Pithom on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire

The Empire of the Romans began as a Mediterranean Hyperpower from 30 BC to 44 AD. This glorious phase lasted until 395/439, with the rebellion of Alaric and Gaiseric’s capture of Carthage. The Empire then became a Mediterranean Superpower from 395/439-602/640. As a result of the Persian war and the Arab Conquest, it shrunk into a Mediterranean Great Power from 602/640 to 1071. After the army collapsed after Manzikert, the Empire became as an Aegean regional power from 1071 to 1326/1349, and, last and least, as a result of Turkish and Serb conquests, it became merely Constantinople and Morea from 1326/1349 to 1453. It had eight major imperial crises: those of the late first, mid-third, early to late fifth, early to late seventh, early ninth, mid-eleventh, early thirteenth, and mid-fourteenth centuries. It also had eight major periods of territorial recovery: in the late third (Odaenathus, Roman-Persian peace of 298), early to mid-fifth (Constantius III, post-Attila Eastern gains), mid-to-late sixth (Justinian, Maurice), early to mid-seventh (Heraclius), tenth (Macedonian dynasty), first three quarters of the twelfth (Komnenian restoration), thirteenth (Nikaian Empire), and early fifteenth (Treaty of Gallipoli) centuries. All in all, the Empire reached its military, economic, and territorial height between 117 and 238 and declined thereafter. Its fifth century imperial crisis- its transition from Mediterranean hyperpower to Mediterranean superpower- though basically similar in nature to all its other seven crises, remains one of the subjects of greatest discussion among all the events of ancient history by the present-day peoples of Core Europe due precisely to its terrible consequences for that region, as well as because this was the crisis when the Roman polity withdrew from the most land and people in absolute numbers. I decided, then, to read a bit about it starting at the very beginning of this year.

At the beginning of 405, the portions of England South of Hadrian’s wall, all the region between the Rhine and the Atlantic, all Italy, almost all the fertile Maghreb, all Switzerland, western Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, the region of Munich, and most of Austria were under the control of the Ravenna government of the emperor Honorius and the general Stilicho. The cities of the Balkans from Tergeste to Constanta were home to a thriving elite, whether ruled by the Emperor of the first or second Romes. In less than five years, virtually entire territory of the Western Roman Empire had become a warzone. By 486, the territory of the Western Roman Empire had been entirely split between the Germanic-ruled Italian, Vandal, Visigothic, Burgundian, Frankish, and Suevic kingdoms, various Anglo-Saxon chiefdoms, and various chiefdoms of the Basques, Britons, and Moors. The Balkans north of Thermopylae had become a vast wasteland, only a few militarized cities remaining to rule the devastated countryside. The Western Empire had experienced only one major period of invasion in 405-408 which involved six Germanic mobile chiefdoms. Only two of these (Radagaisus’s Goths in 406 and the Siling Vandals in 416-18) were ever permanently defeated. The Western Empire had also experienced four major periods of civil war (407-413, 423-433, and 461-468, and 468-476). The sole parts of Roman Europe that remained as prosperous in 475 as 375 were Greece and the region of Constantinople, more due to the influx of Balkan refugees than anything else. Five hundred years after the Roman Empire’s founding, its power base had thoroughly shifted thoroughly toward Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. The short fifth century had experienced a European tragedy beyond all future or past proportion outside Greece and Italy, which would get their turn to suffer later.

And yet, this would only be the first part of the collapse of the Empire of the Great Romans. More than half a century after death of the last Western Roman emperor, the Roman Empire under Justinian destroyed the vast majority of the remnants of Roman civilization in Italy and Tunisia during a brutal reconquest, which was quickly followed by the fall of most of Italy to completely unromanized barbarians. During the seventh century, the Late Roman collapse would move East, with the loss of Egypt to the Persians in 619 and its conquest by the Arabs in 640, thus resulting in economic collapse in the Aegean and the fall of the Balkans to Slavs wandering out of what was, prior to the late fourth century, the heartland of the Goths. The Middle Ages would be a lengthy period of recovery from these three periods of disaster which destroyed postclassical Roman civilization. It isn’t really appreciated by most that the Roman Empire held the City of Rome for anywhere between 48% and 53% of its existence, with the Odoacer/Ostrogothic period providing the margin of error, or that the Council of Nikaia was as chronologically distant from the final imperial abandonment of the City of Rome as it was from the victory at Aquae Sextiae, or that there were as many years (five hundred) from Macrinus to Leo the Isaurian as there were from Machiavelli to Bolsonaro. Nevertheless, in the below post, I primarily focus on the first part of the collapse -the fall of Western Roman power outside of Italy starting with the British usurpation and the Crossing of the Rhine in 406 and ending with the Empire’s withdrawal from Arles in 476, a process which coincided with the gradual transfer of power from 383 to 493 in Italy itself away from men born in Hispania and Former Yugoslavia and toward men of Germanic origin.

Civilization tends to advance slowly. The most advanced areas of the world five thousand years ago were Iraq and Egypt. Two thousand years later, the most advanced areas of the world were… Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon. In the eighth century BC, the height of world civilization moved to Greater Greece, where it again stayed for some two thousand years, excluding temporary politically-based triumphs by the Romans and Arabs. The height of civilization then moved to the Low Countries, where it stayed for about half a millennium. In the eighteenth century, it moved from the Low Countries to America, though this appears to be shifting East. The height of civilization had passed between just five to eight locales in five thousand years. Though the Roman Empire in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean was much more a product than a cause of the prosperity there, it was the Roman High Empire that brought the fruits of the highest form of Mediterranean civilization to the people of Core Europe- the presently densely populated region running from Emilia-Romagna to Lancanshire. The decay of the Roman Empire under the usurpers of the third and fourth centuries coming precisely from the field army-heavy zone of the Blue Banana and Tunisia and the fall of the Western Empire in the fifth thus sticks in the mind of present day Westerners. Russia will always feel close links to the Medieval East Romans, Turkey to the Ottomans and Seljuks, Poland to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But the people of Western Europe and their descendants in the rest of the world will always feel an inflexible bond to the High Empire. A non-settler empire lifting a large group of people from savagery to the heights of civilization is something with absolutely no precedent or repetition in the history of the world. New Kingdom Egypt, Achaemenid Persia, Tiglath-Pileser III’s Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, the Caliphate (perhaps excluding Southern Hispania), Cortez’s Spain -even Britain and Japan- all tended to have a negative effect on the regions they conquered. The accomplishments of no Empire other than the Early and High Roman can remotely compare. Nor did any place that developed under empire -not even North Korea, Ukraine, or the less developed parts of Sub-Saharan Africa- enter such a dark age after their relevant empire’s collapse as Core Europe did after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The reinvention of the state in Western Europe following Late Antiquity would take many centuries. That is why Rome in general and the High Empire in particular remains remembered in Core Europe and its outposts.

For illustrative purposes. Precision not intended.

However, despite the prominence of the retreat of the Western Roman Empire from its northern and Western provinces in the historical memory of the Western imperialists, the names of the men who led to it- Stilicho, Constantine III, Gaiseric, Euric- don’t exactly echo throughout history. Tucker says Nero was the most famous Roman Emperor (really? not Octavius?) because he “abandoned his nation in a time of crisis”. But who remembers Honorius, Constantine III, Theodosius II, Petronius Maximus? To be fair, this is not a unique failing. Le Duan and the tyrants of South Vietnam do not exactly echo throughout history, either. Throughout the fifth century, there was little heroism among the Empire’s leaders and barely more among its enemies. Similarly, the fact the third to fifth century Empire’s highly Machiavellian political system -get used to reading a lot of “civil war followed by a civil war followed by a civil war followed by a civil war followed by a coup followed by a civil war followed by a coup followed by a coup followed by a coup followed by a coup followed by a civil war”- was substantially more prone to disaster than that of the typical banana republic tends to go underappreciated. I don’t exaggerate here at all. “Killed outside Aquileia” almost becomes a running joke throughout the history of the Late Empire. Though certainly civilized, especially in its core regions, politically, the Late Roman Empire was only modestly more than a large-scale South Vietnam (and, in its late stage, only modestly more than a large scale present-day Libya). At least the Huns who pushed the Germanic migrants formerly settled in Eastern Europe out of their homelands and the decay of the Rhine frontier get some attention in the educated man’s mind. But the severe lack of focus on the men who led the Western Empire to doom does suggest a certain lack of seriousness in perceptions of the retreat of the Roman Empire among nonspecialists. I freely admit to having known nothing of Stilicho, or of Constantine III, or of Gaiseric, or even of Euric before I began writing this post. Greek and Roman history has always been something of a blind spot in my reading, partly due to the poor preservation of ancient documents often resulting in us knowing substantially less about the Romans than about the preclassical Ancient Near East. The key contributions to our understanding of the Later Roman Empire have not primarily come from archaeology or finds of ancient texts (though revalations from both have been made from time to time), but from better synthesis of the ancient sources available to the Middle Moderns into a firmer, more evidence-based understanding of Later Roman administration, economy, and society. The political history has, due to a severe paucity of sources, scarcely been changed. Our understanding of the non-migrating barbarians is, at least, substantially better.

The Roman political system, 3rd-5th centuries (bottom). Perhaps the systems in both panels will seem more similar than different.

One can view the the fall of the Western Empire in two different ways: firstly, as the Hun-forced migration of two large Germanic warbands, led in both cases by intelligent and determined men, through the course of the Western Empire, establishing powerful kingdoms in southern Gaul and in Tunisia respectively (the Visigoths, led by Fritigern, Alaric, Ataulf, Wallia, Theodoric I and II, and Euric, and the Vandals, led by Gunderic and Gaiseric). The second way to view the Western Empire is as already a half-dying beast, its border defenses and field armies crippled by the challenges of Constantine II, Magnentius, Maximus, Eugenius, Constantine III, Heraclian, John, Aetius, and Aegidius, with the weak incumbent emperors of the time- Constans, Gratian, Valentinian II, Honorius, Theodosius II, Valentinian III, and Libius Severus- being able to do very little about the damage these challengers caused. If there are two things I have learned from writing this, it is the lack of precedent for Asiatic steppe nomads causing crises in Europe and the genuinely impressive inherent stability and economic success of the imperial system outside its political instability, instability which caused crises which continued well into the times of the Medieval East Romans and played no small part in helping to bring about the decline and fall of their storied empire, to which we owe the vast majority of our texts of the classics. Had the Roman Empire a political system less fitting for the bottom of the barrel of today’s third world, one can easily see a Roman Mediterranean from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates continuing well into the Middle Ages, making deeper and deeper inroads into today’s Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Germany, Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland, at an even faster speed than those lands were converted to the religion of the Romans in reality, turning the Roman Empire into a truly European Empire rather than the merely 50% European Empire it really was.

I have read and skimmed a number of histories of the retreat of the Western Empire while creating this. Peter Heather’s is the one I started on first. Heather is a capable historian, but one with certain obsessions (Goths, Roman bureaucracy, Huns), certain weaknesses (narrative history) and certain unhelpful biases (underrating the extent of the Empire’s decline before its fall). Heather very much focuses on the first part of the story of the Empire’s decline and fall, and is thus, uniquely among modern historians, very careful to note developments within Eastern Greater Germany, something quite right and fitting for this period. Adrian Goldsworthy’s book (which I’ve skimmed) has the opposite problems Heather’s does- too broad, not enough flavor, unjustified neglect of happenings in Greater Germany, as well as the opposite advantages Heather’s book has. If you wish to read a single one-volume book on this topic and no other books, it’s Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Late Roman West (get the second edition when it comes out). Cambridge consistently has the best academic books on ancient history, due to its good editors; Oxford lets authors take more leeway, generally to negative effect. The Cambridge Ancient History volumes 14 and 13 thus provide a very good overview of the period, though these volumes are rather long and multi-authored. I didn’t read these volumes all the way through, but I have used both extensively as references. Halsall, however, due to his own personal linguistic knowledge, focuses very strongly on the Empire’s internal processes (making the best possible case for the Visigoths and Vandals not being the prime movers of the retreat of the Western Empire in the process) and concentrates rather excessively on the rather pitiful barbarians of Western Greater Germany (Saxons, Franks, Alamans, etc.), whom nobody blames for the fall of the Western Empire (at least, not directly). Kulikowski’s fall of Rome book, Imperial Tragedy, is, while very good at narrative history, rather questionable in many of its interpretations. Of all modern histories, it makes the greatest attempt to cover as much narrative history as appropriate to an equal or greater extent Gibbon managed. Kulikowski’s book Imperial Triumph deserves honorable mention for its bold synthesis of the textual and archaeological sources in a slim, breezy, and remarkably comprehensive read. Gibbon’s famous history (Volumes 5 and 6 in the link are where he covers the fall of the West) is, while written in an annoying and pompous style and is somewhat out of date, not bad. Gibbon truly went the extra mile to focus his eye on events in both the Roman Empire and Eastern Greater Germany, going so far as to boldly speculate on the origins of the movements of the Huns based on the Chinese sources. His focus on the weakness and character defects of the reigning emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries is, while not today common, not wrong, and fairly refreshing relative to today’s histories. Thomas Samuel Burns is also a great historian and his book “Barbarians within the Gates of Rome” is essential reading for its synthesis of archaeology and history on the subject. On the Huns, Maenchen-Helfen’s World of the Huns remains the standard work on the subject. The single most depressing “fall of Rome” book, however, isn’t about the Fall of the Western Empire, but about the Empire’s simpler, quicker, and much more astonishing eleventh century crisis. On this, Kaldellis’s Streams of Blood, Rivers of Gold, though apologetic, is quite informative. For the period between 470 and 700, I have relied on Peter Sarris’s decent overview Empires of Faith.

Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages and A.H.M. Jones’s The Later Roman Empire are both absolutely essential reading for understanding the post-Roman (Wickham) and Late Great Imperial (Jones) administrations, economies, and societies, but both are theory-informed surveys of evidence; neither are histories, though Jones’s Later Roman Empire does have a pretty good 300-page historical section at the beginning of the first volume. The most fascinating books I’ve read while writing this, so fascinating I actually read them all the way through, were the Kaldellis trilogy on Roman and Romano-Greek identity (“Hellenism in Byzantium”, “The Byzantine Republic”, and “Romanland”), but, despite their vast significance, they only tangentially relate to the subject of this account. Pirenne’s short, but captivating Mohammed and Charlemagne is also very, very good at defending the concepts of Central and Terminal Late Antiquity for the former Western Empire, formulating a theory of its end, and defending the concept of the Early Middle Ages for the Carolingian era, though, again, it is tangential to the topic of the post. Much of the material he covered would be more thoroughly elaborated on and reevaluated by Wickham in Framing the Early Middle Ages. There remains to be written a book called “The Roman Empire region, 235-751 (or, if one wants to cut it off short, 305 and 642): a survey of the material evidence”, which covers matters of art history, numismatics, architecture, pottery, clothing, weapons, languages, scripts, settlement types, agriculture, etc. from the days of Severus Alexander to the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate and the imperial pullout from the City of Rome (or, if one wanted to cut things off short, the resignation of Diocletian and the imperial pullout from Alexandria), from the citadel of Braga to that of Mefa’a, and from the Battle at the Harzhorn to the battles of Arab Palestine, in the manner of A.H.M. Jones’s dissection of the Late Roman economy, society, and administration. Inclusion of the areas abandoned during the Crisis of the Third Century would be optional, but recommended. Though such a book does not exist, there’s more than enough material to write it, and it would become an instant classic if written.

I also strongly reccomend reading translations of the primary sources (I have provided a convenient list at the beginning of each section), as well as the archaeological literature for the Romans, both West and East, and their neighbors (for this, search Google Books and Academia.edu; the material is rather scattered).

This website is also a useful resource for the general events of the period.

The study of any complex society is always insanely complicated, involving several different branches of history (environmental, social, institutional, demographic, political, economic, architectural, art, church, literary, military, numismatic, etc.). I try to incorporate a fairly diverse array of branches into this post, but certainly admit I might not be entirely successful in every case. I do this to give the reader a “feel for the times”; something which is easy to miss for the ignorant.

Google Books links don’t work due to WordPress escaping ampersands.

Table of Contents
Part I: The Romans from Nerva to 376
Section 1.1: Background
Section 1.2: The political situation of Marcus Aurelius and the Severan era
Section 1.3: The Third Century Crisis
Section 1.4: Diocletianic Restoration
Section 1.5: The War of the Eight Princes
Section 1.6: Construction of Constantinople
Section 1.7: Roman Ethnicity among Greek-speakers in the Roman Empire
Section 1.8: The Gold Standard
Section 1.9: Christus Rex
Section 1.10: Roman prosperity in the fourth century
Section 1.11: Political situation between Constantine and the Valentinians
Section 1.12: The Valentinians
Part II: The Barbarians to 376
Part III: The Irruption of the Visigoths into the Empire (376-382)
Part IV: The Storms before the Gothic Uprisings (382-395)
Part V: The Gothic Uprisings, Hunnic invasions of Roman Syria and Anatolia, Political Crises in the Roman Southwest and Northeast (395-404)
Part VI: The First Fifth Century General Politico-Barbarian Crisis in the Roman West. Ten tyrants and three great invasions of the West; “defense in depth” against the Huns in the East (404-413)
Part VII: Indian Summer in the West; Persian War in the Roman Far East and independence of Persian church (413-425)
Part VIII: Second fifth century general Western imperial politico-barbarian crisis; Nestorian controversy in the Roman East (425-433)
Part IX: The Age of Aetius and Attila; Hypostatic union controversy in the Roman East (433-454)
Part X: Vandalic War in the West; Ostrogothic War in the East (455-461)
Part XI: The Third Fifth Century Western Roman Imperial Crisis (461-468)
Part XII: Political crises in Italy and Constantinople; Visigoths in Gaul (468-476)
Part XIII: Failed Restorations of Odoacer and Zeno
Part XIV: Successful restorations of Anastasius and Theoderic
Part XV: The Age of Justinian
Part XVI: Romans, Lombards, Persians
Part XVII: Phocas, Heraclius, Khorsow, Umar
Part XVIII: The Romans’ darkest hour
Part XIX: The beginning of the Middle Ages

Chronological division used in this post:

Early Empire: 27 BC-97

High Empire: 97-235

Middle Empire: 235-367

Late Empire: 367-493

Terminal Empire: 493-641

Early Late Antiquity: 235-396

Central Late Antiquity: 396-557

Terminal Antiquity: 557-718

Early Middle Ages: 718-961

Central Middle Ages: 961-1204

Late Middle Ages: 1204-1446

Early Modern: 1446-1635

Middle Modern: 1635-1820

Late Modern: 1820-2005

Postmodern/post-Western/social media: 2005-today


Early Industrial/New Imperialist/Age of Rail/”Great Divergence”: 1820-1950

Petroleum/postcolonial/television/atomic: 1950-

Other chronological terms used in this post:

“Late Roman” period: varies by region. Palestine: 135-324, Greece 270-619, Britain: 260-408, Tunisia: 235-439, Hispania: 235-461, Gaul: 235-486, Italy: 235-491

Old Rome: “753 BC”-312 AD

Principate: 27 BC-235/268 AD (after these dates, the empire becomes increasingly ruled directly by military dictators)

Classical Empire: 27 BC-305 AD

Postclassical Great Roman Empire: 306-640

Postclassical Lesser Roman Empire: 640-1453

Later [Great] Roman Empire (stable phase; unit of administrative analysis, especially for the Roman East): 286-602

Dominate: 235/68-395

New Rome/Romania (sometimes called “Byzantium” by modern scholars): 324-1453/1461/1475

Eastern Roman Empire: 253-260, 286-324, 337-353, 364-394, 395-554, 751-1453

Byzantine Empire: 324-1453

Hellenized Roman Empire/Rhomania (bizzarely and confusingly called “Byzantium” by most modern scholars): 641/718/751-1453

Some have sought to divide Late Antiquity in two, rather than three, calling the younger half the “Early Middle Ages” (e.g. Wickham uses this terminology), thus splitting the Middle Ages into four parts of equal length. I prefer not to do this. The period 476-557 still clearly belongs to Late Antiquity, as the people of the time were still attempting to preserve Roman institutions and most of the primary features of the Middle Ages simply did not exist at the time. Though Terminal Antiquity was the formative period of much of what we would see in the Middle Ages proper (e.g., the irruption of the Slavs and Turks, the formation of the Avar and Bulgar khaganates, the rise of the Roman silk monopoly, the rise of the Caliphate, the collapse of state institutions in France, the dissolution of Italy, the end of the gold standard in Western Europe, the end of non-trinitarian Christianity, the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the end of Anglo-Saxon and Irish paganism, etc.), due to the era generally having been, unlike the rest of the Middle Ages and like the rest of Late Antiquity, one of general decline of the Roman Empire, as well as of economic, artistic, and institutional sophistication in Southern Europe, the continuation of the Mediterranean trade, and the great similarity between Terminal Antiquity and Middle Late Antiquity in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Hispania, and Moorish North Africa, I believe Terminal Antiquity to more fit in tone and chronological length with the preceding two thirds of Late Antiquity. The two Doctors of the Church of Terminal Antiquity- Gregory I and Isidore of Seville- come from contexts recognizably connected to the Roman world. The two from the beginning of the Middle Ages (Bede and John of Damascus) come from political contexts with no relation whatsoever to the Roman Empire. For the Early Middle Ages following the Seventh Ecumenical Council, a time marked by the growing split between the churches of the Eastern and Western Roman people, there is a glaring absence of Church Doctors of any kind.

Part I: The Romans from Nerva to 376

“But,” argues he, “against our enemies anger is necessary.” In no case is it less necessary; since our attacks ought not to be disorderly, but regulated and under control. What, indeed, is it except anger, so ruinous to itself, that overthrows barbarians, who have so much more bodily strength than we, and are so much better able to endure fatigue? Gladiators, too, protect themselves by skill, but expose themselves to wounds when they are angry. Moreover, of what use is anger, when the same end can be arrived at by reason? Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills? Yet he meets them when they attack him, and follows them when they flee from him, all of which is managed by reason without anger. When so many thousands of Cimbri and Teutones poured over the Alps, what was it that caused them to perish so completely, that no messenger, only common rumour, carried the news of that great defeat to their homes, except that with them anger stood in the place of courage? And anger, although sometimes it overthrows and breaks to pieces whatever it meets, yet is more often its own destruction. Who can be braver than the Germans? Who charge more boldly? Who have more love of arms, among which they are born and bred, for which alone they care, to the neglect of everything else? Who can be more hardened to undergo every hardship, since a large part of them have no store of clothing for the body, no shelter from the continual rigour of the climate: yet Spaniards and Gauls, and even the unwarlike races of Asia and Syria cut them down before the main legion comes within sight, nothing but their own irascibility exposing them to death. Give but intelligence to those minds, and discipline to those bodies of theirs, which now are ignorant of vicious refinements, luxury, and wealth, —to say nothing more, we should certainly be obliged to go back to the ancient Roman habits of life.

Seneca, contra Yudkowsky

Table of Roman imperial crises and golden ages. One can quibble with the dates, but not the general pattern. The history of the Roman Empire can be divided into four distinct empires, each distinct empire lasting 350-390 years (mean of 375, if late republican and eleventh century crises are synced) -the Empire of Augustus (schematically 31 BC to 345 AD), the Empire of Constantine (schematically 345 to 720), the Empire of Leo the Isaurian (schematically 720 to 1095), and the Empire of Alexios I Komnenos (schematically 1095 to 1470). In the middle of these empires are always found five good emperors -Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius for the first, Anastasius, Justin I, Justinian, Tiberius II, and Maurice for the second, Theophilos, Basil I, Leo VI, Constantine VII, and Basil II for the third, the Emperors of Nikaia other than John IV Laskaris for the last.

Section 1.1: Background

Over the first two and a half centuries of the Roman Empire, the median population center shifted to the North and West, as improved agricultural techniques and increased internal security as a result of the complete absence of Roman civil wars and coups between the years 97 and 175 led to a population boom in Gaul. As Esmonde-Cleary writes in The Roman West (p. 463),

Indeed, in the later first century, the movement of production from the south Gaulish centres on the fringes of the Mediterranean world to the central Gaulish industries can be seen as this substitution process already under way. By the turn of the second and third centuries, the primacy was passing to the east Gaulish centres of the

Gaul itself -and even Britain- could now produce goods that had previously been only able to have been produced in Italy. Indeed, the late second century, the Rhineland had become just as Roman in character as Italy itself. Much the same process was occurring in the Roman Balkans. Roman theaters were being built along the Rhine, the Danube, in Morocco, and Britain. The Germans, barbaric, divided, and few and facing a united and undamaged Roman army apparatus, required very little commitment to successfully pacify outside the Marcomannic wars -but a great deal of commitment was provided regardless; the Roman army’s reach into West Germany and Great Britain reached its full extent during the reign of Antoninus Pius, the fourth of the Five Good Emperors , who never left Italy throughout his reign, a decision that would have utterly astonished the Romans of the fourth and even third centuries, when the armies had become far too politically unreliable for an actually powerful emperor to give them no personal attention. The Eastern provinces were also benefiting from imperial rule- due to increased settlement of Roman soldiers, theater construction was accelerating in Palestine and the Balkans during the late second and early third centuries. Due to the combined impact of Roman civil wars and the increasing power of the Empire’s enemies, this was no longer true by the mid-fourth century. Despite the decline since the High Empire, the Rhineland of the fourth century continued to be much more Romanized than in the days of that native of the city of Rome Octavius.

The Gate of Mars, Reims, northern Gaul, early third century

In those days, civilization, including the existence of great cities, a high degree of economic complexity, and great scholarship did not depend on the quality of the people, but on the quality of the land sustaining them. Adam Smith, when he thought of the “wealth of nations” was not thinking of “per capita wealth” but “per acre wealth” (thus low-wage China, due to having a high population density, was considered by him rich, but stagnant, while high-wage America, due to having a low population density, was considered by him poor, but rapidly increasing in wealth). The most civilized areas were still those that, like Egypt, southern Iraq, or the well-watered parts of Central Asia, could provide a combination of extreme, constant energy for plants by the scorching, unclouded light of the sun and, due either to rivers or aquifers, consistent access to water. Even in regards to dry farming, the hot-summer Mediterranean climate best fit the wheat strains of the day, while the hot-summer humid continental climate was then still then a preserve of barbarians, especially as one moved further North, toward the lands of the Picts, Scots, and Finns. The African continent’s low share of the Empire’s population masks its substantially higher share of the Empire’s food production and, consequently, tax revenue, especially outside the less populous provinces. Tunisia, Sicily, and Sardinia were the most important extrapeninsular sources of wheat for urban Italy. This is all the more impressive given these lands’ paucity of navigable rivers. The rich soils of the lowlands of Jutland and the pasturelands of Scythia were just beginning to be exploited with the heavy plow, and it was not Romans who were farming these soils. Probably over a fifth of central Italy’s food came from Tunisia; at least a third of Greece’s came from Egypt. Little wonder, then, that Tunisia was such a major center of monumental erection in Late Antiquity (map from The statues of Late Antiquity). Outside the Nile valley, the entirety of the agricultural core of the Roman Empire was Olive Country inhabited by Olive People. Sicily, Tunisia, and Sardinia exported urbanization to peninsular Italy, just as Egypt exported urbanization to peninsular Greece and much like England would export urbanization to the Continent between the late seventeenth century and c. 1760. Gaul and Britain were entirely self-sufficient in food at the time, but were certainly not major exporters. The Germans had barely lower per capita food production than the Romans (thus their famously greater stature than the Romans of the Empire’s Northeast and Near West), but also had far lower population density, much lower per capita production of luxuries, much lower consumption inequality, and much less developed institutions -extremely limited literacy (runes were invented at some point during the Early Empire; they first appear in Denmark during the High Empire), no coin-minting. Engel’s law was one of the most important laws of the premodern economy; the lower the share of output devoted to food, the more developed the economy was. The most barbarous peoples within the Empire lived off mountainous areas in Basque Country, Armorica, Highland Britain, inland Sardinia, the highlands of Isauria, parts of the West Balkans, the highlands of the Moors, etc., where land productivity is famously low, but not so low as to be unable to sustain a non-negligible human population. Food security as a key military consideration in Europe and Latin America would only cease to be of importance c. 1960 and in Asia c. 1990. The fact that it was Britain in the seventeenth century that would first reduce the agricultural share of employment to below 50% and increase the share of the top four largest cities to above a tenth of the population would have astounded the observers of antiquity. In the Roman Empire, only Italy met even so much as the second criterion, but unlike the Britain of 1700, it was a major net importer of foodstuffs from Tunisia and Egypt.

Prior to the invention of the printed book, due to fairly stagnant technology and human capital, the economic complexity of any long-settled society depended solely on the quality of its institutions. Roman institutions between the third century BC and seventh century AD were, outside the Empire’s political crises, highly conducive to large-scale industry. (first century AD Roman pottery industry in Southern Gaul was more developed than that of England in the eighteenth). As evidenced by the remarkable extent of Medieval Arab civilization at Cordoba and Grenada, there is strong evidence the institutions of the Caliphate, which borrowed substantially from Roman institutions after the Arab conquest of the Levant and Egypt, were not substantially inferior to those of the Empire. Unfortunately for the Arabs and Romans, their societies had no means whatsoever of progressively improving technology on a scale seen in Europe in Middle and Late Modern times. Agricultural technology, which, though it did not completely stagnate, increased land yields over the course of centuries (if at all), not, as in the Late Modern era, decades, and increased per capita yields by only a very moderate amount (again, if at all; as a rule, lower population given the same technology, institutions, and land meant higher per capita output, but this rule did not always hold). Neither the Middle Modern Ottoman urbanization rate nor population was higher than that under the emperor Justin over a thousand years before Turkish domination of the Eastern Mediterranean, and it was unlikely to have been too different from that under the Severan emperors more than thirteen hundred years before them. Very far away was the tendency that when northwestern European land yields could compare to Egyptian, northwestern Europeans would be on top in both the arts of war and peace.

Of the seven great problems any society had to overcome to originate modern economic growth -innate human capital conducive to large-scale private enterprise and innovation, institutions conducive to large-scale dynamic enterprise and education, sufficient human fertility and population density, a means for massive information transfer, sufficient per capita food production for farmers to be a minority of the population, a large quantity of usable energy, and speedy transportation – the Romans and their great Empire’s successors, the Arabs, only undeniably succeeded in the second and third. They succeeded in first, fourth, and seventh only very incompletely, the fifth only to the extent they had notable important breadbaskets, the sixth not at all. Britain, on the other hand, had solved all seven problems by 1820 (though it had to rely on imports to meet the fifth criterion by that point); the Netherlands had by this point solved all but the last two. After this point, there were certainly more innovations in regards to communications, agriculture, energy, and transporation technology, making it substantially easier for modern economic growth to spread to more regions. Today, all societies face only the first, second, and third constraints to modern economic growth; all others have been solved for them by Euro-American innovation. The East Asians had made inroads into resolving the second, fourth, and even sixth problems prior to the Western Europeans, but they did so rather fleetingly and incompletely, though there is no doubt they would have eventually resolved the fourth, then the sixth, then slowly the fifth and seventh problems all on their own over the pace of several centuries, though it is certain imperial interventions could have delayed this process. As for when the Roman Empire would have started on this process had it continued in its Antonine or Severine form without political interruption, I don’t know. It would definitely have required higher land yields in Britain, Gaul, and, yes, Western Greater Germany, as happened in real life over the course of the Middle Ages. Perhaps this process of rising land yields would have happened faster under the Romans had they not succumbed to their own political troubles; it was already happening at an astonishing speed under the High Empire. The glaring gap between the lands ruled by the Romans and those still ruled by the barbarians in present-day Germany during the later High Empire testifies to the marvellous ability of Roman institutions to boost agricultural production. Scheidel is wrong; getting to modern economic growth required not an escape from Rome, but an escape from illiteracy, famine, cold, and lengthy travel -none of which the Romans would have been at all opposed to, and all of which happened in northwestern Europe (most of which the Romans controlled in 220, and even in 400) in a space of about four hundred years.

The history of civilization may be divided into six periods: an astonishing urban efflorescence between Egypt and India in the third millennium BC, a period of stagnation (with the exception of the invention of the alphabet in Egypt and Lebanon and the invention of writing in China) until the beginning of the first millennium BC as Indo-Europeans established control over South Asia, Iran, and Southern Europe, astonishing expansion during the first millennium BC, a peak under the Romans and Han Dynasty and a collapse during Late Antiquity, a Southern European/Song Chinese revival to new heights during the Middle Ages, then Southern Europe and China thrusting back into Malthusianism over the next five hundred years as Japan and the European North continued their ascent (the so-called “little divergence” between c. 1300 and 1820 and so-called “great divergence” between 1820 and 1951), then a sudden reversal of the divergence starting in Italy in 1951 when the effects of improving transportation technology at last began to kick in (in the most developed countries this naturally began slightly earlier; around 1932-4 in America and around 1935 in Britain, but the global application of the phenomenon was naturally delayed by the war). Though the Mediterranean of Septimius Severus was genuinely substantially more economically complex than that a thousand years prior, that under the Emperor Justin (this was after the Ostrogothic and Vandalic conquests, but before the sixth/seventh century Roman-caused degredation of Italy and Tunisia) was at least somewhat comparable to that of the Early Republic, though it undoubtedly enabled stronger economic links between the extraordinarily fertile soils of Egypt and the philosophers of the Aegean. Vast positive changes occured in the Mediterranean, both West and East, over the course of the first millennium BC; no doubt this was due to the voyages of the Lebanese, the revival of the Anatolian trade with Assyria, and the Aryans’ invention of horseback riding. From this came the ascent of the Ancient Philistines (both Syrian and Palestinian), Israelites, Judahites, Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, neo-Hittites, Phrygians, Tartessians, Greeks, Lydians, Romans, Tuscans, Carthaginians, Hispanic Iberians, Umbrians, and Gauls. Given the vast civilizational advancement, especially outside Egypt, between the Mediterranean world of 1700 BC and the Mediterranean world of 700 BC, the Late Bronze Collapse is a dramatically overrated phenomenon. The second half of the first millennium BC naturally raised world civilization to new heights with the spread of Hellenism and the rise of Rome and Chang’an. In the first millennium AD, on the other hand, while everyone in the Roman Empire region suffered, other than perhaps the Egyptians, the pace of recovery from the Late Antique crisis (certainly much more severe than the Late Bronze collapse in purely economic terms, except in Syria and Egypt) was, very much unlike in the first millennium BC, when every region benefited, extremely uneven across the Mediterranean; in the lands near the shores of that lake, only Morocco, Italy (especially the Italian North) and to some extent Hispania and southern France saw any obvious improvement in urbanization and population between the years 400 and 1700. The two-millennia (at least, in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Greece)-long stagnation in urbanization and population from the days of the Ptolemies to the days of the Sultans was very unlikely to have been compensated by lower famine risk, suggesting extremely stagnant agricultural technology, or that any increase in agricultural technology was compensated for by a reduction in soil fertility. Long-civilized regions such as Egypt, parts of Central Asia, and Iraq could still produce interesting intellectual innovations in the first and even much of the second millenniums AD, and were without doubt the leading economies of the time until about the thirteenth century, when Paris, Milan, and Florence could at last seriously compare in accomplishment to Cairo, Baghdad, and Alexandria. But until these long stagnant regions had learned enough to get out of their <15 million population/under 35% urbanization trap (which may have taken thousands of years, given that Iraq, due to suboptimal institutions, was no more populous or urbanized in 1800 than in 3000 BC, and Egypt, as mentioned above, stagnated for two millennia), they could create nothing like the Anglo-American industrial revolution, which would, even given equivalent levels of urbanization, have been a lot more difficult for the long-civilized peoples than it was for the English and Americans due to the Egyptians’ and Iraqis’ lower natural human capital. Indeed, the Iraqis, Central Asians, and Egyptians greatly struggled to adapt to new circumstances created by the rapid rise of English and French civilizational complexity during the Middle and Late Modern eras until the television age.

The population of the whole Roman Empire c. 100 and c. 350 (it is widely accepted to have peaked just before the Antonine plague, as that is when famine complaints reach their peak and is just before one hears of land abandonment) was about the same as that of Italy today. That on the African continent was around twelve million, that on the Asian continent around fifteen million, and that on the European continent just over thirty million. Some four fifths of the Empire’s population worked in agriculture; about a sixth of the Empire’s population lived in cities. These ratios are not substantially different from those in eighteenth century Japan, most of Europe, or the Empire’s most direct successor, both geographically and politically (though not culturally)- the Ottoman Sultanate. The share of tax revenue from agriculture was even larger (~90%?), as a smaller portion of non-agricultural activity was taxed than agricultural. What little evidence we have suggests about a quarter of the Empire’s agricultural product went to taxes in the more strategic areas (Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 64) and there isn’t any strong evidence this changed much outside the third (due to currency devaluation) and (in the West only) fifth centuries throughout the six and a half centuries of the Empire’s history as the sole Great Power in the Eastern Mediterranean. About a quarter of the cost of taxation was spent just on tax collection; a great deal was wasted on corruption. Unlike for the Ottomans, at no point is there any evidence (other than perhaps in Western Europe after the loss of Tunisia and, more plausibly, in Italy and Tunisia after the sixth century Roman reconquest) to suggest the Roman rate of taxation was on the bad end of the Laffer Curve, though it probably was not too far from its peak. The world of the High and Late Empires and was, especially in the West, primarily one of tenant farmers: most agricultural workers rented their land and paid a part of their output (generally between one and two fifths) to their landlord, in addition to that part paid in taxes. This is in sharp contrast to the world of today, in which farm workers do not pay rent, but are paid wages. Yeoman cultivation and wage labor was substantially more prevalent in the East than in the West. Greece was the most Westernized part of the East; Apulia was the most Easternized part of the West. Slavery as an economic institution in the High and Late Empires was marginal and dying out (Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, Chapter 5) due to a low supply of new slaves. As a social institution, however, it was alive and well. Slaves (servi) continued to constitute about a tenth of the population of the Empire, higher in the West than in the East. Harper (Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 p. 59) estimates “the wealthiest 1.365% of Roman society owned 49% of slaves”. They continued to work the fields, generally along the tenant farmer model. Slavery as a social institution would only experience a major crisis during the beginning of the Dark Ages, which, despite every Roman effort, resulted in a much greater degree of economic equality than before.

By the beginning of the third century, the Roman Empire could be said to have ten cultural regions: Northwest (Britain and Gaul), North central (the Balkans), Northeast (Anatolia), far East (Syria and Palestine), Southeast (Egypt), South (Libya), Southwest (Tunisia and Morocco), far West (Hispania), and Near West (Italy). The Empire’s four largest cities were, in order, Rome (population some half a million), Alexandria (population some 300 thousand), Carthage (population some 100 thousand), and Antioch (population some 90 thousand), these four cities combined containing about a sixtieth of the Empire’s population (the equivalent statistic for the USA, counting MSA’s instead of cities, is one seventh; the number for the less suburbanized Russia is also one seventh). The Roman mid-third to mid-fourth centuries would be characterized by the increasing cultural dominance of the North Central region; the Roman fifth century would be characterized by the increasing political dominance of the Greater Germans in the West, while this would largely be prevented in the East, where political and military leadership continued to be in the hands of men from the less prosperous regions of the Empire.

Section 1.2: The political situation of Marcus Aurelius and the Severan era

SOURCES: Herodian, Cassius Dio

The idea that it should matter when various elderly people die is absolutely a sign of a bad system.


During the first two thirds of the second century, the Empire seemed to go effortlessly from triumph to triumph. The last of the Roman client kingdoms, Nabatea, was annexed by Trajan and a Roman vexillation base was placed at Humayma to secure the perimeter. The city of Dura Europos was captured from the Parthians in 166 under the expert generalship of Avidus Cassius. The City of Rome and the entire rest of the Empire was being inundated with new civic monuments. Coinage was limited to the City of Rome, as there was only one imperial claimant, and he had to be approved by the urban Senate to achieve legitimacy.

It is during the reign of Marcus Aurelius when we start to see all three of the factors that would lead to the decline and fall of the Empire. The wars of the Marcomanns seems rather quaint when comparing the devastating Germanic incursions of the mid-third, late fourth, early fifth, and mid-sixth centuries. The usurpation of Avidus Cassius seems rather quaint when given the devastating civil wars of the third, fourth, fifth (in the West), seventh, ninth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The elevation of Commodus, needless to say, reads almost like a parody of the evils of hereditary monarchy, but his sordid reign would be utterly quaint when compared to the incompetence of a Caracalla or Gratian or, worse still, the impotence of an Elagabalus, Severus Alexander, Gordian III, Valentinian II, Honorius, Arcadius, Valentinian III, and Theodosius II.

The Empire had four primary methods of imperial succession: intended non-hereditary succession, coup, intended hereditary succession, and unintended succession (in the event of an Emperor’s unexpected natural death). As a rule, only the first and last could be considered legitimate by both the military and landed aristocracy. Attempts in the late second century to change the normal mode of the origin of emperors to hereditary succession backfired tremendously. Prior to the third century, the landed aristocracy was the sole legitimate source of emperors. During the third century, the sole legitimate source of emperors became the military. After preliminary beginnings under Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, the sixth century at last saw a return to reasonably stable politics with Anastasius and Justinian. Indeed, the sixth century saw something like a postclassical repeat of the Five Good Emperors, allowing the Eastern Romans space to take back the City of Rome, Ravenna, Sardinia, and Sicily from the Ostrogoths, the southern Hispanic coast from the Visigoths, and Tunisia, the Baleares and Sardinia from the Vandals, as well as many cities in Armenia from the Persians.

One weak link in the chain of imperial succession could spiral out into a permanent, irreversible crisis. The first time hereditary succession was attempted in the Empire, in the year 79, didn’t lead to much damage since the chosen heir was nearly forty years old at the time, happened to be reasonably adequate as a ruler, and died of illness after two years of rule. The second time it was attempted, by Marcus Aurelius in 177, born in the City of Rome and the last of the Five Good Emperors, it had clearly unsatisfactory results. His son and chosen sucessor, Commodus, born in Lanuvium, Italy, was widely disliked for his vanity and was killed in 192, chronologically midway between the beginning of the Principate and Alaric’s sack of Rome.

The resulting series of insurrections led to the rise of the first emperor in over a hundred twenty years to win his position through a civil war, the first Roman Emperor to be born of a non-Italian father, the first Roman Emperor to seriously favor the military over the Senate, and the first Roman Emperor to declare his son Emperor before the age of ten. In short, Septimius Severus, born in Leptis Magna, Libya, was the first Midddle Roman Emperor, though I count his dynasty, due to it continuing the Antonine legacy of frontier defenses and investment in civic monuments, to still be a part of the High Empire. Severus, with the third attempt to impose hereditary monarchy upon the empire, began the practice of prepubescent emperors by appointing his son, Caracalla, born in today’s Lyon, full co-emperor at age nine in 198. He also made major devaluations to the Roman denarius, likely in response to major declines in silver mining possibly resulting from the Antonine Plague, while simultaneously moving away from the minting of base metal coinage and towards the minting of denarii. A progressive debasement of the silver percentage of the denarius had already been ongoing since the reign of Antoninus Pius, but Septimius Severus’s sudden debasement was something extremely novel. Due to the military becoming an increasingly inopportune occupation for natives of the Empire, Severus also greatly increased military pay and launched a major drive to recruit men from Greater Germany into the Roman army, a pattern that would become increasingly prominent over the next three centuries. Severus also expanded the size of the Roman army by two legions, increased garrison forces on the Arabian frontier, sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon in an attempt to expand the borders of the Empire to the East, resulting in the Empire’s gaining a new Province of Mesopotamia around Nisibis and beginning of the collapse of the Parthian dynasty, and, in an attempt to expand the borders of the Empire South, built a chain of fortifications in the Libyan desert that would last for about three quarters of a century. The forty years between 198 and 238 would thus be the period of the Roman Empire’s greatest territorial extent other than its brief foray into southern Iraq, cut short by the Kitos War, under Trajan in 116-117.

Caracalla, aged 22, came to power with the death of Severus from natural causes in 211. In 212, in the final step in the expansion of rights once held only by the upper class of the City of Rome, all free men in the Empire were given the status of Roman citizen in order to increase inheritance tax revenue for Caracalla’s building projects and for increases in military pay and size, as only Roman citizens could serve in the legions. Caracalla’s edict was, however, little noted by commentators of the day because it was simply a natural step in the process of the Empire of the City of Rome’s transformation into an Empire of the Romans (meaning Mediterranids, and, later, meaning Greeks and those under Papal rule), much like the Chinese Empire was an Empire of the Chinese and the Empire of Japan an Empire of the Japanese. In an imperialistic republic, the maintenance of the privilege of citizenship to a select people is simply a practical necessity. A Briton is not an Indian, and a Japanese is not a Chinese. In a territorially stable hereditary monarchy, on the other hand, there is no reason for citizenship to be a meaningful construct except to distinguish subjects from foreigners. The American equivalent to the Edict was the expansion of citizenship rights to the Indians and Puerto Ricans.

Caracalla was killed by the military in 217, chronologically midway between the triumph of Octavius and the defeat of Majorian. His sucessor, Macrinus, a member of the Praetorian Guard born of equisterian origin in today’s Cherchell, Algeria, was the first Roman Emperor to come from completely outside the senatorial class. He lasted for one year before being overthrown by the military for having lost Caracalla’s Parthian war. His successor, Elagabalus, was only fourteen when he became Emperor, was widely derided as unfit for the job due to his outright bizarre behavior (evident from coins) and was killed by the military in 222. His successor, Severus Alexander, born in Arqa, Lebanon, came to the throne at the age of fourteen and was widely praised in later accounts as a decent, if relatively weak ruler. It was under him that gold coinage became increasingly unstandardized in weight.

Section 1.3: The Third Century Crisis

SOURCES: Herodian, Aurelius Victor

The soldiers were therefore ready for a change of emperors. They had additional reasons for discontent: they considered the current reign burdensome because of its long duration; they thought it profitless for them now that all rivalry had been eliminated; and they hoped that the reign which they intended to institute would be advantageous to them and that the empire would be much coveted and highly valued by a man who received it unexpectedly. They plotted now to kill Alexander and proclaim Maximinus emperor and Augustus, since he was their fellow soldier and messmate and seemed, because of his experience and courage, to be the right man to take charge of the present war.

Some demanded for execution the commanding general of the army and Alexander’s associates, pretending that they were responsible for the revolt. Others condemned the emperor’s greedy mother for cutting off their money, and despised Alexander for his pettiness and stinginess in the matter of gifts. For a time they did nothing but shout this barrage of charges. When the army of Maximinus came into view, the clamoring recruits called upon Alexander’s soldiers to desert the miserly woman and the timid, mother-dominated youth; at the same time they urged his soldiers to join them in supporting a brave and intelligent man, a fellow soldier who was always under arms and busy with military matters. Convinced, Alexander’s troops deserted him for Maximinus, who was then proclaimed emperor by all.


Average annual number of statue bases per period in the Roman Empire, from The Statues of Late Antiquity 

Alexander was killed and replaced by the military in 235. At this point, the Roman army numbered (according to Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army, basing his estimates of MacMullen) 385,000. Maximinus Thrax, a capable and courageous general of Thracian peasant birth who had risen into the equisterian rank, rose to power and conducted many highly impressive military campaigns and infrastructure restorations, but was loathed by the Senate due to his extreme partiality toward the military and against those with property. He was killed during the Year of the Six Emperors by his own men while engaging in a siege of Aquileia as Pupienus, proclaimed emperor by the Senate on 22 April, was marching on him. Both Pupienus and his co-emperor, Balbinus, were killed by the Praetorian Guard on 29 July 238. The final third century experiment in child emperors came with Gordian III from 238 to 244, who died during a campaign against the Persians. After his death, the idea of child emperors was abandoned for nearly a century, with most of the Roman emperors being mere military dictators. By this point, as demonstrated from my naming the birth places of the emperors, the officer corps was dominated by men originating in the Balkans, especially the regions today constituting Croatia and Serbia (during the High Empire, the army seems to have recruited more from Moors and Levantines). Their progeny are the reason for why the Romance languages are spoken in what used to be Transdanubian Dacia, then became Southwestern Gothia, then became the homeland of the West and South Slavs, and is now called, fittingly, Romania. The Roman Empire would never again be free of civil war for any period longer than a decade until the days of Anastasius, born in Dyrrhachium in Albania, under whom there was peace between 497 and 513.

Sarcophagus of Balbinus

The killing of Severus Alexander began the Crisis of the Third Century -a half-century long series of coups, civil wars, rebellions, relentless currency debasement, massive military triumphs by the Persians, now under a new and more aggressive dynasty of Ardashir I, and massive military triumphs by the Goths, a Germanic ethnicity that had expanded into western Ukraine by the end of the second century and were first historically recorded as being in the Empire in a Greek inscription from Imtan, Syria dating to 208. The Pax Romana and all its products -the Second Sophistic, high quality mass-produced art, widespread secular urban public building, a thriving Roman Belgium, southwestern Germany, and southern Netherlands- died during that crisis. The crisis in Gaul was most severe. According to the Camridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (p. 230), “A. Grenier first surveyed the surface areas of cities in Gaul during the high and later empire and established that the average surface area for seven cities in the high empire (Autun, Nimes, Cologne, Avenches, Lyon, Vienne, and Saintes) was 168 hectares and that this figure diminished by almost 90 percent in the later empire.” Even normal trade with the Germans was temporarily broken off -as Thomas Burns writes in his Rome and the Barbarians (p. 287),

The normal importation of Roman coinage brought about by regular economic, diplomatic, and ceremonial exchange apparently ceased around A.D. 250 and did not resume until the reign of Constantine I (306–37), although this varied slightly from area to area… the influx of coinage from sources such as payments for service as allies and tribute seems to have followed by a few years the breakdown of regular exchange, suggesting that a factor in the eagerness of these most distant allies to serve Rome was their need to renew their supplies of prestige goods.

The northern Rhine frontier moved from the Rhine to an approximate line from Neuss to Odenburg as a result of the reconquest of the Gallic Empire, an usurper regime in Gaul that arose in 260 and was finally destroyed in 274 by the emperor Aurelian, the single most energetic emperor in all Roman history, likely responsible for destroying what remained of the Library of Alexandria during his reconquest of the usurper Palmyrene regime, the man who gave his name to Orleans, and the first Emperor to title himself “DEO ET DOMINO“, born somewhere in today’s Serbia. It is no coincidence that it was Aurelian, in a stunning display of the mid-third century decline of Roman defensive strategy from comprehensive defense to defense in depth, who built the City of Rome’s famous walls, confining the Eternal City to an area of 4.9 square American miles. The devastating effect of the Roman reconquest of the Gallic Empire was felt throughout the rest of Gaul, as well, especially in Armorica. At the beginning of the Crisis, the Roman Empire had been capable of launching large-scale attacks right into the center of modern Germany. After it, Levefanum, Noviomagus, and Mannaricum are the only Roman forts in the Netherlands to show even minor signs of fourth century reuse (Esmonde-Cleary, The Roman West, p. 48). Every single major unsucessful insurrection (Gallic Empire, Magnentius, Maximus, Constantine III, Aegidius) out of Britain and Gaul would result in irreversible archaeologically visible decline for their region. However, the territorial losses the Roman Empire during the Crisis of the Third Century experienced were, in comparison to those of the fifth and seventh centuries, minor to the extreme for the Empire, though of enormous benefit to the Goths, Alamans, Franks, and Moors. Only portions of the Netherlands, Belgium, southeastern Germany, Morocco, Libya, Romania, and Russia were abandoned- in all, under 5% of the Empire’s population. The great cities of the Rhine -Cologne, Bonn, Andernach, Koblenz, Boppard, Mainz, Worms, Speyer, Strasbourg, Basel, Kaiseraugst, Konstanz, Chur – and of the Danube – Regensburg, Vienna, Budapest, Beograd, Drmno, Drobeta, Archar, Cartier Celei, Svishtov, Capidava, Isaccea -still firmly remained under imperial control. However, the Empire’s population had surely declined by more than 5% due to its constant wars and epidemics. This reduction in both food demand and labor supply, combined with the soil depletion and poor land maintenance that had become an increasing issue of concern since the late second century, had turned the Roman polity’s rapidly expanding cultivation and high unemployment during the Late Republic and Early Empire into an outright labor shortage and a severe problem with deserted land by the end of the third century.

Section 1.4: Diocletianic Restoration

SOURCES: John the Lydian, Lactantius, Aurelius Victor, Edict on Maximum Prices, Aphrodisias Currency Revaluation edict, the Twelve Latin Panegyrics, Antonine Itinerary, Chester Beatty papyri, Justinian Code

The so-called “Amphitheatrum Castrense” in the City of Rome, dating to the time of Elagabulus, turned by Aurelian into a portion of his wall. The third story of the ampitheater has almost disappeared. From Google Street View.

Luckily for the Romans, unlike during the fourth (for both Eastern and Western empires) and fifth (for the West) centuries, their military capability did not greatly decline from the beginning of the third century to its end. The losses of the 230s (Year of the Six Emperors, Ardashir’s capture of Nisibis, Harran, and Dura-Europos), 240s (Gordian III, Philip the Arab), 250s (Decius, Valerian), and 270s (Aurelian’s withdrawal from Dacia Traiana and the Agri Decumates) seem to have been largely made up by the gains of the 260s (Odaenathus, Claudius II), 280s (Probus, Carus, Diocletian), and especially 290s (Constantius, Diocletian, Galerius). This was accomplished by redirecting expenditure from the civilian sector. Local government revenue was diverted to the central government, crippling local public building construction and officially sponsored sculpture. Widespread manufacture of statue replicas ended around 260. Due to economic weakness, Italy, including the City of Rome, increasingly became less cosmopolitan, a fact very long recognized. Italy’s cultural localization coincided with political decentralization. As a means of better organizing the defense of the homeland and regime, the Roman Empire was federalized into Eastern and Western halves for the first time by Valerian, born in the senatorial rank, between himself and his son, Gallienus, in 253. This arrangement ended with Valerian’s capture by the Persians in 260, but was restored by Carus, who divided the empire between his sons, and was kept by Diocletian, born in the vicinity of Salona, Croatia and one of the very few emperors to desire a restoration of non-hereditary succession. The year 286, when Diocletian permitted his friend Maximian, born near the Middle Danube frontier, to proclaim himself Emperor of the West in response to the usurpation of Carausias, less than one year after Diocletian’s coming to power through his defeat of Carinus in today’s Serbia and chronologically midway between Octavius’s triumph at Actium and the killing of Maurice, is considered by many the start of the Later Roman Empire.

The geography of Diocletian’s East and Maximian’s West was in most respects remarkably similar. The mean geographic center of the whole Empire, of course, (considering seas the same as land) was near the village of Korce in Albania, and the mean center of population could not have been too different (the median center, of course, was substantially to the West and slightly to the North; i.e., in Southern Italy). Both contained similar populations (20-30 million for the East, 22-36 million for the West). Both contained a core/capital zone in the northern Mediterranean (Italy for the West, Anatolia for the East) protected by high and lengthy mountain ranges (the Alps for the West, the Taurus for the East), a frontier zone for the defense of the core (the upper Danube frontier for the West, the Persian front for the East), a frontier zone bordering Greater Germany (Gaul for the West, the Balkans for the East), a vital food producing region in the South (Tunisia for the West, Egypt for the East), and coasts bounding the eastern and western sides of the Mediterranean (Hispania for the West, the Levant for the East), as well as additional, less important African territories to the West of their main food-producing areas (Morocco and Algeria for the West, Cyrenaica for the East). The primary distinction between the geography of the Eastern and Western Empires was that over 80% of the Western Empire’s population was located on the European continent, while less than 20% of the Eastern Empire’s population was. The Eastern Empire’s crossing point between continents was also located directly between its frontier zone bordering Greater Germany and its core, while the West’s was located a month’s journey away from its core. The core region of the Eastern Empire also contained a substantially greater portion of its population (30-40%) than the core region of the Western Empire (20-30%). This would become a vital part in explaining why it would be the West that would be the first to be finally confined to its core, while the East would have to wait until the Arab conquest to experience the same.

Odaenathus, who broke the back of the Persians and was assassinated in Anatolia in 267, Claudius, whose armies defeated the Goths at Nessos and began the reconquest of the Gallic Empire and who died after an illness in 270, Aurelian, who ended Gothic attempts to settle the lands South of the Danube, ended the raids of the Alamans into Italy, reconquered the Palmyrene and Gallic Empires, and was killed by the military in 275, Probus, born in Sirmium, Serbia, who restored the Rhine frontier against the Franks, Lugii, and Burgundians and was killed by the military in 282, Carus, born in Narbonne, who defeated the Persians on the Tigris and died under mysterious circumstances in 283, and Diocletian, who resigned in 305 undefeated, would go down in history as the men who restored Old Rome. So great was the success of Maximian and Diocletian that in 298/9, Maximian even found time to visit the City of Rome and begin the construction of the the largest public baths in Rome’s history. Diocletian and Maximian finally both found time to visit the caput mundi in 303, Diocletian possibly for the first time in his life. They had every reason to celebrate. Together, they had ended the Crisis of the Third Century.

Wall of the garrison of Lucus Augusti, Hispanic Galicia, late third century, Google Street View

Diocletian and Maximian reorganized the tax system in order to reverse the negative effects of the later third century inflation on revenue. Starting in 293, they attempted a coinage reform of the same manner Aurelian had with his aurelianianus -substituting old, heavily debased coinage, with new, slightly higher value coinage, the nominal appreciation being higher than the actual appreciation. The reform was intended to be highly broad based, even ending Egypt’s traditional status as a separate currency zone based on the drachma. Since coinage was no longer minted solely from Rome, mint marks were added to the coins. During the same reform, Diocletian first restarted the minting of real silver coins for the first time since the days of Septimius Severus, though, due to Gresham’s Law, this minting would remain very small-scale and intermittent until after 355. Precious metal coinage was still a store of large value, rather than an actually used medium of exchange. The centerpiece of the reform and the most widely minted medium of exchange during his reign were 4% silver billon nummi, which, despite Diocletian’s refusal to debase them throughout his reign and their threefold increase in weight and two and a half-fold increase in silver content over Aurelian’s billon coins, were, due to the unacceptably large nominal appreciation, not entirely trusted by the populace (thus resulting and Diocletian’s infamous Price Edict). For smaller change, a radiate fractal coin was issued. These, however, were not used as a unit of account -that was a ghost currency, the denarius communis. In January 300, the emperors, responding to rising prices in nummi, increased the nummus‘s unit of account value by fiat from 5 to 12.5 dc. On September 1, 301, the emperors doubled the unit of account value of the nummus by fiat from 12.5 to 25 dc, crippling creditors, who the emperors mandated had to accept half the coins for the same pre-September 1 debt. The two nominal revaluations did not, however, result in the expected rapid fall in prices, as the currency stock had not contracted. As a result, Diocletian issued his extremely wide-ranging Edict on Maximum Prices three months later while increasing the pay of numerous officials in an attempt to simultaneously please the officials and soldiers and conserve government expenditure. Despite violations of the price edict being punishable by death, it eventually stopped being enforced after sellers refused to obey. Heirs of Maximinus Thrax, militarily effective as they might be, don’t make for the best designers of economic policy.

Gate of Diocletianopolis, Bulgaria, Google Street View

Then much blood was shed for the veriest trifles; men were afraid to expose anything to sale, and the scarcity became more excessive and grievous than ever, until, in the end, the ordinance, after having proved destructive to multitudes, was from mere necessity abrogated. To this there were added a certain endless passion for building, and on that account, endless exactions from the provinces for furnishing wages to labourers and artificers, and supplying carriages and whatever else was requisite to the works which he projected. Here public halls, there a circus, here a mint, and there a workhouse for making implements of war; in one place a habitation for his empress, and in another for his daughter. Presently great part of the city was quitted, and all men removed with their wives and children, as from a town taken by enemies; and when those buildings were completed, to the destruction of whole provinces, he said, “They are not right, let them be done on another plan.” Then they were to be pulled down, or altered, to undergo perhaps a future demolition. By such folly was he continually endeavouring to equal Nicomedia with the city Rome in magnificence.

Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died

Diocletian’s intent had been to strengthen both defensive and offensive military capability, defang the military from going outside its purview, restore an acceptably non-inflationary currency, and restore a reasonable proccess of succession. All of these achievements would fall apart before the century following Diocletian’s resignation was over. The only one of his achievements that survived beyond that century was the pacification of Egypt, which would only end with the rebellion of Heraclius in the early seventh century. The monetary system, at least, would be stabilized for some six hundred years on lines somewhat different than Diocletian had originally planned on.

For several decades, however, the army reforms of Diocletian were successful in restoring its strength against the Persians and barbarians. The army of Diocletian was said by John the Lydian to have been 389,704 men and its seaborne forces (the Roman Empire did not fight naval battles; it did transport troops by sea and use patrol ships) 45,562 men, and this figure appears (at least, according to all written sources) to have been greatly expanded during his reign due to the institution of two emperors encouraging redundancy. Soldiers became conscripted in the same way taxes were collected -through demanding a quota from landowners and cities’ lands. The number of provinces was increased, to both ease the burden on commanders and to make usurpations more difficult. The number of garrison forces was increased, resulting in the construction of massive new walls around cities in Gaul and northern Hispania and the expansion of a thousand-year old tradition of fortification in the the deserts of southern Palestine begun by the Omrides and expanded by the Judahites and Assyrians. The fortunes of Sirmium on the Sarmatian frontier and Trier in the Rhineland dramatically improved.

