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The Roman Empire Disintegrates

Christain Emperors Fail at Empire | Theodosius, Persecutions and Disunity | Honorius, Arcadius and the Visigoths | Invasion of Gaul and Rome besieged | Vandals and Huns| Last Emperor in the West, and Ostrogoth Rule | independence and Celtic Revival in Britannia | Franks Convert to Roman Catholicism | Rule from Constantinople

Map: The Roman Empire, CE 500

Roman Empire, 500 CE


Christian Emperors Fail at Empire, to 378 CE

List of emperors:
Constantine's sons to Zeno

For two centuries, Germanic peoples had been moving into the empire and settling along its frontiers. Many of them converted to the emperor's faith: Christianity. And they had been adopting Roman ways while maintaining a sense of worth about common people, including women, that had been greater in their tribal society than in the civilization they were entering.

By the mid-300s, Germans inside the empire's frontiers were still only a small percentage of the empire's fifty to seventy million inhabitants. The Roman Empire might have been able to absorb more Germans, but Rome's ability to control its borders was seen as a problem, and it was addressed by a tract called On Matters of Warfare, written anonymously for the imperial bureaucracy.

The author of On Matters of Warfare advocated an increase in defense spending by cutting the bonuses that the state paid to soldiers and civil servants and by increasing the taxes on those landowners in areas threatened by invasion. And the tract addressed the issue of hearts and minds. It claimed that official corruption and the rich oppressing the poor were causing disorder. It called for increasing patriotism through social reform.

Emperor Valentinian I

Emperor Valentinian I (ruled from 364 to 374) is said to have "hated the well-dressed and educated and wealthy and well-born." A tough Christian, he was an able soldier but was typical in lacking the intellect needed to initiate radical reform.

The tract was ignored. The imperial bureaucracy remained corrupt. Government positions were hereditary, honest government officials were rare, and people continued to detest officials as they did soldiers. Christian emperors had not changed that.

As for buying bigger and better equipped armies through increased taxation, already common people were over-taxed, and taxes were often taken by force, and at times with torture. Continual demands of the army and the empire's enormous bureaucracy were exhausting the empire's economy and adding to the alienation of those who peopled the empire. Meanwhile, tax evasions by the rich remained common, and the bigger landowners continued to pass their share of taxes onto their tenants. In the provinces suffering from invasions, people were forbidden to bear arms, limiting their ability to defend against any invasion. But hardly any loyalty to Rome remained.

The leadership to change the drift toward the empire's failure was not about to come from its emperors. Rule was divided again between two emperors. Valentinian I, who ruled from 364 to 375, was emperor of the western half of the empire, and his brother, Valens, was emperor in the eastern half, also beginning in the year 364. Both were intelligent military men dedicated to doing right, but like Marcus Aurelius in the previous century, they were not dedicated to social or political change.

Valentinian conscripted as best he could every year, but the wars among Constantine's sons had reduced the source of manpower for the military. Exemptions from military service were numerous, including exemptions for bureaucrats and the clergy. Farm workers remained in short supply, and landlords wished to exempt peasants whom they needed to work their lands. Great landlords could pay money, 25 gold coins, in place of each recruit they were obliged to send to the government. The landlords were supposed to send a number of recruits in proportion to the size of their land, but often they were uncooperative and would send only those men whom they wished to be rid of. Young men added to the shortage by trying to avoid military service, which offered them very low pay and hardship. Facing these shortages, the government had been recruiting Germans, who, with their warrior traditions, were more willing to serve in the military than most youthful Romans, especially city dwellers.

Valentinian and his army defeated German invasions three times, and he remained at the Rhine frontier for seven years, building fortifications. During this time, Rome's British province was again invaded. The invaders were Saxons, Angles and Jutes, collectively known as Anglo-Saxons. The Jutes and Angles were from Jutland (today Denmark), and the Saxons were from Germany. And Britannia was attacked by men from Frisia (today on the coast of the Netherlands). These peoples journeyed a hundred miles in their boats to Britannia's eastern coast. There they destroyed many villages, allowing many slaves to escape. Tribes from Scotland, called Picts, took advantage of the invasions and pushed south across Hadrian's wall, and tribes from Ireland began a series of destructive raids against Britannia's western coast. Valentinian sent his best commander to rescue Britannia, and by 369 the Roman army succeeded in re-establishing Roman authority there, protecting a network of councils that had been established by Britannia's Celts.

In 374, German tribes crossed the Danube River into Pannonia. Some tribes of Samatians also crossed into the empire. Valentinian went to the frontier to meet the challenge. There, in 375, he died of a stroke, and his sixteen year-old son, Gratian, succeeded him as emperor of the western half of the empire.

Meanwhile, those Germans called Visigoths were being driven toward and into the empire by the Huns, who were moving westward. A confederation of about 100,000 Visigoths asked for and received permission from emperor Valens to settle within the empire – in Moesia – in exchange for their providing him military services. The Visigoths, who were Arian Christians, might have been peacefully integrated into the empire, but Valens' agents failed to provide food for the Visigoths that they had been promised, and some Romans tried to buy Visigoth women and children for the slave market. This outraged the Visigoths. Visigoth warriors revolted, and discontented miners in the area joined the Visigoths as guides for their warriors.

Valens responded to the uprising by deciding to drive the Visigoths back across the border. His nephew Gratian, emperor in the western half of the empire, had recently won victories against invading Germans along the Rhine, and he asked Valens to wait for help from him and his armies before attacking. Valens might have easily defeated the Visigoths, but he was jealous of the glory that Gratian had already won and wanted all the glory from the coming war to himself. In 378, before Gratin and his troops arrived, he attacked the Visigoths. The empire's infantry was no match for Visigoth cavalry units. It was a revelation for the Romans and would lead to downgrading the use of foot soldiers for centuries to come. In what became known as the Battle of Adrianople (100 miles northwest of Constantinople), the Visigoths destroyed two-thirds of Valens' troops and his best generals, and Valens was killed. News of the Roman defeat signaled to the world that the Roman Empire was weak and vulnerable, which endangered it further. Fall of the city of Rome and disintegration of the empire were approaching.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.