Western Roman Empire
|Senatus Populusque Romanus
|Western division of the Roman Empire
Regional / local languages
|Religion||Roman religion until 4th century
Christianity (state church) after 380
|•||396||Flavius Honorius Augustus|
|•||480||Caecina Decius Maximus Basilius|
|Historical era||Late Antiquity|
|•||Division of Diocletian||285|
|•||Division after Constantine I||337|
|•||Division by Valentinian I||364|
|•||Division after Theodosius I||395|
|•||Deposition of Romulus Augustulus||4 September 476|
|•||Murder of Julius Nepos||25 April 480|
|•||395||2,000,000 km2 (770,000 sq mi)|
|Today part of|
|a.||^ Since the Western Roman Empire was not a distinct state separate from the Eastern Roman Empire, there was no particular official term that designated the Western provinces or their government, which was simply known as the "Roman Empire". Terms such as Imperium Romanum Occidentalis and Hesperium Imperium were either never in official usage or invented long after the western court had fallen.|
|b.||^ Whilst the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 is the most commonly cited end date for the Western Roman Empire, the last Western Roman Emperor Julius Nepos did not die until 480, when the title and notion of a separate Western Empire were actually abolished. Other suggested end dates include the deposition of Glycerius in 474 and the reorganization of Italy and abolition of separate Western Roman administrative institutions under Justinian during the latter half of the 6th century.|
|c.||^ Western Roman consuls continued to be appointed and accepted long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The reforms of Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I abolished the separate office of Western Roman consul in 534 and the last person to hold the office was Decius Paulinus.|
In historiography, the Western Roman Empire consists of the western provinces of the Roman Empire at any one time during which they were administered by a separate independent Imperial court, coequal with that administering the eastern half. Both "Western Roman Empire" and "Eastern Roman Empire" (or "Byzantine Empire") are modern terms describing de facto independent entities; however, at no point did the Romans consider the Empire split into two, but rather considered it a single state governed by two separate Imperial courts out of administrative expediency, a system of government known as a diarchy.
The view that the Empire was impossible to govern by one emperor was established by Diocletian following the disastrous civil wars and disintegration of the Crisis of the 3rd century, and was instituted in Roman law by his introduction of the Tetrarchy in AD 285, a form of government which was legally to endure in one form or another for centuries. There being more than one emperor at a time was not an unknown concept in the empire, as there had been multiple points in the past where more than one emperor ruled jointly.
The Western Roman Empire existed intermittently in several periods between the 3rd and 5th centuries, after Diocletian's Tetrarchy and the reunifications associated with Constantine the Great and Julian the Apostate (331/2–363). Theodosius I divided the Empire upon his death (in 395) between his two sons. Finally, eighty-five years later in AD 480, Zeno of the Eastern Empire recognized the reality of the Western Empire's reduced domain—effective central control had ceased to exist even in the Italian Peninsula—after the deposition of Romulus Augustus and the subsequent death of Julius Nepos, and therefore abolished the Western court and proclaimed himself the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.
The rise of Odoacer of the Foederati to rule over Italy in 476 was popularized by eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon as a demarcating event for the end of the Western Empire and is sometimes used to mark the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Imperial rule was reimposed in large parts of the West, including North Africa, Italy and parts of Hispania, in the sixth century by the armies of the Eastern Roman Empire under Emperor Justinian I. Political upheaval in the East Roman heartlands made efforts to retain control of these territories difficult and they were gradually lost, this time for good.
Though the Eastern Empire retained territories in the south of Italy until the 11th century, the influence that the Empire had over Western Europe had diminished significantly with the papal coronation of the Frankish king Charlemagne as "Roman Emperor" in 800 AD. His imperial line would come to evolve into the Holy Roman Empire, a revival of the imperial title in the West but in no meaningful sense an extension of Roman traditions or institutions. The Great Schism of 1054 between the churches of Rome and Constantinople further diminished the authority the Emperor in Constantinople could hope to bring forth in the west.
- 1 Background
- 2 History
- 3 Political aftermath
- 4 Economical decline
- 5 Legacy
- 6 List of Western Roman Emperors
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
As the Roman Republic expanded, it reached a point where the central government in Rome could not effectively rule the distant provinces. Communications and transportation were especially problematic given the vast extent of the Empire. News of invasion, revolt, natural disasters, or epidemic outbreak was carried by ship or mounted postal service, often requiring much time to reach Rome and for Rome's orders to be realized in the province of origin. For this reason, provincial governors had de facto rule in the name of the Roman Republic. Governors had several duties, including the command of armies, handling the taxes of the province and serving as a local chief judges.
Prior to the establishment of the Empire, the territories of the Roman Republic had been divided in 43 BC among the members of the Second Triumvirate: Mark Antony, Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Antony received the provinces in the East: Achaea, Macedonia and Epirus (roughly modern Greece, Albania and the coast of Croatia), Bithynia, Pontus and Asia (roughly modern Turkey), Syria, Cyprus, and Cyrenaica. These lands had previously been conquered by Alexander the Great; thus, much of the aristocracy was of Greek origin. The whole region, especially the major cities, had been largely assimilated into Greek culture, Greek often serving as the lingua franca.
Octavian obtained the Roman provinces of the West: Italia (modern Italy), Gaul (modern France), Gallia Belgica (parts of modern Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), and Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal). These lands also included Greek and Carthaginian colonies in the coastal areas, though Celtic tribes such as Gauls and Celtiberians were culturally dominant. Lepidus received the minor province of Africa (roughly modern Tunisia). Octavian soon took Africa from Lepidus, while adding Sicilia (modern Sicily) to his holdings.
Upon the defeat of Mark Antony, a victorious Octavian controlled a united Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire featured many distinct cultures, all were often said to experience gradual Romanization. While the predominantly Greek culture of the East and the predominantly Latin culture of the West functioned effectively as an integrated whole, political and military developments would ultimately realign the Empire along those cultural and linguistic lines.
Rebellions, uprisings, and political developments
Minor rebellions and uprisings were fairly common events throughout the Empire. Conquered tribes or cities would revolt, and the legions would be detached to crush the rebellion. While this process was simple in peacetime, it could be considerably more complicated in wartime, as for example in the Great Jewish Revolt. In a full-blown military campaign, the legions, under generals such as Vespasian, were far more numerous. To ensure a commander's loyalty, a pragmatic emperor might hold some members of the general's family hostage. To this end, Nero effectively held Domitian and Quintus Petillius Cerialis, governor of Ostia, who were respectively the younger son and brother-in-law of Vespasian. The rule of Nero ended only with the revolt of the Praetorian Guard, who had been bribed in the name of Galba. The Praetorian Guard, a figurative "sword of Damocles", were often perceived as being of dubious loyalty. Following their example, the legions at the borders increased participation in the civil wars.
As the Empire expanded, two key frontiers revealed themselves. In the West, particularly behind the rivers Rhine and Danube, Germanic tribes formed an important enemy. Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, had tried to conquer them but had pulled back after the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Whilst the Germanic tribes presented formidable foes, the Parthian Empire in the East presented the most long-standing imperial enemy by far. The Parthians were too remote and powerful to be conquered and any Parthian invasion of Rome was confronted and defeated. Parthians repelled some attempts of Roman invasion and even after successful wars of conquest, such as those implemented by Trajan and Septimius Severus, conquered distant territories were forsaken to prevent unrest and also to ensure a more healthy and lasting peace with the Parthians. The Parthian Empire would be succeeded by the Sasanian Empire, which continued hostilities with the Roman Empire.
Controlling the western border of Rome was reasonably easy because it was relatively close and also because of the disunity between the Germanic foes, however, controlling both frontiers altogether during wartime was difficult. If the emperor was near the border in the East, chances were high that an ambitious general would rebel in the West and vice versa. This wartime opportunism plagued many ruling emperors and indeed paved the road to power for several future emperors.