As the Empire was divided, however, so were legions, into units similar in size to High Imperial vexillations. An excellent example of this is the old fifteen hectare (?) Legio VI Ferrata base next to Maximianopolis/Kefar Othnay in the Jezreel Valley, comparable in size to the 16.7 hectare camp at Featherwood East, the 16.1 hectare camp at Bellshiel, and 15.8 hectare camp at Featherwood West, all North of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as the 15.3 hectare Legio III Cyrenaica camp at Bostra in southern Syria. Under Diocletian, the Legio VI Ferrata base next to Maximianopolis was decommissioned and the legion moved to a 4.6 hectare fort at Augustopolis on the Arabian frontier (this base is currently being increasingly damaged by modern construction, as is much else in Jordan), almost exactly the same in size as the 4.5 hectare Legio IV Martia base at Betthoro in Moab and comparable to the 3 hectare Trajanic fort at Humayma designed for a vexillation of a thousand men. The 3.7-fold reduction in legionary base size strongly suggests the Diocletianic legion had been reduced to 1500 men (5500 principate legion divided by 3.7). This is without a doubt a maximum figure, very likely reduced still further by later emperors. Vexillations became units of five to six hundred men, about the equivalent of a High Imperial cohort. The 2.1 hectare fort at Mefa (Umm er-Rasas South), comparable to the 1.88 hectare Severan fort at Umm el-Quttein designed for one cohort of the Augusta Thracum Equitata (now destroyed by modern construction, though outlines are still visible; see Kennedy, The Roman Army in Jordan, p. 82) seems sufficient to hold one Diocletianic infantry vexillation. “Cohorts”, “maniples”, and “centuries” also shrank, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe the standard of a cohort being a tenth of a legion was ever abandoned. Diocletianic Betthoro (The Roman Army in Jordan, p. 155) contains barracks arranged in twenty blocks- four groups of four blocks of sixteen rooms, plus three additional blocks of twelve rooms and one (two?) additional block of six, making altogether about three hundred residential rooms. From the papyrological evidence, it appears the cohort was a unit of some 160 men, and that the ala had shrunk from a unit of about 550 men to one of about 120 (on this, see Duncan-Jones, Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy, p. 111). The 160 men figure is quite concordant with 32 Betthorus rooms assuming one room housed five men. The smallest Diocletianic forts in Jordan (Qasr el-Hallabat, Yotvata, Qasr eth-Thuraiya) are all about .14 hectares in size. The one Roman fort in Jordan where a cohort is known with absolute certainty to have been stationed both under Diocletian and the first Theodosius was also just .14 hectares in size (actually less; the interior of the site is only some 1000 square meters). This is just enough space to hold thirty-two Diocletianic barrack rooms -but no more (the combined area of the two sixteen-room barrack blocks on the Eastern side of the Diocletianic fort at Dajaniyah, including the corridor separating them, is 1200 square meters). It thus appears that the Diocletianic legion was divided into ten cohorts, eight of these being 160 men, the other two being 120, or “roughly the size of an old maniple“.

The Diocletianic fort of Qasr Bshir (Castra Praetorii Mobeni), Jordan, the best preserved Roman fort in the world, with enough stabling rooms for 63 horses. Sixteen kilometers to the NE of the Diocletianic legionary base of the IV Martia at Lejjun/Betthorus, ten kilometers South of the fortlet of Qasr eth-Thuraiya, and nineteen kilometers to the SSE of the base (half the size of a legionary base) at Kastrom Mefa’a (the Mefa of the Notitia).

Despite this shift of funds toward the military, the grain dole for the major Roman cities was not reduced, and was possibly even expanded. The liberty of landless tenants to leave the land they resided on was restricted, thus providing a great stimulus to agriculture both in the Roman West and East. The reforms worked -the Carausian usurpation, two Egyptian usurpations, the Moors threatening the Roman Southwest, and, most importantly, the Persians threatening the Roman Far East were all crushed in a highly decisive fashion. A great column was set up under Diocletian in Alexandria, the largest such outside the imperial cities of Europe, which stands even unto this day, commemorating the victory over the usurpation of Domitius Domitianus. The more one learns about the events of the coming centuries, the more impressive Diocletian’s accomplishments look.

Red granite column of Diocletian in Alexandria

In 293, the same year as their coinage reform, Diocletian and Maximian appointed their most capable generals, Galerius, who would go on to crush the Persians and build one of the last great monumental complexes of the Classical Empire, the fortress of Felix Romuliana in Serbia, and Constantius, who would go on to reconquer Britain and northern Gaul from Carausius and Allectus, to serve as their successors. Both men were, naturally, born within the borders of present-day Serbia. Both would die of natural causes quite early -Constantius on 25 July 306; Galerius on 5 May 311. The result of the premature death of the first was the breakdown of Diocletian’s system and the triumph of new attempts at hereditary succession with the ascent of his son, Constantine.

Section 1.5: The War of the Eight Princes

SOURCES: Agathias, Zosimus, Lactantius, Aurelius Victor, the Twelve Latin Panegyrics, the Verona List

Overall, I find it hard to think of the eras of Diocletian and the Valentinians to be anything other than restorations of imperial strength, while I find it hard to think of the war-torn eras of Constantine I, Constantius II, Julian, and Theodosius I to be anything other than presaging the fall of the Western Empire that began in 406-8. Without any precedent, Diocletian and Maximian resigned in favor of their designated successors on May 1, 305 (something a good many government officials who have stayed on in the same office for over a fifth of a century don’t do even today). The arrangement they had created quickly began to fall apart with the usurpation of Constantine, born in Nish, Serbia, on the event of his father’s death in York, Britain. The resignation of Diocletian and the ascent of Constantine constitute a convenient chronological midpoint between the triumph of Octavius and the Arabs’ triumph over Heraclius, and, if one wishes, a convenient boundary marker between the Classical and Postclassical empires. If Diocletian were the Julius Caesar of the Postclassical Empire, Constantine was its Octavius. The Romans, thus, quickly fell into their equivalent of the Chinese War of the Eight Princes, the Roman equivalents being Constantine (won the war), Valerius Severus (deposed with Maxentius’s capture of Ravenna in April 307), Maxentius (usurped power in Rome with the support of the Praetorian Guard on October 28, 306; drowned at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge six years later), Maximian (aligned with Constantine; forced to commit suicide by Constantine after a failed rebellion against him in Arles in 310), Domitius Alexander (seized power in Tunisia in 308, allied with Constantine against Maxentius, defeated by Maxentius), Galerius (failed to conquer Italy from Maxentius; died of bowel cancer in 311), Maximinus Daza (failed to conquer Balkans from Licinius in April 313, died in Tarsus in July 313), and Licinius (won against Maximinus Daza in the Balkans in 313; took the rest of the Roman East with Maximinus Daza’s death). By the end of 308, the Empire possessed two “official” emperors (Galerius in the East and Licinius in Pannonia/”the West”), two partially recognized usurpers (Constantine in Trier and Maximinus Daza in Antioch), and two unrecognized usurpers (Maxentius, the son of the late Western emperor Maximian, in the City of Rome and Domitius Alexander, not recognized by Maxentius, in Carthage). Imperial debasement of the nummus, unthought of by Diocletian, began two years after his resignation and became extremely severe and continuous for the next several decades. Roman price inflation between 301 and 359/67 averaged a Belarussian 16%-18% per year (The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, p. 236).

Constantine, thus, became the primary innovator of the Roman army of the fourth century, separating units of the field army (auxilia palatina and comitatenses) from those of the garrison army (limitanei). Soon after his capture of the City of Rome at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he disbanded the Praetorian Guard and demolished their barracks on the border of the city, and soon after founded the scholae to replace them as imperial guards -the City of Rome, where the Praetorian Guard was based, had long ceased to be a permanent imperial residence. After he reunified the Empire, the term “vexillation” stopped being used to refer to infantry units altogether, becoming instead used for units of 350 (the number is based on Ammianus Marcellinus) to five or six hundred (upper bound) horsemen. During his time (apparently during 310-312), the Roman military peaked in size (according to a source apparently used by Agathias and Zosimus; on this, see the discussion in Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army, Chapter 2) at an astonishing 645,000 men -more than 1% of the Empire’s total population, and as much as 10% of the Empire’s eligible population -a figure substantiated by the panegyrics. The firmest possible proof of this is not textual sources, however, but the evidence of archaeology for the construction of new town walls combined with the occupation of new (or re-occupation of old) forts and, still more conclusively, that the Persians stayed rather quiet and that the barbarians, so far as anyone can tell, were no great threat. The civil wars of Magnentius, Maximus, and Eugenius would be extremely different in their consequences.

Section 1.6: Construction of Constantinople

SOURCES: Eusebius, Zosimus, Hesychius, John the Lydian, Socrates

However, despite its loss of status as the imperial residence, the City of Rome remained the largest city in the Mediterranean, home to some three hundred thousand people, though definitely down from the half million or so during the Early Empire. Only Alexandria, a city even further from any major frontier, could compare in size. In monuments, of course, Rome was extremely overbuilt, leaving no further room for improvement. It only made sense, thus, for a new great city to be established for the East -not Antioch, too far from the Goths, or Sirmium, too isolated from Persia, but somewhere in between these two extremes. In order to restore some of the glories of the massive public building and imperial ceremonies of the Principate while preserving the frontier-focused structure of the Dominate, Byzantium was selected in 324, some three and a half centuries after the triumph of Octavius and some three and a half centuries prior to Constantine IV’s victories over the Arabs, by Constantine after his defeat of the Eastern emperor Licinius, thus reunifying the Roman Empire for the first time in thirty eight years, to serve as a second Rome for the Empire. The first Rome, formerly the primary headquarters of Maxentius, the last pagan emperor to rule from the City of Rome, was in the middle of the Western Empire; perhaps as far as one could get from the frontier armies -perhaps practical as a center of government in the days of Antoninus Pius or for the figurehead emperors of the fifth century, but not in the fourth century. By the time of Constantine’s usurpation, the emperor was no longer a justice –that’s what the bureaucracy was for– he was a general. The second Rome, conversely, was situated at one of two northern maritime gateways out of the Empire, on the border between the European and Asian continents, and directly between the Empire’s two most important frontiers -the Danube frontier with the Goths and Sarmatians, where Constantine would spend most of his remaining years, and the Syro-Anatolian frontier with the Persians, which would only become active again in Constantine’s last year. No other city could be better positioned to discourage the Empire’s enemies. It is for very similar reasons Diocletian had made his primary imperial residence in nearby Nikomedia. Only Bononia in northern Gaul and, to a much lesser extent, Ravenna and Aquileia in northern Italy were even remotely similar in their strategic features. Imperial construction on the expanded city started in 326, one thousand years prior to the fall of Prusa to the Turk, and it was ready for use in 330, one thousand and one years prior to the fall of Nikaia to the Turk and one thousand and one years after the death of the second of the seven legendary kings of the City of Rome, who was supposed to have started the original Roman religion. The area within the city walls of Constantinople would be 1700-1800 acres, just over half the area within the City of Rome’s Aurelian walls. It is no coincidence that the last major surviving new secular monuments of the City of Rome -the Basilica of Maxentius, the Arch of Constantine (largely built from remains of High Imperial monuments), the Colossus of Constantine (recarved from a statue of a bearded High Emperor, probably Hadrian), and the Mausoleum of Helena- were completed under Constantine. Like the first Rome, the second Rome would import much and, much unlike Alexandria and Carthage, would produce little for export except coins.

Basilica of Constantine, Trier, West Germany

Section 1.7: Roman Ethnicity among Greek-speakers in the Roman Empire

To Palestinian archaeologists, the Roman Empire fell with Constantine’s triumph over Licinius. To British and Dutch ones, it fell with the military pullouts of Constantine III. To Italian ones, it fell with either Odoacer or Theoderic. To ones operating in Greece, it fell during the seventh century crisis. To the inhabitants of the City of Rome, and, thus, to the people of the Latin West, the Empire fell during the second half of the eighth century. To the inhabitants of Constantinople, however, the Empire only fell with the Frankish conquest in 1204. The Byzantine Empire is phrasing thought up in the sixteenth century and popularized in the eighteenth as a convenient way to signify the Empire of the Romans that ruled over Constantinople. The Byzantines, needless to say, always continued to call their race Roman, as did the ancestors of the the Modern Greeks during the Early and Middle Modern eras. This label was fully justifiable even in the sense of “genetically similar to the population of the City of Rome”; under the Late Republic and Early Empire, the City of Rome had become overwhelmingly Greek, Anatolian, and Levantine. Even during the Severan era a majority of Roman Senators had come from outside Italy, and a majority of these came from the Eastern provinces. Even in that happy age traces of Italian national chauvinism and ethnic elitism still persisted. During the Age of Constantine, on the other hand, after it was demonstrated repeatedly any man in the Empire could conceivably rise to the imperial throne, all traces of that ancient provincialism had vanished. The Ancient Romans who had walked the banks of the Tiber under the Early Republic had, by the time of Constantine’s victory over Licinius, long since been drowned by the waters of the Greek Meander, Syrian Orontes, and Thracian Danube. It was in this fashion that the Ancient Romans had disappeared over the course of the second and third centuries, in much the same fashion as the Asiatic Turks have become extinct in Anatolia by dissolving themselves into the former Anatolian Romans and creating a new Great Turkish ethnicity. The new Great Romans of the Mediterranean were a nation of awesome size and extent, if somewhat less than that implied by the Empire’s citizenship figures due to the persistence of unromanized minorities. If a Hispanic or an Illyrian could claim to be a Roman by race in the third century, certainly an inhabitant of the great cities of Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, or Beirut could express a like claim to descent from the Ausones (Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, p. 63). The Ancient Greeks, thus, much like other ancient peoples, became extinct over the course of the third and fourth centuries, their children fully identifying themselves with Rome. As Aelius Aristides stated at the height of the Empire,

It was not because you stood off and refused to give a share in it to any of the others that you made your citizenship an object of wonder. On the contrary, you sought its expansion as a worthy aim, and you have caused the word Roman to be the label, not of membership in a city, but of some common nationality, and this not just one among all, but one balancing all the rest. For the categories into which you now divide the world are not Hellenes and Barbarians, and it is not absurd, the distinction which you made, because you show them a citizenry more numerous, so to speak, than the entire Hellenic race. The division which you substituted is one into Romans and non-Romans. To such a degree have you expanded the name of your city.

The process of Greek ethnic assimilation into Roman national identity from beginning to end took around four hundred years, a similar timescale as for the Gauls and Carthaginians. The Britons, of course, had not completed this proccess, as the Romans had dominion of that island from start to finish for only about 350 years. The end result was, of course, that the inhabitants of Greece from the fourth to eighteenth centuries almost to the man considered themselves as fully Roman as the men of Southern Gaul whose descendants were still called “Romans” by the Franks during the first half of the eighth century. Only during the Odoacer/Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy period did the Romans under the rule of Constantinople ever have a concept of “Byzantium” to refer to their directly ruled territories, and quickly lost it after they had taken possession of the City of Rome. By the end of the eighth century, however, as all other Great Romans outside the Papal States had been conquered by foreign powers and deromanized, the word “Roman” in the Empire of Constantinople became a label for the exclusive use of the native Greek-speaking inhabitants of Greece and Anatolia, even if these Medieval East Romans were a rather small subset of the Great Romans that had existed four hundred years back. In Italy, of course, the residents of the Papal States also continued to call themselves “Romans”, derisively calling the remaining Imperial Romans “Greeks”. By the ninth century, the Frankish emperors were concerted in their efforts to deny the Eastern Romans’ status as Romans on the basis that they had “lost entirely lost the Roman people (gens) and the language itself, and have migrated in all things to another city, seat, people (gens) and language”. But this was not merely a phenomenon of the fifth and eighth centuries, but also one of the third century. While there was a localization of Roman identity following the Empire’s withdrawal from many of its former provinces, it did not disappear either in the Papal States (thus “Romagna”) or the Aegean (thus “Rumelia”) until the twentieth century. Modern “Italian” and “Greek” identities are constructed national identities which only became prominent during the national liberation movements of the nineteenth century.

Section 1.8: The Gold Standard

SOURCES: Theodosian Code, De rebus bellicis,

Not only did Constantine create a second Rome, he created the beginnings of a second monetary system. Though he and his immediate successors continued to debase the nummus used for day-to-day transactions (though not for tax payments), he, in 309, after having paused precious metal coinage for two years, standardized the weight of the gold solidus, which had been unfixed in weight for over seventy years and was almost unused in Diocletian’s day. The new coin, replacing the generally unused Diocletianic coin of 1/60 of a Roman pound and, as with the Diocletianic coin, divided into twenty-four siliquae (carats), weighed 1/72 of a Roman pound, each siliqua of gold weighing .189 grams. The standardization of the new solidus would remain fixed (more or less) for over half a millennium. After his defeat of Licinius in 324 (resulting in the closure of the London mint one year later) use of the solidus became universal throughout the Empire as Constantine confiscated the gold of classical temples to raise revenue for his monetary experiment. For the first time in many decades, the Empire had a currency that was simultaneously a reliable store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account. It was certainly more difficult to print out of thin air than the billon coinage that dominated the Empire during the century between Valerian and Constantius II. But it was unquestionably easier to spend. Paying men from outside the Empire certainly became much more straightforward than before. The result, partially compensating for the increased difficulty in money creation, under Constantine’s successors, who greatly increased the minting of the solidus, was a vast shift away from in-kind tax payments and toward tax payments in gold coin (see also The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Chapter 18). Eventually, the solidus became so ubiquitous as a form of large-scale payment, it became known as the nomisma in Greek. The total annual revenue of the Empire was some 18 million solidi (Treadgold, History of the Byzantine State and Society, p. 144), or about three tenths of a solidus per capita. Imperial annual GDP per capita was equivalent to perhaps four solidi, each solidus worth roughly the equivalent of $400 in 2020 U.S. dollars. Wheat sold at some ten artabae to the solidus; typical wheat yields in Egypt were about a dozen artabae per arura per year, or about 540 liters per acre per year.

Solidus of Constantine, c. 313-315, mint of Trier

Section 1.9: Christus Rex

SOURCES: Theodosian Code, Eusebius, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

Constantine’s founding of Constantinople and restoration of fixed standard gold coinage were not even his only decisions to have world-historical impact that would echo for centuries. A few months following Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, thus becoming the sole Western emperor, and a few months prior to Licinus’s defeat of the famous persecutor of Christians Maximinus Daza, thus becoming the sole Eastern emperor, Licinius and Constantine continued on the path of the policy change implemented by Galerius on his deathbed ending the Christian persecution begun with his enthusiastic support eight years prior, supporting restoring property previously expropriated from Christians. Constantine also apparently converted to the Christian religion around this time. So impressed was the Roman client king of Armenia by this shift in policy in the most populous empire in the world that he converted his kingdom to the Christian religion the following year. The year after that, Constantine, formerly a strong devotee of the old cult of Sol Invictus, would mint the first official Roman medallion containing the Christian Chi-Rho. By 325, the Lateran archbasilica would be in Christian hands and Sol, present on the coins of almost all Roman emperors from Commodus on, would be gone from their faces, though Christian imagery would not be present on them on a large-scale until the reign of Valentinian I. Crucifixion as a form of punishment was abolished.

Over the following few decades, the Georgian states (spurred on by Armenia), Aksum, and some Germanic tribes beyond the Danube adopted the Christian religion, as well, though the Germanic tribes, at least, would be quite slow to accept the trinitarian doctrine adopted in 325 at Nikaia, likely because Constantine himself, a strong supporter of prosletyzation to non-Romans (according to Kulikowski) appears to have become a skeptic of the Nikaian formula in the last years of his life, spurred on by Eusebius of Nikomedia. Non-trinitarian missionaries translated the Bible into Gothic during the fourth century, though the Goths would remain pagan until their entry into the Empire. The century following the council at Nikaia became the period of the flourishing of all of the four Great Eastern Roman Fathers and three out of the four Great Western Roman fathers. The year 324 remains the most useful division between the Old, or pagan Rome and the New, or Christian Rome, as well as between the pre- and post- Nicene fathers. Through his unification of the interests of the military, bureaucracy, landed aristocracy, and church, Constantine can be said to be the founder of both the Eastern and Western European autocratic traditions. The half-century between Aurelian and the Council of Nikaia can be said to be the one of the greatest constructive top-down cultural change of any society in history prior to the fifteenth century. It is not the least bit surprising then, then, that Constantine was the first emperor since Valerian to be depicted on his coins beardless, in the manner of Augustus, thus creating precedent for an uninterrupted series of beardless emperors (with the four exceptions -all usurpers- of Julian the Apostate, Procopius, Eugenius, and John) to Maurice. While Aurelian restored the Roman world and Diocletian preserved it by placing it on new foundations, Constantine created an altogether new Roman civilization.

The Roman transition to Christianity had been made all that much easier by the third century crisis and Diocletianic restoration restulting in the discarding of so many elements of the Hellenistic culture that Christianity was so strongly opposed to. Despite the tremendous power of the uppermost ranks of the landed aristocracy throughout the second century, it had, by the later fourth century, become the least powerful of the four branches of Roman government (the others were the military, the bureaucracy, and the church). The quality of Roman art on coins began to decline in the early fourth century -after Diocletian, but before the reunification of the Empire under Constantine. The collapse was complete by the middle of the fifth century. Realistic two-dimensional art would only come back into vogue a thousand years later in the same place the Dark Ages first began –Belgium and the southern Netherlands. Officially sponsored sculpture followed the same trend, only earlier, becoming less realistic and more cartoonish -and, overall, simply less produced. As in the case of two-dimensional art, the quality and quantity of sculpture would only recover in a thousand years. The trend might have hit privately and religiously sponsored art later and more gradually, but it was very much in the same direction -toward a simpler, more primitive, more Medieval culture. Cities that did not have a need to construct defensive walls began to take on a more characteristically Oriental look. As the Cambridge Ancient History 14 states (p. 606), The unplanned village-town is the characteristic feature of late antique settlement in the near east.. The transformation to Medievalism was not yet complete by the fourth century- many Roman theaters continued to be repaired until the days of Justinian (see also Cambridge Ancient History 14, p. 940). The militarization, bureaucratization, federalization, and Christianization of Roman government all worked toward a political sidelining of the landed aristocracy and a deemphasis on public art in the High Imperial style. This did not mean the decay of private wealth, which was in a very good state in most of the territories of the Late Empire, but simply its declining public display outside the religious realm.

The most stereotypical public building of the Old Rome was the theater, condemned by the church fathers as a pit of depravity. The most stereotypical public building of the New Rome was the church –the theater of God. By the beginning of the fifth century, the frequent and explicit scenes of sexual debauchery that had been ubiquitous at the time of Constantine’s defeat of Licinius had almost entirely surrendered their places to the cross of Christ. The temple of Venus constructed under Hadrian in Jerusalem was converted into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “Hellene” (that is, Ancient Greek) became a dirty word, used for pagan barbarians. A millennium of Hellenism was evaporating. The old Roman concept of virtue was replaced with the Christian concepts of repentance from sin, true doctrine and a thoroughly apolitical, afterlife-focused concept of good works. The sacrifice of animals and mass burning of incense to appease the gods stopped. The central struggle of the Christian religion was not, as with the old Roman religion, against misfortunes created by both Gods and men, but against Satan and his angels, including all idols and heretics. An interesting byproduct of this was the separation of church and state, something that did not exist in the Old Rome. The most celebrated figures of the Christian religion were never warriors and aristocrats, but monks and bishops. The Christian religion of the Roman Empire was never intended to be a mere civic religion of the most powerful and developed state on Earth, but a universal, Catholic, intolerant, totalitarian, doctrinal religion that gave the opportunity for every earthly king, whether Vandal, Aksumite, or Armenian, to bow down before the one, specific, and universal -and, very much unlike Jupiter, Mars, Juno, and Sol, omniscient, loving, and perfect- King of Kings. To a much greater extent than any religion of the past, the Christian religion detached heaven from Earth.

In the Old Rome, the Emperor was pontifex maximus and occasionally a god himself. From the fourth century to the ninth, whenever the Bishop of Rome and the Emperor of Constantinople disagreed on some aspect of theology (the Trinity, Miaphysitism, Monothelitism, Iconoclasm), the Bishop of Rome would ultimately win every time except on the Three Chapters question under Justinian, in which the Pope was forced to accept the Three Chapters as overly Nestorian, and, arguably, on the ninth century Photian question (though not for very long). Though some political figures would be canonized by the Roman churches, the old Roman doctrine of caesaropapism would not be revived until Hobbes, writing one thousand years after the monothelite controversy and the conversion of the English to the Christian religion. The patristic age following the Nikaian council may be divided into five parts: the first stage (324-428), Alexandria and Rome triumphing against Constantinople, Carthage, and Antioch and focusing on the Trinity, the second stage (428-519), Rome triumphant over all other churches and focusing on the relationship between the two natures of Christ, the third stage (519-610), Constantinople dominant over all the other churches and focusing on the relationship between the two natures of Christ, the fourth stage (610-726), Rome dominant and focusing on monothelitism and monoenergism, and, the fifth stage (726-787/843), Rome dominant and focusing on iconoclasm. Despite nominally representing the whole church in communion with the Romans from Arabia to Ireland and from Morocco to southern Russia, the membership of every single one of the seven ecumenical councils was overwhelmingly Roman, particularly Eastern Roman, and every single one was held in a narrow coastal band in present-day Turkey with the reccomendation not of the Bishop of Rome, but always of the Emperor of Constantinople -a Romanization of Christianity, as Peter Heather points out, as significant as the Christianization of the Empire. Except in the case of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Bishop of Rome had no objection to this; six out of seven councils were simple impositions of Western Roman doctrines onto the Eastern Roman Church. There were also other early Christian councils and decisions in regions not in communion with Rome, particularly in Miaphysite Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, and among the Nestorian Christians of the Persian Empire and Kerala, but this is a post about the Romans, not the others, so they will not be discussed in any depth here.

The Church of Hagia Irene, Constantinople

Section 1.10: Roman prosperity in the fourth century

The decline of High Imperial culture coincided with a shifting of the Empire’s economic center of gravity back South and East. As a result of the regional climate shifting to a much wetter, colder phase during the fourth century, the center of population of the Roman Empire (and, needless to say, of the barbarians) in the fourth century moved gradually away from its early third century Northern and Western crest. Rural population growth was particularly notable in Syria, Palestine, Western North Africa, and Southern Gaul. Despite its wars, the age of Constantine and Constans generally saw an expansion in settlement relative to the days of Aurelian and Carus in all areas of the Empire, even the Rhine frontier. Though becoming influenced by the Roman periphery less, Italian culture was influencing the rest of the Empire more. The civilized regions of the Roman Empire were becoming so culturally similar to Italy that the Empire was now referred to by the common people with a new term – “Romania”. Today, “Romania” tends to be called by metonyms – generally either “Rome” or “Byzantium”. This is useful enough when the Mediterraneans of the third to fifth century called themselves “Romans”, but not as useful when the Greek-speakers of the ninth century called themselves “Romans”, as well. I thus refer to the first as “Late Antique Romans”, “Romano-Mediterraneans” or “Great Romans”, since they were great in number, while I refer to the second as “Lesser Romans” or “Medieval East Romans”, as they were confined to a territory lesser in extent. Though unromanized peoples such as the Isaurians, Basques, Moors, Jews, Samaritans, and highland Britons and Sardinians persisted within the borders of the Empire, the fourth and early fifth centuries marked a peak in its inhabitants’ use of Latin due to the rise of Constantinople and the decline of the old Celtic languages (Cambridge Ancient History 14, p. 872). In the East, Greek was replacing Aramaic as the lingua franca. Throughout most of the fourth century, Hispania, Britain, and the portions of Gaul unaffected by the barbarians all participated in this process of Romanization, a proccess encouraged by their monetary economy becoming larger than ever before in their history. As Michael Kulikowski writes in his Imperial Tragedy

Regions that are today sparsely inhabited and relatively poor were rich, their agricultural wealth exploited by a wealthy landowning elite: the Portuguese Alentejo, for instance – now one of the modern country’s least populous and poorest regions, with limited agriculture and even less tourism – was then peppered with hundreds of rural sites, some of them true palaces, set among diverse croplands and vineyards. Sicily, perennially among modern Italy’s poorest and least tractable provinces, was at the end of the fourth century a paradise of senatorial wealth. The villa of Casale at Piazza Armerina, built earlier in the century and flourishing at this time, contains some of the most spectacular mosaics to survive from antiquity – amazingly detailed hunting scenes, erotic depictions of sporting women, and so on, across dozens of public and private rooms, covering thousands of square metres. Sites of elaborate rural display are found in many other unlikely places as well – Herefordshire and Gloucestershire in western England, the Cantabrian coast along the Bay of Biscay, the fertile plains around Lake Balaton in Hungary. Only in northern Gaul is there evidence for a decline in prosperity.

Section 1.11: Political situation between Constantine and the Valentinians

SOURCES: Theodosian Code, Ammianus Marcellinus, Aurelius Victor, Themistius, Libanius, Julian

The relative imperial prosperity between 324 and 376 was punctuated by six to eight civil wars. After the death of Constantine in 337, one thousand years prior to the fall of Nikomedia to the Turk, the Empire was divided for a third time, this time among his sons, Constantine II, a trinitarian Christian aged 20, in Gaul, Britain, and Hispania, Constans, a trinitarian Christian aged 14, in Italy and the Roman Southwest, and Constantius II, a non-trinitarian Christian aged 19, in the Eastern Empire. The division was based on a massacre of potential successors planned by either the army (according to Aurelius Victor) or Constantius II, the primary beneficiary of the arrangement (according to Kulikowski). It was this hereditary succession that was the first hint of the unraveling of the Dominate and the beginning of the Crisis of the Fifth Century, and likely was the beginning of the decline in Roman military capability that would become undeniable by end of the first decade of the fifth century. After increasing disputes over spheres of responsibility, Constantine II invaded Italy in 340 and was killed that year in a battle with Constans outside Aquileia, thus resulting in the unification of the Western Empire. Constans and Constantius II continued on Constantine’s path of Christianization and social conservatism; same-sex marriage was outlawed in 342. Constans, however, was overthrown by Magentius, a Gallic usurper, in 350. The Alamans took advantage of the extensive and bloody Roman civil war of 350-53 to raid as far as Autun, resulting in the closing of the Trier mint and requiring assaults by Julian the Apostate against the invaders in 357. Magnentius was defeated by by Constantius II, the least remembered of the four great Byzantine unifiers of the East and West (Constantine I, Constantius II, Theodosius I, and Justinian I) in 353. It was Constantius II who erected the last major surviving secular monument of the City of Rome during his visit to the city in 357. He also convened numerous church councils at (variously) Sirmium, Philippopolis (against the Council of Serdica, which adopted trinitarian stances), Seleucia, Milan, Arles, Ariminum, and even Constantinople against the Great Eastern Roman father Athanasius of Alexandria and his doctrine of the Trinity and the identical substance of the Father and the Son. In 360-61 Julian the Apostate, born in Constantinople and the last Roman emperor to not be a Christian, rose up against Constantius II and became best known for his humiliating defeat in Iraq in 363 and his being the last of the six legitimate emperors from the Constantinian dynasty. It was in his reign the famous Eastern earthquake of 363 took place. His death in Iraq resulted in the brief rise of Jovian, who, after signing a humiliating peace agreement with Persia, restored state subsidies to the churches and burned the library of Antioch for its being a den of paganism.

The Obelisk of Arles, fourth century

Section 1.12: The Valentinians

SOURCES: Theodosian Code, De rebus bellicis, Ammianus Marcellinus, Themistius, Symmachus, Sozomen, Socrates, Theodoret

Jovian died the following year at the age of 33 and the Empire was split for a fourth time in 364 by his successor, Valentinian I, a commander of an elite infantry unit, between himself and his brother, Valens, both born in Vinkovci, Croatia. The first brother would die a natural death after eleven years of rule; the second would be killed by the Goths and Alans at Hadrianopolis after fourteen. They would be the last Roman emperors to still express some degree of religious tolerance toward non-trinitarians and pagans, though they still continued on the course of Christianization and social conservatism followed by their predecessors. Indeed, Valentinian I was the first recorded Roman emperor to use the word “pagan”, meaning “rustic”, in the religious sense; the word had spread into wide use by Roman Christians just a decade or two before. Their time would be known for its remarkable “long peace”, with only two civil wars, the first with Procopius, a member of the Constantinian dynasty who seized power in Constantinople in 365 and whose Goth-backed revolt took less than a year to quell, the second with Firmus, a Moorish noble who seized power in Tunisia and Algeria six years after the defeat of Procopius, but minted no coins, suggesting fairly unimpressive ambitions. Firmus fled to the Moors soon after the Roman army was sent against him from Arles and committed suicide in 375 after his revolt was quelled with the support of his brother, Gildo, who rose to increasingly high rank during the two decade-long period of rising prosperity following the suppression of the uprising. All this is told in the history of Ammianus Marcellinus.

