The fall of the Western part of the Roman Empire

Medieval history begins with the dissolution of the Western Empire, with the abandonment of the Latin world to German conquerors. Of the provinces affected by the catastrophe the youngest was Britain; and even Britain had then been Roman soil for more than three hundred years. For Italy, Spain, and Gaul, the change of masters meant the atrophy of institutions which, at first reluctantly accepted, had come by lapse of time to be accepted as part of the natural order.

Large tracts of Europe lay outside the evacuated provinces; for the Romans never entered Ireland or Scandinavia or Russia, and had failed to subjugate Scotland and the greater part of modern Germany. But the Romanised provinces long remained the dominant force in European history; the hearth-fire of medieval culture was kindled on the ruins of the Empire. How far the victorious Teuton borrowed from the conquered provincial is a question still debated; the degree and the nature of Rome’s influence on the new rulers varied in every province, indeed in different parts of the same province. The fact of the debt remains, suggesting a doubt whether in this case it was indeed the fittest who survived. The flaws in a social order which has collapsed under the stress of adverse fortunes are painfully apparent. It is natural to speak of the final overthrow as the judgment of heaven or the verdict of events. But it has still to be proved that war is an unfailing test of worth; we have banished the judicial combat from our law courts, and we should be rash in assuming that a process obviously absurd when applied to the disputes of individuals ought to determine the judgments of history on nationalities or empires.


The immediate and obvious causes which ruined the Western Empire were military and political—the shortcomings of a professional army and professional administrators. If asked whether these shortcomings were symptomatic of evils more generally diffused through other ranks and classes of society, we must go deeper in the analysis of facts. No a priori answer would be satisfactory.

The beginning and the end of the disaster were successful raids on Italy. Alaric and his Visigoths (401-410 a.d.) shattered the prestige and destroyed the efficiency of the government which ruled in the name of the feeble Honorius. The Ostrogoths under Theodoric destroyed the last simulacrum of an imperial power rooted in Italy (489-493 a.d.). After Theodoric had vanquished Odoacer, it was clear that the western provinces would not again acknowledge an Emperor acclaimed at Ravenna; although the chance remained that they might be reconquered and reorganised from Constantinople. This chance disappeared when the Lombards crossed the Alps (568 A.D.) and descended on the Po valley. From first to last Italy was the key to the West. And these successive shocks to imperial power in Italy were all due to one cause. All three of the invading hordes came from the Danube. The Roman bank of the great river was inadequately garrisoned, and a mistaken policy had colonised the Danubian provinces with Teutonic peoples, none the less dangerous for being the nominal allies (foederati) of the Empire. The Visigothic raids, which were in fact decisive, succeeded because the military defences of the Western Empire were already strained to breaking-point; and because the Roman armies were not only outnumbered, but also paralysed by the jealousies of rival statesmen, and divided by the mutinies of generals aspiring to the purple. The initial disasters were irreparable, because the whole machine of Roman officialdom came to a standstill when the guiding hand of Ravenna failed. Hitherto dependent on Italy, the other provinces were now like limbs amputated from the trunk. Here and there a local leader raised the standard of resistance to the barbarians. But a large proportion of the provincials made peace on the best terms they could obtain. Such are the essential facts.


(…) The armies were now (Note: 5th century) largely recruited with barbarians, who numbered more than half the fighting strength and were esteemed the flower of the Roman soldiery. Many of these hirelings showed an open contempt for their employers, and sympathised with the enemies whom they were paid to fight. Furthermore, each army, whatever its constituent elements, tended to be a hereditary caste, with a strong corporate spirit, respecting no authority but that of the general. The soldiers had no civic interests; but they had standing grievances against the Empire. Any political crisis suggested to them the idea of a mutiny led by the general, sometimes to obtain arrears of pay and donatives, sometimes to put their nominee upon the throne.

(…) The barbarian element in the armies increased and the Roman element diminished. Its worst effects appeared in the years 406-407. The German inroads upon Italy and Gaul were then followed by the proclamation of military usurpers in Britain and on the Rhine; the Roman West was divided by civil war at the very moment when union was supremely important. Hence the strange spectacle of the Visigoths, still laden with the spoils of Rome, entering Gaul by invitation of the Empire to fight against imperial armies.