Crisis of the Third Century
With the assassination of the Emperor Alexander Severus on 18 March 235, the Roman Empire sank into a 50-year period of civil war, now known as the Crisis of the Third Century. The rise of the bellicose Sassanid dynasty in Parthia posed a major threat to Rome in the east. Demonstrating the increased danger, Emperor Valerian was captured by Shapur I in 259. His eldest son and heir-apparent, Gallienus, succeeded and took up the fight on the eastern frontier. Gallienus' son, Saloninus, and the Praetorian Prefect Silvanus were residing in Colonia Agrippina (modern Cologne) to solidify the loyalty of the local legions. Nevertheless, Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus - the local governor of the German provinces — rebelled; his assault on Colonia Agrippina resulted in the deaths of Saloninus and the prefect. In the confusion that followed, an independent state known as the Gallic Empire emerged.
Its capital was Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier), and it quickly expanded its control over the German and Gaulish provinces and over all of Hispania and Britannia. It had its own senate, and a partial list of its consuls still survives. It maintained Roman religion, language, and culture, and was far more concerned with fighting the Germanic tribes than other Romans. However, in the reign of Claudius Gothicus (268 to 270), large expanses of the Gallic Empire were restored to Roman rule. At roughly the same time, several eastern provinces seceded under the Palmyrene Empire, under the rule of Queen Zenobia.
In 272, Emperor Aurelian finally managed to reclaim Palmyra and its territory for the empire. With the East secure, his attention was turned to the West, taking the Gallic Empire a year later. Because of a secret deal between Aurelian and Gallic Emperor Tetricus I and his son Tetricus II, the Gallic army was swiftly defeated. In exchange, Aurelian spared their lives and gave the two former rebels important positions in Italy.[dubious ]
Under Diocletian, the political division of the Roman Empire first began. In 285, he promoted Maximian to the rank of Augustus (Emperor) and gave him control of the Western regions of the Empire. In 293, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus were appointed as their subordinates (Caesars), creating the First Tetrarchy. This system effectively divided the Empire into four major regions and created separate capitals besides Rome as a way to avoid the civil unrest that had marked the 3rd century. In the West, the capitals were Maximian's Mediolanum (now Milan) and Constantius' Trier. In the East, the capitals were Sirmium and Nicomedia. On 1 May 305, the two senior Augusti stepped down, and their respective Caesars were promoted to Augusti and appointed two new Caesars, thus creating the Second Tetrarchy.
The system of the Tetrarchy quickly ran aground when the Western Roman Empire's Constantius died unexpectedly in 306, and his son Constantine the Great was proclaimed Augustus of the West by the legions in Britain.  A crisis followed as several claimants attempted to rule the Western half. In 308, the Augustus of the East, Galerius, arranged a conference at Carnuntum which revived the Tetrarchy by dividing the West between Constantine and a newcomer named Licinius.
Constantine was far more interested in conquering the whole empire. Through a series of battles in the East and the West, Licinius and Constantine stabilized their respective parts of the Roman Empire by 314, and began to compete for sole control of a reunified state. Constantine emerged victorious in 324 after the surrender and murder of Licinius following the Battle of Chrysopolis. Following his victory and the unification of the Empire under one ruler once more, Constantine founded the city of Byzantium in modern-day Greece as Nova Roma ("New Rome", later to be renamed Constantinople) as the new capital of the Empire, shifting the administrative center of the Empire to the East. With this, the Tetrarchy ended, however the concept of dividing the Roman Empire between two emperors would remain. Although strong emperors would unite both parts under their singular rule, the Empire would come to divide back into East and West upon their death time and time again, such as after the deaths of Constantine I and Theodosius I.
Constantius was born in 317 at Sirmium, Pannonia. He was the third son of Constantine the Great, and second by his second wife Fausta, the daughter of Maximian. Constantius was made Caesar by his father on 13 November 324. The Roman Empire was under the rule of a single Emperor, but, with the death of Constantine in 337, the empire was partitioned between his surviving male heirs. Constantius received the eastern provinces, including Constantinople, Thrace, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and Cyrenaica; Constantine II received Britannia, Gaul, Hispania, and Mauretania; and Constans, initially under the supervision of Constantine II, received Italy, Africa, Illyricum, Pannonia, Macedonia, and Achaea. The provinces of Thrace, Achaea and Macedonia were shortly controlled by Dalmatius, nephew of Constantine I and a caesar and not an Augustus, until his murder by his own soldiers in 337. The West was unified in 340 under Constans, who was assassinated in 350 under the order of the usurper Magnentius; after Magnentius lost the Battle of Mursa Major and committed suicide, a complete reunification of the whole Empire occurred in 353, with Constantius.
Constantius II focused most of his power in the East. Under his rule, the city of Byzantium - only recently re-founded as Constantinople - was fully developed as a capital. In 361, Constantius II became ill and died, and Constantius Chlorus' grandson Julian, who had served as Constantius II's Caesar, assumed power. Julian was killed in 363 in the Battle of Samarra against the Persian Empire and was succeeded by Jovian, who ruled only until 364.
Following the death of Jovian, Valentinian I emerged as Emperor in 364. He immediately divided the Empire once again, giving the eastern half to his brother Valens. Stability was not achieved for long in either half, as the conflicts with outside forces (tribes) intensified. In 376, the Visigoths, fleeing before the Ostrogoths, who in turn were fleeing before the Huns, were allowed to cross the river Danube and settle into the Balkans by the Eastern government. Mistreatment caused a full-scale rebellion, and in 378 they inflicted a crippling defeat on the Eastern Roman field army in the Battle of Adrianople, in which Valens also died. The campaigns to subdue them were only partly successful, and they officially became semi-independent foederati under their own leaders.
More than in the East, there was also opposition to the Christianizing policy of the Emperors in the western half of the Empire. In 379, Valentinian I's son and successor Gratian declined to wear the mantle of Pontifex Maximus, and in 382 he rescinded the rights of pagan priests and removed the Altar of Victory from the Roman Curia, a decision which caused dissatisfaction among the traditionally pagan aristocracy of Rome. Theodosius I later decreed a ban on all religions except Christianity.
The political situation was unstable. In 383, a powerful and popular general named Magnus Maximus seized power in the West and forced Gratian's half-brother Valentinian II to flee to the East for aid; in a destructive civil war, the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I restored him to power. In 392, the Frankish and pagan magister militum Arbogast assassinated Valentinian II and proclaimed an obscure senator named Eugenius as Emperor. In 394 the forces of the two halves of the Empire again clashed with great loss of life. Again Theodosius I won, and he briefly ruled a united Empire until his death in 395. He was the last Emperor to rule both parts of the Roman Empire.
Theodosius I's older son Arcadius inherited the eastern half while the younger Honorius got the western half. Both were still minors and neither was capable of ruling effectively. Honorius was placed under the tutelage of the half-Roman/half-barbarian magister militum Flavius Stilicho, while Rufinus became the power behind the throne in the east. Rufinus and Stilicho were rivals, and their disagreements were exploited by the Gothic leader Alaric I who again rebelled following the death of Theodosius I.
Neither half of the Empire could raise forces sufficient even to subdue Alaric's men, and both tried to use Alaric against the other half. Alaric himself tried to establish a long-term territorial and official base, but was never able to do so. Stilicho tried to defend Italy and bring the invading Goths under control, but to do so he stripped the Rhine frontier of troops and the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi invaded Gaul in large numbers. Stilicho became a victim of court intrigues and was killed in 408. While the East began a slow recovery and consolidation, the West began to collapse entirely. Alaric's men sacked Rome in 410.
Reign of Honorius
Honorius, the younger son of Theodosius I, was declared Augustus (and as such co-emperor with his father) on January 23rd in 393. Upon the death of Theodosius, Honorius inherited the throne of the West at the age of ten whilst his older brother Arcadius inherited the East. The western capital was initially Mediolanum, as it had been during previous divisions, but it was moved to Ravenna in 402 upon the entrance of the visigothic king Alaric I into Italy. Ravenna, protected by abundant marshes and strong fortifications, was far easier to defend but made it more difficult for the Roman military to defend central parts of Italy from the regular barbarian incursions. Ravenna would remain the western capital until the deposition of Romulus Augustus 74 years later and would later be used as the capital for both the Ostrogothic Kingdom and the Exarchate of Ravenna.
