Thursday, 19 June 2008

WRONG: The Roman Empire fell to the Barbarian hordes

Edward Gibbon’s 18th-century History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire is the classic work on, among other things, the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It ran to six volumes and was published over 13 years, so this blog entry may seem a little compact by comparison. The short version is that Rome wasn’t overrun by a tide of hairy Germans. Rather, if the Empire ended at all, it was handed over to a tide of relatively well-groomed Germans.

In the first century CE, the Empire stretched from Portugal to the Middle East, from England in the north to parts of Africa in the south. Gibbon’s thesis was that over the next few centuries the Romans became lazy, allowing their hired help too much of a free hand in the running of the unwieldy Empire. He singled out Christianity, and in particular the Christian afterlife, as a factor in weakening the Romans’ interest in the here and now. (He also argued that the Roman Catholic church had greatly inflated their accounts of martyrdom, for which various church critics hauled him over the coals. So to speak.) Other historians have blamed economic planning, plague and technological advances for the shift in the balance of power between Rome and its dominions.

While it’s tempting to date the end of the Empire to the fifth century CE, when the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by the Hun Odoacer, it’s not as if Odoacer turned up with an army of Goths, beat down the gates of Rome and seized the throne. For one thing, Rome had long since been usurped as the capital city – by Odoacer’s time, the Empire’s business was conducted out of Ravenna.

The diplomat patrician Flavius Orestes promised a third of the Italian peninsula to the foederati, a division of the Roman army composed of assorted Huns, Goths and Scirians, if they deposed the Emperor Julius Nepos. When they succeeded, Orestes made his son Romulus emperor and rescinded on the deal. Odoacer led the foederati in revolt. Then he beat down the gates with an army of Goths and seized the throne.

Even then the Goths only took the Western Empire. The Emperor Diocletian had previously divided the empire into two; Byzantium became the capital of the Eastern Empire, a body that continued in full force for another thousand years. The Western Empire, meanwhile, was resurrected in 800CE by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III as the Holy Roman Empire, and lasted until the time of Napoleon. All of which militates against a “fall” of the Roman Empire; a broader view is that it simply evolved into something else.

Byzantium, by the way, was renamed Constantinople in honour of the Emperor Constantine. After 1453 it was called Istanbul (and sometimes Konstantiniyye) by the Ottoman rulers. It has had many names during its long history: in Iceland, it’s still known by the Old Norse (ie Viking) name Mikligarour, meaning Big City.

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