The ancient world




by Christian Schaller

The ancient world




by Christian Schaller

Introduction to Roman History.
Part 3: Late Antiquity (284-476 or 6th century AD)

After seven hundred years of the Republic and three hundred years of the Principate, a new but also final phase began for the Roman Empire. Classical historiography of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw in this division the exemplary sequence of rise, flourishing and decline realised. According to the view of the time, this three-phase model was the fate of every great empire. And indeed, in this last epoch of Roman history, which is for long stretches identical with the period of late antiquity, many things initially point to the approaching decline. Even after overcoming the imperial crisis in the third century and consolidating the empire, there were plenty of problems – economic crises, civil wars, external enemies. Late antiquity should not be interpreted only as a time of decadence and decay. Roman power and splendour still dominated the Mediterranean and even after the fall of Rome, the Roman legacy continued. By 395, the Roman Empire had already been divided into an eastern and a western half. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Eastern Roman and later Byzantine Empire even survived until 1453.

As part of this introduction, the beginning of late Roman history was fixed at the year 284. This year saw the accession to power of Emperor Diocletian, whose actions finally put an end to the period of the soldier emperors and the imperial crisis. A good 150 years after the reforms of Diocletian or Emperor Constantine the Great around 300 AD, the Western Roman Empire came to an end in 476 due to foreign conquest. This year is considered to be a traditional endpoint of Roman or Western Roman history and, associated with it, of the entire epoch of antiquity. A Roman commander of Germanic origin named Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in this year and sent the imperial insignia to the “other”, Eastern Roman emperor in Constantinople.

Roman central power thus ended in the West, but not the Roman heritage. Roman structures, administration and culture survived for decades, if not centuries, and shaped the new kingdoms and dominions that arose on the territory of the defunct empire. A key role in this was played not least by Christianity, which had already risen to become a kind of state religion in the still intact Roman Empire in the fourth century.

Arch of Constantine Rome; Pixabay Licince, © max_gloin

Late Antiquity can be divided into several large blocks. The first 200 years still cover the history of the Roman and soon the Western Roman Empire. Around 300, the Constantinian dynasty became influential. This period also saw the Christianisation of the Old World. This was followed in the later fourth century by the Valentinian and then the Theodosian imperial dynasties. Theodosius the Great was a promoter of Christianity and also initiated the division of the empire after his death. The Western Roman Empire that now emerged went straight into its final phase. The period of the migration of peoples and the Hun storms weakened the West. After the conquest of Rome, the reign of Odoacer began, which lasted from 476 to 493. The Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno instructed the king of the Ostrogothic Empire, Theoderic the Great, to conquer these territories. This succeeded, making Italy the heartland of the Ostrogothic Empire until 526. The power vacuum was in turn used by the new Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, who now had his generals conquer large parts of the former Western Roman Empire. Although this led to the brief restoration of the Imperium Romanum – at least in parts – it also devastated and impoverished large areas of land. As early as 568, the invasion of the Germanic tribe of the Lombards began, who were subsequently able to establish their kingdom in the north of the peninsula. This event is considered the end of antiquity in Italy and ended the state unity of the later country for 1300 years. The Middle Ages began.