The reign of Honorius was, even by Western Roman standards, chaotic and plagued by both internal and external struggles. The Visigothic foederati under Alaric, magister militum in Illyricum, rebelled as early as 395. Gildo, the Comes Africae and Magister utriusque militiae per Africam, rebelled in 397 and initiated the Gildonic War. Stilicho managed to subdue Gildo but was away in Raetia when the Visigoths entered Italy in 402. Stilicho, hurrying back to aid in defending Italy, summoned legions in Gaul and Britain with which he managed to defeat Alaric twice before agreeing to allow him to retreat back to Illyria.
The weakened frontiers in Britain and Gaul had dire consequences for the empire. Numerous usurpers rose from Britain, including Marcus (406–407), Gratian (407), and Constantine III who invaded Gaul in 407. Britain was effectively abandoned by the empire by 410 due to the crumbling resources and the need to look after more important frontiers. The weakened rhine frontier allowed multiple barbarian tribes, including the Vandals, Alans and Suebi, to cross the river and enter Roman territory in 406.
Honorius was convinced by the minister Olympius that Stilicho was conspiring to overthrow him, and thus arrested and executed Stilicho in 408. Olympius headed a conspiracy that successfully orchestrated the deaths of key individuals related to the regime of Stilicho, including his son and the families of many of his federated troops. This lead many of the soldiers to instead join with Alaric, who returned to Italy in 409 and met little opposition. Despite attempts by Honorius to a settlement and six legions of Eastern Roman soldiers sent to support him, the negotiations between Alaric and Honorius broke down in 410 and Alaric sacked the city of Rome. Though the sack was relatively mild and Rome was no longer the capital, this event made a great impression on contemporaries, as this was the first time since the Gallic invasions of the 4th century BC that the city had fallen to a foreign enemy.
Without Stilicho and following the sack of Rome, Honorius reign grew more and more chaotic. The usurper Constantine III had stripped Roman Britain of its defenses when he crossed over to Gaul in 407, leaving the Romanized population subject to invasions, first by the Picts and then by the Saxons, Angli, and the Jutes who began to settle permanently from about 440 onwards. After Honorius accepted Constantine as co-emperor, Constantine's general in Hispania, Gerontius, proclaimed Maximus as Emperor. With the aid of general Constantius, Honorius successfully defeated Gerontius and Maximus in 411 and shortly thereafter captured and executed Constantine III. With Constantius back in Italy, the Gallo-Roman senator Jovinus revolted after proclaiming himself Emperor. With the support of the Gallic nobility and the barbarian Burgundians and Alans, Honorius turned to the Visigoths under King Ataulf for support against Jovinus. Ataulf defeated and executed Jovinus and his proclaimed co-emperor Sebastianus in 413, around the same time as another usurper rose in Africa, Heraclianus. Heraclianus attempted to invade Italy but failed and retreated to Carthage, where he was killed.
With the Roman legions withdrawn, northern Gaul became subject to more and more Frankish influence, the Franks naturally adopting a somewhat leading role in the region. In 418, Honorius granted southwestern Gaul (Gallia Aquitania) to the Visigoths as a vassal federation. Removing the local imperial governors, the Visigoths and the provincial Roman inhabitants were left to conduct their own affairs. As such, the first of the "barbarian kingdoms", the Visigothic Kingdom, was formed.
Escalating barbarian conflicts
Honorius' death in 423 was followed by turmoil until the Eastern Roman government with the force of arms installed Valentinian III as Western Emperor in Ravenna, with Galla Placidia acting as regent during her son's minority. Theodosius II, Eastern Emperor, had hesitated to announce the death of Honorius and in the ensuing interregnum, Joannes was nominated as Western Emperor. Joannes "rule" was short and the forces of the East successfully defeated and executed him in 425.
After a violent struggle with several rivals, and against Placidia's wish, Aetius rose to the rank of magister militum. Aetius was able to stabilize the Western Empire's military situation somewhat, relying heavily on his Hunnic allies. With their help Aetius undertook extensive campaigns in Gaul, defeating the Visigoths in 437 and 438 but suffering a defeat himself in 439, ending the conflicts in a status quo.
Meanwhile, pressure from the Visigoths and a rebellion by Bonifacius, the governor of Africa, induced the Vandals under their king Gaiseric to cross over from Spain in 429. They temporarily halted in Numidia (435) before moving eastward. With Aetius occupied in Gaul, the Western Roman government could do nothing to prevent the Vandals conquering the wealthy African provinces, eventually culminating in the fall of Carthage on 19 October 439 and the establishment of the Vandalic Kingdom. By the 400s, Italy and Rome itself was dependent on the taxes and foodstuffs from these provinces, leading to an economical crisis. With Vandal fleets becoming an increasingly constant danger to Roman sea trade and the coasts and islands of the western and central Mediterranean, Aetius coordinated a counterattack against the Vandals in 440, organizing a large army in Sicily.
However, the plans of retaking Africa had to be abandoned due to the immediate need to combat the invading Huns, who in 444 were united under their ambitious king Attila. Turning against their former ally, the Huns became a formidable threat to the Empire. Aetius transferred his forces to the Danube, though Attila had begun to concentrate on raiding the Eastern Roman provinces in the Balkans, providing momentary relief to the Western court. In 449, Attila received a message from Honoria, Valentinian III’s sister, offering him half the western empire if he would rescue her from an unwanted marriage that her brother was forcing her into. With a pretext to invade the West, Attila secured peace with the Eastern court and crossed the Rhine in early 451. With Attila wreaking havoc in Gaul, Aetius gathered together a coalition of Roman and Germanic forces, including Visigoths and Burgundians, and prevented the Huns from taking the city Aurelianum, forcing them into retreat. At the Battle of Châlons, the Roman-Germanic coalition met and defeat the Hunnic forces, though Attila escaped.
Attila regrouped and invaded Italy in 452. With Aetius not having enough forces to attack, the road to Rome was open. Valentinian sent Pope Leo I and two leading senators to negotiate with Attila. This embassy, combined with a plague among Attila's troops, the threat of famine, and news that the Eastern Emperor Marcian had launched an attack on Hun homelands along the Danube, forced Attila to turn around and leave Italy. With Attila dying unexpectedly in 453, the power struggle that erupted between his sons ended the threat posed by the Huns.
Internal unrest and Majorian
Valentinian III, feeling intimidated by Aetius, was enlisted by the Roman senator Petronius Maximus and the chamberlain Heraclius to assassinate him. When Aetius was at court in Ravenna delivering a financial account, Valentinian suddenly leaped from his seat and declared that he would no longer be the victim of Aetius' drunken depravities. He held Aetius responsible for the empire's troubles and accused him of trying to steal the empire from him. Aetius attempted to defend himself from the charges, but Valentinian drew his sword and struck the weaponless Aetius on the head, killing him on the spot. On March 16 the following year, Valentinian himself was killed by supporters of the dead general, possibly put up to it by Petronius Maximus. With the end of the Theodosian dynasty, Petronius Maximus proclaimed himself emperor during the ensuing period of unrest.
Petronius was not prepared to take control over the significantly weaken and unstable Empire. Petronius broke the betrothal between Huneric, son of the Vandal king Gaiseric, and Eudocia, daughter of Valentinian III. This was seen as just cause of war by King Gaiseric, who set sail to attack Rome. Petronius and his supporters attempted to flee the city at the sight of the approaching Vandals, only to be stoned to death by a Roman mob after a reign of only 11 weeks. With the Vandals at the gates, Pope Leo I requested that the king not destroy the ancient city or murder its inhabitants, to which Gaiseric agreed and the city gates were opened to him. Though keeping his promise, Gaiseric looted great amounts of treasure and damaged objects of cultural significance such as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The severity of the Vandal sack of 455 is disputed, though with the Vandals plundering the city for a full fourteen days as opposed to the Visigothic sack of 410, where the Visigoths only spent three days in the city, it was likely more thorough.
Avitus, a prominent general under Petronius, was proclaimed emperor by the Visigothic king Theoderic II and accepted as such by the Roman senate. Though supported by the Gallic provinces and the Visigoths, Avitus was resented in Italy due to ongoing food shortages caused by Vandal control of trade routes and for using a Visigothic imperial guard. Disbanding his guard due to popular pressure, the Suebian general Ricimer used this opportunity to depose Avitus, counting on popular discontent. After the deposition of Avitus, the Eastern Emperor Leo I did not select a new western Augustus. After the prominent general Majorian defeated an invading force of Alemanni, he was proclaimed Western Emperor by the army and eventually accepted as such by Eastern Emperor Leo I.
