474 to 476 CE
In which we kill off the Western Roman Empire, and then dig through the remains to try and figure out what happened. More importantly, where do we go from here?
Here we are ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, come to witness the end of the Roman Empire in the west, to watch the last handful of men attempt to make themselves masters of the world and then fizzle out in a matter of a few months. It feels a little morbid, does it not? A little like that episode of Dr Who, where everyone has gathered to watch the sun die. At least no one here will be demanding to be moisturized.
We’ll see what exactly it means when an empire falls, and whether anyone noticed. And then we’ll take a walk around the wreckage, gathering fuel for the foreshadowing machine, and look ahead to what I’m calling Season 2.
But before we foreshadow, we must call back, and I must remind you of where we stand. I must do this because I have been slightly scattered in my approach over the last three episodes, but now it will all come together in one beautiful harmonious whole … I hope.
The main players we had left were the Master of soldiers and actual power of the empire Ricimer, who had just off’d his third emperor in a row, Anthemius, and placed a guy named Olybrius on top of the pole instead. You’ll remember Olybrius, he’s been up for the top job twice before, and lost out because of his uncomfortably close relationship with King Gaiseric of the Vandals. This was evidently not what the eastern emperor Leo had had in mind when he’d sent Olybrius to mediate the conflict between Ricimer and Anthemius, and he refused to recognize Olybrius’ elevation. As far as Constantinople was concerned, there hadn’t been a legitimate emperor in the west since Majorian, so eleven years. Actually, we’re not sure that Majorian ever was formally accepted by the East, but he and Leo were named as co-consuls at one point, so that seems legit enough to me.
We would expect then, another period of strife and rancor, surely? With Ricimer and Gaiseric duking it out over who could influence Olybrius the most, and Leo putting his disapproving hand in as well. Well no, actually. If that kind of thing was going on, the traces of it have not come down to us, and the reign of Olybrius seems to have been overall uneventful. He was mostly interested in renovating churches, and left the running of things to Ricimer, which suited him just fine. Or it would have, if he’d had time to have an opinion. Ricimer died in August of 472, just about a month after he’d put Olybrius on the throne, from some kind of hemorrhage. I imagine the stress finally got to him.
I can’t say that I’ll miss Ricimer, he comes across to me as self-interested and ruthless, and not in a charming Peter Baelish way, more in a bullying, Cersei Lannister way. Ricimer had been the ruling power in the Western empire for eleven years. He was around 54 years old.
Now don’t worry about Olybrius, he won’t have to suddenly start working or anything. Ricimer’s place as magister militum and patrician was smoothly taken over by his nephew. The kid’s name was Gundobad, and he was by birth a Burgundian. I say kid because he was around twenty years old at the time. It was Gundobad, by some accounts, that had relieved Anthemius of his head when everything went pear-shaped for him. It’s good to have someone motivated in charge.
I’m probably being unfair to Olybrius, since the truth is he didn’t really have time to accomplish anything anyway. He died in November, just seven months after he’d arrived in Italy. Apparently he died of dropsy, which a doctor now would call edema, and the rest of us would call swelling. Lots of things could have caused it; poison’s not out of the question, but the vast bulk of probability is that he had some kind of heart condition.
Gundobad showed himself every bit his uncle’s nephew, and dithered and hemmed and hawed for months about naming Olybrius’ successor. Eventually he picked the commander of his palace guard, named Glycerius.
Now I am aware that I just introduced and then disposed of a whole Roman emperor in about 400 words. Partly it’s because I assume most of you have already listened to Mike Duncan, and already know quite a bit of this part. Partly it’s because the thing about the last handful of guys is that none of them had much to do with the actual running of the empire. Sometimes they’re called the ephemeral emperors. Anthemius was the last one to have anything close to a hope in hell of getting anything done, and he was hamstrung by his short sighted and power hungry magister militum. But, really, I stand by my opinion that once Majorian’s invasion of vandal Africa was strangled in the cradle in 460, returning Rome to any kind of position of authority was beyond the competence of any man. So let’s set these last guys up and knock them back down.
