Saturday August 28, 2021’s Smile of the Day: End of the Roman Empire
On this Day:
In 476 Orestes, father of Emperor Romulus Augustulus, was captured and executed by Odoacer and his followers, signaling the end of the Roman Empire. Well, except that there are 209 other possible reasons why the Roman Empire fell…
Orestes (died 28 August 476) was a Roman general and politician of Pannonian ancestry, who held considerable influence in the late Western Roman Empire. [Editor: My father’s name was Orest. I always wondered where it came from…]
Born to a Roman aristocratic family from Pannonia Savia, Orestes was son of Tatulus, a pagan, and son-in-law to Romulus, who served as ‘comes’ in the Western Roman Empire. After Pannonia was ceded to Attila the Hun, Orestes joined Attila’s court, reaching high position as a secretary (notarius) in 449 and 452. In 449, Orestes was sent by Attila twice to Constantinople as envoy to Emperor Theodosius II.
In 475, Orestes was appointed magister militum and patricius by Western Roman Emperor Julius Nepos. This proved to be a mistake on the part of Nepos. By August 28, 475, Orestes, at the head of the foederati levies, managed to take control of the government in Ravenna, which had been the de facto capital of the Western Roman Empire since 402. Julius Nepos fled without a fight to Dalmatia, where he would continue to reign until his assassination in 480. With the emperor far away, Orestes elevated his son Romulus to the rank of Augustus, so that the last Western Roman emperor is known as Romulus Augustulus meaning “little Augustus” as the emperor was only a 15-year-old boy at the time he became emperor in 475.
The new administration was not recognized by the rival Eastern Roman Emperors Zeno and Basiliscus, who still considered Julius Nepos to be their legitimate partner in the administration of the Empire. But as they were engaged in a civil war with each other, neither emperor was about to oppose the latest usurper in battle.
Orestes was free to issue new solidi in the mints of Arles, Milan, Ravenna and Rome, enabling him to pay the barbarian mercenaries who constituted most of the Roman Army at the time.
However, Orestes denied the demands of Heruli, Scirian and Torcilingi mercenaries to be granted Italian lands in which to settle. Before he overthrew Nepos, the Roman general promised his barbarian soldiers a third of Italian territory in exchange for assisting with the deposition of the emperor. After being turned down by Orestes, the dissatisfied mercenaries revolted under the germanic Odoacer, whom they declared to be their king on August 23, 476. Odoacer led them against their former employer, ravaging every town and village in northern Italy and meeting little resistance. Orestes fled to the city of Pavia, where the city’s bishop gave him sanctuary within the city walls. Despite the protection he received from the bishop, Orestes was forced to flee for his life when Odoacer and his men broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, stealing all the money that the bishop had collected for the poor and razing many of the city buildings to the ground.
After escaping from the city of Pavia, Orestes rallied the few surviving units of Roman troops stationed in northern Italy and was able to move his small army to the city of Piacenza. The forces of Odoacer and Orestes finally met on the battlefield, but the inexperienced Roman commander and his few and sparse Imperial troops, disorganized and unprepared, stood no chance against the savagery of Odoacer’s mercenary army. The majority of the Roman soldiers were either killed, captured, or driven off, while Orestes was captured near the city on August 28 and was swiftly executed. Within weeks, Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon attached great significance to this event due to Odoacer’s foreign birth. Gibbon’s romantic description of the events of 476 as the fall of the Western Roman Empire was influential for two centuries, but modern scholarship has tended to question this – it was the end of the emperors in the West. On the other hand the Roman Empire existed wherever the emperor could appoint his officials to govern them. Nevertheless, Odoacer’s defeat of Orestes and his son are often still used to mark the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages which is itself disputable as many scholars see a continuity of culture and society.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire (also called the fall of the Roman Empire or the fall of Rome) was the loss of central political control in the Western Roman Empire, a process in which the Empire failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities. The Roman Empire lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control over its Western provinces; modern historians posit factors including the effectiveness and numbers of the army, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperors, the internal struggles for power, the religious changes of the period, and the efficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from invading barbarians outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse. Climatic changes and both endemic and epidemic disease drove many of these immediate factors. The reasons for the collapse are major subjects of the historiography of the ancient world and they inform much modern discourse on state failure.
In 376, unmanageable numbers of Goths and other non-Roman people, fleeing from the Huns, entered the Empire. In 395, after winning two destructive civil wars, Theodosius I died, leaving a collapsing field army, and the Empire, still plagued by Goths, divided between the warring ministers of his two incapable sons. Further barbarian groups crossed the Rhine and other frontiers and, like the Goths, were not exterminated, expelled or subjugated. The armed forces of the Western Empire became few and ineffective, and despite brief recoveries under able leaders, central rule was never effectively consolidated.