The remonetization of government finance begun under Constantine, serfization of the economy begun under Diocletian, and neglect of the City of Rome to focus on the frontier begun in the third century continued apace under Valentinian and Valens. These brothers finally ended the minting of billon coinage, which had been debased by their predecessors into worthlesness. Instead, they preferred to mint a very widely produced and balanced mix of gold, silver, and bronze. This was done in order to begin commuting payments in kind into payments made in money, a process intended to reduce administrative overhead that would be continued and expanded by their successors. In order to encourage this proccess, the Valentinians reversed Constantine’s and his immediate successors’ attempts to debase the solidus and restored it to a coin of 99.5% pure gold. They also banned the sale of slaves apart from the land they cultivated and strengthened restrictions against tenant farmers leaving their land without their landlords’ consent, thus turning the entire landless population of the Empire, whether slave or free, into de facto serfs. To prevent miscegenation, marriages between Romans and barbarians were prohibited on penalty of death (Theodosian Code 3.14). To conserve government expenditure and discourage senatorial independence, Valentinian also banned the construction of new monumental buildings in the City of Rome. However, old monuments were still preserved; the Pons Cestius was rebuilt under Valentinian I.

The brothers were still, first and foremost, warriors. Valens was usually not in the second Rome, but either in Antioch or near the Danube front. The Western imperial residence under Valentinian moved back, as was proper to defend against the increasingly severe German threat, to Trier in the Rhineland. Only in the days of Theodosius as emperor of the East would this change. Valentinian made numerous campaigns into the lands of the Alamans, which ended their raids for a third of a century. Wars were also fought under Valentinian I on the middle Danube frontier against the rebellious Quadi; Valentinian I himself died of a stroke while on the middle Danube frontier negotiating with the Quadi. The ambitions of the two brothers against the barbarians were, unlike those of Maximinus Thrax or Octavius, limited; Halsall has pointed out, fourth century emperors, with the exception of Julian, engaged in cross-border campaigns only in areas where a Roman road network had already been built under the High Empire.

The Aqueduct of Valens in Constantinople, begun under Constantius II

Despite the Roman military probably being weaker than at the beginning of the century and the Balkans and especially Rhineland being in a much worse state, the Valentinian age saw renewed military activity in the Rhine-Danube frontier, parts of Palestine, and even Libya, which had been abandoned by the Romans since the days of Diocletian. However, there are signs of military slackening. Betthoro in Jordan serves as an example. In the mid-fourth century, eight sixteen room blocks (equivalent to one vexillation of 512 men if four men lived in each room) disappeared; the other four blocks of sixteen rooms were made larger and two such blocks were now made to have only fourteen rooms (one block of eight rooms and another of ten was added, making just under 200 rooms in total -just under 2/3 of the base’s original capacity). The total number of people at the base, assuming an increase in room capacity by one person per room, appears to have dropped either from 1500 to 1200 or from 1200 to 1000. Assuming an increase in room capacity from four to six people, it stayed constant at 1200. Assuming four men per room (it could have been five, but no more) and that virtually all rooms have been uncovered, this implies some 1200 men per legion -very much consistent with the textual sources.

The fourth century Roman Empire was a very different Roman Empire from that prevailing in the first and second. The earlier empire was confronted by continually less frequent internal ethnic rebellions, the later, despite having almost no ethnic rebellions, was frequently torn by civil war; the earlier Empire had secure frontiers, the frontiers of the latter were rather porous; the earlier empire was expanding in territory, the later empire’s borders were either stable or contracting into its core provinces; the earlier empire frequently went on expeditions far outside its borders, the later empire did so increasingly rarely; the earlier Empire’s economic center was moving further and further into the North and West, the later Empire’s was continuously moving Southward and Eastward; the earlier empire was polytheistic, the later empire was rapidly Christianizing; the earlier empire had relentless and ubiquitous monumental construction and sculpture, the earlier empire had very little outside walls, water systems, and churches; the earlier empire had strong city councils, those of the later empire were notoriously weak, the earlier empire was ruled by the Senatorial aristocracy, the later Empire was ruled by the military and Senators prohibited from military roles; the earlier empire had realistic art, the art of the later empire was substantially less realistic; the earlier empire was ruled primarily by Italians, the later primarily by Illyrians; the earlier Empire had very little bureaucracy, the later Empire had a great deal; the earlier empire was highly politically centralized around Rome, the later empire tended to be highly politically decentralized; the earlier Empire still had a concept of “Roman” as distinct from a typical inhabitant of the Mediterranean, the later Empire, with the ancient Gauls, Greeks, and Romans all extinct peoples, had none; the hereditary principle as a rule for succession was only beginning to be established by the end of the earlier empire, it was, with few exceptions, a firm rule in the later; the earlier empire had the highest philosophic, technological, cartographic, and scientific development in the whole of human history prior to the later Middle Ages; the later had these to a much lesser extent; the earlier empire was on a silver standard, the later on a gold standard, the earlier had a primarily free peasantry, the later ubiquitous serfdom.

Part II: The Barbarians to 376

SOURCES: Ammianus Marcellinus

As the Empire was growing weaker, the barbarians were growing stronger. Under the High Empire, the lands between the Rhine and the region of Kharkov outside the Empire’s administration held a population roughly one twentieth that of the Empire. In the second and third centuries, this ratio began to change in northerners’ favor. As Thomas Burns writes in his Rome and the Barbarians (p. 289),

Through the reign of Alexander Severus trade across the frontiers was clearly robust with a wide variety of items being exchanged. This trade, including various types of ceramic and glassware, continued through all but the bleakest decades of the third century. Roman soldiers were active economically in barbaricum and conversely barbarians participated in Roman regional markets, where they recycled some of their Roman coins. Even Roman weapons turn up occasionally in barbaricum, despite much prohibitive legislation. In the worst hit areas all of this economic interdependence ended for a matter of about four decades, approximately the normal male life expectancy.

As a result of over two centuries of contact with the Roman world, Greater Germany, formerly utterly barbaric and sparsely populated due to its inhabitants’ prior inability to use the wealth of their soil, increased very strongly in industry, trade, battlefield capability, and, especially in the East, population. In the mid-second century, as a result of the heavy swivel-plough being introduced from High Roman self-sufficient peasants to the barbarians beyond the frontier, Germanic tribes in northern Germany and Poland began to expand out of their ancient habitat. They spread their seed far to the South and East. The late second century wars of the Marcomanni and Costoboci were the first hint of this; by the year 320, all of Poland, Slovakia, Western Ukraine, Moldova, Romania –even Crimea and southwestern Belarus- were dominated by a Germanic upper caste -if not wholly in blood, then certainly in language. The rise of the majority-Gothic Chernyakhov culture (transliteration varies enormously- either search the more consistently spelled Przeworsk culture to the northwest of this and go off that or just search “Goths“) in present-day Romania, Moldova, and Western Ukraine in the third and fourth centuries is the firmest proof of this. The Goths in present-day Romania were finally crushed by Constantine in 332, resulting in a decisive peace which granted the Goths subsidy payments in exchange for open trade with the Empire, peace on the frontier, and a regular supply of men to fight in Roman wars. A few years after this, a chiefdom of Vandals from northeastern Hungary and eastern Slovakia which requested refuge from Gothic attacks from the North and East was settled in Roman Pannonia without issue, just as many barbarian chiefdoms had been settled into the Empire for centuries. After thirty years of peace, the Goths in present-day Romania rose up in 364, but were pacified by Valens with a less decisive and more isolationist treaty in 369, as the revival of Persian attacks forced the Roman East to cut the Gothic war short.

The fourth century was a world in which just five great empires -Rome, Jin China, Persia, the Guptas, Aksum- ruled over 70% of the 200 million or so people of the Old World. The barbarian settlements of Scotland, Denmark, Ireland, the lands of the Vandals, the Moorish chiefdoms, the cities of Arabia, even Aksum continued to absorb Roman culture throughout early Late Antiquity. By the year 350, the Germanic lands from the Rhine to the region of Kharkov had expanded to a population roughly one tenth that of the Roman Empire, or roughly equivalent to that of Roman Italy. Half that population was controlled by Gothic chiefdoms, which were substantially more politically and economically developed than those of the relatively few and barbarous Franks, Burgundians, Alamans, Picts, Scots, and Saxons, all but the last two of which are first known to have appeared in Roman sources during the third century (the Saxons and Scots first appear in the fourth). The largest settlements in Germany near the Gallo-Raetian frontier reached some 500 people. In contrast, the largest Gothic settlement in today’s Moldova, Budesty, contained some five thousand people, while quite a few others could be found that were about half to a third as large. As Kulikowski writes,

In the Cernjachov regions, a new and increasingly homogeneous archaeological culture came into being during the third century, oriented towards the harvesting, storage, and redistribution of agricultural products. Along the Rhine and Upper Danube, by contrast, there is no visible break in the archaeological culture of the third century, when such new ethnic names as those of the Franks and Alamanni begin to dominate our sources. On the other hand, the excavation of cemeteries and settlements in ever greater numbers seems to confirm the same picture of growing social differentiation, while fortifications within the abandoned Roman limes of Upper Germany and Raetia (e.g., the Glauberg and the Gelbe Burg) were definitely turned into barbarian strongholds during the third century.

In terms of civilizational development, Gothia as of 350 had become roughly equivalent to present-day northern England or Morocco during the first century BC. By about 350, there were perhaps three million Goths, half a million Alamans, half a million Vandals, two hundred thousand Franks, two hundred thousand Saxons, a hundred fifty thousand Burgundians, two or three hundred thousand inhabitants of Scandinavia, a hundred thousand or so assorted Germanic inhabitants of the Baltic, perhaps fifty to a hundred thousand Thuringians, and perhaps half a million Germanic people of other tribes (e.g., the Quadi, a group that lived to the South of the Vandals). The tendency for Germanic population near the Rhine frontier to increase was greatly reduced by the Empire in two respects: the Empire provided an attractive outlet for Germanic migrants and it made the crystallization of any powerful Germanic kingdom bordering the Rhine impossible. The same held true for the country of the Scots and Picts -the success of imperial frontier management for the last made them among the only major groups to experience a decrease in Roman goods inflows between the second and fourth centuries.

By the second half of the fourth century, Late Roman culture was increasingly penetrating into areas of West Germany outside Roman control, while at the very same time the tendency of Germans in the Roman empire to change their names to Roman ones became increasingly rare, especially outside the officer corps (Thomas S. Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.–A.D. 400, p. 352-361). From at least the Marcomannic wars on, men born in Greater Germany became dramatically overrperesented in the Roman military due to constant Germanic immigration into the Roman Empire. About a quarter of Roman field soldiers were of barbarian origin. In the Rhineland, German tribes defeated by the Romans became allies responsible for border defense, a proccess that was only encouraged by the royal treasury being flush with gold. It was known at the time that the northern barbarians made the best soldiers in regard to at least physical features and courage; today, the northern barbarians having civilized for quite some time, it is accepted from sound experience that the Finns, the most remote of the northern barbarians in Roman times, followed by Greater Germans, followed by the West Slavs and Balts simply make the best soldiers and especially the best commanders in all aspects of war with the possible exception of courage, while those from the long civilized regions (Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Greece, South Italy, etc.), with the possible exception of Turkey, simply lag behind in all areas of warfare, including strategy and tactics, which was thought to be a weakness of the northern barbarians in Roman times, but this surely had institutional causes far more than genetic. Other than for institutional factors, there is no reason to think this was not the case during the second to fifth centuries, and, thus, no reason to think that, aside from institutional factors (for which Romanized Illyrians and Romanized Celts were primarily responsible until the 390s), the Germanization of the Western Roman military was not simply an outright boon for the Empire. The distinction between Roman and German was declining by the decade. Indeed, as Kulikowski points out, the distinction between Roman and non-Roman was declining by the decade, as the fourth century for the first time saw a large influx of elites from outside the Empire, whether Gothic, Persian, Frankish, or Axumite, into the Roman ruling class (on this, see his Imperial Triumph) at the same time as the distinction between the Senatorial and equestrian courses of officeholding became finally merged under Constantine. It is from this fact the idea comes that the Roman Empire fell because it was too tolerant of outsiders, and while this is correct for the special case of Italy (Odoacer, the Burgundians, and the Ostrogoths were all outsiders accepted by Romans to fight in their wars), it is always important to remember the Visigoths, Franks, Sueves, and Vandals were uninvited guests capable of beating the Romans in battle head on, that the Empire’s loss of Britain was purely a Hispano-British affair, and that the Eastern Empire successfully avoided the Germanization proccess that plagued Italy despite being open to outsiders.

As Germany increasingly culturally Romanized, the Roman-held Rhineland, due to Germanic raiding during the Empire’s constant civil wars, became increasingly culturally barbarized. From the beginning of the fourth century onwards, as a result of Germanic raids, agriculture in the Rhineland and Ardennes increasingly became cultivated from strongholds, as was the case before and after Roman rule. The open countryside in the Rhineland and the portions of southern Germany north of the Inn river became largely depopulated by the second half of the fourth century, with residential structures in the villas disappearing or becoming repurposed (see Bender, H. “Archaeological Perspectives on Rural Settlement in Late Antiquity in the Rhine and Danube Areas.”, p. 191-3). Throughout much of the Rhine frontier, one might, in any part of the second half of the fourth century, look on the Roman side, then look on the German, and see hardly a difference in the inhabitants’ mode of living other than the greater scale of the Roman settlements. At least the fourth century, however, the situations south of the river Inn and in the vicinity of Trier were not nearly as deplorable. Despite all the damage these bands of Germanic raiders did to the Rhineland’s internal security, they never made their way into the interior of Gaul or Italy between the Crisis of the Third Century and the start of the fifth century. The fourth century situation along the Danube, at least, was not all bad; the Pannonian Limes were constructed in the first half of the fourth century and Roman watchtowers were constructed beyond the Danube in the early 370s to defend against the Sarmatians and Quadi residing in today’s Eastern Hungary.

It is likely the Romans could have conquered the lands of the Goths and Alamans had they, as Maximinus Thrax had begun to do for the inhabitants of the Western Greater German interior in 235-8, put their mind to it. They had, in fact, controlled the lands of the Alamans for two centuries prior to their loss of them during Aurelian’s reconquest of the Gallic Empire. However, their distractions by civil war, strategic desires to keep one’s frontiers guarded and supplied by patrol boats, and the consolidation of Roman identity around Mediterranids prevented this territorial expansion into Greater Germany from ever being put into practice.

The first four centuries of the Roman Empire witnessed the political degradation of the imperial system, especially in the traditionally less externally threatened West, as well as the rise of Eastern Greater Germany. The next century would witness the collapse of both Eastern Greater Germany and the Western Roman Empire. The Roman Uprising of the Five Barbarians, which, in China, happened almost immediately following their War of the Eight Princes, was postponed by just under a century. The Chinese Five Barbarians were the Xiongnu, Di, Jie, Qiang, and Xianbei. Their Roman counterparts were the Goths, Vandals, Sueves, Burgundians, and Franks. Only two of the five, the Goths (i.e., the Visigoths of Alaric and Euric) and Vandals, had any real importance in bringing about the Fall of the Western Empire. The Angles and Saxons did not directly fight and win against imperial authority and the Huns and Alans did not found any lasting kingdom on Roman soil, and so are not counted among the Five Barbarians.

The invasions of the relevant successful Germanic warbands. Ostrogoths, Goths of 386, and Goths of 405/6 not considered, as are the Hunnic raids, none of which amounted to any lasting independent settlement. The Visigoths numbered at their peak strength as a migratory band, inclusive of men, women, and children, perhaps over a hundred thousand, the Vandals some eighty thousand, the Burgundians perhaps fifty thousand at most, and the Sueves and Franks perhaps forty thousand each, both maximum figures. The Angles and Saxons did not migrate in groups of more than three thousand per year.

Part III: The Irruption of the Visigoths into the Empire (376-382)

SOURCES: Ammianus Marcellinus, Themistius, Ambrose of Milan, Theodosian Code, Sozomen, Socrates, Theodoret

The first affected frontier by the mass migrations resulting from Hunnic movement into Eastern Greater Germany was not the Gallic or Upper Danube frontier, but today’s Bulgaria. The tale is told by the late fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus. In 376, a large group of Goths from both North and South of the Dniester decided to abandon their ancestral homelands as a result of Hunnic and Alanic raids West of the Dnieper. The Alans were an Aryan grouping of horse-riding nomads who had been known to the Romans since the first century. In contrast, the first Roman mentions of Huns that have come down to us are in the History of Ammianus, mentioning the Persian emperor Shapur II campaigning against them to the East of Iran 356 and a treaty of alliance between them and Persia in 358. Gibbon (probably correctly) attributes their migration to the ascent of the Xianbei in Mongolia. By the time the Goths arrived on the lower Danube, Huns are known from numismatic evidence to have seized power from the Persians in Sogdia, Bactria, and the valley of Peshawar. The Huns would keep the Persians busy for the next century and a fifth. By the time they disappeared as a notable people during the latter part of the fifth century, the Goths had been forced out of Ukraine virtually in their entirety. In all the lands to the East of the Siret, they maintained only a presence in Crimea, though they kept it for a surprisingly long thousand years until both the Goths and Romans on that peninsula were at last conquered by the Ottomans, bringing an end to the last independent Eastern Roman and Gothic polity. They were the first ever group of Asiatic nomads to raid southeastern Europe, marking an altogether new phenomenon in Eurasia which became a peculiar mark of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Slavs of the sixth to eighth centuries and Magyars of the tenth are exceptions to the general pattern of the invaders of East and Southeast Europe having origins far to the East of the Urals.

The horse was only domesticated in the mid-fourth millennium BC; the chariot was not invented before the twenty-third century BC; the war chariot, invented by steppe-dwelling Indo-Europeans, only became widespread in the seventeenth century BC; horseback riding as a means of warfare did not exist in Assyria before the early ninth century BC, its origin among steppe-dwelling Indo-Europeans must be perhaps a couple centuries earlier, but certainly not more than four. Archaeology concreterely indicates the steppe did not begin to turn to full nomadism (in place of the Gothic-style seminomadism that began with the Pit Grave culture) until the tenth century BC. Horseback riding was first introduced into present-day Mongolia in the mid-first millennium BC. The chief steppe nomads known to the world of Classical Antiquity- Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans- were Aryans, and were all of the R1a Y-haplogroup peculiar to Aryans and Slavs and originating more than ten thousand years ago between the Don and the Urals, a pattern which had prevailed in Central Asia for two thousand years -but –no no longer than that. Though all these Aryans had often quite substantial Asiatic admixture, at no point prior to the Huns was the steppe nomad population of Ukraine majority-Asian. The origin of the Kushans of Afghanistan is less clear, but there is no reason to doubt their Indo-European status. No evidence whatsoever exists for Eastern Asiatic domination of any part of Central Asia prior to the second century AD, after the Northern Xiongnu were destroyed by the Chinese and Xianbei. From the first half of the fourth century to the Russian conquest in the nineteenth century, present-day Kazakhstan became continuously dominated by Asiatics. Several more groups of Late Antique and Medieval Asiatics -the Kutrigurs and Avars of the sixth century, the Bulgars of the seventh, the Khazars of the eighth, the Pechenegs of the eleventh, the Cumans of the twelfth, and, lastly and most impressively, the Mongols of the thirteenth would all follow in the Huns’ footsteps. Both the Chinese and Russians liberated themselves from these nomads over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, though only during the New Imperialist era would their upper hand over these steppe nomads be fully assured. During the fourth to eighth centuries, it was the Eastern Greater Germans who bore the brunt of Hunnic, Avar, and Slavic invasions, and were in much the same position during these centuries the Rus were be in the thirteenth. As in the Turkic expansion six centuries later, the primary axes of conflict would be Iran’s Northeastern frontier, followed by the Roman Danube frontier, followed by India’s Western frontier.

This Gothic arrival would only be the first of five attempted mass migrations of major Germanic chiefdoms into the Roman Empire prior to Attila. The others would be Goths into today’s Bulgaria in 386 (fully defeated), Goths into Italy in 405 (fully defeated), Vandals, Alans and Sueves into Gaul in 406 (uncontained; took advantage of the previous incursion and state of war between East and West), and Burgundians into eastern Gaul in 408(?) (partially contained; took advantage of a Roman civil war). The 376 Gothic incursion was partially contained. Much unlike the occasional bouts of autoimmune disorder that afflicted the Roman Empire about once per decade, every single one of the incursions of major Germanic mobile chiefdoms prior to 410 that were not fully defeated became persistent infections coursing through the bloodstream of the Western Empire. These could not come to an end except by the hand of other Germanic chiefdoms or by the Arab’s sword. The offspring of the adults who had arrived on the lower Danube in 376 would rebel in 395, initiate the first fifth century invasion of the core of the Western Empire in 401-2, take advantage of a coup and usurpation to sack Rome for the first time in centuries in 410, reconcile with the Empire in 415, settle in Aquitane in 418 as a reward for their service to the Empire, fight wars of rebellion against the Empire in 425-6, 431, 436-439, and 457-8, and, last but not least, finally immolate the carcass of the Western Empire in 469 by creating an independent Visigothic kingdom that would last for a quarter of a millennium. In order to have done all that, the number of initial migrants must have numbered at least in the tens of thousands. The total number of people of Germanic origin subject to barbarian chiefdoms within the borders of the Roman Empire would at no point be higher than 1% of the population of the Western Empire -or, in other words, never higher than the mid-fifth century population of Constantinople. These numbers, however, were more than sufficient to give Roman armies a run for their money. This barbarian invasion has no resemblance whatsoever to the cosmopolitization of our cities today, which is substantially more similar to the cosmopolitanization of Italy by men from the Levant and Anatolia under the late Republic and early Principate. Since the Gothic war would ultimately be won, if rather indecisively, and problems with the Goths would only seriously trouble the Empire again after the death of the first Theodosius, the only reason I include the below paragraph is to demonstrate that, even when the Empire was operating at tip-top shape with no internal political problems (something which could never be taken for granted), the Gothic barbarians, especially if aided by Alanic allies, were a truly formidable force.

Only those Gothic migrants from the South of the Dniester, the Thervingi, were, due to the immigrants’ vast numbers, imperial desire to divide and conquer the Goths, desire to increase tax revenue and military recruits, and the Thervingi’s historically better relations with the Empire, accepted by the Eastern Emperor, Valens. Obviously this was nowhere close to a majority of the Thervingi, but it was enough for the Empire to be concerned. Valens was then residing in Antioch with most of the Empire’s mobile forces in order to focus on the Persian threat. The Thervingi refugees were disarmed by the Romans prior to their entry. They were moved en masse into what is today eastern Bulgaria. The sheer size of the refugee population made supplying them difficult. When the Trevingi inevitably rebelled against the Roman forces’ black marketeering and other predictable mistreatment, the local Roman troops, accustomed to protecting strongholds more than to large-scale mobile warfare, failed to quell their rebellion. Thanks to the Thervingi rebellion, as well as the arrival of Greuthungi Gothic illegal immigrants from North of the Dniester taking advantage of the Eastern Empire’s withdrawal of forces from the frontier to subdue the Thervingi, the migrants, one thousand years prior to the entry of the Ottoman Sultan into Hadrianopolis, began raiding present-day northern Bulgaria, destroying and looting estates, but captured no fortified cities. Valens sent forces from Armenia, led by commanders Trajanus and Profuturus, to quell the Gothic rebellion in 377, but the offensive failed. In response, Valens made peace with Persia and returned to Constantinople in 378, hoping for a joint East-West offensive against the invaders, who by this time had moved to raiding present-day southern Bulgaria. However, the much younger Western Emperor, Gratian, the son of Valentinian I, born in Sirmium, Vojvodina, was himself delayed by Germanic raids on the upper Rhine and Alan raids on the lower Danube. Hearing of Gratian’s victories against the barbarians along the Rhine, Valens decided to disregard the Goths’ requests for negotiations and attack the Gothic army, which had been reinforced by Hunnic and Alanic allies, near Hadrianopolis without Western aid. The result, on August 9, 378, was an utter military disaster, with Valens dying in the battle and the majority of the attacking Eastern Roman force becoming casualties. Five months after the death of Valens, Gratian recognized a former general known for his campaigns against Sarmatian raiders in the region of today’s Vojvodina, Theodosius, born in Hispania, to be Eastern Emperor. In order to strengthen Theodosius’s hand, Gratian transferred responsibility for the region Theodosius once governed to the Eastern Empire. However, the Eastern army again failed at quelling the Goths. After this failure, Gratian moved his capital from Trier to Milan in March of 381 and decided on using his own generals, Arbogast and Bauto, both of Frankish origin, to finish the war. His generals did succeed in their offensives against the Goths in Thessaly by summer of that year. Theodosius then, rather then engaging in direct battle with the Goths, decided to simply garrison towns threatened by them in order to cripple their ability to exort the towns for supplies. This anti-Gothic strategy would stand the test of time. The third of October of 382 resulted in a compromise agreement between the Goths and the Eastern Empire in which today’s Bulgaria would be fully transferred to the Roman Empire, border controls would be fully restored, no permanent representative of the Goths within the Empire would be recognized by the Romans, and the Gothic immigrants would agree to become partially autonomous Eastern Roman subjects residing in lands within today’s Bulgaria and willing to provide a quota of fighting men for imperial wars under their own leaders, but be prohibited from marrying Roman citizens. This was quite different from a traditional Roman immigration agreement, in which barbarian immigrans would never remain under their own leadership. The Roman wealthy residing within the region raided by the Goths did not leave it entirely, but simply moved their residences into the better defended cities. Despite demonstrable defects in both the effectiveness of the Roman armed forces and imperial judgment, during this particular Gothic War, the system worked- the Western Empire did bail out the East when the latter was in severe difficulties. This would be quite far from the case for the West in the early fifth century.

Despite the great long-run consequences the 376 Gothic invasion would have, compared to their stunning victories during the Gothic war of 249-74, the Goths’ performance in the 376-82 war was actually extremely underwhelming. During the Gothic War of 249-74, the Goths, then still predominantly headquartered to the North of the Dniester, not only killed the emperor Decius, born in Martinci, Vojvodina, as well as his son in 251 at Abritus, thus beginning the most disastrous period of the Crisis of the Third Century, they had actually captured the Thracian provincial capital (something not even Attila managed), then, taking the entire Roman treasury with them, went back to present-day Romania to go on pirate raids across the entire Aegean and beyond. And yet, the impact of the 376 entry would be much greater than that of the 249-74 war.

Barbarian border raids were fairly typical. Attempted permanent relocations of one or more mobile chiefdoms from their homelands into the Empire while making every possible effort to avoid being subjugated to Roman rule were certainly extraordinary events. They require explanation. Even in the severely degraded state the Western Empire found itself after 410, it did not experience another entry, whether permanent or temporary, of a major mobile barbarian chiefdom into the heart of the Empire until Attila. The one just previous to 376, which does not appear to have had the intention of permanent mass resettlement, was over a century before. The rarity of mass migration of mobile chiefdoms into the Empire is readily explainable by the population of Greater Germany never being more than a tenth that of the Roman Empire. An explanation for those mass indestructible migrations of mobile chiefdoms into the Empire that did happen is also readily available, plausible, and indirectly supportable by both archaeological and literary evidence: the westward expansion of the Huns combined with climate change making it impossible for the migrants to move northward. Any true simultaneous movement of tens of thousands of people out of Germanic lands must have made a much greater visible archaeological impact on Greater Germany than on the Roman Empire. And, indeed, archaeological evidence for population shifts in Greater Germany at the time mass outmigration is recorded in the written sources definitely exists. In the decades following the coming of the Huns into Ukraine, two great East Germanic archeological cultures – the Chernyakhov and the southern extension of the Przeworsk culture known as the North Carpathian Group- would shrink in population dramatically. The relevant archaeological period for the Gothic migration of 376 is the Chernyakhov culture’s Period D1. The areas of Greater Germany West of the Carpathians show increasing settlement in this period. The Gothic lands East of the Carpathians, meanwhile, show clear evidence of settlement decline. It is no coincidence that the beginning of the crippling of these great East Germanic cultures in Ukraine/Romania and southern Poland/Slovakia is so closely associated with the influx of the two great migrant groups that would both proceed to create the two great Germanic kingdoms that would bedevil the Western Empire of the mid-fifth century- the Visigoths, the creators of the Kingdom of Toulouse, and the Vandals, the creators of the Carthaginian kingdom, respectively. These were not expensive wars of territorial expansion, like those of Persia, nor mere loot raids like those of Attila the Hun and the Goths victorious at Abritus. These were Völkerwanderungs by whole chiefdoms that had abandoned their previous homelands.

Traditionally, Roman forces had been more unified and larger than those of the individually stronger, but collectively more pathetic Germans. Tough conditions make tough men; they do not make tough institutions. The movement of Germanic chiefdoms out of Greater Germany, however, naturally sharpened their minds against their single greatest weakness -their traditional disunity. The Roman Empire was much more densely populated than Greater Germany. As a result, the mobile Germanic chiefdoms could raid the countryside for supplies; this would be a much dicier proposition for the Romans in Greater Germany. The only way the Romans could end the existence of mobile barbarian chiefdoms within their territory was to destroy their armies, while not even a partial destruction of the Roman army was required for the barbarians to continue their raids deep into the Empire. The only way the Romans could prevent this plunder -the fortification of strongholds- would divert even more of the Roman military away from the mobile army. The Empire, given good harvests, could generally increase its army by about two Principate legions per year if it tried. Preindustrial modern European states in peak war years generally had a hard limit on military as a percentage of total population close to 2%; for the Roman Empire, it was closer to 1%. The rate of mobilization for the barbarians must have been at least an order of magnitude higher, and much more of that mobilization could be used for battles. When within the Empire, the barbarians were concentrated. The Romans were dispersed. All these were grave weaknesses of the barbarians in attempting to conquer lasting kingdoms (cf., the multiple Visigothic campaigns into Hispania against the Sueves during the fifth century and the Sueves’ similar inability to retain their conquests in Southern Hispania), but most of the barbarians’ movements throughout the bloodstream of the Empire (e.g., the great treks of Alaric, Gunderic, and Gaiseric) required no conquests.

The Roman leadership learned from its mistakes of 376. Inspired by the example of the Huns and Alans, dozens of new cavalry units were added to both Western and Eastern armies, and cavalry would form a core part of the Roman army for the coming centuries. A Sarmatian attack against Roman Pannonia in 384 was repelled. A 386 attempt by a Greuthungi chiefdom to cross into the Empire failed; the survivors were, unlike the wave of Goths ten years prior, broken up and scattered in settlements across Anatolia. As a result, Gothic settlement would increase greatly in Western Romania, a proccess recorded by Ammianus Marcellinus. At the same time, Vandalic settlement would increase greatly in southern Moravia until the arrival of the Huns there around 405. The Vandalic settlement shift was likely due primarily to climate change; settlement in northern and central Poland declines precipitously around this time. But, despite a great deal of contemporary optimism that the Goths of 376 would be assimilated in the same manner as the Galatians, the subjugated Goths in the Eastern Empire would remain subjugated for a mere dozen years and within the Eastern Empire for a mere thirty, counting from their entry.

For the next century, the climate would grow increasingly hot, but would continue increasing in precipitation until around 440. The economic impact on the Empire as a whole would generally be positive, though likely negative in the Empire’s more northerly regions.

Heather’s narrative (especially the portion about Alaric) becomes unnecessarily badly written and poorly organized at this point. The next few paragraphs should give a clearer summary of the disaster than the book does. I have used various secondary sources to describe the events of 382-415, including Kulikowski’s Imperial Tragedy, Ian Hughes’ Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, A.H.M. Jones’s historical section, Thomas Burns’ Barbarians within the Gates of Rome, Halsall, Heather’s other works, and others.