The problem of numbers had been earlier recognised, but not more adequately met.
Diocletian is said to have quadrupled the armies, and in the fourth century they were
far larger than they had been under Julius and Augustus; Constantine had revised the
scheme of frontier-defence to secure the greatest possible economy of men. Still, under Honorius, we find that one vital point could only be defended by withdrawing troops from another. The difiiculty of increasing the numbers was twofold. First, the army was mercenary, and taxation was already strained to the point of diminishing returns. Secondly, it was difficult to raise recruits among the provincials. The old principle of universal service had been abandoned by Valentinian I (364-375); and although compulsory levies were still made from certain classes, the Government had thought fit to prohibit the enlistment of those who contributed most to taxation. Every citizen was legally liable for the defence of local strongholds; but the use of arms was so unfamiliar, the idea of military service as a national duty was so far forgotten, that Stilicho, when the barbarians were actually in Italy, preferred the desperate measure of enlisting slaves to the obvious resource of a general call to arms.

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We find ourselves here confronted with a social malady which was more than an
economic weakness. The Empire was, no doubt, a complex and expensive form of
government superimposed upon a society which stood at a rudimentary stage of
economic development. Barbarous methods of taxation and corrupt practices among the ruling classes had aggravated the burden to such a degree that the municipalities of the provinces were bankrupt, and the middleclass capitalist was taxed out of existence. For this and other reasons the population of the older provinces was stationary or declining. But there was still much wealth in the Empire; and the great landowners of the provinces could raise considerable armies among their dependants when they saw fit to do so. The real evil was a moral evil, the decay of civic virtue.


(…) Human nature seldom develops equally in all directions. Men who are intensely concerned with the right ordering of their relations to neighbours, friends and family, may well forget the larger community in which their private circle is contained. The Roman provincial had exceptional excuses for remaining indifferent to a state which claimed his loyalty, not in the name of nationality or religion, but in that of reason and the common good. Loyalty for him could only be an intellectual conviction. But, unless he could enter the privileged ranks of the army or the higher civil service, he had no opportunities of studying, still less of helping to decide, the questions of policy and administration with which his welfare was closely though indirectly linked. Political ideas only came before the private citizen under the garb of literature. The most admired authors only taught him to regret republican polities long out of date. The antiquarian enthusiasms which he acquired by his studies were in no way corrected by the experience of daily life. If a townsman, he was legally prohibited from changing his residence and even from travelling about the Empire, for fear that he might evade the tax collector. If a rural landowner, he lived in a community which was economically self-sufficient, and consequently provincial to the last degree. The types of character which developed under such conditions were not wanting in amiable or admirable traits. The well-to-do provincial was often a scholar, a connoisseur in art and literature, a polished letter-writer and conversationalist, a shrewd observer of his little world, an exemplary husband and father, courteous to inferiors, warm-hearted to his friends. Sometimes he found in religion or philosophy an antidote to the pettiness of daily life, and was roused into rebellion against the materialism of his equals, the greed and the injustice of his rulers. But he despaired of bridging the gulf between the Empire, as he saw it, and the ideal commonwealth—City of God or Republic of the Universe—which his teachers held up to him as the goal of human aspirations. Rather he was inclined, like the just man of Plato, to seek the nearest shelter, to veil his head, and to wait patiently till the storm of violence and wrong should pass away.


(…) This analysis helps us to understand why the Western Empire, on the eve of dissolution, had already assumed the appearance of a semi-barbarian state. In those districts which had been lately settled with Teutonic colonists the phenomenon may be explained as resulting from over-sanguine attempts to civilise an intractable stock. But even in the heart of the oldest provinces the conditions were little better. Law and custom had conspired to sap the ideas and principles that we regard as essentially Roman. The civil was now subjected to the military power. The authority of the state was impaired by the growth of private jurisdictions and defied by the quasi-feudal retinues of the great. For civic equality had been substituted an irrational system of class-privileges and class-burdens. Law was ceasing to be the orderly development of general principles, and was becoming an accumulation of ill-considered, inconsistent edicts.



Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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