Majorian was the last Western Emperor to attempt to recover the Western Empire with his own military forces. To prepare, Majorian significantly strengthened the Western Roman army by recruiting large numbers of barbarian mercenaries, among them the Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugii, Burgundians, Huns, Bastarnae, Suebi, Scythians and Alans, and built two fleets, one at Ravenna, to combat the strong vandalic fleet. Majorian personally lead the army to wage war in Gaul, leaving Ricimer in Italy. The Gallic provinces and the Visigothic Kingdom had rebelled following the deposition of Avitus, refusing to acknowledge Majorian as lawful emperor. At the Battle of Arelate, Majorian decisively defeated the Visigoths under Theoderic II and forced them to relinquish their great conquests in Hispania and return to foederati status. Majorian then entered the Rhone Valley, where he defeated the Burgundians and reconquered the rebel city of Lugdunum. With Gaul back under Roman control, Majorian turned his eyes to the Vandals and Africa. Not only did the Vandals pose a constant danger to coastal Italy and trade in the Mediterranean, but the province they ruled was economically vital to the survival of the West. Majorian began a campaign to fully reconquer Hispania to use it as a base of his conquest of Africa. Throughout 459, Majorian campaigned against the Suebi in northwestern Hispania.
The Vandals began to increasingly fear a Roman invasion. King Gaiseric tried to negotiate a peace with Majorian, who rejected the proposal. In the wake of this, Gaiseric devastated Mauretania, part of his own kingdom, fearing that the Roman army would land there. Having restored control of Hispania, Majorian intended to use his fleet at Carthaginiensis to attack the Vandals. Before he could, the fleet was destroyed, allegedly by traitors paid by the Vandals. Deprived of his fleet, Majorian had to cancel his attack on the Vandals and conclude a peace with Gaiseric. Disbanding his barbarian forces, Majorian intended to return to Rome and issue reforms, stopping at Arelate on his way. Here, Ricimer deposed and arrested him in 461, having gathered significant aristocratic opposition against Majorian. After five days of beatings and torture, Majorian was beheaded near the river Iria.
The final collapse of the Empire in the West was marked by increasingly ineffectual puppet Emperors dominated by their Germanic masters of the soldiers. The most pointed example of this is Ricimer, who effectively became a "Shadow Emperor" following the depositions of Avitus and Majorian. Unable to take the throne for himself due to his barbarian heritage, Ricimer appointed a series of "puppet emperors" that could do little to halt the collapse of Roman authority and the loss of the territories re-conquered by Majorian. The first of these puppet emperors, Libius Severus, had no recognition outside of Italy, with the Eastern Emperor Leo I and provincial governors in Gaul and Illyria all refusing to recognize him. Severus died in 465 and Leo I, with the consent of Ricimer, appointed the capable Eastern general Anthemius as Western Emperor following an eighteen-month Western interregnum. The relationship between Anthemius and the East was good, Anthemius is the last Western Emperor recorded in an Eastern law, and the two courts conducted a joint operation to retake Africa from the Vandals, culminating in the disastrous Battle of Cap Bon in 468. Furthermore, Anthemius conducted failed campaigns against the Visigoths, hoping to halt their increasing expansion.
The trial and subsequent execution of Romanus, an Italian senator and friend of Ricimer, on the grounds of treachery in 470 made Ricimer hostile to Anthemius. Following two years of hostilities, Ricimer successfully deposed and killed Anthemius in 472, elevating Olybrius to the Western throne. During the brief reign of Olybrius, Ricimer died and his nephew Gundobad succeeded him as magister militum. After only seven months of rule, Olybrius died of dropsy. Gundobad elevated Glycerius to Western Emperor. The Eastern Empire had rejected Olybrius and also rejected Glycerius, instead supporting a candidate of their own, Julius Nepos, magister militum in Dalmatia. With the support of Eastern Emperors Leo II and Zeno, Julius Nepos crossed the Adriatic Sea in the spring of 474 to depose Glycerius. At the arrival of Nepos in Italy, Glycerius abdicated without a fight and was allowed to live out his life as the Bishop of Salona.
The brief rule of Nepos in Italy ended in 475 when Orestes, a former secretary of Attila and the magister militum of Julius Nepos, took control of Ravenna and forced Nepos to flee by ship to Dalmatia. Later in the same year, Orestes crowned his own young son as Western Emperor under the name Romulus Augustus. Romulus Augustus was not recognised as Western Emperor by the Eastern Court, who maintained that Nepos was the only legal Western Emperor, reigning in exile from Dalmatia.
On September 4, 476, Odoacer, leader of the Germanic foederati in Italy, captured Ravenna, killed Orestes and deposed Romulus. Though Romulus was deposed, Nepos did not return to Italy and continued to reign as Western Emperor from Dalmatia, with support from Constantinople. Odoacer proclaimed himself ruler of Italy and began to negotiate with the Eastern Emperor Zeno. Zeno eventually granted Odoacer patrician status as recognition of his authority and accepted him as his own viceroy of Italy. Zeno, however, insisted that Odoacer had to pay homage to Julius Nepos as the Emperor of the Western Empire. Odoacer accepted this condition and issued coins in the name of Julius Nepos throughout Italy. This, however, was mainly an empty political gesture, as Odoacer never returned any real power or territories to Julius Nepos. The murder of Julius Nepos in 480 prompted Odoacer to invade Dalmatia, annexing it to his Kingdom of Italy.
Fall of the Empire
By convention, the Western Roman Empire is deemed to have ended on 4 September 476, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, but the historical record calls this determination into question. Indeed, the deposition of Romulus Augustus received very little attention in contemporary times. Romulus was a usurper in the eyes of the more or less entirely intact Eastern Roman Empire and the remaining territories of Western Roman control outside of Italy, with the previous emperor Julius Nepos still being alive and claiming to rule the Western Empire in Dalmatia. Furthermore, the Western court had lacked true power and had been subject to Germanic aristocrats for decades, with most of its legal territory being under control of various barbarian kingdoms. With Odoacer recognising Julius Nepos, and later the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as his sovereign, nominal Roman control continued in Italy. Syagrius, who had managed to preserve Roman sovereignty in an exclave in northern Gaul (a realm today known as the Domain of Soissons) also recognized Nepos as his sovereign and the legitimate Western Emperor.
The authority of Julius Nepos as Emperor was accepted not only by Odoacer in Italy, but by the Eastern Empire and Syagrius in Gaul (who had not recognized Romulus Augustulus). Nepos was murdered by his own soldiers in 480, a plot some attribute to Odoacer himself or potentially the previous deposed emperor Glycerius, and the Eastern Emperor Zeno chose not to appoint a new western emperor. Zeno, recognizing that no true direct Roman control remained over the territories legally governed by the Western court, instead chose to abolish the juridical division of the position of Emperor, declaring himself the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. Zeno became the first sole Roman Emperor since the division after Theodosius I, 95 years prior, and the position would never again be divided. As such, the (eastern) Roman emperors after 480 are the successors of the western ones, albeit only in a juridical sense. These emperors would continue to rule the Roman Empire until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, nearly a thousand years later. As 480 marks the end of the juridical division of the empire into two separate imperial courts, some historians refer to the death of Nepos and abolition of the Western Empire by Zeno as the end of the Western Roman Empire.
Despite the fall, or abolition, of the Western Empire, many of the new Barbarian kings of Western Europe continued to operate firmly within a roman administrative framework. This is especially true in the case of the Ostrogoths, who came to rule Italy after Odoacer. They continued to use the administrative systems of Odoacer's kingdom, essentially those of the Western Roman Empire, and administrative positions continued to be staffed exclusively by Romans. The senate continued to function as it always had and the laws of the Empire were recognized as ruling the Roman population, though the Goths were ruled by their own traditional laws. Western Roman administrative institutions, in particular those of Italy, thus continued to be used during "barbarian" rule and after the forces of the Eastern Roman empire re-conquered some of the formerly imperial territories. Some historians thus refer to the reorganizations of Italy and abolishment of the old and separate Western Roman administrative units, such as the Praetorian prefecture of Italy, during the sixth century as the "true" fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Roman cultural traditions continued throughout the territory of the Western Empire for long after its disappearance, and a recent school of interpretation argues that the great political changes can more accurately be described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall.
