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End of the Roman Empire
Constantine the Great
Living History Project
THE LIVING HISTORY PROJECT
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 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
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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