The Constantinian Dynasty and the Beginning of Christianisation

Constantine the Great did not receive his epithet by chance: however one wants to evaluate his achievements and deeds, in every respect they were great and profound. During his reign from 306 to 337, essential reforms took place that once again consolidated the Roman Empire and brought it into its late phase. In the process, of course, he also built on the achievements of some of his predecessors such as Aurelian or Diocletian. In any case, historians like to think that Diocletian’s reign in 284 marked the beginning of the period of Late Antiquity and thus the last epoch of ancient Roman history. While Aurelian (r. 270-275) succeeded in restoring the unity of the empire after years of discord and secession, Diocletian (r. 284-305) finally ended the imperial crisis of the third century. With him, the era of the rapidly changing soldier emperors, which had lasted since 235, was also over. He fundamentally changed the administration, for example, he reduced the size of the provinces for more efficient administration. The military administration was separated from the civilian one and became more centralised and bureaucratised. He also introduced the system of tetrarchy, the short-lived four-emperor system in which four different emperors ruled parts of the overall Roman Empire. Diocletian’s idea was shattered at the latest with Constantine the Great, who regained sole rule. However, multi-emperorship remained the rule in the West until the end of the empire in 476. Constantine the Great’s father, Emperor Constantius I (r. 293-205/206), was initially only one of four Caesars within this tetrarchy, which, however, was already dissolving at this time. His son Constantine took over the imperial dignity from his father in 306 and by 312 – after the famous battle at the Milvian Bridge near Rome against his adversary Maxentius – he was sole ruler in the West. By 324 he was emperor of the entire empire. In that year he also moved his residence to a new city on the Bosporus: Constantinople, the “Second Rome” and today’s Istanbul. While he stabilised the empire internally and externally, he also initiated a cultural-historical change that was to define Europe for centuries. This development is called the Constantinian Turn, meaning the toleration of Christianity. Until then, Christianity had been a forbidden sect, and even under Emperor Diocletian there were bloody persecutions throughout the empire.

Hagia Sophia Istanbul; Pixabay Licence, © tensionart

As a result, the young church grew ever stronger, became increasingly intertwined with politics and, by the end of the fourth century, had gained not only legal privileges but even the status of a kind of state religion and imperial church. Not only Constantine’s private relationship with Christianity is still debated today, but many other details of his life remain controversial. For example, he is said to have had his eldest, but perhaps illegitimate, son Crispus murdered in 326.

Shortly afterwards, Constantine’s wife Fausta also died. Since these murders of relatives were concealed by the court, the exact events and reasons are not really known to this day.

The Constantinian imperial dynasty ruled the reunited empire relatively unchallenged until 363. The tetrarchy was over, but not the multi-emperorship – emperor’s sons were often appointed co-rulers. However, the period of rule also saw a profound change. Growing Christianity made ecclesiastical problems the subject of more and more public disputes. Although Constantine’s successors gave the empire a final cultural flourishing, it was still a time of war – on the Rhine and the Danube against the Germanic tribes, in the east against the Persian Sassanid Empire. The last descendant of this dynasty, Emperor Julian (r. 360-363), deserves special attention. During the short period of his sole rule, he tried in vain to reverse the Constantinian turn. He promoted the old gods and cults and even wanted to establish a kind of pagan imperial church as an antithesis to Christianity. Since he perished in the course of an ambitious campaign against the Persians, this last, state-sponsored renunciation of Christianity remained only an episode.

Die Valentinianisch-Theodosianische Dynastie und die „Germanisierung“ des Reiches


After the end of the Constantinian dynasty, Emperor Valentinian I founded a new ruling family in 364, which was succeeded by Emperor Theodosius I as early as 379. Due to close relationships and marriages, one can speak of a Valentinian-Theodosian dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire from 364 to 457. The eponym of the first dynasty, Valentinian I (r. 364-375), secured the embattled external borders on the Rhine and the Danube. He also introduced the division of rule in the empire into two halves – two emperors, two courts and two administrative apparatuses. This decision was soon to have far-reaching consequences. The eponym of the second dynasty, Theodosius “the Great” (r. 379-394) received his epithet primarily because of three trend-setting measures. In 382, he allowed a Germanic tribal confederation, the Goths, to settle on the soil of the empire for the first time as so-called federates. This was only one sign of the progressing “Germanisation”. More and more “barbarians” pushed across the Rhine and the Danube. This did not only happen through raids and wars. Germanic tribes increasingly mixed with the provincial populations of the border areas. More and more tribes and ethnic groups were needed as mercenaries or soldiers in imperial service.