Some territories of Roman control continued to exist in the West in some form even after 480. The Domain of Soissons, a rump state in Northern Gaul ruled by Syagrius, survived until 486 when it was conquered by the Franks under King Clovis I after the Battle of Soissons. Syagrius was known as the "King of the Romans" by the Germanic peoples of the region but continually claimed that he was merely governing a Roman province, not an independent realm.
Furthermore, a Roman-Moor realm survived in the province of Mauretania Caesariensis until the early 8th century. An inscription on a fortification at the ruined city of Altava from the year 508 identifies a man named Masuna as the king of "Regnum Maurorum et Romanarum", the Kingdom of the Moors and Romans. It is possible that Masuna is the same man as the "Massonas" who allied himself with the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire against the Vandals in 535. As the Mauro-Roman realm shrank it eventually became known as the "Kingdom of Altava" after its capital city and it fell during the Islamic conquests of the 700s.
The deposition of Romulus Augustus and rise of Odoacer as ruler of Italy in 476 received very little attention at the time. Overall, very little changed for the people; there was still a Roman Emperor in Constantinople that Odoacer had subordinated himself to. Throne vacances had been experienced at many points in the West before and the deposition of Romulus Augustus was nothing out of the ordinary. Odoacer saw his rule as entirely in the tradition of the Roman Empire, his role was not unlike that of Ricimer, and he effectively ruled as an imperial "governor" of Italy and was even awarded the title of patricius. Odoacer ruled using the Roman administrative systems already in place and continued to mint coins with the name and portrait of Julius Nepos until 480 and later with the name and portrait of the Eastern Augustus, rather than in his own name.
When Julius Nepos was murdered in Dalmatia in 480, Odoacer assumed the duty of pursuing and executing the assassins and established his own rule in Dalmatia at the same time. Odoacer established his power with the loyal support of the Roman Senate, a legislative body that had continued even without an emperor residing in Italy. Indeed, the Senate seems to have increased in power under Odoacer. For the first time since the mid-3rd century, copper coins were issued with the legend S C (Senatus Consulto). These coins were copied by Vandals in Africa and also formed the basis of the currency reform done by Emperor Anastasius in the East.
Under Odoacer, Western consuls continued to be appointed as they had been under Western Roman Empire and were accepted by the Eastern Court, the first of these were Caecina Decius Maximus Basilus in 480. Basilus was later also made the Praetorian Prefect of Italy in 483, a position that continued to exist under Odoacer. 11 further consuls were appointed by the Senate under Odoacer during his reign from 480 to 493 and one further Praetorian Prefect of Italy was appointed, Caecina Mavortius Basilius Decius (486-493).
Though Odoacer ruled as a Roman governor would have and maintained himself as a subordinate to the remaining Empire, the Eastern Emperor Zeno began to increasingly see him as a rival. Thus, Zeno promised Theoderic the Great of the Ostrogoths, foederati of the Eastern Court, control over the Italian peninsula if they were able to defeat Odoacer. Theoderic lead the Ostrogoths across the Julian Alps and into Italy in 489 and defeated Odoacer in battle twice the same year. Following four years of hostilities between them, John, the Bishop of Ravenna, was able to negotiate a treaty in 493 between Odoacer and Theodoric wherein they agreed to rule Ravenna and Italy jointly. Theoderic entered Ravenna on 5 March and Odoacer was dead ten days later, killed by Theodoric after sharing a meal with him.
Theoderic inherited the role of Odoacer, the acting viceroy for Italy and ostensibly a patricius and subject of the emperor in Constantinople. This position was recognized by Emperor Anastasius in 497. Though Theodoric acted as an independent ruler, he meticulously preserved the outward appearance of his subordinate position. Theoderic continued to use the administrative systems of Odoacer's kingdom, essentially those of the Western Roman Empire, and administrative positions continued to be staffed exclusively by Romans. The senate continued to function as it always had and the laws of the Empire were recognized as ruling the Roman population, though the Goths were ruled by their own traditional laws. As a subordinate, Theodoric did not have the right to issue his own laws, only edicts or clarifications. The army and military offices were exclusively staffed by the Goths however, largely settled in northern Italy.
Though acting as a subordinate in domestic affairs, Theodoric acted increasingly independent in his foreign policies. Seeking to counterbalance the influence of the Empire in the East, Theodoric married his daughters to the Visigothic king Alaric II and the Burgundian prince Sigismund, his sister Amalfrida was married to the Vandal king Thrasamund and he married Audofleda, sister of the Frankish king Clovis I, himself. Through these alliances and occasional conflicts, the territory controlled by Theoderic in the early sixth century nearly constituted a restored Western Roman Empire. Ruler of Italy since 493, Theodoric became king of the Visigoths in 511 and exerted hegemony over the Vandals in North Africa between 521 and 523. As such, his rule extended throughout the western Mediterranean. The western imperial regalia had been returned to Ravenna by the emperor Anastasius in 497 and Theoderic was essentially Western Emperor in all but name.
With the death of Theodoric in 526, his network of alliances began to collapse. The Visigoths regained autonomy under king Amalaric and their relations with the Vandals turned increasingly hostile under the reign of the new Ostrogothic king Athalaric, a child under the regency of his mother Amalasuntha. Amalasuntha intended to continue the policies of conciliation between the Goths and Romans, supporting the new Eastern Emperor Justinian I and allowing him to use Sicily as a staging point during the reconquest of Africa in the Vandalic War. With the death of Athalaric in 534, Amalasuntha crowned her cousin and only relative Theodahad as king, hoping for his support. Instead, Amalasuntha was imprisoned and even though Theodahad assured Emperor Justinian of her safety, she was executed shortly thereafter. This served as an ideal cause of war for Justinian, who invaded Italy after Theodahad had refused to renounce his rule of the peninsula in favour of the Empire.
In the context of the Western Roman Empire, the term "barbarian kingdoms" most often refers to the Germanic kingdoms that sprung from the formerly Western Roman territory. Their beginnings, together with the end of the Western Roman Empire, marks the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. The barbarian kingdoms gradually replaced the old Roman system, specifically in the praetorian prefectures of Gaul and Italy, during the sixth and seventh centuries.
There were several different kingdoms of differing size, power and origins. The Visigothic Kingdom was the earliest one established, founded as a vassal state to the Western Roman Empire through the Visigoths being granted land in southern Gaul by Emperor Honorius in 418. After its establishment, relations between the Visigoths and the Western court were mixed. Though federated vassals, the Visigoths remained de facto independent and began a rapid period of expansion at the expense of the Western empire. The Visigoths were thus periodically enemies with the Western court, though they had allied with the Western Roman army against the Huns and assisted in defeating Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. At the time of the collapse of the Western Empire in 476/480, the Visigoths controlled large swaths of Southern Gaul as well as a majority of Hispania, their increased domain having been partly conquered and partly awarded to them by the Western Emperor Avitus in the 450s-60s. Like the Germanic kingdoms of Italy, the Visigoths continued to recognise the Emperor in Constantinople as somewhat of a nominal sovereign, continuing to mint coins in their names until the reign of Justinian I in the sixth century. The Visigothic Kingdom continued to control most of the Iberian peninsula until it fell to the Umayyad Caliphate in the 720s. The Kingdom of Asturias was founded by a Visigoth nobleman around the same time and remained the only bastion of Christianity on the peninsula until the reconquista.
The Vandal Kingdom was founded through Vandalic conquests in the provinces of Roman Africa, culminating in a siege and subsequent conquest of Carthage in 439. The Vandals continually used an impressive fleet to loot the coasts of both the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire, becoming an increasingly strong naval power. After the death of Attila, the Romans made repeated efforts at recapturing Africa and destroying the Vandals, since they were in control of some of the richest imperial lands. With several planned campaigns never being carried out or being destroyed in naval battles, the Vandals remained a power and even sacked Rome in 455. Unlike the Visigoths, the Vandals minted their own coinage and were both de facto and de jure independent. Just like the Ostrogoths of Italy, the Vandalic Kingdom would come to be reconquered under the western campaigns of Emperor Justinian I.
