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End of the Roman Empire

The Division of the Empire
The Barbarian Invasions
The Western Empire Collapses
Constantinople: The Great Crossroads

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Constantinople: The Great Crossroads

Strange as it may seem the collapse of the Western Empire had immediate beneficial effects on the Eastern Empire. For centuries the wealthy east had been supporting the poor west but after 476 the situation changed dramatically and the Eastern Roman Empire could keep all its riches to itself. But why was the Eastern Roman Empire (which we shall now call the Byzantine Empire) so rich? If you look at the map below you can see that Constantinople was at the centre of four major trade routes:

Constantinople: The Great Crossroads

Explanation of the map

  • to the north lay the Black Sea and what we would now call Russia and the Ukraine. From here came products such as iron, timber and animal furs (especially the very valuable sable).

  • to the west lay the rest of Europe from which Byzantium obtained cereals, wine, flax (to make linen) and animal hides to make leather.

  • to the south lay Africa and especially Egypt. The Nile valley still produced enormous quantities of food as it had done in pharaonic times. It also supplied gold and copper and precious ivory from more southern regions.

  • to the east lay the most important trade route of all. From Arabia came valuable perfumes, from Persia expensive carpets, from India spices and precious stones (especially rubies and emeralds) and from China came silk.




Hinton St Mary Mosaic

Hinton St Mary Mosaic

This mosaic was found in a Roman villa in Britain. It shows Jesus Christ in front of the Greek letters UP and 'rho' , or 'kr' for Christ.

By the time of the Emperor Constantine Christianity had become the official religion of the roman Empire. The Franks were converted to Christianity after they had invaded Gaul. Clovis was the first kish king to be baptised in 499. The Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain were not converted to Christianity until a century later.




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The End of the Western Roman Empire

After two centuries of peace and prosperity (called the 'Pax Romana') under strong government, the Roman Empire began to -weaken from about AD 200 onwards. The main reason was the attacks of so-called 'barbarians' along the northern frontiers of the empire, but we'll come on to that in a minute.

Another reason was that the rule of the emperors was getting weaker and weaker. The last strong and honest emperor was Marcus Aurelius. Although he was more a scholar than a soldier he took his duties very seriously and insisted on fighting alongside his men on the northern frontier. He was succeeded by his ambitious and ruthless son, Commodus in 180 AD and from then on there were long struggles for power in Rome. General after general tried to seize the title of emperor and Rome's enemies took advantage of the disorder. Disease and famine struck the lands of the empire and pirates and bandits came to control the seas and roads.


The Division of the Empire

At the end of the third century the Emperor Diocletian tried to stop the decline. One of the ways he did this was to divide the Empire into an eastern area ruled by him from Asia Minor and a western part ruled by a general in Rome. Soon after the Emperor Constantine made his capital in Asia Minor at a city called Byzantium. This city controlled the access to the Black Sea and was renamed Constantinople (330 BC).

In 395 the Roman Empire split into two pieces each with its own emperor. The East, ruled from Constantinople remained strong and well-defended and it had rich civilizations (Greece, Syria and Egypt) within its borders. But the West , with its capital at Rome, was poorer and much more difficult to defend. Within a hundred years this western part had collapsed.


The Barbarian Invasions


The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Sutton Hoo Helmet.
Image released into the public domain by its author, Mike Markowski

The barbarians loved above all else fine jewellery and armour. Often they buried their chiefs with all their finest possessions. This Anglo-Saxon helmet was found amongst other treasure under a burial mound at Sutton Hoo in England fifty years ago. However, there was no body under the mound. Nobody knows why it was not there.


The Greek and Romans called anyone who lived beyond their frontiers and who did not speak their languages 'barbarian'. There were many different tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, Franks, Goths , Burgundians and pandas and together they were known as Germans. They lived in villages made of wooden huts and tended their flocks of sheep, pigs and cattle. The Romans were impressed with these barbarians' freedom: they elected their warrior chiefs and settled all their disputes in their own councils. They had no emperor, no written laws, no tax collector. They worshipped strange and unknown Gods of the forests and only their priests were able to write, using mysterious runic lettering.

They were used to moving around looking for more fertile land to settle and a better climate to live in, but the Romans kept driving them back when, ever they tried to cross the Rhine or Danube to enter the empire. Sometimes the Romans had to admit some tribesmen into the empire - but only on condition that they in turn defend the frontiers against further invasions. These barbarian soldiers, often Franks, who fought for the Romans were known as foederati.


Ornamental version of Celtic High cross with decorative knotwork by Petr Vodicka

Ornamental version of Celtic High cross
with decorative knotwork by Petr Vodicka

The Angles and Saxons in Britain learnt about Christianity :from two different sources. In 596 St Augustine was sent from Rome to Britain to convert them. At the same time Irish monks came to Britain to bring the message of Christ. Wherever they went the Irish monks erected Celtic crosses, like the one in the illustration, to show that the village had become Christian.

At the end of the 4th century a new and terrible enemy attacked Europe: the Huns. They were wandering herdsmen from the steppes of Asia, looking for fresh grasslands for their cattle and horses.. Large numbers of Goths were allowed to cross the Danube into the Roman empire to escape the Huns, but once the frontier had been opened it was impossible to close it again. The Goths even marched to Rome and sacked the city in 410.

Meanwhile, back in 406 the Rhine had frozen and thousands of Vandals had entered Gaul and descended to Spain. Later came the Western Goths or Visigoths who set up kingdoms in Gaul and Spain trying to imitate the Roman way of life without much success. The Vandals moved on to north Africa. Angles and Saxons invaded Roman Britain.

In 450 a huge army of Huns crossed the Rhine into Gaul but were defeated by an army of Goths combined with the remains of the Roman legions in 451. They eventually settled on the plains by the Danube that came to be called Hungary.


The Western Empire Collapses

The Western Roman empire was almost at its end: in 476 its last emperor, Romulus Angustulus, was removed by a Goth called Odoacer who proclaimed himself the King of Italy. However, the eastern part which carne to be called Byzantium, resisted invasion for another thousand years and became the seat of a great civilization with its capital at Constantinople. That will be our next topic.


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The Open Door Team 2018
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© Shirley Burchill, Chris Green, Mathew Hill, Nigel Hughes and Antony McDermott 2018

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.

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