If you cast your mind back to episode 19, King Euric, you might recall that Euric of the Visigoths was having a run of successes in Spain and up into the north of Gaul. In 473, he decided to push for even greater success, and sent an army commanded by his general Vincentius to invade Italy. What his objective was exactly I don’t know, since Glycerius dispatched his own army to intercept the Visigoths, and defeated them. Vincentius was killed, and Euric instead deployed his forces closer to home. Arles and Marseilles fell to him shortly thereafter, which was a blow to the empire, sure, but Italy remained secure.
Another threat emerged almost immediately from the opposite direction. Ostrogoths from Pannonia, led by a chief called Vidimer. This was a rival of the Amal dynasty that had taken up residence along the Danube, and he was looking to find his own place inside the empire’s tent. He threatened to invade Italy and win lands for himself and his men, and Leo probably encouraged him. Not the last time this tactic would be deployed by the rulers of the East. Glycerius, though, bought Vidimer off and the Ostrogoths were redirected to Gaul and Euric’s court. What happened next isn’t clear. Some authors find evidence in names that come up in later chronicles that the Ostrogoths assimilated into the Visigothic court, and effectively added to Euric’s army, while others believe they were attacked and wiped out. The truth is probably some combination of those two extremes, with the defeated finding a subordinate place in Euric’s court.
It’s hard to have a good sense of Glycerius’ personality. He’s described by a Byzantine chronicler named Theophanes as a “not despicable man”, which is nice but not very helpful. As before, the real driver of imperial policy was the magister militum, Gundabad. Under Gundabad’s guidance there wasn’t even a headfake toward regaining territory, which was noticed and commented on at the time. Contemporaries seemed to be waking up to the idea that the empire was in real trouble. We may scoff at this, I mean, it’s about time, but long term trends are rarely visible when we’re in the middle of them. Coins minted by Glycerius are mostly found concentrated in the north of Italy, around Milan and Ravenna, which suggests his writ didn’t run as far as would have hoped. It was equally telling, in a way, that when an opportunity arose for Gundabad to claim the kingship of the Burgundians, he took it, and left Glycerius to his own devices. Kingship of a barbarian kingdom had become more attractive and prestigious than effective rule of the Roman Empire.
Glycerius was just as unacceptable to Leo in Constantinople as his predecessors, and he was finally in a position to do something about it. He had gotten in touch with the Governor of Dalmatia, Julius Nepos. Technically, Dalmatia fell in the West’s sphere of responsibility, but the province had been effectively autonomous for some time now. Nepos was the nephew of the former governor of the territory, Marcelinus, who you may remember being one of the competent leaders of the east’s attempt to retake north africa, the one that Basiliscus blew with his fecklessness. Leo told Julius Nepos that if he could take it, the western throne was his. Nepos was game and gathered a force. In the meantime, Leo died, but the new man in the East, emperor Zeno, was just as supportive of Nepos’ mission, so he crossed over to Italy in the Spring of 474.
The army in Italy had been loyal to Gundobad, not Glycerius, and he put up no resistance. It’s possible he was convinced by an offer of clemency, which is what he got. In a pretty unprecedented move, Glycerius was allowed to live, and was ordained as Bishop of Salona – modern Split, in Croatia. That made him Nepos’ bishop, and unfortunately we don’t know anything about their relationship after that. Did Glycerius take Nepos’ confession? Did they have dinner together? History often leaves us without answers to the most pressing questions, though there is the suggestion that Glycerius was in some way involved in Nepos’ eventual assasination, so I’m thinking there must have been some awkwardness.
Nepos was acclaimed and crowned in Rome in June of 474 – he would be the last man to be so crowned for 326 years.
His legitimacy was pretty widely accepted, and he was right off the bat more successful than Glycerius had been. His coins are found all over Italy, unlike Glycerius’. Nepos was recognized by Syagrius, up in Northern Gaul, and he negotiated new treaties with his Barbarian neighbors, and seemed most focused on improving the imperial position in Gaul. The Burgundians were reconfirmed as federati, but he was less successful with the Visigoths. Southern GAul was still a war zone, and Nepos appointed a new prefect, named Ecdicius, to force the confident Euric back. Ecdicius did manage to push Euric back from Arles, but didn’t have the men to make his accomplishments permanent.
A new treaty was worked out, and for the first time, the Kingdom of Toulouse was recognized as an independent entity, like Vandal North Africa. It may just have been confirming what was already reality, but the symbolic importance remained. As part of the deal, Euric agreed not to seek any more territorial gains in Italy or in Gaul east of the Rhone, and Provence was returned to Italian control. In return, the Auvergne was ceded to the Visigoths. That was personally problematic for our friend Sidonius Appolinaris, who was captured and held as a prisoner for a short while. He came out okay in the end though, and returned to work as the bishop of Clermont-Ferrand.
Nepos had the same problem that had plagued his predecessors. His base of support was too narrow to give him any long term prospects. Having the eastern empire’s stamp of approval was all well and good, but Zeno was a long way away, and not much practical help day to day. After the failure in Gaul, Nepos replaced Ecdicius with someone we’ve met before. The new Magister Militum was a Roman named Orestes, who we last saw as one of Atilla the Hun’s chief advisors and bodyguard. Orestes brought with him federati from among the tribes that had been wandering around in the aftermath of the Huns’ fall, including Herules and Sciri, who we talked about a bit in episode 20. He was, truth be told, a poor choice by Nepos, and it was less than a year before Orestes raised the army in revolt and took control of Ravenna. Nepos knew he was outmatched and fled by ship across the sea, back to his old headquarters in Salona, Dalmatia. He could have commiserated with bishop Glycerius there, maybe grown some cabbages. He never gave up his claim on the imperial title, but never managed to do anything about it either, before he died in 480, assassinated by his own bodyguards.
For reasons that aren’t clear, Orestes did not take the purple for himself, and instead placed the imperial diadem on his son’s head. The new emperor was named Romulus, often called Augustulus – the little Augustus. I am not the first nor will I be the last person to point out the irony that the last ruler of Rome’s empire shared the name of the city’s founder. There’s a reason some people think that fate has a sense of humor, twisted though it may be.
Orestes’ ship ran up against a rock that had plagued many of his predecessors, he had promised his soldiers land if they would back his coup, and now he couldn’t deliver on his promise. They chose one of their captains, who we have also met before, a Scirian named Odoacer, to lead them in revolt. Orestes put up more of a fight than Nepos did, but only just. He was caught with a few men trying to reach the safety of Ravenna, quickly defeated, and killed.
Odoacer entered Ravenna and strode into the imperial palace, looking for the emperor. I imagine Odoacer striding into a room, Orestes’ blood still on his sword. He found the ten or eleven year old Romulus, in my mind trembling in a corner somewhere. Odoacer’s victory had been easy and was complete. He could afford to be merciful. Put another way, Romulus wasn’t worth killing. He and his mother were sent south, given a villa on an island in the bay of Naples and a pension sufficient to maintain him at a senator’s rank. We don’t know when he died exactly, probably after 511, which just underlines how complete a non-entity he was, as if such underlining was necessary, but we know it wasn’t at the hands of the usurper.
Odoacer gathered up the imperial regalia and sent it to emperor Zeno in Constantinople. He included a note. There was no need for two emperors any more, Zeno could do it on his own. Just make Odoacer patrician, the lead official in Italy, and he would look over the peninsula in Zeno’s name. But don’t get any ideas about sending any armies to replace him, those days are over. Among his own people, and on a few coins, Odoacer referred to himself as Rex Italia, and in spite of Syagrius’ domain in the north, and Julius Nepos’ bleating in Dalmatia, the western empire was dead. The famous date is 4 September, 476. Almost exactly one thousand five hundred and forty-six years ago. I didn’t do that on purpose, it just worked out that way.
So that’s it. It’s over. I would not be saying anything terribly original or clever were I to say something about bangs and whimpers. And here would also be the traditional place to talk about why it all happened, as if there could be one thing that brings to an end something as vast as the Roman empire. Edward Gibbon famously put forward the adoption of Christianity as a key factor, saying that it sapped the warlike energy of Rome and turned attention inward to doctrinal conflict rather than dealing with external barbarian threats. That thesis has been controversial from day one, and I’m here to say for the record that I don’t buy it at all. Others point to economic changes, administrative changes, the sheer weight of barbarian migrations overwhelming the state’s resources, the withdrawal of the elites from civic engagement and the resulting degradation of infrastructure. All of these probably played a part. There isn’t a simple answer, there isn’t just one reason. I’m sorry if that’s vague and a little bit mealy-mouthed, but I’m a nerd in a basement, not a professional historian, and this question is above my pay grade.
One place I will plant my flag is that no one person or people actually set out to kill the empire. I doubt such a thing would even have occurred to anyone as being possible. The worst offenders against the imperial order – and here I’m thinking specifically of Ricimer – did so out of short-sighted self-interest, not hostility to the order. Indeed the imperial system was what gave such men power, destroying the empire would be self-defeating. A line in a textbook called Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, by Guy Halsall, sums it up beautifully: “The Roman empire was not murdered, and it did not die a natural death; it accidentally commited suicide.” It isn’t fair to expect the individuals of the time to have the same broad perspective that we have now. We certainly don’t have that perspective on our own time. With our historical perspective, we’re a bit like Vonnegut’s aliens, who can see all of time as if it were a single mountain range; all we can do is shake our heads and say “so it goes”.
Likewise, none of the barbarian people set out to bring down the empire, not even Attila. They all, to one degree or another, came to depend on the Romans, for trade, for political support, and most were savvy enough to recognize the benefits of the Roman administrative tradition once they had direct experience of it. In that speech attributed to Ataulf the Visigoth, as he married the Galla Placidia, the essential virtue of the empire was succinctly expressed: “without law a state is not a state”, and of all the legacies left by the empire, its law would be the most enduring, perhaps second only to its language.
It’s all very well to say that the western Roman Empire came to end. But what does that mean? What actually changed when Romulus Augustulus was removed? All of that is politics at the very top level, how much difference did it make to the other levels?
It depended a lot on where and who you were.
We already talked about Britannia, and that was definitely one end of the spectrum. Complete political and civil breakdown, leading to the easy replacement of the cultural remnants by a new culture. Let’s take a look at what was happening around the rest of the empire, to do so, we’ll focus on two themes, towns and graveyards.
Graveyard archaeology is one of the most, if not the most important non-literary sources for the fifth century. While the literary sources paint a picture of breakdown and chaos, the cemeteries can seem confusing, even contradictory, since they often don’t bear the signs we might expect of such an apocalypse
They do show change, though. Across Western Europe in the fifth century furnished graves appear, meaning things are deliberately placed on or around the body. This was in sharp contrast to previous Roman practices. In pagan times, cremation had been the main funeral rite, being replaced by inhumation in simple, unadorned clothing or shrouds as Christianity arrived and stressed the need for physical resurrection.
The items found in these graves are pretty well differentiated between genders, with weapons (except knives, which are found equally in both) found in mens graves, jewelry in womens. For a long time, these graves were interpreted as those of the new Germanic arrivals, that these were cultural leftovers of Germanic pagan practices, filtering into the Roman world. But the current scholarship has doubts about that. The styles of ornamentation seen as “germanic” had already become pretty well ubiquitous in Roman military culture, and many of them, especially men’s belt sets, are now recognized as official signifiers of military service or rank. We have contemporary gravesites to compare from areas of Germania and Scandinavia, that would have definitely been carried out with Pagan rites, and there really isn’t much similarity. Neither Christian or Pagan cosmology included an idea of objects being useful in the afterlife, on the Egyptian model, so why was all this stuff being put into these graves?
The answer to that can be found in the simple aphorism that funerals aren’t for the dead, they’re for the living.
In almost all cases, across the board, furnished graves make up 15% or less of the total interments in the cemetery, and are usually found grouped together, suggesting a family connection. The current thinking is that this practice is a way of displaying the deceased and the deceased’s family’s power and prestige, and thereby reinforce that power and prestige. Furnished graves are more common in border areas, where we know there was political conflict, and become more common also in time periods where there is other evidence of strife. What that means overall, then, is that the traditional markers of political influence have begun to break down. The old authority has disappeared, and the aristocratic families have found themselves without the automatic prestige that imperial connection used to grant them. The new game in town is entirely military, and almost entirely barbarian. So in order to convince their communities – and maybe themselves – of their continued relevance, families bury their loved ones with anything they can that will associate them with this new authority and source of legitimacy. Many of the bodies found in these cemeteries probably are of Germanic descent. But many others of them are those of the scions of old Roman families who have had to change the face they show the world. The new power was Gothic or Frankish, and if you wanted to stay powerful, then you would do your best to look like a Goth or a Frank.
The funeral display also emphasizes the local nature of the new structure. There used to be little point in this kind of thing, since the people you needed to impress weren’t around day to day, they lived in the urban centers, or in Rome or Ravenna, or wherever. Now the big man may have been coming around regularly, so it paid to look important in a very immediate and practical way. And on the other hand, it also paid to remind the hoi polloi who their betters were on a regular basis, since the patina of imperial authority was no longer available to fall back on. Horizons had contracted considerably.
We see this contraction in other parts of life too. Pretty consistently, across the empire, the public spaces of the towns fall into disuse. Fora, the central squares that had been the heart of social and political life, were in some places built over by local elites, in others we see them converted into cemeteries, or even rubbish pits. Urban life, as in Britain, sees a significant contraction in a lot of places, as the population becomes more rural. That doesn’t mean that all building stopped, by any means, but there’s a clear shift, and much of the new building is centered on churches. The shift in society’s values was clear, from the civic to the religious, from the urban to the rural, from the national (to use an anachronistic word quite improperly) to the local. By way of an extreme example, when Aquilea was refounded after it had been razed to the ground by Attila in 453, the new city limits included the footprint of the old cathedral, but not that of the forum.
There was variation in this pattern, of course, from one place to another, but that’s the general pattern. Some people like to say that commoners wouldn’t have noticed the loss of the empire, but the evidence says otherwise. Even if they wouldn’t have understood the mechanisms of the changes, they would have noticed the changes, as prices changed, landlords changed, and the rhetoric that their overlords used changed. Saying they wouldn’t notice, is reductive and underestimates the intelligence of the average person. That may be a pet peeve of mine, but I thought it was worth pointing out.
Now, by way of an end of unit review kind of thing, let’s take a flying tour around the empire and see the situation as we leave it, and as a preview of what comes next.
Britain is lost, devolved into a patchwork of rival warlords and petty kings, soon to be colonized and remade by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
Across the channel in Northern Gaul, the so-called Domain of Soissons clings on to a vaguely defined territory between the Loire and the Somme, maybe further east. Its ruler Syagrius is nominally Roman but in practice is propped up by Frankish fighters. It won’t be long before the Franks make their move. Meanwhile, in the remote and forested lands to their west, refugees from Britain are creating a new entity called Brittany.
South across the Loire, King Euric the Visigoth is supreme in his capital at Toulouse. The Visigothic kingdom is the largest of the new kingdoms, with borders at the Loire and the Rhone in Gaul, stretching all the way across the Pyrinees to claim control – at least on paper – of most of the Iberian peninsula. His Gallic lands boast the most intact Roman administrative system, which has simply shifted their loyalties to the Visigoth elite and give Euric greater control and revenue-collecting abilities than most of his neighbors. In the south, in Hispania, things are more chaotic, and for the moment the Visigoths treat the land on the other side of the mountains as hinterland to extract tribute from, rather than really rule, so most of Spain is in the day to day control of local government. City life seems to have survived longer in Iberia than elsewhere, so local control has centers it can work from.
The exception is in the Northwest, where Suevi kings still hold on to power and exert some central control. But they’ve been living on borrowed time, and won’t be able to cling on much longer.
The remaining section of Gaul and parts of Noricum belong to the Burgundians, for whom fortune’s wheel has perhaps spun the fastest, swinging between independence and subjugation with a quickness that’s hard to keep track of. I haven’t spoken much about them, which is a regret, and one that I probably am not going to ultimately correct.
