476 anno domini, the year of the fall of Rome,
is one of the most well-known and most discussed dates of European history,
and yet probably one of the most overestimated
and misunderstood ones for what it has come to represent.
Rivers of ink have been devoted to why the Roman Empire fell,
and if it actually did.
While the historiographical question of if and why it happened
continues to be debated to this day
and certainly merits attention,
we will not tackle the topic in this video.
Instead, we will try to discern
how the men and women living in those times
saw the changing of their institutions and culture,
focusing specifically on the year 476,
and we will attempt to ask the question:
in the eyes of a Roman citizen,
did the Empire of Rome fall in 476?
The Roman citizens were much less knowledgeable and informed
than the people of the modern age currently are,
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To put the year 476 and its events into context,
we will first briefly summarize
the highs and lows of the Empire in its later years.
The Imperium began with two prosperous centuries
which saw the Roman state reach its greatest territorial extent
and achieve relative internal peace
after the civil wars of the first century BC.
The first cracks in the system
came following the end of the Severan dynasty,
which opened the crisis of the third century.
It lasted 50 years
and saw decimating plagues,
a high rate of replacement of Emperors,
and the fracture of the Roman territorial integrity
both to the west and to the east.
After a resurgence under Diocletian and the Constantine family,
the Romans suffered a devastating defeat at Adrianople in 378,
and soon after the Empire was definitively
split in two among the sons of Theodosius
From this point the western half slowly began to fracture,
first losing Britannia in 410
and then being reduced piece by piece
to just the Italian Peninsula and a few neighbouring regions,
as people from the Barbaricum were pushed over the limes by the Huns.
In the second half of the fifth century,
the political structure in Italy was plagued
by a number of weak emperors,
who were either puppets of Germanic commanders
or men sent by the Eastern Roman Empire
who had little sway over the locals.
The presence of Germanic nobles and officers so close to the halls of power
should not be surprising,
as the Roman armies had incorporated more and more of their kin
and the barbarians had become a considerable number of the soldiers,
thus being integrated into the society,
like the generals Stilicho and Aetius.
By the year 475,
the commander of the troops in Italy, Orestes
deposed the emperor Julius Nepos,
who fled to Dalmatia,
and elevated to the Ravennese throne his son Romulus Augustulus.
The following year
Orestes was defeated and executed by Odoacer,
commander of the Germanic foederati
who had not been paid by the new regime.
Odoacer then ended the string of weak emperors
by deposing Romulus Augustulus
and possibly having Nepos assassinated in 480.
He also sent the imperial regalia to Constantinople
thus proclaiming there was only one emperor.
Odoacer would rule Italy
as King of the Germans living there
and acting as a self-appointed regent for the Eastern Emperors.
His rule ended in 489
when the Gothic prince Theoderic invaded Italy with his people
and established control after four years of war,
founding the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths.
So how was the dissolution of the Empire
felt by the citizens of the Roman Empire?
That’s a hard question to answer
and a few factors have to be taken into consideration:
the geographic location was certainly important,
as certain parts of the state were lost at different times
and under different conditions,
such as Brittany, which was abandoned in 410 during a succession crisis
例如 410年 因一场继任危机 布列塔尼遭舍弃
and was never reabsorbed into the Empire,
while the whole of Gaul was occupied
by Germanic people in less than 10 years:
different events could be catastrophic in one area
while being barely noticeable in others.
Social position also made a difference:
It is hard to know if the average peasant
noticed any change in the state,
because we do not have any testimonies from them,
but we could assume that the daily life of a farmer
did not change much unless they were victims of attack.
On the other hand,
the Roman landowners and aristocracy
that survived the invasions felt a change,
as now they had to come to terms with the new Germanic kings
while the central Roman State disappeared in the periphery.
Lastly, the settlement of some Germanic people
was a slow integration in some parts of the empire
and this could happen over generations,
so even if some change did happen,
it was possibly hardly felt,
while in other regions it was much more traumatic.
We can discern the mood of some inhabitants of the Empire
if we look at some ecclesiastical writers,
who were less interested in the political situation
and instead narrate the lives
and miracles of the saints of the time.