Part IV: The Storms before the Gothic Uprisings (382-395)

SOURCES: Gregory of Tours, Vegetius, Symmachus, Theodosian Code, Pacatus, Themistius, Notitia Dignitatum, Sozomen, Socrates, Theodoret, Zosimus, Libanius

Though the difference between Eastern and Western Empires was visible as early as the War of the Eight Princes (four usurpers in the West as against one in the East) and the wars of Magnentius and Julian the Apostate, it is only after 382, and especially after 405, that the fates of the two empires increasingly diverge.

Theodosius became the first emperor to mint the tremissis, a gold coin equivalent to one third of a solidus which would become widely used during the fifth century. As is much better known, he, along with his colleagues in the West (in particular Gratian and Maximus), also had great impact on the Roman Empire’s turn toward the trinitarian variety of the Christian religion that is ancestral to today’s Miaphysite, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic, and the major Protestant churches. Councils at Antioch, Constantinople (the famous Second Ecumenical Council), Milan, Aquileia, and, finally, Rome were held to squelch the anti-trinitarian heretics. The prominent Cappadocian theologian Gregory of Nyssa was rehabilitated. The anti-trinitarian Bishop of Constantinople Demophilius was ousted and replaced by Gregory Nazianzen, who, after his struggle with Maximus and retirement in 381, was unexpectedly replaced by the command of the Emperor with Nectarius. Lucius of Alexandria was ousted from his position as Pope of that great city and replaced with Peter II. The anti-trinitarian Euzoeus was replaced with Meletius, who quarreled with Paulinus II over his status. The Meletian controversy over the correct Bishop of Antioch was resolved in favor of the Meletian side with the appointment of Flavian I as sole bishop of the city in 393. Subsidies to the cults of the gods of Old Rome were at last cut off in 382, thus bringing an end to the official Roman urban state cult that had flourished for more than a thousand years less than seventy years after Licinius’s defeat of the persecutor Maximinus Daza. Much in contrast to the now dead non-trinitarian Christian Valens, Theodosius and Gratian banned all heresies from the Nicene Creed in the early years of his reign (Theodosian Code 16.1 and 16.5). From this point on, all Roman emperors, including all usurpers, would be Christians. Theodosius continued and strengthened policies against Christians serving in pagan temples. By 391, he was demanding the closing of all pagan temples, and by 392 the prohibition on burning incense to the pagan gods even on one’s premises, a move which his sucessors would increasingly enforce. It was due to his lasting echo throughout history that most of the Christian writers alive during the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire would enthusiastically support the acts of his successors. Pagans, however, would not be eradicated from literary life until the days of Justinian, born in Tauresium, North Macedonia. It is not my purpose here to reiterate the triumph after triumph of the Christian religion in the fourth and fifth century Western and Eastern Empires. Just the fact I do not mention these triumphs does not mean they were not happening at the time the Western Empire was declining and falling. Indeed, these triumphs are much better recorded than the actual history of how the Roman Empire declined and fell. The Christian elites of the Medieval era generally found theology and church history a much more topical subject than the secular history of the Late Empire.

In 383, just after the end of the Gothic war, Magnus Maximus, also born in Hispania, took power in Britain, crossed the Channel, and came to power in Britain, Gaul, and Hispania. The legitimate Western emperor, Gratian, having moved his troops from fighting the Alamans in present-day southern Germany to having his troops desert him near today’s Paris, was killed by the master of horse Andragathius near Lyon on 15 August. Roman military metalwork disappears from the highlands of western Britain at around this time, suggesting a shift toward the use of irregular forces for frontier defense. Britain’s economy visibly declined during the last fifth of the fourth century, likely due to the effect of the redirection of Roman forces away from Britain and the Rhine frontier and toward civil wars. After a period of peace within the Western Empire, Maximus invaded Italy and forced the figurehead legitimate Western Emperor, the nontrinitarian-sympathetic Valentinian II, out of Milan in 387, on the pretext Valentinian II was persecuting the bishop Ambrose.

It was about this time the bureaucrat Vegetius, condemning the slackening in military training and recruitment that had resulted from the “long years of peace” prior to the Gothic war, wrote his Epitoma rei militaris, the source of the classic aphorism Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum. Vegetius’s tome would, due to a scarcity of new Latin-speaking authors on the subject, become the most widely read work on warfare in the Medieval, Early Modern, and Middle Modern West. To some extent, Vegetius was not totally wrong about the “long years of peace”; if one excludes the rebellions of Firmus and Theodorus, neither of whom did so much as mint coins, the Empire had no civil wars between the defeat of Procopius in 366 and the rise of Maximus seventeen years (!!!) later. One does not attempt to reoccupy the Libyan desert if one has real wars to attend to. If one also excludes Magnus Maximus’s relatively bloodless 383 takeover, the Bagrevand-Gandzak campaign, the rebellion of Procopius, the usurpation of Julian, Julian’s Persian war, and the minor rebellion of Claudius Silvanus, the Empire had not fought a “real war” for the twenty-three years between the defeat of Magnentius and the Gothic war. No wonder Vegetius compared the peace of his day to that between the Punic Wars. The experience of the decade following 387 would show that the central problem with the Roman military, however, was not a lack of real wars for it to fight in, but its willingness to support usurpers. In fact, Vegetius’s thesis had already been invalidated even when he wrote by the repeated losses to the Persians in the decade following Constantius II’s reconquest of the West.

The Emperor Theodosius made peace with the Persian empire in 387 from a position of weakness, leaving the Romans only one fifth of the buffer kingdom of Armenia, and proceeded to overthrow the usurper following a battle in what is today Croatia (Battle of the Save) and another in what is today Slovenia (Poetovio) in 388 with the help of Gothic, Alanic, and Hunnic forces. Maximus was finally defeated outside Aquileia. Franks (or so says Gregory of Tours, quoting Sulpicius Alexander) took advantage of the war between Maximus and Theodosius to raid northeastern Gaul and inflict serious casualties on Western imperial forces, but they were eventually repelled. After a period of peace during which Theodosius visited Rome and Milan and then returned to Constantinople, Arbogastes, the same commander who defeated Maximus and helped defeat the Goths of 376, then helped set up another Western usurper, Eugenius, in 392, as a result of the death of Valentinian II in Vienne in Gaul.

It was likely at this point the famous list of offices of the Late Empire that has come down to us, the Eastern section of the Notitia Dignitatum (text here, download the PDF if you feel like searching it) was composed (the Western section was updated extremely haphazardly until the 420s). The list has been used to calculate the size of the Roman army, but generally incorrectly. The supposition that Notitia legions average 1000 and all other units 500, which creating a late fourth century Eastern army (excluding Western Balkans) of nominally 303,000 (Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army p. 49) is completely untenable; late fourth century legions on paper averaged somewhat larger than 1000; and even the paper average for “all other units” was much smaller than 500. The first error has far less impact than the second, due to the sheer number of small units (primarily cohorts and alae) in the Notitia. The effect of the overstatement is especially large for the non-Balkan garrison armies. There is a 0% chance the garrison army of Egypt was as many as 48 thousand men (!!!), even besides the fact Treadgold appears to have added 16 Egyptian auxilia where they do not exist in the actual list (p. 58-60 of Seeck’s edition). By my estimates, a Notitia legion was 1200 (though it could easily be lower than this; very unlikely to be higher). As a rule, ten thousand men were under one dux. A unit of cunei appears to be between 500 and 1200; there is no doubt these were larger units than equites. The base of the Notitia‘s Cuneus equitum Solensium at Capidava in Bulgaria is 1.77 hectares; from this, 600 men appears to be a maximum figure for cunei. A unit of equites appears to be 350 (up to 600 possible, though the more likely upper limit is 500; the 350 is based on Marcellinus -there is little doubt these were larger units than alae). Based on the Diocletianic evidence, I will count a cohort as one tenth of a legion. An ala appears to be around 120 (based on Diocletianic evidence, see Duncan, Structure and Scale in the Late Roman Economy, p. 114). I’ll be generous and count all auxilia (excluding milites) and pseudocomitatensis units as half a legion (they could be smaller, but I don’t see any very strong reason to think this, and Jones provides good reasons to think at least field army units of auxilia were around this size). A unit of milites appears to be around 300 based on the size of the fort at Mediolana on the Danube. Using realistic figures for the units, and omitting Treadgold’s sixteeen fictional Egyptian auxilia, I get an Eastern (not including Western Balkans or Libya) garrison army of a 123K paper strength, compared to Treadgold’s 182.5K, with 47.1% cavalry, compared to to Treadgold’s 49.9%. Treadgold’s 104K Eastern field army is essentially unaltered (paper strength 117K by my count). Without the sixteen fictional auxilia, and using appropriate unit sizes, the paper strength for Egypt’s garrison army falls to a mere 21K -fitting, given quelling peasant and nomad uprisings in Egypt did not require more soldiers than quelling Jewish and nomad uprisings in Palestine, and a large standing army presence in Egypt capable of taking more than police actions would have been a severe danger to the government.

The Notitia, of course, has no bearing on the total army size of any emperors other than Theodosius I through Valentinian III. The first lived a century after the days of Diocletian. The second lived a century after the days of Constantine.

My personal guesstimates for the size of the Roman army over time, based on Treadgold, unless I disagree with him.

Theodosius defeated Eugenius in September 394 after another battle in Slovenia (Frigidus) with the forced help of the conscripted Goths previously settled in the Balkans. Arbogast was, as with Valentinian II, Epsteined. This seems to be the point at which the Roman fort of Caernarfon/Segontium in North Wales ended coin imports from the continent (Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, p. 38). These two victories were, collectively, even more costly to the Empire’s military capabilities as the defeat at Hadrianopolis, and tended to be highly resented by the unassimilated Goths who fought in them. Just after this victory, Huns crossed the Caucasus and would proceed to raid Armenia, Anatolia, Syria, and Persian-controlled Iraq over the following year. The Eastern Roman counter-Hun campaign in Asia would continue for the next two years.

Part V: The Gothic Uprisings, Hunnic invasions of Roman Syria and Anatolia, Political Crises in the Roman Southwest and Northeast (395-404)

SOURCES: Claudian, Ambrose of Milan, Paulinus of Milan, Symmachus, Olympiodorus (fragments), Theodosian Code, Philostorgius, Chronicle of Edessa, Cyrillonas, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, John of Ephesus, Liber Chalifarum, Synesius, John Chrysostom

Theodosius, however, unexpectedly died in Milan in January 395 after a severe illness. He was the last man to rule the entirety of the Mediterranean. The result of his death was an acceleration of prior fourth century trends -the rapid Christianization of the Empire, an increasing prevalence of the heredetiary principle and the rise of impotent child emperors, a great divergence between East and West in serious conflicts between military officers, a growing barbarization of the military, rising Hun-led barbarian migrations due to a rapid depopulation of Greater Germany (this time coming for the West three out of five times, rather than for the East every time), rising military impotence against barbarians, and a growing independence of armed barbarians within the Empire. The two halves of the Roman Empire became nominally ruled by sons of Theodosius under the effective control of the military in the West, in the manner of a typical Latin military dictatorship, and mostly civilian officials in the East, in the manner of Imperial Russia. In part, this was simply due to a difference in administrative centralization; the East had one Praetorian Prefect, the West had three (one for Hispania, Britain, and Gaul, one for Italy and Tunisia, and one for lands East of Italy). In contrast, the East had five army commands -two around Constantinople, one in the Eastern Balkans, one in the Western Balkans, one bordering Persia- while the West, due to the dominance of Arbogast and Stilicho, had just one (on this, see A.H.M. Jones, Later Roman Empire, p. 609). Honorius, aged ten, born in Constantinople, became sole emperor in Milan after having been appointed consul for the East eight years before. Arcadius, aged eighteen, born in Hispania, became sole emperor in Constantinople.

Though it would continue in the Western Empire until 455 and in the East until 450, the “tradition” of appointing one’s prepubescent sons as figurehead emperors Theodosius perpetuated had only restarted with Valentinian I, who appointed his eight year old, Gratian, co-emperor of the West in 367. Gratian became primary emperor of the West with Valentinian I’s death in 375. Another son of Valentinian I, Valentinian II, was declared co-emperor of the West in 375 by the military at the age of four and ruled alongside Gratian and Magnus Maximus. Valentinian II, the first child emperor to not campaign since Elagabalus, ruled as primary emperor (in practice purely as a figurehead) of the West until his Epsteining in 392. This was the sole precedent for Theodosius’s decision to have made Arcadius co-Augustus of the East at the age of six in 383 and Honorius co-Augustus of the West at the age of eight in 393 outside the reign of Constans, declared emperor of Italy and Western North Africa by the military in 337, and the situations in the first half of the third century referenced above. The fact that each and every one (other than possibly Gordian III) of the emperors made so before puberty were killed in military coups makes one wonder about Theodosius’s sanity. Ultimately, something much worse happened to his sons than being murdered. The two generation-long post-Theodosius experiment with government by Deep State would result in an immediate and total cessation of imperial visits to the frontier and a dramatic spike in imperial visits to the City of Rome (in the East, a dramatic spike in the time the emperor stayed in the second Rome). The foremost imperial virtue would no longer be valor -it would be piety. The Roman Empire in both Constantinople and in Italy between 395 and 450 is best described not as a Principate or a Dominate, but an Impotentate. All three splits of the Empire into East and West following the death of Constantine had their origin in the desire to divide the Empire between two brothers. Had Theodosius lived or left capable successors, there is no reason to believe the Empire would have continued to stay administratively divided for as long as it did after 395.

The Stilicho arc is the single most important and complex in the entire history of the dissipation of the Western Empire. In order to understand any part of it, you have to understand all of it -something impossible to do, given the extreme thinness of our sources following 402-404, with the deaths of Symmachus and Claudian. The most thorough sources for the period 404-415 are Zosimus, Sozomen, the fragments of Olympiodorus, and Orosius and Gregory of Tours -had we the full history of Olympiodorus, our understanding of the period would be far better. The deeply interwoven Alaric arc is basically one of the Visigoths rebelling and eventually getting what they wanted: the revision of their limited Balkan autonomy of 383-395 to the much more permanent and self-governing position that they would get in 418. Alaric and his Goths were never an existential threat to the Western Empire, though they were undoubtedly a destructive and ineradicable nuisance that made dealing with more pressing threats more difficult. Nor would their children be an existential threat to the Western Empire, though their wars of the 420s and 430s would certainly help result in the emergence of such a threat in Gaiseric. Only their grandchildren, with the outbreak of the final Western Roman civil war in 461, be anywhere near in a position to become an existential threat to the Western Empire. Within the chronological bounds of his life, Alaric would have the effect of a more persistent and less destructive Attila the Hun. As was the case for Attila, Alaric’s goal was little more than money, land, and a high official position within the Roman military. Unlike Attila, however, Alaric did not lead a collection of Germanic chiefdoms forcibly welded against their will, but a mobile chiefdom unified by its own will with the full intent to negotiate with the Empire on its own terms. The chiefdom Alaric built, needless to say, ultimately lasted three centuries longer than the empire Attila inherited. Read on.

The entirety of the middle third of Late Antiquity would be a history of attempts to restore unified political control of the Mediterranean and defeat the barbarians. Following the death of Theodosius, Stilicho, a general who had since his youth served in the Eastern army in the footsteps of his Vandal father, had participated in the Persian negotiations of the 380s, and was favored by Theodosius himself as guardian of Honorius, was left in control of whatever remained of both Western and Eastern armies in today’s Slovenia, but in control of only the Western Empire’s territory. He would be the first of five major warlords that would exercise control over the fifth century Western Empire (the others would be Constantius III, Aetius, Ricimer, and Odoacer). He would rule for thirteen years. The first ten would be generally calm; the final three would be swamped with three disasters (Radagaisus, the British usurpation moving to Gaul and Hispania, and Alaric demanding payment).

In response to the severe Eastern military weakness, a great number of the Goths who had arrived in 376 as children, had fought for Theodosius in his civil wars, and had been disbanded by Stilicho from service in his army in the middle of winter decided to rebel. Under the leadership of Alaric, who had previously helped lead a failed uprising against Theodosius in 391, but had fought in his support at the Frigidus, they marched on Constantinople, but, seeing its fortifications, proceeded to withdraw and pillage much of the Balkans over the next half-decade. Stilicho started his job as de facto leader of the Western Empire by making an absurd claim that set the tone for the rest of his relationship with the Eastern Empire. Supported by no less than Ambrose of Milan, Stilicho claimed that Theodosius had, without any other witnesses, granted him guardianship of both Arcadius and Honorius. Though he would never try to enforce this claim, it would mar all future East-West relations until his death. Stilicho pursued Alaric in 395, but did not engage in battle and was commanded to leave the Balkans and give the East back its army by the Eastern leadership due to it fearing Stilicho would march his army against Constantinople in order to reunify the Empire under his command. Stilicho complied with the Eastern order and went back to Italy. The new Eastern army under the leadership of the Goth Gainas then killed the de facto Eastern ruler Rufinus, who, in response to the utter crippling of Roman military strength by the rebellion of Alaric and the pyrrhic victory at the Frigidus, had made massive cutbacks to Roman military spending along the Danube frontier and had rapidly sped up the barbarization of the Roman military by hiring Huns, Alans, Sarmatians, and Dacians from across the border. The eunuch Eutropius then rose to power, sent the Eastern army to Anatolia to fight the Huns, and gave Stilicho responsibility for the Western Balkans. Stilicho then preemptively campaigned along the Rhine in 396 (without engaging in clashes) in order to get German recruits for his similarly depleted Western army. After Stilicho’s first year, the minting of bronze coins was greatly reduced, suggesting a shift to payment of soldiers in precious metal coins. By this point, Alaric had moved to raiding Attica with no Eastern opposition in sight, even entering Athens and looting it without a fight. Once Germanic recruits were found, Stilicho went back to campaigning against Alaric in 397, fighting the Gothic rebels in the Peloponnese. However, Stilicho’s fresh Germanic recruits proved themselves to be only moderately reliable, and Alaric escaped Stilicho’s encirclement. The Constantinople government, then (in 397) still under the control of the relatively Goth-tolerant Eutropius, feared this to be a pretext for Stilicho marching on Constantinople and executing a coup. Thus, Eutropius first ordered Stilicho to leave Greece and end his anti-Gothic campaign, then, when he did not do so, declared Stilicho an enemy of the people and confiscated Stilicho’s Eastern Roman assets. The system had failed.

Stilicho accepted defeat and moved his forces back to Italy, while Alaric moved north into what is today Albania. Eutropius finally decided to appease Alaric by declaring him master of soldiers of the central Balkans. As Stilicho’s forces were becoming more Germanic, Alaric’s were becoming more Roman. Eutropius then went on a campaign in Anatolia to finally crush the Hunnic threat, which he had succeeded in by 398. At this point, Stilicho was forced to deal with yet another crisis relating to the East. Gildo, the Western Roman governor of what is today northern Tunisia, the breadbasket of Italy, had offered to switch his allegiance from Milan to Constantinople in mid-397, and first reduced grain shipments to Italy, then cut them off entirely. Roman Senators lobbied strongly and sucessfully against having their tenants conscripted for the fight against him, preferring instead to pay 25 solidi per man. The Theodosian Code shows clear signs (scroll up) of shortages in funding and, even more so, manpower, in the Western army at around this time. Stilicho sent Gildo’s brother, Mascezel, to take back the province, and the rebellion was swiftly quelled in 398 with a force of just five thousand men.

African Red Slip as a portion of pottery finds in the Western Mediterranean. Black line==expectation based on date ranges of pottery forms, Grey line==actual. Big drop is “c. 250” (obviously the decline took place before 250), fourth century peak is between 380 and 395, sixth century peak is between 500 and 525. Note settlement patterns were quite different from ARS production patterns. Settlement peaked in the late fourth century and showed much less decline during the third.

“Examples near at hand testify to the extent of my power now thou art emperor. The Saxon is conquered and the seas safe; the Picts have been defeated and Britain is secure. I love to see at my feet the humbled Franks and broken Suebi, and I behold the Rhine mine own, Germanicus. Yet what am I to do? The discordant East envies our prosperity, and beneath that other sky, lo! wickedness flourishes to prevent our empire’s breathing in harmony with one body. I make no mention of Gildo’s treason, detected so gloriously in spite of the power of the East on which the rebel Moor relied. For what extremes of famine did we not then look? How dire a danger overhung our city, had not thy valour or the ever-provident diligence of thy father-in‑law supplied corn from the north in place of that from the south! Up Tiber’s estuary there sailed ships from the Rhine, and the Saône’s fertile banks made good the lost harvests of Africa. For me the Germans ploughed and the Spaniards’ oxen sweated; my granaries marvel at Iberian corn, nor did my citizens, now satisfied with harvests from beyond the Alps, feel the defection of revolted Africa. Gildo, however, paid the penalty for his treason as Tabraca can witness. So perish all who take up arms against thee!

Claudian, Against Eutropius

The situation for Stilicho improved even more when Eutropius, forced to focus on an uprising of the 386 wave of Goths in Anatolia, was overthrown in 399 by the Gothic military leader Gainas, who, after a brief period of alliance with the Anatolian Goths, was himself overthrown the following year by the Gothic master of soldiers for the East, Fravitta, and was killed by Uldin the Hun, the first Hunnic leader mentioned in the sources (Olympiodorus). In a scene displayed on the victory column of Arcadius, the Anatolian Goths are shown being defeated by the Romans while attempting to cross the Bosporus (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome, p. 60). The new Roman-led Eastern leadership under Arcadius’s wife, fearful of the power of Gothic military leaders within the Empire, naturally ended Alaric’s privileges.

Time was when the Gruthungi formed a Roman legion; conquered we gave them laws; fields and dwelling-places were apportioned them. Now they lay waste with fire Lydia and the richest cities of Asia, ay, and everything that escaped the earlier storm. ‘Tis neither on their own valour or numbers that they rely; it is our cowardice urges them on, cowardice and the treason of generals, through whose guilt our soldiers now flee before their own captives, whom, as Danube’s stream well knows, they once subdued; and those now fear a handful who once could drive back all.

-Claudian on the uprising of Gainas in Anatolia

During the entire fourth century, the Western Empire was immune to seriously damaging barbarian raids outside Gaul. During the fifth century, this relatively pacific state came to a speedy and decisive end.

After deciding negotiating with the Eastern Empire was futile, Alaric declared himself King of the Goths and, encouraged by Stilicho campaigning against the Vandals in present-day Southern Germany (this is probably the cross-Danubian campaign Zosimus refers to in his garbled account of the 405 Gothic invasion), decided to launch the first of the great barbarian attacks on the Western Roman heartland in 401 by marching his army into northern Italy with the intent of crossing over into Gaul. There was a system of walls and towers in the northwestern Balkans guarding access to Italy; these were completely useless in resisting as sizeable and well-equipped a force as Alaric’s and the system was soon abandoned. Stilicho returned to Italy in March after making a quick winter journey across the Bodensee. He then withdrew legions from the lower Rhine, upper Danube, and northern and western British fronts, as well as converted Vandals taking advantage of the situation to attack present-day Austria (Noricum) and the region of Munich (Vindelicia) into allies against Alaric. Claudian, Stilicho’s press secretary, says the Franks were completely quiet for the duration of the Gothic war despite the lack of forces guarding the lower Rhine, a point he had also made the year before the invasion -no doubt because Stilicho, as attested by archaeology, for the first time allowed them to settle deserted land in present-day Belgium. Alaric was defeated at Pollentia and at Verona in 402. Another Hadrianopolis was averted. Alaric’s army, however, was not destroyed. In response to Alaric’s invasion, Stilicho moved the political capital of the Western empire from Milan to Ravenna, which was considered more defensible due to being surrounded by water. However, Honorius would not build any major public works in Ravenna in any part of his reign, except a church outside the city walls, preferring instead to build small-scale monuments within the confines of the City of Rome. Alaric moved into the western Balkans, confident he would not be treated with honor by the East, and continued to pillage the area for the next few years. It is at this point that the Gallic mints cease production of silver and base metal coins. Very few post-402 bronze coins are found in Britain at all, while local imitations of silver coins grew in quantity due to the ending of formerly widespread silver coinage at Milan. Gold coins, at least, continued to be exported on a decent scale from Italy to Britain and Gaul throughout the next half-decade. The findspots of post-402 single finds of gold coins in Britain strongly suggest that Stilicho’s Britain prior to its loss to the usurper Marcus consisted solely of England East of Birmingham, Stilicho probably having removed the legion defending Wiltshire and the neighboring counties for his war against Alaric.

In 403 Honorius visited Rome for the second time in order to commemorate the now nearly two year old victory over Alaric in 404. Under the influence of the Christian religion, Honorius would also end the gladiatorial games during that visit. The Ravenna-Rome axis would continue to be the primary emphasis of the Roman emperors in Italy and the Germanic kings nominally serving under them for the next three and a half centuries, and, after 756, would be the core of the Papal States. The year 404 would also result in the Eastern government’s exile, to the protests of the West, of John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople since 397 and the last of the Four Great Eastern Roman Fathers, at the behest of Arcadius’s wife, as well as the Eastern government’s killing of Fravitta.

Part VI: The First Fifth Century General Politico-Barbarian Crisis in the Roman West. Ten tyrants and three great invasions of the West; “defense in depth” against the Huns in the East (404-413)

SOURCES: Gregory of Tours, Prosper of Aquitane, Olympiodorus (fragments), Orosius, Augustine, Zosimus, Hydatius, Gallic Chronicle of 452, Jerome, Jordanes, Theodosian Code, Sozomen, Socrates, Theodoret, Philostorgius (epitome by Photius), Justinian Code, Synesius, John Chrysostom

However, Arcadius’s wife died that same year while giving birth and the power in the East was transferred to the master of offices Athemius, who continued to be hostile to John Chrysostom. The following decade, despite its similarity in the intensity of European barbarian raids against East and West, would be remarkable for the abundance of civil wars in the West and their absence in the East. This is almost certainly a result of the West having to have standing field armies in three different concentrations far removed from the capital (Britain, Gaul, Tunisia), while the East had field armies with less to gain from attempting an usurpation -major Hunnic or Persian devastation would invariably follow if the armies on the Hunnic or Persian frontiers revolted; devastation from the Moors, Picts, or Franks would inevitably be containable. A natural experiment of a postclassical Roman breadbasket having a field army is shown by the revolt of the Exarchate of Africa in 608-610 by Heraclius. Since the time of Diocletian, Roman Egypt had garrison force of some twenty thousand men or perhaps somewhat more, but nothing that could resemble a field army. This policy served to keep that province free of military uprising for over three hundred years. Tunisia, on the other hand, required a field army due to the Moorish threat, and likewise Gaul due to the Frankish and Alamanic threats, and likewise Britain due to the Pictish threat. It is in this way one can say it really was the pitiful native barbarians of the West that destroyed the Western Empire, and arguably even the Eastern Empire due to the rebellion of Heraclius in 608-610 -they created the ideal conditions for usurpers in Britain, in Gaul, and in Tunisia.

In 404/5, Sozomen, the only one of the Big Three fifth century church historians to rely very heavily on the highly reliable lost history of Olympiodorus, reports that the Huns devastated Thrace, the first report of such a thing since the 376-382 Gothic War. The late Medieval chronicler Nicephorus Callistus (who might have had access to lost sources) names Uldin as participating in these raids (Maenchen-Helfen, World of the Huns, p. 63) -plausible enough if he were allied with Stilicho (he would fight for the West in 406). Evidence from coins indicates that it was very likely this event, combined with the prior raids of Alaric, the later attack of Uldin on Castra Martis, and the earlier rebellion of Gainas, that brought about the end of the villa economy in the Balkans to an even greater extent than the raids of the Goths during the 376-382 Gothic war. Scores of villas were violently destroyed, never to be rebuilt again. Due to an extreme undersupply of Roman military recruits, the Eastern government began building Potemkin forts on the Danube frontier to discourage the raids. By this time, the size of the Roman army had clearly fallen to well under 400,000, well below its Constantine-era peak of 581,000, only fear of the Huns to his East keeping the Shahanshah Yazdegerd from exploiting the Roman peril. Despite the shift to hard money and the obvious military cuts, is not altogether clear that government spending as a share of gross imperial product shrank between the age of Constantine and that of Stilicho- the bureaucracy and church had grown, and barbarian allies weren’t free. Neither, for that matter, was rebuilding the military, which, according to all indications, Anthemius did begin to do. He was appointed consul and praetorian prefect by Arcadius in 405. The year following, he rose to the rank of patrician, that is, de facto chief executive. If the Golden Gate and its inscription (“Haec loca Theudosius decorat post fata tyranni/Aurea saecla gerit qui portam construit auro”) really do date to soon after the defeat of Magnus Maximus (there is a reasonable amount of evidence to think this is the case), the course of Anthemius’s famous wall may have been originally planned by Theodosius I, but the construction delayed due to fiscal problems until Anthemius’s ascent. Regardless, Anthemius’s wall around the Second Rome to ward off the Huns and Goths, much like Aurelian’s around the City of Rome to ward off the Alamans, represents a very obvious shift from frontier defense to defense in depth.

In late 405, the pagan warlord Radagaisus, a Goth from outside Roman-held territory, crossed the Alps and, seeing the Roman Balkans as occupied by Alaric and undefended against the Hunnic menace, invaded Italy. This invasion was very likely a product of the process of Huns moving their main base of operations West into the Tisza valley. DNA evidence confirms that the highest European of concentration of the Y-haplogroup Q1a2-M25, found in ancient remains from the Tian Shan to Altai mountains and in a Hunnic grave in Transylvania, is among the Transylvanian Szekelys. Gothic settlements in Western Romania are abandoned en masse and the hoarding of gold coins in Moldova comes to an end around this time, while the hoarding of gold coins becomes increasingly common in Transylvania after this point, further adding evidence to a shift in the Hunnic base of operations. Gibbon attributes this Hunnic movement to the establishment of the Rouran Khaganate in Mongolia under Shelun, and though the mobility of Asiatic steppe nomads cannot be denied, this seems like a stretch. The Huns had undeniably begun to move their operations West both after their failure in and due to the attraction of becoming mercenaries for the Romans. The Western Roman government grew clearly desperate. By February 406, the government was actively offering slaves (especially slaves of soldiers, barbarian allies, and conquered peoples) liberty and travel money for taking up arms against Radagaisus, and offering freemen a promise of ten solidi if they join the military, seven of those solidi promised to be paid out after the crisis was over. Huns and Alans were also recruited from across the Danube to fight Radagaisus’s Goths. On the heels of the invasion, Britain’s military leadership rebelled from under Stilicho in the summer of 406 under the usurper Marcus, presumably due to complaints about the military of Britain and Gaul becoming smaller and less funded. The fact the British usurpation did not mint coins while it stayed in Britain, and would only begin to mint coins once it had access to the mint in Lyon in 407 is a testament to the devastated economic state Britain was in at the time. Such military uprisings would generally be avoided in the East due to the obvious Persian and Gothic-Hunnic threats. Augustine of Hippo, the third of the four Great Western Fathers of the Roman church, claimed Radagaisus’s army numbered more than a hundred thousand. Though this is a clear exaggeration, supposing troop strength of ~25,000 for Radagasius’s Goths, something well within the realm of possibility for a Völkerwanderung spurting out from the collapse of Gothic settlement in Wallachia, Transylvania, and Western Romania, it’s very easy to see how the Western Empire might have found it difficult to defeat this mobile chief.

And in the end, the extraordinary measures taken by Stilicho did delay Italy’s fall to unromanized Germans for over a century and a half. The Gallic Chronicle of 452 reports

With many cities already devastated, Radagaisus died. The fact his army was divided into three parts through various chiefs opened up some opportunity for the Romans to fight back. In outstanding triumph Stillico wiped out the army of the third part of the enemy after the auxiliaries of the Huns were used to surround them.

