Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter XXXI

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

[image ALT: a blank space]

 p575  Chapter XXXII


Constantine, dying in 337, left the Empire, according to Diocletian's scheme, to his three sons and nephew. But after much bickering and many murders, and after the failure of Constans to make good in the West, Constantius alone survived (353). He called in his cousin Julian (the Apostate) to protect the West from the invading Franks and Alamanni. Julian had escaped the fatal court intrigues only by devoting himself to philosophy, as the mystical Neoplatonism of that day was called, and was hardly expected to meet the severe demands of his task, but he proved to be a shrewd general as well as a wise and considerate ruler. In 361 Constantius died on the eve of a civil war with Julian, and the latter found himself in charge of the whole realm.

His two years of sole rule were marked by a futile attempt to get rid of Christian influences and to reëstablish the pagan cults. He did not indeed persecute Christians, for their number was entirely too great for him to attempt extirpation. But he gave offices only to pagans, and he had all Christian teachers displaced by pagans. He also adopted the proselyting methods of the Christians, hoping by preaching, teaching, and argument to prove the pagan cults the more worthy. Unfortunately some of his provincial magistrates were less temperate than he, and many Christians suffered martyrdom in the provinces. He was killed in a skirmish in 363 while leading his army beyond the Tigris in a bold raid against the Persians.

After a few months under the inefficient Jovian, Valentinian (364‑75), a soldier, was raised to power by the army.  p576 He took the West as his portion with his court at Milan, and called his brother Valens (364‑78) to shoulder the burden of governing the East. Their years were full of disasters, not to mention the constant quarrels of the two factions of the church which often led to bloodshed. Fortunately St. Ambrose, a follower of Athanasius, became bishop of Milan in 374. By the power of his personality, his eloquence and his persuasive pen, he did much to unite the distracted church. The strong bureaucratic machine built up by Diocletian also weakened the powers of the government, for the thieving and oppressive officials created much discontent throughout the empire, and were so thoroughly united that neither ruler dared interfere with them.

The most serious disasters, however, occurred on the frontiers. Between 366 and 370 Valentinian kept up a vigorous contest with the invading Alamanni which ended in his giving land to large numbers of them in Gaul and in accepting many others as soldiers in his legions. He died in 374 while fighting the Quadi on the Danube frontier. Meanwhile the armies of Valens were engaged in meeting a new terror. The nomad Huns, a savage Mongolian people, were rapidly surging westward, spreading terror among the Germans. Their pressure on the Armenian front had already called Valens to the East with all the forces he could gather. Then the main body of Huns had come on, crushing the Ostrogoths to the north of the Black Sea, advanced against the Visigoths who had long been settled in old Dacia as allies of Rome. Unfortunately these Goths had been weakened by religious dissension. A large part of them had been converted to Christianity (Arianism) by Bishop Ulfila, a semi-Goth who had inherited his religion from his mother, a Cappadocian captive. Some of the Christian Goths had been given lands in the provinces by the Romans when they had been persecuted by their king. Now that the Huns had defeated the portion living in Dacia, about 200,000 of these Goths,  p577 led by a Christian chieftain, sent to Valens asking permission to come into the Empire. This he generously granted, but compelled them unwisely to give up their arms. Having come thus helplessly, they were abused by the Roman officials who refused to give them the provisions which Valens had promised. They naturally took to foraging for food, were attacked in turn, and open war resulted. Valens hurried home with his forces to drive them out, but was defeated and killed in a desperate battle before Adrianople. This fateful contest took place in 378. The flower of Rome's army was gone, the barbarians were marching at will through the Danube provinces, and the unconquered Huns were on the border.

The final disaster was held off for a while by Theodosius (379‑395) who had been called to the Eastern command by Gratian, the young son of Valentinian, who now ruled in the West. Theodosius put Modar, a Goth, in charge of his armies, and called to his aid some corps of the Western army officered by a Frankish general. He was thus able in time to check the depredations of the Goths, to settle them in Dalmatia and to secure a corps of them led by Alaric to serve in his army. This act reveals a prudent and efficient ruler, and he deserved perhaps the cognomen of "the Great" which his contemporaries gave him. The name, however, was given him for his services to the church rather than to the state. Falling under the spell of St. Ambrose's eloquence, he was baptized and from that time zealously supported the orthodox creed against the Arians and took final measures also to suppress paganism. It was at his orders that the statues of the pagan gods were destroyed, the old temples given to the churches and the cult of the Vestal Virgins discontinued.

