Rome was sacked in 410 #fakenews

The Visigoth sack of Rome often receives full credit for the fall of Rome, but it was only the final step which caused the quagmire of the Western Roman Empire to give way. Abraham Lincoln once said, “a house divided upon itself cannot stand” (1858), and the division of the Roman Empire into two Empires, the West and the East, by the Emperor Diocletian, played a role in the fall of the West.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, Oxford-based classical archaeologist and historian of the Late Antiquity represents a number of modern historians in his view that the Roman Empire fell because of Germanic invasion in 410A.D. (2005, p. 57). Whilst it is true that without the Visigoths, the West would not have fallen in 410, Michael Grant (1976), an English classicist and historian who researched and wrote extensively on the Roman Empire, maintains that the Visigoth invasion was not “sufficiently formidable to have caused the Empire to perish” (p. 19), and finds the division between the East and West one of thirteen significant reasons leading to the fall of Rome. Although these two highly authoritative sources seemingly contradict one another, Ward-Perkins observation that the division in the Empire assisted the survival of the East rather than the West on the basis of geography, which was “primarily good fortune rather than innately greater strength…” (2005, p. 58). Even though the Visigoth-blaming historians vehemently blame the intruders, they at least acknowledge that the invasion must be viewed contextually. Ward-Perkins notes how the Roman naval domination and the small 700m wide sea that separated Asia and Europe essentially forced the northern invaders to bypass Constantinople and “wreak havoc on the interior of the empire” (2005, p. 60). Even if the strategic division in the Empire isn’t commonly viewed as a reason for the fall of Rome, at least its geopolitical advantage can’t be denied.

Contradicting this reason for the attack on the West rather than the East, and as a more valuable source as a witness, Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek-born, Roman soldier and historian from the 4th century, chronicled the history of Rome in his account Res Gestae that the Goths made “a vain attempt on Constantinople. With what skill Julius, the commanding general beyond the Taurus, relieved the provinces of the Goths” (Rolfe, 1950, p. 405). Ammianus claims to write impartially and has been found by modern historians to strictly protect his role as a historian. His record of the defeat of the Goths at Constantinople, including the defeat at Hadrinopolis in what he deemed a time of “ill-success in their wars” lacks any traces of bias in favour of the East over the West and thus remains reliable and significantly useful as a primary source (Rolfe, 1950, p. 483). Ammianus, not considering the lucky geographical advantage of the East, seems to purport the survival of the East onto their military advantage at crucial wars.

Although writing over a millennium after the event, Ward-Perkins observation of the sheer strength of Constantine’s fortifications and infrastructure remains valuable. Thus Ward-Perkins, arguments in geography and infrastructural strength, and Ammianus equally valuable eyewitness accounts of the East’s military might co-exist as reasons which ultimately prevented the sacking of the East’s capital. Thus, rather than defending the Empire and driving out the invaders altogether, the mighty East had timely success and the waning West unfortunately was not so lucky.

An additional reason why the Roman division assisted the Visigoth’s comfortable success in 410 is sidelined, but nonetheless observed, by the prolific modern historian, Edward Gibbon, in Volume One of his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1732). Why a highly authoritative expert sidelines what is a seemingly important reason is explained by his secular abhorrence for Christianity as he solely blames the faith for the fall of Rome. However, one cannot so easily discard such a highly authoritative historian, and Gibbon nonetheless remains a useful source as he maintains that the double reign of the East and the West was a “dangerous novelty” that “impaired the strength” of a united Empire and “fermented the vices” of an already divided and angry people based on a linguistic and religious national schism, and “the instruments of an oppressive and arbitrary system were multiplied” by the simple mathematical replication of Emperors, Caesars and aristocrats (1732, p. 1669). Ammianus corroborates the profound effect of this national schism. Although he was a pagan, which did matter in those zealously fanatical religious eras, modern historians credit his impartiality in his observations of the religious schism between the East and the West when he compared Christians to wild beasts as enemies of mankind because of “their deadly hatred of one another” (Rolfe, 1950, p.205). Gibbon also observes that even when the empires were united, “the aid of the Oriental Romans was tardy, doubtful, and ineffectual” (1732, p. 1669). The East did not want to help their forlorn twin, not for one second. Although modern historians such as Gibbon, view that the division of the East and West was not necessarily the cause of the fall of Rome, it nonetheless exacerbated the empire’s demise. Thus, the Visigoth’s successful assailment of Rome did indeed end the Western Roman Empire, however, it was not by the strength of the Visigoth’s that Rome fell, but by Rome’s weakness that the Visigoth’s succeeded.

References:

1. Gibbon, E. (1732). A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Harper & Brothers.

2. Grant, M. (1976). The Fall of the Roman Empire (rev. ed.) Touchstone Books.

3. Lincoln, A. (1858, June 19). Conclusion of the Republican State Convention. Chicago Tribune, 2.

4. Marcellius, A. (1950). The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellius: Roman Antiquities Book XXII and XXXI (J. C. Rolfe, Trans.). Loeb Classical Library. (391 AD).

5. Ward-Perkins, B. (2005). The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilisation. Oxford University Press. 58.

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