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What Happened to Rome?

physical disruptions: attacks, invasions, crime, and, worst of all, civil warfare, of which St. Augustine asked "what fury of foreign peoples, what barbarian cruelty, can be compared with the harm done by civil wars?"1 In the West, the growth of feudalism hastened territorial disintegration, while the stronger East retained its prosperity and power. But the 6th century emperor Justinian's crusades, begun in hope and promise, ended in military and financial ruin.

T

he history of the late Roman empire is difficult to piece together into a brief and coherent narrative. What follows is my effort to do so. By the end of Constantine's reign in 335, prosperity had returned to the Roman empire, but not peace. The Roman world would now suffer frequent

4th Century Warfare

After Constantine's death, his three surviving sons fought an endless civil war. The victorious Constantius II and his cousin Julian, summoned from studies at the pagan Academy in Athens, then spent the rest of their careers fighting off invading Germans and Persians. Julian's death in 364 terminated Constantine's dynasty. His successor was the capable general Valentinian, who promptly made his brother Valens co-emperor in the East while he defended the Rhine frontier from German raiders until 375, when he died in a fit of rage brought on by the insolence of German negotiators. Other Germans faced Valens across the Danube. These were the Visigoths, driven down from Hungary by the Huns. So famished that according to one account even their chiefs were willing to trade a child for a dog to eat, they begged Valens for asylum within the empire.2 But imperial officials so brutally cheated and mistreated them that they revolted, and in 378 defeated and killed the emperor in the battle of Adrianople. The army suffered huge losses, Romans were stunned, "and thereafter the Goths were free to roam and pillage."3

Decline of the West

While Valens' successor Theodosius settled the Visigoths in the Balkans, the imperial commander in Britain (Magnus Maximus) revolted, and seized Gaul and Spain as well, killing the new Western emperor Gratian, Valentinian's successor. Maximus fatally overreached himself, though, when he fought Theodosius for Italy in 388, and was beheaded at Aquilaea. Theodosius appointed Gratian's child Valentinian II as the Western emperor, under Theodosius's bullying regent, the German Arbogast. After "perhaps the

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Quoted in Grant 1990A, p. 33 See Ste. Croix, p. 258 for the famous story by Ammianus. Cameron 1993B, p. 36

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most consistently depressing imperial career of any wearer of the Purple," the boy soon killed himself.4 As a barbarian, Arbogast could not seize the imperial throne for himself, so he selected one Eugenius to challenge Theodosius. It became Arbogast's turn to commit suicide when Theodosius triumphed over them in the battle of the Frigidus, 394 AD. In 403, yet another imperial commander in Britain proclaimed himself emperor, styling himself Constantine III. He took his army to Gaul three years later, the last Romans to abandon the British isles.5 His goal was to hunt the German tribes, most prominently the Vandals, which had crossed the frozen Rhine on New Year's eve and "scattered through Gaul like a shrapnel burst."6 By this time, thanks to imperial concessions and tax avoidance, the great landowners of Italy, Gaul, and Spain had in practice achieved feudal independence.7 They paid lip service to the emperor, but readily shifted their allegiance to powerful interlopers like German warlords or Constantine, who came to rule large areas of Gaul and Spain. The Western emperor's difficulties were exacerbated by corruption. Although the nominal army was nearly double that of Marcus Aurelius,8 it was actually much smaller and weaker. The next 70 years is a sad story of ever weaker and more desperate emperors trying, from their refuge in Ravenna, to repel or buy off German invaders while presiding over a domestic snake pit. They offered the invaders enormous bribes, gifts of land, Roman status, safe passage, and even marriage to their sisters and daughters. They begged the Eastern emperor for help, sent barbarian mercenaries to fight or make alliances with the invaders, poisoned or stabbed their generals, and were themselves often dominated, betrayed, and deposed. Theodosius's son Honorius (395-423) was perhaps the worst of them all. Like Valentinian II he had been subjected to a barbarian general of Theodosius's, and he also bitterly resented his enforced subservience. That general, Stilicho, was a skillful commander who had successfully parried the Vandal attacks on Italy, sometimes bribing them to leave, sometimes defeating them in battle. But soon after Honorius came of age he assassinated Stilicho and insulted Alaric, the Vandal leader, thereby largely assuring their famous sack of Rome in 408. Unable to stop the Vandals from marauding throughout Italy he bought peace after Alaric's death by giving his sister Galla Placidia in marriage to the new Vandal leader, and promising peace. Then he sent his army to attack Constantine III, who was defeated and hung at Arles.

