History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

The End of the Legions

Juan de la Corte – Battle Scene

Preceding Post: Barbarians at the Gate


Pretty good YouTube – Video


While the frontiers of the Empire were somewhat accustomed to invasions from Germanic tribes and Asian intruders, the heartlands of the realm had been relatively safe from enemy attack. It was the congregation of tribes called the Goths that, from the second half of the Third Century on, mounted protracted expeditions into the settled spheres of Rome.

Led by their King Crivia, the Goths fought a successful raid deep into Greece, conquered Phillipolis, killed Emperor Decius, and were allowed to leave with their spoils.
In 267, Goths and their seaborne allies, the Heruli, began a two-pronged invasion into the heartland and initiated a veritable plunderfest, which was only stopped – barely – by the Emperors Gallienus and Claudius II Gothicus at the Battle of Naissus.

For a while, the Empire continued to function more or less in the usual way, until, about a century later, the character of the threat changed. The appearance of the Huns from the plains of the East exerted pressure upon the Goths to move west- or southward and for the first time the question of an eventual Germanic settlement arose, as opposed to quick forays for spoils.

The Gothic Wars of AD 376 to 382 not only led to the greatest Roman military disaster since Varus in the Battle of Adrianople (9 August 378) and the ignominious death of Emperor Valens but ended with the formal incorporation of the Goths into the Empire as foederati. From this time on, the Roman forces were truly multinational, and the Germanic element began to dominate the military and eventually found access into the ruling class of the Empire. [See Wiki, The Late Roman Army for details]

The stability and continuity of this new, Germano-Roman Empire, was, however, not given much of a chance. It was shattered to the bones only some twenty years later by the extensive campaigns of the Visigoths, in particular under Alaric I, that, after the Battle of Adrianople mentioned above, marked another milestone in the Decline of the Roman Empire. The Visigoths eventually crossed the whole Empire from east to west, ending up in today’s southern France and Spain, plundering and ravaging. They conquered and sacked Athens as well as Rome in 410 AD and, for a time, dominated the Western provinces.

Alaric entering Athens
Alaric in Athens, by Ludwig Thiersch
The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, August 24, 410

It is the year AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire, a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years. But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The perhaps most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in.

The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too.
It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. …
Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)

Mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)
Mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)

The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial reconquista (which depleted his treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

Theodoric the Great, by Fabrizio Castello (1560-1617)
Theodoric the Great, by Fabrizio Castello (1560-1617)

Beginning in the fifth century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by the rents deriving from private landowning, which was essentially the product of this desire for land of conquering elites. In 476, according to Procopius, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be given lands, and got it by supporting Odovacar. Procopius may well have exaggerated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy certainly still used taxation to pay the army, at least in part, probably more than any other post-Roman polity did by the early sixth century.
Overall, however, the shift to land was permanent. After the end of Ostrogothic Italy, there are no references in the West to army pay, except rations for garrisons, until the Arabs reintroduced it in Spain from the mid-eight century onwards; in the other western kingdoms, only occasional mercenary detachments were paid … .

The major post-Roman kingdoms still taxed, into the seventh century. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, another important item, was only supplied from Italy after 439, and lost population fast, as we have seen. The central and local administration of the post-Roman states was perhaps paid for longer, but in most of them the administration quickly became smaller and cheaper. Tax still made kings rich, and their generosity increased the attractive power of royal courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.

Tax is always unpopular, and takes work to exact; if it is not essential, this work tends to be neglected. It is thus not surprising that there are increasing signs that it was not assiduously collected. In ex-Vandal Africa after 534, the Roman re-conquerors had to reorganize the tax administration to make it effective again, to great local unpopularity; in Frankish Gaul in the 580s, assessment registers were no longer being systematically updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those normal under the empire.
Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landowning was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)

Germanic Kingdoms of the West
Germanic Kingdoms of the West

The differentiated Roman structures of administration and command could no longer be maintained. For centuries Rome had continued to grow by her arms while providing reasonable security and the general advantage of being a province of the Imperium Romanum was explained once to a Gaul by a lieutenant of Emperor Vespasian, around AD 70, and preserved by Tacitus:

