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by Edward Gibbon
The original, squashed down to read in about 45 minutes
Edward Gibbon was a Hampshire gentleman and Member of Parliament. His History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is famous for the quality of its writing and Gibbon's care in trying to always check his sources has made it a model for every history book since. Winston Churchill said that "I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all", and claimed to have modelled his own literary style on Gibbon's. But, above all, Decline and Fall is famous for being extraordinarily vast, the original is more than 1.6 million words.
Rome, Mistress of the World
In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. On the death of Augustus, that emperor bequeathed, as a valuable legacy to his successors, the advice of confining the empire within those limits which nature seemed to have placed as its permanent bulwarks and boundaries - on the west the Atlantic Ocean, the Rhine and Danube on the north, the Euphrates on the east, and towards the south the sandy deserts of Arabia and Africa.
By maintaining the dignity of the empire, without attempting to enlarge its limits, the early emperors caused the Roman name to be revered among the most remote nations of the earth. The terror of their arms added weight and dignity to their moderation. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war. The soldiers, though drawn from the meanest of mankind, and no longer, as in the days of the ancient republic, recruited from Rome herself, were preserved in their allegiance to the emperor, and their invincibility before the enemy, by the influences of superstition, inflexible discipline, and the hopes of reward. The peace establishment of the Roman army numbered some 375,000 men, divided into thirty legions.
"Wheresoever the Roman conquers he inhabits," was a very just observation of Seneca. Colonies, composed for the most part of veteran soldiers, were settled throughout the empire. Rich and prosperous cities, adorned with magnificent temples and baths and other public buildings, demonstrated at once the magnificence and majesty of the Roman system. In Britain, York was the seat of government. London was already enriched by commerce, and Bath was celebrated for the salutary effects of its medicinal waters.
All the great cities were connected with each other, and with the capital, by the public highway, which, issuing from the Forum of Rome, traversed Italy, pervaded the provinces, and was terminated only by the frontiers of the empire. This great chain of communications ran in a direct line from city to city, and in its construction the Roman engineers snowed little respect for the obstacles, either of nature or of private property. Mountains were perforated and bold arches thrown over the broadest and most rapid streams. The middle part of the road, raised into a terrace which commanded the adjacent country, consisted of several strata of sand, gravel, and cement, and was paved with granite or large stones. Distances were accurately computed by milestones, and the establishment of post-houses, at a distance of five or six miles, enabled a citizen to travel with ease a hundred miles a day along the Roman roads.
This freedom of intercourse, which was established throughout the Roman world, while it extended the vices, diffused likewise the improvements of social life. Rude barbarians of Gaul laid aside their arms for the more peaceful pursuits of agriculture. Commerce flourished, and the products of Egypt and the East were poured out in the lap of Rome.
Though there still existed within the body of the Roman Empire an unhappy condition of men who endured the weight, without sharing the benefits of society, the position of a slave was greatly improved in the progress of Roman development. The power of life and death was taken from his master's hands and vested in the magistrate, to whom he had a right to appeal against intolerable treatment.
The Seeds of Dissolution
But while Roman society persisted in a state of peaceful security, it already contained within itself the seeds of dissolution. The long peace and uniform government of the Romans introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated. The citizens received laws and covenants from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army. Of their ancient freedom nothing remained except the name, and that Augustus, sensible that mankind is governed by names, was careful to preserve.
It was by the will of the senate the emperor ruled. Moreover, the dependence of the emperor on the legions completely subverted the civil authority. To keep the military power, which had given him his position, from undermining it, Augustus had summoned to his aid whatever remained in the fierce minds of his soldiers of Roman prejudices, and interposing the majesty of the senate between the emperor and the army, boldly claimed their allegiance as the first magistrate of the republic. During a period of 220 years, the dangers inherent to a military government were in a great measure suspended by this artful system.
