The Human Story – Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire

The Roman Empire was one of the most important and enduring political entities of the ancient world which still greatly influences our world today. So, surely when it collapsed the world irrevocably changed and the impact must have been huge and felt throughout the western world…

Was it though? Did the Roman Empire end with a bang or a whimper?

How and when the Roman Empire fell remains a subject of considerable historical debate. Traditional accounts have the Empire disintegrating in the fifth century. However, there is a strong case to argue that the Empire did not truly fall until one thousand years later in the fifteenth century.

Collapse

Let’s first introduce the traditional view of the Fall of Roman Empire. Quite simply, the city of Rome itself was conquered by barbarians in 476 CE. The final Roman Emperor was named Romulus Augustus and perhaps no one has been named more ironically throughout history. As you will recall the legendary founder of Rome was named Romulus whilst the first emperor was called Augustus. The story of ancient Rome was bookended by men named Romulus, whilst the Empire was flanked by two men named Augustus.

Romulus Augusts ruled the Roman Empire for less than one year before he was deposed and sent into exile by the barbarian Odoacer who founded the Kingdom of Italy as the first King of Italy, initiating a new era over Roman lands. Unfortunately we cannot be more specific than barbarian as history has failed to record which tribe Odoacer belonged to. Visigoth? Ostrogoth? Hun? Vandal? They all looked and behaved the same to the Romans; uncivilised.

Romulus_Augustulus_and_Odoacer

The city had been sacked before Odoacer demanded Romulus Augustus ceded control over the Empire, most notably in 410 CE by Alaric the Visigoth and again in 455 CE by the Vandals (who so thoroughly sacked the great city that even today we still call the perpetrators of mindless acts of criminal damage vandals). These sackings of the once great and glorious centre of the Mediterranean world were both within living memory and undoubtedly played on the young Emperor’s mind when confronted by the soon-to-be King of Italy.

Never again would there be a Roman Emperor in Rome.

The Roman politician and historian Tacitus predicated the fall of the Empire in his book Agricola written in 98 CE which details the life of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a distinguished Roman general and Governor of Britain. He argued that Rome was doomed to failure once it spread out of the Italian peninsula, because the further the frontier is from the capital the harder it is to govern and thus imperialism itself sowed the seeds of Rome’s destruction. His argument was put forth by the defeated Caledonian chieftain Calgacus:

“They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”

There are two ways to overcome this problem of governance:

  1. Rule with an Iron Fist – This was not possible, however, as the whole Roman identity was wrapped up in the idea of justice that prohibited indiscriminate violence… seriously!
  2. Assimilate conquered peoples more fully into the Empire – In Rome’s case this meant giving the people Roman citizenship and providing them with the full rights associated with this.

In the early days of the Roman Republic and even the beginning of the Empire this decision to make subjugated peoples fully Roman worked quite well but eventually it led to “Barbarians within the Gates”.

Crisis

The decline of the Roman Legions began long before Rome was sacked by the Visigoths and Vandals. The deterioration of the army began with the tremendously bad decision to begin incorporating Germanic warriors into the Roman Army. The Empire had a long history of absorbing people from its fringes into the polity. Initially as allies and then eventually as fully-fledged citizens with the same rights as those Romans living and working in the city of Rome. Usually these foreign citizens had developed cultural ties with Rome: they learned Latin and bought into the idea of the aristocratic-run Republic.

By the third and fourth centuries CE the Empire had been forced to allow the type of riff-raff and undesirables into the army who did not particularly care much about the idea of Rome. These men were only loyal to their respective commanders and as you will remember from the historical examples of Marius, Caesar and Pompey; this is a recipe for civil unrest and domestic warfare.

Here were the Romans trapped in a series of seemingly unending expensive and bloody wars with the Germanic tribes on the Rhine frontier who were really good at fighting. Someone had a brilliant idea; why not fight with these guys instead of fight against them? Soon after, the army began hiring these men and the Legions were crowded with mercenaries whose loyalties primarily lay with gold and secondly to the commanders who gave them the gold. These mercenaries held no loyalties at all to Rome or what it stood for and was a place that very few of them had ever even seen, let alone set foot in. Why would they care about the health and wellbeing of the Roman Empire?

This was a formula for civil war and that is exactly what happened again and again. This all unfolded during a time of compounding emergencies which resulted in the “Crisis of the Third Century”. This was a period of severe instability in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of barbarian invasions and migrations into Roman territory; civil wars and peasant rebellions; plagues; the debasement of the currency and economic depression.

