The Roman Empire at its peak was the first great hemispherical power in human history. Over the years, though, this mighty society was torn apart by internal strife and attacks by rival powers. Below, the renowned historian Peter Heather describes the ten most critical turning points which led to the fall of the Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages.
242 AD: The accession of the Persian King of Kings
The Sassanian Shapur I unites Iran and Iraq to create a Near Eastern superpower that inflicts colossal defeats on three different Roman Emperors. After sixty years of struggle, Rome restores stability on its eastern front, but at huge cost in terms of higher taxes to fund the necessary doubling of its armed forces, and the Persian threat is only parried not defeated. There is now little spare capacity left in the Roman imperial system should another major threat arise.
December 31, 406 AD: A huge mixed force of Alans, Vandals, and Sueves crosses the river Rhine into Gaul
Following hot on the heels of Radagaisus’ invasion of Italy the previous summer, this unprecedented breakdown of order on the western Empire’s frontiers is a sign that the epicentre of Hunnic operations is shifting decisively westwards and, in the process, remaking the balance of strategic power in central Europe against Rome’s interests.
August 24, 410 AD: The sack of Rome by the Visigoths
At the head of the Visigoths – a new coalition built out of the Gothic refugees of 376 and the followers of Radagaisus – Alaric sacks the city of Rome. The Emperor Honorius is powerless to protect the old imperial capital and soon has to write to the British provinces to advise them to look to their own defence. Faced with both Visigoths and the Rhine invaders of 406, the imperial authorities start to abandon outlying territories to concentrate force where it is absolutely needed.
Summer 418 AD: A treaty gives Gallia Aquitania to the Visigoths
Fl. Constantius, eminence grise behind the throne of the western Emperor Honorius, is forced to cut the Visigoths a deal. They are settled permanently, with full imperial recognition, in southwestern Gaul. The western Empire no longer has sufficient military strength to defeat all the invaders now established on its soil, and wants to use the Goths, perceived as the lessor of two evils, to help defeat the Rhine invaders of 406 who have occupied most of Spain.
October 19, 439 AD: The Vandals take a Kingdom
Geiseric, king of a new Vandal-Alan coalition formed from the survivors of the Rhine invasion, ravaged by combined Gotho-Roman assault, leads them off their current Libyan reservation to take possession of Carthage and the richest provinces of the entire western Empire. This is a direct threat to the continued flow of vital tax revenues which keeps the Empire’s remaining armies in being.
Summer 441 AD: The Huns attack
Attila and Bleda, new leaders of the Huns, attack cities of the East Roman Balkans. This causes Constantinople to withdraw its forces from a joint expeditionary force gathering in Sicily to restore Carthage and its surrounding Tunisian provinces to Roman control. As a direct result, the western Empire has to recognise Geiseric’s control of the richest parts of North Africa and accept the decline in its own military capacity which necessarily follows from this loss of revenue.
Summer 468 AD: Rome’s final grab for Africa fails
An East Roman expeditionary force led by the general Basiliscus is destroyed by Vandal fireships off the coast of North Africa. The last attempt to win back the riches of North Africa from Geiseric fails and the other barbarian powers established on Roman soil realise that the western imperial centre is nothing but a hollow sham. They therefore quickly grab all the territory that they can, often coming more into conflict with one another than the few remaining Roman armies.
July 9, 455 AD: Avitus is declared western Emperor at the Council of the Gallic provinces in Arles
He wins recognition from the Roman Senate, and is the first legitimate western emperor to rely directly on the military power of recent immigrants – in this case the Visigoths – as a crucial building block of his regime. Rome’s military capacity has declined to such an extent that, from now on, at least some of the new barbarian powers established on west Roman soil will have to be included in the process of imperial regime creation.
September 4, 476 AD: Romulus Augustulus is deposed, ending the empire
Odovacar, commander of the last Roman army of Italy, exploits discontent over pay arrears among his soldiers to depose the last western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus. He pays them off in land because so many provinces have now been lost that the surviving tax revenues are insufficient. He also persuades the Roman senate to send the western imperial vestments and diadem to Constantinople with a declaration that the west no longer needed – in fact could no longer support – an emperor of its own.
(Pictured: “Romulus Augustulus resigns the Crown,” from Mary Yonge’s “Young Folks’ History of Rome.)
August 9, 378 AD: Emperor Valens and two-thirds of his elite field army are killed on one day at Adrianople
The root cause is the rise of Hunnic power on the fringes of Europe which caused tens of thousands of Gothic refugees to arrive on the Danube late in 376. At war with Persia, Valens had no choice but to admit them, and, faced with underlying Roman hostility, they effectively reorganised themselves into the new, militarily powerful coalition which destroyed Valens and his army.
Image credits: 1. Coin with profile of Shapur. Permission via GNU license via Wikimedia Commons. 2. Statue of Valens. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 3. “Vandals Plundering,” from Mary Charlotte Yonge’s Young Folks’ History of Rome. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 4. “Sack of Rome by the Visigoths” by JM Sylvestre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 5. Map of Roman territories; Gallia Aquitania highlighted. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 6. Map of the Vandal-Alan Kingdom. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 7. “Attila, the Scourge of God,” by Ulipano Checa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 8. Coin with profile of Avitus. Permission via GNU license via Wikimedia Commons. 9. Cap Bon, site of the Roman defeat. Photo by Sergey Prokopenko. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. 10. “Romulus Augustulus resigns the Crown before Odoacer,” from Mary Charlotte Yonge’s Young Folks’ History of Rome. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.