Constantine appointed four Caesares (his three sons and one of his nephews), thus
formally following the rules of the Tetrarchy system set by Diocletian. But the sky
of Constantinople did not foster family harmony: Constantine died in May 337 and
already by September Constantine's nephew had been killed. The three sons proclaimed themselves Augusti: they had very similar names:
Constantine II (the elder brother), Constantius II, Constans.
In 340 Constantine II attacked Constans, who had set his residence in Rome; Constantine II was
defeated and killed. The two remaining brothers defined their areas of
responsibility and residences: Constantius II took care of the eastern part of the empire from Constantinople and Constans
of the western one from Rome. They both had to deal with external threats from respectively the Persian Sassanids and German tribes along the Rhine border.
In 350 Magnentius, the general in charge of the Roman legions in Gaul, was proclaimed emperor by his troops and soon after Constans was abandoned by his supporters and killed. Constantius II, after having tried to come to terms with Magnentius had eventually to march against the usurper who was defeated in one of the bloodiest battles in Roman history. Thus Constantius II became the sole ruler of the empire and celebrated his victories by erecting triumphal arches, e.g. that at Carnuntum.
ROMANI D(omino). N(ostro).
FL(avio). IUL(io). CONSTANTIO MAXIMO
TOTO ORBE VICTORI AC
TRIUMFATORI SEMPER AUG(usto).
ROMANI D(omino). N(ostro). FL(avio). IULIO
TOTO ORBE VICTORI
AC TRIUMF(atori) SEMP(er) AUG(usto).
Constantius II spent most of his life in Constantinople or on the battlefield. In 357 he decided to celebrate his twentieth anniversary as emperor in Rome, which he had never visited; he was impressed by the monuments of the city and in particular by the Forum of Trajan. He decided to contribute to its embellishment by ordering the relocation of a tall and old obelisk from Thebes to Rome. The obelisk (now at Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano) was placed at Circus Maximus and is regarded as the last addition to the monuments of Ancient Rome. The Emperor ordered also that another Egyptian obelisk should be moved to Constantinople.
Constantius II soon run into trouble in trying to contain the pressure of a coalition of
German tribes (the Alemanni - all men) on the Roman cities along the Rhine
and at the same time fighting the Sassanids at the eastern border of the empire.
In 355 he entrusted Julian, a young member of his family, with the task of
regaining control of the cities along the Rhine, while he took care of the Sassanid threat.
Julian defeated the Alemanni at Argentoratum (Strasbourg) and took prisoner their king. Constantius II asked Julian to send him troops, as the Sassanids had invaded the Roman part of Mesopotamia. The troops at the orders of Julian refused to relocate and acclaimed their leader Augustus.
Civil war was avoided only by the death in 361 of Constantius II, who, in his last will, recognized Julian as his rightful successor.
Museo Nazionale Romano: (left) Sol Invictus (from a sarcophagus); (right) inscription on a Christian tomb
Julian is known as "The Apostate" because he abandoned the Christian faith he had been raised in.
Julian tried to restore the traditional eclecticism of the Roman State in religious matters by reverting some edicts of Constantius II who had been a fervent Christian (albeit a follower of the Arian heresy) and who had greatly favoured the Christian faith.
Usually Julian's religious policy is attributed to the fact that he completed his education in Ephesus and Athens where he got in touch with some Neoplatonic philosophers. However another important factor behind them was the fact that the troops who had supported him against Constantius II were in general followers of Sol Invictus, a monotheist belief centred around the god Sun. In 362 Julian issued a decree of tolerance, which tried to curtail the growing influence of the Christian churches. He then moved against the Sassanids to retake the towns which Constantius II had lost. His campaign was successful, but inconclusive. He was wounded during a small fight and after a few days he died in June 363.
For centuries the Romans had managed to contain the pressure of the Germanic
tribes living beyond the Rhine/Danube line. In the IIIrd century tribes moved from Sweden
towards the Black Sea; their name Goths is generally attributed to the Swedish
island of Gotland. They crossed the Danube in 263, but by 271 they were driven back:
a part of them, Visigoths (Western Goths) settled in Dacia (Romania), while other tribes returned towards today's Ukraine
and were called Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths).
For nearly a century the Visigoths lived in relative peace with their Roman neighbours and they converted to the Christian faith in its Arian version.
In 370 circa the Visigoths asked permission to relocate south of the Danube into today's Bulgaria because nomadic tribes (eventually known as Huns) from Asia had moved into Europe and had dislodged the Visigoths from their usual pasture areas.
