When Romulus Augustus was defeated and deposed by the German tribal leader Odovacer in September 476 AD, Italy had its first king and Rome bade farewell to its last emperor. The imperial regalia were sent to the eastern capital, Constantinople, and 500 years of Empire in western Europe was at an end.
Even this apparently simple event is hotly debated by historians. There is no simple answer to how, when and why the greatest power of the ancient world vanished.
By 476 AD the signs of Rome’s decline had been around for a while.
The sack of Rome
On 24 August, 410 AD Alaric, a Visigoth general, led his troops into Rome. The three days of looting that followed were reportedly quite restrained by the standards of the time, and the capital of the Empire had moved to Ravenna in 402 AD. But it was an enormously symbolic blow.
Forty-five years later, the Vandals carried out a more thorough job.
The arrival of these German tribesmen in Italy explains one of the chief reasons why the Empire fell.
As Rome had expanded from Italy, it had incorporated the people it conquered into its way of life, selectively granting citizenship – with its privileges – and providing a longer, more peaceful and prosperous life with military and civic hierarchies, which citizens could advance up.
Large movements of peoples to the east of the Empire started to bring new people into Rome’s territories. These included Alaric’s Goths, a tribe originally from Scandinavia, but which had grown to control a massive area between the Danube and the Urals.
The movement of the Huns, led from 434 to 454 by the legendary Attila, from their Central Asian homelands in the fourth and fifth centuries caused a domino effect, pushing Goths, Vandals, Alans, Franks, Angles, Saxons and other tribes west and south into Roman territory.
Rome’s greatest need was for soldiers. The military protected and ultimately enforced the tax-collection system that enabled Rome’s strong central state. “Barbarians” were useful, and deals had historically been struck with tribes like the Goths, who fought for the Empire in return for money, land and access to Roman institutions.
This large-scale “Great Migration” tested that system to breaking point.
At the 378 AD Battle of Hadrianople, Gothic warriors showed what breaking promises to resettlement land and rights could mean. The Emperor Valens was killed and much of an army of 20,000 legionaries was lost in a single day.
The Empire could no longer cope with the numbers and the belligerence of its new arrivals. Alaric’s sacking of Rome was inspired by further broken deals.
A fragile system
Large numbers of capable, uncontrollable warriors entering into, then setting up territories within the Empire broke the model that kept the system going.
Rome’s state was supported with effective tax collection. Most of the tax revenues paid for the massive military that, in turn, ultimately guaranteed the tax collection system. As tax collection failed, the military was starved of funds further weakening the tax collection system… It was a spiral of decline.
The Empire was, by the fourth and fifth centuries, a hugely complex and extensive political and economic structure. The benefits of Roman life to its citizens were dependent on the roads, subsidised transport and trade that sent high quality goods around the Empire.
Under pressure these systems started to break down, damaging the belief of its citizens that the Empire was a force for good in their lives. Roman culture and Latin vanished from former territories remarkably quickly – why participate in ways of life that no longer provide any benefit?
Rome was also rotting from within. We have seen that Roman emperors were a decidedly mixed bag. The chief qualification for this massively important job was the support of enough troops, who could be bought easily enough.
The lack of a hereditary succession may have been admirable to modern eyes, but it meant almost every emperor’s death or fall triggered bloody, costly and weakening power struggles. Too often the strong centre required to govern such large territories was simply missing.
Under Theodosius (ruled 379 AD – 395 AD), these struggles reached their destructive zenith. Magnus Maximus declared himself Emperor of the west and started carving out his own territory. Theodosius defeated Maximus, who brought large numbers of barbarian soldiers into the Empire, only to face a second civil war against a new pretender.
The Empire was never again to be ruled by a single man and the western portion never again to have an effective standing army. When Stilicho, a general rather than emperor, tried to reunite the Empire, he ran out of troops and by 400 AD was reduced to recruiting vagrants and conscripting veterans’ sons.
So when Alaric sacked the “Eternal City”, he was plucking at the heart of an almost dead body. Troops and administration were being drawn – or thrown – back from the edges of the Empire. In 409 AD Romano-British citizens threw Roman magistrates out of their cities, a year later the soldiers left the defence of the islands to the local populations.
Emperors came and went, but few had any real power, as internal factions and arriving barbarians picked over the fast extinguishing glory of the greatest power of the ancient world.
Rome was not perfect, by modern standards it was an appalling tyranny, but the end of its power ushered in what historians named The Dark Ages, and many of Rome’s achievements were not to be matched until the industrial revolution.
No single cause
A great many theories have sought to pin the fall of the Empire onto a single cause.
One popular villain was lead poisoning contracted from sewers and water pipes and contributing to lower birth rates and weakening physical and mental health in the population. This has now been dismissed.
Decadence in some form is another popular single-issue cause of the fall. Edward Gibbon’s massive 1776 to 1789 work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was a proponent of this idea. Gibbon argued that Romans became effeminate and weak, unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to defend their territories.
Today, this view is considered far too simplistic, though the weakening of civil structures that ran the Empire certainly had a human dimension.