(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #34b: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It. I have got carried away, and this will be the last of the tedious history pieces – well, for a while.)
With the death of Theodosius in 395 the Roman Empire fell into permanent division into two separate states, marking the beginning of the emergence of the Byzantine Empire in the east. A fiction of Imperial unity was maintained for a time, with one consul (the two annual chief magistrates dating back to the earliest days of the Republic) chosen in Rome and the other in Constantinople, but in fact there were two separate administrations and the death of one Emperor did not result in the other controlling the entire Empire.
The situation in 395 did not bode well for either half. In the east Arcadius was a youth of eighteen under the influence of the Prefect Flavius Rufinus, while the western Emperor, Honorius, was only eleven and completely controlled by Flavius Stilicho (Flavius yet again!), a half-Vandal of low birth. Stilicho considered himself a Roman, but in fact most of the western Emperors would never be anything more than puppets of Germanic barbarians standing behind the throne.
And serious troubles were coming. Seizing the opportunity presented by the death of Theodosius, Alaric, leader of the Visigoths settled north of the Balkans, began plundering Greece. In 401, while Stilicho was busy with an invasion of Vandals and Alans, Alaric attempted to invade Italy and was repulsed, then tried again two years later, only to be thwarted again. But in 408 Stilicho was assassinated, and Alaric blockaded Rome, demanding a serious of huge ransoms, all of which Honorius, who was holed up in the virtually impregnable city of Ravenna, haughtily refused. In 410 a frustrated Alaric sacked Rome for three days and having unwittingly secured his name in history, then died the same year. For the first time since the Gauls captured the city eight hundred years earlier Rome had been occupied by a foreign army.
The Visigoths moved to Gaul in 412, popped into Spain to fight the Vandals and Alans, who had been settled there, and in 418 were settled in southern Gaul. In 429 the surviving Vandals and Alans crossed to Africa to establish a kingdom there, and the Visigoths began extending their rule into Spain, dominating most of the peninsula by 500. The Burgundians, who may have crossed the Rhine in 411, were defeated by Aetius in 433 and settled in southeast Gaul (not Burgundy) and aided general Flavius Aetius, the “last of the Romans,” in the defeat of Attila in 451. The Salian Franks, settled earlier on the lower Rhine, also fought as Roman allies against Attila, and steadily expanded their power southwards, reaching the frontier of the Gothic kingdom in 486 under their king Clovis. Finally, Saxons, Angles and Jutes began settling Britain, especially after the last Roman troops were evacuated around 442.
Meanwhile, in the east Arcadius had died in 408, and was succeeded by Flavius Theodosius (Minor). Theodosius II was a weak Emperor, dominated in turn by the Praetorian Prefect Flavius Anthemius, his sister Pulcheria, who became Augusta, his wife Eudocia and finally his chamberlain (and eunuch) Chrysaphius. He occupied the throne for forty-two years, however, a measure of the greater stability of the eastern Empire, and was not troubled by any serious domestic problems. There were two successful wars against the Persians, in 421-422 and 441-442, but the real problem was the Huns. Constantinople began paying a huge annual bribe to the Huns in 424, and when Attila became king in 433, he demanded even more, which was paid. Never trust a Hun: in 441-443 Attila ravaged the Balkans anyway, defeated the imperial forces and received an even greater tribute, which was paid.
Three notable achievements emerged from the reign of Theodosius II. In 413 a new circumvallation of Constantinople, the “Theodosian walls,” was completed, and in 448, after a number of serious earthquakes, the damage was repaired and a second outer wall was added. In 425 Theodosius founded the Pandidakterion, a sort of proto-university with thirty-one chairs, half in Greek and half in Latin, further establishing Constantinople as the center of European civilization and learning, while Rome and the west sunk into barbarism. Finally, the Emperor ordered a compilation of Roman law since Constantine, and in 438 the Theodosian Code was published, the first of the great late imperial law codes that would so influence medieval Europe. It went into force the following year, though its impact in the west, which was already mostly barbarian kingdoms, was minimal.