The emperors Caligula and Domitian were assassinated in their palace by their own domestics. The Roman world, it is true, was shaken by the events that followed the death of Nero, when, in the space of eighteen months, four princes perished by the sword. But, excepting this violent eruption of military licence, the two centuries from Augustus to Commodus passed away unstained with civil blood and undisturbed by revolution. The Roman citizens might groan under the tyranny, from which they could not hope to escape, of the unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, and the timid, inhuman Domitian; but order was maintained, and it was not until Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the philosopher, succeeded to the authority that his father had exercised for the benefit of the Roman Empire that the army fully realised, and did not fail to exercise, the power it had always possessed.
During the first three years of his reign the vices of Commodus affected the emperor rather than the state. While the young prince revelled in licentious pleasures, the management of affairs remained in the hands of his father's faithful councillors; but, in the year 183, the attempt of his sister Lucilla to assassinate him produced fatal results. The assassin, in attempting the deed, exclaimed, "The senate sends you this!" and though the blow never reached the body of the emperor, the words sank deep into his heart.
He turned upon the senate with relentless cruelty. The possession of either wealth or virtue excited the tyrant's fury. Suspicion was equivalent to proof; trial to condemnation, and the noblest blood of the senate was poured out like water.
He has shed with impunity the noblest blood of Rome; he perished as soon as he was dreaded by his own domestics. A cup of drugged wine, delivered by his favourite concubine, plunged him in a deep sleep. At the instigation of Lætus, his Prætorian prefect, a robust youth was admitted into his chamber, and strangled him without resistance. With secrecy and celerity the conspirators sought out Pertinax, the prefect of the city, an ancient senator of consular rank, and persuaded him to accept the purple. A large donative secured them the support of the Prætorian guard, and the joyous senate eagerly bestowed upon the new Augustus all the titles of imperial power.
For eighty-six days Pertinax ruled the empire with firmness and moderation, but the strictness of the ancient discipline that he attempted to restore in the army excited the hatred of the Prætorian guards, and the new emperor was struck down on March 28, 193.
An Empire at Auction
The Prætorians had violated the sanctity of the throne by the atrocious murder of Pertinax; they dishonored the majesty of it with their subsequent conduct. They ran out upon the ramparts of the city, and with a loud voice proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction. Sulpicianus, father-in-law of Pertinax, and Didius Julianus, bid against each other for the prize. It fell to Julian, who offered upwards of £1,000 sterling to each of the soldiers, and the author of this ignominious bargain received the insignia of the empire and the acknowledgments of a trembling senate.
The news of this disgraceful auction was received by the legions of the frontiers with surprise, with indignation, and, perhaps, with envy. Albinus, governor of Britain, Niger, governor of Syria, and Septimius Severus, a native of Africa, commander of the Pannonian army, prepared to revenge the death of Pertinax, and to establish their own claims to the vacant throne. Marching night and day, Severus crossed the Julian Alps, swept aside the feeble defences of Julian, and put an end to a reign of power which had lasted but sixty-six days, and had been purchased with such immense treasure. Having secured the supreme authority, Severus turned his arms against his two competitors, and within three years, and in the course of two or three battles, established his position and brought about the death of both Albinus and Niger.
The prosperity of Rome revived, and a profound peace reigned throughout the world. At the same time, Severus was guilty of two acts which were detrimental to the future interests of the republic. He relaxed the discipline of the army, increased their pay beyond the example of former times, re-established the Prætorian guards, who had been abolished for their transaction with Julian, and welded more firmly the chains of tyranny by filling the senate with his creatures. At the age of sixty-five in the year 211, he expired at York of a disorder which was aggravated by the labours of a campaign against the Caledonians.
Severus recommended concord to his sons, Caracalla and Geta, and his sons to the army. The government of the civilised world was entrusted to the hands of brothers who were implacable enemies. A latent civil war brooded in the city, and hardly more than a year passed before the assassins of Caracalla put an end to an impossible situation by murdering Geta. Twenty thousand persons of both sexes suffered death under the vague appellation of the friends of Geta. The fears of Macrinus, the controller of the civil affairs of the Prætorian prefecture, brought about his death in the neighbourhood of Carrhæ in Syria on April 8, 217.
