Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Last Centuries of the Empire

The Persians were determined enemies, but Rome had far more powerful ones to meet, and these were the Germans, who have already been mentioned several times. They were a wild, barbarous people, divided into many different tribes. They lived beyond the Rhine and the Danube. They were tall and large. They had light hair and keen, fierce blue eyes. They were brave and strong, and they only laughed at cold and weariness. They wore the skins of wild beasts and sometimes a coarse sort of linen, or else the gorgeous garments which they had captured or bought of the provincials.

These were the people who had attacked Rome even in the days when it was a republic. Marius defeated the German Cimbri and Teutones in 102 B. C., and ever since then the Romans had been continually driving away one tribe or another of them. For many years the empire had been growing weaker, and all this time the Germans had been growing stronger and bolder, and they never left the Romans in peace. Sometimes a few of them stole into the Roman domains and drove off some cattle. Sometimes they came in larger numbers and destroyed houses and crops throughout a whole province. Sometimes they came peacefully and with the emperor's permission and made settlements on Roman lands. Sometimes they became allies of the Romans.

As time passed, they learned much of the ways of the Romans, not only their methods of warfare, but also their customs of living. Wild and rude as the Germans were, they had an exceedingly fine trait, they were anxious to learn, and when they discovered a better way of doing anything than their own, they were eager to adopt it. The more these barbarians saw and heard of Italy, the more they were charmed by that warm, sunny country, and by the rich, splendid life of the Romans. It is no wonder that they were determined, whether by fair means or foul, to break into the empire. Those of the German tribes that succeeded in doing this became devoted to their adopted country. Many of them joined the Roman legions and were as anxious as any of the Romans to save the land from its enemies,—even from the barbarians of their own race.

In the fourth century, a tribe of Germans called Visigoths, or Western Goths, lived to the north just beyond the Danube. They came to the Romans in great distress. "A fearful people, the Huns, are upon us," they said, "and we cannot resist them. Only let us cross the Danube. Grant us homes in Thrace, and we will obey the Roman laws and guard the empire from the horrible savages."

It was difficult to decide what reply to make to this petition. If the answer was "No," the Visigoths might come, nevertheless, in vast numbers and as enemies rather than suppliants. On the other hand, to allow hundreds of thousands of armed men to cross the boundary river was a dangerous thing to do. Valens, emperor in the East (for the empire was now divided, and there was one emperor in the East and another in the West), made the blunder of trying to do things by halves. He told the Goths that they might come and that he would provide food; but they must surrender their weapons and give up the children of their chief men as hostages. They agreed to this. Next came the passing of the river. It was no easy matter, for there were nearly a million of the Goths; but at length it was completed. The children of the leaders were carried to distant parts of the empire to be educated as Romans; and the rest of the people encamped on Roman territory.

Then came trouble. The Visigoths were to be supplied with food, that is, they were to be, allowed to buy it. The generals in command thought this an excellent opportunity to fill their purses. Therefore they provided the poorest and vilest of food, but charged an exorbitant price for it. The Goths were enraged, and they were not so helpless as the generals supposed, for it seems that at the crossing of the river many of the shrewd barbarians had bribed the Roman officers to allow them to retain their weapons. Before the Romans fully realized this, the Eastern Goths, or Ostrogoths, also begged to be allowed to cross the Danube, for they, too, were pursued by the dreadful Huns. The emperor was thoroughly alarmed now, and he answered, "No." Nevertheless, the Ostrogoths came. The emperor was too frightened to dare to wait for a sufficient number of troops. He met the invaders in battle. The Roman army was destroyed and he was slain.

These Germans were jubilant. They had learned that they, whom the Romans looked upon as savages and barbarians, could overcome the famous legions. Matters were in their own hands. They marched on to the southward, plundering and destroying as they went, until they were very close to Constantinople.

Valens's nephew, who had become emperor in the West, was wise enough to see that he needed the help of a thoroughly efficient commander, and he appointed a Spaniard named Theodosius as emperor in the East. Theodosius eventually united the two parts of the empire into one, over which he ruled. Seeing that he could not drive the Germans out of the empire, he called them allies, paid them to defend the frontier, and treated them with respect, but settled them in districts as far apart as possible. Many of them became faithful friends of Rome. Others were restless and ambitious, and only waited for a leader to rebel against the power of the empire.

This leader was found in Alaric. Under his command they pillaged Greece; then they fixed their eyes upon Rome. The great Theodosius was dead, and the realm was now in the hands of his two sons, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. The guardian of Honorius was a general named Stilicho. He himself was a German, for it was now nothing unusual for the best generals and statesmen in Rome to be of German blood. So skilful was Stilicho that by using both his wits and his weapons he managed to keep the Goths from sweeping over Italy. This was no easy task, especially as the people who lived near the boundaries had been so distressed by enormous taxes that they almost looked upon the Goths as deliverers and made little resistance to them. Honorius had fled for his life, but when once in a safe retreat, he had proclaimed that his breast had "never been susceptible of fear." After the danger was over, he went back to Rome to celebrate the return of peace. Then this sagacious young man concluded that Stilicho would be so elated by his success that he probably would try to make himself emperor; and he put to death the only man who could resist the invaders.