When her brother died in 450, the Augusta Pulcheria married Flavius Marcianus, who became the next Emperor. He refused to continue payments to the Huns, who were bankrupting the Empire, and Attila decided to invade the west, removing for good, as it happened, the Hunnish threat to the eastern Empire. Upon Marcian’s death in 457 Flavius Valerius Leo, surnamed Thracius (the Thracian), became ruler and was faced with the growing power of his Gothic general Flavius Ardabur Aspar, who had risen to prominence under Marcian. Aspar’s power base was Gothic mercenaries and allies, and Leo began recruiting Isaurians, a warlike people living in Anatolia, in order to undermine his position. Aspar was assassinated in 471, and Leo and his successor, his grandson Flavius Leo (Minor), both died in 474. Leo II’s father, Flavius Zeno, became Emperor.
Out in the wild west the collapse was accelerating. When Stilicho died in 408, his place was taken by Flavius Constantius, who crushed usurpers in 411 and 413 and convinced Honorius to make him co-Emperor 421, promptly dying a few months later. Two years later Honorius died, and he was succeed by the son of his sister Aelia Galla Placidia and Constantius, Flavius Placidius Valentinianus, a five year old, who was escorted with his mother to Italy by eastern troops. Placidia was made Augusta and regent, but the real power would be in the hands in of Flavius Aetius, who became supreme commander of the army in 429.
He was ousted in 432, but with the backing of the Huns he returned the following year and subsequently drew upon Hunnish forces to preserve Roman control of central and southeastern Gaul. In 451, Attila, refused more authority in the west by Valentinian III, crossed the Rhine and was defeated at the Battle of Troyes (or Châlons) by Aetius and an army composed mostly of Germans. The following year he invaded northern Italy, but after a chat with Pope Leo I he returned to the east, an army ravaged by hunger and disease rather than the words of the Pope being the compelling reason. He died in 453, and the Hun empire immediately fell apart.
A measure of his stupidity, Valentinian had Aetius killed in 454 and was then himself assassinated the following year. He was followed by a string of losers. Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus lasted one year, chased out by the Vandal lord of north Africa, Gaiseric (or Genseric), who sacked Rome, while his successor, Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus, a Gallic general, was removed after a year by his supreme commander, the German Flavius Ricimer. Ricimer was content to remain behind the throne and elevated puppets instead: Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus, who was deposed by Ricimer in 461, and Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius, who died in 465. For the next two years there was no Emperor in the west, and Procopius Anthemius was sent out in 467 by Emperor Leo. Ricimer put up with him until 472, when he was executed and replaced by Anicius Olybrius, who died the same year, along with Ricimer.
A nephew of Ricimer attempted to take over his uncle’s position, appointing Flavius Glycerius Emperor in 473, but the following year Flavius Julius Nepos arrived from the east with an army and installed himself. He was in turn driven out of Ravenna (now the western capital) in 475 by his own supreme commander, Flavius Orestes, who made his twelve year old son Romulus (surnamed Augustulus) Emperor. The pair lasted a year. In 476 German mercenaries in Italy under the leadership the Scirian, Flavius (!) Odoacar (or Odovacar), demanded land, and when they were refused, they murdered Orestes and deposed Romulus. Odoacar declared himself king, and his authority over Italy was recognized by Emperor Zeno. In theory Odoacar ruled on behalf of the Emperor, but in fact the western half of the Roman Empire was now nothing more than a collection of barbarian kingdoms. Ironically, the last Emperor in the west bore the names of the two “founders” of Rome; Romulus and Augustus.