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Collins, p. 43 Pounds, pp. 78-9 Brown 1973, p. 112 Whittaker 1993, "Inflation," p. 14 Grant 1974, p. 62

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Despite this victory, however, Honorius never tried to recover Britain. It soon lost nearly all contact with the Roman world, and divided into numerous small kingdoms.9 An Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, describes the Roman spa at Bath as it appeared in the next century: The work of giants moldereth away Its roofs are breaking and falling: its towers crumble in ruin. Plundered those walls with grated doors -- the wells white with frost. Its battered ramparts are shorn away and ruined, all undermined by eating age.10 Honorius then repudiated his treaty with the Vandals, and they were driven into Spain, where Galla's husband died in 415. After long negotiations they returned her to Ravenna in exchange for land and federate status in Aquitaine, with their capital at Toulouse. Honorius then gave her to the general who had defeated Constantine III, and shortly before this man's death their son was born, the future emperor Valentinian III (425-455). Galla Placidia again returned to Ravenna, but after Honorius apparently tried to rape her she fled to the Eastern imperial court in Constantinople. She returned to Ravenna after Honorius died in 424, and after a brief civil war she ruled the Western empire as regent for her infant Valentinian III. A Roman patrician named Aetius, who had supported Galla Placidia in that war, gained appointment as imperial commander in Gaul. He adroitly defended the province from German invaders, winning promotion to the imperial headquarters at Ravenna, and persuaded Galla Placidia to fire his rival Boniface, the governor of Africa. Boniface dug in, summoning Vandals from Spain for reinforcement. Instead, they started seizing African territory for themselves, besieging the port of Hippo as St. Augustine lay dying there in 432. Aetius, meanwhile, poisoned his superior to become the imperial chief of staff. This alarmed Galla Placidia, who appealed to Boniface for help. Boniface then sailed his army to Italy, abandoning Africa to the Vandals. There, in a pitched battle, he defeated Aetius's army, but died of his wounds. According to a charming medieval legend, the two "had decided to struggle by single combat, and Boniface, with his dying breath, commended his wife to his victorious enemy as the only man worthy of her love."11 The Vandals, eager to preserve commercial relations, offered to protect Roman property and maintain the flow of food to Rome if the emperor would ratify their rule in Africa. Many senators owned valuable estates there, and Rome, still a city of about half a million people, depended heavily on its food.12 Now of age, Valentinian III agreed. To seal the bargain he betrothed his infant daughter to the Vandal leader's son.

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Ruled by Picts, Celts, and German invaders--Saxons, Angles and Jutes. Pounds, p. 86 Grant 1990A, p. 16 Senators, Grant 1990A, p. 79; food, Barnish, p. 164

