The transition from the republic to the imperial form of government led to a gradual erosion of the institutions of civil society. The Senate gradually lost its significance, local government was limited, and judicial bodies were subordinated to the imperial administration. By the beginning of the III century, the state system became a military-bureaucratic monarchy. However, the cultural and technological level of the empire still allowed it to dominate the barbarian environment.
After the reign of the “five good emperors” in Rome, the struggle for power and the empire was shaken regularly by civil wars, the culmination of which led to the crisis of the third century. This hit the development of crafts and trade, and a number of cities were destroyed. The crisis and the post-crisis period was accompanied by the spread of Christianity and the decline of ancient culture.
The last emperor, who single-handedly ruled the united Roman Empire, Theodosius I, allowed the Goths to settle in its territory and strengthened the influence of the barbarians in the Roman army (Theodosius was ready to fight against the candidates for the imperial throne). Before his death in 395, he divided the empire into the western and eastern parts, in which his sons began to rule.
Board of Honorius. The capture of Rome
Soon the position of the Western Roman Empire was considerably complicated. In 401, the Visigoths led by Alaric, formerly in the Roman service, invaded Italy from the Balkans (he was the master of the army of Illyric and his army was supplied by the empire). Alaric was defeated in 402 not without the help of the Vandals and Alans allied to Rome, the Visigoths were surrounded, but then released under the promise to help in the planned conflict with the Eastern Roman emperor. In 404, the Gothic leader led an army to Italy consisting of Ostrogoths, Vandals and Burgundians. He managed with great difficulty to defeat the guardian of the emperor Honorius (395-423) to the vandal Stilihon. After the death of Stilicho Alaric, whose army Honorius refused to take to the service, he again moved to Italy. Rome survived two sieges in 408 and 409, and then for the first time in its long history, it was taken on August 24, 410, and subjected to two-day looting. The Westgoths were allocated a territory in Aquitaine (southwest of modern France), which formally remained in the empire, but de facto the first barbarian kingdom was formed there.
At the same time, Britain, part of Gaul and Spain, came under the control of the usurper Constantine. The army sent to suppress the insurrection in 407 at first won victories, but then was forced to retreat. However, in 411, the troops of Constantine were defeated by the commander and future co-regent Honorius Constantius. In the meantime, the barbarians broke through the Rhineland border (controlled by Constantine) and plundered Gaul and Spain. Isidore described the distress of the alien population of the Iberian Peninsula as follows:
“Killing and emptying, far and wide, they set fire to cities and devoured stolen reserves, so the population from hunger used even human flesh for food. Mothers ate their children; wild beasts, accustomed to being saturated with the bodies of those who fell from the sword, famine or mora, attacked even the living … ”
Nevertheless, Roman rule was preserved in Africa, Britain, Italy, most of Gaul and parts of Spain (which did not always mean direct control by the central administration). However, during the reign of Honorius, the military power of the empire was irreversibly undermined, most of the regular Roman legions ceased to exist, both as a result of clashes and because of a lack of supply.
Board of Valentinian. Loss of provinces
During the reign of Valentinian III (425-455), the pressure of the barbarians on the Western Roman Empire increased. In 429, the Vandals and Alans under the leadership of Geyserich crossed from Spain to Africa at the invitation of the usurper Boniface and moved eastward, defeating the Roman troops and seizing a number of provinces. In the late 440s, the conquest of Britain began by the Angles, Saxons, and Utes. In the early 450s, the Huns, led by Attila, fell on the Western Roman Empire. In June 451, the Roman commander Aetius, in alliance with the Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians and Saxons, defeated Attila on the Catalaunian fields (east of Paris), but already in 452 the Huns invaded Italy. Only the death of Attila in 453 and the collapse of his tribal union saved the West from the Hun threat.
Aetius was the last major Roman commander of unvaried origin. Valentinian killed him in the year 454.
In March 455, Valentinian III was overthrown by Senator Petronius Maxim. In June 455, the Vandals seized Rome and subjected it to a terrible defeat. The western Roman Empire was dealt a mortal blow. Vandals subjugated Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. In 457, the Burgundians occupied the Rodan basin (modern Rhone), creating an independent Kingdom of Burgundy.
The throne became a toy in the hands of barbarian commanders, who voluntarily proclaimed and overthrew emperors. The last Roman emperor who tried to pursue an independent policy was Majorian (457-461). He managed to win a significant part of Spain and part of Gaul, the emperor also tried to stop the destruction of the architecture of Rome. However, he was overthrown by the barbarian commander Ricimer and died in 461. Under the rule of Rome in the mid-460s, Italy remained virtually alone.
The protracted agony of the Western Roman Empire put an end to the Odoacre tabernacle: in 476, he overthrew the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, sent out signs of higher authority to the Byzantine emperor Zeno and founded his own barbarian kingdom in Italy. The Eastern Roman emperor Zeno elevated Odoacre to a patrician and recognized him as Roman governor (although de facto he remained an independent ruler).
Modern historiography took 476 years as the boundary dividing ancient and medieval eras. However, the contemporaries of the events, although they realized their time as a period of chaos and decline, did not perceive the Odoacre coup as the final death of the empire or a turning point in historical events.
The process of decline continued after the fall of the Western Roman Empire: thus, the Senate ceased to exist by 630; with early barbaric rule (as opposed to the later period), the work of Boethius and Cassiodorus was still possible.
Causes of decline
Speaking about the factors that led to the loss of the greatness and power of the Roman Empire, modern historians point to the inefficiency and low strength of its army in the final period, the health and relative small number of the population of Rome, high taxation and the deplorable state of the economy, incompetence of the emperors and ineffectiveness of civil administration. The increasing pressure of the “barbarians” who had not undergone romanization made a significant contribution to the defeat of Rome. The causes of the fall of Rome are one of the key problems considered in the historiography of the ancient world. The beginning of this study was laid in the work of the English historian Edward Gibbon “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.
Ger’ei V.I. Rome, city / Roman history before the fall of the Western Roman Empire // Encyclopedic dictionary of Brockhaus and Efron
Yasnitsky N.A. The Problem of the Fall of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon