Throughout the long span of its existence, the Roman Empire was surrounded by barbarians. This was not so much a misfortune as a matter of terminology: it was pretty much inevitable once you defined everyone who did not speak Greek or Latin as a “barbarian.”

Some of these barbarians were harmless; but most of them were hostile, because the Roman Empire had a strong tendency to absorb any neighbor that lacked an inclination to fight vigorously. In practice, that meant that civilized nations with something to lose became Roman, whereas nomadic or half-settled tribes whose few possessions were portable were more inclined to pick a fight. Only in the east, where Parthians or Persians (depending on the era) maintained a substantial empire of their own, did the Roman Empire face equally civilized neighbors, which is to say neighbors who also had a large and expensive bureaucracy to support.

The Romans and Parthians (or Persians) had an ideal relationship from the point of view of both governments. There was usually some sort of fight going on between them, but it always ended with a treaty that put the borders back where they had been before the fight started, or at least pretty close. Both sides had cities they would rather not see destroyed and crops they were hoping to harvest, so there was a natural limit to the risks they were willing to take. Thus the various Persian (or Parthian) wars provided constant employment for the military on both sides without creating too much inconvenience for the average citizen. War of that sort is the engine of civilization: it keeps the citizens just fearful enough that they do not question the need for a large and expensive government, but it does not kill or impoverish enough of them to make a serious dent in the tax revenues.

On the other hand, the less civilized tribes that hovered on the northern borders of the Roman Empire had no governments to speak of, no tax base to protect; they were always in a good position to risk everything, because, if they lost, they could simply retreat and find somebody weaker to beat up on.

One of the differences between barbarism and civilization is that civilized peoples generally feel compelled to manufacture some excuse for war, whereas barbarians think it inexcusable not to be at war. This difference gives the barbarians a certain flexibility that the civilized nations lack. When a civilized nation decides to attack a neighbor whose destruction might prove profitable, it is necessary first to send embassies to the proposed enemy to tell him how rotten he’s been and to give him an opportunity to avert his own destruction by complying with certain conditions that have been deliberately made intolerable. The enemy’s refusal must then be received before the attack can be made with a clear conscience. Barbarians, on the other hand, need no other excuse than boredom to attack the nearest target. The fact that a neighbor exists is reason enough to fight him.

Thus the barbarians on the borders of the Roman Empire were always sweeping into unsuspecting provinces and killing everyone who had committed the dreadful crime of being there. Having made off with all the portable possessions of the provincials, as well as the cattle, women, children, and other livestock, they would sweep back into their impenetrable forests and get drunk. When they woke up a few days later with a rotten hangover, they would feel exceptionally grumpy and immediately start planning their next outrage against the Roman provincials.

In the time of Augustus, and for some considerable period thereafter, the barbarians knew that, if they tried any of those tricks, they would be soundly thrashed and sent to bed without supper by the invincible Roman legions. Natural selection therefore tended to favor the barbarians who attacked their barbarian neighbors rather than the Roman provinces. But during the Age of the Revolving Door, the legions were more often employed in propping up the latest would-be emperor than in thrashing the barbarians on the frontier. Meanwhile, the Roman citizens themselves lost their appetite for incessant civil war long before the imperial usurpers did, and service in the legions began to seem less an honor than an intolerable burden. So, on the one hand, the frontiers were often left unguarded as the legions went gallivanting off with some ephemeral emperor; and, on the other hand, the Roman provinces were depopulated by incessant civil war and its disastrous economic effects; and, on the third hand, the recalcitrant Roman citizens left gaps in the army that had to be filled with paid barbarian mercenaries. After a while, the barbarians outside the empire began to notice—for they were not entirely dim—that many desirable lands within the empire were nearly uninhabited, and that the provinces that were still wealthy and well populated were scarcely guarded, and that the parts that were still guarded were guarded by hired barbarians who might well be cousins or old school chums of the barbarians they were supposed to be keeping out. Thus a monotonous catalogue of barbarian invaders began to pour through the leaky frontiers, sometimes to plunder, but sometimes to stay.

Constantine brought some stability to the empire, which was bad luck for barbarians; but his successors were less stable than he was, giving the barbarians more and more opportunities to chip away at the empire. Theodosius—whose moderate competence was so refreshing that it earned him the title “the Great”—came up with a rather clever scheme for dealing with the more intransigent barbarian invaders: he declared them “foederati,” or allies, and pretended to have invited them to settle on the lands they had already seized anyway. In return for a certain annual payment of protection money, the barbarians agreed to pretend that the emperor had some authority over them; the emperor, for his part, agreed not to try to exercise that authority.

Theodosius was the last emperor to rule the whole Roman Empire. On his death it was divided between his two sons, Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west. Of Arcadius there is little to say: he was merely another in a long line of moderately incompetent Eastern emperors. But Honorius is one of the most important figures in history. In fact, he is a great gaping black hole in history, one that nearly succeeded in sucking history itself into the depths of its inky nothingness. At the beginning of his reign, Honorius controlled the whole western half of the Roman Empire; by the end of his reign, the Roman Empire in the West had been reduced to the imperial palace at Ravenna and its associated parking lots. No other figure in history has ever made quite so little out of so much.

