but then I wasn't taught much about English history prior to 1066, with the exception of Alfred the Great.

Anonymous said...

i cant find when the fall of the roman empire was

Anonymous said...

ok i see what u mean but next time try telling the truth this is allll liiieeessssssssss,,,,, scaaamm!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! otherwise this is bull shit!!!!

Rich said...

I quite agree, anonymous. Wasn't the Roman Empire invented by Tolkien for that book of his before Lord of the Rings? And now people are talking about it as if it were real! Loosers!!!!!1!!!!

Next they'll be trying to claim that the United States of America isn't mythical!

Anonymous said...

I must admit that i think you are 100% correct.

It was a 100% Roman Empire that existed in the middle ages. Maybe not in language and religion, but otherwise fully Roman.

Ronald Barbour said...

Excellent article -- 476 A.D.-- the traditional historical date for the Fall of the Roman Empire -- was a loss of control of the Western Provinces rather than a total collapse of Rome.

Interesting that the USA modeled its republic on the Roman Republic, a republic that was never formally dissolved by the emperors, that ultimately was destroyed by Islam in 1453.

I wonder if history will repeat itself....

Anonymous said...

Just to say I am a history undergraduate at the University of Sheffield and have been educated in England for all my high-school and university life. I barely did anything on British history - only in relation to Stalinism and Chamberlain's appeasement in relation to Hitler. I do think the syllabus has changed as I have better knowledge of the Third Reich or the history of the USA than I do of Britain.

Interesting article on Rome by the way, cheers,


freestone said...

rome fell in 476 AD?

America began in 1776 AD

1300 years to the year, how interesting!


Neville said...

Sin lugar a dudas un artículo muy interesante.
El Imperio Romano no cayó hasta que los turcos tomaron Constantinopla.
El hecho de que Odoacro devuelva las insignias imperiales a Constantinopla es una muestra de que sino de facto al menos nominalmente los jefes militares germanos seguian acatando la legitimidad romana.

Neville said...

Un artículo muy interesante.
Los franceses son los que insisten una u otra vez en que el Imperio Romano Oriental no es un Imperio Romano sino Griego.
Lo hacen por motivos políticos.
El Imperio Romano sobrevivió hasta la caida de Constantinopla en manos de los turcos.
Es significativa la actitud de Odoacro cuando devuelve las insignias imperiales a Constantinopla; el Imperio Occidental de hecho ya no existe pero el Imperio Romano sobrevive y a el le corresponde el depósito y custodia de dichas insignias.
El intento de reconquistar Italia y en menor medida Hispania también es un hecho significativo.