The Roman World – The Western Empire in the Fifth Century

Decline and fall? How much has it been exaggerated, and was it inevitable?

The basic argument is that the fall of the Western Empire was not inevitable, despite its comparative structural weaknesses that made it more vulnerable than the Eastern Empire. The latter survived in various, increasingly Graecicised forms until 1453 under a continuous line of Emperors: so why did the West collapse? Was it the long Western Empire frontier with the Germanic tribes to the north, open to penetration as soon as the Rhine and upper Danube were crossed? The East only had a shorter frontier on the lower Danube, and marauding tribes could be stopped at the Bosphorus and Hellespont. The East’s Gothic invasions from 376 saw the East’s army severely damaged at the Battle of Adrianople, yet the enemy were contained in the Balkans. The massive raids by Attila and his Hunnic-led empire in the 440s were similarly confined to the Balkans, as were the rampant Ostro[East]goths in the 470s and 480s. The mid-sixth century raids by the Kutrigur and Utrigur Bulgars reached the walls of Constantinople at a time when Justinian had secured control of Italy and part of Spain; this Balkan-born Emperor could not preserve his homeland from widespread ravaging despite an exhaustive programme of fortification testified to by Procopius. New arrivals in the Hungarian basin, the Avars, engaged in semi-permanent warfare with the Empire over the Danube valley and then Thrace from 568. We know little of how this endemic insecurity damaged agriculture and reduced the availability of peasant soldiers for the army, but it must have been a serious problem, and by the 580s the ravaged Balkans were being settled permanently by the Slavs. None of these attacks by a locally powerful foe ranged right across the East to its permanent disruption; and Asia Minor remained secure apart from one bout of Hunnic raiding south from the Caucasus, which even reached Syria, around 400.

But in the West three major Germanic tribes’ crossing of the Rhine in 406 led to permanent barbarian settlement in Gaul and Spain and in due course North Africa. This was not the case in the East, despite the mass movement of the Tervingi and Geuthungi Gothic peoples into the empire in 376–8 that was similarly militarily successful. The initial Gothic autonomous ‘federate’ tribal state in the Balkans, conceded to them by the East in 382 as they were too powerful to be evicted, was not a permanent solution, as seen on both sides. A Roman revival was hoped for by the Eastern orator Themistius in his up-beat propagandist account of the treaty to their Senate, where the Goths were portrayed as defeated and as turning into peaceful farmers; and a desire within the Gothic leadership for further pressure on the Empire was shown by the next Gothic leader, Alaric, in his aggressive behaviour in 395.

But had the Goths’ joint leadership of the 370s or a friendly Gothic ruler like Fritigern been in place, would this attack have occurred at all? After the mid-390s Alaric shifted his activities West, and Gainas, an over-powerful Gothic general who did secure supreme military command in Constantinople, was soon killed. The same Eastern ability at containment applies to the next two Gothic tribal states, both ruled by a Theodoric, in the Balkans in the 470s and 480s, as Emperor Zeno induced their unifier Theodoric the Amal to invade Italy in 490. But in the West, the Goths followed their wanderings across Italy, southern Gaul, and Spain by securing a ‘federate’ state in Aquitaine in 418, and other parts of Gaul and Spain fell away too. Britain was abandoned to its own devices in 410, and the Vandals (part of the 406 Rhine coalition) moved on from Spain into North Africa in 428 and secured its capital, Carthage, in 439.

Losses in the West were thus permanent, and each one weakened the state’s revenues, and ability to field an army, further. In turn, this encouraged further attacks. It was true, however, that the decline of Western power was not a smooth downward curve but came in sharp bursts. Each was precipitated by a specific political crisis. Due to personal charisma and military power, the Western supreme commander Aetius (in power 433–54) was able to call on the semi-independent Germans of Gaul to aid him against the invading Attila in 451, and central and northern Gaul were ruled by a mixture of Roman and German authorities until his murder in 454 saw the Goths turning on the fatally weakened Empire and extending their domains. Arguably, Aetius’ influence over his allies in Gaul was personal, not institutional, and he had a valuable past knowledge of Germans and Huns alike that aided his success. He had been an exile in the Hunnic state in the early 430s and used them as allies to regain power in the Empire. His vigorous campaigns against Germans and peasant brigand rebels (‘bacaudae’) gave him the respect of individual leaders, in an era when personal ties were crucial to such warlords.