As soon as Alaric learned of the death of Stilicho, he marched into Italy and besieged Rome. It was forced to yield. Messengers hurried to Ravenna where Honorius was amusing himself. "Rome has perished!" they cried.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


"Why, she was eating from my hand only an hour ago!" exclaimed the emperor; for he was taking so little interest in the f ate of his empire that he thought "Rome" was his favorite hen, to whom he had given that name. Alaric loaded down his army with silks and jewels and gold and silver, but he did not destroy the city. He did not wish to seize it for his countrymen, for he planned to conquer Sicily, and then make a kingdom for them on the African shores. On reaching the southern point of Italy, he was taken ill and died. His followers turned aside a little river from its course and buried him in its bed. Then the captives who had been forced to do this work were slain, that no one might know where their chief was laid and do his body despite. The Goths did not attack Rome again, but concluded that it was wiser to keep on good terms with the Romans. So they left Italy, and settled on lands in the north of Spain and in southern France. Alaric had captured the sister of Honorius, and she became the wife of Atawulf, brother-in-law of the Gothic chieftain.

Rome was surrounded by enemies. She needed every soldier that she could summon, and even before Alaric captured Rome, she had called the legions home from Britain to help her defend her boundaries. Indeed, hardly any boundaries remained, so broken had they become by the flood of new and strange races that had burst through them.

A strange, horrible people had lately come down upon Europe, the Huns, from whom the Goths had fled at the Danube. These people were from Asia. They were short and thick-set. They had big heads and swarthy faces, with small, deep-set eyes. Their noses were so short and broad that they were often said to have nostrils but not noses. At first the people of Europe had cried out in horror that they were not men but beasts; then they declared that they were the off-spring of demons. Since defeating the Goths, they had become bolder than ever, and now they had a strong leader named Attila. Under him they had fought their way into what is now Austria and Hungary. The Roman emperors in the East paid them tribute; but the time had come when tribute would not satisfy them, and they marched into Gaul, or what is now France, and attacked Orleans. A large part of Gaul was in the hands of a vigorous German people called Franks. The Romans, nevertheless, looked upon the country as a province of the empire. At the time of the coming of the Huns, the Roman governor of this province was an able general named Aetius. When the Huns attacked Orleans and the citizens were almost in despair, Aetius and his army came to the rescue, and the city was saved.

Before this time, the Goths and Aetius had been at swords' points; but now they forgot that they had ever been enemies; and Romans, Goths, and Franks joined their forces under Aetius on the plain of Chalons in 451 A. D. Attila was defeated. This was one of the fiercest battles ever known. It was also one of the most important. If the Huns had been victors, they would have ravaged the land with fire and sword. More than this, the heathen Huns and not the partly Christianized Goths would have become the strongest power in Europe, and the spread of civilization might have been delayed for scores of years, perhaps for centuries.

Attila was defeated but not subdued, and after a time of rest he set out for Italy. He captured Aquileia, and some of its frightened people fled to a group of marshy islands. Their rough little settlement became in time the powerful and beautiful city of Venice. The Huns spared Rome, but went away loaded with an immense ransom from the terrified city.

The Vandals, however, a people nearly related to the Goths, were more greedy. Having wandered into Gaul, they had forced their way into Spain. From Spain they had crossed to Africa, and had overrun the country as far as Carthage. They became a tribe of pirates, not caring where the wind drove them, provided there was plunder at the end of their voyage. Now they attacked Rome. For two weeks they plundered the city. Then they sailed away with thirty thousand captives to be sold as slaves and their vessels loaded to the gunwales with the choicest treasures of Rome.

For more than half a century, ever since the death of Theodosius the Great in 395 A. D., the empire in the East had had one ruler and the empire in the West another. In the fifth century the Gothic soldiers demanded land in Italy for homes, and backed the demand with their swords. The emperor was a boy whose name was Romulus Augustus; but he has been nicknamed Augustulus, or the "little Augustus," because of the contrast between the greatness of the Augustus who established the empire and the weakness of this its last emperor. The Goths deposed him and made their leader Odoacer ruler of Italy. Odoacer took the title, not of emperor, but of patrician, and always claimed to rule as the deputy of the emperor of the East. The year 476, the date of this event, is sometimes spoken of as that of the fall of the Roman empire in the West, because at this time it became only a province of the Roman emperor in the East.

