Ancient History & Civilisation


ON OR ABOUT 4 SEPTEMBER 476, a senior officer of the Roman army of Italy called Odovacar arrested and executed the uncle of the reigning Western emperor Romulus, known as ‘Augustulus’: the little Augustus. Seven days before, Odovacar had done the same with Romulus’ father. The emperor himself was only a child and his father and uncle had been running the empire. Now in charge, Odovacar proved reasonably merciful. Romulus was despatched to live out his days on an estate in Campania. More significantly for the course of European history, Odovacar also induced the Senate of Rome to send an embassy to the East Roman emperor Zeno in Constantinople. This declared that:

there was no need of a divided rule and that one, shared emperor was sufficient for both [Eastern and Western imperial] territories.

It was soon followed by a further embassy which took to Constantinople the imperial vestments of the West, including the imperial cloak and diadem which it was treason for anyone but the emperor to wear. Although he maintained the fiction of Zeno’s imperial sovereignty, Odovacar had not the slightest intention in practice of allowing Constantinople to interfere in the affairs of the Italian-based state that he now ran. Odovacar’s two embassies brought to an end an imperial tradition based on Rome which stretched back nearly 750 years.1

But Odovacar’s deposition of Romulus Augustulus was no more than a coup de grâce. The western half of the Roman Empire had been killed off progressively over the three previous political generations, as a remarkable revolution in the balance of strategic power worked itself out across the broader European land mass. Apart from some very early successes, such as the capture of Sicily in the third century BC, the bulk of the Roman Empire had been acquired in the two centuries either side of the birth of Christ. This was an era when non-Mediterranean Europe was subdivided into three broad geographical regions – west and south, north-central, and north and east – each home to human societies which were operating at strikingly different levels of development. Levels of food production, population density, economic complexity, settlement size and scales of political organization: all of these were much higher in La Tene Europe to the west and south, and fell off substantially as you moved east and north through the other two zones. During this crucial 200 years of empire-building, Rome’s Mediterranean heartlands provided sufficient economic and demographic resources, combined with a formidable military organization, to conquer all of the European land mass which was worth conquering. In practice, only the west and south offered post-conquest receipts and sufficient spoils of war to justify large-scale campaigning, and it was on its far borders that the legions’ hobnails came to a halt.

Human ambition being what it is, though, efforts were also made to subdue parts of the central zone, largely dominated by Germanic-speaking populations, and it is often thought that Arminius’ great victory over a Roman army in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 put a stop to the process. Reality is more prosaic. Further Roman campaigns destroyed Arminius subsequently, and it was really the logic of an imperial cost-benefit equation which meant that Rome eventually allowed its frontier to coagulate on the river Rhine and not push it on further to the east. At the start of the first millennium, the north-central zone was not worth the costs of conquest, while outer Europe, the third zone to the north and east, never even figured on the imperial radar.

Over the next 400 years, however – above all because of the kickstart provided by interaction with the Roman Empire to everything from economics to political and cultural patterns – an accelerating process of development transformed patterns of life in this central zone. By the mid-fourth century AD, agricultural production had intensified, population densities increased massively, and economic patterns acquired previously unknown complexity. The military capacity of the region as a whole had also grown markedly – not least through the adoption of Roman weaponry – and its political structures had become much more robust. It remained impossible to build large, enduring states within the region because economic and administrative substructures could still not support complex political superstructures, so that Rome, broadly speaking, retained overall strategic control. Nonetheless, by the fourth century AD, the empire was having to run its frontier security by a careful mix of stick and carrot to manage a series of reasonably durable medium-sized client states who now occupied every inch of space beyond the frontier. The old order in the central zone – one of small, sparsely distributed tribal societies – had long gone. These clients may not have threatened the empire’s overall existence, but they certainly possessed sufficient political and military capacity to formulate their own medium- to long-term political agendas. And when conditions were in their favour – usually when Rome was at war with Persia – they could even fend off the most intrusive aspects of Roman imperial domination, which took the form of incessant demands for military manpower, foodstuffs, raw materials and, occasionally, even the demand that Christian missionaries be allowed to operate freely. Even if the transformed north-central zone remained too divided politically to pose an overall threat, much of the original demographic and economic advantage – the edge which had allowed Rome’s European empire to come into existence half a millennium before – had been undermined by these revolutionary processes of development which had unfolded in between.2

My father was an explosives expert, who spent much of his life among dangerous substances. A fundamental safety principle he picked up early on in his training was that wherever human activity created a flammable atmosphere, ‘God – i.e. some accident or another – would provide the spark’. In other words, safety had to focus on preventing the build-up of flammable conditions, since trying to guard against sparks was utterly hopeless. In the case of European history, the fundamental transformation of the old north-central zone created a potentially highly flammable political situation – at least as regards the long-term future of Roman imperialism – and the spark eventually came along in the form of the Huns. Exploding on to the fringes of Europe in two stages in the final quarter of the fourth century, the Huns pushed two large mixed blocks of old Roman clients from the transformed north-central region (together with some other groups from much further away) on to imperial territory in two distinct clusters: the first in AD375–80, and the second a quarter of a century later in 405–10. The first of these moments coincided with the Huns’ occupation of lands immediately north of the Black Sea, and the second, in all probability, with their further penetration westwards on to the great Hungarian Plain. In the face of (natural) Roman hostility which saw large numbers of those caught up in the movements either killed or reduced to slavery, the survivors of both immigrant blocks (and many of the original participants had fallen en route) had, by the end of the 410s, reorganized themselves into two new composite groupings on West Roman soil, which were larger and more coherent than anything that had existed on the other side of the frontier in the fourth century: the Visigothic and Vandal–Alan coalitions. Each was composed of at least three major, previously independent, sources of military manpower, and both had evolved more centralized leadership structures to match. They had become larger to survive in the face of Roman counter-attack, and the greater wealth of the Roman world, compared to that beyond the frontier, made it possible for new dynasties to mobilize sufficient resources to maintain themselves in power.