Dying in 395, he left the Empire to his two feeble sons, the East to Arcadius, the West to Honorius who chose Ravenna as his abode. Honorius was especially entrusted to the care of Stilicho, an efficient general of the Vandal  p578 race, and he presently married the daughter of his barbarian guardian.

The two listless youths were generally at the mercy of their Teutonic generals who were quarreling for position while the barbarians were invading the provinces. Arcadius struggled vainly with the Eastern foes driven on by the Huns who were pushing through the Caucasus passes. Alaric, dissatisfied with the position his people were given by Theodosius in Dalmatia, invaded Italy, but was driven back by Stilicho in 402. But in 406 the Vandals and Suevi together with a group of Mongolian Alani, driven to desperation by the Huns, poured into Italy and Gaul. Stilicho had not the forces to check the tide. It was something that he could again clear Italy, but Gaul had to be sacrificed. The barbarians overran the southern half of the fair province with awful havoc and then advanced into Spain. They took possession of the best lands of the two provinces and settled there. The Roman legions of Britain, cut off from communication with the government, withdrew to the continent about the same time, never to return.

In 408 Stilicho, who had been accused of conniving at the invasion of his fellow countrymen, was suddenly put to death. Alaric knowing the helplessness of Honorius, invaded Italy once more with his Goths and marched upon the rich city of Rome (408) which had had security for 800 years. The city at first bought him off with a large ransom. In 409 he returned, however, and, declaring the throne vacant, pronounced his own nominee emperor. Growing bold at the demonstration of Rome's helplessness he returned in 410, stormed the city and sacked it, but for the sake of its churches he withheld the torch. Consternation spread through the realm. The power of Rome seemed at last completely broken, and one may feel the shudder of dismay that shocked the whole Empire by reading St. Augustine's "City of God" written as a kind of  p579 "Consolation" to the Christians. Alaric marched southward, intent it seems on plundering Sicily and Africa, but he died in southern Italy.

Ataulf (Adolphus), Alaric's brother-in‑law, succeeded to the command, and having learned to respect the evidences of civilization too much to continue such devastating raids, he led his horde to Gaul to find a permanent home. Driving down the Suevi and Vandals into the west and south of Spain he took possession in their stead, founding a Visigothic kingdom that extended from the Loire to Toledo and choosing Toulouse as his capital. After that the Roman emperors occasionally obtained a foothold in the Rhone valley, but the Visigothic kingdom in Gaul was not much circumscribed until Clovis the Frank put an end to it in 507.

What was left of the Western empire was now ruled by Valentinian III (423‑55) under the regency of his mother, Galla Placidia, who had for four years been Ataulf's captive-wife. This reign too was turbulent with the mutinies and intrigues of ambitious generals, especially of Aëtius, the chief commander, and of Boniface, the barbarian saint and free-lance of Africa, who invited the Vandals from Spain into his province to support his cause. The Vandals came and took possession of country and cities with such devastating cruelty that their name became a synonymous of the word Hun. Their leader, Gaiseric, founded a dynasty and forced recognition of his position as king in 435.

Meanwhile the Eastern emperor, Theodosius II, was suffering every disgrace at the hands of the Huns, who seem by this time to have established their rule as far as the Rhine and the Baltic over the Germanic tribes that had not escaped into the Empire. In 424 the Huns had raided the Danube provinces until the emperor promised them a yearly tribute of 350 pounds of gold. The tribute was doubled repeatedly when the lordly Attila came to power (about 445), and Theodosius did not dare resist. Then we hear  p580 a strange tale of how Honoria, the sister of the Western Emperor sent the Mongol tyrant an offer of marriage, how Attila accepted it, and demanded that half of the Western Empire be given with her as dowry. This demand was of course refused, whereupon Attila with an army, reported to number half a million men, crossed the Rhine and marched into the center of Gaul, burning and slaying as only Huns could or would. The Visigoths were as thoroughly frightened as were the Romans. Their king Theodoric, therefore, united his forces with the Romans under Aëtius, relieved Orleans which was being besieged, drove the Huns back and offered battle not far from Châlons-sur‑Marne (451). The allies suffered severely and Theodoric fell, but the Huns had also suffered, and Attila withdrew behind the Rhine. It is doubtful whether the nomads would ever have been content to settle down to a peaceful life in Gaul, for they preferred to live by plunder and forced tribute, but had they done so France would hardly have provided the abundant fruits of culture which the world has learned to admire. The "battle of Châlons" may with good reason be considered one of the decisive battles of the world.