For a little more than a year his successor governed the empire, but the necessary step of reforming the army brought about his ruin. On June 7, 218, he succumbed to the superior fortune of Elagabulus, the grandson of Severus, a youth trained in all the superstitions and vices of the East.
Under this sovereign Rome was prostituted to the vilest vices of which human nature is capable. The sum of his infamy was reached when the master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex. The shame and disgust of the soldiers resulted in his murder on March 10, 222, and the proclamation of his cousin, Alexander Severus.
Again the necessity of restoring discipline within the army led to the ruin of the emperor, and, despite thirteen years of just and moderate government, Alexander was murdered in his tent on March 19, 235, on the banks of the Rhine, and Maximin, his chief lieutenant, a Thracian, reigned in his stead.
Tyranny and Disaster
Fear of contempt, for his origin was mean and barbarian, made Maximin one of the cruellest tyrants that ever oppressed the Roman world. During the three years of his reign he disdained to visit either Rome or Italy, but from the banks of the Rhine and the Danube oppressed the whole state, and trampled on every principle of law and justice. The tyrant's avarice ruined not only private citizens, but seized the municipal funds of the cities, and stripped the very temples of their gold and silver offerings.
Maximus and Balbinus, on July 9, 237, were declared emperors. The Emperor Maximus advanced to meet the furious tyrant, but the stroke of domestic conspiracy prevented the further eruption of civil war. Maximin and his son were murdered by their disappointed troops in front of Aquileia.
Three months later, Maximus and Balbinus, on July 15, 238, fell victims to their own virtues at the hands of the Prætorian guard, Gordian became emperor. At the end of six years, he, too, after an innocent and virtuous reign, succumbed to the ambition of the prefect Philip, while engaged in a war with Persia, and in March 244, the Roman world recognized the sovereignty of an Arabian robber.
Returning to Rome, Philip celebrated the secular games, on the accomplishment of the full period of a thousand years from the foundation of Rome. From that date, which marked the fifth time that these rites had been performed in the history of the city, for the next twenty years the Roman world was afflicted by barbarous invaders and military tyrants, and the ruined empire seemed to approach the last and fatal moment of its dissolution. Six emperors in turn succeeded to the sceptre of Philip and ended their lives, either as the victims of military licence, or in the vain attempt to stay the triumphal eruption of the Goths and the Franks and the Suevi. In three expeditions the Goths seized the Bosphorus, plundered the cities of Bithynia, ravaged Greece, and threatened Italy, while the Franks invaded Gaul, overran Spain and the provinces of Africa.
Some sparks of their ancient virtue enabled the senate to repulse the Suevi, who threatened Rome herself, but the miseries of the empire were not assuaged by this one triumph, and the successes of Sapor, king of Persia, in the East, seemed to foreshadow the immediate downfall of Rome. Six emperors and thirty tyrants attempted in vain to stay the course of disaster. Famine and pestilence, tumults and disorders, and a great diminution of the population marked this period, which ended with the death of the Emperor Gallienus on March 20, 268.
Restorers of the Roman World
The empire, which had been oppressed and almost destroyed by the soldiers, the tyrants, and the barbarians, was saved by a series of great princes, who derived their obscure origin from the martial provinces of Illyricum. Within a period of about thirty years, Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian and his colleagues triumphed over the foreign and domestic enemies of the state, re-established, with a military discipline, the strength of the frontier, and deserved the glorious title of Restorers of the Roman world.
Claudius gained a crushing victory over the Goths, whose discomfiture was completed by disease in the year 269. And his successor, Aurelian, in a reign of less than five years, put an end to the Gothic war, chastised the Germans who invaded Italy, recovered Gaul, Spain, and Britain from the Roman usurpers, and destroyed the proud monarchy which Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, had erected in the East on the ruins of the afflicted empire.
The murder of Aurelian in the East (January 275) led to a curious revival of the authority of the senate. During an interregnum of eight months the ancient assembly at Rome governed with the consent of the army, and appeared to regain with the election of Tacitus, one of their members, all their ancient prerogatives. Their authority expired, however, with the death of his successor, Probus, who delivered the empire once more from the invasions of the barbarians, and succumbed to the too common fate of assassination in August 282.
