Ancient Rome—Fall of Empire
235 to 565 A.D.
Military Anarchy to Reign of Justinian I
Era Summary—Fall of Empire
The Severan dynasty, which had lasted for 43 years, was brought to an abrupt end at the hands of, a Thracian barbarian of enormous physical strength who had risen to a high position in the emperor's private guard. He had served the Severan family for over thirty years and was completely trusted when he murdered , seized the throne, and plunged the imperial government into chaos. He killed his enemies, which included virtually anyone from the upper classes, without mercy. He was murdered by his own troops after less than three wretched years in power, but the empire never recovered from this upheaval. The military anarchy which followed lasted until the reign of , saw over twenty emperors in the space of 50 years, only one of whom died a natural death. None were distinguished, and the only notable event of the period was the rebellion of Queen in Syria. She came close to conquering the eastern half of the Roman empire, but was put down by the emperor Aurelian in 272.
, who came to the throne in 284, did a masterful job of bringing order to an empire in chaos. He divided the empire into four districts, two in the east and two in the west, and appointed a junior and senior governor of each division (called caesar and emperor respectively). Upon the death or retirement of the emperor, the caesar would be elevated to emperor and appoint another caesar. This system worked for exactly one generation, but it allowed Diocletian to retire, and live out his natural life unmolested, an accomplishment nearly unprecedented in imperial history.
The peace and prosperity which took root during the thirty year reign of Constantine was short lived. On his death the empire was divided among his three sons but they quarreled among themselves while the empire sunk slowly back into disorder. All of Constantine's sons died without heirs, and after the death of his nephew, Julian the Apostate, the empire was permanently divided into an eastern and a western half. The only remaining emperor of note was, who ably governed the eastern empire from 379 to 395, and put down some of the early . He is remembered for his willingness to do public penance for the slaughter of the Thessalonians, which was imposed on him by , Bishop of Milan. The idea that even emperors were subject to the laws of God was a radically new idea that made a permanent mark upon Western civilization.
Meanwhile, the empire of the west was already suffering from waves of barbarian invaders that the government was powerless to put down. By the time that the city of Rome was overrun by thein 410, most of Gaul had already been abandoned to the invading Franks and the legions had been pulled from Britain in hopes of defending Italy.
The waves of barbarians that descended upon Italy during the fifth century only finished off a process that was already under way. The Western empire had ceded much of its territory without a fight, most wealthy families had moved away from Rome and the emperor himself had moved to Ravenna. By the time the city of Rome was invaded there was not even an army to send in its defense, since the cowardly A.D., who sought only to appease the Visigoths, had murdered , his most capable general. Still, the Visigoth invasion of 410 was mild compared to that of the , who plundered the city to ruin in 455. The Visigoths were at least Christian, semi-civilized, and desired a treaty with the Western Empire that would allow them self-governing territories. This they eventually obtained, and a Visigoth empire was established in Spain shortly after the death of . The Visigoths were allies of the Western Empire as long as it lasted and helped to ward off , who in 450
By this time the area actually controlled by the Western emperor was reduced to Italy, and when it passed from the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, to the barbarian chief Odoacer in 476, it caused hardly a ripple. Odoacer was soon overthrown by, who ruled Italy for many years but made no pretense of being an emperor. Ten years later, the last Gallo-Roman province of France, was conquered by . At that point, all of the old Roman provinces in Gaul, Hispania, and Italy were controled by German chieftains, who preserved some of the old Roman customs, but governed as independent commanders.
As the western empire collapsed, the power and influence of Christianity increased. Because of the fluid organization of the church, it was able to adapt and grow in an environment of political unrest. Kingdoms, chieftains, and empires might come and go, but the church provided a degree of continuity and civilization that was increasingly attractive to citizens of the collapsed empire. Many important leaders of the church who arose during this time of chaos while political powers rose and fell. Some of the influential christian leaders who lived during the decline of the Roman Empire were, , , Eusebius, , and .
Several generations after the fall of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire enjoyed a brief resurgence. Between 530 and 560 A.D., under the rule of, Constantinople won back much of the territory that had been lost to barbarians in the west. These included the , the , and several important in Persia. These victories were almost all due to the efforts of , one of the greatest generals in Roman history, and for a brief time it looked as if the Roman Empire would reemerge as a dominant power. But a long period of decline followed the brilliant career of Belisarius, and Northern Italy was overrun by the Lombards only a few years after his death.