The protection of the [Roman] republic has delivered Gaul from internal discord and foreign invasions. By the loss of national independence, you have acquired the name and privileges of Roman citizens. You enjoy, in common with ourselves, the permanent benefits of civil government; and your remote situation is less exposed to the accidental mischief of tyranny. Instead of exercising the rights of conquest, we have been contented to impose such tributes as are requisite for your own preservation. Peace cannot be secured without armies; and armies must be supported at the expense of the people. It is for your sake, not for ours, that we guard the barrier of the Rhine against the ferocious Germans, who have so often attempted, and who will always desire, to exchange the solitude of their woods and morasses for the wealth and fertility of Gaul.
The fall of Rome would be fatal to the provinces; and you would be buried in the ruins of that mighty fabric which has been raised by the valour and wisdom of eight hundred years. Your imaginary freedom would be insulted and oppressed by a savage master; and the expulsion of the Romans would be succeeded by the eternal hostilities of the Barbarian conquerors
.” (46)

The tax base that had provided for the maintenance of the legions was evaporating, and consequently no large standing armies could be maintained for the next thousand years.
The unthinkable had happened: Rome had fallen, at least in the West, 1229 years after her mythical creation by Romulus, and for the moment no organized power would defend the western parts of the European continent from the inscrutable advances of Barbarian intruders. Yet nature abhors a vacuum, at least in politics, and before long the competition for the inheritance of Rome was in full progress. It centred on the former provinces of Gaul and eventually led to the “Middle Ages”, which were characterized by a sudden fall and only very slow reintroduction of systems based on centralized administration.
Principally what happened is that the centre broke away – the north-western Germanic states and the Byzantine Empire were to become the pillars of European power, while impoverished Italy lost its political importance. A side effect of this change was that the “Pax Romana”, which had held most of the citizenry harmless from war for a few centuries – unless they lived in border sections – disappeared and was followed by more than a millennium of slaughter.

As far as Italy was concerned, three centuries of civil, religious and secular wars had maimed and mutilated the land of Virgil, Pliny and Seneca, and Edward Gibbon’s gloomy description of the condition of the eternal town and former capital of the world around AD 700 hints at the state of much of the continent:

Amidst the arms of the Lombards and under the despotism of the Greek [i.e. Byzantium], we again inquire into the fate of Rome, which had reached, about the close of the sixth century, the lowest period of her depression. By the removal of the seat of the empire and the successive loss of the provinces, the sources of public and private opulence were exhausted: the lofty tree under whose shade the nations of the earth had reposed was deprived of its leaves and branches, and the sapless trunk was left to wither on the ground. The ministers of command and the messengers of victory no longer met on the Appian or Flaminian Way; and the hostile approach of the Lombards was often felt and continually feared.
The inhabitants of a potent and peaceful capital who visit without an anxious thought the garden of the adjacent country will faintly picture in their fancy the distress of the Romans: they shut or opened their gates with a trembling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lamentations of their brethren, who were coupled together like dogs and dragged away into distant slavery beyond the sea and the mountains. … Curiosity and ambition no longer attracted the nations to the capital of the world: but if chance or necessity directed the steps of a wandering stranger, he contemplated with horror the vacancy and solitude of the city, and might be tempted to ask: Where is the senate, and where are the people?


(43) (44) (45) Chris Wickham, “The Inheritance of Rome“, Viking Books 2009 ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 76, 90 – 95, 102 – 103

(46) Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“, Modern Library 2003-5, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, p. 776 (659); First Page Number: Mass Market Edition 2005; Second Page Number: 4th Edition 2003-4


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3 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    This is a what. I seek in vain your writer’s Why: why did a succession of Roman administrations go down this road that no government would willingly go? Gibbon himself had a Why: “I have narrated the triumph of barbarism and religion.” To which various moderns could add: the crushing burden of Imperial taxation, administration, and devaluation, which in the absence of new provinces to plunder eventually not only drained the treasury but ruined the economy, the source of accumulation. Add a population problem caused by (crude though they were by modern standards) birth control and women’s lib (and of course gonorrhea). Both Right and Left in our culture are proceeding in blissful ignorance of the plain fact that many of their “solutions” were tried for similar problems in Imperial days — and failed to resolve them.

  2. Len

    Just about the clearest summary of what happened in the fall of the Western Empire I’ve ever read, or can imagine.

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