Carus, who was elected in his place, maintained the reputation of the Roman arms in the East; but his supposed death by lightning, by delivering the sceptre into the hands of his sons Carinus and Numerian (December 25, 283), once more placed the Roman world at the mercy of profligacy and licentiousness. A year later, the election of the Emperor Diocletian (September 17, 284) founded a new era in the history and fortunes of the empire.
It was the artful policy of Diocletian to destroy the last vestiges of the ancient constitution. Dividing his unwieldly power among three other associates - Maximian, a rough, brutal soldier, who ranked as Augustus; and Galerius and Constantius, who bore the inferior titles of Cæsar - the emperor removed the centre of government by gradual steps from Rome. Diocletian and Maximian held their courts in the provinces, and the authority of the senators was destroyed by spoliation and death.
Reign of the Six Emperors
For twenty-one years Diocletian held sway, establishing, with the assistance of his associates, the might of the Roman arms in Britain, Africa, Egypt, and Persia; and then, on May 1, 305, in a spacious plain in the neighborhood of Nicomedia, divested himself of the purple and abdicated the throne. On the same day at Milan, Maximian reluctantly made his resignation of the imperial dignity.
According to the rules of the new constitution, Constantius and Galerius assumed the title of Augustus, and nominated Maximin and Severus as Cæsars. The elaborate machinery devised by Diocletian at once broke down. Galerius, who was supported by Severus, intrigued for the possession of the whole Roman world. Constantine, the son of Constantius, on account of his popularity with the army and the people, excited his suspicion, and only the flight of Constantine saved him from death. He made his way to Gaul, and, after taking part in a campaign with his father against the Caledonians, received the title of Augustus in the imperial palace at York on the death of Constantius.
Civil war once more raged. Maxentius, the son of Maximian, was declared Emperor of Rome, and, with the assistance of his father, who broke from his retirement, defended his title against Severus, who was taken prisoner at Ravenna and executed at Rome in February 307. Galerius, who had raised Licinius to fill the post vacated by the death of Severus, invaded Italy to reestablish his authority, but, after threatening Rome, was compelled to retire.
There were now six emperors. Maximian and his son Maxentius and Constantine in the West; in the East, Gelerius, Maximin, and Licinius. The second resignation of Maximian, and his renewed attempt to seize the imperial power by seducing the soldiers of Constantine, and his subsequent execution at Marseilles in February 310, reduced the number to five. Galerius died of a lingering disorder in the following year, and the civil war that broke out between Maxentius and Constantine, culminating in a battle near Rome in 312, placed the sceptre of the West in the hands of the son of Constantius. In the East, the alliance between Licinius and Maximin dissolved into discord, and the defeat of the latter on April 30, 313, ended in his death three or four months later.
The empire was now divided between Constantine and Licinius, and the ambition of the two princes rendered peace impossible. In the years 315 and 323 civil conflict broke out, ending, after the battle of Adrianople and the siege of Byzantium, in a culminating victory for Constantine in the field of Chrysopolis, in September. Licinius, taken prisoner, laid himself and his purple at the feet of his lord and master, and was duly executed.
By successive steps, from his first assuming the purple at York, to the resignation of Licinius, Constantine had reached the undivided sovereignty of the Roman world. His success contributed to the decline of the empire by the expense of blood and treasure, and by the perpetual increase as well of the taxes as of the military establishments. The foundation of Constantinople and the establishment of the Christian religion were the immediate and memorable consequences of this revolution.
Decay of the Empire under Constantine
The unfortunate Licinius was the last rival who opposed the greatness of Constantine. After a tranquil and prosperous reign, the conqueror bequeathed to his family the inheritance of the Roman Empire; a new capital, a new policy, and a new religion; and the innovations which he established have been embraced, and consecrated, by succeeding generations.