By 476, the position of Western Roman Emperor wielded negligible military, political, or financial power, and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman. Barbarian kingdoms had established their own power in much of the area of the Western Empire. In 476, the Germanic barbarian king Odoacer deposed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in Italy, Romulus Augustulus, and the Senate sent the imperial insignia to the Eastern Roman Emperor Flavius Zeno.
While its legitimacy lasted for centuries longer and its cultural influence remains today, the Western Empire never had the strength to rise again.The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire survived, and though lessened in strength remained for centuries an effective power of the Eastern Mediterranean.
While the loss of political unity and military control is universally acknowledged, the Fall is not the only unifying concept for these events; the period described as Late Antiquity emphasizes the cultural continuities throughout and beyond the political collapse.
Since the age of humanism, the process of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in which it failed to enforce its rule, has been thought to have begun with Constantine, or with the soldier emperors who seized power through command of the army from 235 through 284, or with Commodus, or even with Augustus. The loss of centralized political control over the West, and the lessened power of the East, are universally agreed, but the theme of decline has been taken to cover a much wider time span than the hundred years from 376. For Cassius Dio, the accession of the emperor Commodus in 180 CE marked the descent “from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron”, while Gibbon also began his narrative of decline from the reign of Commodus, after a number of introductory chapters. Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke argue that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in republican times, while Theodor Mommsen excluded the imperial period from his Nobel Prize-winning History of Rome (1854–56). As one convenient marker for the end, 476 has been used since Gibbon, but other key dates for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West include the Crisis of the Third Century, the Crossing of the Rhine in 406 (or 405), the sack of Rome in 410, and the death of Julius Nepos in 480.
Gibbon gave a classic formulation of reasons why the Fall happened. He gave great weight to internal decline, as crippling the empire’s ability to respond to attacks from outside the Empire, and to the failure of military discipline.
The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy… and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians… As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire… a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.
Alexander Demandt enumerated 210 different theories on why Rome fell, and historians still try to analyze the reasons for loss of political control over a vast territory (and, as a subsidiary theme, the reasons for the survival of the (very Christian) Eastern Roman Empire). Gibbon’s views on Christianity in relation to the Fall were immediately attacked and continue to arouse opposition. His comments on the “useless multitudes of both sexes” are still accepted by some authorities – by the end of the fourth century their total number was perhaps half the size of the actual army. But most modern Roman historians do not believe that Christianity “discouraged the active virtues of society” or otherwise significantly weakened the Empire.
Harper has summed up new evidence and modern interpretations, with disease and climate change as important drivers of political collapse in addition to the traditional discourse. He describes a Roman climatic optimum from about 200 BCE to 150 CE, when lands around the Mediterranean were generally warm and well-watered, making agriculture prosperous, and the collection of taxes straightforward. From 150 to 450, the climate entered a transitional period, in which taxes were less easy to collect and bore more heavily on the working population. After about 450, the climate worsened further in the Late Antique Little Ice Age that may have directly contributed to the variety of factors that brought Rome down.
The ever-expanding Roman empire was built on the fringes of the tropics, and its brilliant roads, which produced an abundance of trade, also unknowingly created an interconnected disease ecology that unleashed pathogenic evolution. Pandemic contributed to massive demographic changes which the Roman state could not quickly absorb. Climate change has also been suggested as a possible driver of changes in populations outside the Empire, in particular on the Eurasian steppe, though evidence is slight. Movements of massive populations quickly led to economic crises and food shortages.
Yet, according to Harper, “the coup de grâce did not come until the Late Antique Little Ice Age of the mid-sixth century”. The Roman empire finally fully unravelled in the seventh century, when Rome was already politically fragmented and materially depleted. It was nature – volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, solar cycles, climate instability, devastating viruses, and most of all, the tiny bacteria – that finally did in the Roman giant (per Wikipedia). [Editor: Does this not all sound a little too eerily familiar???]
First, a Story:
I am trying to remember how to write 1, 1000, 51, 6 and 500 in Roman Numerals. I M LIVID…
Second, a Song:
Jedd Bloom is an English Teacher at Jordan Middle School, Mountain View, California, United States. He has a Master of Arts in Secondary Education and Teaching from the University of Southern California (per LinkedIn.com).
Jedd has a number of educational music videos on his YouTube.com channel. Here is “Legacy of Ancient Rome Rap” by Jedd Bloom. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“It was luxuries like air conditioning that brought down the Roman Empire. With air conditioning their windows were shut, they couldn’t hear the barbarians coming.” – Garrison Keillor
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky