Saturday, July 7

The Fall of Rome--Or Not

On this day in the year 476, the fierce barbarian military commander of the Germanic Heruli tribe, Odoacer, marched the Roman legions under his command into the city of Rome. There was little resistance in the city and those few troops which remained loyal to the emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fled at the sight of the Heruli. The emperor himself, had already sought exile in Ravenna. Odoacer, simply marched to the imperial palace and claimed it as his own.

The presumed fall of the Roman Empire was thus hardly a fall at all. Indeed, though historians make much of this date--supposing it to mark the ignominious end of the Roman imperial era--in reality, no one then supposed that the empire ceased to exist.

For centuries before, even though it was governed by two competing emperors--one in the East at Constantinople and one in the West at Rome or Ravenna--the empire continued to be regarded as a single whole. So, when Romulus Augustulus was forced into exile, Odoacer and the other barbarian leaders did not hesitate to recognize the formal and universal overlordship of the Eastern emperor in the great Byzantine city of Constantinople, Zeno.

Though the Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, Visigoths, Lombards, and Burgundians all set up new kingdoms in the Western provinces, they never questioned the abiding significance of the confederated empire. Kingship merely denoted leadership of a clan or a community: such leaders continued to look to the emperor to grant them titles to both land and authority. They used the emperor's image on their coins. They adopted Roman law throughout the provinces. And they paid fealty to their acknowledged lord in goods, services, and arms.

Thus the empire never really ended in an actual fall--it slowly and naturally faded away. Though its actual influence waxed and waned from time to time, deep respect remained for the unity it officially enshrined well into the Medieval era. In fact, some traditionalists--particularly in such places as the Central European domains of Austria and Hungary--maintained some kind of continuity with the old Roman imperium up until the dissolution of the venerable Hapsburg Empire at the conclusion of the First World War.

As a result of all this, when Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in the church of Saint Peter's at Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800--restoring at long last the Western imperial throne--there was less a sense of resurrecting a long lost legacy than of revitalizing a long cherished ideal.

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