Byzantium, which, under the more august name of Constantinople, was destined to preserve the shadow of the Roman power for nearly a thousand years after it had been extinguished by Rome herself, was the site selected for the new capital. Its boundary was traced by the emperor, and its circumference measured some sixteen miles. In a general decay of the arts no architect could be found worthy to decorate the new capital, and the cities of Greece and Asia were despoiled of their most valuable ornaments to supply this want of ability. In the course of eight or ten years the city, with its beautiful forum, its circus, its imperial palace, its theatres, baths, churches, and houses, was completed with more haste than care. The dedication of the new Rome was performed with all due pomp and ceremony, and a population was provided by the expedient of summoning some of the wealthiest families in the empire to take up their residence within its walls.
The gradual decay of Rome had eliminated that simplicity of manners which was the just pride of the ancient republic. Under the autocratic system of Diocletian, a hierarchy of dependents had sprung up. The rank of each was marked with the most scrupulous exactness, and the purity of the Latin language was debased by the invention of the deceitful titles of your Sincerity, your Excellency, your Illustrious and Magnificent Highness.
The officials of the empire were divided into three classes of the Illustrious, Respectable, and Honourable. The consuls were still annually elected, but obtained the semblance of their ancient authority, not from the suffrages of the people, but from the whim of the emperor. On the morning of January 1 they assumed the ensigns of their dignity, and in the two capitals of the empire they celebrated their promotion to office by the annual games. As soon as they had discharged these customary duties, they retired into the shade of private life, to enjoy, during the remainder of the year, the undisturbed contemplation of their own greatness. Their names served only as the legal date of the year in which they had filled the chair of Marius and of Cicero. The ancient title of Patrician became now an empty honour bestowed by the emperor. Four prefects held jurisdiction over as many divisions of the empire, and two municipal prefects ruled Rome and Constantinople. The proconsuls and vice-prefects belonged to the rank of Respectable, and the provincial magistrates to the lower class of Honourable. In the military system, eight master-generals exercised their jurisdiction over the cavalry and the infantry, while thirty-five military commanders, with the titles of counts and dukes, under their orders, held sway in the provinces. The army itself was recruited with difficulty, for such was the horror of the profession of a soldier which affected the minds of the degenerate Romans that compulsory levies had frequently to be made. The number of the barbarian auxiliaries enormously increased, and they were included in the legions and the troops that surrounded the throne. Seven ministers with the rank of Illustrious regulated the affairs of the palace, and a host of official spies and torturers swelled the number of the immediate followers of the sovereign.
The general tribute, or indiction, as it was called, was derived largely from the taxation of landed property. Every fifteen years an accurate census, or survey, was made of all lands, and the proprietor was compelled to state the true facts of his affairs under oath, and paid his contribution partly in gold and partly in kind. In addition to this land tax there was a capitation tax on every branch of commercial industry, and "free gifts" were exacted from the cities and provinces on the occasion of any joyous event in the family of the emperor. The peculiar "free gift" of the senate of Rome amounted to some sixteen hundred pounds of gold.
Constantine celebrated the twentieth year of his reign at Rome in the year 326. The glory of his triumph was marred by the execution, or murder, of his son Crispus, whom he suspected of a conspiracy, and the reputation of the emperor who established the Christian religion in the Roman world was further stained by the death of his second wife, Fausta. With a successful war against the Goths in 331, and the expulsion of the Sarmatians in 334, his reign closed. He died at Nicomedia on May 22, 337.
The Division of East and West
The unity of the empire was again destroyed by the three sons of Constantine. A massacre of their kinsmen preceded the separation of the Roman world between Constantius, Constans, and Constantine. Within three years, civil war eliminated Constantine. The conflict among the emperors resulted in a doubtful war with Persia, and the almost complete extinction of the Christian monarchy which had been founded for fifty-six years in Armenia.
Constantius was left sole emperor in 353. He associated with himself successively as Cæsars the two nephews of the great Constantine, Gallus and Julian. The first, being suspected, was destroyed in 354; the second succeeded to the purple in 361.