But while the immigrants’ initial motivations focused primarily on escaping Hunnic predation, they always had it in mind to benefit from Roman wealth too, and their arrival on imperial soil materially damaged the empire’s capacity to survive. Fundamentally, the empire functioned by taxing agricultural production to fund its professional army and other governmental structures. When these new immigrant coalitions forced the Western Empire to recognize their occupation of parts of its territories, this reduced the empire’s revenues significantly, and, by direct extension, the size of the armies it could support. And other outsiders not directly threatened by the Huns, such as Anglo-Saxon intruders into southern Britain, were quick to take advantage of the military and political retrenchment that these losses of revenue enforced. Particularly once the Vandal–Alan coalition had captured the Western Empire’s richest North African provinces in 439, the Western Empire found itself caught in a vicious circle. Lower troop numbers meant more losses of territory both to the original groups of outsiders (Visigoths and Vandal–Alans), and to new ones (like the Franks), whom the empire’s declining military capacity encouraged to come to the party.

Odovacar’s coup administered the last rites in this saga of imperial unravelling. He was part of a final set of refugees from the old north-central zone who found their way on to Roman soil as a result of the infighting which followed the collapse of Attila’s Hunnic Empire in central Europe in the later 450s and 460s. A prince of the Sciri and son of one of Attila’s chief henchmen, he was forced to relocate to Italy when his group’s independent position was destroyed. And the military discontent he exploited to mount his coup d’état was caused by a shortage of funds within Italy to pay the soldiers he led in revolt. This shortage was a direct result of the loss of tax revenues from the provinces as they progressively fell under the control of outside intruders: the process which forms the central narrative spine of West Roman history in the fifth century. The flow of funds to support the Roman army of Italy progressively dwindled and Odovacar was there to benefit from the resulting unrest. The spark supplied by the Huns set off a strategic explosion which pushed enough of the military manpower of transformed north-central Europe on to Roman soil to undermine the Western Empire’s control of its territorial base.3

New rulers at the head of politically reasonably coherent bodies of military manpower, which had within living memory originated from beyond the imperial frontier, were now masters of the bulk of the old Roman west. Alongside Odovacar, Anglo-Saxon kings controlled most of central and southern Britain, their Frankish counterparts ran northern and eastern Gaul, Visigothic monarchs controlled south-western Gaul and Spain, Burgundian dynasts the Rhone valley, and the richest lands of Roman North Africa were in the hands of the Vandalic Hasding dynasty (Figure 4). Groups from the old north-central zone of Europe as it had stood at the birth of Christ thus generated a huge revolution on Roman soil, replacing the old monolithic empire with a series of successor states.

An equally profound – if much less documented – revolution then followed in the central zone itself in the century or so after 476, bringing Slavic-speaking groups from the old third zone to the north and east into prominence across much of central and Eastern Europe. This related story cannot be reconstructed in detail, although enough indications survive to make it clear that the creation of Slavic Europe was the aggregate result of a range of complex, diverse and long-drawn-out processes, rather than a sudden revolution. What it does make crystal clear, however, is that the dismantling of the Western Roman Empire has to be seen as part of a total recalibration of prevailing Europe-wide balances of strategic power, equivalent to the kinds of processes working themselves out in our own time, as the regional and global political consequences of the massive expansion of Near Eastern, Asian and some southern economies slowly make themselves clear.4

But, in the midst of all this restructuring, the Roman concept of empire not only lived on, but proved remarkably durable. After an astonishing half a millennium of existence (and the British Empire at its maximum extent lasted, by comparison, less than a century), this is perhaps not so surprising. The West Roman imperial superstate may have gone, but in many (though not all) parts of its old territories, Roman provincial populations had survived the eclipse of empire with their social, economic, legal and cultural structures intact. Within these groups, Roman ideas and even some administrative institutions were alive and kicking. Nor, in fact, were the outsiders who had destroyed the empire implacably hostile to all things Roman. Many were its old frontier clients, and they had not mounted their individual takeovers of parcels of Roman territory under the banner of an ideological crusade against imperialism. They had long been used to operating within an overarching Roman framework, and the new leaderships of the successor states in particular could see much that was useful to them in the structures of Roman government, society and culture, as they set about creating a new order from the chaos of collapse.

Picking up the story from Odovacar’s fateful embassy which handed over the Western imperial vestments to Constantinople, this sequel to the Fall of the Roman Empire tells the story of three great imperial pretenders who attempted to revive the Roman inheritance in Western Europe: Theoderic, Justinian and Charlemagne. Each was astonishingly successful. Coming from entirely dissimilar backgrounds and operating with different power bases constructed in completely diverse contexts, they each managed to put back together enough of the old Roman West to stake a plausible claim to the Western imperial title.

But even as they played out their extraordinary careers, the broader patterns of human life across the European land mass continued to move away from the three-speed pattern which had characterized it at the birth of Christ. As successful as each of these pretenders was in their own right, therefore, circumstances in the second half of the first millennium AD increasingly militated against the possibility of sustaining a durable imperial structure on the kind of scale that the old Western Empire had managed for most of the previous 500 years. In the end, a restoration of stable imperial power on a truly Roman scale proved possible only when fresh blood, from a part of Europe that the old Romans deemed utterly barbaric, used some of the Roman imperial toolkit to generate an entirely new kind of empire. By reinventing the papacy in the eleventh century, Europe’s barbarians found the means to establish a new Roman Empire which has so far lasted a thousand years.

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