Independence or autonomy for German polities in the Western Empire thus did not mean an end to Roman power or influence, with successive generations of Gothic leaders hankering after adopting Roman lifestyles or gaining Roman political influence. The Romanised social behaviour of Gothic king Theodoric II (reign 453–66) was praised by his Roman clientemperor Avitus’ son-in-law Sidonius Apollinaris, a contemporary Gallic poet-aristocrat who scrupulously aped classical literary culture. Indeed, the piratical Vandals in North Africa after Gaiseric’s time (post-477) adopted a sybaritic Roman lifestyle, to which their military decline after the 460s was to be attributed. In central and southern Gaul the Goths seem to have lived separately from the Romans, shunning the towns, and to have preserved their own culture and traditions, as described by Sidonius Apollinaris. The Franks mainly settled in less urbanised northern Gaul, and the only semi- Romanised sybarite ruler with cultural pretensions (as seen by Gregory of Tours) was Chilperic of Soissons, who died in 584. Landed estates in at least two ceded Roman areas, Gothic Aquitaine in 418 and Italy in 476, were formally divided between the two peoples.

In 408 the rebellious Alaric the Goth initially sought his late foe Stilicho’s supreme Roman commandership-in-chief from the supine Western Empire, and set up Attalus as his own puppet Emperor; the sack of Rome only followed the failure of his plans. He was seeking blackmail money to pay off his armies, not the destruction of the Empire, and made huge but manageable demands for gold and silver from the weak government of Emperor Honorius, then sought to replace it. His brother-in-law Athaulf spoke of wanting to fuse Roman and Gothic peoples into one state according to a story which reached the historian Orosius, and married Honorius’ kidnapped half-sister Galla Placidia. His murder in a private feud ended this attempt to set up a German-Roman state based at Narbonne, and his successors were driven west into Aquitaine in 418.

After the disasters of 454–5, the Goths of Toulouse used their military supremacy in Gaul to impose their own nominee, Avitus, as the new Emperor in leaderless Rome, thus seeking to influence the state rather than revolt against it. Avitus was a former supreme civilian official in Gaul so he knew the Gothic leadership, and had been sent to seek their alliance by the new Emperor Petronius Maximus after the latter had his predecessor Valentinian III murdered. This plan was forestalled by the Vandal attack on Rome. With Petronius in flight and killed, and Rome sacked by their rivals, the Goths then installed Avitus in his place. But the point is that now (455) it was the weakening Empire seeking Gothic military help, which it had firmly resisted when it was Alaric attempting to force his military assistance on the Empire in 408–10. In 416–18 Constantius III had been insistent on containing the Goths in far-away Aquitaine and recovering Princess Galla Placidia for himself, but after 454–5 the Goths, and then German generals in the Western army, were the senior partner in any Romano-German alliance.

Attila also sought to blackmail the Eastern Empire into sending him huge subsidies and gifts rather than conquering it in the 440s, though he did annex the middle and lower Danube valley from it too. He was aided prodigiously by sheer luck. His attacks and advantageous treaty with the East in 441–2 followed the departure of part of their army to fight Gaiseric in North Africa, and in 447 the walls of Constantinople and other cities were damaged by a massive earthquake. His open aggression towards the West in 451 followed an appeal from the disgruntled Princess Honoria for his hand in marriage which the government disowned, an excuse for a politically logical attack, but still useful to him. The flattering servility and massive bribes offered by the latest Eastern embassy to him, led by the supreme civilian official, ‘Master of Offices’ Nomus, had bought the East a temporary reprieve. Allegedly he had grudges against a Western banker for keeping plate promised to him or maybe was also bribed by Gaiseric the Vandal. He had already considered attacking Persia instead, according to Eastern envoy Priscus, but the geography was prohibitive as he would have to cross the Caucasus. His choice of Gaul, not Italy where Honoria could be found, shows practicality; it was easier to cross the Rhine than the Alps. The nature of this steppe-based state was clearly based on warfare by restless nomads, unlike the relatively settled German lands bordering on the Danube and Rhine frontiers, where farming not pastoral herding predominated and the Germans had long been semi-integrated into the Roman world as mercenary-supplying vassals.