Trained in the school of the philosophers, and proved as a commander in a series of successful campaigns against the German hordes, Julian brought to the throne a genius which, in other times, might have effected the reformation of the empire. The sufferings of his youth had associated in a mind susceptible of the most lively impressions the names of Christ and of Constantius, the ideas of slavery and religion. At the age of twenty he renounced the Christian faith, and boldly asserted the doctrines of paganism. His accession to the supreme power filled the minds of the Christians with horror and indignation. But instructed by history and reflection, Julian extended to all the inhabitants of the Roman world the benefits of a free and equal toleration, and the only hardship which he inflicted on the Christians was to deprive them of the power of tormenting their fellow subjects, whom they stigmatised with the odious titles of idolaters and heretics.
While re-establishing and reforming the old pagan system and attempting to subvert Christianity, he held out a hand of succour to the persecuted Jews, asked to be permitted to pay his grateful vows in the holy city of Jerusalem, and was only prevented from rebuilding the Temple by a supposed preternatural interference. He suppressed the authority of George, Archbishop of Alexandria, who had infamously persecuted and betrayed the people under his spiritual care, and that odious priest, who has been transformed by superstition into the renowned St. George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the Garter, fell a victim to the just resentment of the Alexandrian multitude.
The Persian system of monarchy, introduced by Diocletian, was distasteful to the philosophic mind of Julian; he refused the title of lord and master, and attempted to restore in all its pristine simplicity the ancient government of the republic. In a campaign against the Persians he received a mortal wound, and died on June 26, 363.
The election of Jovian, the first of the domestics, by the acclamation of the soldiers, resulted in a disgraceful peace with the Persians, which aroused the anger and indignation of the Roman world, and the new emperor hardly survived this act of weakness for nine months (February 17, 364). The throne of the Roman world remained ten days without a master. At the end of that period the civil and military powers of the empire solemnly elected Valentinian as emperor at Nice in Bithynia.
The new Augustus divided the vast empire with his brother Valens, and this division marked the final separation of the western and eastern empires. This arrangement continued, until the death of Valentinian in 375, when the western empire was divided between his sons, Gratian and Valentinian II.
His reign had been notable for the stemming of the invasion of the Alemanni of Gaul, the incursions of the Burgundians and the Saxons, the restoration of Britain from the attacks of the Picts and Scots, the recovery of Africa by the emperor's general, Theodosius, and the diplomatic settlement with the approaching hordes of the Goths, who already swarmed upon the frontiers of the empire.
Under the three emperors the Roman world began to feel more severely the gradual pressure exerted by the hordes of barbarians that moved westward. In 376 the Goths, pursued by the Huns, who had come from the steppes of China into Europe, sought the protection of Valens, who succoured them by transporting them over the Danube into Roman territory. They repaid his clemency by uniting their arms with those of the Huns, and defeating and killing him at the battle of Hadrianople in 378.
To save the provinces from the ravages of the barbarians, Gratian appointed Theodosius, son of his father's general, emperor of the East, and the wisdom of his choice was justified by the success of one who added a new lustre to the title of Augustus. By prudent strategy, Theodosius divided and defeated the Goths, and compelled them to submit.
The sons of Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius succeeded respectively to the government of the East and the West in 395. The symptoms of decay, which not even the wise rule of Theodosius had been able to remove, had grown more alarming. The luxury of the Romans was more shameless and dissolute, and as the increasing depredations of the barbarians had checked industry and diminished wealth, this profuse luxury must have been the result of that indolent despair which enjoys the present hour and declines the thoughts of futurity.
The secret and destructive poison of the age had affected the camps of the legions. The infantry had laid aside their armour, and, discarding their shields, advanced, trembling, to meet the cavalry of the Goths and the arrows of the barbarians, who easily overwhelmed the naked soldiers, no longer deserving the name of Romans. The enervated legionaries abandoned their own and the public defence, and their pusillanimous indolence may be considered the immediate cause of the downfall of the empire.
Ruin by Goth, Vandal, and Hun
The genius of Rome expired with Theodosius. His sons within three months had once more sharply divided the empire. At a time when the only hope of delaying its ruin depended on the firm union of the two sections, the subject of Arcadius and Honorius were instructed by their respective masters to view each other in a hostile light, to rejoice in their mutual calamity, and to embrace as their faithful allies the barbarians, whom they incited to invade the territories of their countrymen.