After the collapse of Theoderic the Great's control of the western Mediterranean through alliances, the Frankish Kingdom would rise to become the most powerful of the Barbarian Kingdoms, having taken control of most of Gaul in the absence of Roman governance. Under Clovis I from the 480s to 511, the Franks would come to develop into a great regional power, conquering the Domain of Soissons in 481, defeating the Alemanni in 504 and conquering all Visigothic territory north of the north of the Pyrenees other than Septimania in 507. Unlike with the hostile Vandals, relations between the Franks and the Eastern Empire appear to have been rather positive, with Emperor Anastasius granting Clovis the title of consul following his victory against the Visigoths. The Frankish Kingdom would turn out to be the most stable of all the Barbarian kingdoms, eventually developing into the Carolingian Empire and later France and the Holy Roman Empire.
With Emperor Zeno having juridically reunified the Empire into one imperial court, the remaining Eastern Roman Empire continued to lay claim to the areas previously controlled by the Western court throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Though military campaigns had been conducted by the Western court prior to 476 with the aim of recapturing lost territory, most notably under Majorian, the reconquests, if successful at all, were only momentary. It was first under the campaigns of the generals Belisarius and Narses on behalf of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I from 533 to 554 that long-lasting reconquests of Roman lands were witnessed.
During the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire under Justinian managed to reconquer large areas of the former Western Roman Empire. With the pro-Roman Vandal king Hilderic having been deposed by Gelimer in 530, Justinian prepared an expedition lead by prominent general Belisarius that swiftly retook North Africa from June 533 to March 534, returning the wealthy province to Roman rule. Following the reconquest, Justinian swiftly reestablished the Roman administrations of the province, establishing a new Praetorian Prefecture of Africa and taking measures to decrease vandal influence, eventually leading to the complete disappearance of the vandalic people.
Following the execution of the pro-Roman Ostrogoth queen Amalasuntha and the refusal of Ostrogoth king Theodahad to renounce his control of Italy, Justinian ordered the expedition to move on to reconquer Italy, ancient heartland of the Empire. From 534 to 540, the Roman forces campaigned in Italy and captured Ravenna, the Ostrogothic and formerly Western Roman capital, in 540. The Gothic resistance revived under king Totila in 541, and they were only defeated following campaigns by the Roman general Narses, who also repelled invasions into Italy by the Franks and Alemanni. Justinian promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction to reorganize the governance of Italy and the province was returned to Roman rule, though some cities in northern Italy continued to hold out until the 560s. The end of the conflict saw Italy devastated and considerably depopulated, which made it difficult to retain over the following centuries.
Justinian also undertook limited campaigns against the Visigoths, recovering portions of the southern coast of the Iberian peninsula. Here, the province of Spania would last until the 620s, when the Visigoths under king Suintila reconquered the southern coast. These regions remained under Roman control throughout the reign of Justinian. Only three years after his death, the Lombards invaded Italy. Through conquests of the devastated peninsula, the Lombards conquered large parts of Italy in the late 500s, establishing the Lombard Kingdom. The Lombards were in constant conflict with the Exarchate of Ravenna, a polity established to replace the old Praetorian Prefecture of Italy and enforcing Roman rule in Italy. The wealthiest parts of the province, including the cities of Rome and Ravenna, remained securely in Roman hands under the Exarchate throughout the seventh century.
Although some eastern emperors occasionally attempted to campaign in the West, none were as successful as Justinian. After 600, events conspired to drive the Western provinces out of Constantinople's control, with imperial attention focused on the pressing issues of war with Sasanian Persia and then the rise of Islam. For a while, the West remained important, with the Emperor Constans II ruling from Syracuse in Sicily a Roman Empire that still stretched from North Africa to the Caucasus in the 660s, but thereafter imperial attention declined rapidly, with Constantinople itself being besieged in the 670s, renewed war with the Arabs in the 680s, and then a period of chaos between 695 and 717, during which time Africa was finally lost to the Romans once and for all, being conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate. Through reforms and military campaigns, Emperor Leo III attempted to restore order in the Empire, but his doctrinal reforms, known as the Iconoclastic Controversy, were extremely unpopular in the West and were condemned by Pope Gregory III.
This led to the final breakdown in imperial rule over Rome itself, and the gradual transition of the Exarchate of Ravenna into the independent Papal States, lead by the Pope. In an attempt at gaining support against the Lombards, the Pope called for aid from the Frankish Kingdom instead of the Eastern Empire, eventually crowning the Frankish king Charlemagne as "Roman Emperor" in 800 AD. Though this coronation was strongly opposed by the Eastern Empire, there was little they could do as their influence in Western Europe decreased.
Imperial rule continued in Sicily throughout the eighth century, with the island slowly being overrun by the Arabs over the course of the ninth century. In Italy, a few strongholds in Calabria ultimately provided a base for modest imperial expansion, which reached its peak in the early eleventh century, with most of southern Italy under Roman rule of a sort. This, however, was undone by further civil wars in the empire, and the slow conquest of the region by the Empires' former mercenaries, the Normans, who finally put an end to imperial rule in Western Europe in 1071 with the conquest of Bari. The last Emperor to attempt reconquests in the West was Manuel I Komnenos, who invaded Southern Italy during a war with the Norman Kingdom of Sicily in the 1150s. The city of Bari willingly opened its gates to the Emperor and facing successes in the taking of other cities in the region, Manuel dreamed of a restored Roman Empire and a union between the churches of Rome and Constantinople, separated since the schism of 1054. Despite initial successes and Papal support, the campaign was unsuccessful and Manuel was forced to return East.
The Western Roman Empire, less urbanized than the Eastern and with a more spread-out populace, may have experienced an economic decline throughout the Late Empire in some provinces. Southern Italy, northern Gaul (except for large towns and cities), and to some extent Spain and the Danubian areas may have suffered. The East was not so destitute, especially as Emperors like Constantine the Great and Constantius II had invested heavily in the eastern economy. As a result, the Eastern Empire could afford large numbers of professional soldiers and augment them with mercenaries, while the Western Roman Empire could not afford this to the same extent. Even in major defeats, the East could, certainly not without difficulties, buy off its enemies with a ransom.
The political, economic and military control of the Eastern Empire's resources remained safe in Constantinople, which was well fortified and located at the crossroads of several major trade and military routes. In contrast, the Western Empire was more fragmented. Its capital was transferred to Ravenna in 402 largely for defensive reasons, and it had easy access to the imperial fleet of the Eastern Empire but was isolated in other aspects as it was surrounded by swamps and marshes. This isolation was intentional, as Ravenna had been chosen as capital due to being more defensible against the increasing barbarian incursions. The economic power remained focused on Rome and its hyper-rich senatorial aristocracy which dominated much of Italy and Africa in particular. After Gallienus banned senators from army commands in the mid-3rd century, the senatorial elite lost all experience of—and interest in—military life. In the early 5th century the wealthy landowning elite of the Roman Senate largely barred its tenants from military service, but it also refused to approve sufficient funding for maintaining a sufficiently powerful mercenary army to defend the entire Western Empire. The West's most important military area had been northern Gaul and the Rhine frontier in the 4th century, when Trier frequently served as the capital of the Empire and many leading Western generals were Barbarians. After the civil war in 394 between Theodosius I and the usurper Eugenius, the new Western government installed by Theodosius I increasingly had to divert military resources from Britain and the Rhine to protect Italy. This, in turn, led to further rebellions and civil wars because the Western imperial government was not providing the military protection the northern provinces expected and needed against the barbarians.
The Western Empire's resources were much limited, and the lack of available manpower forced the government to rely ever more on confederate barbarian troops operating under their own commanders, where the Western Empire would often have difficulties paying. In certain cases deals were struck with the leaders of barbaric mercenaries rewarding them with land, which led to the Empire's decline as less land meant there would be less tax revenue to support the military. As the central power weakened, the State gradually lost control of its borders and provinces, as well as control over the Mediterranean Sea. Roman Emperors tried to maintain control of the sea, but, once the Vandals conquered North Africa, imperial authorities had to cover too much ground with too few resources. The loss of the African provinces might have been the worse reversal on the West's fortunes, since they were among its wealthiest territories and supplied the essential grain imports to Italy. In many places, the Roman institutions collapsed along with the economic stability. In some regions, such as Gaul and Italy, the settlement of barbarians on former Roman lands seems to have caused relatively little disruption.