Characters—Fall of Empire
|Thracian giant. Rose to head of army, seized imperial throne, and reigned as a barbarian.|
|Emperor who reunited the empire during the Military anarchy. Led campaign in Palmyra against Zenobia.|
|Queen of Palmyra. Attempted to control the eastern empire, only to be crushed by Rome.|
|Restored order to the empire after fifty years of chaos. Broke empire into four regions.|
|First Christian emperor. Unified empire. Moved capital to Constantinople near Black Sea.|
|Last emperor of the Constantinian dynasty. Tried to restore paganism.|
|Missionary bishop who translate the bible into the Gothic language and converted the Goths to Arian Christianity.|
Late Western Empire
|Roman general who fought off the Visigoths before they overran Rome. Murdered by Emperor Honorius.|
|Last great General of the Western Empire. Defeated Attila the Hun at Chalons.|
|Visigoth General who was master of Rome during the final years of the Empire.|
|Chieftain who led the Visogoths into northern Italy, and then besieged and sacked Rome.|
|Barbarian chieftain who overran and terrorized much of Europe. Defeated at the Battle of Chalons.|
|Leader of Vandals. Conquered Northern Africa and Sicily. Invaded and ransacked Rome.|
|Deposed last Roman Emperor and became King of Italy. Later overthrown by Theodoric the Ostrogoth.|
|Ostrogoth king who invaded Italy and successfully formed a Gothic-Roman kingdom.|
|King of the Lombards who crossed the Alps and invaded Northern Italy. Made Pavia capital of Lombards.|
|Founder of the Frankish Kingdom. Converted to Christianity by his wife Clotilda.|
Late Eastern Empire
|Eastern Emperor embroiled in wars in Persia and with the Goths. Died fighting Visigoths at Adrianople.|
|Emperor excommunicated by Ambrose for massacre of civilians at Thessalonia.|
|Ruled Byzantine Empire for 40 years. Well known for legal reforms known as Code of Justinian.|
|Born in humble circumstances, she married Justinian the Great and became his trusted advisor.|
|General associated with Julian the Great, reconquered much of lost Roman territory.|
Timeline—Fall of Empire
|239||Alexander Severus is assassinated —throne usurped by barbarian chief.|
|259||Emperor Valerian taken prisoner by the Persians after the Battle of Edessa and tortured to death.|
|270||with , Queen of Palmyra.|
|takes control of the Roman government and divides it into four provinces.|
|306||proclaimed Augustus by his legions after the death of his father.|
|312||Constantine gainsat Battle of Milvian Bridge.|
|313||Edict of Milan: Christianity is made legal throughout Roman Empire.|
|Constantine becomes sole ruler of both Eastern and Western Empires.|
|325||First Council of Nicaea is held to combat the Arian heresy.|
|330||The City of Constantinople is founded as the capital of Constantine's empire.|
|Empire languishes under waring sons of Constantine.|
|362||tries to restore paganism.|
|reigns in the east. and briefly reunites the empire.|
|410||, leader of the Visigoths, .|
|451||Visigoths and Romansand his Huns at the Battle of Chalons.|
|468||Failedof Africa sent by Emperor Leo.|
|476||Imperial leadership passes to a barbarian king,.|
|486||, the last Roman governor in Gaul, at the Battle of Soissons.|
|496||is baptized as a Catholic Christian in Reims on Christmas Day..|
|493||reigns in the Ostrogoth kingdom of Italy.|
|Reign ofin the Eastern Roman Empire.|
|538||Belisaurius, and regains Italy for the Eastern Kingdom.|
|572||The Lombards, under Alboin, cross the Alps and.|
Recommended Reading—Fall of Empire
Read chapters from "core" texts before reviewing study questions.
Core Reading Selections
|Haaren - Famous Men of Rome||Constantine the Great to End of the Western Empire (2)|
|Haaren - Famous Men of the Middle Ages||Alaric the Visigoth to Justinian the Great (8)|
|Guerber - The Story of the Romans||The Gigantic Emperor to End of the Western Empire (9)|
|Tappan - The Story of the Roman People||From Aurelius to Diocletian to The Last Centuries (3)|
|Morris - Historical Tales: Roman||An Imperial Savage to The Downfall of Rome (4)|
|Lansing - Barbarian and Noble||A Roman and a Barbarian to Attila the Scourge of God (4)|