Alarmed at the insecurity of Rome, Honorius about this time fixed the imperial residence within the naturally fortified city of Ravenna - an example which was afterwards imitated by his feeble successors, the Gothic kings and the Exarchs; and till the middle of the eighth century Ravenna was considered as the seat of government and the capital of Italy.
The reign of Arcadius in the East marked the complete division of the Roman world. His subjects assumed the language and manners of Greeks, and his form of government was a pure and simple monarchy. The name of the Roman republic, which so long preserved a faint tradition of freedom, was confined to the Latin provinces. A series of internal disputes, both civil and religious, marked his career of power, and his reign may be regarded as notable if only for the election of St. John Chrysostom to the head of the church of Constantinople. Arcadius died in May 408, and was succeeded by his supposed son, Theodosius, then a boy of seven, the reins of power being first held by the prefect Anthemius, and afterwards by his sister Pulcheria, who governed the eastern empire - in fact, for nearly forty years.
The wisdom of Honorius, emperor of the West, in removing his capital to Ravenna, was soon justified by events. Alaric, king of the Goths, advanced in 408 to the gates of Rome, and completely blockaded the city. In the course of a long siege, thousands of Romans died of plague and famine, and only a heavy ransom relieved the citizens from their terrible situation in the year 409. In the same year Alaric again besieged Rome, after fruitless negotiations with Honorius, and his attempt once more proving successful, he created Attilus, prefect of the city, emperor. But the imprudent measures of his puppet sovereign exasperated Alaric. Attilus was formally deposed in 410, and the infuriated Goth besieged and sacked Rome, and ravaged Italy. The spoil that the barbarians carried away with them comprised nearly all the movable wealth of the city.
The ancient capital was devastated, the exquisite works of art destroyed, and nearly all the monuments of a glorious past sacrificed to the insatiate greed of the conquerors. Fire helped to complete the ruin wrought by the Goths, and it is not easy to compute the multitude of citizens who, from an honourable station and a prosperous fortune, were suddenly reduced to the miserable condition of captives and exiles.
The complete ruin of Italy was prevented by the death of Alaric in 410.
During the reign of Honorius, the Goths, Burgundians, and Franks were settled in Gaul. The maritime countries, between the Seine and the Loire, followed the example of Britain in 409, and threw off the yoke of the empire. Aquitaine, with its capital at Aries, received, under the title of the seven provinces, the right of convening an annual assembly for the management of its own affairs.
Honorius died in 423, and was succeeded by Valentinian III. His long reign was marked by a series of disasters, which foretold the rapidly approaching dissolution of the western empire.
Genseric, king of the Vandals, in 429 crossed into Africa, conquered the province, and set up in the depopulated territory, with Carthage as his capital, a new rule and government. Italy was filled with fugitives from Africa, and a barbarian race, which had issued from the frozen regions of the north, established their victorious reign over one of the fairest provinces of the empire. Two years later, in 441, a new and even more terrible danger threatened the empire.
The Goths and Vandals, flying before the Huns, had oppressed the western World. The hordes of these barbarians, now gathering strength in their union under their king, Attila, threatened an attack upon the eastern empire. In appearance their chieftain was terrible in the extreme; his portrait exhibits the genuine deformity of a modern Calmuck: a large head, a swarthy complexion, small, deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short, square body of nervous strength, though of a disproportionate form. He had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired.
This savage hero, who had subdued Germany and Scythia, and almost exterminated the Burgundians of the Rhine, and had conquered Scandinavia, was able to bring into the field 700,000 barbarians. An unsuccessful raid into Persia induced him to turn his attention to the eastern empire, and the enervated troops of Theodosius the Younger dissolved before the fury of his onset. He ravaged up to the very gates of Constantinople, and only a humiliating treaty preserved his dominion to the "invincible Augustus" of the East.