At that time the empire was ruled by two brothers: Valentinian I and Valens. Valentinian I usually resided either in Milan or in Augusta Treverorum (today's Trier) to better control the northern border of the empire; Valens took care of the eastern border and set his residence in Constantinople. Valens who was a supporter of the Arian heresy and who had great difficulties in recruiting and paying enough soldiers to defend Syria from the attacks of the Sassanids, agreed to the Visigoths' request in the hope that they could provide him with cheap mercenary troops.
What was planned to be a controlled migration soon became an invasion as the Ostrogoths joined the Visigoths south of the Danube and also because behind the formidable barrier constituted by the river and the fortified towns on its right bank there was no other line of defence.
Very soon relations between the Goths and the locals became tense: the main towns of Moesia (Bulgaria) and Thracia (European Turkey) were raided and Constantinople was threatened. Valens returned from Syria to Constantinople, but rather than relying on the city walls and on the fleet to smother the attack of the Goths, he decided to engage them. At Adrianopolis (Edirne) in 378 the imperial troops were defeated and the emperor himself lost his life.
Inscription celebrating Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius for the restoration or construction of an unidentified building or monument (today near Basilica Julia)
Text of the inscription:
DOMINIS OMNIUM GRATIANO VALENTINIANO ET THEODOSIO IMPERATORIB. AUG.
L. VAL. SEPT. BASS(us) V(ir) C(larissimus) PRAEF(ectus) URB(is) MAIESTATI EORUM DICATU(m).
In the western part of the empire Emperor Valentinian I and after his death in 375 his elder son Gratian managed to control the pressure of hostile tribes along the Rhine border and maintained the control of the right bank of the Danube in Austria and Hungary. Their religious policy in favour of the Christians was carefully crafted to avoid losing the support of that part of the population and of the troops who still believed in other faiths.
Musei Vaticani: cast of the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus: details showing the Sacrifice of Isaac, St. Peter's arrest and a young Jesus in Heaven between St. Peter and St. Paul
This sarcophagus was found in 1597 during the construction of S. Pietro Nuovo. It belonged to Junius Bassus, praefectus Urbis, governor of Rome, in 359 and the son of Junius Annius Bassus. Rome was under the administration of a praefectus Urbis, appointed by the emperor: he took care of the maintenance and restoration of its main buildings including some of the temples: an inscription on Portico degli Dei Consenti celebrates a restoration by the praefectus Urbis in 367, an indication that in Rome many people still believed in the old gods, even though the praefectus Urbis might have been a Christian.
At the death of Valens in 378 Gratian (who shared the control of the western part of the empire
with his half-brother Valentinian II, who was then a child of seven) appointed as co-emperor Theodosius,
a general from Spain who had a good knowledge of the lower Danube region, having commanded the Roman legions there for several years.
Theodosius was charged with the containment of the Goths who had by now permanently settled south of the Danube.
Theodosius realized that he had not enough strength to drive them out and so in 382 he signed a foedus (agreement) with them by which they were entitled to live and rule with their own laws in a territory within the borders of the empire: they had no full citizen rights, but they could be part of the Roman army under the command of their own leaders. This agreement paved the way for the gradual dissolution of the Roman army based on a compulsory draft and its replacement by mercenary troops.
In 383 Gratian was killed while trying to crush a rebellion by Magnus Maximus, commander of the Roman legions in Britain: for a few years there were three co-emperors: Valentinian II had the control of Italy and Africa, Theodosius that of the eastern provinces and Magnus Maximus ruled over Britain, Gaul and Spain.
In 387 Maximus made an attempt to invade Italy, but in 388 he was defeated by Theodosius who then stayed for some years in Italy and in particular in Milan, where Ambrose, the local bishop, had a great influence on him to the point that Theodosius issued a series of decrees to actually implement the 380 Edict of Thessalonica which declared the Christian faith (in its Nicene creed) the sole religion of the Roman Empire.
