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Fall of the Roman Empire (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.1)

Constantine had changed the Roman Empire in many ways. He ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. He changed the laws to make them more acceptable to Christians. He even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from Rome to the new city of Constantinople. In doing all of this, Constantine was trying to save the Roman Empire from destruction. Rome had been facing many very big problems for a long time. Its many wars and the size of its territory led to economic problems. The people of Rome had gotten used to living happy, easy lives and were unwilling to face hardship and suffer to keep their Empire alive. While Constantine’s reforms brought a new life to the Roman Empire, even he was unable to prevent its eventual destruction.

The Roman Empire went through a short period of new energy after Constantine. The people of the Roman Empire united around their new religion, Christianity. By the year 400, Emperor Theodosius had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and ordered the last few temples dedicated to the Roman gods to close their doors forever. Some of these temples were destroyed. Others were converted into Christian churches. Still others were closed up and forgotten about for hundreds of years.

The Romans also tried to solve their problems by dividing their Empire into two. There would be one emperor in the East in Constantinople and another in the West in Rome. They hoped that by doing this it would be easier for each emperor to rule over his territory and defend it from barbarian attacks. Unfortunately, this division of the Empire probably made the Empire weaker. While much of the wealth and military might of the Roman Empire came to be centered in the East in Constantinople, the Western Roman Empire grew poorer and weaker.

The last Roman Emperor in the West was a young boy, Romulus Augustus. He was six years old when he became Roman Emperor, leading the people of Rome to call him Romulus Augustulus, which means “Little Emperor.” He was unable to lead the Romans and defend the Italian peninsula from the barbarian armies coming in from the northern part of Europe. The adults around him were busy fighting each other for power and were too afraid and weak to lead the fight against the barbarians. As a result, the barbarians finally conquered the city of Rome and the rest of the Italian peninsula, the old heart of the Roman Empire.

At first, the barbarians who came in from the northern part of Europe to conquer the Italian peninsula pretended that Romulus was still in charge. Finally, in 476, the barbarian king Odoacer, who was actually in charge in Italy, decided to stop pretending. He sent Romulus away to live in a castle and declared that there was no longer any Roman emperor. Instead, Odoacer called himself “King of Italy.” The Western Roman Empire had finally fallen. The result of the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 was the beginning of the 1000 year period we call the Middle Ages.

 

Review Questions

1. What year did the Roman Empire fall?

2. Who was the last Roman Emperor?

3. What is the name of the 1000 year period which followed the fall of the Roman Empire?

Primary Source Selection: “Life of Julius Caesar” by Plutarch (ca. 100 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.8)

There was added to these causes of offence his insult to the tribunes. It was, namely, the festival of the Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. These ceremonies Caesar was witnessing, seated upon the rostra on a golden throne, arrayed in triumphal attire. And Antony was one of the runners in the sacred race; for he was consul. Accordingly, after he had dashed into the forum and the crowd had made way for him, he carried a diadem, round which a wreath of laurel was tied, and held it out to Caesar. Then there was applause, not loud, but slight and preconcerted. But when Caesar pushed away the diadem, all the people applauded; and when Antony offered it again, few, and when Caesar declined it again, all, applauded. The experiment having thus failed, Caesar rose from his seat, after ordering the wreath to be carried up to the Capitol; but then his statues were seen to have been decked with royal diadems. So two of the tribunes, Flavius and Maryllus, went up to them and pulled off the diadems, and after discovering those who had first hailed Caesar as king, led them off to prison. Moreover, the people followed the tribunes with applause and called them Brutuses, because Brutus was the man who put an end to the royal succession and brought the power into the hands of the senate and people instead of a sole ruler. At this, Caesar was greatly vexed, and deprived Maryllus and Flavius of their office, while in his denunciation of them, although he at the same time insulted the people, he called them repeatedly Brutes and Cymaeans.