After the death of Theodosius the Younger, and the accession of Marcian, the husband of Pulcheria, Attila threatened, in 450, both empires. An incursion of his hordes into Gaul was rendered abortive by the conduct of the patrician, ætius, who, uniting all the various troops of Gaul and Germany, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Franks, under their Merovingian prince, and the Visigoths under their king, Theodoric, after two important battles, induced the Huns to retreat from the field of Chalons. Attila, diverted from his purpose, turned into Italy, and the citizens of the various towns fled before the savage destroyer. Many families of Aquileia, Padua, and the adjacent towns, found a safe refuge in the neighbouring islands of the Adriatic, where their place of refuge evolved, in time, into the famous Republic of Venice.
Valentinian fled from Ravenna to Rome, prepared to desert his people and his empire. The fortitude of ætius alone supported and preserved the tottering state. Leo, Bishop of Rome, in his sacerdotal robes, dared to demand the clemency of the savage king, and the intervention of St. Peter and St. Paul is supposed to have induced Attila to retire beyond the Danube, with the Princess Honoria as his bride. He did not long survive this last campaign, and in 453 he died, and was buried amidst all the savage pomp and grief of his subjects. His death resolved the bonds that had united the various nations of which his subjects were composed, and in a very few years domestic discord had extinguished the empire of the Huns.
Genseric, king of the Vandals, sacked and pillaged the ancient capital in June 455.
The vacant throne was filled by the nomination of Theodoric, king of the Goths. The senate of Rome bitterly opposed the elevation of this stranger, and though Avitus might have supported his title against the votes of an unarmed assembly, he fell immediately he incurred the resentment of Count Ricimer, one of the chief commanders of the barbarian troops who formed the military defence of Italy. At a distance from his Gothic allies, he was compelled to abdicate (October 16, 456), and Majorian was raised to fill his place.
The Last Emperor of the West
The successor of Avitus was a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise in a degenerate age to vindicate the honour of the human species. In the ruin of the Roman world he loved his people, sympathised with their distress, and studied by judicial and effectual remedies to allay their sufferings. He reformed the most intolerable grievances of the taxes, attempted to restore and maintain the edifices of Rome, and to establish a new and healthier moral code. His military abilities and his fortune were not in proportion to his merits. An unsuccessful attempt against the Vandals to recover the lost provinces of Africa resulted in the loss of his fleet, and his return from this disastrous campaign terminated his reign. He was deposed by Ricimer, and five days later died of a reported dysentery, on August 7, 461.
At the command of Ricimer, the senate bestowed the imperial title on Libius Severus, who reigned as long as it suited his patron. The increasing difficulties, however, of the kingdom of Italy, due largely to the naval depredation of the Vandals, compelled Ricimer to seek the assistance of the emperor Leo, who had succeeded Marcian in the East in 457. Leo determined to extirpate the tyranny of the Vandals, and solemnly invested Anthemius with the diadem and purple of the West (467).
In 472, Ricimer raised the senator Olybrius to the purple, and, advancing from Milan, entered and sacked Rome and murdered Anthemius (July 11, 472). Forty days after this calamitous event, the tyrant Ricimer died of a painful disease, and two months later death also removed Olybrius.
The emperor Leo nominated Julius Nepos to the vacant throne. After suppressing a rival in the person of Glycerius, Julius succumbed, in 475, to a furious sedition of the barbarian confederates, who, under the command of the patrician Orestes, marched from Rome to Ravenna. The troops would have made Orestes emperor, but when he declined they consented to acknowledge his son Augustulus as emperor of the West.
The ambition of the patrician might have seemed satisfied, but he soon discovered, before the end of the first year, that he must either be the slave or the victim of his barbarian mercenaries. The soldiers demanded a third part of the land of Italy. Orestes rejected the audacious demand, and his refusal was favourable to the ambition of Odoacer, a bold barbarian, who assured his fellow-soldiers that if they dared to associate under his command they might extort the justice that had been denied to their dutiful petition. Orestes was executed, and Odoacer, resolving to abolish the useless and expensive office of the emperor of the West, compelled the unfortunate Augustulus to resign.
So ended, in the year 476, the empire of the West, and the last Roman emperor lived out his life in retirement in the Lucullan villa on the promontory of Misenum
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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