Thanks to help from Huns and Goths aligned with the Romans, including the general Sarus, who had switched from Alaric to Stilicho in 402, another Hadrianopolis was again avoided. After several months of raiding the Po Valley with little opposition, Radagaisus was killed and much of his mobile chiefdom was enslaved by the Western Empire after Radagaisus failed to seize Florence in August 406. 12,000 of his men, according to Olympiodorus, were incorporated into the Western army. Stilicho had won a second victory against Gothic invaders in Northern Italy. It was either in this year or in the past year that Stilicho, according to Olympiodorus (whose history we have only fragments of), Sozomen (who reports only fragments of Olympiodorus), and Zosimus (who seems completely confused on the importance of the Gothic invasion of 405/6, but appears to place the agreement before Radagaisus’s invasion), asked Alaric for an alliance against the Eastern Empire to help the West reconquer the central Balkans -a traditional recruiting base for the Roman army largely free of estates held by Roman Senators and a desired residence of Alaric’s Goths. Alaric agreed, moving his forces “from the barbarous regions bordering on Dalmatia and Pannonia” into today’s Albania. In order to hamper Eastern intelligence-gathering, Stilicho declared all Italian ports to be closed to Eastern merchants, according to the Theodosian Code.

On the last day of 406, according to Prosper of Aquitane, some thousands of Vandals, Alans, and Sueves (the last being some kind of southern Germans; these give their name to today’s Swabia, Gregory of Tours simply claims them to be Alamans), presumably, as with Radagaisus, under pressure from Hunnic expansion in the Tisza valley, took advantage of Stilicho’s use of troops from the Rhineland for the battle against Radagaisus and for his presumed planned campaign against the East in order to cross the Rhine in the vicinity of Mainz and launch an entirely unauthorized invasion of Roman Gaul. For the next few decades, the Sueves would ravage Hispania, forcing the Romans to use the Goths to destroy them, a dececision which led to the Roman transfer of Hispania to the Goths in 461. The Vandals, on the other hand, would first make Hispania their refuge, then, between the 430s and 530s, the hot and rich lands of Algeria and Tunisia. The Alans were resident in Ukraine only a generation before, while the Vandals were former inhabitants of today’s southern Slovakia and the upper Tisza Valley in Hungary, forced South during the fourth century by climate change. This is the region of the short-lived late fourth century North Carpathian Group, which shows signs of dramatic population contraction and signs of massive settlement destruction at the beginning of the fifth century. As a paper on the subject notes, “From the first third of the 5th century, eastern Slovakia became almost uninhabited”. Southern Poland experienced similar disruptions as a result of Hunnic pressure, though not all simultaneously. Jordanes claims the Vandals and Alans of the Great Invasion were those “dwelling in both Pannonias by permission of the Roman Emperors” and had left Roman Pannonia due to fear of the Goths. If the first claim is true, the second is plausible, but, other than Radagaisus’s Gothic invasion obviously having to pass through Roman Pannonia, there’s no obvious reason to believe either, due to the questionable supposition of Romanized Vandals and Alans developing an independent leadership and a desire to move along the Danube and Rhine into Gaul, rather than more logically into Italy, especially for a people long habituated to Roman civilization. More likely, the Vandals and Alans of the Great Invasion were directly from the very much unromanized Slovakia, Moravia, and Silesia, all but perhaps the last highly vulnerable to Hunnic expansion into the Tisza Valley. Due to logistical reasons, Halsall, pointing to the extremely obvious logistical challenges of the journey of the Vandals and Alans, suggests the barbarians were bribed by the Empire to move westward and northward, and only when (at least, according to Gregory of Tours, quoting Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus) they were defeated by the Franks did they decide to move into the Empire itself.

Stilicho, comitted to the defense of Honorius and having an excellent understanding of manpower strength, viewed the British uprising and the barbarian invaders as substantially lesser threats than the armed forces that the Eastern Empire, Alaric, and his rivals in Ravenna could muster. The barbarians who had entered Gaul were, after all, already reduced in strength due to Frankish attacks to the north of their crossing that killed the Vandal king. Though he could not attack the Eastern Empire under such conditions, his foremost task now became not the quelling of the barbarians in Gaul or the defeat of the British usurpation, but the defense of Northern Italy against the East, Alaric, potential Italian usurpers, and the barbarians. Stilicho (or so says Jordanes) thus sent some Vandal forces loyal to his government from Pannonia to Gaul to restore control; seeing that Western Roman power in the region was gone, they joined the invaders. According to Prosper, Saxons from Niedersachsen, seeing the Roman Empire’s vulnerability, joined in the invasion of Gaul in 407. In response to the crisis, the Briton Constantine III, inspired by similar actions of Constantine the Great a century before, seized power in Britain during Honorius’s third visit to Rome, while the Emperor was celebrating the victory over Radagaisus, and moved into Gaul with up to 100% of the six thousand or so soldiers then present in Britain to repulse the barbarians ravaging northern Gaul in February of 407. Of all the losers of the fifth century (there were many), it is Constantine III who became almost certainly the biggest contributor to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire in every area.

By bribing Western-aligned Germanic tribes and rapidly gaining the support of the Gallic and even Hispanic establishments, Constantine III became more or less secure as ruler of Gaul by late 407, only threatened in his control by the barbarian raiders. He began to try to reconcile with the rump state controlling Italy and Western North Africa by leaving it the portions of Gaul bordering Italy. Stilicho, fearing a threat to his power, decided to focus on countering Constantine III and, according to Zosimus, relying on Olympiodorus, was now prohibited by Theodosius’s son Honorius, the nominal Western emperor, from engaging in a war on the East. That same year, the Empire forbade traditional festal banquets in Roman Tunisia, which had been publicly funded as recently as 399, and ordered the removal of images from all remaining active non-Christian temples.

General Sarus was ordered by Stilicho to capture Constantine III in Gaul in early 408, while landowners Didymus and Verinianus arose in Hispania to fight in favor of Stilicho’s Italo-Tunisian government. Stilicho did not himself engage in direct battle against Constantine III due to fear of having his power in Italy be crushed by the movements of Alaric, the East, and his Ravenna rivals. The decapitation attempt failed, despite Sarus winning a strong preliminary battlefield victory, due to Constantine III having ordered barbarian reinforcements, most likely originally intended to quell the Hispanic uprising. Constantine III followed up on his strategic victory by taking Arles and starting to mint coins there, as well as at Trier, a mint that had been closed since 395. The uprising of Didymus and Verinianus was soundly defeated by Constantine III’s general Gerontius, a Briton.

Though documentation here is as poor as regarding the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the sources that have been handed down to us -the Gallic chronicles of 452 and 511 (heavily mauled by later editing), St. Patrick, Constantius, Zosimus, Gildas, Procopius, Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle- are always either information-rare or garbled to the extreme, it was around this time that the Odenburg-Neuss line was abandoned, the border of the Empire moved to the Boulogne-Cologne line, Armorica was abandoned to anarchy, and the lands North of the English Channel fell out of the control of Constantine III. It is here, in Britain, that the Dark Ages begin first and hardest. All British hoards ending with coins of Constantine III contain only coins minted prior to the death of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius in May 408. It was not infection that led to the death of this organ, but autoimmune disorder. More than 350 years of Roman civilization vanished with the legions’ withdrawal like snow in the rain. Mere economic weakness certainly wasn’t new to Britain. Some of its regional pottery industries were declining and had generally become less innovative. Bronze coins had, over the previous decade, become rarities. But never before and never again would Britain experience anything like what it saw in the decades following 408. To find realistic parallels to the extent of the civilizational decline the Britons who were alive between the withdrawal of the legions and the coming of the Saxons must have seen, one would have to look to the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization in India and Pakistan around 1900 BC or the collapse at the end of the Early Bronze Age in Syria and Palestine around 2200 BC. While the former analogy might be more appropriate in regards to both cause (state collapse) and ultimate result (takeover by migrants from the Koppen Dfb zone), the latter is more appropriate in regards to near-term archaeological effect. Nothing in the Late Bronze Age collapse is comparable. In the aftermath of the withdrawal, bricks and mortar, quarried stone, tile, nails, the usage of coins as money, writing, villa-based agriculture, large-scale cross-Channel trade, even wheel-made pottery, all disappeared from Britain after a period of increasingly decadent imitation. Due to the collapse of both coin imports and Roman law, clipping of silver coins, previously rare and punishable by death, became widespread. The clipping was, however, only up to the head of the emperor, suggesting continued respect for imperial authority. Gold coins were not clipped at all. At least at first, imitation silver coins were still made (see Higham and Ryan’s textbook The Anglo-Saxon World -yes, dear reader, I am aware of the universal unreliability of textbooks, including this one, but this one at least tries to make an effort- p. 50), but even these eventually fell out of production and circulation. Coin hoarding skyrocketed. Hundreds of Roman settlements from Hadrian’s Wall (which, to at least some degree, remained in use right down to the full withdrawal of the Roman military from Britain) to the English Channel were abandoned over the next few decades Burials started appearing within the walls of old Roman cities. London was completely abandoned. The people in the outlying settlements, however, remained -changes in pollen composition appear to have been mild. Despite the Britonic people in southeastern Britain having been almost as Roman in character as any other in the Empire, in the absence of a government and an army attempting to maintain Roman laws and institutions, and without even the benefit of conquest by semi-civilized barbarians, the people, especially in the previously most Romanized areas, fell into total anarchy.

If there is better experimental evidence in favor of the “Inference, made from the Passions” of Thomas Hobbes, writing 1200 years after the collapse, I have yet to see it.

There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE. Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

After more than two centuries of decline, the fall of the Western Roman Empire had at last begun.

At around the same time, in the first half of 408 (the timing comes from Jerome, the description from Sozomen; consult Maenchen-Helfen’s World of the Huns, p. 65 on this), came the first recorded attempt of a Hunnic chiefdom to attempt to capture cities in the Roman Balkans. Uldin the Hun, who had previously been a mercenary of both the Eastern and Western Empires, briefly captured Castra Martis near the Lower Danube in 408, but he was quickly defeated due to his allies flipping to the Romans and the Scirii who backed his assault were absorbed into the Eastern Empire as tenant farmers. The Isaurians operating around the Taurus range, who were considered by the Romans semibarbarians, posed a similar threat to the Eastern Empire as the Huns at this time, raiding throughout eastern Anatolia and Syria.

Like Roman rule in Britain, Stilicho’s political fortunes would also end in 408. Had Stilicho the boundless energy of an Aurelian or a Constantius III, the delegative abilities of a Diocletian, the political skill of a Constantine the Great, or even the determination of a Constantius II or a Theodosius, it is doubtful that this would have been inevitable. In response to the lack of either military or financial aid to his mobilized Goths, Alaric and his Goths moved into present-day Austria and demanded four thousand pounds in gold in the spring of 408 –somewhere around ten solidi per soldier, essential to fund the Goths’ future expeditions. Stilicho persuaded the Senate that paying up would be less costly than a risk of another Hadrianopolis, especially given the rebellion of Constantine III, which had greatly reduced the number of forces under the Italian government’s disposal.

The death of Arcadius, on May 1, 408, took perhaps a month to reach Rome. After some debate about whether Stilicho or Honorius would go to Constantinople to negotiate with the Eastern oligarchy, Honorius agreed that Stilicho should go on the basis that it was safer for the Emperor. Stilicho, fearing negative reprecussions from the Western Senate, did not go East. Instead, he was overthrown by military coup in August 408 for proposing that Alaric lead the Western army’s campaign against Constantine III. The families of Germanic forces loyal to Stilicho were killed, resulting in the Western army collapsing and Alaric being greeted with thousands of defectors -according to Zosimus, thirty thousand, or probably a majority of the Italian field army. Honorius at this point decided to give Italian landowners a substantial tax cut.

Seeing his enormous leverage after the killing of Stilicho, Alaric asked for more aid, resulting in Honorius attempting to raise an army against him. In response, Alaric invaded Italy in November 408, besieging the largest city in it. Unlike at Hadrianopolis, this time there was no chance the other half of the Empire would commit sufficient numbers of its own forces to destroy the Gothic menace -they had just . Lacking ready access to Roman forces in Gaul and facing severe financial and manpower constraints, the government feared risking another Hadrianopolis too much to resist. After months of siege, the Roman Senate decided to pay off Alaric with five thousand pounds of gold and thirty thousand pounds of silver, resulting in him lifting the siege. Fearing Alaric, Honorius on December 10 removed the restrictions on Eastern merchants that Stilicho had imposed. It was around this point that Jerome wrote

I shall now say a few words of our present miseries. A few of us have hitherto survived them, but this is due not to anything we have done ourselves but to the mercy of the Lord. Savage tribes in countless numbers have overrun all parts of Gaul. The whole country between the Alps and the Pyrenees, between the Rhine and the Ocean, has been laid waste by hordes of Quadi, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepids, Herules, Saxons, Burgundians, Allemanni and — alas! For the commonweal!— even Pannonians. For “Assur also is joined with them”. The once noble city of Moguntiacum has been captured and destroyed. In its church many thousands have been massacred. The people of Vangium after standing a long siege have been extirpated. The powerful city of Rheims, the Ambiani, the Altrebatæ, the Belgians on the skirts of the world, Tournay, Spires, and Strasburg have fallen to Germany: while the provinces of Aquitaine and of the Nine Nations, of Lyons and of Narbonne are with the exception of a few cities one universal scene of desolation. And those which the sword spares without, famine ravages within. I cannot speak without tears of Toulouse which has been kept from falling hitherto by the merits of its reverend bishop Exuperius. Even the Spains are on the brink of ruin and tremble daily as they recall the invasion of the Cymry; and, while others suffer misfortunes once in actual fact, they suffer them continually in anticipation.

It’s not clear why or even when the Burgundians, who had previously resided to the North of the Alamans and to the East of the Franks, moved into the Rhine valley; they may have either taken advantage of the chaos in the Western Empire or have themselves been pushed by Hunnic expansion into Germany, as they, like the Thuringians further North, were famous for their horses in the late fourth century.

Honorius continued to refuse to deal with Alaric, instead deciding to align with Constantine III, who was by early 409 facing a rebellion by Gerontius, who declared some individual named Maximus emperor in Tarracona and began minting coins in Barcelona.

Meanwhile Gerontius, from being the most efficient of the generals of Constantine, became his enemy; and believing that Maximus, his intimate friend, was well qualified for the tyranny, he invested him with the imperial robe, and permitted him to reside in Tarracona. Gerontius then marched against Constantine, and took care to put Constans, the son of Constantine, to death at Vienne. As soon as Constantine heard of the usurpation of Maximus, he sent one of his generals, named Edovicus, beyond the Rhine, to levy an army of Franks and Alemanni; and he sent his son Constans to guard Vienne and the neighboring towns.

Sozomen, summarizing Olympiodorus

In April of this year, Honorius issued a law ordering private persons in Tunisia who had bought lands around border fortifications from the barbarians meant to guard the border to either maintain the border fortifications or transfer them to either barbarians or veterans. Honorius, or so says Zosmius, also attempted to send five legions from Dalmatia consisting of six thousand men to garrison the City of Rome, but Alaric’s Goths ambushed them and only just over a hundred got into the city. Alaric was also reinforced by another contingent of the Balkan Goths, led by his brother, Athaulf, who would become King of the Goths after Alaric’s death. After seeing the unwillingness of the Ravenna government, Alaric then returned to Rome and, by threatening to destroy the port of Ostia, forced the Senate to set up a new emperor, Priscus Attalus, the praefectus of the City of Rome, in December 409. Attalus quickly converted to the Christian religion, but was not recognized in Tunisia, the leadership of which backed Honorius. Though Alaric proposed capturing the province using Gothic fighters, Attalus refused. Roman forces attempted to capture the province, but did not succeed. Constantine III’s attempted intervention in Italy to aid Honorius against Alaric (according to Sozomen, this intervention in Italy was an attempt to seize power from Honorius) failed due to the death of Alavicus, commander of the troops of Honorius.

Negotiations between Alaric and Honorius resumed, but Honorius refused to appoint Alaric as a Roman master of soldiers. Alaric then withdrew his demands for payment in gold and appointment as a master of soldiers, requesting simply that his Goths be allowed to settle present-day Austria as well as receive food aid for his men. Honorius refused. Alaric then moved toward closer to Ravenna to strengthen his hand in the negotiations, but Honorius was bailed out by four thousand soldiers from the Eastern Empire. Deciding Honorius was in a secure position and that Attalus was useless, Alaric deposed Attalus in July 410 and advanced toward Ravenna to finally negotiate an agreement with Honorius. At this point, however, Alaric was attacked by Sarus. Disappointed in the attack, Alaric became convinced that negotiation had failed and decided to sack Rome, which he and his Goths did on August 24, 410, looting the city for three days and causing some notable damage. Coin usage in the City of Rome after this date dramatically slows down. The symbolic significance of this event increases all the more once one realizes that in just three years, the Eastern oligarchy led by Anthemius would finish its Theodosian walls, thus expanding Constantinople’s walled area to a size greater than that of Rome. Constantinople would remain the most populous city in the Mediterranean for at least a century. The Christian response against the representatives of the religion of Old Rome to this catastrophe was plain and simple:

In truth, Rome, which was founded and increased by the labors of these ancient heroes, was more shamefully ruined by their descendants, while its walls were still standing, than it is now by the razing of them. For in this ruin there fell stones and timbers; but in the ruin those profligates effected, there fell, not the mural, but the moral bulwarks and ornaments of the city, and their hearts burned with passions more destructive than the flames which consumed their houses.

Again, they say that the long famine laid many a Christian low. But this, too, the faithful turned to good uses by a pious endurance of it. For those whom famine killed outright it rescued from the ills of this life, as a kindly disease would have done; and those who were only hunger-bitten were taught to live more sparingly, and inured to longer fasts.

And since Christians are well aware that the death of the godly pauper whose sores the dogs licked was far better than of the wicked rich man who lay in purple and fine linen, what harm could these terrific deaths do to the dead who had lived well?

Alaric then moved his forces into Calabria in a failed attempt to invade the grain-rich, if long stagnant, island of Sicily and died. It is at roughly this point Hughes’s Stilicho book, good as it is in explaining the events of the period, ends and I am forced to switch back to other sources. The Gallic Chronicle of 452 records for this year that

In this storm the forces of the Romans were stretched thin to their foundations beyond their strength. The British lands were devastated by an incursion of the Saxons. The Vandals and Alandi laid waste to a part of the Gallic lands. What had remained was besieged by the usurper Constantinus. The Suevi occupied the greatest part of the Spanish lands. Finally Rome itself, the head of the world, was laid open in the most disgraceful manner to the plundering of the Goths.

Amazingly enough, the Ravenna government would actually mostly end up recovering from the 405-410 catastrophes thanks to the exceptional leadership of Constantius III (not to be confused with Constantine III), born in Nish, Serbia, the last sucessful major Western Roman general and (briefly) emperor, during the decade of the 410s. All four-five of the usurpers active in 410-413 would be unsucessful. The permanent settlement of the Goths in southern Gaul, however, would be very sucessful for them. I now switch back to Heather.

Gerontius, the leader of the usurpation against Constantine III in Hispania, invaded Gaul and attempted to capture Constantine III in Arles in 411. However, a pro-Honorius general, Constantius, the second of the major Late Roman warlords that would dominate the Western Empire and the only sucessful one, proceeded to attack Arles, leading Gerontius, seeing the majority of his men deserting to Constantius, to flee back into Hispania and die of suicide during a coup (Sozomen tells the lurid tale). From this point on, Roman Hispania would have very few sources for it other than the Chronicle of Hydatius, available from Oxford University Press with notes, translation, and commentary by Richard Burgess. Hydatius writes

When the provinces of Spain had been laid waste by the destructive progress of the disasters just described, the Lord in his compassion turned the barbarians to the establishment of peace. They then apportioned to themselves by lot areas of the provinces for settlement: the Vandals took possession of Gallaecia and the Sueves that part of Gallaecia which is situated on the very western edge of the Ocean. The Alans were allotted the provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginiensis, and the Siling Vandals Baetica. The Spaniards in the cities and forts who had survived the disasters surrendered themselves to servitude under the barbarians, who held sway throughout the provinces. After a three-year usurpation, Constantine was executed within Gaul by Honorius’ dux, Constantius.

This last event was in August of 411, and was, according to Gregory of Tours, quoting Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, spurred on by the usurpation of Jovinus in Gaul, who had made an alliance with the Burgundians, Alamans, Franks, and Alans. According to Sozomen, however, who ends his history about this point, Constantine was forced to open Arles by the the ambush and defeat of his army to the East of the Rhone by forces loyal to Constantius. Since the Goths were still in Italy at this time, Peter Heather (“The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, p. 26), suggests that it was then that the ten thousand Huns requested by Honorius to defend the City of Rome against Alaric finally arrived. No sooner had Constantine III been killed than Sarus, the Alans, Priscus Attalus, and the Burgundians proceeded to back yet another usurper, Jovinus, who began minting coins at Trier, Lyon, and even Arles in 411. This was when the Burgundians annexed the region around Worms. Despite the damage Trier sustained during the first two decades of the fifth century, Jovinus would not, in fact, be the last Roman to mint in Trier –Honorius, the usurper John, and, lastly, his successor, the child emperor Valentinian III would all continue to mint silver coins there. Avitus did not mint from Trier; he minted from Arles. Combined with evidence of coinage flows to Roman southern Germany during the period following Constantius III’s restoration of imperial authority, this suggests that other than the loss of Britain, Armorica, and parts of Hispania, the period 405-415 was not a cataclysmic one for the Western Empire. The Age of Aetius, on the other hand, appears to have degraded it rather severely, almost certainly due to massive losses in revenue from key provinces.

The wandering Goths moved out of South Italy and invaded Gaul in late 411 or early 412 (Kulikowski, Imperial Tragedy), resulting in Honorius giving much of Southern Italy, which had been devastated by the raids of Alaric, a large temporary tax cut. The wandering Goths ultimately ended up killing Sarus in Gaul. At around this time, the Ravenna government was confronted by -you guessed it- another usurper, this time Heraclian, the very man who had killed Stilicho, who rebelled in Tunisia in mid-412 and ended grain shipments to Italy.

It was by April 4, 413 that the New Wall of Constantinople initiated by Anthemius nine years before was completed; a law in the Theodosian code (15.1.53) specifying that the towers be used and repaired by the landowners “through whose lands this wall was duly erected” “in perpetuity” strongly suggests the severe shortages of men and money in the East had still not been entirely resolved. Just a year prior, the Eastern Empire had decreed a massive upgrade in the lower Danubian patrol boat system (Theodosian Code 7.17) of two hundred new and upgraded boats.

The Theodosian walls of Constantinople, Google Street View

Part VII: Indian Summer in the West; Persian War in the Roman Far East and independence of Persian church (413-425)

SOURCES: Theodosian Code, Paulinus of Pella, Orosius, Rutilius Namatianus, Gallic Chronicle of 452

The wandering Goths in Gaul led by Athaulf were persuaded by Constantius to support the Western empire in Ravenna, thus resulting in Jovinus’s beheading in the first half of 413. Heraclian’s revolt was also defeated by a mutiny and he was executed in March 414 (the sources say March 413, but Ian Hughes suggests this would compress the events into an unreasonably short timeframe), but not before the Goths captured Narbonne due to anger at the Romans failing to supply them Tunisian grain. The Goths and Romans continued to bicker throughout 414, resulting in the Gothic leadership, now headquartered in southern Gaul, once again attempting to make Priscus Attalus a puppet emperor. The plan failed due to Constantius III marching on Arles and enforcing a blockade of Narbonne, thus resulting in the Goths moving into northern Hispania and being forced, according to the reliable historian Olympiodorus, to buy grain from the Vandals in southern Hispania. The Gothic leadership experienced a bloody coup in Barcelona in August 415 and, after, according to the less than completely reliable historian Orosius, a failed attempt to cross into Morocco, once again agreed to be allies with the West. Honorius would celebrate this in a triumphal procession in the City of Rome in May of 416.

At this point, complicated history ends and I can once again afford to breeze through events without causing confusion. I here occasionally use two other Ian Hughes books, Gaiseric: The Vandal Who Destroyed Rome and Aetius: Attila’s Nemesis to fill in the gaps of the 420s-440s.

The Indian Summer in the West between the ascent of Wallia as King of the Goths in 415 and the Eastern Empire’s war against John in 425 was the only time in the fifth century prior to Odoacer (if we count him as a Roman) that the Western Romans made any major territorial recoveries outside defeating usurpations. The Goths won back most of Hispania for the Western empire in a series of battles with the Alans, Vandals, and Sueves from 416 to 418, including completely destroying the Siling (a word that might be related to Silesia) Vandal mobile chiefdom in Southern Hispania. The Goths’ campaigns against the barbarians that had crossed the Rhine in 406 resulted in a curious reversal of fortune. Formerly, the Alans (according to Hydatius) had been ruling over both the Vandals and Sueves; now, the Vandals under Gunderic began to rule over the numerically inferior, but, due to their skill in horsemanship, more physically imposing Alans. When the Alan king, Addax, was killed, the survivors submitted to Gunderic, king of the Hasding Vandals. As a reward for their service, the Visigoths were at last permitted by the Western empire in 418 to settle in the lands bordering the Garonne from the Atlantic to Toulouse. In this year, Honorius gave another temporary tax cut to Italian provinces. The Gothic king, Wallia, also died during this year and was succeeded by Theoderic I, who would go down fighting for the Romans against Attila. In 419, the Sueves that crossed the Rhine in 406 aligned with the Western Empire to fight a victory in Northwest Hispania against the Vandals. This resulted in the Vandals moving into Southern Hispania and Hispanic Galicia becoming the undisputed heart of Suevic settlement. Maximus, the usurper against Constantine III who had been resident among the barbarians in Hispania, once again attempted an usurpation sometime in 419 or 420 and was killed in 421. In Gaul, even Armorica, accordirng to Rutilius Namatianus, began to be restored to the Western Empire by a certain Exuperantius by 417. Despite the untimely death of Constantius, the last of the great Western Roman generals, in September 421, in 422, the Romans and the Visigoths renewed their campaign against the Vandals in Southern Hispania, which failed. The same year, the Eastern Empire began paying tribute to the Huns, now unified by Rua, for the very first time -350 pounds of gold per year, and began forcing the landowners formerly allowed to use the walls of Constantinople to quarter field army troops on the ground floors of the walls. Honorius died in August 423, leaving behind no children. John, the head of the palace bureucracy, seized power in Italy without Eastern consent. His coinage, the last of any Western Roman usurper, was unusual in showing a bearded man and was primarily produced at Ravenna.

Part VIII: Second fifth century general Western imperial politico-barbarian crisis; Nestorian controversy in the Roman East (425-433)

SOURCES: Theodosian Code, Minutes of the Senate of the City of Rome, Victor of Vita, Jordanes, Marcellinus Comes, Gallic Chronicle of 452, Possidius

The successor to Honorius, Valentinian III, the son of Constantius III, was again another figurehead (aged five), coming to the imperial throne through Eastern imperial aid in 425 after a war between the East and the usurper John, during which John was deposed and killed at Aquileia. The year prior, the Christians of the Persian Empire declared their church hierarchy independent from that of the Roman Empire. In 426, the Visigoths besieged Arles, but the Western Empire repelled them. Hearing of the Roman-Visigoth war, the Vandals captured Hispanic Cartagena, and with it one of the largest collections of Roman ships in the Mediterranean. They then proceeded to raid the Baleares. In 427, the Romans expelled Huns from Pannonia. They also began (logically) another civil war, with Felix, the Italian military commander, sending forces against Boniface, the North African military commander, who had fought in the wars against the Visigoths in the 410s and was at this point was being relentlessly criticized by the Great Latin Father Augustine for neglecting his duty to secure North Africa from Moorish raids. Felix’s expedition failed, and another expedition was sent in 428, which succeeded in capturing Carthage from Boniface. Aetius, the commander in Gaul, battled the Franks the same year. It was also in this year that the king of the Vandals, Gunderic, captured the city of Seville in the attempt to make it his royal capital and died.

At this point, despite all the troubles the Western Empire had faced over the past two decades, it would be unfair to say it had fallen, even though it was in a civil war. It had only definitely and permanently lost Britain and any civil war would obviously be temporary. The rest was either within the Empire’s control or could be realistically reconquered in a reasonable timeframe. In a decade and a half, this would no longer be the case.

Gunderic’s half-brother, Gaiseric, would go down as one of the most impactful military leaders in world history. George Washington, Che Guevara, Daniel Ortega, and Võ Nguyên Giáp combined could not match his extent of audacity, tactical acumen, and stunning triumph over Western imperialism. Of all the Empire’s enemies, only the Caliph Umar, whose conquests were quite similar in nature, if much more extensive, would be more formidable. Both the Visigoths and the Vandals were, at core, opportunists. But it was the Vandals who would first rise to an independent position high enough to be an existential threat to the Western Empire. Why didn’t either the East or West stop this menace? Simple enough. The East was preoccupied with the Hunnic threat, while the West was confronted first by civil war, then by seemingly endless wars against barbarians in Gaul and Hispania. Born somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Slovakia (probably- the idea the Vandals who crossed the Rhine were the same as those long settled in Roman Pannonia, as Hughes supposes, has no good basis and is largely implausible) -about as far as it is possible to get from the salt water in the European Union- Gaiseric would become the Germanic master of sea power. Having crossed the Rhine as a teenager on the last day of 406, Gaiseric had likely been witness to all the major events of post-406 Vandal history. In May 429, around the time of a peace agreement between Boniface and Felix, he began preparations for his mobile chiefdom –supposedly numbering, inclusive of women, slaves, children, and the elderly, around 80,000– likely much larger than the original group of Vandals that crossed the Rhine in 406- to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. By entering the only part of the Western Empire not yet subject to Germanic raiding, Gaiseric intended to, by taking advantage of Boniface’s weakened forces, capture the City of Rome’s single most important food supplier -Tunisia. One month later, his entire mobile chiefdom was in Morocco. The total number of Vandals existing within Greater Germany in the fourth century was something on the order of half a million. Given the sheer (supposed) size of Gaiseric’s mobile chiefdom -almost certainly much larger than the group that crossed the Rhine on the last day of 406, given its apparent fear of the armies of Constantine III– it is, as far as I can tell, an open question whether the mobile chiefdom that crossed the Strait of Gibraltar included a substantial number of Roman citizen families enticed by Vandal promises to expropriate land from absentee landowners and give it to their fighting men -something the Roman Empire could never do. Either that, or there was substantial above-replacement Vandal fertility within the Empire.

After wandering East at a leisurely pace, the Vandal forces defeated the forces of Boniface in the vicinity of the Tunisian-Algerian border just under one year after they had crossed the sea. They proceeded to set up siege against Hippo Regius (modern Annaba, Algeria) with the help of their captured fleet. Augustine was “rescued from the ills of this life” in Hippo Regius three months after the siege was started. That same year, Felix was killed under the order of Aetius. After this, Aetius campaigned on the Upper Danube frontier against various Germans and local rebellions, then once again defended Arles from the Visigoths. The Vandals finally ended the siege of Hippo Regius after fourteen months, failing in their attempt to capture the city -a testament to the fortitude of Late Roman garrison troops- as a result of rumors of the Eastern Empire preparing a campaign against them. It was also in this year that the Nestorians, who denied that Mary bore the Christ’s divine nature and were, under the earlier influence of Theodore of Mopsuestia, prominent among the Christians of the Persian Empire, were condemned as heretics at the First Council of Ephesus for excessive separation of the Christ’s human and divine natures. The Nestorians would become an important aspect of the Medieval Orient, but are almost extinct today. Aetius won a victory against the Franks in Gaul in 432. The combined offensive of Boniface and the Eastern Empire against the Vandals in 432 failed (this would come to be a theme of future imperial campaigns against Gaiseric). Hippo Regius was finally abandoned by the Roman Empire and was looted by the Vandals. The Vandal kingdom would last for one hundred and two years, forty five of those years under the rule of Gaiseric. The Vandal century would only end with the beginning of the Empire’s century and a half long reoccupation of Tunisia. Boniface went back to Italy that same year to fight a civil war with Aetius, forcing Aetius to flee to the Huns.