The barbarian mercenaries and their commanders nominally worked for Rome but were becoming increasingly independent with general after general declaring himself as the Emperor of Rome. The crisis began with the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander by his own troops in 235 CE and continued until 284 CE. During this time no fewer than 40 different people were either Emperor or claimed to be the Emperor. After the year 200 CE, many generals who were powerful enough to proclaim themselves as Emperor were not even Roman. In fact, some of them scarcely spoke Latin and one of them, Maximinus Thrax, never even set foot in the city. (Although, to be fair to Maximinus Thrax, he was assassinated in 238 CE whilst on his way to the city after declaring war on the Senate… this was just the beginning of the crisis!).

Oddly enough, one of the best symbols of this new stage of the Roman Empire was rather sardonic and finely represents its changing face. Instead of the traditional tunic and toga associated with the glory days of the Senate, most of these new general-emperors preferred to wear those most practical and barbaric of garments: trousers. Perhaps nothing symbolises the Empire’s fall from grace more effectively than the Emperor wearing uncivilised clothing.

Rome in the East

So, did the Roman Empire truly fall in 476 CE? Yes and no. The Western Roman Empire collapsed into oblivion that year, heralding the Early Medieval Period, more colloquially known as the Dark Ages, but it was not the end of the story in the eastern portion of the Empire.

The crisis ended in 284 CE, providing relief to the fragmented territory, when Diocletian, a forceful general, seized power and declared himself as the new emperor. One of his earliest acts was to split the Empire in two and keep the eastern half for himself and named his trusted friend, Maximian, as a junior emperor and presented him with the western half of the Empire. Diocletian figured that the Roman Empire had simply grown too big over the years to be effectively governed by a single person.

Roman_Empire_460_AD

While the Western Roman Empire limped on for a while before descending into further chaos which eventually saw its collapse in 476 CE, the Eastern Roman Empire established its capital in Byzantium, an ancient Greek city located on the Bosporus Straight. The Eastern Roman Empire is more commonly known as the Byzantine Empire although the people that lived there identified themselves as Roman. The Byzantine Empire was, to all intents and purposes, a continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces.

573px-Emperor_Constantine_(12762470035)

The Emperor Constantine unified the two Empires in 324 CE and built a new imperial residence at Byzantium and renamed the city Constantinople after himself. Constantine had lots of reasons to shift his capital east. For one thing, he was born in modern day Serbia and probably spoke better Greek than Latin. Perhaps most importantly though the eastern provinces were much richer than their western counterparts and from a looting perspective you just want to be closer to where the good warring is. The Persian Sasanian Empire in the east presented a rich and powerful enemy as opposed to the bands of penniless warriors to be found in the west by this point.

As the political centre of the Empire moved east Constantine also tried to re-orientate his new religion, Christianity (which he had converted to) to the east too. He held the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in modern Turkey. The purpose of this ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the Church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. The main accomplishments of the Council of Nicaea was to finalise the issue of the divine nature of God the Son and God the Father, and set an annual observance date for Easter.

The council also marked the beginning of the emperor having greater control over the church, a development that would later lead to tensions between the church centred in Constantinople and the one based in Rome.

To give an idea of how dramatic this eastward shift in politics and religion was by the fourth century, Constantinople’s population soared whilst Rome’s plummeted from approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants to a mere 50,000. Although the Byzantines spoke Greek and not Latin they still considered themselves as Roman which means that we probably should too.

There was lots of continuity between the old Western Roman Empire and the new Eastern Roman Empire. Politically, each was ruled by a single man, sometimes two, who wielded absolute military power. War was pretty much constant as the Byzantines fought the Persian Sasanian Empire and then a succession of various Islamic Empires. Trade and valuable agricultural land that yielded high taxes meant that the Byzantine Empire was, like the Western Roman Empire, exceptionally rich and yet slightly more compact as a territory than its predecessor had been and much more urbanised, as it contained all of those, once, independent Greek city-states which made for far easier administration.

Justinian and Theodora

Like its western counterpart the Byzantine Empire enjoyed spectacle and sport; the chariot races within the city of Constantinople were massive with thousands turning out to the hippodrome to cheer on their favourite sportspeople. There was a huge rivalry within the city and not just about sports but also political affiliations between the “Greens” and the “Blues” (seriously). These clashes between blue and green sporting political ideologies could become so heated that rioting sometimes broke out and on one such occasion in 532 CE, the Nika Riots, nearly half of the city was destroyed and an estimated 30,000 people were killed.

Perhaps the most consistently Roman aspect of Byzantine society was that they followed Roman law. The Romans had always prided themselves on being ruled by laws and not by men and even though that was not the case after the second century BCE, there is no question that the Eastern Roman Empire’s codification of Roman laws was one of its greatest achievements. Much of the credit for that goes to one of the most famous Byzantine emperors, Justinian. In 533 CE, Justinian published the Digest, a monumentally massive 800,000 word compendium of Latin law books.

So, just who was this Justinian guy?

