Ricimer and the Last Days of the Empire.The authority of the Western Roman emperors became limited to Italy, and even here it was reduced to a mere shadow. The barbarians were the real power behind the throne. The Roman armies were made up mostly of barbarians, under the control of barbarian generals; and even the direction of affairs at the capital was in the hands of barbarian chiefs. The place which Stilicho the Vandal had held under Honorius, was filled by Ricimer the Goth during the last years of the empire. This chieftain commanded the foreign troops in the pay of Rome. He received the Roman title of “patrician,” which at this time was equivalent to regent of the empire. For seventeen years (455-472) Ricimer exercised absolute authority, setting up and deposing emperors at his will. The Roman Empire in the West had in fact already passed away, and nothing was now left but to extinguish its name.
Odoacer deposes Romulus Augustulus (A.D. 476).The part which Ricimer had played as “king-maker” was now assumed by Orestes the Pannonian, who received the title of patrician. Orestes placed upon the throne his son, Romulus Augustulus, a boy six years of age. The brief reign of this prince has no other significance than the fact that it was the last. The barbarian mercenaries demanded one third of the lands of Italy, and on the refusal of Orestes, they placed their cause in the hands of Odoacer (a Herulian, or a Rugian chief). Romulus was obliged to resign his title as emperor, and word was sent to the Eastern ruler that there was no need of another separate emperor in the West. Odoacer was given the title of patrician, and ruled over Italy as the vicar of the Eastern emperor. The West was then deprived of the imperial title; and this event is called the “fall of the Western Roman Empire.”
Relation of the West to the Eastern Empire.If we were asked to define the relation between the East and the West after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, we might be in doubt how to answer the question. Since Odoacer was made a Roman ruler under the title of patrician, and since he recognized the authority of the Eastern emperor, we might say that the Western Empire was not destroyed, but was simply reunited once more to the Eastern Empire. This would be true so far as it referred to a mere matter of legal form. But as a matter of historical fact this event does not mark a return to the old system of things which existed before the death of Theodosius, but marks a real separation between the history of the East and the history of the West.
Transition to a New Civilization in the West.The West had gradually become peopled with various German tribes. In Africa were the Vandals; in Spain and southern Gaul, the Visigoths; in northwestern Spain, the Suevi; in southeastern Gaul, the Burgundians; in Britain, the Saxons and the Jutes; in Italy, the Heruli. Only in the northern part of Gaul was the shadow of the Roman authority preserved by the governor, Syagrius, who still maintained himself for ten years longer against the invaders, but was at last conquered by the Franks under Clovis (A.D. 486). The chiefs of the new German kingdom had begun to exercise an independent authority and the Roman people had become subject to new rulers. The customs and manners of the Romans, their laws and their language, were still preserved, but upon them became engrafted new customs, new ideas, and new institutions. As the fall of the old republic was a transition to the empire, and as the decline of the early empire was a transition to a new phase of Imperialism; so now the fall of the Roman Empire in the West was in reality a transition to a new state of things out of which has grown our modern civilization.
SELECTIONS FOR READING
Pelham, Bk. VII., Ch. 2, “Extinction of the Western Empire” (1)1
Merivale, Gen. Hist., Ch. 77, “Loss of the Western Provinces” (1).
Freeman, Ch. 4, “Dismemberment of the Empire” (14).
Gibbon, Decline, Ch. 31, “Invasion of Italy” (7).
Gibbon, abridged, Ch. 15, “Western Empire under Honorius” (7).
Lord, Ch. 11, “Fall of Rome” (3).
CAUSES OF THE FALL OF THE EMPIRE.Seeley, Essay II. (7); Leighton, Ch. 37 (1); Lord, Ch. 12 (3); Hodgkin, Italy, Vol. II., Ch. 9 (7); Bury, Later Empire, Bk. I., Ch. 3 (7).
1 The figure in parenthesis refers to the number of the topic in the Appendix, where a fuller title of the book will be found.