The eastern half survived, on its way to becoming the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, which would last another thousand years before the Theodosian walls of Constantinople were breached by the Turks in 1453. In some ways the west was doomed once the Empire split permanently in 395. The east was in a better strategic situation, with a shorter northern frontier and Constantinople guarding the crossing between Europe and Asia. The lower Danube was the only seriously threatened border, primarily because of the sheer number of barbarians, whereas deserts helped protect Syria and Egypt, and the Persian Empire, exhausted from its long struggle with Rome and with its own barbarian threat on its northern frontiers, could generally be dealt with. Further, Constantinople had the option through threat and reward of convincing barbarians, primarily Goths, who crossed the Danube to move on to better pickings in the west. The west also had to deal with more Germans coming across the Rhine and upper Danube, especially when the Huns moved into eastern Europe, driving the other tribes westward.
Clearly, the policy of recruiting barbarians into the Roman army and settling entire tribes in the provinces as allied kingdoms led ultimately to their growing power over the actual Roman rulers and the making and breaking of Emperors. This had a far greater impact on the western government, since outside the area between the Danube and Greece there was in the east very little settlement of barbarians, leaving the core provinces of the eastern Empire generally under imperial control. Additionally, as early as Arcadius Constantinople was endeavoring to raise troops from within the Empire in order to forestall the emergence of powerful Gothic leaders; Leo I did precisely this when he began hiring Isaurians to thwart his Gothic general Aspar. The eastern Empire was fortunate in having a supply of excellent non-Germanic recruits in Anatolia, and this became more or less a steady policy. Troubles with barbarians were not eliminated, but the emergence of Germanic puppet masters was prevented, and by the time of Emperor Justinian (527-565) the armies of Constantinople were virtually completely indigenous.
Very important was the far superior economic situation in the east. Because of the long presence of the Greeks, the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were far more urbanized and productive than those in the west, and as the Empire fell into political and economic trouble, especially in the wake of the Anarchy, capital began fleeing to the more stable east, further aggravating the situation in the west. To be sure, during the Dominate Constantinople had serious financial problems, but with the complete collapse of Roman authority west of the Adriatic and the suppression of the Goths in the east, the economy began improving. In the sixth century Justinian had enough resources to attempt to reconquer the west, a foolish endeavor, as it happened.
The reign of Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus (527-565) in fact marks a symbolic end of the Roman Empire. He was the last Emperor to attempt to reunite the Empire – he failed – and his administration was the last during which Latin was the official language of the government – it gave way to Greek, the true lingua franca of the east. And under him for the last time consuls were appointed, ending a thousand year political institution. A new history begins here.
Could it be that in addition to all its other problems the Roman Empire collapsed because during the Dominate virtually every official had the first name Flavius, confusing the hell out of everyone?
395-476 The Divided Empire
383-408 Flavius Arcadius (East)
393-423 Flavius Honorius (West)
395 Death of Rufinus; Huns invade Asia Minor and Syria
408-450 Flavius Theodosius (Minor) (East)
408 Death of Stilicho
409 Vandals and Alans settled in Spain
410 Visigoths sack Rome; Alaric dies
413 Theodosian wall
418 Visigoths settled in southern Gaul
421-422 Persian War
421 Flavius Constantius (West)
423-455 Flavius Placidius Valentinianus (West)
429 Vandals occupy Africa
433 Burgundians defeated by Aetius, settled in Gaul
438 Theodosian Code
441-442 Persian War
442 Last Roman troops leave Britain
450-457 Flavius Marcianus (East)
451 Attila defeated at the Battle of Troyes (Châlons)
453 Death of Attila
454 Death of Aetius
455 Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus (West)
455-457 Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus (West)
457-474 Flavius Valerius Leo Thracius (East)
457-461 Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus (West)]
461-465 Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius (West)
465-467 No western emperor
467-472 Procopius Anthemius (West)
472 Anicius Olybrius (West)
472 Death of Ricimer
473-474 Flavius Glycerius (West)
473-474 Flavius Leo (Minor) (East)
474-475 Flavius Julius Nepos (West)
474-491 Flavius Zeno (East)
475-476 Romulus (Augustulus) (West)
476 Odovacar king of Italy
486 Salian Franks under Clovis occupy central and northern Gaul
493 Theoderic king of Italy
491-518 Flavius Anastasius Dicorus (East)
518-527 Flavius Justinus (East)
527-565 Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus (East)