Justinian was born to a peasant family in the province of Dardania (modern Macedonia) around 482 CE who rose through the ranks of society to be elevated to Emperor in 527 CE. During his almost thirty year rule, and in addition to codifying Roman law, he did a lot to restore the former glory of the Roman Empire. He reconquered much of the territory lost by the Western Roman Empire, including Carthage, southern Spain and the entire Italian peninsula. Perhaps the most Roman aspect of his reign was the clothing; trousers were out and a version of the tunic was back in fashion!

Justinian also ordered the construction of one of the all-time great churches (although it is now a museum), the Hagia Sophia, which he built after riots destroyed the previous church. The Romans, in general, are famed for their remarkable engineering and construction projects and the Hagia Sophia is no exception; a dome its equal would not be built for another 500 years, and yet you would never mistake it for a Roman temple: the Hagia Sophia does not have the austerity or the obvious emphasis of engineering that you see on, for example, the Coliseum. This magnificent building functions in many ways as a symbol of the ways in which the Byzantine Empire was both Roman and not Roman at the same time.

1024px-Hagia_Sofia,_Istanbul

Perhaps the most intriguing thing that Justinian ever did was to marry his controversial wife, Theodora. She began her career as an actress, dancer and prostitute before becoming Empress and she may very well have saved her husband’s rule by convincing him not to flee the city during the Nika Riots declaring, “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.” Theodora also supposedly mentored a eunuch who went on to become a hugely important and successful general, Narses, in the service of Justinian during the Roman reconquest. She was more than just an asset to Justinian and his military officers, however, and wielded great individual power in her own right. She fought to expand the rights of women throughout the Empire in cases of divorce and property ownership and even went as far as to have a law passed taking the radical stance that adulterous women should not be executed.

The Great Schism of 1054

So, in short the Byzantines continued much of the Roman legacy of empire, war and law for nearly one thousand years after Romulus Augustus was driven from the city of Rome. Byzantines may not have spoken Latin and few of the emperors came from Rome but in the most important ways, they were Roman. There was, however, one major exception going forward from the eleventh century and that was religion.

The Byzantines followed a different variant of Christianity we now call Eastern (or sometimes Greek) Orthodox whilst the Church in Rome followed Roman Catholic teachings. How there came to be a split, or schism, between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches in 1054 is rather complicated but what matters here is the differences between the two. Spiritually and theologically, far more unites the Western and Eastern Churches than divides them but the main partition runs down political lines, over who rules whom.

Great_Schism_with_former_borders_(1054)

In the west there was a Pope, whilst in the east there was a Patriarch. The pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and serves as God’s regent on earth and he does not answer to any secular ruler and ever since the Fall of Rome there has been a lot of tension in Western Europe between popes and kings about who should have the real power. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity there is no such issue as the patriarch was always appointed by the emperor so there was no ambiguity over who controlled whom. The Church even had a word for this emperor-patriarch relationship: Caesaropapism (Caesar over Pope). But the fact remained that since 476 CE there was no emperor in Rome which meant there was no power to legitimately challenge the authority of the pope. This lack of papal accountability to an imperial throne would profoundly shape European and, by extension, later world history.

So, Did it End With a Bang or a Whimper?

The Western Roman Empire fell into a series of Frankish and Gothic kingdoms and Italy was ruled by a non-Roman for the first time in 700 years.

Some will argue, and with good and very valid points, that the fall of the Western Roman Empire did not change all that much and was, in fact, the opening act of a vibrant (and often turbulent) medieval world. As we have seen there is certainly an argument to be made there but the point in fact is that the entity that was the Roman Empire collapsed like the Republic before it and it is impossible to say that a millennium-spanning state based in the city of Rome simply continued elsewhere.

We have, at least, a few when and whys the Fall of Rome occurred but another argument to be made is that it is really a testament to the strength and flexibility of Rome that it survived as long as it did. Hannibal should have conquered it during the Punic Wars in the third century BCE; it should have fractured in the first century BCE with the carousel of military dictatorships; and it should have buckled under the pressures of the Crisis in the third century CE.

Diocletian seemed to understand it best when he realised that the massive Mediterranean empire was too cumbersome and no longer fit for purpose. So Rome did what it always did best and adapted. The city was gone, and the Empire crumbled, but the Roman civilisation continued in Byzantium.

So the argument can be made that in some of the more important ways, the Roman Empire did survive for nearly one thousand years after it left Rome. Even today, we still hear echoes of the civilisation which began in the eighth century BCE, for example the Justinian Law Code continues to be the basis for much of civil law in modern Europe and the countries across the world that have been influenced by Europeans culture.

Rome neither ended with a bang, nor a whimper. The core of what made a Roman Roman, the rule of law and justice, continues with us today and I’d say that is a damn fine legacy.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah

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