Attila, however, had turned back only to invade Italy the next year. Here many cities fell into his power and suffered from his inexcusable sacking. It seemed that he would march on Rome and raze that city too, for Aëtius without foreign aid dared not risk the feeble Roman army against the Hunnish hordes. Then the Bishop of Rome, Leo the Great, came up to Attila's camp on Lake Garda and with all the authority he could assume solemnly warned the savage of the wrath of God that had befallen Alaric after his desecration of the holy city. Attila it seems cowered before the majestic saint who spoke with such assurance, and humbly led his hordes back to Hungary. We hear little more of this scourge. He died a year later and his people fell apart, soon absorbed by the natives of Central  p581 and Eastern Europe. Attila became the theme of legends which entered into the fabric of Germany's oldest epics.

Rome had been spared from the worst possible fate only to fall three years later into the hands of men not much less savage, Gaiseric and his Vandal pirates. Gaiseric had been recognized by the emperors as king in Africa, but that had not prevented him from manning the ships he had found at Carthage and carrying on raids against the shores of the realm. In 455 hearing of Valentinian's death he sailed with a large force against Rome. Pope Leo tried to prevail upon the Teuton as he had upon the Hun to spare Rome but he was merely brushed aside. That the city was not burned may have been due to his prayers. But the plunderers left nothing of value that could be carried away. For two weeks they ravaged and carried down to Ostia all that their fleet could hold, even to the bronze roof of the Capitoline temple. Eudoxia, the widow of the emperor, was taken captive and married to Gaiseric's son and successor.

For the next twenty years there was peace on the frontier since the Huns, who had caused the confusion of peoples, were falling apart, and Ricimer, the Suabian general ("master of troops") of the Western Empire, freely took into service in the Roman army such Germans as desired a place in the empire. Ricimer in fact was practically ruler of the West, raising up one puppet emperor after the other to suit his whim. He seems to have had the courage to do all things but to proclaim himself emperor. He died in 472.

Four years after when two feeble rivals claimed the throne of Rome, the German troops of the army that had been hired by Ricimer — and most of them were Germans — mutinied and acclaimed one of their officers, Odovacar, king. The ancient writers looked upon this act as the end of the Roman empire of the West. In point of law it was  p582 hardly that since the Empire had never been legally divided, and Odovacar, so far from demanding the imperial title, acknowledged the suzerainty of the Eastern Emperor. He claimed and received the title of patricius as the commander of the Western army, and of rex over his own people to whom he gave a third of the land. He was not even the first barbarian to rule Rome, since scarcely any of the emperors after Commodus had been of Roman stock. But he differed from these mainly in that he was raised to power by a barbarian horde which acted not in the capacity of Rome's army but as a group of invaders who took possession of Italy as their own.

In the West, Roman institutions had given way almost everywhere. In Britain the legions were long since withdrawn, in Gaul the Franks held the northern half, and were soon to win the East from the Burgundians and the South from the Visigoths; in Spain the Suevi inhabited the northeast, the Visigoths most of the rest. The Vandals held Africa, while in Italy Odovacar's Germans dwelt everywhere as haughty conquerors, soon to be reinforced by Theodoric's Ostrogoths.

[image ALT: A political map of Europe and the coasts of the Mediterranean in the reign of Theoderic, showing the (Eastern) Roman Empire, and the Teutonic and Celtic successor areas.]

Europe in the reign of Theodoric
Circa A.D. 500.