A leader like Attila needed constant success and loot to keep his followers contented, and the Empire was the richest source of both. Indeed, as of the Romano-Hun negotiations of 411 there had been several Hunnic kings; the sole rule of Attila was a novelty. This meant that Attila’s power depended partly on his success in imposing unity as a war-leader, and partly in his role as the sole conduit of loot (or Roman bribes) to his warriors. War was more useful to him than peace and the Empire had far more gold than his German neighbours, though if they extorted huge Roman subsidies he could channel these as sole negotiator with the Empire. Buying him off permanently was an unlikely result of Roman appeasement diplomacy, given the way he shamelessly raised his demands year by year. Possibly the East paid, rather than fighting, in 442 and 447 due to temporary strategic weakness, not out of fear or military incompetence. Its army was occupied elsewhere on the first occasion, and the earthquake had struck on the second. Had Attila been satisfied with the results of blackmail on East and West alike he would still have needed targets to conquer, and we have seen that he considered Persia.

Botched plans by Eastern chief minister Chrysaphius to assassinate him in 449 and the apparent appeal to him by Honoria exacerbated tensions, but any wiser Western submission would have left Attila with a problem of keeping his warriors occupied. He would probably have sought other excuses for aggression and the East could hardly afford to pay him any more; his demands had already risen ten-fold in a decade. But his court included Romans as well as Germans and Huns, with his secretary being the Roman Count Orestes who was later to become father of the West’s last Emperor. It is too simplistic to present a notion of an irrevocable ‘Romans vs. Germans and Huns’ estrangement leading to the latter all pursuing a settled policy of seizing Roman territory. Rather, the more aggressive Germanic and Hunnic leaders made use of the opportunities that presented themselves in the decades after the first Danubian crossing in 376. The nature of newly established dynastic sole rulers, first Alaric, then Attila, in peoples used to no or multiple kingship encouraged the successful warlords to wage war and secure success and loot which benefited them personally.

It should be remarked here that the allegedly irrevocable, hostile Gothic crossing of the Danube by the Tervingi and Gaethungi in 376 was a refugee problem, a response to the loss of their steppe lands to the Huns, not anti- Roman aggression. The contemporary historian Ammianus claimed that Emperor Valens was pleased with their arrival as providing thousands of useful Gothic military recruits, at a time of rising tension with Persia (he was at Antioch in Syria preparing for war). He had previously negotiated successfully with these peoples as dependant allies at the end of a three-year war in 369, albeit probably forced to moderate his terms by the need to relocate east to a Persian war over Armenia. The Romans had been using their Danube neighbours for this purpose, and admitting thousands of agriculturalists to boost their denuded farming communities, for centuries. Constantine secured large numbers of recruits from the Goths in 331, and his son Constantius II did the same with the Sarmatians in 358–9. In recent years, one leading Gothic king (Athanaric of the Tervingi) had tried to limit, not extend, Gothic dependency on and supplies of troops to the Empire in the 369 treaty; the Hunnic attack forced a re-think as the Goths now needed sanctuary. The mass immigration in 376 was not a new phenomenon, either; the Empire had admitted thousands of Carpi from the Danube in 300. The main difference with the 376 phenomenon was that on the latter occasion the Goths obstinately stayed under the direct control of their own war-leaders; the Romans usually hastened to split bodies of armed immigrants up into manageable numbers under Roman command. Presumably this normal practice was Valens’ intention for 376–7 too, but was hampered by circumstances such as the sheer number of the Goths and probably the lack of Roman troops to supervise them at a time of war with Persia.

As of 376–7 the Goths were interested in land and food, not attack; the situation only turned ugly after they were moved on South to local Roman commander Lupicinus’ base at Marcianopolis and the Gaethungi crossed the Danube unilaterally to join the Tervingi. Lupicinus and other officials seem to have been operating a ‘black market’ in food-supplies and their extortion bred resentment. Valens should have sent reliable officials to avoid this in such a delicate situation. Lupicinus then panicked and tried to murder the Gothic leaders at a banquet, a logical move to decapitate the threat and hopefully force the leaderless Goths to obey Roman orders. Instead the targets escaped and war resulted, with Valens hundreds of miles away and unable to react quickly. The attempted strike at the enemy leadership was to be repeated, equally unsuccessfully, by chief minister Chrysaphius attempting to murder Attila in 449.

