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The Empire Disintegrates

Theodosius made his two sons junior emperors, and after he died in 395 the eldest son, Arcadius, 18, became emperor in the east, and Honorius, age 11, became emperor in the west. In 406 came the greatest of migrant invasions, across the frozen Rhine and into Gaul. These were Germanic warriors and their families and farm animals — tribal peoples called Vandals, Suevi, and Burgundians. The invaders found little resistance. The frontier military units had been undermanned and weakened by desertions. Imperial authorities had not allowed local populations self-defense forces, fearing rebellion, and some local people are reported to have not cared whether they were ruled from Rome or by the invaders. Some of the invaders made it as far east the Pyrenees mountains, while only a few towns like Toulouse attempted a significant resistance.

Meanwhile, another Germanic people called Anglo-Saxons had been invading Britannia. And a Germanic army of warriors and civilians called Visigoths were joined by others wandering through the empire looking for sustenance. The Emperor Theodosius I, employed them in his war against an attempted power grab by a Germanic Roman general who was pushing the rule of a puppet, the pro-pagan Eugenius. (The Germans had a reputation as courageous warriors, as unspoiled by luxuries, and concerned with honor.) Theodosius wanted to integrate the Visigoths into Roman society, but there was a problem in the Visigoths being Arian Christians rather than Trinity believers. The Visigoth leader, Alaric, had bargained for a post in the high command of the Roman army, and he had become disappointed over promises made by Theodosius that had not been fulfilled and by abuse of his people including women by arrogant Romans. Germans were angered by the Romans passing a law that prohibited their marriage with Romans. They also felt they were not being treated as equals in the army.

Shortly after Theodosius's death in January 395, Alaric declared himself a power in his own right, as King of the Visigoths. Taking advantage of the disunity between the western and eastern halves of the empire, the Visigoths marched into Greece where they sacked Corinth, Argos, and Sparta. Athens was spared by paying the Visigoths a ransom.

In 408, Alaric and his army crossed the Alps into Italy. They were planning to push on to North Africa where they believed grain grew in abundance, and they decided that on their way they would grab from Rome what they could. Rome shut its gates. The Visigoth army besieged the city through the year 409, waiting for a ransom from Rome's Senate. Plague appeared in the city and corpses were on the streets. The Visigoths allowed slaves and their fellow Germans within the city free passage out, and some joined the Visigoth ranks. In August 410, with help from inside, the Visigoths were able to slip into the city. For three days they looted, destroying homes of the wealthy. The Visigoths were among those Germans who had been converted to the Arian branch of Christianity outside the empire during the previous century, and they spared churches. Satisfied, the Visigoth army left Rome and went south, still planning to cross the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa.

Millions inhabited the Roman Empire on the Italian peninsula, and, according to the historian Peter Turchin, invader numbers could have been no greater than 100,000 but "could move through Italy at will." Rome was no longer "the cohesive nation of citizen-soldiers." Turchin describes Rome's disintegration from the 200s BCE: the flooding of Italy with slaves and slave plantations having replaced small farms. Wealth and inequality had reached its peak in the 300s BCE. It's Turchin's opinion that by the 400s BCE, "Italian society, if we can still call it that, had lost any remnants of ability to act in a concerted manner." Private armies, he writes, "were completely ineffectual against the barbarians who invaded Italy during the fifth century..." (War & Peace & and War, p305.)

News of what happened to Rome left some people across the empire believing that the end of civilization was at hand. In Palestine, the Christian scholar Jerome (son of Eusebius and translator of scripture into Latin) claimed that with Rome in ruins the world had perished. Many Christians had believed that Rome would stand until Armageddon, and with Rome knocked down and Armageddon not happening they were bewildered. Pagans were also upset, and they blamed Christians for having angered Rome's gods – their gods.

The Visigoths were unable to find passage to North Africa, and they pushed northward to Gaul. Emperor Honorius made peace with them. His sister, Placidia, married their new leader, Atauf, and in 418 Honorius granted the Visigoths legal domain in southwestern Gaul. Eventually they would expand into Hispania and around 589 they would convert to Trinitarian Christianity.