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A few years later, Attila united the Huns and other tribes into a powerful federation that stretched from the Caucasus to the North Sea, reaching as far west as Holland. It was the first northern empire on a par with Rome.13 The Eastern emperors paid them tribute until Marcian refused, in 450. Galla Placidia died that year, and her deranged daughter Justa offered to marry Attila. Attila claimed Western Europe as his dowry, and in 451 swept as far west as Orleans, a brutal invasion whose memory remains a terrifying tale to the present day.14 Aetius, who had grown up as a hostage to the Huns and had many friends among them, allied with the Visigoths to defeat the Huns at Chalons-sur-Marne, but refused to pursue and slaughter those who fled. The following year Attila regrouped and descended on Italy, sacking Milan and obliterating Aquilaea (whose refugees fled to sandbars in the Adriatic, where they founded Venice). But after meeting Pope Leo I near Pavia, Attila mysteriously withdrew. He died that winter, and the confederation dissolved. No thanks to Aetius, Italy was saved. In 455 Valentinian III took revenge, personally cutting Aetius down in the throne room at Ravenna.15 Infuriated by this, and urged on by the ambitious praetorian prefect in Rome, Petronius, angry officers loyal to Aetius then assassinated the emperor during a visit to Rome. Petronius immediately proclaimed himself emperor and forced Valentinian's widow to marry him on the spot. For good measure, he married his son to Valentinian's daughter--despite her betrothal to the Vandal prince. The enraged Vandal leader soon sailed for Rome. His troops easily gained entry, and so savagely sacked it that their name became a synonym for wanton destruction. Petronius was killed while fleeing in women's garb, and Valentinian's wife and daughter were abducted to Carthage and married off once again. Over the next two decades, as succeeding emperors failed to revenge the sack of Rome and recover their estates in Africa, the senators' support for imperial government evaporated. In 476, with their blessing, the emperor's military commander Odovacer, son of a bodyguard to Attila, sent the child emperor Romulus to Lucullus's old estate near Naples, and proclaimed himself King of Italy.16 Odovacer incorporated the senators into his regime and restored confidence and social stability to Italy. Its economy revived, and commerce showed new signs of life as trade with Vandal Africa returned. Rome enjoyed a building boom and again became a magnet for students, aristocrats, and other seekers of urban pleasures.17

The Byzantine Empire18

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Brown 1973, p. 139 As a child I had a German nurse who told me about the Hun, whose name of course served as an English epithet for Germans during World War I. Grant 1990A, p. 20 Collins, p. 97 See Barnish, pp. 162-165 Unless otherwise mentioned, the information here is from Collins

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During the Western empire's decline, the Eastern or Byzantine half of the Roman Empire had remained far freer of civil wars and invasions, and continued to prosper.19 But at a time when a man "did not owe allegiance to a state; he belonged to a religious community,"20 the heretical religious views of Arians like Odovacer and the Vandals made them extremely suspect in Constantinople's view. Nevertheless, its Armenian emperor Zeno (474-491) confirmed Odovacer's authority at the pleading of the Pope and the Roman Senate, and that of the Vandal king in Africa as well. Nevertheless, the Eastern empire's hostility to the heretical rulers of the West continued. When, therefore, a hundred thousand Ostrogoths, eastern cousins to the Visigoths, invaded the Balkans and by 488 were besieging Constantinople, Zeno persuaded their warlord Theodoric to head West and conquer Odovacer instead, promising huge subsidies.21 The Ostrogoths duly invaded Italy, besieged Ravenna, and in 493 killed Odovacer. This brilliant diplomatic coup soon boomeranged, however. Theodoric, also an Arian, proved even more successful than Odovacer. He continued Odovacer's policies on a much larger scale.22 Roman senators like Boethius and Symmachus became his trusted advisors, he revived bread and circuses at Rome, and repaired aqueducts, public baths, city walls and palaces all over Italy. He also married his sister and two daughters to the Arian rulers of Burgundy, Thuringia (in central Germany), and Vandal Africa. After the Frank Clovis (Louis I) drove the Visigoths from Aquitaine to Spain in 508,23 he annexed Provence and assumed a protectorate over the Visigothic kingdom. The western Mediterranean became "an Ostrogothic lake,"24 Arians all. During all of this the Eastern emperors were contending with domestic intrigues, a new Persian war, and an invasion of Slavs and Bulgars, not to mention religious disputes. But in 518 the devout Justin seized the throne. He persecuted heretics, and began courting friendly Romans with property in the East, including Boethius and Symmachus. Shortly before his own death Theodoric executed them for treason, and despite Papal efforts at reconciliation, hostilities heated up. After Justin's death in 527, his more devout and aggressive nephew Justinian (527-565) assumed the throne determined to cement universal adherence to the true Church, and re-conquer Rome's former territories in the West. One of his first acts was to close Plato's Academy in Athens, sending its pagan teachers fleeing to Persia. Then the Persians invaded, forcing him to raise tax rates and levy new taxes on the nobility. His ruthless and corrupt tax collector, John of Cappadocia, left nothing behind: "...neither was there any wife, any vir-