When Valens did arrive and march into Thrace in July 378, he seems to have expected to meet only around 10,000 Goths who he outnumbered, but faced at least twice or thrice that; possibly he had not heard that the Geuthungi had now linked up with his initial foes, the Tervingi. The size of the Gothic cavalry charge onto his army as it attacked the Gothic camp near Adrianople on 9 August then precipitated disaster. Was his defeat therefore due to over-confidence or faulty scouting? It is arguable that what distinguished the disaster of 376–8 from successful Roman management of mass-immigration in 331 and 358–9 was that on the first two occasions the Emperor had been on the Danube with an army to supervise the process; in 376–8 Valens was in Syria and left it to under-resourced and corrupt military officials. The resulting damage to the Empire was permanent, but it was not an unavoidable invasion of the Empire by hostile barbarians.

The overall amount of Germanic looting and pillaging has also probably been played up by rumour and apocalyptic exaggeration by Christian writers, to whom the catastrophic collapse of the Christian Empire was a sign of God’s disfavour and portended the Last Days foretold in Revelation. In 395–6 the Goths ranged at will across the major sites of ancient Greece, sacking Eleusis, Sparta, and Olympia and blackmailing Athens into paying ransom, a major psychological blow to the Empire.

In 402 Alaric attacked the Western capital at Milan by surprise, forcing the court to take refuge permanently in the inaccessible marshes of Ravenna, hardly the situation of a militarily confident government. Thereafter Alaric returned to an uneasy role as a ‘federate’ ally based on the Illyrian border of East and West, playing them off against each other. An independent leader, Radagaisus, invaded Italy on his own in 405 and was defeated. Although our account of the attack (by Zosimus) is garbled it seems that he had nothing to do with Alaric’s Goths but crossed the upper Danube from Bohemia. The West was thus starting to attract copycat opportunistic invasions, and on 31 December 406 a multi-ethnic German coalition crossed the Rhine. Led by the Vandals and also including the Alans and Suevi, they rampaged at will across Gaul and produced apocalyptic comments about the end of civilization from local writers (e.g. Prosper); the lack of Roman Imperial military re-action led to the commander in Britain, Constantine (III), taking action unilaterally and claiming the throne. A revolt against his authority by his general Gerontius then enabled the Germans to move on into Spain, which was divided between them without any need to consult the Empire.

In 408 the murder of Stilicho left the West open to another invasion of Italy and threats to pillage Rome. Alaric shamelessly raised the stakes of protection money for leaving, and eventually lost patience. The Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410 was a relatively disciplined and organised affair, with the Christian, albeit heretic Arian, Goths treating the churches and the Papacy with some respect. Indeed it was a result of Alaric’s blackmail of the government in Ravenna failing to extort the pay-off he expected, not a long-term plan. If the Western military high command had not been decimated by the anti-Stilicho purge in 408 he would have been unlikely to reach Rome at all. He had after all simply been attempting to secure power within the Roman ‘system’ as commander-in-chief to his own new puppet-emperor, Attalus. But the psychological effect was immense, with St. Jerome in distant Bethlehem summing it up as symbolising the destruction of the world.

In reply to the pagan reaction that it was the gods’ revenge on the Empire for abandoning them, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote ‘De Civitate Dei’ arguing that the real ‘City of God’ was the new, spiritual Christian world not an earthly city. This was not a new reaction to the difficulty of fitting in the spiritual world of Christianity to a state that had initially persecuted it, and abandonment of the ungodly secular society was a desirable course for the virtuous Christian long before 410. But the sack of Rome gave Augustine an opportunity to establish a theological basis for the separation of the aims of Christianity and of the state, and to place the former as infinitely preferable. This fed into the claims of the Papacy to religious authority and prestige in place of the Emperor as lord of Rome, although Constantine had already given the Popes supreme jurisdiction over their ecclesiastical subordinates in the Western part of the Empire, effectively as ‘Patriarchs of the West’.

The Vandals’ sack in 455 was more brutal and secured a far greater haul of loot, but also opportunistic, and unlike Alaric, Gaiseric was not likely to be bought off before his forces attacked the city. Like Attila in 451, he used the excuse of wanting the implementation of a promise (this time in a formal treaty) of an Imperial heiress, Valentinian III’s daughter Eudocia, destined for his son Hunneric but unlikely to be delivered willingly to a barbarian. In political terms, it was extremely implausible that Gaiseric would have secured the Imperial succession for Hunneric. Even if the son-less Emperor had been forced to marry his elder daughter to Hunneric to avoid war, or after the murder of Valentinian his successor Petronius Maximus had done so, the succession would not have passed to Hunneric. The main political aim of Gaiseric in 455 was probably to forestall Petronius’ planned alliance with the Goths (via Avitus’ embassy), which could lead to a Romano-Gothic attack on the Vandals in North Africa. Had the alliance been implemented and Gaiseric not reacted, the Vandals would probably have faced the same dangerous level of attack from north, east, and west as they had in 441–2 with the Eastern Empire able to join in with greater German participation than earlier thanks to Attila’s death.