Those Germanic people called Vandals (from southern Scandinavia) crossed the Pyrenees and had arrived in Hispania by 409. They too were Arian Christians. In the year 429, with others having joined their ranks, and having been pushed by the Visigoths, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa. With no imperial army to stop them they overran North Africa's Trinity-believing Christians, and by 439 they had expanded their authority to Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.

And there were the Huns, a confederation of warrior bands that had integrated with groups to increase their power. They were a part of the migrations and mixing in the east and had moved into eastern Europe. They are described as having pushed the Vandals and others across the Rhine in the great invasion of Gaul in 405. Under their leader Attila they occupied territory just north of the Danube River (today Romania, Hungary, Slovakia.) Theodosius had tried to buy them off with regular payments of gold (a deal form by the Treaty of Margus in 435). When the payments stopped Attila's forces moved into Gaul and across the Alps into Italy. A unity between armies of the emperor of the west and east and Visigoths confronted the Huns. Plague broke out among Attila's troops, and food was running out, so he returned to what is today Hungary. There, in 453, he died, and without his leadership, the collection of peoples that made up his empire became disunited.

At mid-century the western half of the Roman Empire was still on its feet, but in place of harmony needed for political survival widespread social unrest and hostility to Rome's central authority remained. The emperor in Rome, Valentinian III responded to a conspiracy theory that led him to believe that he was defending his rule by murdering his victorious military leader over the Huns: Aetius. Aetius was of German ancestry and skilled in the ways of war that was beyond what was common among the common Roman. Germans made good mercenaries and commanders. But, with all that was going on, Germans were loathed by common Romans.

In 455, Valentinian III was assassinated by two followers of Aetius. This was after Valentinian had struck a marriage deal with the ruler of the Vandals in North Africa, and, a couple of months after the assassination, frustrated Vandals, at war with Valentinian's successor, were headed for Rome. People fled from Rome. As he was leaving Rome alone, the Western Emperor, Petronius Maximus, a man of wealth who had been emperor for only seventy-one days, people stoned him to death.

The Vandals plundered Rome for fourteen days. It was more of Rome lacking the military power necessary to defend itself. Aqueducts were toppled. Anything removable and of value was taken. Churches were emptied of their treasures. Shiploads of captives were sent to North Africa to become slaves.

A military commander in the west, Ricimir, had political ambitions but because of his German ancestry he could not become emperor. He chose the man who would be the emperor of the Western-half of the empire, Romulus Augustulus. The emperor in Constantinople did not approve and sent a Germanic commander, Odoacer (an Arian Christian) who overthrew Romulus Augustulus in 476. Rome's Senate gave Odoacer its support, with Roman Law not allowing Odoacer to become emperor, Odoacer declared himself King of Italy.

In 488 the emperor in Constantinople, Zeno, felt threatened by an army from a province in the empire: Pannonia (today parts of Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia). There a lot of Germans called Ostrogoths had settled after the collapse of the Hun empire in the year 454. The king of the Ostrogoths, an Arian Christian to be known as Theodoric the Great, was ravaging provinces in Constantinople's half of the empire, and Emperor Zeno got rid of him by ordering him west against Odoacer. After four years of fighting, Odoacer and Theodoric agreed to divide rule between them. It was another sharing of power destined not to succeed. The fighting ended in 493 with Theodoric inviting his fellow Arian Christian Odoacer to share a banquet with him at the imperial palace for the signing of a peace treaty. After the signing, the story goes, Theodoric killed Odoacer with his own hands, and he called himself the King of Italy.

Theodoric ruled in the Italy, Sicily and what today are Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia. The eastern half of the empire, centered at Constantinople (today Istanbul) included Asia Minor (Turkey) Greece, Syria, and Palestine down to and including Egypt, and west to what today is Libya. Constantinople's emperors were to see themselves as the divinely chosen by their god Jehovah as the legitimate heirs of the great Roman Empire established centuries before.

Early on, in the 500s, there was hope from the emperor in Constantinople of unifying the empire and making it great again, getting it ready for Christianity's great Judgment Day which was believed to be coming soon. The politics of violence that had brought down the Roman Republic and the authoritarian system that was put in place by Augustus Caesar the Christians had made their own. The Trinity-believing emperor in Constantinople, Justinian, would launch new wars, largely against Arian Christians, but the Roman Empire was not to be put back together again.

CONTINUE READING: Hypatia: murdered scientist

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.