Römisch-Germanischen Museum - Cologne: inscription celebrating the repair of a building by a local officer at the initiative of Arbogastes during the reigns of Emperor Theodosius (and his son Arcadius) and Emperor Eugenius. Assumed full text: "[Salvis domini]s et Imperatoribus nost/[ris Fl(avio) Theodo]sio Fl(avio) Arcadio et Fl(avio) Eugenio / [vetustat]e conlabsam(!) iussu viri cl(arissimi) / [et inl(ustris) Arboga]stis comitis et instantia v(iri) c(larissimi) / [co]mitis domesticorum ei(us) / [a fundament]is ex integro opere faciun/[dam cura]vit magister pr(ivatae?) Aelius"
In May 392 Valentinian II committed suicide or was killed at the instigation of Arbogastes, the commander of the legions in Gaul, who supported the appointment of Flavius Eugenius, an administrative officer of Roman birth, as the new co-emperor. Theodosius reacted and with an army mainly constituted of Visigoths and other tribes which had resettled in the Balkan peninsula he marched against Arbogastes, whose troops were still attached to the traditional beliefs.
Victoria and Albert (left) and British Museum (right): two ivory panels which belonged to the family of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (345-402), a Roman senator who tried to preserve the ancient beliefs; they show a traditional sacrifice on an altar and the apotheosis of an emperor (or of Symmachus); the third panel shows Bellerophon killing Chimera, a pagan myth which however Christians could see as the triumph of their faith
At the Battle of the River Frigidus in north eastern Italy in September 394 Arbogastes was defeated and with him the last attempt of restoring the old religion. As a consequence the whole of northern Italy became Christian and the Visigoths resettled in today's Croatia and Hungary: Theodosius had managed to remove them away from Constantinople, but they were now at the doorstep of Italy.
Archaeological Museum of Ephesus: relief from Hadrian's Temple portraying
Emperor Theodosius among the Olympian gods: (1) Arcadius, Theodosius' son; (2) Artemis; (3) Theodosius' wife; (4) Theodosius; (5) Athena
Theodosius mainly devoted his attention to Constantinople where he built the Golden Gate and
several other monuments.
In Rome the praefectus Urbis celebrated the emperor by erecting statues to him in the Forum.
Notwithstanding his religious policy and belief, in Ephesus he was portrayed among the Olympian gods.
In 395 Theodosius died leaving the throne to his two young sons Arcadius and Honorius.
He placed Honorius (who was then ten) under the tutelage of Stilicho,
a general who had helped him in raising the army with
which he had defeated Arbogastes. Although Theodosius did not mean to split the empire,
historians traditionally associate Arcadius and Honorius
with its division into a Western Roman Empire ruled by Honorius
and an Eastern Roman Empire ruled by Arcadius.
Stilicho managed to contain the threat of the Visigoths, who, led by King Alaric, had crossed the Alps in 402. Honorius, who had set his residence in Milan, had to move to Ravenna which was protected by marshes and was more easily defensible. In 402 Stilicho defeated Alaric at Pollentia in northern Italy forcing him out of Italy. Stilicho's father was a Vandal, a Germanic tribe who had settled on the right bank of the Danube, and an Arian; he mainly relied on commanders having the same background and faith; his influence on Honorius raised the envy of members of the court and over time Honorius himself got suspicious about his father-in-law (he had married Stilicho's daughter). Eventually in 408 Honorius relieved Stilicho from his duty and soon after the old general was killed. The officers and troops of Germanic origin were slain by the Italian components of the army: those who escaped asked Alaric to come to their rescue, thus the Visigoths crossed the Alps and without caring about Ravenna moved towards Rome. In September they stood outside its walls. Alaric eventually accepted to retreat and to allow supplies into the sieged city, but in 410 he was again surrounding Rome with his troops, after having razed some minor towns, e.g. Urbs Salvia, to the ground.
On August 24 Alaric and his Visigoths broke into the streets of Rome and sacked the city for three days. They were searching for gold and silver and they found them in the temples to the old gods.
The Western Roman Empire collapsed during the reign of Honorius: in 406 Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and invaded northern France and subsequently Spain; the Roman legions abandoned Britain; the Visigoths, after having sacked for a second time Rome, settled in southern France. The direct authority of Honorius at his death in 423 was limited to Italy and Africa (Tunisia).
(left) Porta Tiburtina: upper part of the gate with inscription celebrating Arcadius, Honorius and Stilicho;
(right) Porta S. Sebastiano: cross celebrating Stilicho's victory against the Visigoths at the battle of Pollentia
Text of the barely visible inscription:
VICTORIBUS AC TRIUMPHATORIBUS OB INSTAURATOS URBIS AETERNAE
MUROS PORTAS AC TURRES (followed by the erased reference to Stilicho).
Between 401 and 403 Stilicho promoted the strengthening of the walls of Rome: some gates were closed, others were reduced in size or modified to form a sort of small castle, e.g. Porta Ostiensis. The height of the walls was almost doubled, but there were fewer platform for placing catapults and other defence engines.