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AHM Jones quoted in Grant 1990A, p. 203 Brown 1973, p. 187 144,000 gold solidi per year if he succeeded, Randsborg, p. 143 Mango, p. 22 After Clovis won the battle of Vouillé near Poitiers and took their capital of Toulouse Collins, p. 103

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gin, or any youth free of defilement."25 To make matters worse, his brilliant jurist Tribonian, who codified Roman law for Justinian's Digest, was also highly corrupt.26 The Nika riots of 529 soon erupted, ultimately destroying half of Constantinople. The climax came at the chariot races in the hippodrome. As Justinian and his wife Theodora watched, the crowd began chanting "Nika," or conquer, and proclaimed a new emperor. Some units of the imperial guard defected, and Justinian prepared to flee. But Theodora, once Constantinople's leading courtesan and now an empress who traveled with 4000 attendants,27 declared "If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. ... As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: the purple is the noblest winding-sheet.".28 With that, generals Mundus and Belisarius launched an attack on the mob, slaughtering some 30,000 people.29 With domestic order restored, Belisarius headed to Syria where the Persian war was finally concluded in 532, and Justinian rebuilt Constantine's Hagia Sophia into the magnificent structure seen today, allegedly proclaiming "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"30 The re-conquest of North Africa from the Vandals had eluded many previous attempts, but Belisarius devised a clever ruse. He bribed the Vandal governor in Sardinia to revolt, and when this drew away Carthage's defenders, the Byzantine army landed at Carthage, seized the city, and soon regained the province. This exploit enriched Justinian, and with support from Roman senators he turned to attack the Ostrogoths. In 535 Mundus attacked their strongholds in Dalmatia while Belisarius invaded Sicily. The Ostrogoth king, a scholarly fellow who probably preferred a library seat in Constantinople to his precarious throne, began surrender negotiations. But Mundus's death in battle led Justinian to unleash Belisarius, who quickly captured Naples, Rome, and other cities. In 539 he besieged and captured Ravenna and killed the king. The conquest proved short-lived. As the victorious imperial army fell to looting, and Justinian's efficient tax collectors descended on the Roman senators, Italians soon yearned for their heretic but peaceable Ostrogoth rulers.31 At this point the Ostrogoths rallied. They persuaded Persia's king Khusro I to lure Belisarius away by attacking Antioch. The new Ostrogoth leader Totila repeatedly defeated the now poorly led imperial army, and by 546, while Belisarius was reaching a peace treaty with the Persians in Mesopotamia, Totila had recaptured Rome.

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John of Lydia, quoted at Norwich, p. 196 Norwich, p. 196 Brown 1973, p. 152; Norwich, pp. 192-196 Quoted in Norwich, p. 199 Collins, p. 116 Collins, p. 116; Brown, Antiquity, pp. 150, 151 Brown 1973, p. 132

