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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gibbon's Decline and Fall: Volume Three, Pre-Justinian Volume Four

Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume Three races through the events which saw the final dissolution of the Western Empire and the survival of the East. Volume Four begins with an account of some of the consequences of this fall. For the purpose of this analysis they should be tied together.

The reigns of the sons of Theodosius the Great, who had been the last emperor to govern over East and West was a lamentable era for the Empire and indeed for the civilized world. The incompetence of the Emperor Honorius and the feeble Arcadius (who for some reason escapes Gibbon's wrath perhaps because he looks favorable when compared to his brother) provided the Germanic Barbarians with a wonderful opportunity to destabilize Rome.

The General Stilico was entrusted with the care of both boys by a dying Theodosius but soon ran afoul of Arcadius and the East. But the General was skilled in war and diplomacy and he was able to hold the Goths at bay until his arrest and execution on trumped up charges in 408 AD. That opened the door for a Gothic raid on Italy and in 410 Rome was sacked, a shameful episode while Honorius sat at his court in Ravenna totally unconcerned about the plight of the leading city in the world and his capitol.

The Roman legions at the same time also abandoned Britain and failed to properly secure Gaul, where a massive depopulation of cities occurred. The transition from heavily cultured city life enhanced by trade, a system of roads and running water, to rural anarchy with little trade and no culture or learning was an unfortunate bi-product of the collapse of Roman rule in the West. In a hundred years, society literally went from being highly educated and worldly to being warlike, and agrarian. That may seem like an unkind generalization, but the destruction of culture, learning, engineering and trade by the Barbarians is not an unkind myth propagated by people who romanticize Rome. Western Europe arguably had not reached the standard of living and learning of the Roman Empire until a 1,000 years after Rome's sacking by the Goths.

The Western Empire survived feebly after 410 but in reality lost its taxing ability and many provinces realized they were better off cutting deals with the Barbarians rather than being over run and killed by them. This situation while clearly not preferable to the enlightened rule Rome had provided to most of Western Europe for over 500 years was preferable to the sword.

However, the collapse of Roman rule led to a free for all, where the sword, not the laws the Romans had codified through the years or the institutions of government became the ultimate judge. The collapse of the Empire led to an upsurge in previously successful city dwellers into refugees to monasteries. While Christianity had helped in Gibbon's eyes accelerate the decline of Rome, it now provided a sanctuary to those fleeing from the terror created by Barbarian rule. While Gibbon fails to give enough credit to the religion for this, his overall premise about Christianity's role in the fall of the Roman west is accurate.

The Fall of Rome in 476, led to a period of shifting alliances between Barbarian kings. Some kings, like Theodoric of the Ostrogoths were better than others, and respected Roman culture and encouraged city life. Others raped and pillaged the land and terrorized the citizens and accelerated the transition from the enlightened world of Rome to the Dark Ages.

The Eastern Empire based in Constantinople survived the fifth century chaos. But as Gibbon correctly points out, much of this was due to its willingness to buy off the Barbarians and encourage them to move West. Moreover, the Eastern Empire wasn't able to influence events in the West as much as it would have liked as evidenced by Theodoric and Clovis (the Frankish king who in 486 had over run the last vestige of Roman rule in Gaul) working together to dilute the influence of Constantinople over the West.

With the Barbarians in control of the West, and the Romans still controlling modern day Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East, an epic showdown was about to occur as Rome made one last ditch effort to regain its past glory. That will be subject of my next posting.


Ken said...

Left you a note on your 04-26-08 posting. This is very important. Please respond.. I need the information..

WorldWind said...

interesting stuff, from a fellow history buff. check out my postings on

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.