Who Defeated the Roman Empire?
“It is said that while Chlodio was staying at the seaside with his wife one summer, his wife went into the sea at midday to bathe, and a beast of Neptune rather like a Quinotaur found her. In the event she was made pregnant, either by the beast or by her husband, and she gave birth to a son called Merovech, from whom the kings of the Franks have subsequently been called Merovingians.”
When we imagine a world that follows a social collapse today, we think of it as a science fiction, often a dystopian future following a sudden, shocking event such as a nuclear Armageddon. We cannot realistically imagine wandering empty cities and wondering how we built skyscrapers, roads, bridges, cars, and more. We assume that our knowledge is secure, that our society will always progress, that we are immune from collapse. Yet our ancestors did not believe their society could collapse either.
The world that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in Europe is a strange one, until recently referred to as the Dark Ages. This term is shunned by more modern historians as being too Euro-centric, for two powerful states were still supreme in China, the Roman Empire continued in the East under what is known as the Byzantines, and the Islamic Caliphates reached a cultural zenith.
Yet despite attempts to mitigate the collapse in Europe, it is undeniable that the formerly connected Roman Empire transitioned into a series of successor states that lacked the technology, resources, literacy, military and trading links of their predecessor. It would take a thousand years for post-Roman Europe to return to the same level of trading that had been achieved under Rome.
However, the collapse of Rome was not sudden. This was no nuclear apocalypse, not even a rapid reduction of a regime such as Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. This was a slow and steady decline for a whole host of reasons, which ultimately saw the ‘barbarian’ outsiders increasingly incorporated into Rome, then bullying their way to positions of power, then replacing the state itself.
In parcelling out land to the various migrating tribes that fled the domino effect of Hunnic expansion, the Western Roman Empire essentially delegated itself out of existence. By its end, the Roman Empire in the west was a shadow of what it had once been – the halcyon glory days of raising dozens of legions to campaign deep into Britannia, Africa or Persia were long past. The Roman Empire that was finally put out of its misery with the forced abdication of Romulus Augustulus in 476 AD struggled to summon several legions, those composed largely of Germanic settlers, and ruled over little outside Ravenna itself.
Despite that, and despite the fact that the barbarian states were already firmly entrenched as de facto autonomous kingdoms, its final collapse was still a shock.
Rome as an indomitable empire may have been dead for centuries, but Rome as an idea, a concept of glory, had still been alive and well.
Those states that succeeded Rome could see signs all around them of faded glory.
A state with the resources and technology to build things that were beyond them. This was an age when knowledge was poorly recorded, and badly disseminated. When fires and floods could erase generations of knowledge.
The European states of the Goths, the Burgundians, the Franks, the Saxons, the Angles, the Lombards, the Alamanni, and many more, could look around and see aqueducts, roads, villas and heated baths that, as the limited knowledge faded with each generation, they became increasingly incapable of building.
Many pieces of Roman infrastructure, and Roman buildings, would remain in use long after Rome fell, with their inheritors desperately struggling to maintain and repair them for fear that they could build nothing of equal, much less superior.
When we look to replace states today, it is often to do so with something completely different. Those who oppose the regimes of the countries in which they live often do so in the hope of having a fresh start. It thus seems inconceivable to want to revive a state after it has finally been put down – yet that is what many of Rome’s successors sought.
These were people migrating in the late Fourth and early Fifth centuries and often integrating with Rome, in awe of the state’s glorious past and its current administration. Even if they did hold its current government and military in contempt which emboldened them to ultimately overthrow it.
The Goths that crushed a Roman army at Adrianople a century before the collapse initially sought only to enter Roman territory.
As the various Germanic kingdoms were established across Europe, they began to set up their own founding myths, many of them linked to Rome, and many as spectacular as anything from the Greek or Roman pantheon – such as the Frankish king Merovech being conceived after his mother was impregnated by a sea beast while bathing.
These kingdoms initially found legitimacy in Roman approval, and later sought it in Roman emulation. As internal strife looked to drive all of western Europe into war, the ember of Rome still burnt, and with it the idea not of creating a new empire to rule over Europe, but to restore the formerly great empire which still loomed large over the continent.
“He was a lad without down on his cheeks as yet and with fair hair so long that it poured down his shoulders. Aetius had made him his adopted son.”
The tribes that succeeded the Western Roman Empire came into their ascendancy while Rome was declining, both as allies and adversaries.
The Visigtohs dominated Hispania and Aquataine, while the Lombards controlled Italia, the Vandals remained entrenched in north Africa and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, the Ostrogtohs were settled in the Balkans, the Angles and Saxons expanding into Britannia, and the Franks and Alamanni controlled eastern Gaul and western Germania.
Many of these tribes, such as the Goths, had received these lands from Rome in return for support in campaigns such as those against the Huns.
While others, such as the Vandals, had seized land that Rome was incapable of defending, and remained a thorn in the beleaguered empire’s side.
When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, life in the east had essentially carried on as normal. Despite late attempts at reunification, the two empires had become distinct entities by the time of the west’s collapse. The east remained focussed on Constantinople rather than Italia, and became Greek speaking.
While Greece and the Balkans would be plagued by the Germanic invasions that dissolved the west, the Euxine (Black) Sea, the relative stability of the Sassanid Empire as the power east of the Euphrates bordering Roman Persia, and the Sahara Desert all served as barriers to protect the Byzantines.
In 476, the Germanic barbarian king Odoacer deposed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in Italy, Romulus Augustulus, and the Senate sent the imperial insignia to the Eastern Roman Emperor Flavius Zeno. In addition, Emperor Zeno was sent the crown and marks of office of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer in 476 AD and essentially assumed that he was now the sole Roman emperor – although he did little to assert authority in the west, and the tribes there offered him no vassalage. The main authority that had remained in the west was the Church, although it had no army or state, and officially derived its power, and the legitimacy of the Pope, from the Eastern Emperor.