Over time, individual Roman military leaders of Germanic origin rose further and further in the ancient Roman ranks and occasionally became part of the upper class and the imperial court. In addition, Theodosius privileged Christianity and even elevated it by law to a state religion, while he increasingly disadvantaged and forbade the old-established paganism. In the last months before his death, Theodosius was even the last sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire. After his death, however, he bequeathed one half of the empire to each of his sons – Arcadius became the first emperor of Western Rome, Honorius the first emperor of Eastern Rome. In the understanding of the time, however, the division of the empire in 395 did not mean a splitting of the empire, but merely a division of rule in the still united and indivisible empire. Nevertheless, the two parts developed further and further apart in the following decades.

Roman fort on the Limes; Pixabay Licence, © Momentmal

Economically and militarily, the problems continued to grow. As early as 375, another development appeared on the horizon which, although it did not deal a direct death blow to the increasingly tottering empire, inevitably brought it to the last years of its existence in the west. The time of the migration of peoples and the Huns had come and the dance of death of the Western Roman Empire began.

The Last Years of Western Rome: Migration and Hun Storms

Traditional historiography likes to place an event at the beginning of the migration of peoples: the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The Huns had advanced across the plains of Central Asia into Europe. They drove smaller tribes before them, who preferred to seek their salvation in flight – like the Goths. They were looking for new settlement space and the Roman Empire assigned them imperial territories. Due to the unfriendly treatment, however, the new “federates” rebelled within a few years and a decisive battle between Emperor Valens and the commander Fritigern took place near the city of Adrianople (today Edirne in the north-western corner of Turkey). The Goths were victorious, and the emperor was even killed. Valens’ successor in the East, Emperor Theodosius the Great, therefore assigned the victors territories in Thrace, where they formally belonged to the Empire but otherwise lived relatively autonomously. Whether it is historically correct or not, posterity saw all dams broken with this battle. More and more Germanic tribes invaded the territories of Rome and the late antique Migration Period began. This then also determined the policies of both the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire in the following decades.

The middle of the fifth century was almost completely dominated by the struggle of the Roman army master Aetius with Attila, the “Hun King”. The warrior federation of the Huns had established a sphere of power in what is now Hungary. It regularly raided the empire and demanded high tribute payments from both emperors. Attila’s campaign into Gaul (today’s France) ended with the famous battle on the Catalaunian Fields in 451, where the Western Roman army commander Aetius was able to beat back the Huns. Then, only two years later, Attila was murdered on his wedding night and his multi-ethnic empire quickly disintegrated. But even the powerful and victorious Aetius, who in some places was regarded as the real ruler in the west, soon met his death. The powerless Emperor Valentinian III is said to have slain him himself with his sword in 454. And just one year later, Valentinian also perished violently. Thus the Valentinian-Theodosian dynasty also ended in the West and another civil war began. The Western Roman Empire had now lost its last vestige of stability.

San Vitale in Ravenna; Pixabay Licence, © chatst2

The Germanisation of the Empire had already been progressing for decades. Germanic settlers populated the Roman provinces, Germanic military leaders worked their way up the career ladder and eventually also influenced the imperial court. At the same time, however, there were repeated wars and raids by Germanic tribes. Gaul, Spain and North Africa were conquered and occupied, and the holy city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455.