As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, the new Germanic rulers who conquered the provinces upheld many Roman laws and traditions. Many of the invading Germanic tribes were already Christianized, although most were followers of Arianism. They quickly converted to official imperial Christianity, gaining more loyalty from the local Roman populations, as well as the recognition and support of the powerful Bishop of Rome. Although they initially continued to recognize indigenous tribal laws, they were more influenced by Roman Law and gradually incorporated it as well. Roman Law, particularly the Corpus Juris Civilis collected by order of Justinian I, is the ancient basis on which the modern Civil law stands. In contrast, Common law is based on the Germanic Anglo-Saxon law. Civil law is by far the most widespread system of law in the world, in force in some form in about 150 countries.
Latin as a language never really disappeared. Vulgar Latin combined with neighboring Germanic and Celtic languages, giving rise to many modern Romance languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and a large number of minor languages and dialects. Today, more than 900 million people are native speakers worldwide. In addition, many Romance languages are used throughout the world as lingua francas by non-native speakers.
Latin also influenced Germanic languages such as English, German, and Dutch. All surviving Celtic languages, Albanian, and such Slavic languages as Polish and Czech and even the non-Indo-European Hungarian. It survives in a "purer" form as the language of the Catholic Church (the Mass was spoken exclusively in Latin until 1969), and was used as a lingua franca between many nations. It remained the language of medicine, law, diplomacy (most treaties were written in Latin), of intellectuals and scholarship. The Latin alphabet was expanded due to the splits of I into I and J and of U into U, V, and in places (especially Germanic languages and Polish) W; it is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. Roman numerals continue to be used, but were mostly replaced by Arabic numerals.
A very visible legacy of the Western Roman Empire is the Roman Catholic Church. The Church slowly began to replace Roman institutions in the West, even helping to negotiate the safety of Rome during the late 5th century.Template:Heather In many cases the only source of law and civil administration was the local bishop, often himself a former governor like St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Germanus of Auxerre. As Rome was invaded by Germanic tribes, many assimilated, and by the middle of the medieval period (c. 9th and 10th centuries) the central, western, and northern parts of Europe had been largely converted to Roman Catholicism and acknowledged the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. The first of the Barbarian kings to convert to the church of Rome was Clovis I of the Franks and other kingdoms, such as the Visigoths, later followed suit to garner favor with the papacy. Following the reconquest of Italy under Emperor Justinian I, the popes were largely subservient to the Exarchs of Ravenna (the imperial representative in Italy). This humiliation, alongside the increasing amounts of territory lost by the Empire to the Islamic conquests and the inability to protect Italy against the Lombards, prompted Pope Stephen II to turn from the Eastern Emperor Constantine V. Instead he appealed to the Frankish king Pepin, who subdued the Lombards and donated lands to the papacy. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as "Roman Emperor" in 800, he both severed ties with the outraged Eastern Empire and established the precedent that no man in Western Europe would be emperor without a papal coronation. Though the power the Pope wielded changed significantly throughout the subsequent Middle Ages and the Modern period, the office remains as the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the head of state of the Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state in the world. The Pope has consistently held the title of "Pontifex Maximus" since before the fall of the Western Roman Empire and retains it to this day, a title formerly used by the high priest of the old Roman polytheism.
Though gone in modern times, the Roman Senate survived the initial collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Its authority even seems to have increased under the rule of Italy by Odoacer and later the Ostrogoths, evident by that the senate in 498 managed to install Symmachus as pope despite both Theodoric of Italy and emperor Anastasius supporting the other candidate, Laurentius. When exactly the senate disappeared is unclear, it is known that the institution remained into the sixth century as gifts from the senate were received by emperor Tiberius II in 578 and 580 in hope of aid against the invading Lombards. The traditional senate building, Curia Julia, was rebuilt into a church under pope Honorius I in 630, probably with permission from the eastern emperor Heraclius.
Marcellinus Comes, a sixth century Eastern Roman historian and a courtier of Justinian I, mentions the Western Roman Empire at some points in his Chronicle, which primarily covers the Eastern Roman Empire from 379 to 534. In the Chronicle, it is made clear that Marcellinus made a clear divide between East and West, with both mentions of a geographical east ("Oriens") and west ("Occidens") and an imperial east ("Orientale imperium" and "Orientale respublica") and an imperial west ("Occidentalie imperium", "Occidentale regnum", "Occidentalis respublica", "Hesperium regnum", "Hesperium imperium" and "principatum Occidentis"). Furthermore, Marcellinus specifically designates some emperors and consuls as being "Eastern", "Orientalibus principibus" and "Orientalium consulum" respectively. The term Hesperium Imperium, simply translating to "Western Empire", has sometimes been applied to the Western Roman Empire by modern historians as well.
Though Marcellinus does not refer to the Empire as a whole after 395, only referring specifically to its separate halves, he clearly identifies the term "Roman" as applying to the Empire as a whole. When using terms such as "us", "our generals" and "our emperor", Marcellinus distinguished both divisions of the Empire from outside foes such as the Sassanid Persians and the Huns. This view is consistent with the knowledge that contemporary Romans of the fourth and fifth century continued to consider the Empire as a single unit, though sometimes with two rulers (as there had been many times in the past).
The positions of Eastern and Western Augustus, established under Emperor Diocletian in 286 as the Tetrarchy, had been abolished by Emperor Zeno in 480 following the loss of direct control over the western territories. Declaring himself the sole Augustus, Zeno only exercised true control over the largely intact Eastern Empire and over Italy as the nominal overlord of Odoacer. With the reconquests under Justinian I and the significant expansion of territory they brought, the Empire began to face the same problems it had faced during previous periods where there was only one ruler. As such, the idea of splitting the imperial court into two once more to more effectively govern the territory of the Empire resurfaced in the East.
The earliest attempt at crowning a new Western Emperor after the abolition of the title occurred already during the Gothic Wars under Justinian. Belisarius, an accomplished general that had already successfully campaigned to restore Roman control over North Africa and large parts of Italy (including Rome itself), was offered the position of Western Roman Emperor by the Ostrogoths during his siege of Ravenna (the Ostrogothic, and previously Western Roman, capital) in 540. The Ostrogoths, desperate to avoid losing their control of Italy, offered the title and fealty to Belisarius as Western Augustus. Loyal to Justinian (who hoped to rule over a restored Roman Empire alone), Belisarius feigned to accept the title to enter the city, whereupon he immediately relinquished it. Despite Belisarius relinquishing the title, the offer had made Justinian suspicious and Belisarius was ordered to return east.
At the end of emperor Tiberius II's reign in 582, the Eastern Roman Empire retained control over relatively large parts of the regions reconquered under Justinian. Tiberius chose two Caesares, the general Maurice and the governor Germanus, and married his two daughters to them. Germanus had clear connections to the western provinces, and Maurice to the eastern provinces. It is possible that Tiberius had planned to divide the empire into western and eastern administrative units once more, but if those plans existed they were never realized. At the death of Tiberius, Maurice inherited the entire empire as Germanus had refused the throne. Maurice would come to establish a new type of administrative unit, the Exarchates, and organized the remaining western territories under his control into two such exarchates; the Exarchates of Ravenna and Africa.
Restoration of the Imperial title in the West
In addition to remaining as a concept for an administrative unit in the remaining Empire, the ideal of the Roman Empire as a mighty Christian Empire with a single ruler further continued to appeal to many powerful rulers in western Europe. With the papal coronation of Charlemagne as "Emperor of the Romans" in 800 AD, his realm was explicitly proclaimed as a restoration of the Roman Empire in Western Europe under the concept of translatio imperii. Though the Carolingian Empire collapsed in 888 and Berengar, the last "Emperor" claiming succession from Charlemagne, died in 924, the concept of a papacy- and Germanic-based Roman Empire in the West would resurface in the form of the Holy Roman Empire in 962. This Empire would regard itself as the successor state of Ancient Rome until its downfall in 1806.