From them, we get different points of view on the social situation,
and it is interesting to see how some authors underline the transformation
which occurred with the arrival of the barbarians,
affirming a point of rupture,
while others minimize their presence,
speaking about a continuation of life and norms.
Of the latter
we have as an example the Life of Saint Germanus of Auxerre
described by Constantius of Lyon:
while narrating the good deeds completed by the bishop
in an invaded Gaul,
we can read a society where the Germanic and Alamannic peoples
are participating in daily life,
and are not the cause of all evils.
On the other side of the coin,
we have Sidonius Apollinaris,
Roman aristocrat and bishop of Auvergne
where he led the Roman resistance against the Visigoths.
He thought that the situation in Gaul was polarized
between a barbaric invader and a dying Roman culture.
A strong supporter of the old Roman norms
that he had been educated in,
he felt that they were constantly in danger from the Germanic people.
In his mind, the only remedy to this decadence
was to escape to the monasteries,
where the Romans could conserve their culture.
Having now painted a general picture of those years,
let us now look at what the contemporaries thought
about the deposition of the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.
One of our most important source of those years
is the Anonymus Valesianus,
an author of whom we have two texts
which describe the events from the age of Constantine
to the end of the reign of Theodoric,
mentions the deposition of 476
commenting that the young Emperor
was allowed to live in exile
in Naples with a pension.
The event is not described with any hint of importance,
and he certainly does not talk
about the end of an Empire or of the Roman world.
As far as the Italian-Romans were concerned,
the empire as a political institution continued to exist.
In fact, the Sack of Rome
perpetrated by Alaric’s Visigoths in 410
had a much greater effect on the writers of the time,
prompting the Christian philosopher and bishop Saint Agostinus
to write his most important work The City of God,
to defend the Christian faith from attacks coming from pagans
who saw Christianity as the cause of the weakness of Rome.
The bishop of Milan Saint Ambrose, contemporary of Agostinus,
underlines the dark times they were living in
and the decline of the empire, not of the church,
something that the historian Ammianus Marcellinus rebuked,
writing that the Empire had always bumped back.
Two interesting figures who wrote a few years later about the events
were Ennodius and Cassiodorus.
Both of them lived under the reign of the first Ostrogothic king of Italy,
and both of them were supporters of Theodoric,
so it is important to underline
that they had the interest to depict the king in a favorable light,
attempting to consolidate his legitimacy
in the eyes of the Roman-Italians and the Eastern Empire.
Ennodius was a clergyman from Gaul
who moved to northern Italy very young,
where he would become bishop of Pavia and Papal envoy.
He gives us an interesting insight
into the mind of an aristocratic Gallo-Roman
with connections both in Italy and in Gaul.
Receiving the education of a Roman aristocrat,
based on the memories of the past splendours,
Ennodius was disenchanted with the situation of the “Empire of Italy”:
the deposition of Romulus was just a substitution of one weak ruler for another,
in a state that had been long declining,
but it was not the culmination of this decline.
His views on the Germanic people are mixed,
as we can see in his biography
of his predecessor Epiphanius, bishop of Pavia.
Here he depicts in much better light the barbarian Ricimer,
a Gothic commander in Italy,
than his counterpart Emperor Anthemius,
who had been sent by the Eastern Empire.
Later the opposite happens
when the rivals are Emperor Nepos and the Visigoth king Euric,
so although he viewed the Romans and the Barbarians differently,
he didn’t have a strong bias in favour of one or the other.
When Odoacer takes control of Italy,
Ennodius makes no mention of Romulus Augustulus,
describing Orestes as a Roman patrician defeated by the foederati.
Odoacer is shown as just another ruler of a declining state,
like his Imperial predecessor,
and only when Theodoric becomes king does the situation improve again.
Cassiodorus was an Italian statesman and historian
who worked for Theoderic
and reached high political positions under the Ostrogoth’s reign,
from around 505 to 535.
He was born around 485,
so a decade after the deposition of the last western emperor,
and he wrote a “History of the Goths”
now lost to us
with the intent of integrating the Gothic world into the Roman.
