'The Roman Empire fell in 476', or something similar, is a phrase which often finds its way into popular history books, but there are many different interpretations as to what this means. Indeed, in order to fully understand what actually 'fell' in 476, we need to ask both what didn't fall then and what had already fallen before this date.
|The Western and Eastern Roman Empires after c.AD 395 (source: Wikimedia Commons).|
First and foremost, it does need to be remembered that a general belief that the Roman Empire fell in 476 can only ever work if one is willing to forget that the empire had been intermittently split into two halves ever since the later third century and that the eastern half—based at Constantinople—continued in existence for nearly another 1000 years up to its final destruction in 1453. Although this 'Eastern Roman Empire' is known to most modern scholarship as the 'Byzantine Empire', this name was first coined in the mid-sixteenth century: in the medieval period it was usually known as the Imperium Romanorum, 'the Empire of the Romans', or Rhomania, 'the land of the Romans'. Indeed, in the Middle Ages the 'Byzantines' were usually considered by both themselves and outsiders to be quite simply Rhomaioi, 'Romans', living in Rhomania under an emperor whose official title was the Basileus ton Rhomaion, 'Emperor of the Romans'. In consequence, any claim that the Roman Empire as a whole ended in 476 is completely without foundation in face of the continuing imperial presence in Constantinople.
|An animated gif of the varying extent of the 'Byzantine Empire', AD 476–1400 (source: Wikimedia Commons).|
Given that a general notion that the Roman Empire ended in 476 cannot be sustained, what of a more specific one referring only to the end of Western Roman Empire? Can it be said that 476 was a key date in the end of a 'Romanised' western Europe and the fall of the Western Empire? Certainly with regards to the former point, the answer is probably no, 476 signified little in terms of the Roman 'character' of western Europe. Italy provides an obvious case study in this context, particularly during the time of Theoderic (AD 493–526). Here, in the ancient core of the Western Roman Empire, there remained strong ties to the Roman past through the later fifth and sixth centuries. Although political power had passed to the Ostrogoths, the administrative and taxation systems continued to be run by Romans in the Roman manner, and Roman judicial arrangements continued for the non-Gothic element of the population. Indeed, Theoderic appears to have adopted a deliberately Roman style of rule, with the resumption of the supply of corn to the masses and programs of reconstruction and rebuilding of public works such as bath-houses. In other words, the Italian state remained essentially Roman in structure and character, with the native population retaining its Roman culture; moreover, the 'barbarian' Goths actually became Romanised themselves over time, adopting Roman customs, language and religion.
|The mausoleum of Theoderic at Ravenna in the nineteenth century (Photo by Fratelli Alinari, c.1865–95)|
Something similar appears to be the case with respect to the fifth- and sixth-century Visigothic kingdoms in Gaul and Spain. In Gaul, it has been argued that the Visigoths were settled directly onto the land and simply took over the empire's role in this area along with all of the governmental structures that this implies, with the result that Roman administration and aristocratic life and culture (including schools of higher education) was allowed to continue with free relations to the outside world, as witnessed by Gallo-Roman letter-writers such as Sidonius Apollinaris. In Spain, the Visigothic 'barbarian' successor state was even more 'Roman' in character than that in southern Gaul, due to the fact that, up until the 490s, the Visigoths didn't settle in this region but instead merely administered and garrisoned it. As Roger Collins has observed, the Visigoths effectively took over the role of the Praetorian Prefect and the Master of the Soldiers in Spain, leaving the rest of the society relatively untouched. Such continuity was not, of course, the case throughout the whole Western Empire—other areas, such as northern Gaul and Britain, exhibited far fewer Roman administrative and cultural features from the middle of the fifth century onwards. However, this only reinforces the core point, namely that there is no real evidence that 476 represented an unusually important date from the perspective of Roman-style governance and culture. Put simply, in Britain and northern Gaul the Roman administrative system and culture had already disappeared or declined severely by 476, whilst in Italy and Spain it seems to have continued to be a real force for many years after this date.