In the chaos and power vacuum, Ricimer, a last powerful – and naturally Germanic – army commander, was able to emerge and set the tone until his death in 472. Alongside him, of course, there were emperors such as Majorian or Anthemius, with whom conflicts increasingly arose. At the same time, Ricimer’s position of power outside Italy was not seen as legitimate. The empire sank into chaos, the prestige of the emperorship eroded completely and an inexorable process began which can be described as the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. So even before its official end in 476, the West was already proverbially finished in several respects. The Roman central power was increasingly disintegrating. More and more Germanic tribes were establishing themselves in the empire’s territory and founding their own empires – the Ostrogoths in Pannonia, the Visigoths in Spain, the Burgundians in southern France, the Vandals in North Africa. In the northwest, the Picts, Angles, Saxons and Jutes conquered Britain. And in the heart of Europe, with the Empire of the Franks, a Germanic successor empire arose that was to last and at the same time inherit the Western Roman Empire, at least symbolically. When Charlemagne had himself elected emperor in Rome over 400 years later, it was not least as a clear reference to the ancient Roman Empire and its claim to power and splendour. In 476, the Western Roman Empire officially came to an end. The last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, little more than a powerless child, was sent into exile and another overpowering military leader named Odoacer took over the shards. In the East, however, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire continued to exist until 1453, and Germanic successor realms were also formed in the West, linking up with Roman structures. He was to defeat Odoacer, who was becoming increasingly self-confident and rebellious towards his official master, the emperor. After his victory and the death of Odoacer, Theoderic then ruled until his death in 526, seeing himself as the ruler of Western Rome and seeking Eastern Roman imperial recognition of his position. Since his descendants quarreled, the then Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian now saw a chance for actual reconquest. While in the east the actual main rivals, the Persian Sassanids, could be fought off with great effort, in the west his generals gradually conquered large parts of the old, western Roman provinces in North Africa, Italy and southern Spain. Justinian was the last Roman emperor whose mother tongue was Latin – after him mostly Greek speakers followed. He ordered the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, at that time the largest cathedral in the world. At the same time, he had the Platonic Academy in Athens closed, thus putting an end to ancient philosophy. After his death in 565, however, the reconquered territories could not be held in the long term. The Germanic tribe of the Lombards conquered large parts of the Italian peninsula in 568 and 569 and founded the early medieval Lombard Empire with its capital at Pavia (near Milan). The era of late antiquity and the migration of peoples was thus over. The kingdom was conquered by Charlemagne in 774 and incorporated into his Frankish Empire. At the same time, there were still several Italian territories that belonged to the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, such as the areas around Venice and Ravenna. In the early Middle Ages, however, small principalities and duchies, small states and city states emerged that were to determine Italian history for centuries to come – for example, the southern Italian duchies of Spoleto and Benevento in 570.

The Roman heritage

However, the medieval world of Italy and Europe is hardly imaginable without the still existing and conscious legacy of the Romans. They shaped the language, the legal system, the calendar, to name just a few aspects that seem so commonplace to us today but were once introduced by the ancient Romans. The knowledge and insights of the Romans influenced the medieval scholars, but above all also the humanists of the Renaissance and, last but not least, they still shape us today.

Natural sciences and medicine, but also philosophy and literature were still very popular 1000 years later. In addition, the Renaissance made use of the art and aesthetics of antiquity on a grand scale. The Roman road network also continued to be used in the Middle Ages and still made long-distance travel and troop movements possible. The countless Roman ruins and also the idea of an empire impressed numerous rulers of Europe.

Raphael, The School of Athens; Pixabay Licence, © janeb13

They wanted to emulate this ideal and so, for example, the Frankish king Charlemagne had himself crowned emperor in Rome in 800. He saw himself as a direct successor to his ancient predecessors. Of course, the still intact Roman Empire in the fourth century was also instrumental in spreading the new religion of Christianity. Rome’s language, Latin, also gave rise to the Romance languages still spoken today, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. No other empire in the history of mankind influenced the culture of Europe more than the Roman Empire.



More on this every month on our video platform – Christian Schaller takes us through the history of antiquity!

Literature used
  • Bringmann, Klaus: Römische Geschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Spätantike. München 2019.
  • Demandt, Alexander: Zeitenwende. Aufsätze zur Spätantike. Berlin 2013.
  • Gehrke, Hans-Joachim / Schneider, Helmuth (Hg.): Geschichte der Antike. Ein Studienbuch. Stuttgart 2013.
  • Kaiser, Reinhold: Die Mittelmeerwelt und Europa in Spätantike und Frühmittelalter. Frankfurt am Main 2014.
  • König, Ingemar: Spätantike. Darmstadt 2007.
  • Pohanka, Reinhard, Die Römer. Kultur und Geschichte. Wiesbaden 2012.
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