What remains from him
is a watered-down Chronicle of events and other fragments,
but once again Romulus Augustulus’ deposition is not mentioned;
we can also still discern his opinions
on Odoacer and his arrival to power,
which are similar to Ennodius’.
He is presented as a usurper of the Western Empire,
ineffective and corrupt,
not unlike many others before him:
his act of sending the imperial insignia to Constantinople
is strange for Cassiodorus,
but he does not interpret them as the end of the institutions
nor that the Eastern Roman empire now rules the west.
When the Ostrogoths entered Italy
and established themselves at Ravenna,
the Western Roman Empire
returned partially to its splendour
after a century of decline,
although greatly resized.
So, while it is important to remember
that the author mentioned up till now
certainly had the interest
to portray Theoderic as the legitimate ruler of Italy,
we cannot ignore how little emphasis is put on the year 476.
Certainly, the Empire and the Roman world were in decline in the west,
but it had been so for nearly a century
and the arrival of a barbarian governor as Odoacer
made little difference in the minds of the Romans:
while a usurper in the eyes of many,
he was still the head of what remained of the Empire of Italy,
and that idea had not died.
But what did the eastern writers think about the topic?
Some authors like their western counterparts barely mention it.
The historian Zosimus wrote around the year 510
about the decadence of Rome
and the role of the Chrisitan faith in its decline:
while his work is incomplete,
it was probably meant to end at the Sack of Rome
and he never alludes to the year 476.
However, it did not take long
for the writers of the time to mention the horror
that the deposition of Romulus symbolized,
or rather the disappearance of the Emperors in the Western half of the Roman empire.
The historian Marcellinus Comes of Dalmatia,
who wrote his Chronicle around the year 519,
puts emphasis on the victory of Odoacer,
as does the historian of gothic origins
but of byzantine sympathises Jordanes,
who wrote around 551 the Getica,
a history of the Goths
possibly inspired by Cassiodorus’ lost work.
When talking about the events of 476,
both of them have the exact same comment:
“The Western Roman Empire,
of which title was first taken by August Octavian
in the year 709 from the founding of Rome,
died with this Augustulu”.
The historian Martin Wes has put forward the conjecture
that both of them quoted the Roman aristocrat Memmius Symmachus,
consul under Odoacer and an important figure in Rome
until he and his son-in-law and philosopher Boetius
were executed at the order of Theodoric
in the latter part of his reign.
Should this hypothesis be correct,
it would indicate that some parts of the Roman aristocracy
opposed the new royal power in Italy
and did not look with a good eye to the transition
from Roman emperors to Germanic Kings
such as Odoacer or the Amalians, the family of Theodoric.
However, just like the previous authors,
we have to remember that Marcellinus and Jordanes
possibly had an agenda when writing about these events.
The Eastern Empire barely tolerated
the reigns of Germanic people in the west
and once they had the stability and the resources,
所以 一旦东罗马秩序稳定 资源充足
Emperor Justinian began the reconquest of the regions,
first attacking the Vandals in 533
and two years later beginning the Gothic war
for the reconquest of Italy,
which lasted nearly 20 years.
Because of this,
it was important for the Emperor
to paint the occupation of Italy by the Goths as illegitimate,
both to justify the heavy costs of the war
and to bring on his side the local Italian population.
The historian Procopius does not note it either,
but he was hostile to the Justinian regime
and was sometimes sympathetic with the Goths,
so he might also have had a reason not to mention it.
Later lesser-known Greek authors like Evagrius
后来 不太出名的希腊作家 例如埃瓦格里瓦斯
would continue to acknowledge the year 476
as the end of the Western Roman Empire.
So in the end,
did the Western Roman Empire fall in 476 in the eyes of its citizens?
We would argue that no it did not:
the situation of the Roman government
had been in a constant state of flux for decades
and the arrival of a Barbarian King
who nominally reigned under the name of the Empire
was not a reason to believe that the Roman institution had disappeared.
It is only later when Justinian began his conquest of Italy
when our historical sources begin to underline the importance of the year 476.
We are planning to talk about Justinian in our future videos,
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