[A larger version, fully readable, opens here (1.9 MB).]

Was Roman civilization at an end? The government still lived in the East, and, protected by the almost impregnable walls of Constantinople, was destined to survive for many centuries. Justinian (527‑565) in fact assumes a lofty place in the story of civilization because of his success in producing a complete Codification of Roman laws. To be sure this is itself a confession that original constructive legislation had come to an end, and that the imperial jurists felt incapable of meeting the needs of the courts of law except by memorized formulae created in days of greater wisdom. Indeed the code with its scrapbook-like jumble of laws, edicts and rescripts betrays a strange lack of organizing power. But for all that the emperor's purpose in having the code made reveals a true  p583 Roman respect for law, and his work, however imperfect in arrangement, proved of inestimable value to posterity.

We must also mention to Justinian's credit the superb church of Santa Sophia with its daring fusion of Roman and Eastern principles of architecture. The Greek artists whom he so wisely selected and commissioned to build without stint created a temple that surpassed in beauty and in originality any structure ever erected at Rome, though it must be added that Roman structural inventions alone made the new conception possible.

But the Roman court of the East soon lost its Western character. By the seventh century Latin was no longer heard on the streets of Constantinople, Roman books were allowed to decay; not one Latin text has survived for us in that Empire, and even the great code by which the state was supposed to govern and administer had to give way to simplified epitomes composed in Greek.

Roman civilization seemed to be faring even worse in the West. The Goths, Burgundians, and Lombards cared even less for art and literature than did the decadent natives, and with the zeal of new converts the fiery preachers of the church warned in and out of season against the reading of pagan literature. Were it not for the box of precious rolls that Cassiodorus (480‑575) rescued and brought to his monastery on the southern coast of Italy, and the codices which Celtic refugees carried along to Ireland when escaping from Teutonic raiders in Gaul, very few of our Latin authors would have survived. The sixth and seventh were centuries of well-nigh midnight darkness for pagan culture throughout the West. The Bible alone remained to carry on the tremendous task of re‑education.

Presently we find monks carrying back copies of the Latin classics here and there over the pacified continent to serve as text books in writing and grammar. Then a few men of intelligence began to read them with comprehension.  p584 The authors of Beowulf and the old French epics studied the Aeneid to learn how to compose epic tales. The earliest Gaelic literature shows the influence of classic rules of composition; even the sagas of Iceland betray a study of Livy and Sallust and Lucan. In the twelfth century the first university of a new world grew up at Bologna around a copy of Justinian's code. A little later we find Dante accepting the guidance of Vergil in writing his Divine Comedy, Pisano studying the reliefs of old Roman sarcophagi for the secrets of artistic sculpture, and Petrarch starting the search of monasteries for precious manuscripts. It was thus that the art of the modern world came to be. The barbarians of Europe, slowly assimilating through centuries the texts which remained, had now mastered them, and recognizing in them a kindred spirit of rationalism, they rejected the medieval obscurantism that had temporarily beclouded Europe, and set out along the path of culture indicated by the great masters of the ancient world.

To‑day the principles of Roman jurisprudence and government constitute the most vital element in the heritage of the ancient Romans. With the republication in Washington of the classics of international law we have again become aware that modern international law was based upon the precepts of the Roman Civil Code. Bryce has revealed to us how extensively the rules of that code have penetrated the whole civilized world, permeating the laws that govern nearly 800,000,000 people. Of its present vitality we were recently reminded when the Supreme Court of the United States decided a federal case between the states of Kansas and Colorado by reference to a line which Napoleon's code borrowed from the Digest. That our constitution is a peculiar combination of democratic and aristocratic principles in conjunction with strong executive power is largely due to the enthusiasm of eighteenth century essayists for the republican constitution of Rome. Our laws of inheritance, our acceptance of the legal parity  p585 of men and women, our respect for property rights and for contracts are essentially Roman; and it is largely due to the precepts and examples of Republican Rome that modern governments have so persistently searched for a way to combine liberty and law, to follow after justice as against privilege, to accept the principles of equity as axiomatic, and to persist against every discouragement in extending the domain of a sane and intelligent democracy.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 10 Dec 20