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Belisarius's returning army brought more than peace; it also brought the Plague of Justinian, a scourge that ranked with the Black Death in destructiveness. 300,000 people died in Constantinople alone.32 The loss of Italy, the plague, and Theodora's death from cancer turned Justinian to theology. Six years passed before he again launched an attack on Italy. The commander, an octogenerian eunuch named Narses, landed at Ravenna with more than 35,000 soldiers and barbarian auxiliaries. By the end of 553 Totila had died, Rome had fallen, and Justinian's reconquest of Italy had finally ended. At this point Italy lay prostrate, wracked with plague and chronic famine.33 Milan had been sacked and razed with a loss of 300,000 men,34 and Rome reduced to a mere 30,000 people surrounded by malarial swamps.35 A German tribe, the Lombards, soon moved in, establishing duchies in northern and southern Italy. Rome and other ports remained in Byzantine hands, and the Pope ruled what became known as the Papal States in north central Italy.36 Justinian and Belisarius died in 565, leaving an empire nearly as overwhelmed as Italy; its treasury depleted, the population decimated by plague, and many great cities, including Ephesus, destroyed after a series of terrible earthquakes. Invading Avars (Hungarians), Bulgars, Serbs, and Croats were seizing land in the Balkans and threatening Constantinople..37 Khusro I returned to the attack in 572, ravaging the Fertile Crescent for another 20 years until his death. The emperor Maurice then lifted the Avar siege, but fled with his family from a mutiny in 602. Its leader, a centurion named Phocas, seized the throne. Phocas captured the imperial family and killed Maurice's wife and children in front of him before murdering the emperor. He then purged everyone in Constantinople suspected of loyalty to Maurice. Khusro II, whom Maurice had helped, marched on Constantinople in outrage, and the imperial army in Syria joined him. Phocas chose this moment to decree the forcible conversion of the Jews, who constituted a large minority of the population lying in the Persian path. They responded with violent uprisings,38 and by 608 the Persian army was encamped on the Bosporus opposite Constantinople, while the Avars again besieged it. At this point, the handsome Heraclius, governor of Carthage, sailed to the rescue. He arrived in 610, executed Phocas and took the throne.39 With the empire in desperate straits, it took him 12 years to reorganize the military along feudal lines and revive imperial finances by persuading the Church to pay taxes. He improved recruitment by replacing foreign Latin with common Greek in the army and the civil service, and even dropped his Latin title imperator for the Greek basileus, or "king." In the meantime, the

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McNeill, Plagues, pp. 109-14 Wallace-Hadrill 1988, p. 45 Norwich, p. 223; Wallace-Hadrill 1988, p. 40 Hibbert, Rome, p. 74 The Papal Chancery later forged the "Donation of Constantine" to provide legal title.. See Norwich, pp. 365, 379 Norwich, p. 263. I have relied in the following paragraphs mainly on Brown 1973, Collins, Mango, and Norwich Mango, pp. 68-9 Norwich, pp. 284-5

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Persians sacked Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem--where they captured Christianity's holiest relic, the True Cross. By 622 Heraclius could finally relieve the Avar siege and take the field against the Persians. He campaigned throughout Anatolia, Armenia, and Syria. In 527 he circled behind the Persian armies by crossing the Caucasus Mountains to attack their lightly defended capital of Ctesiphon, near Baghdad. The Persian commander challenged Heraclius to single combat, and Heraclius struck off his head. In Ctesiphon he recovered the True Cross, and the Persians made peace, later torturing their king to death in the Tower of Darkness. Meanwhile, the prophet Mohammed was uniting the Arabian tribes and inspiring a dream of conquest. After his death in 632, his lieutenant Abu Bakr, calling himself caliph--the prophet's representative--invaded Syria. Many of his soldiers were veterans of the recent wars, and they quickly captured Damascus and other cities in Syria. Then they besieged Jerusalem. Heraclius raised an army of 80,000, one of the largest Roman forces since the 3rd century. But fatally ill and becoming mentally unbalanced, he paused for three months in the desert heat. When battle was finally joined on the River Yarmuk, a tributary of the Jordan, his exhausted, demoralized, and sickened troops were annihilated. Heraclius returned to Constantinople a broken man, and with no hope of imperial help, Jerusalem and the rest of Rome's subject in the Fertile Crescent submitted. Arab fleets later raided Sicily and captured Cyprus, Rhodes, and other Mediterranean islands. Their armies besieged Constantinople in 674, took Carthage in 698, and conquered Visigothic Spain in 711. While a reduced Byzantine Empire survived, thanks to Callinicus's timely invention of Greek fire, an ancestor of napalm, the heart of the Roman world had turned to Islam.

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