Yet further south, past the pillars of Hercules, we find that Moorish rulers are engaged in carving out small kingdoms in the power vacuum left by the Vandal invasions. We don’t know much about these, not even exactly how many of them there were. Most of the evidence for them is in the form of inscriptions, and these show an intriguing mix being formed of Roman traditions combined with those of the desert raiders, with some rulers even claiming the title of emperor – at least over their patch.
Meanwhile, Gaiseric remains king of the richest parts of Africa. The elder statesman of the Mediterranean, he presides over a society that remains culturally Roman – indeed it’s commonly noted that if we relied on archeology alone, the vandal invasion would be completely invisible. But his presence, and his naval power, will keep the Vandals relevant, and threatening well into the next century.
In Italy itself, Odoacer sits as the new ruler of something called the Kingdom of Italy. The senatorial class remains, landed and rich, but Odoacer has an army to reward as well as a kingdom to run, and will have to find a way to do both without losing the support of either, while fending off the predations of raiders from the north and east, as well as the disapproving gaze of Constantinople.
I haven’t talked about what’s been going on in Constantinople for quite a while. And to be honest, that’s probably not going to change much. I don’t plan on talking too much about the Eastern Roman Empire – or Byzantium, as we have come to call it – because I’ve got enough plates to keep spinning, number one, and number two I could never hope to compete with Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium Podcast. Go check it out, if you haven’t, and let him know i sent you. Just know for now that the Eastern empire has been through its own rough patch, but will come out of the fifth century in okay shape. The Persian empire remains the great Rival, though around the edges there remain steppe people in the north and arabs in the south who can make a nuisance of themselves from time to time. The east still holds the Balkans, Greece, Anatolia, the Levant, and wealthy wealthy Egypt. It’s still the center of most Christian thought and Philosophy, hosting three of the four patriarchies of the church, in Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople itself. When we do talk about the East, It will most likely be in relation to its religious significance, at least at first, and the conflicts with the pope that are on the way.
The lands outside the old frontiers remain hidden to much of history, visible mostly through archeology; there are still Germanic tribes in the forests and bogs of Germania and Scandinavia. Some of them are forming new confederations, most notably a tribe called the Langobards – the long beards, who will make themselves known in the next century. The Gepid kingdom is growing in importance nestled in the Carpathian Basin, and on the Steppes, in the unending swirl of peoples, new forces are appearing to stir things up again, in the form of the Avars. And the slavs will also appear to add themselves to the list of nuisances the eastern empire will have to contend with.
The next century will be the story of all of these people coming to terms with the new realities of life, and finding a way to blend together the old roman ways and the old barbarian ways, and make them into something new.
That brings us to the end of this first season of The Dark Ages Podcast. I’ll be honest, this took many more episodes than I expected it to. Twenty two episodes to cover 100 years. But looking back, I’m more conscious of the things I left out than the things I shouldn’t have put in.
I’ve mentioned before that I was planning to take a hiatus to catch up on reading and such things, as well as implement some of the changes and upgrades I have in mind. I’m looking at about six weeks off. Which puts my date of return at October 24. That is, like all parts of the production schedule around these parts, a soft date. I’ll try to let you all know how it’s going through social media.
Now, as to the question of content: I haven’t completely made up my mind about the order in which I want to tackle things in the next season. The general idea is to focus on the sixth century, the way this season has been more or less focused on the fifth century. Before I start on the political narrative, though, I thought I would kick off with some themed episodes. So for example, I know that I want to do an episode on warfare in the period. Other ideas include the papacy, and maybe a biography or two. I want to get in some of the social stuff that’s been missing up to now, so we all have a clearer idea of what the world looked like. What I really want here is your input. Seriously. So if you have any ideas or suggestions about the kind of thing you’d like to hear more about, please oh please visit the contact page at darkagespod.com, where you can also check out transcripts for most of the episodes, and take a gander at my sources. If typing in urls isn’t your thing, you can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, though that does involve slightly more keystrokes.
Thank you all for listening. I’ll see you all in October. Until then, take care.