The faith in Rome and in its resurrection was not however totally lost: a Roman citizen from southern France on his way back home in 415 wrote a poem on this subject which can be regarded as the best epitaph to the glory of Ancient Rome.
|Exaudi, regina tui pulcherrima mundi,
inter sidereos, Roma, recepta polos;
exaudi, genetrix hominum genetrixque deorum:
Non procul a caelo per tua templa sumus.
Te canimus semperque, sinent dum fata, canemus:
Sospes nemo potest immemor esse tui.
Rutilius Namatianus - De Reditu Suo - I:vv 47-52
|Hear me Rome, Queen of the world|
and brightest jewel in the vault of Heaven.
Hear me, mother of men and gods:
your temples bring Heaven near;
we chant your praise as long as we have breath.
No man will ever be safe if he forgets you.
English translation by Harold Isbell
British Museum: four ivory panels with Christian subjects dated 420-430. They were bought in Rome in ca 1850 by Gábor Fejérváry, a Hungarian collector of antiquities, in particular ivories. They show that Rome was still a manufacturing centre of luxury goods, notwithstanding its political decline
The official fall of the Western Roman Empire is traditionally set at the year 476 when Odoacer,
the commander of the troops in control of Italy deposed Emperor Romulus
Augustus and sent to Constantinople the imperial insignia.
The ten emperors who officially ruled the Western Roman Empire between the death of Honorius in 423 and 476 were just puppets in the hands of the magister militum, the commander of the army.
For twenty years (431-454) the strong man was Flavius Aetius, who having spent some years as hostage of the Huns, convinced some of their tribes to follow him in Italy. He initially managed to control his troops and with their help defeated the Visigoths and tried to regain control of Gaul.
In 451 Attila, leader of the Huns, invaded Gaul, but was repelled by Aetius and most probably while retreating towards its base in Hungary he raided northern Italy and razed Aquileia to the ground. According to the Christian tradition at the River Po he met an embassy led by Pope Leo I. Attila was warned by Leo not to cross the river: the Pope's words and the miraculous vision in the sky of St. Paul and St. Peter threatening him with their swords convinced Attila not to go further. The image used as a background for this page shows Attila as portrayed by Alessandro Algardi in a large relief.
A rare inscription celebrating Emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III for the construction of a portico at Porto; it was placed by Flavius Alexander Cresconius "Praefectus Urbis"; the two emperors were first cousins and Valentinian married the daughter of Theodosius
Emperor Valentinian III, who was under the tutelage of his mother Galla Placidia for many years, personally killed Aetius in 454 at the court of Ravenna in what is considered to be his one and only fatal decision.
Without Aetius' firm handling of the troops, Italy was left defenceless. In 455 Genseric, head of the Vandals, a Germanic tribe he had led to the conquest of Africa (Tunisia), landed at Ostia and easily conquered Rome. The sack which followed was so damaging that it granted the Vandals such a reputation that their name became a synonym for deliberate destruction.
Rome greatly relied upon supplies from Africa and so Ricimer, the strong man who had replaced Aetius, devoted his efforts at trying to regain control of that province. He eventually became an ally of the Vandals and in 472, when one of the puppet emperors rebelled, he occupied and sacked the city.
He died shortly afterwards in what was seen as a curse which had already caused the death of Alaric soon after his conquest of Rome.
Odoacer, the strong man who emerged after the death of Ricimer, chose not to rule through puppet emperors and after having deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus (an adolescent and maybe even a child) he sent back to Constantinople the imperial insignia and in return he was appointed dux Italiae by the Eastern Roman Emperor. Italy seemed set on the path which eventually turned the kingdoms established by Germanic rulers in the former Roman provinces into some of the European nations (e.g. France and Spain).
The last Roman victory was celebrated in 470 by adding a small wall to the Rostra where the Romans used to place the bronze beaks of enemy ships. A modest inscription bearing the name of Ulpius Giunius Valentinus, Praefectus Urbis, celebrated a naval fight against the Vandals which most likely had meant some more regular supplies for the still large population of Rome.
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page; they open in another window:
Ambrose and Theodosius by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641).
Ambrose converting Theodosius by Pierre Subleyras.
Pope Leo and Attila by Raphael - 1514.
Attila - Opera by Giuseppe Verdi - 1846.
Next page: Part II: Medieval Rome
I - Byzantine Rome
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine