Famous Men of Rome - John Haaren

End of the Western Empire

Most of the Roman emperors after Constantine were either cruel tyrants or very worthless persons, who spent their time in idle pleasure and neglected their duties to the people. A few, however, did some remarkable things and therefore deserve to be mentioned among the Famous Men.

One emperor, whose name was Julian, is called in history Julian the Apostate, because he gave up the Christian religion and tried to establish the worship of the pagan gods again in Rome. Julian also attempted to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem which, as we have seen, was destroyed by Titus. There was a Christian prophecy that it would never be restored, and Julian thought of rebuilding it to prove the prophecy false. A story is told that as soon as the men began the work balls of fire burst from the ground close by them and they had to stop. They tried again and again and the same thing happened, and at last they had to give up the work altogether.

Not long after he became emperor Julian set out with a large army to conquer Persia. For a while he was very successful and defeated the Persian king in many battles. But one day he was shot in the breast by an arrow and he died soon after. It is said that while he lay wounded he cast a handful of his own blood toward heaven, crying out, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean." By Galilean he meant Christ, who is sometimes called the Galilean because He was brought up in Galilee.



Not long after the reign of Julian, there was an emperor named Valentinian. He made his brother Valens emperor of the eastern part of the empire while he himself ruled over the western part. And for many years afterwards the empire was ruled in this way by two emperors, one called the Emperor of the East, and the other the Emperor of the West.

On the death of Valentinian his son Gratian became Emperor of the West, and a talented soldier named Theodosius became Emperor of the East on the death of Valens. Gratian was weak and unfit to rule, and he was killed by a Spaniard named Maximus, who made himself Emperor of the West.

Theodosius fought Maximus and defeated him, and afterwards had him put to death. Then he made a son of Valentinian Emperor of the West, as Valentinian II, and gave him as his adviser a chief named Arbogastes. But Arbogastes was soon the real master of the Western Empire. One day Valentinian was found dead in his bed, and Arbogastes then made Eugenius, a teacher, the emperor. Theodosius, who well knew that Valentinian II had been murdered, made war on Eugenius and Arbogastes and defeated them, and until his death, a few months afterwards (in 395), Theodosius was emperor of both East and West.

Theodosius had been a wise ruler, but he did one very bad thing. The people of Thessalonica, a city of Macedonia, a country north of Greece, had killed their governor because he had put one of their favorite circus riders in prison. When Theodosius heard of this he was very angry, and he gave orders that they should be invited to a show in the circus and there put to death. This cruel order was carried out. The citizens of Thessalonica were invited to come one day to the circus to see a grand show. Thousands came, and as soon as they had taken their seats a troop of soldiers under the command of one of the generals of Theodosius entered the building and massacred them all without mercy. Over six thousand men, women, and children were killed.

At this time Theodosius resided in Milan, a city of north Italy. At the same time there lived in Milan a bishop named Ambrose, who was a good and holy man. When Ambrose was told of the massacre at Thessalonica he was greatly shocked. He severely reprimanded the emperor and would not permit him to enter the door of the church until he had done penance for the sin he had committed in so cruelly putting to death many innocent persons.

The successor of Theodosius as Emperor of the West was his son Honorius, who reigned for twenty-nine years; but the actual ruler during all that time was a soldier named Stilicho, who was the emperor's guardian. Honorius was a simpleton and had no desire or ability to attend to the affairs of the government.

The Goths and Vandals and other barbarous tribes from the north and east of Europe now began to overrun the Western Empire and to threaten Rome itself. Twice the great city was actually captured and plundered; the first time by the Goths under Alaric, and next by the Vandals under a bold warrior named Genseric. About those barbarian chiefs and their exploits you will perhaps read in Famous Men of the Middle Ages, a companion volume to this book.

To defend the seat of their empire against the attacks of its enemies the Romans were obliged to withdraw their forces from several of the outlying provinces, including Britain, which was now left to its native inhabitants. For more than fifty years afterwards a number of men without much ability took part in ruling what was left of the once mighty empire. One of these was called by the high-sounding name of Romulus Augustulus. He was the son of Orestes, the general of the army of Italy and had been made emperor by his father. He was the last of the Western emperors.

Romulus Augustus and Odoacer


Among the Italian soldiers there was a huge, half-savage man named Odoacer, who belonged to a wild northern tribe. He was a favorite of the army because of his courage and strength. He resolved to be the ruler of Italy, so with the army at his back he put Orestes to death, took Romulus Augustulus prisoner, and forced him to give up the title of emperor. Then Odoacer became king of Italy in the year 476 A.D.

By this time the world had nearly entered that period which is known as the Middle Ages, and many of the other countries which had been parts of the Roman Empire were either ruling themselves or defending themselves against new invaders. Gaul was invaded and conquered by German tribes called Franks, from whom the country subsequently got the name of France. Britain, abandoned by the Romans, was soon after conquered by other German tribes. And so at last the great Roman Empire had crumbled to pieces, and Rome, so long the Mistress of the World, as she was called, had fallen from her proud position of grandeur and power into that of a second or third rate city.

But the Empire of the East continued to exist for centuries afterwards, with Constantinople as its capital. It included many of the countries of Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe which had formerly belonged to the undivided Empire. In course of time the power of the Greeks, aided by the influence of the Greek division of the Church, became supreme at Constantinople, and so the Empire was also called the Greek Empire, and sometimes the Byzantine Empire, from the ancient name of the capital.

In the fourteenth century the Turks, or Mohammedans, then very powerful in southwestern Asia, began to make inroads on the empire. They conquered and took possession of several of its provinces, and in 1453 they captured Constantinople, which has since been the capital of the Turkish, or Ottoman Empire, the ruler of which is known as the sultan.