Eden Walks Blog

Things to do in Rome

Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Fall of the Western Roman Empire

It was a massive barbarian invasion that Rome had never seen or experienced before: a great armament, with great weapons.

For many years, the Roman Empire had invaded and conquered the rest of the world. Now it was the world that was conquering Rome.

The situation began in the 4th century AD, when the barbarian invasion turned to immigration and the barbarian peoples were allowed into Rome. For a time, this was very successful, because the barbarian groups would settle in Rome and find employment, thus integrating themselves into the Roman Empire.

However, there was a time when this no longer worked. With later invasions came more groups of people who refused to become integrated, and it was very difficult for Roman society to continue under those terms and conditions.

Arnaldo Momigliano says that the Roman Empire fell silent.

The reason why no one was paying attention while the Roman Empire collapsed was because the same thing had happened 60 years before. What had truly shocked the empire was the Sack of Rome, undertaken by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 AD. Led by their king, Alaric, it was the worst destruction that Rome had ever witnessed under pagans or Christians. Saint Jerome even referred to this event as the end of the world. After Alaric’s Sack of Rome, it seemed that the Roman Empire became used to barbarian invasion.

Since the empire was multiethnic, Rome was no longer the seat of the empire’s government, but it remained a center of power. The Roman Senate held 600 of the most influential men in the world. Rome itself also had symbolic value. For the ancient Romans, the city of Rome was everything; the empire was one thing, but it was in the city of Rome that they were treated like citizens, like one of their people.

So Romans and barbarians lived together until the 5th century AD. The new kings who ruled the city of Rome didn’t have their own money or make their own coins

until 570 AD, so it would have been later, possibly around 700 AD, when the proper decline of the empire began.

An empire still existed; there was still Constantinople and the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. He believed that, although Rome had lost a few provinces – the Italic and Gallic provinces, for example – they would conquer them again one day, just as the emperor Justinian had, because Rome was immortal. What he didn’t know was that another institution would soon rise to take over. This was the Catholic Church, which would put an end to the empire’s immortality, and would itself last forever.

If we go back to Constantinople and talk about the Eastern Roman Empire, it becomes clear that it was a separate entity from the Western Empire. Half of its citizens spoke Greek and not Latin, and it was constantly changing and evolving. But Rome remained Romans, though the Greeks – who we now call the Byzantine Empire – called themselves Romans for centuries.

Then we go on to the period of Flavius Odoacer. Flavius Odoacer and the Roman Senate discussed whether they should make him the Emperor, choose someone else, or change their plans and do away with the figure of the emperor. They hoped that through their choice, Emperor Zeno of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople would be pleased. However, this failed, and Zeno sent a Barbarian Roman to kill Odoacer in the end.

So on one side we have the power of the Senators, and on the other, the absolute power of the Roman army and its generals, who by this point were all barbarians. By becoming Roman generals, they could gain honor, recognition, a pension, villas, and lands, and they sought to maintain good relationships with contributors so that the government would continue to pay. Then we have the Catholic Church, which was well-structured to keep the masses calm and take care of the people. Gone were the gladiator fights and the games at the Circus Maximus. Now, the life of an individual or politician did not count much if they made mistakes. So connection with the Church and the Holy Roman Empire was very important at this point.

Agostino d'Ippona, speaking about the Western Roman Empire, confirms that Rome itself did not fall or die; instead, it was the

empire that died. Over time, the men who were once in charge of the Roman Empire also died or changed. But Rome itself gained a new identity: the Christian world. For this reason, d’Ippona is against the theory that the fall of the Roman Empire was the fault of Christianity.

We remember that Saint Ambrose went against Emperor Theodosius I because of the crimes he had committed. The saint would not allow him to return to church until he had repented of his crimes. It is clear that some important men of religion understood the power of knowledge over humanity, and through this, the church would soon take charge of political life in Roman society.

In time, that part of the empire was conquered by the barbarians, and only the city of Rome was left. But with Charlemagne, this would change: he would become the center of attention, like the barbarians, but in the center of a Roman world.