Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

End of the Roman Empire

What do a bloody battle outside the gates of an impregnable imperial city, the destruction of the city that once led an Empire and the abdication of a sixteen-year-old Emperor all have in common? These events aligned to produce the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, in tandem with centuries of political disputes and chaos. Many scholars have been unable to identify the exact moment the Roman Empire ended. Nonetheless, the fall of the Western Empire in the late fourth and fifth century catalyzed the beginning of the end of Rome as an entity of global power. Despite the survival of Constantinople, the fall of Rome and the disintegration of Roman rule in the West signified the end of the Roman Empire as a political structure and its sovereign influence.

Opposition to the mighty Roman Army began to impact the Western Empire’s capacity to succeed in military conquest. Since the third century, emperors had been recruited based on their ability as military generals and were often found directly leading campaigns, contrasting the politicized role of the Emperor in the principate. Arguably, Rome’s biggest struggle was its potential to maintain the Northern frontier, leading to the rise of barbarian nomads and an increased influx of migrants into the Empire. One particular group of barbarians, the Goths, came very close to capturing the newly established capital of the Empire, Constantinople. Occurring in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the conflict also led to the death of the Emperor Valens and emphasised the strength of barbarian armies and their qualities as violent and brutish war lords. This signified a change in military tactics as emperors no longer led armies into battle and instead, as described by Stephen Mitchell, allowed ‘their courts became sedentary’.

At the beginning of the fifth century, the Goths branched out into factions and the Visigoths, led by Alaric, turned their attention to the Western half of the Empire. Alaric and his Visigothic army continually threatened to invade Italy and demanded to be offered monetary compensation for his tribe to establish resources.  These attempts throughout the fifth century AD put the whole Empire on edge.  When no money was sent, Alaric besieged Rome in 408, leading to peaceful negotiations being set up to counteract his blockade. However, leading generals had sworn to never strike a deal with Alaric and negotiations disintegrated rapidly. The anxiety regarding capture proved justified on the 24 August, 410 when the city of Rome fell. Jerome – a fifth century historian- explicitly described how ‘the City that had once [conquered] the entire world was captured’. Not only was this a physical blow to the strength of the Roman Empire and its military strength but was also a symbolic one and the wealth of the city alongside its reputation had been demolished.

Eventually, the West remained political unstable and, as chaotic and unsuitable leadership dominated the later fifth century, the child emperor Romulus Augustulus abdicated in 476AD. Not only was this illustrative of the potential disarray caused by the appointment of child emperors across the fifth century – Theodosius II was raised to the role of co-Emperor a year after his birth- but also led to a political crisis. The Western capital had relocated to Ravenna because of the continued attacks happening in Italy. As Odoacer established himself as King of Italy, the Roman influence in the West was at a minimal level. The Emperor Zeno decided to permit Theoderic and the Ostrogoth to establish a new dynasty in Italy. Theodoric usurped Odoacer and maintained Roman values but marked his succession as a separate entity from the Empire.

Attempts to re-conquer the Western Half of the Empire made by the sixth-century Emperor Justinian, although successful, did not last. Despite this, the Eastern half of the Empire continued to thrive into the Middle Ages and Constantinople remained the imperial capital of a declining Empire. Commonly referred to as the Byzantine Empire, any traces of Roman rule ceased to exist following the Fall of Constantinople in 1451. Despite its destruction, the Roman Empire has had huge influence on modern times. Not only do we now occupy cities founded by Romans, elements of the Empire’s political system and philosophy are ingrained in modern Western culture and Rome encouraged the spread of Christianity as a westernized religion. The empire may have been brought to its knees by the might of the barbarian hordes, but the legacy of imperial Rome has withstood the test of time.

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