The key to Honorius’ personality is that he was a bit of a poultry fancier. He had no real interest in administering an empire, but he did sincerely love his fancy chickens. The city of Rome held no appeal for him, but he had a chicken named Rome of which he thought a great deal. Thus when Alaric led his great horde of barbarians into Italy and threatened to attack Rome itself, Honorius stayed in Ravenna and played with his chickens. When Alaric’s horde sacked Rome, someone brought Honorius the news: “Rome is destroyed!” “What?” the emperor sputtered. “She was just eating out of my hand an hour ago!” How relieved he was to learn that it was only Rome the city and not Rome the chicken!

Allowing Rome to be sacked was the career-topper in a long string of memorable accomplishments for Honorius. No other Roman emperor had ever managed it: the city had not been entered by a foreign foe for eight hundred years. We could hardly find another emperor who had had such an important effect on the history of the world: in fact, anyone who looks at the matter objectively would have to put Honorius near the top of the list of most important world leaders of all time.

After Alaric had sacked Rome, every barbarian and his dog wanted in on the action. Barbarian hordes washed across the landscape from east to west and from west to east again, sometimes splashing into each other. For a while Attila the Hun, so called because he was a Hun, cowed most of the other barbarian chiefs enough to make himself the master of an enormous barbarian empire. Attila ravaged provinces whenever he got bored, and demanded enormous payments from the Roman emperors for the privilege of having their provinces ravaged. Emperors cowered before him; or, rather, they cowered from a safe distance, sending disposable ambassadors whenever any more direct cowering was required. When Attila set his sights on the city of Rome, the emperor Valentinian III politely stepped out of the way; but the Bishop of Rome, Leo, paid a visit to Attila and whispered something in his ear that made him turn around and gallop back home. No one knows exactly what Leo said; but some historians, pointing out that Huns, unlike Romans, wore trousers, suggest that it may have been “Your fly is undone.” At any rate, it was clear to the general population, or what was left of it, that a bishop was now worth a great deal more than an emperor when it came to getting things done.

Attila died of a hangnail shortly after that, but the barbarians were everywhere, both inside and outside the empire. The Roman army was almost entirely barbarian, and the barbarian general Ricimer was placed in charge of the increasingly irrelevant business of choosing the Emperor of the West. Although in many respects a skillful general, Ricimer was indecisive when it came to emperors: his favorite today was a headless corpse tomorrow, and not one of his candidates lasted long enough to do anything memorable—nor would Ricimer have tolerated a memorable emperor. After Ricimer was killed, other barbarian chiefs took on the duty of nominating and executing emperors, until the only emperor left was a little boy with the impossibly ironic name of Romulus. In the year 476, the latest successful barbarian, a fellow called Odoacer or Odovakar (the man couldn’t spell his own name to save his life), decided he could do without an emperor altogether and offered Romulus an early retirement package.

This is the event that generations of schoolchildren have learned to call the Fall of the Roman Empire. But it did not appear to be any sort of fall at the time: it was merely another minor shuffling in the management structure. Instead of two ineffectual emperors, there would be only one ineffectual emperor now, the one in Constantinople. Odoacer put the face of the Eastern emperor on his coins and ruled Italy in his name. It was true that the emperor did not effectively control the West, but no emperor had effectively controlled the West for almost a century.

Nor was this “Fall of Rome” the beginning of the Dark Ages, as schoolchildren have also learned for generations. The Dark Ages began, not when the Roman Empire lost control of Rome, but when she gained it back.

Next: Civilization Destroys Civilization.


  1. Awesome analysis, Dr. Boli! I quite enjoyed it, and for once have little to add…although it may be time to change your copy editor or proofreader. After the superfluous hyphen in the immediately previous advertisement, seeing not one but at least two misplaced letters in this installment came as a shock. Normally your celebrated magazine is an isolated island of perfect prose and terrific typography in a sea of internet imbecility, but since you acquired the staff of First Things, quality has suffered a bit. Perhaps that passel of theologians are too busy looking straining at gnats, counting the angels who dance on the heads of pins, or searching for misplaced iotas to notice a dropped R in “were always sweeping” or the supremely ironic dropped E in “couldn’t spell his own name”.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      It almost seems sacrilegious to change the supremely ironic (has Dr. Boli ever succeeded in supreme irony before?), but the errors have been corrected, with many thanks. Most of his articles actually go through several versions: a good bit of the proofreading happens in the hours after publication. This is the price readers pay for having almost instantaneous access to the latest news from the fifth century.

  2. Martha says:

    I confess, I thought the dropped “e” was in the nature of a small extra joke; that it was a happy accident never occurred to me.

  3. Ann Tiquity says:

    A work of genius — typos and all.

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