A History of Rome through the Fifth Century: Volume II: The Empire

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Throughout the Middle Ages when people wanted to have a model they would look back to great Roman historians. I was thinking I should possibly have chosen the man who I think is the greatest Roman historian, Tacitus , who is a sort of pathologist of vice, particularly the vice of autocracy. I think he is one of the all-time great historians.

But I decided against that because my next two choices are very infused with the spirit of Tacitus. And it really had a crucial sense of shaping our understanding of Imperial Rome as a place of vice and savagery and sexual depravity and violent, brutal, bawdy splendour.

I think that what would leap out would be the shenanigans of Caligula, who indulged in incest, forced prostitution — lunacies that would put…. And that is simply because he has exerted such a magnetic appeal on future generations. His influence is so clearly massive and he is seen by many people as a very attractive figure.

My own feeling is that he is actually much darker, verging on psychopathic, but it is that tension between the man who in his correspondence is witty and charming set against the record of someone who brought unbelievable slaughter and mayhem to Gaul and then to his own people. And it is that combination of creativity and destruction within him that I think makes him one of the all-time magnetic figures in world history.


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Next up is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, which is considered a classic by many, but also somewhat of a heavy read. I think it is regarded as a heavy read simply because it is physically heavy. The most accessible version is the Penguin one which comes in three large volumes.

But the truth is that it remains incredibly readable. As I said before, it takes Tacitus as its model, who was famous for his waspish style, and a careful balancing and modulating of the sentences so that irony would be generated. This is what Gibbon does as well, and it means that not only is it an incredible work of scholarship but it is also compulsively entertaining. I really think that anyone who is prepared to give it a chance will find themselves smiling at the very least throughout it.

It was written in the 18th century, but do you really think it still has an enduring appeal? Yes, and what is interesting about Gibbon is that his work is not only a masterpiece of 18th-century prose but it shapes the terms of historical debate now.

Guided practice: continuity and change in the Byzantine Empire

Instead it continues right the way up until the fall of Constantinople in and even beyond. Get the weekly Five Books newsletter. What that does is to give us a sense of how when civilisations fall they are inevitably clearing the decks for other civilisations to rise. That is the sort of understanding that has taken historians quite a long time to catch on to and it means that Gibbon is now coming back into focus as someone who really has something to teach.

This again is an absolute classic which is completely informed by Tacitus. It has that very mordant take on the way that power works and operates. One of the reasons for that is that it was written not in the heyday of the British Empire — a time when British historians were rather keen on the workings of the Roman Empire and identified themselves strongly with the Caesars and all their works — but in the s, and published just as World War II was starting. Yes, but also the power of it is that it is a dispatch from the frontline of dictatorship.

So any notion that this is just ancient history, and therefore for that reason somehow removed from how politics function and work now, is absolutely impossible to sustain when you read this and hear the details about how the Romans are coming to terms with Augustus and his regime. And the henchmen of Augustus are very recognisable figures.

The luxury-loving emperors of the East were incensed to find their outstretched hands empty and responded in a manner consistent with standard Roman policy in the day. They hired barbarians to do their dirty work. In , Theodoric , the leader of the Ostrogoths who had at last been liberated from Hunnic dominion, was commissioned to head west and dispatch Odovacar, which he did in typically savage fashion.

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In the course of negotiating peace with his barbarian brother at a banquet, Theodoric stabbed him to death. But once he'd had a good look at the West, especially the desperate condition of things, the Ostrogothic general refused to hand Italy over to some far-off "Roman Emperor" who had no intention of actually ruling it but only milking it for taxes. Now the lord of the land, Theodoric r. Roman Italy needed a caring hand like his, and this barbarian proved the last ruler in antiquity to lend it such. Theodoric oversaw the repair of Roman roads and aqueducts, and under his governance Italy witnessed a small-scale renaissance, sadly its final breath of culture for much of the remaining millennium.

To those who are able to grasp the complexity of these times, Theodoric's actions come as no surprise at all. A veritable paradox, capable of both treachery and tenderness, he had been educated in Constantinople but remained essentially illiterate all his life. Moreover, he had served in his youth as a hostage to the Eastern Romans and thus had learned the language of those highly civilized bureaucrats.

Roman Timeline of the 5th Century AD

And like Odovacar, he was also a Christian and, although Arian, managed to maintain good relations with the orthodox powers-that-be, not that he wanted to live among them. To this day, however, his strained relations with his secretary Boethius , an orthodox Christian, dominate the accounts of his regime—Theodoric ultimately had Boethius executed—but the Ostrogothic king would be better remembered for building a sound and effective government centered in Ravenna northeastern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea , where his tomb can still be seen.

It is fairer to him, perhaps, to recall his relationship with Cassiodorus , Boethius' successor to the post of secretary, who was also an orthodox Christian but not so contentious a man. Cassiodorus quietly oversaw the copying of many Classical manuscripts, which was an important contribution to the preservation of Greek and Roman literature and thought during the Middle Ages. All in all, whether or not any of them knew it—and quite a few probably did—these men were folding the tents of culture, packing its bags and quenching the fires of scholarship.