The question must therefore be, was 476 at least a key date in the fall of the Western Roman Empire as a political unit? The evidence here is a little more promising, as in 476 Italy itself ceased to be 'part' of the Western Roman Empire and instead became a 'barbarian' kingdom under Odovacer. If we are to pursue this line of reasoning, however, we must acknowledge that it was not until 480 that the Western Empire can officially be said to have fallen, as up until this point Julius Nepos continued to live as Western Emperor in Dalmatia—only when this had ceased would the Eastern Emperor would recognise that the Western Roman Empire had truly fallen. Similarly we cannot say that the Roman Empire in the West fell around this date, as the 'barbarian' kingdoms remained, in theory at least, part of the Roman Empire. The creation of 'barbarian' kingdoms was seen as merely the delegation of practical authority in the areas of administration and defence to Imperial appointees—it was not seen as 'giving away' portions of the empire, and the Imperium Romanorum fully expected to be able to take back this delegated authority when it wished to do so (as in the case of the Visigoths, when Aëtius decided to try to do just this). Moreover, though the Western Empire may have ended, from the point of view of the Eastern Roman Empire, this merely meant that the Roman Empire was reunified and that the emperor in Constantinople 'inherited' all the theoretical rights that had belonged to the Western Emperor. The result of this is that, even though the unit known as the 'Western Empire' had ended, the 'successor' states continued to be, in constitutional theory, constituent elements of the Roman Empire. Thus, for example, Odovacer ruled Italy as a theoretical subject of the Eastern Emperor, Zeno (who made him a patrician), and Clovis, the king of the Franks in Gaul, apparently accepted the consulship from Emperor Anastasius in 508.
|A solidus of Odovacer struck in the name of the Emperor Zeno, testifying to the formal submission of Odovacer to Zeno (source: Wikimedia Commons)|
|Attila the Hun meeting Pope Leo, from a fourteenth-century miniature (source: Wikimedia Commons)|
The result of this was that the Roman army was overwhelmed and alternative solutions other than the simple application of force had to be used in order to 'solve' these problems. Now the usual policy became one of calming the situation whilst, at the same, time saving face until arrangements could be made to deal with the 'barbarians' from a stronger position. So, in 418 a settlement was reached with the Visigoths that delegated political control of southern Gaul to them as 'political appointees' and then, over the next few decades, the Empire attempted to wrest this delegated control back. This would seem to be a sensible—and the only really viable—policy given the situation, but it suffered from a continuity in Roman obsessions. In the fourth century, the Roman generals and rulers had usually preferred to deal with internal problems and struggles first before dealing with any 'barbarian' troubles, with (for example) the Frankish and Alamannic invasions left unchecked until internal hostilities had been resolved. Unfortunately, this ordering of priorities was retained despite the changed tactical situation. The result of this was that, whilst the Roman generals conducted their internal power struggles, the 'barbarians' secured their hold on the territories they had taken control of, including the economically vital province of Africa, which passed into the hands of the Vandals in the 430s. As a direct consequence of this situation, the Empire suffered a major decline in revenues, which meant that it was increasingly unable to support its army and was, therefore, increasingly incapable of retaking its 'delegated' territories as it intended to—indeed, by the 450s there seems to have been no military force available to even protect Italy from the invading Huns.
|A coin of Glycerius, Western Roman Emperor from 473–4 (source: Wikimedia Commons)|
Secondly, we must ask what was the nature of the Western Roman Empire itself? This is partly answered by the above—it was an anachronism that seems to have been, in reality, dead for sometime—but we ought also to recall that part of the fundamental character of the Roman Empire was that it was ruled by an emperor who controlled the military forces and therefore the means of power. Indeed, many Roman emperors, including Constantine the Great, gained their position by rebelling against an existing emperor with the backing of a large number of troops, who then elevated them to the imperial throne. In the Western Roman Empire, however, there seems to have been an alteration to this basic definition of power within the state from the late fourth century onwards, with power devolving to the generals without the need for them to become emperor.
|A copy of an ivory diptych of Stilicho, right, and his family, carved c. AD 395 (source: Wikimedia Commons)|
The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2014, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.