Charlemagne, and the subsequent Holy Roman Emperors were not, and did not claim to be, rulers of a restored Western Roman Empire. Pope Leo III and contemporary historians were fully aware of that the notion of a separate Western court had been abolished over three centuries prior and considered the Roman Empire to be "one and indivisible". The ruler of the Roman Empire at the time of Charlemagne's coronation was Irene, the mother of emperor Constantine VI who she had deposed. Leo III considered Irene to be a usurper and illegitimate to rule due to her gender and as such considered the imperial throne to be vacant. Thus, Charlemagne was not crowned as the ruler of the Western Roman Empire and successor to Romulus Augustulus, but rather as the successor of Constantine VI and as sole Roman Emperor. Irene was deposed and replaced by Emperor Nikephoros soon after, and the Eastern Empire refused to recognize the Imperial title of Charlemagne. Emperor Michael I Rangabe eventually recognized Charlemagne as an "Emperor" following several wars in the 810s, but as the slightly humiliating "Emperor of the Franks" rather than "Roman Emperor", a title he reserved for himself. For centuries to come, the "revived" Western court and the Eastern court, in direct succession to the Roman Emperors of old, would make competing claims to be rulers of the whole and as being the sole legitimate Roman Empire.
Following the final fall of the Eastern Roman Empire after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the title of "Emperor" became widespread among European monarchs. The Austrian Empire laid claim to be the heir of the Holy Roman Empire as Austria's Habsburgs attempted to unite Germany under their rule. The German Empire, established in 1871, also claimed to be a successor of Rome through the lineage of the Holy Roman Empire. Both of these empires used the imperial title Kaiser (derived from Latin Caesar), the German word for emperor. The German Empire and Austria-Hungary, successor of the Austrian Empire, would both fall in the aftermath of the First World War along with the Russian and Ottoman Empires who had claimed succession from the Eastern Roman Empire.
List of Western Roman Emperors
Under the organization of the Tetrarchy, the Roman Empire was divided into two administrative halves: Eastern Rome and Western Rome. Both halves were governed by their own augustus, both of which also appointed a caesar that would succeed them upon abdication or death. augusti are listed here with their caesars indented. The Tetrarchy would collapse under the reign of Constantine Chlorus, and the subsequent series of civil wars would result in the coronation of Constantine I as sole Roman Emperor.
- Maximian: 286–305.
- Constantius I Chlorus: 305–306.
- Valerius Severus: 306–307.
- Maxentius: 307–312.
- Licinius: 308–313.
Constantinian dynasty (313–363)
Following the death of Constantine I the Empire would be divided once more, this time into three different sections under his sons Constantine II, Constans I and Constantius II. The death of Constantine II in 340 would once more lead to a West-East division.
- Constantine I: 306–337 (Sole Emperor: 324-337).
- Constantine II 337–340 (Emperor of Gaul, Britannia and Hispania: 337–340).
- Constans I 337–350 (Emperor of Italy and Africa: 337-340, Western Emperor: 340–350).
- Constantius II 350–361 (Sole Emperor).
- Julian: 361–363 (Sole Emperor).
When Julian died in 363, he left no heir, causing a succession crisis. The Roman Army elected Jovian, who had been a relatively obscure domesticus before he was chosen, as sole emperor. Jovian reigned only seven months, in which he signed a peace treaty with the Sasanian Empire, under Shapur II. In this agreement, Rome surrendered five provinces and 18 fortresses to the Sassanians, and agreed not to protect the Kingdom of Armenia, effectively renouncing their claim over the region, in exchange for a 30 year truce. Jovian died on 16 February 364, due to either indigestion or charcoal vapour inhalation.
Valentinian dynasty (364–392)
After the death of Jovian, Valentinian I was elected. He divided the emperor between himself and his younger brother, Valens, giving himself the West and Valens the East. Valentinian spent much of his reign defending Gaul against repeated attacks by barbarian tribes, only leaving the region in 373. In 375, while meeting with the Quadi, he suffered a stroke due to rage.
Valentinian elevated his son, Gratian, to caesar in 367, however on his deathbed he elevated his much younger son, Valentinian II, to caesar along with Gratian, and Valens who was emperor in the East. Gratian showed a strong preference for the barbarian mercenaries in his army, especially his Alanic guard, which inflamed the Roman population, to the point that in 383, Roman troops in Britain declared Magnus Maximus emperor, in opposition to Gratian. Maximus landed troops in Gaul, and attacked Gratian's troops near Paris. Gratian was defeated, and fled to Lyons, where he was murdered on 25 August 383.
After the death of Gratian, Valentinian II succeeded him, although he only controlled Italy itself, with all other Western Roman provinces recognizing Maximus. In 387 Maximus invaded Italy, to depose Valentinian. Valentinian fled to the court of Theodosius, where he succeeded in convincing Theodosius to attack Maximus, and to reinstate himself as Western Emperor, which was done after Maximus was defeated in battle near Aquileia. Valentinian continued to rule the Western Empire until 392, when he was murdered by Arbogast.
Magnus Maximus was elected emperor by his men in 384, in opposition to Gratian, who defeated him in battle in 383. Maximus was briefly recognized as the Western Emperor by Eastern Emperor Theodosius I, however this recognition was revoked by both when Maximus invaded Italy and deposed Valentinian II in 387. Valentinian II fled to the Eastern Roman Empire, and convinced Theodosius to invade the Western Roman Empire and restore him to the Western Roman, which he did in 388. Maximus was defeated in battle near Aquileia, and executed.
Theodosian dynasty (392–455)
After the death of Valentinian II, Eastern Emperor Theodosius I inherited the Western Roman Empire. The division after his death would be the final division of the Roman Empire, which due to the fall of the Western Roman Empire would only ever be nominally reunited to the Eastern Roman Empire.
- Theodosius I: 392–395 (Eastern Roman Emperor: 379–392, Sole Emperor: 392–395).
- Honorius: 395–423.
- Valentinian III: 425–455.
The Eastern emperor was considered the senior emperor throughout the final years of the Western Empire, and a Western emperor was only legitimate if recognized as such by the Eastern emperor. After the death of Valentinian III in 455, the Western emperor ceased to be a relevant figure and there was sometimes no claimant at all. For the sake of historical completeness, all Western Emperors after 455 are included in this list, even if they were not recognized by the Eastern Empire. The dates of emperors that were not recognized are given with (NR).
Some of these technically illegitimate emperors are included in regnal lists, while others are not. For instance, Romulus Augustulus was technically a usurper who ruled only the Italian peninsula and was never legally recognized. However, he was traditionally considered the "last Roman Emperor" by 18th and 19th century western scholars and his overthrow by Odoacer used as the marking point between historical epochs, and as such he is usually included in regnal lists. However, modern scholarship has confirmed that Romulus Augustulus' predecessor, Julius Nepos continued to rule as Emperor in the other Western holdings and as a figurehead for Odoacer's rule in Italy until Nepos' death in 480. Since the question of what constitutes an emperor can be ambiguous, and dating the "fall of the Western Empire" arbitrary, this list includes both figures.
With the deposition of Romulus Augustus by Odoacer, direct roman control ceased to exist in Italy. Odoacer assumed control of the peninsula as a de jure representative of Western Roman Emperor Julius Nepos. With the death of Julius Nepos in 480, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno abolished the title and position of Western Roman Emperor and assumed the role of Odoacer's sovereign. Though some new candidates for the position of Western emperor were proposed during and after the Eastern Roman re-conquests of the sixth century, such as Belisarius in 540 and Germanus in 582, the position of Roman Emperor would never again be divided.
- Petronius Maximus: 455 (NR).
- Avitus: 455–456 (NR).
- Majorian: 457–461 (NR).
- Libius Severus: 461–465 (NR).
- Anthemius: 467–472.
- Olybrius: 472 (NR).
- Glycerius: 473–474 (NR).
- Julius Nepos: 474–475.
- Romulus Augustus: 475–476(NR).
- Fall of the Western Roman Empire
- Historiography of the fall of the Western Roman Empire
- Byzantine Empire
- Legacy of the Roman Empire
- Carolingian Empire
- Holy Roman Empire
- Taagepera, p. 24.
- Roman Governors.
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