The West was readying itself for its Medieval "camping trip. The classic conundrum of antiquity, "Why did Rome fall? Few of the suggestions have made much of an impression. Many involve "invented histories" of some sort, speaking volumes about the answerer and syllables about the issue. More than one may be dismissed off-hand as so far from what-really-happened that, though they represent someone's history, it's clearly not the Romans'.

For instance, Rome did not fall because of the distractions pursuant to sexual indulgence.

Section 8: The Fall of Rome: Facts and Fictions

Given the influence of Christianity which the Romans had adopted as their exclusive religion by then, the conduct of those living in the fifth century after Christ was relatively sober. Indeed, if the data point to any venereal villains across the great expanse of Roman history, it is the Julio-Claudians who oversaw the height of Roman power in the first century CE and were truly perpetrators of immorality at large. So, to make an argument relating sexual behavior to Rome's "fall"—and to judge it fairly from the historical evidence—involves the ludicrous conclusion that the erotic felonies of a Caligula or Nero, in fact, sustained Rome's triumph, instead of corroding it at its core.

That suggests that, to prevent the collapse of their society, the Romans should have kept the orgies up, so to speak, which is patently ridiculous. Simply put, sex—reproduction maybe, but not sex! Likewise, the climate and ecology of the time cannot be adduced as the reason for something so earth-shattering as the "Fall of Rome. All may have appealed to some but none to all or, more to the point, a majority of scholars. And some of these answers have come from very good scholars, the likes of Edward Gibbon , the pre-eminent classical historian of England in the later half of the eighteenth century.

Brilliant though it was, the thesis he expounded in his monumental and highly engaging magnum opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire —he argued that the rise of Christianity emasculated the native vigor of Rome, leaving it open to more virile conquerors, i. For example, if Christianity so weakened the Roman West in late antiquity, why didn't it weaken the other half, the staunchly orthodox East which survived nearly a millennium after the collapse of the West? Perhaps it's true that Christianity redirected the attention of many Romans away from affairs of state, but it did not undermine their civilization.

To the contrary, it was as natural an outgrowth of their culture, as "Roman" as all sorts of other things they did: theatre, epic poetry, gladiators, ship-building, all of which were imports, just like Christianity. Any hope of finding a better answer depends on assessing exactly what was happening in Rome at the time of its "fall" and the data do, in fact, point to some clear and significant trends.

First of all, there's strong evidence of a steady decline in population across the entire Empire from the second century CE on. For example, peaking at around a million or so in the Classical Age, the population of the city of Rome gradually dropped over the course of the next few centuries, reaching a low point of a mere six thousand by the 's. The reasons for this drastic if incremental reduction in human resources are not clear, though many Romans' luxurious lifestyle and their concomitant disinterest in producing and raising children must have played some part.

So did plagues, no doubt, as well as constant warfare on the frontiers and perhaps even lead-poisoning, evidenced in human skeletal remains recovered from Pompeii which show that the Romans there were indeed exposed to high concentrations of the lethal element. Nevertheless, it's unclear how widespread this problem was. Second, economic data point to other factors which doubtlessly contributed to the situation. Well-documented among the travails of third-century Rome—a full two centuries prior to its notorious "fall"—is a particularly long period of financial crisis which inaugurated the slow collapse of the economy in the West.

This economic depression was due in large part to the failure of the Romans' system of conquest and enslavement. When the flow of cheap slaves began to dry up, estates throughout the Empire could no longer live off the abuse of human resources on which they had formerly depended. So without any real industry or much agricultural machinery to work the land—Roman land-owners did know about water wheels and windmills but archaeologists have found evidence of very few being used in this period—the aristocrats of late Rome apparently watched the collapse of their economy and disdained practical matters such as retooling their farms to ensure their viability.

Finally, political affairs contributed to the difficulties plaguing late Rome. The general incompetence of emperors and the failure of traditional politics in the West led to a wretchedly corrupt political structure, characterized by an oppressive burden of taxation levied to support the growing army of soldiers barbari!

Byzantine Empire

This, in turn, led to inflation and debasing of Roman coinage, which bred a lethal mix of apathy and angst that inspired many Romans to flee politics and later the poleis "city-states" of the Empire, the urban foundation on which rested most of ancient life. With that, actual power in Rome fell into the hands of local lords, and the concept of shared Roman civilization itself came under siege.

But states have survived disasters far worse than any or all of these. In sum, none of the theories or factors mentioned above explains why there's no simple answer to the simple question, " Why did Rome fall? To a scholar, that demands an all-out Aristotelian response, a syllogism, an analysis of the question in terms of its principal elements, which are three: why, Rome, fell. Since "why" cannot be answered until the other components of the question have been determined, it's best not to start there.

First, then, when we say "Rome," what do we mean? The city? The empire? Its government? Its people?

