The empire finally split into western and eastern halves. The west came to an end when the last emperor - the significantly named but insignificant Romulus Augustulus - was deposed by the Goth Odoacer. He was not an invader, however; the Germans had for a long time been the mainstay of a Roman army in which citizens no longer wished to serve.

The eastern empire fared better, but despite a period of glory under Justinian, there were eventually too many internal and external pressures. At last only Constantinople itself remained - it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.


Gold coins of emperors from Constans to Theodosius

Gold coins from a belt depicting the emperors from Constans to Theodosius. (VRoma: Getty Museum, Santa Monica: Barbara McManus)

Constantine had intended that on his death the rule of the empire should devolve to a team of four: his three sons, Constantius, Constans, and Constantine II, and his nephew Dalmatius. To form a tetrarchy on a dynastic principle was, however, more than the system could stand. Dalmatius was murdered, the brothers bickered, and the empire was in splinters again.

Valentinian - damaged

Part of a bust of Valentinian I (AD 321 - 75). (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

The pieces were retrieved after Valentinian was nominated as emperor by the troops at Nicaea, on condition he appoint a joint ruler. He chose his brother Valens (c. AD 328 - 78); no-one dared oppose the appointment. The brothers made an amicable east - west division between themselves. The empire was briefly united again in AD 394 under Theodosius (c. AD 346 - 95), who established Christianity as the official religion of the empire. It was also he who revenged the lynching of one of his army commanders by inviting the citizens of Thessalonica to a circus show and then massacring them in their seats, for which the Archbishop of Milan persuaded him to do public penance. Under his sons Arcadius (c. AD 378 - 408) and Honorius (AD 384 - 423), the eastern and western parts of the Roman empire finally each went their own way.

Aelia Flavia Flaccilla, wife of Theodosius

Aelia Flavia Flaccilla (d. AD 386), the Spanish first wife of Theodosius and mother of Arcadius and Honorius. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

At some point in the fourth century AD the Huns set out inexorably westwards from their homelands on the plains of central Asia. They displaced the Alani who lived mainly between the rivers Dnieper and Dniester, and who then displaced the Vandals, who in turn swept right through Gaul and Spain, and into north Africa. Also displaced were the Goths, who bordered on the Roman empire on the far side of the Danube. Britain was now abandoned to determined waves of Picts, Scots, and Saxons, and the legions were rushed to the final defence, no longer of the empire, but of Rome itself.

Europe AD 400

Europe in about AD 400. From Antony Kamm, The Last Frontier: the Roman Invasions of Scotland, Tempus 2004

In AD 410 Rome was captured and sacked by Alaric the Goth (d. AD 411), after he had only the previous year accepted a bribe to go away. Though Pope Leo (d. AD 461) managed in AD 452 to negotiate terms with Attila the Hun (c. AD 406 - 53) to leave Italy after he had ravaged much of it, in AD 455 it was the turn of the Vandals; Rome was sacked again, this time from the sea. Finally, in AD 476, Odoacer (d. AD 493), a German mercenary commander, deposed the 14-year-old emperor Romulus Augustulus and informed Zeno (d. AD 491), emperor of the east, that he would be happy to rule as king of Italy under Zeno’s jurisdiction. Effectively, the Roman empire in the west was at an end. The Roman Catholic Church now assumed the role of unifying the lands and peoples which had formerly been Roman, organizing its sphere of influence along Roman lines.

Coin of Anastasius

Coin from Constantinople of Anastasius, who in AD 491 was chosen by Zeno’s widow to succeed Zeno. A month later Anastasius married her. He ruled until AD 518. ( © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

For catastrophic disasters, there is rarely a single cause. Civilizations less stable or well-organized than Rome have survived economic failure, political and administrative incompetence, plague, class divisions, corruption in high places, decline of moral standards, and the necessity of changing the structure and status of the work force. Ultimately, what hastened the end was the failure of the very instrument by which the empire had been founded, the Roman army. The policy of dividing it into frontier forces and mobile field forces which could be dispatched to trouble spots had its disadvantages. However effective communications might be, the infantry had to march to its destination.

Army recruits

In training, recruits were required to march 32 km in five hours, but that would be about the most that an army could travel on foot in a day. Scenes from Trajan’s column. (VRoma: AICT)

The eastern Roman empire, largely by reason of its geographical situation, was bypassed by the hordes of invaders. Its capital, Byzantium, had first been reconstructed in the time of Septimius Severus not just as a Roman city, but modelled on Rome itself, on and around seven hills.

The race-course (hippodrome) Constantinople

Reconstruction of the race-course, Constantinople, with behind it the church of St Sophia. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Byzantium, Brockhampton Press 1977)

The building of a race-course on the lines of the Circus Maximus where there was insufficient space for it, was not beyond the skill and ingenuity of the architects. It was constructed on the flattened summit of a hill, with one end of the stadium suspended over the edge on massive vaulted supports. Eastern influence led to the development of a distinctive style of Byzantine architecture, with the dome a predominant feature, and interiors richly decorated.

San Vitale, Ravenna

Reconstruction of the interior of the church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, built between AD 526 and 547 by a wealthy banker for the emperor Justinian. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Byzantium, Brockhampton Press 1977)

Justinian ruled from AD 527 to 565, and is said to have been 83 when he died. His aims included stamping out corruption in government, refining and upholding the law, uniting the churches in the east, and taking Christianity forcibly to the barbarians in the west. In pursuit of this last aim his generals tore into the barbarian kingdoms and temporarily restored to the empire its former African provinces and northern Italy, including the city of Rome itself.

Hagia Sophia

Church of St Sophia (interior seen here in a lithograph of 1849). From Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970

In AD 532, during the reign of Justinian, much of the city was destroyed during a rebellion that began as a riot between two sets of fans in the stadium. The damage enabled Justinian to exploit the situation at a time when the golden age of Byzantine architecture had just been reached. The sensational church of St Sophia still survives, but since 1453 it has been a mosque..

Justinian’s wife Theodora, an actress, proved until her death in AD 548 an admirable foil and support. She stood up for persecuted members of the heretical Monophysite sect with whose views she sympathized, while comforting her husband at time of stress.

Justinian and his court

Justinian and his court, and (inset) Theodora. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

While the eastern empire was largely Greek in its mores, it still upheld Roman law. The Justinian Code (AD 529) brought together all valid imperial laws. In addition Justinian issued a revised and updated edition (AD 534) of the works of the classical jurists, and a textbook on Roman law (AD 533). After him, the eastern empire was Roman only in name. In AD 1053 the Church of the east split with the Church of Rome and in due course begat the Church of Russia. On 29 May AD 1453, Constantinople and its emperor Constantine XI fell to the Turks and the forces of Islam, who had already overrun what remained of the empire’s narrow footholds along the coast of the Sea of Marmara.


Constans to Theodosius

The full list is:

Constans (337 - 50),
Constantine II (337 - 40),
Constantius II (337 - 61),
Julian (361 - 3),
Jovian (363 - 4),
Valentinian I (364 - 75),
Valens (364 - 78),
Gratian (367 - 83),
Valentinian II (375 - 92),
Theodosius (378 - 95)

Believe it or not:

Constans was overthrown, and then murdered, by Magnentius, who was defeated by Constantius II, and killed himself in AD 353. His death was the signal for reprisals against his supporters in Britain, and against those who, with his encouragement, had embraced pagan ways of worship. The overenthusiastic investigations by Paulus, Constantius’s imperial notary, earned him the nickname of Catena, the “Chain”. His accusations, and his tactics in trying to make them stick, became so outrageous that the vicarius of Britain, Flavius Martinus, threatened to resign if those who were obviously innocent were not released. Instead, Martinus was forced to commit suicide.

Valentinian is said to have died from an apoplectic stroke brought on by the attitude of ambassadors from the Quadi, who claimed that their chiefs were not responsible for acts committed by individual groups of terrorists living within their boundaries. It is presumed that his brother Valens was killed in the crushing Roman defeat at the hands of the Visigoths at Hadrianople in AD 378; his body was never found.

The Scots came from Ireland. The name means bandits or pirates.

The Picts used a 20-letter alphabet known as ogam, which we know from inscriptions but only faintly understand. The letters comprise one to four horizontal or diagonal strokes, incised to the left or right, or across, a vertical line, which was often the natural break or angle between the planes or faces of the rock from which the stone was made. They were read upwards, from the bottom of the inscription.

Arcadius died from an unknown cause and was succeeded, as he had intended, by his 7-year-old son Theodosius II (AD 401--50), under the guardianship of the Persian king Isdigerdes. Affairs of state were conducted by Anthemius, commander of Theodosius’s imperial guard, after whose death in AD 414 the role was undertaken by Theodosius’s elder sister, (St) Pulcheria (AD 399--453).

Alaric besieged Rome in AD 408, but was persuaded to go away after agreeing to accept gold, numerous garments of silk and leather, and 3000 pounds of pepper! He returned, however, in 409, and again in 410, when someone treacherously opened the gates to him. For three days his men looted and burned buildings. As part of his personal spoils, Alaric took with him Galla Placidia, the 20-year-old half-sister of Honorius. When he died the following year, she was briefly married to his brother-in-law, who succeeded him as leader of the Visigoths, but was murdered in AD 415. She then returned to Rome, where she became the wife of Constantius III and the mother of Valentinian III.

Justinian is also credited with introducing into Europe the culture of the silk-worm.