The written evidence suggests that what came to be known to much later centuries as the eponymous ‘vandalism’ by the Vandals in Rome and elsewhere, systematic and deliberate destruction, was an occasional rather than a commonplace occurrence. At most, Gaiseric collected all the valuable moveables he could and stripped the roofs from temples in Rome to carry off the precious metals. Most damage to the fabric of the Empire’s cities and towns was done gradually, not by concentrated barbarian assault. Across the West, buildings collapsed over decades for lack of maintenance rather than being pulled down by German attackers, and it is now suggested that the evidence of fires in excavated villas (e.g. in Britain) is not necessarily due to arson by passing Germans. Nor did hordes of Goths storm the walls of Rome in 410; the gates were opened for them by runaway slaves. In 455 Petronius Maximus fled the city and Pope Leo surrendered sooner than face a massacre.

There was widespread insecurity and anarchy, at least in some areas where governmental authority had collapsed, e.g. the mid-fifth century middle Danube written about by the local St. Severinus9. The decline in building standards of what little new works were undertaken, and the use of wood not stone, in the fifth and sixth centuries West suggests an inability to find adequate craftsmen or materials10. If this is not physical ‘decline’ into an atomised society, what is? But it should be remembered that in less affected areas such as mid- and southern Gaul, the local Romanised aristocracy were still in existence as a cultured, Latin-speaking elite and running the Church throughout the sixth century. The world of the 590s historian Bishop Gregory of Tours was post-Roman politically, but not culturally, and the Church remained a strong bond with the city of Rome. Even in seventh century Anglo-Saxon England the international links of the Catholic Church, restored to the Germanic kingdoms there from the time of St. Augustine’s mission in 597, could allow for the imposition of Theodore, a Greek, as Archbishop of Canterbury, who came from distant Tarsus in Cilicia in 669.

The fall of the Western Empire was not the end of the international world of a Mediterranean-centred Church. Indeed, the concept of ‘Roma Aeterna’ as the centre of the civilised world now applied to spiritual rather than political leadership, and was played up by Pope Gregory the Great, who was from an old Senatorial family but with a monastery established in his ancestral mansion. The collapse of the central institution of the Senate did not occur in 476, as it was still functioning and given practical autonomy in Rome by the Romanophile Gothic king Theodoric from 493. It only went into eclipse after the disruption of the wars between Eastern Empire and Goths over Italy in 537–54, when Rome was captured several times and Gothic leader Totila once evicted its declining population.

The thesis of a weaker Western army open to greater recruitment from unreliable German troops and Germanic supreme commanders has also been suggested as damaging to the West; the West had a Germanic supreme infantry and cavalry commander (‘magister utiusque militiae’) and effective regent, Stilicho, in 395–408 and eventually fell victim to more German generals after 455. But the East’s army also relied on extensive Germanic recruitment, as in 331 (Goths) and 359 (Sarmatians). The East’s senior German officers included one man who briefly held supreme military power in the capital (Gainas in 399–400) and one who served as military commander and chief minister (Aspar, 450–467). Both were murdered and their partisans massacred, as was Stilicho; but after Stilicho’s fall the powerless Western court was at the Germans’ mercy in 408–10. The East, however, fought off its Germanic challengers after their similar coups in 400 and 467. After Gainas and Aspar were killed their surviving troops were left at large in Thrace but could only plunder the countryside. Did the West face a more concentrated and resource sapping Germanic challenge than the East? Did its geography make attack easier and its containment more difficult?

1 thought on “The Roman World – The Western Empire in the Fifth Century

  1. I´m of the opinion that the author underestimates the problems od Eastern Empire. This doesn´t have borders only on Balkan, but equally dangerous “line of fire” with Persia from the Caucasus to borders of Egypt, and the Persians were not some band of marauders, but first-class military power. So, the problem as I see it is that neither Stilicho nor Aetius never tried to become emperor (as later Theodoric) and found a dynasty, as was normal in the East. Perhaps that would have saved the West. To underestimate the role of personality as is now the norm leads to problems of understanding history.

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