The Maskell Passion Ivories, early fifth century

Part IX: The Age of Aetius and Attila; Hypostatic union controversy in the Roman East (433-454)

SOURCES: Hydatius, Theodosian Code (including the Novels), Minutes of the Senate of the City of Rome, Victor of Vita, Priscus (preserved in Constantine VII’s Excerpts on Embassies), Salvian, Gallic Chronicle of 511, Gallic Chronicle of 452, Justinian Code, Marcellinus Comes, Jordanes

Aetius finally defeated his last Italian rivals in 433 and gave the Huns parts of Roman Pannonia in exchange for their help, thus becoming the third major Late Roman warlord to dominate the Western Empire. The West would be free of coups for a whole two decades, which is the only positive thing one can say about this time. It is, as a consequence, precisely for these two decades the strongest case for the barbarians -that is to say, the chiefs of the Vandals, Visigoths, Sueves, Huns, Burgundians, and even Franks- not being the prime movers of the fall of the West is at its weakest. The “Cambridge companion to the Age of Attila” is not called the “Cambridge companion to the Age of Aetius”. For it is quite clear that even during this fifth of a century of Roman political stability, the Empire was militarily weakening and its temporal power swiftly retreating, and the leaders of the barbarians showed substantially more initiative at the time than the Roman government.

The Eastern Empire was still containing the Vandal threat in Tunisia. However, Hunnic threats to the East in 434 resulted in the Eastern army being withdrawn (this would not be the last time this would happen). The Eastern Empire was forced to raise its payments to the Huns to 700 pounds of gold per year. As a result, the Treaty of Hippo Regius between Aetius’s and Gaiseric’s governments, signed on February 11, 435, was relatively favorable to Gaiseric. It allowed his Vandals and Alans to legally reside within present-day Algeria while paying tribute to the Empire and gave Gaiseric a military post within the Roman Empire. Aetius was then immediately forced to deal with a rebellion of the Burgundians. In 436, Aetius again fought against a rebellion of the Burgundians, who were supported by the Visigoths’ beginning a siege of Narbonne. By 437, the Visigoth siege of Narbonne had at last been raised and the Burgundians were contained with the help of the Huns, however, the Franks captured Trier and Cologne that year. In response to the Gallic chaos, the Vandals began to renew their pirate raids. The pirate raids became more severe in 438, when the Vandals plundered Sicily. Aetius continued his victories against the Visigoths. In the East, the Theodosian Code, a compilation of the laws issued by the Roman Emperors from Constantine onward, was published. Some novel laws, or Novels, going up to those of the Western Emperor Anthemius, were later appended to the code and contain more individual detail than the original compiled laws, thus making them a vital source for historians of the Late Empire. The Visigoths won a victory against Aetius’s forces at Toulouse in late 438 or early 439, while the Sueves under their king Rechila, encouraged by the diversion of Roman forces to Gallic matters and the Vandals having left for hotter pastures, were expanding out of their Galician heartland into the region of Merida.

To Flavius Merobaudes, of spectabilis rank, member of the imperial council. To Flavius Merobaudes, a man equal in fortitude and doctrination, as excellent in doing praiseworthy things as he is in praising the deeds of others. (He is) experienced in administrative charges, famous for his eloquence, exceeding in his studies those who have more leisure. From the cradle he had the same care for virtue and eloquence; born with an ingenuity to fortitude and to doctrine alike, he exercised with both stylus and sword. And, not allowing the strength of his mind to languish in the shadow and darkness of mere scholarly leisure, when under arms he fought using words, and sharpened a speech when [serving] in the Alps. Therefore he is granted as a reward, not cheap foliage nor idle ivy as a Heliconian honour for [his] head, but a statue made of bronze, by which times of old used to honour men of rare example, who had been tested in military service, or were the best of poets. This [monument] Rome, together with the most august emperors, Theodosius and Placidus Valentinianus, lords of all things, set up in the forum of Ulpius, rewarding in a man of ancient nobility and new glory his military industry, as well as the poem by whose triumphant publication the glory of the empire grew. [on the side] Dedicated on the third day before the Kalends of August, when our lords Theodosius for the fifteenth time and Valentinian for the fourth time were consuls. (transl. Ulrich Gehn)

Statue base in the Forum of Trajan, City of Rome, 435. Merobaudes is one of our few real sources for the Age of Aetius in the West.

Seeing the Romans concentrated on the Gallic front, troubled by the Hispanic front, and unconcerned with the African front, Gaiseric decided to seize Tunisia with the same intent of the Caliph Umar deciding to seize Egypt two centuries later. On October 19, 439, some one thousand years prior to the invention of the printing press, he reached Carthage and took the city by trickery. The second largest city of the Western Mediterranean was now in Germanic hands. It was the first of the Empire’s five great cities to fall into the hands of foreigners with the foreigners having an intent to hold it, the second being Rome in 491 (to the Ostrogoths, who were allies of the Empire), the third being Rome again in 546 (to the Ostrogoths, now enemies of the Empire), the fourth being Rome again in 550 (to the Ostrogoths, still enemies), the fifth being Antioch in 613 (to the Persians), the sixth being Alexandria in 619 (to the Persians), the seventh being Antioch in 637 (to the Arabs), the eighth being Alexandria in 642 (to the Arabs), the ninth being Alexandria again in 645 (to the Arabs), the tenth being Carthage again in 698 (to the Arabs), the eleventh being Antioch in 1084 (to the Turks), the twelfth being Constantinople in 1204 (to the Crusaders), and the thirteenth and last being Constantinople in 1453 (to the Turks). The Roman church in the now Vandal-controlled city was largely extinguished and the city thoroughly looted and partly destroyed (Cambridge Ancient History 14, p. 556). The Vandal kingdom of Carthage which Gaiseric had desired for over a decade was a reality. The disproportionately absentee landowners of the Senatorial province of Africa Proconsularis (northern Tunisia) were expropriated, while those in the other provinces were left alone. The Romans and Visigoths at last signed a peace treaty in late 439 (it’s not clear whether before or after Gaiseric’s seizure of Carthage). Mass conscription was imposed in the Empire on March 2, 440. The traditional prohibition on civilians bearing weapons was lifted. The Vandals, encouraged by an Eastern war with Persia that year, used the naval power they had gained with their seizure of Carthage to besiege Palermo and send raids into South Italy. However, the siege of Palermo, like the first siege of Hippo Regius, failed. Fearing both Western and Eastern attack, the Vandals retreated back into Africa. The Roman tax exemption for church lands was removed. The Eastern expedition, commanded by five generals, did reach Sicily in 441. The attack, however, was aborted due to attacks by Bleda the Hun which began on the pretext that the bishop of Margus (modern Pozarevac) had been robbing Hunnic tombs. Bleda captured Viminacium (near modern Kostolac), Singidunum (Beograd) and Sirmium, burning them to the ground. According to Hydatius in his entry for this year year,

Hermericus, the king of the Sueves, died after having suffered for four years from a lingering illness. After seizing Hispalis, King Rechila brought the provinces of Baetica and Carthaginiensis under his control… Asturius, sent to Spain as dux utriusque militiae, slaughtered a great number of Bacaudae from Tarraconensis.

In response to the abortion of the anti-Vandal campaign, Bleda was convinced to end his campaigns against the Eastern Empire for a full year. Luckily for the Roman Empire, the Empire of Bleda and Attila would be just an extremely militarily capable dozen-year Reich, rather than, in the manner of the Vandals, Visigoths, and Sueves, a problem lasting many decades.

It is in this year that the Gallic Chronicles of 452 and 511 report the Saxons subjugated Britain. Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain at this time was likely at a rate of some one to two thousand immigrants per year. Perhaps ten thousand immigrants might be required for a “subjugation”. This suggests Anglo-Saxon immigration into Britain began in the 430s. The earliest and most thoroughly Germanized portion of England in the the fifth century was the region from the Thames to the Humber (Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Late Roman West p. 199). South of the Thames, the Romanizing “quoit brooch style” prevailed among local warlords (Halsall, p. 239). Like many things in Britain, the quoit brooch style substantially declined in quality and Germanized over time as a result of Saxon settlement. It is unlikely that the church visit to the regions of St. Albans in 429 mentioned in the Life of Germanus, suggested as plausible from coin finds up to Durocobrivis from early in the reign of Valentinian III, could have occurred had it been encumbered by Anglo-Saxon settlers. The beginning of Saxon subjugation is possibly associated with the violent destruction of Richborough, the most important Roman port in Britain; the last Roman coin there is also an early issue of Valentinian III. However, outside of a few places, there is not much evidence of large-scale destruction -that would imply that there was anything its inhabitants, living without any kind of state institutions, found worth defending. From archaeology, we know the Saxons began their settlement in Britain in small hamlets on poor soil near much better soil (see Esmonde-Cleary’s The Ending of Roman Britain), suggesting at least some local resistance to their enroachments. However, neither the early Anglo-Saxons nor the early post-Roman Britons in southeast England built fortified settlements -that would have implied a level of social sophistication far too high for the period and region in question. The Thames at this time must have been quite similar in the eyes of the Roman observer to what the Congo of the early 2000s looked like in the eyes of the modern observer. It was likely this British anarchy that attracted the Anglo-Saxons at least as much as unfavorable developments in their homelands (e.g., war with Franks). The Anglo-Saxons did not merely constitute an elite -in fact, recent immigrants tended to be poorer than the native Britons, who often rose into the top ranks of the Anglo-Saxon social hierarchy. The migration of Saxons out of Niedersachsen and Angles out of Schleswig-Holstein was a truly mass migration. Whole regions of Frisia, Niedersachsen, and Schleswig-Holstein were depopulated during the late fifth and sixth centuries due to their sons and daughters settling in England, a fact confirmed by both archaeological and paleobotanical evidence (Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Late Roman West, p. 384). Denmark, however, was relatively richer and more immune to continental wars, thus retaining a greater degree of settlement continuity during the fifth century, though it did experience some disruptions during the sixth (see also Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages p. 312 and Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Late Roman West, p. 379). Genetic studies confirm this. Britain during the Roman era had a population of at least two million. Given that at least 20% of England’s genetic stock is from the Anglo-Saxon-Frisian-Jute migration wave, it’s certain the actual number of migrants from, say, 440 to 800 has to be a minimum of 200,000, and probably substantially closer to a million. By the year 650, what were once the most Romanized portions of Britain were now the most thoroughly Germanized.

In 442, the Empire negotiated an agreement with Gaiseric recognizing the Vandals as de facto independent in exchange for his restoring grain shipments to Italy and the Empire taking Gaiseric’s son, Huneric, as a hostage. The agreement also specified that the regions outside the Kingdom of Carthage, ending somewhere to the West of the city of Constantine, Algeria, would continue to be subject to the Romans. During the same year, the Huns resumed their campaigns, but apparently suffered some kind of misfortune that led them to be a moribund force for a period of half a decade (on the chronology, see Maenchen-Helfen’s World of the Huns, p. 116-7). The Empire also attempted a reconquest of Hispania from the Sueves that year, but failed. Gaiseric thus began a new dating system in his realm, beginning the new era with his capture of Carthage. The recognition that Tunisia would no longer be unified with Italy meant that at this point, the Roman Empire had definitely ceased to be a Mediterranean hyperpower. The Western Empire’s population was down to perhaps 15-20 million -just over half of what it was in 404. It had lost two and a half of its five major areas (Britain, Hispania, Gaul, Maghreb, Italy). The Empire’s hyperpower status had been killed by Gaiseric the Vandal. Bleda the Hun, Rechila the Sueve, Theodoric I the Visigoth, and Gundahar the Burgundian had assisted in its demise.

The first half of the fifth century was the peak of Late Antique church construction in the City of Rome, far greater than the late fourth, when imperial visits to Rome were still uncommon and the position of Emperor was more than a ceremonial one. The basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Sabina were built under Pope Celestine and the San Pietro in Vincoli and Lateran Baptistery under Pope Sixtus. Church building in the second half of the fifth century would be far less than in the first half, with the Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio being a prominent exception. Construction of churches in the City of Rome would not recover to its early fifth century peak until the Early Modern era.

From this point, precipitation would rapidly fall from its present extraordinary peak until about the year 500, when precipitation would hit an extraordinary trough. Temperatures, however, would remain moderate and see little change until the disaster of 536. From an economic perspective, the resulting changes for the rest of the century would probably be good for the Western Empire and the barbarians in the North, somewhat harmful for Carthage, and slightly harmful for the East. The effect of these changes on the Mediterranean economy would, despite their size, be very minor relative to political factors. From a political standopoint, none of these changes are important enough to matter in the slightest prior to the Roman-Carthaginian war of the 530s. No decline, or even stagnation in settlement of any kind occured in Syria until after the 530s (Cambridge Ancient History 14, p. 609) and none whatsoever in Palestine until the later seventh century. Climatic explanations for either the decline or the fall of the Western Empire (and likely the Eastern Empire, as well) can be safely dismissed, though they might possibly be useful for explaining pre-406 movement of the barbarians, especially the fourth century Huns.

The road from the fall of Tunisia to the fall of Gaul -that is, the transformation of the Western Roman Empire into the Kingdom of Italy- would, as one might expect, first go through a series of coups and resulting civil wars.

The years between the peace treaty with Gaiseric in 442 and the killing of Valentinian III in 455 would, aside from the campaigns of Attila the Hun and the inability to quell the Suevic problem, be relatively decent ones for the Roman Empire. The defeated Burgundians were settled in the region of Geneva in 443. The Western Empire again attempted to retake Hispania this year. According to Hydatius,

The son-in-law of Asturius the magisler utiusque militiae, Merobaudes, was sent as his successor, a man of noble birth who merited comparison to the ancients for the quality of his eloquence, most especially in his poetic skills. He was also celebrated by the testimony of statues. In the brief time that he held his command he smashed the arrogance of the Bacaudae of Aracelli. Soon, as a result of the jealous lobbying of some, he was recalled to the city of Rome by an imperial rescript.

A war with the Franks also broke out this year. Aetius also made a treaty with the Hunnic empire this year, giving them the rest of Pannonia. Valentinian III permitted private armies in Western Roman North Africa and reduced their taxes to one eighth their former value in 445, as Algeria and Morocco were in a poor state due to Moorish raiding. A new sales tax was also imposed that year to compensate for revenue lost from the failure to recapture Carthage. Meanwhile, the Eastern Empire gave a tax cut to its subjects, probably due to ending payments to the Huns. A treaty with the Franks was signed in 445 which restored to the Western Empire Cologne and Trier. The Vandals also raided the Sueves this year due to their desire to improve relations with Aetius’s government. The Roman Empire tried to destroy the Sueves with the help of the Visigoths in 446, but this was a failure; only Eastern and Southern Hispania (including, apparently, Toledo, as a church council was held there the following year) was recovered for the Romans due to the Sueves’ low number of garrison troops. The constant warfare with the Sueves would have a clear negative impact on Hispania throughout the rest of the century. Esmonde-Cleary (The Roman West, p. 476) reports

Thereafter the pottery production and trade of at least the northern half of the peninsula was increasingly marked by smallscale centres with a limited distribution, related in part to the geographical constraints of the interior of the peninsula.

It was presumably at this time, if Gildas is to be taken as an even remotely reliable source, that the Britons (presumably the warlords of the quoit brooch style South of the Thames) unsucessfully appealed to the Western Empire for help against the barbarians. Presumably this is how the northern English historian Bede, who wrote his history in 731, derived his date for the adventus Anglorum. The year 446 is also the year Pope Leo I, in his letter to the bishops of Western Roman North Africa argued nuns raped by barbarians should not be considered of an equal rank to virgin nuns, as “this will be less to their detriment, if they grieve over losing even in the body what they did not lose in spirit.”

Sometime in the mid-440s, Bleda was killed by Attila the Hun. In 447, Attila set the entirety of the Balkans north of Thermopylae on fire in response to the Eastern Empire not having paid tribute for ~4 years, only Heraclea Perinthus, Philippopolis, Hadrianopolis, and a few other heavily fortified towns being exempt. Rural settlement in the Balkans would not recover for well over three hundred years, forcing the cities that would be rebuilt in the region to be supplied by Egyptian imports. Greece, on the other hand, prospered due to the influx of refugees (Cambridge Ancient History 14, p. 722). The Eastern Roman land armies that tried to stop him were defeated. In 449, with military options few, the Eastern Roman government attempted to bribe one of Attila’s compatriots, Edeco, into assassinating him, but Edeco betrayed the Romans and the Eastern oligarchy was humiliated by Hunnic ambassadors in Constantinople. Constantinople was (not for the last time) subordinate to the Turk. The Sueves also attacked the Basques this year under their new king, Rechiar, who began minting coins in his own name, the first among the barbarians to do so. New fortifications in Naples, presumably begun prior to 442, were also finished in this year. In 450, Attila made peace with the East and withdrew from the Balkans, deciding to focus on the West, instead. However, just after this, the age of figurehead emperors in the East at last came to an end. Marcian, who had served in the Vandalic containment war of 432-4, became Eastern Emperor in August, to the disapproval of Valentinian III. He revoked all payment of tribute to the Huns, reasoning that it would be of no use in preventing the Huns from attacking the Eastern Empire and that money spent on tribute would be better spent on destroying the Hunnic threat. Huneric, the son of Gaiseric, was returned by the Western Empire to Carthage by this time. In 451, Attila crossed the Rhine and raided Gaul, reaching Orleans. Aetius, who had long experience with the Huns, assembled in Gaul a large army of Visigoths, Burgundians, and even Italians. As the Huns were retreating, Aetius, desiring the destruction of the Hunnic army, forced the Huns into a massive set-piece battle near Troyes on June 19, 451. The attempt did not succeed, the Western Empire apparently having suffered severely in the fighting. The Visigothic king, Theodoric I, was killed in this battle. The Huns, however, were weakened by battle enough to retreat into Germany. That year, Valentinian III granted to landowners expelled by the Vandals thirteen thousand centuriae of abandoned land in present-day Algeria.

Coin of Rechiar the Sueve, the first Germanic ruler to mint coins in his own name

That year, Marcian, who had been partial against the doctrine of the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures expressed in 449 at the Second Council of Ephesus convened under Theodosius II (i.e., that the Christ’s human and divine natures became united at the incarnation) convened his own church council in Chalcedon, a city directly across the Bosporus from the second Rome, in late 451. Doctor of the Church and Bishop of Rome Leo I, much unlike the Miaphysite Dioscorus I of Alexandria, was a vehement defender of Marcian’s council and opponent of the Second Council of Ephesus. The decisions regarding the doctrine of the two natures of Christ made at Chalcedon, that is, that the Christ had separate human and divine natures that were never united into one nature, were not accepted in Egypt, Armenia, or Aksum, all of which had church leaderships which considered the Chalcedonian doctrine too similar to the Nestorian. Marcian’s council eventually led to the third major schism within the Christian religion of the Romans, and the first to result in the creation of one of the seven major Christian denominations (Miaphysitism, Western Roman Christianity, Eastern Roman Christianity, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Southern Baptism) exerting influence upon the world today. As with the council of Nikaia, it would take several decades for the Roman Empire to fully establish the decisions made at Chalcedon as binding. At no point would the Chalcedonian schism result in any great support among the Miaphysites for the Empire’s enemies; of all the religious factions present in the Empire, only Jews and Samaritans would do that. Both the Chalcedonians and Miaphysites called themselves fully Orthodox and fully Catholic; the church of the first of these is today called “Eastern” and the church of the second is confusingly called “Oriental”.

The column of Marcian in Constantinople

The Huns regrouped in Pannonia and, fifty years after Alaric withdrew his Goths from the same region, attacked northern Italy in June 452, sacking Aquileia after three months of siege (the city would be rebuilt later, though obviously not to its former glory) and most of the major North Italian cities thereafter. Not having the help of the Visigoths, Aetius preferred that most of his forces be confined to garrisons -a tactic that would be successful against the Mongols eight hundred years later, but would be of only moderate utility against the more sophisticated Huns. Marcian sent men to help Aetius in the West and also sent forces to attack the Hunnic heartland. Attila retreated back into Pannonia to defend the Hunnic heartland. He then died in March 453, one thousand years prior to the fall of the second Rome to the Turk. The Western Empire made a treaty with the Sueves this year, presumably resulting in the Sueves recognizing Roman control of Eastern Hispania. Attila’s sons would not be up to the task of continuing the six-year legacy of the scourge of the Balkans, Gaul, and Northern Italy. The Huns were supposedly defeated decisively by an uprising among their Germanic subjects (Nedao) in Pannonia in 454, after which their empire remained broadly in today’s Romania. The resulting Ostrogothic and Hunnic raids into the still devastated Balkans resulted in Marcian settling these groups into former Roman Pannonia. It’s not entirely clear what the border between the Eastern and Western spheres of responsibility was at this point; it is known the bulk of Dalmatia was in Western hands as of October of 452 and the Roman-held parts of present-day Austria were also definitely in the Western sphere. However, the question is sort of irrelevant; it is known that no Roman soldiers between the Alps and the Danube were receiving their pay by this point.

Part X: Vandalic War in the West; Ostrogothic War in the East (455-461)

SOURCES: Sidonius, Theodosian Code (Novels), Victor of Vita, Priscus (fragments), Justinian Code, Marius of Avenches, Hydatius, Cassiodorus, Eugeppius

The twenty year freedom of the Western Roman Empire from coups was finally ended when Aetius was killed by the nominal emperor Valentinian III in September 454, one thousand years prior to the printing of the first bible. Valentinian III had been ruling since the age of five with barely a hint of real power and had been consistently resident in the City of Rome since 450. Relations with Gaiseric continued their improvement; a trinitarian bishop was ordained in Carthage in October. Naturally, Valentinian III was killed less than half a year after his autogolpe. His replacement, who was not recognized by the Eastern Empire, lasted on the imperial throne in Rome for an impressively long two months, which was more than enough time for Gaiseric to declare war on the Western Empire to avenge the coup, which had obstructed his plans to unify Carthage and Rome by marriage alliance. Valentinian III’s replacement, Petronius Maximus, was killed just before Gaiseric began his attack on the city while attempting to flee, leaving Rome without an emperor. Half a century after the Goths of Radagaisus, reeling from Hunnic attacks across the Carpathians, began their journey into Italy, Rome was sacked and thoroughly plundered by the Kingdom of Carthage in June of 455. Valentinian III’s widow and daughters were taken to Carthage. Truly, the hand of Theodosius reached far. The next twenty-two years would, as Guy Halsall describes, be a lengthy struggle for de facto power in Italy between Gallic aristocrats, Italian aristocrats, the Balkan elements of the Roman army, the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Eastern Empire, the Germanic elements of the Roman army, and possibly even the Burgundians. The strategic situation of the Western Empire was in every way worse than in 410. Unlike in 410, Rome had no emperor. It was not in control of Tunisia. The Vandals, rather than wandering around Hispania, were in control of the Western Mediterranean’s largest navy. The Western Empire was not in any position to receive any military aid from the East. The Sueves broke their treaty and attacked northeastern Hispania. Prominent Gallic aristocrat and Roman military leader Avitus, who had been negotiating a treaty of alliance between the Roman Empire and the Visigoths, was proclaimed Emperor by the Gallic army with the approval of the Visigoths in July and was recognized by the Roman Senate (though not the Eastern Empire) in August. After campaigning in present-day Austria, he entered Rome in September. Gaiseric began making alliances with Moors in order to prevent the Western Roman Empire from rising again. He also began capturing ports in Roman North Africa. Agrigento was attacked by the Vandals in 456, but they were defeated by the Western Roman general Ricimer, who had stationed himself there. The Vandals were also defeated in Corsica by Western Roman forces that year, possibly those commanded by Majorian. One year after his entry into Rome, Avitus was overthrown in a military coup by Ricimer and Majorian in September of 456, who took advantage of Visigothic preparations for a military campaign to defeat the Sueves. The month following this, the Visigoths, allied with the Burgundians and Franks, destroyed the Suevic kingdom. Rechiar, the Suevic king, was killed by the Visigoths in December. The Visigoths, however, had neither the will nor the ability to place garrison forces in Hispania.

The period 456-476, much like the similarly chaotic period 395-415, is definitely not an easy one to understand. Much like for the exceedingly complex series of events surrounding the rise and fall of Stilicho, I am here forced to rely on another Ian Hughes book. This time, it’s Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.

Marcian died in January of 457. Leo the Thracian became the new Eastern Emperor. The decades following the death of Marcian would be a pre-medieval peak of gold inflows into present-day Poland. Marcian’s planned campaign against the Vandals was cancelled. After a victory against the Alamans in northern Italy by Burco, who was under Majorian, Majorian was proclaimed Emperor by the army outside Ravenna in April 457. The situation devolved to 407-13 levels. Majorian was not recognized by the Burgundians or the Visigoths, or, for that matter, the Romans of southern Gaul, who, recognized Leo as Emperor. The Franks also captured Trier and Cologne in the aftermath of the Visigothic and Burgundian rebellion. Most of the Roman military’s focus in 457 remained on the Vandals. Gaiseric attacked southern Italy soon after Majorian came to power, but Gaiseric’s forces were once again defeated by Ricimer. After this defeat, Gaiseric temporarily ended large-scale attacks on Italy, focusing instead on taking the rest of Roman North Africa and the Baleares. The Visigoths once again broke the back of the Sueves in Hispania in June 457, fighting the Hispanic Romans as well as the Sueves (Kulikowski, Late Roman Spain and its Cities, p. 201). Majorian, confirmed by the Senate as Emperor in December 457, was forced to hike taxes to prepare for a military expansion to help defeat the Vandals by way of Spain. He also once again returned to the citizenry the right to bear arms in order to combat the barbarians. Majorian sent the general and Gallic aristograt Aegidius to subdue the Romans of southern Gaul, who were led by Marcellus and Paeonius in Narbonne, which had been briefly besieged by the Visigoths, who had desired to expand their kingdom. Aegdius then defeated both the locals and the Burgundians in order to quell the rebellion in Lyon, then restored Arles to the Empire, then succeeded in persuading the citizens of Narbonne to return to central authority. The Visigoths then besieged Arles. Majorian finally arrived in Gaul from Ravenna in late 458 after a brief war in his own army against Huns who had joined it and engaged in unlicensed looting, breaking the Visigoth siege of Arles. A treaty of alliance was made with the Visigoths against the Sueves.

In 459, the Ostrogoths invaded Dalmatia in response to Leo ending payments of tribute to the Germanic tribes of the former Hunnic Empire, resulting in them being bought off with 21,600 solidi (not an extraordinary rate; probably one per fighter). Most of 459 was spent with Gallic affairs, dealing with the Sueves in Hispania, and preparing for the reconquest of Tunisia. In 460, the military leader Marcellinus moved from Dalmatia to Sicily to aid in the defense of the Empire from the Vandals. The new Roman fleet intended for the crossing into North Africa moved to Santa Pola, Spain. However, the new ships the Romans had prepared were either destroyed or captured by a Vandal surprise attack from the Baleares. The five year long war between Rome and Carthage was over. Carthage, as in the 439-41 war, had won. Majorian went back to Arles and was forced to sign a treaty in late 460 permitting the Kingdom of Carthage to keep all the territories it had captured in the war (Tipasa, Caesarea, Cuicul, the Baleares, etc.). The new Vandal conquests did not stretch very far inland. In the provinces the Romans abandoned in Morocco, the Roman provincial era dating system would continue to be used right down to the mid-seventh century (see Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 336).

Part XI: The Third Fifth Century Western Roman Imperial Crisis (461-468)

SOURCES: Sidonius, Jordanes, Theodosian Code (Novels), Victor of Vita, Justinian Code, Hydatius, Gregory of Tours

In any case, the consequences for Majorian for this disaster were clear: he was overthrown in a military coup led by Ricimer when he came back to Italy in August of 461. Ricimer became the fourth of the major Late Roman warlords to dominate Italian politics during the fifth century. As one might expect, the situation instantly devolved to 409-11 levels, this time, permanently. Carthage declared its third war against the Empire. In response to the overthrow of Majorian, Aegidius in Gaul, Nepotianus in Hispania, and Marcellinus in Dalmatia all rebelled against the new government. The Dalmatian entity would continue until its conquest by the sucessor regime to the Western Empire in 480. The Gallic entity, known as the Domain of Soissons, would stick around until its conquest by the Franks in 486. The Visigoths would be the ones to decide whether the Italian or the Hispanic regime would survive. Libius Severus became the new emperor in November with the support of Ricimer. Soon after, Leo, the Eastern Emperor, finally ended his war with the Ostrogoths by agreeing to pay them tribute and taking Theodoric, the future King of Italy, as hostage.

In 462, the Italian regime negotiated an alliance with the Visigoths in exchange for Hispania and Narbonne, thus resulting in the disappearance of the Hispanic entity led by Nepotianus sometime between 462 and 465. Since the Roman army in Gaul was under the control of Aegidius, the Italian regime made Gundioc, King of the Burgundians(!!!) their master of the Gallic military. In 463, Aegidius won a strong battlefield victory against the Visigoths in the Battle of Orleans with the help of Franks loyal to the king Childeric I, ensuring the survival of the Domain of Soissons for the next two decades. Gaiseric also expanded his raids on the lands held by the Italian regime this year. Marcellinus, meanwhile, was strictly warned by the Eastern Empire against taking any military effort against the Italian regime, presumably in exchange for Eastern promises of non-interference in Dalmatia. Marcellinus complied. In 464, an army of Alans led by a certain Beorgor was defeated by Ricimer after they had attempted to invade northern Italy, while the Visigoths defeated the Sueves. Gaiseric’s attacks in the lands held by the Italian regime continued to grow bolder. 464 also resulted in Childeric I helping Aegidius capture Paris. Aegidius also recaptured Trier and Cologne and sent an embassy to Gaiseric this year. In 465, Gaiseric expanded his attacks to territory under the responsibility of the Visigoths. Cologne and Trier were once again taken by Franks (presumably not Childeric’s) in 465, this time, likely permanently. The Gallic northern frontier was moved South for the third time in the Roman Empire’s history, as was the case with both previous times, during a civil war. Aegidius probably died this year; his son Syagrius, succeeded him, resulting in the rebellion of Saxons formerly serving under Aegidius. The Visigoths, however, could not exploit this death adequately as they were (again) combating the Sueves in Hispania. Marcellinus was sent to Sicily, presumably on request of the Eastern Empire, and expelled the Vandals who had been raiding that island. Libius Severus also issued a law stating that offspring of unions between slaves and free men remained slaves in this year, but he then died in November.

The Eastern Empire began the following year by defeating a large Hunnic attack in today’s Bulgaria led by Hormidac. The imperial offensive was led by the general Anthemius, grandson of the praetorian prefect who had been in power in the East from 404 to 414. Anthemius had previously fought the Ostrogoths in the Balkans during the 459-61 war. As the year went on, Gaiseric, presumably under the perception Marcellinus’s Sicilian adventure was sponsored by Constantinople, began attacking the Balkans. The Eastern Empire finally had a reason to make preparations for the destruction of the Vandal kingdom. The year 466 also resulted in the coming to power of the man who at last finished off the carcass of the Western Empire: Euric the Visigoth.