That Rome fell to the Visigoths in , to the Vandals in , not to mention its other earlier "falls" such as the one to that most-Roman-of-all-Romans, Julius Caesar himself 45 BCE , and its near capitulation to Hannibal before that. So if it's right to put the events of in the same category—they were hardly as destructive physically or psychologically as those which preceded—the ouster of Romulus Augustulus can hardly labelled " the fall of Rome," when compared to other ruinous sieges and takeovers of the city.

The Eastern Empire stood for nearly a millennium after , nearly as long again as classical Rome itself. So Rome as Empire can't be right. That definition doesn't work either. They're still there. They're called Italians. So, if the people of Rome ever "fell," apparently they got back up again. That's out, too. Whatever the answer, the question of which "Rome" fell in lies at the heart of the problem, and most of the answers that have been offered incline toward one but not all of the connotations the name Rome can carry.

Yet, all are inherent in the question, at least when it's phrased so simply as "Why did Rome fall? Hopefully, "fall" will prove a less obscure term than "Rome," and it does, unfortunately. But that's really not how things happened in late imperial Rome. Nothing went "boom"—"blaarhhh! There must be a better metaphor and, if a derogatory term is in order—and speaking positively about Rome in the fifth century seems out of the question, without completely recasting the issue—it would be more suitable perhaps to say Rome "dissolved.

Scholars, after all, can hardly sit around seminar tables in serious discourse debating the reasons why the ancient cookie "crumbled.

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So then, how about "leak"? All those present the same problem, though the gradualism inherent in any of them represents a significant step toward accuracy in reflecting the slow disintegration inherent in Rome's "fall," the far-from-instantaneous process of wasting away that characterizes the end of classical antiquity. Still, The Decline and Rot of Rome? It's hard to see that on anyone's best-seller list.

So, with the implications of "Rome" unclear and, worse yet, tied to the misguided metaphor of "falling," our inner Aristotles can see that it's categorically pointless to proceed to "why. It is, in fact, a loaded question, because it presupposes that Rome did fall, encouraging us to think in what may turn out to be inaccurate and unproductive ways.

The real question is whether Rome fell, not why? True, the Roman state did something monumentally unpleasant in the 's CE, especially for those citizens of Rome acclimated to the benefits of life in the Empire. That's why many Romans in the day left the city for the countryside or monasteries or God's merciful embrace.

But that change did not happen overnight, or even over a decade. The historical data do not support any firm break between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, certainly nothing like the social upheaval that followed in the wake of the Black Death as it surged across Europe. Sidonius published his first book of letters before the end of to justify and win support for Gallic political machinations with the help of the Arian barbarians.

Between and , a series of events transpired which forced Sidonius to re-think completely his ideas about acceptable relations between Catholics and Arian Goths. In , like many members of his class in the second-half of the fifth-century, Sidonius entered the Church and became bishop of Clermont. About the same time, the Gothic king Euric broke the foedus and began to conquer the remaining imperial territories in Gaul. By the time Sidonius returned from exile in c.

These great changes in his world forced Sidonius to re-think many of the assumptions which he had held about relations between Goths and Romans before By , Sidonius came to realize that his former faith in the maintenance of good relations with Gothic federates—the theme of his earlier published works—had been an embarrassing mistake. The result was that Sidonius began to identify himself with orthodox Christianity, the Gallic Church, and the rejection of the Arianism of the Goths. Rather, it is clear that Sidonius was here referring to his panegyrics and first book of letters, which had become a terrible embarrassment to him in his later life.

This penitential and confessional theme of books II-IX was a clear message to his contemporaries that he had denounced his earlier writings and associations with the Arian Goths. In his last eight books of letters, Sidonius consciously re-cast his Roman identity in terms of orthodox Christianity and the Church.

He underscores his new identity in particular in books VI and VII, which almost exclusively contain letters addressed to his fellow Gallo-Roman bishops. Sidonius appears to have published these two books separately as one work. Indeed, this concern for his memory is underscored by the refrain with which Sidonius ends every episcopal letter: memor nostri esse dignare, domine papa deign to remember be, lord bishop. Sidonius illustrates his new identity with two particular episodes recorded in his letter collection, both of which underscore his opposition to Arianism and the Goths, and his loyalty to the Catholic Church.

These two episodes are preserved in epistolae VII. He imagines that the success of his dealings and plans comes from the legitimacy of his religion, whereas it would be truer to say that he achieves it by earthly good fortune. The writings of Sidonius Apollinaris reveal how one of the leading Gallo-Roman aristocrats of the fifth century re-defined his patriotic Roman identity and idea of proper Roman order. Until , Sidonius believed that the proper way to carry out politics in Gaul was through friendly relations with the Arian Goths through the maintenance of the foedus.

During this period, Sidonius was willing to pardon and ignore the heresy of the Goths, and he was moreover noticeably aloof towards his own orthodox Catholic identity. After becoming bishop of Clermont in c.


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  • Expressed in books II-IX of his published letters, Sidonius after denounced his former associations with the Arian Gothic federates. Lacking any centralized authority such as Theodosius or Ambrose to lead the orthodox opposition to heresy in Gaul, it seems that Gallo-Romans such as Sidonius only came to denounce Arianism after the Goths broke the foedus and conquered Gaul.



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