The Eastern Empire, with the agreement of Ricimer, sent Anthemius to be Western Emperor early in the Spring of 467 with forces provided by Marcellinus. Anthemius was declared emperor near Rome on April 12, 467, and would be consistently resident in the city throughout his reign. At this point, the wars with the Vandals and the Domain of Soissons, the second of which at least swiftly recognized the new emperor, were taking their toll. Famine and disease were becoming increasingly widespread in urban Italy. Anthemius’s task was, first and foremost, to defeat the Vandals. Ricimer was sent to fight the Ostrogoths raiding present-day Austria. Marcellinus was to protect Sicily. An attempt by Anthemius to launch a surprise attack on Tunisia in 467, while most of the Vandal ships were still on raids against the Empire, was aborted due to bad weather. In 468, the East at last sent 1113 ships laden with seventy thousand men to recapture Tunisia in three army groups, one focused on Sardinia and led by Marcellinus, another force being sent from Egypt, and the primary force, led by Basilicus, who would in seven years lead a coup against the Emperor Zeno, being sent from Sicily. The first army group was rapidly successful in capturing Sardinia, resulting in Marcellinus moving to Sicily. The second army group was succesful in capturing Tripoli and began to march on Carthage. The third and largest army group docked at Cap Bon near Carthage. Fearing a decisive Roman victory, Gaiseric sent envoys to the commander of the third army group asking him to delay his attack for five days for the Vandals to reconsider their decisions. The Romans accepted, and the Vandals launched a surprise naval attack which destroyed the Roman fleet at Cape Bon. Four years’ worth of Eastern revenue – 64,000 pounds of gold and 700,000 pounds of silver- went up in flames. The Romans ended all further attempts to recapture Tunisia for more than sixty years. Marcellinus was killed by one of his men soon after the defeat, resulting in Julius Nepos taking power in Dalmatia. Relations between Ricimer and Athemius rapidly deteriorated.

Part XII: Political crises in Italy and Constantinople; Visigoths in Gaul (468-476)

SOURCES: Sidonius, Victor of Vita, Gregory of Tours, Jordanes, Malalas, Paul the Deacon, Chronicle of Saragossa, Isidore of Seville, John of Antioch, Procopius, Eugippius

The same year, Euric decisively defeated the Sueves. He returned to Gaul late in 468. In 469, while both the Eastern and Western Empires were distracted by political conflict between their respective emperors and most important generals, he decided to expand his domains in Gaul, with the Romans not being able to do anything whatsoever about it. At the same time, according to Eugippius’s Life of St. Severinus, the Alamannic king Gibuldus began to attack present-day Austria. In 471, Anthemiolus, Anthemius’s son, was killed fighting against the Visigoths and all those Romans Anthemius sent to fight against the Visigoths were defeated, resulting in a resurgence in the conflict between Ricimer and Anthemius. In 472, Leo sent Olybrius, the Vandal-favored candidate for emperor, to the West to negotiate between Anthemius and Ricimer; Olybrius instead became Western emperor due to the choice of Ricimer. Olybrius died the same year; Anthemius was killed by Gundobad with the support of Ricimer in a civil war earlier in the year, but Ricimer himself died just over a month after Anthemius’s death. The king of the Burgundians and military master, Gundobad, appointed Glycerius Western Emperor in March 473. He was not recognized by Leo, who supported the Dalmatian ruler Julius Nepos to be Western Emperor in 474, resulting in Glycerius being forced out of power on 24 June 474 by Nepos’s landing at Ostia. Glycerius at that point had only the Burgundians as allies due to the loss of Arles and Marseille and the near-loss of Clermont-Ferrand in 473. It was around this time (Heather, “The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe”, p. 36) that the Eastern Empire, according to Malchus, at last made peace with the Vandals. In 475, Nepos achieved a promise from Euric that the Italian regime would get back Arles and Marseille in exchange for the Visigoths being ceded the entirety of the rest of South Gaul, including Clermont-Ferrand, which had been at last captured during Nepos’s short reign. With Nepos’s downfall and flight first to Ravenna (from Rome), then, on 28 August 475, to Dalmatia as a result of Orestes’s coup, Euric broke the agreement, taking both cities in 476. By the sixth century, Arles, Gaul’s little Rome of the fourth century, was a dead city.

It is in this obscure era we find a certain Riothamus, king of the Britons, mentioned by Jordanes as fighting the Visigoths on the side of the Domain of Soissons in 469, presumably (from Gregory of Tours) at Bourges. The Britons had settled Armorica from Cornwall, and it is likely to these Britons Riothamus was king over. Despite the growing darkness of the most Romanized parts of Roman Britain due to the Saxon conquest, is also around this time that Wales and Cornwall, the least Romanized parts of Roman Britain, had started to climb out of the darkness. At least among the latter, trade with the Roman Empire and Latin writing had resumed to a minor extent by the late fifth century. North Wales thus gained the dubious distinction of being the first portion of the original Byzantine Empire to gain its liberty and the last portion of the original Byzantine Empire to experience a barbarian takeover.

Despite Italy continuing to be the greatest power in the Western Mediterranean, the Western Roman Empire was finally dead. Economically, Britain had suffered most, followed by northern Gaul, the closer to the frontier, the greater the suffering. Tunisia had suffered least, followed by Sicily. Despite the disasters in northern Italy, substantial pockets of prosperity remained in the South which would expand over the succeeding three decades, and Italy as a whole had suffered only modestly more than in the Crisis of the Third Century. As a rule of thumb, the further South the region, the less it had suffered during the period 401-476 (the main exception was southern Gaul suffering less than even southern Hispania). Ironically, the areas of the Western Roman Empire region that had experienced by far the most population decline in the fifth century were precisely not those taken by the most genuinely powerful threats to the Empire -the Visigoths and Vandals- but those that saw frequent raiding by relatively weak roving bandits, such as the Saxons, Sueves, and especially Franks. It is ironic that the barbarians who had the worst demographic impact on the fifth century Western Roman world were precisely those that were so weak as to be unable to conquer the last vestige of Western Roman rule until 486, and yet, founded the only barbarian kingdom of the fifth century to survive into the Middle Ages. The extent of the Franks’ genetic contribution to the population of former northern Gaul is something of an understudied question, and is surely much more interesting than the question of how much the Anglo-Saxons contributed to the genomes of the present-day British.

The Peutinger Table, a fifth century map of the known world with later scribal emendations originally made by a Latin speaker with particular attention to Dalmatia, using information from various periods, especially the second and fourth centuries.

In contrast, in the world beyond the Bosporus, the fifth century was a happy time, with increasing settlement and perfect peace outside Anatolia and a few skirmishes on the Persian frontier. The Empire founded by Diocletian and Constantine had to them been a great benefit, with the emperor now being closer to home and adopting a culture a great deal closer to theirs. The horrendous wars and barbarian attacks experienced in the country beyond Hadrianopolis must have struck them with horror, much as the perils of Moscow and New York today strike the inhabitants of Seoul and Hong Kong.

Part XIII: Failed Restorations of Odoacer and Zeno

SOURCES: Sidonius, Ennodius, Eugippius, Malchus, Gregory of Tours

Nepos was overthrown in a military coup which installed Orestes’s son, Romulus Augustulus, the first child emperor of the West since Valentinian III and the last Western Roman Emperor to see Italy. He was overthrown by military coup (you surprised?) in 476. At this point, the Senate of the Western Empire, seeing that the population of the Western Empire was down to less than half that of the Eastern, gave indication to Constantinople that one Roman Emperor was, at this point, sufficient. This Senate letter, occuring at the chronological midpoint of Late Antiquity, began a new era of relations between the authorities in Ravenna and the Empire of Constantinople that would last until the imperial pullout from Italy in 751. Zeno, who certainly was not about to make the commitment to restore direct rule by the Empire of the second Rome in Italy or send troops to restore Nepos, gave an ambiguous reply, leaving the coup leader, the general Odoacer, in legal limbo. Zeno and Odoacer continued to recognize Nepos (who continued to have de facto control only over Dalmatia) as de jure Western Emperor. Nepos was killed under unclear circumstances in 480 while planning a campaign to restore his de facto authority, thus resulting in Zeno formally abolishing the Western Empire, leaving himself behind as sole emperor. The logical outcome of the promotion of Gratian, Honorius, and Valentinian III to the imperial throne -the institution of Western emperor finally gone and the emperor’s institutional powers and duties being fully taken by the military- was finally reality. Odoacer recognized Zeno as the sole Roman Emperor and himself as a de jure dependent king within the Roman Empire. Due to the Western Empire being abolished, Odoacer annexed Dalmatia to his kingdom. He also got Gaiseric to cede Sicily to Italy in exchange for tribute. After more than forty-seven years of ruling the Vandals, Gaiseric at last died in 477. The Papacy and the Empire entered into a schism in 484, two years after Zeno and the Patriarch of Constantinople attempted to placate the Monophysites in Alexandria with the issuance of the Henotikon. The schism would only be resolved three and a half decades later, after the death of the Emperor Anastasius resulted in the Emperor Justin taking the side of the Bishop of Rome and the Chalcedonians. The Domain of Soissons, having, as with the East, recognized Nepos and refused to recognize Odoacer when he seized power, was conquered by the Franks in 486. At this point, things aren’t too different from the days of Stilicho. For reasons not entirely clear, Zeno sent Theodoric to take over Odoacer’s position in 489.

Part XIV: Successful restorations of Anastasius and Theoderic

SOURCES: Ennodius, Procopius, Anonymous Valesiani, Jordanes, Boethius, Cassiodorus

Theoderic duly obeyed Zeno’s commands after a three-year series of battles in 493, thus establishing the de jure dependent autonomous Arian Christian Kingdom of Italy within the Roman Empire that would rule Rome for 42 years. Much like the YPG in today’s Syria, the Ostrogothic kingdom would never claim its own independence, though, after reconciliation with Constantinople had become impossible, its kings would eventually come close to claiming themselves legitimate Emperors within the regions they ruled. The culmination of incorporating ever more unassimilated Germanic men for the defense of Rome and its territories -an ethnically based Ostrogothic de facto independent kingdom on Italian soil- was finally reality. The population of the City of Rome had fallen to some hundred thousand people- behind Constantinople, Alexandria, Carthage, and Antioch. In the East, Anthemius, born in Dyrrachium, Albania, managed a sucessful restoration of Roman political stability beginning in 491, beating back the Isaurians after a war lasting several years.

Sarcophagus of Theoderic, Ravenna

Part XV: The Age of Justinian

SOURCES: Gildas, Procopius, John the Lydian, Hierocles, Gregory of Tours, Agathias

The Eastern Empire remained a superpower until 602/640, while Ostrogothic Italy remained a great power until 535. Potentially, had the Empire not struck back under Justinian, the Kingdom of Italy could, in the manner of the Sui Dynasty’s conquest of the Northern Zhou, have reconquered the rest of the Western Empire region during the later sixth century. As Pirenne pointed out in 1935, in the sixth and seventh centuries, Western Europe was, if barbarizing, certainly not Germanizing, as the barbarian kings remained imitative, not innovative. At the time of the death of the last Western Emperor all the Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe were either nontrinitarian Christian or pagan, but continued minting pseudo-imperial coinage rather than coins with their own kings’ faces. Though no part of Western Europe North of the Alps would ever be recovered by the Roman government or by any Caliphate, the Empire (not counting Italy) after 480 remained the single largest state in the Mediterranean, in complete control of an area stretching from Russia to Sudan and with a population similar to that of today’s North Korea. It would, as it stopped seeing itself as a mere greater and Eastern part of the Roman Empire (“Byzantium”) and began seeing itself as the only legitimately administered totality of the Roman Empire, recapture Carthage in 533 and the City of Rome itself in 536, resulting in the thorough destruction of their economies due to war, neglect, and overtaxation. The Empire Justinian built in the West gradually collapsed between the mid-sixth and mid-tenth centuries, with the Empire first losing much of Italy, Spania, then Tunisia, then lastly Sicily. Though Britain, Gaul, the region of Munich, and Hispania were hit much harder during the fifth century than in the sixth, southern Italy and Tunisia, both more prosperous and less degraded than northwestern Europe, were hit much harder during the sixth century than the fifth. If you’re looking for the “fall of Rome” in terms of street fighting between Romans and Germans destroying it as a city of any secular importance, you’ll have to wait until the bloodiest and most destructive civil war in Roman history- the Empire’s Ostrogothic war of 535-554. This disaster would not go unrecompensed; the West would inflict similar disasters on the East with very similar consequences 670 years later. By the time of the final Ostrogothic capture of Rome in 550 and the completion of the imperial reconquest in 562, the city had become almost uninhabited. If you’re looking for truly unromanized German marauders invading Italy and establishing a barbarian kingdom that (eventually) forces the Empire out of Italy, you’ll have to wait until the Lombards arrive in 568. Much unlike the sixth century Sui reconquest of northern China (Chinese and Roman history tend to parallel each other very closely, though Chinese history tends to occur earlier; third century crisis==Three Kingdoms era, Diocletianic restoration==Jin Dynasty, War of the Eight Princes==War of the Eight Princes) the sixth century attempted imperial reconquest of the Roman Empire region failed due to overtaxation of Italy and Tunisia, the stretching out of the Italian war into a quarter century long devastating struggle, and the arrival of the Avars and Lombards from the North. It is, thus, with the arrival of the Avars, who pushed the Lombards into Italy, that some mark the end of Late Antiquity -that is, the end of the dream of a united Mediterranean- and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Part XVI: Romans, Lombards, Persians

SOURCES: Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, Menander Protector, the Strategikon

The late sixth century at last saw a deimperialization and localization of the gold coinage of the Franks and Visigoths, possibly under the influence of the economic breakdown of Italy and Tunisia combined with the plague that begun in 541 discouraging trade. Even the Empire in the Western Mediterranean began to mint its coinage to local, rather than imperial standards. The last quasi-imperial coinage of Provence ends in 613. Even so, the rise of localist sentiment among the Franks, Visigoths, and Lombards coincided with their growing adoption of the ecumenical and Catholic Roman Christian religion. The Franks began communion with Rome in 496, the Sueves in the 550s, the Visigoths in 586, the Angles and Saxons in the first half of the seventh century, the Lombards, due to them being late arrivals, in 671. Despite all the disasters of the sixth century, the Bishop of Rome and the Roman Emperor remained allies in matters of politics, much unlike what we would see during the mid-eighth century. By the year 600, despite the Eastern Mediterranean’s continuing prosperity, Italy was a plague-infested smoking ruin split between the Lombards and Romans, Tunisia was something of a backwater, and the City of Rome had less inhabitants than Palestinian Jerusalem. Unlike in the modern world, shattered premodern economies did not just recover within five years, nor did their populations recover within a decade. Former Roman Europe was divided among the various Anglian and Saxon kingdoms, the Franks, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Romans, and assorted Britons, Moors, and Basques. The most developed area of the Western Mediterranean was Sicily. The Balkans, Aegean, and Anatolia would be next to see their economies destroyed.

Part XVII: Phocas, Heraclius, Khorsow, Umar

SOURCES: Fragment on the Arab Conquests, Sophronius, Theophanes, Baladhuri, Chronicon Paschale, Theophylact Simocatta, John of Nikiu, Doctrina Iacobi, Armenian History

Further disasters fell upon the Empire with the revolt of Phocas and his march on Constantinople in 602, Narses’s revolt in 603, Heraclius’s civil war with Phocas in 608-10, the decisive Persian triumph at Antioch in 613, the capture of Jerusalem by the Persians one thousand years following Brennus’s sack of Rome, Slavic raids deep into Greece in 615-17, the demographic collapse of the Balkans, and, more importantly, the conquest of Egypt by the Persians, aided by the Jews, in 619, causing the Aegean economy to go into severe contraction. The Persians burned Ephesus in 615; the Empire pulled out of southern Hispania, which it had occupied seventy two years prior, in 624; Constantinople was besieged by the Persians and Avars in 626. Heraclius himself was captured by the Avars in 622, but escaped to personally launch an expedition into Roman Armenia. Though Heraclius would, in the manner of Aurelian and Carus three and a half centuries before, end up winning the Persian war in 628 and expelling the Persians from Egypt in 629, the Empire would be permanently crippled. In 630, the old Senate building in the City of Rome was turned into a church, presumably due to the disappearance of any secular institution, last mentioned in the time of Phocas, for it to house. And yet, the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem that year presented a false hope to the Empire. Just half a decade following the Empire’s victory against the Persians, it was attacked by the Arabs. Following victories along the Euphrates in Persian Iraq over the prior year, the Caliph Abu Bakr began the Arab conquest of Roman Syria and Palestine in 634. After Abu Bakr’s death, the Caliph Umar, in the manner of Alexander nine and two thirds centuries before, annexed Damascus to his realm in 634, Palestine in 635, Homs and Latakia in 636, Aleppo, Antioch, and Persian Iraq in 637, Malatya in 638, Egypt in 640, and Cyrenaica in 643 with virtually no archaeologically visible trace of civilian casualties. Caesarea, holding seven thousand or so regular troops, held out the longest of any city in Palestine, falling in May 641, and is one of the few cities to see archaeologically visible traces of warfare during the time. In a sense, as Russia gained its independence from the rest of the Soviet Union, so did the Anatolian-Tunisian-Italian-Greek rump state gain its independence from the rest of the Empire.

The remarkable speed of both the Persian and Arab conquests of the Levant and Egypt is easy enough to explain, and has nothing to do with religious rivalries, as only the Jews actually fought against the Empire. In order to save money to fight his Italian war, Justinian had ended the practice common from Trajan to the first Theodosius of paying extensive garrison forces, making defense in depth impossible, and making elastic defense the Empire’s only option against invaders.

The Roman Emperors in earlier times stationed a very great multitude of soldiers at all points of the Empire’s frontier in order to guard the boundaries of the Roman domain, particularly in the eastern portion, thus checking the inroads of the Persians and the Saracens; these troops they used to call limitanei. These the Emperor Justinian at first treated so casually and so meanly that their paymasters were four or five years behind in their payments to them, and whenever peace was made between the Romans and the Persians, these wretches were compelled, on the supposition that they too would profit by the blessings of peace, to make a present to the Treasury of the pay which was owing to them for a specified period. And later on, for no good reason, he took away from them the very name of regular troops. Thereafter the frontiers of the Roman Empire remained destitute of guards and the soldiers suddenly found themselves obliged to look to the hands of those accustomed to works of piety.

Procopius, Anecdota

As a result, single decisive battles by state actors -Antioch during the Persian war, Yarmouk during the Arab- could wipe out easily more than a tenth of the Empire’s whole field army, numbering some hundred fifty thousand (according to Agathias) under Justinian. Unguarded by either depleted field forces wisely (as the case of Umar’s war on Persia shows) conserved for future battles or nonexistent garrison forces, during the first half of the seventh century, whole Roman dioceses could do nothing but surrender to the enemy. Justinian’s move to eliminate garrison forces also did nothing to prevent further field army losses resulting from civil wars -Heraclius’s revolt was, as with that of Boniface, caused by a rogue Tunisian field army.

In any case, the consequences of Umar’s wars were clear. As a result of the Arabs’ conquest of the ancient civilizational centers of Iraq and Egypt, for the first time since the age of Hannibal, Rome was no longer the most powerful state in the Mediterranean. Of the five great cities of the fourth century Roman Empire -Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Carthage, and Antioch- only Alexandria was left with the same prosperity and population in 650 as it possessed in 400. In the entire history of the fall of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Heraclius and the Caliph Umar go down as more heroic, impressive, and important than any of the Western Empire’s warlords, which is why, I presume, the story of Heraclius and Umar is better known than that of the fall of the Western Empire, where such heroism is, outside the acts of Gaiseric, Alaric, and Constantius III, somewhere between negligible and nonexistent.

Part XVIII: The Romans’ darkest hour

It is at this point one can begin referring to Greece and Anatolia as “post-imperial”. The new, smaller Roman polity, which had halved in population in seven years, was similar in population to the Roman Republic of 146 BC, though had a much smaller economy. The new, more compact Romania could not compare to the great Mediterranean Romania that had existed during the time of Maurice. The urban Aegean collapsed to the point of famine. Urban abandonement became much more severe than it ever was in Italy (Wickham, p. 654). Haldon goes so far as to say “late Roman culture, the culture of urbanized elites and the network of literary and political capital they maintained, disappeared” (Haldon, The Empire that would not die, p. 61). The political and economic center of Christendom shifted sharply to the North and to the West. In 641, a new Roman mint opened in Syracuse while, due to the increasing disuse of Latin, Greek inscriptions started to appear on imperial Roman coins for the first time. For the first time in centuries, the Empire was forced to fight actual naval battles. Western Mediterranean export manufacturing was crippled. The population of Constantinople fell by over 80% since its peak in the early sixth century. Large-scale Roman imperial coin minting ended in 658 (Wickham, p. 127) due to changes in military compensation. Rural settlement, at least, trudged on. The situation in the urban Aegean grew so bad that the Emperor Constans II moved to less famished Syracuse in 663, where he was killed in 668. Libyan Tripoli was conquered by the Arabs in 666, Kairouan in 670. The darkest point of the Dark Ages in the former Roman Empire outside the lands conquered by the Caliphs is probably at last reached around this time. In 685, the Arabs began minting the first openly Islamic coins. The millennium of Graeco-Roman cultural dominance had ended. Relative to the late fourth century, Sicily (one of the areas which showed least growth under the High Empire), the Ardennes and the lands north of them, and Southern Hispania had at this point fallen least and England (despite its two century long period of recovery) and the Balkans the most. Cyprus came under joint Arab-Roman rule in 688. Carthage would be finally captured in 698, the Moroccan side of the Strait of Gibraltar in 708, Seville and Toledo in 712. Three hundred years after the Gallic and Tunisian coups that pestered Honorius and Constantius III, the Arabs seemed well on their way to reconstituting the Roman Empire, even if the entire Roman Empire region outside their control was nowhere near as economically vibrant as in the second century BC. At the same time the Empire of the Romans was rapidly shrinking, so was Roman self-identification in Lombard and Visigothic territories, as well as the Frankish territories north of the Loire. By the time of the Arab Conquest of Hispania, everybody in the Visigothic kingdom was a Goth (Roger Collins, Visigothic Spain, p. 243), typically with a Gothic name, everyone North of the Loire was a Frank, and the vast majority of those in Lombard-held territory were Lombards. Deromanization had begun in the Caliphate, as well.

Part XIX: The beginning of the Middle Ages

SOURCES: Bede, Chronicle of 754, Chronicle of 741

The beginning of the Middle Ages was not in Britain in 408/9, unless one desires to begin them in the 270s in the Agri Decumantes, the Netherlands, and in present-day Romania -something which very few would do. The beginning of the Middle Ages is when one can see the beginning of an entirely new culture separate from the old Roman and Persian Empires and their barbarian counterparts. In Anglia, this begins with Bede, in the Empire of the Romans it begins with Leo the Isaurian and his iconoclastic policy, in the Arab world it begins with the final establishment of its limits from the Atlantic to the Taurus to the Caucasus to the Tien Shan to the Thar Desert and the conscious attempt to spread Islam among the population. Gildas was still writing in the World of Late Antiquity. By the end of his life, Bede was not, and Alcuin certainly wasn’t. A striking illustration of this is Ireland. The Ireland of Gildas’s day had completely different cultural influences from those of Alcuin’s day. Ireland in Late Antiquity was becoming increasingly connected with the Mediterranean world. Ireland in the Middle Ages had become completely detached from it.

The vision of Late Antiquity- the dream of a unified Mediterranean- certainly did not die in 476 or 480, or even 568 or 640. It died in 718, with the siege of Constantinople. Some would place the fall of that dream with the rise of the Abbasids and the imperial pullout from mainland Italy in the middle of the eighth century, but the Arab attacks into France were, as a rule, ineffectual razzias, independent civilizations in the Arab and Germanic worlds had already begun to be formed, and the first and second Romes were already deeply divided prior to the basically cosmetic mid-eighth century geopolitical schisms. No prior conqueror of the pieces of the Roman Empire ever preserved the Roman administration and economy to a greater extent than the Arab Caliphs. In the former Visigothic kingdom, they even managed to restore it to something like its former glory. The Arab conquest of the Levant, among the many conquests of that region in history, is one of the very few invisible in the archaeological record, wholly unlike the crippling imperial reconquest of Tunisia and Italy. In 717, just a few years after their takeover of Cilicia, the idea Arabs would be able to restore the Mediterranean to its prior unity and, eventually, its old prosperity would not have seemed far-fetched. Instead, the Arab armies were reversed by those of Leo the Isaurian and Aegean Rhomania was saved from Arab conquest, leading the Empire of the East Romans to last throughout the Middle Ages as a modestly-sized buffer state against an increasingly doctrinaire and popularly supported Islam that would last nearly as long as the Roman Empire that existed from 27 BC to 718. The defense of Europe now rested on two semibarbarians: a Frank and an Isaurian. The lasting transformation of the Empire of the Romans from the most powerful state West of China into a border post between Islam and Europe, combined with the inability of the Umayyad Caliphate to pick up the Empire’s old mantle, necessarily resulted in the creation of the Medieval world -a world characterized by the recognition of the fundamental and lasting Balkanization of the Mediterranean. Thanks to the Arab conquest splitting Narbonne from France, the Mediterranean trade was finally completely severed around 719. Instead of being unified under one power, the Mediterranean was divided into three: the Empire of the Romans, the Umayyad Caliphate, and the Lombard kingdom. And yet, outside the Mediterranean trade, darkness had, by the early eighth century, clearly begun to recede. Wheel-made pottery at last returned to Britain. Bede was writing his famous works. Thanks to resumed British and French silver mining as a result of their going off the gold standard, Western European lead output was beginning to skyrocket. New coastal towns were being built in northern France. The center of gravity of Roman civilization had moved from Southeast to Northwest (under the Classical Empire) and from Northwest to Southeast (during the decline and fall of the Western Empire) and had, once again, moved back from Southeast to Northwest.

Page from the gospels of Lindisfarne, an Irish-founded monastery on a large island to the North of Bamburgh, Northumbria, midway between the walls of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius

In 726, the Emperor Leo would issue the first Roman law code with no published Latin translation and, in the same year, issue his famous iconoclastic edict that resulted Pope Gregory outright rejecting the Emperor’s authority in ecclesiastical matters like no prior Pope had ever successfully done before. By the middle of the eighth century, the rulers who adhered to the doctrine of the Bishop of Rome governed twice as many people as did the Empire of the Romans. Core Europe -represented by the cities of York, Lichfield, Ipswich, London, Canterbury, Maastricht, Liege, Aachen, Cologne, Mainz, Worms, Speyer, Metz, Bergamo, Pavia, and Verona- had decisively surpassed the great Mediterranean centers of Alexandria, Constantinople, Carthage, and Antioch as the lands where the future of Christianity would be forged. It is no coincidence that the first Early Medieval ruler of the Frankish kingdom, Karl, won his civil war the same year Constantinople was saved. Not Leo, not Umar, but Karl’s grandson would conquer the two coalitions that proved to be the greatest European problems the sixth century Empire faced -the Lombards and the Avars. The eighth century saw the crystalization of the three great civilizations that divided the Medieval Roman Empire region- Core European, Eastern Roman, and Islamic Arab. An end to the Mediterranean trade, a powerful, independent Lateran Palace, the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Roman Christianity, and the prevention of the creation of a mixed Medieval East Roman/Arab civilization outside Sicily and Crete would all be the logical outcomes of the seven hundred year salvation of Constantinople. The Empire of the Romans could have chosen to die a quick and graceful death, joining with the forces of Umar in preserving Constantinople’s status as the head of the Christian world, much as Alexandria retains its status as the head of Egyptian Christendom. Instead, it chose the path of preventing the unification of the Mediterranean and confining its legacy as the true Rome to the regions east of Croatia. Under pressure from Lombard attacks, Emperor Constantine V at last pulled the Empire of the second Rome out the Italian mainland in 751, forcing Pope Zachary to align with the Carolingians. After losses in Sicily and Malta and gains in the mainland in the ninth century, the last imperial Roman forces would leave Italy after Normans took advantage of Turkish raids in Anatolia to conquer Bari in 1071, thus ending the history of the Roman Empire in the West. The rest is history.

The split Mediterranean today; made by the Atlas poster Ryne Rohla, also creator of the best 2016 election maps. Note that Georgia and Armenia are wrongly colored the same due to lumping Armenian Miaphysitism together with Eastern Orthodoxy, a mistake only a Westerner can make.

The defining fact of Mediterranean history in the sixth century and European history in the Middle Ages wasn’t that the Roman Empire fell. It was that it survived. Justinian’s Western wars were a disaster for Italy and Tunisia, and an eighth century Arab Conquest of Constantinople would surely have been a disaster for Christendom far more than the actual Muslim takeover of the city in 1453 was. In real life, Christian Constantinople remained the largest city in Europe until the thirteenth century, when it was surpassed by Paris. The city, now under Muslim control, currently battles over the title with Moscow.

It has been said the Middle Ages was a more localized era than antiquity, at least, in the West, but this is clearly incorrect. Due to the development of transportation routes in the lands between Karelia, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and Senegal, it was a substantially more globalized era than antiquity was. The severe weakening in the Mediterranean trade was fully compensated by closer links between Europe and the rest of the Old World. Caliphs of Egypt, Iraq, and Persia battling it out with emperors of China was something that never ever happened during antiquity. A Manichean monastery in a Russian lake on the Mongolian border would also have sounded ridiculous during the Hellenistic and High Imperial Roman ages. So would soon-to-be Jewish Turks fighting it out with Arabs in southern Russia along the shores of the Caspian, as would have trading missions to Mali and Madagascar (classical trading expeditions did not go further than Tanzania and had only sporadic contacts with the Sahel) and the Chinese emperor attempting to stamp out Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The Middle Ages, thus, were the first Old World-wide phenomenon, from Newfoundland and Ireland to Japan and the Seward Peninsula, and from Zimbabwe to Yakutia.

Though the years between 751 and 1453 would be something of an dark age for the history of state institutions in the formerly Roman world, they would also be the time the European barbaricum -Ireland, Scotland, Greater Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Baltics, Russia- would come into its own. Today, the last barbarians (today labeled “indigenous communities, peoples, and nations”, that is, those who live in the indigenous, or pre-civilized, condition of man) in Europe West of Russia are the Sami. By the Early Modern era, even the complete Ottoman conquest of the lands of the Eastern Romans, finishing the job the Seljuk Turks started more than four hundred years prior, resulting in, by 1522, the reconstitution of the entirety of the territory under the direct rule of the Romans a thousand years earlier, would fail to make a dent in the course of Europe’s cultural and economic unity and the Mediterranean’s cultural and economic division. From the later Middle Ages on, the core of Europe -and, indeed, world civilization- would undeniably be Core Europe. It appears, however, to be moving East both within Europe (to the countries between Slovenia and Finland) and within Eurasia (to the lands between Malacca and Hokkaido).

2 thoughts on “Pithom on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire”

  1. Ambiguous pronoun: “was at least somewhat comparable to that of the Early Republic, though it undoubtedly enabled”
    Does “it” refer to Justin’s Mediterranean or the Early republic?

  2. Earlier empire is mentioned twice despite being in a paragraph contrasting earlier empire and later empire:
    Quote is:
    the earlier empire had relentless and ubiquitous monumental construction and sculpture, the earlier empire had very little outside walls, water systems, and churches

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