This "fall" of the Roman empire in the West did not seem at the time a matter of any weight. There was still an emperor, only he lived in Constantinople instead of in Rome. The troops that he commanded were still called the troops of the empire. It was, however, in reality one of the most important events in history. If the power of Rome had continued, the tribes about her would have fallen under her sway instead of having opportunity to develop and become separate nations. Again, now that there was no emperor in Rome, the power of the bishop of Rome, the great city of the West, increased rapidly. Third, it opened the way for a remarkable Gothic leader, Theodoric, afterwards called the Great, to bring the Ostrogoths into Italy and give to that land of many invasions a time of peace and quiet. He succeeded in making himself ruler of Italy. He governed by the old Roman laws; he encouraged education and building and religious progress. He defended the country, and gave the people a feeling of freedom and safety that had not prevailed in the land for more than three centuries.

In the other countries of western Europe there was much confusion. There were Goths of several tribes, and there were other peoples. There were pagans, Christians, and half-Christianized folks. Even within the Church itself, there were two parties. These warring nations had one aim: they all were eager to press upon Italy.

Meanwhile, the empire in the East served a most useful purpose, for it kept the tribes of Asia out of Europe. Sometimes they were driven back by the forces of the empire, sometimes they were bribed to depart; but, whether vanquished or bribed, they were kept in their own country, and thus Christianity and civilization in Europe, which they would have utterly overwhelmed, had a chance to develop. During the reign of Justinian his famous general Belisarius succeeded in recovering Africa, Sicily, and a part of Spain from the barbarians, and in driving the Goths out of Italy. Before they yielded, they used the mausoleum of Hadrian as a fort. The massive, dignified structure became a clumsy fragment, and the exquisite statues were torn down and hurled upon the besiegers. Justinian is famous not only for the victories of his army but for the collection of Roman laws which he had made. The Romans were the greatest of law-makers, and this priceless collection has been the basis of the codes of nearly all the chief states of the world.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


In the seventh century, not only the empire in the East, but all southern Europe was threatened by the Turks. They were Mohammedans, or followers of Mohammed, an Arabian who declared that God had sent an angel to him to teach him a pure and true religion. After a little, he and his disciples began to force their belief upon the various tribes of Arabia at the point of the sword. After he died, his followers conquered Syria, Persia, Egypt, and Northern Africa. They had tried to capture Constantinople, but had failed. They overcame Spain and swept on into France, shouting their battle-cry, "There is one God, and Mohammed is his prophet!" From Spain they marched to the north across the Pyrenees and into France. The Mohammedans in the East were pressing upon Asia Minor and Constantinople; those in the west were already in France. It seemed entirely probable that both divisions might march toward Italy and thrust Christianity out of southern Europe.

Before doing that, however, they must overcome the Franks. These Franks had made rapid gains in political power. They held southern Gaul, Burgundy, and western Germany. They were strong and prosperous, and they were able to meet the invaders. In 732 the leader of the Franks, Charles Martel, or Charles the Hammer, met the western division of the Mohammedan forces on the plain of Tours. He overcame them, and they were driven back to the foot of the Pyrenees. So it was that Europe was saved.

A fervent belief in the religion of Christ had taken possession of all Europe, and as there was no longer any emperor in Rome, the Pope, as the head of the Christian Church, had become the chief power in Italy. The Pope and the Frankish kings had been on friendly terms for a long while, and whenever he needed help, he appealed to the king of the Franks. In the ninth century, a German tribe called the Lombards seized northern Italy; and the Pope sent for aid to Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, the reigning sovereign. Charlemagne soon conquered them and was crowned with the iron crown of Lombardy. He had already begun to conquer the Saxons who lived on the Elbe and the lower Rhine; and before he died, his rule extended over France, part of Germany, many, northern Italy, and a little strip at the north of Spain. This busy warrior established schools for the boys of his kingdom, built churches and bridges, and even found time to collect the ancient songs of his race. Although he is called Charlemagne, the French for Charles the Great, the German "Karl der Grosse" would be a much better name for this German prince. In the year 800 A. D. the Pope crowned him as emperor. Before this, the Pope and the emperor at Constantinople had disagreed, and now, instead of talking of the Roman empire in the East and in the West as if it were one, people spoke of the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire. This was correct, for they had really become two.

The custom continued of crowning the king of the Franks as Emperor of the Roman Empire; but it was an exceedingly shadowy empire. The vast expanse of land ruled by Rome in her flourishing days gradually broke up into separate countries, and the vast crowd of people developed into different nations. This slow process was the real "fall of the Western Empire."

The fall of the Eastern Empire is marked by a definite date, 1453, for in that year the Turks captured Constantinople, and even to this day it is the capital of the Turkish Empire.

Roman history is not a mere tale of conquest, revolution, triumph, and downfall; it is a wonder story of how a tiny kingdom grew to be the ruler of the world. The kingdom becomes a republic, the republic an empire. Nation after nation moves swiftly across the field of vision and disappears, either merged into the all-embracing empire which has taken the world for its province, or so completely destroyed as to be lost in the darkness of the things that are forgotten. There are wars and rumors of wars; there is a moment of peace, and therein occurs the birth of the Holy Child of Bethlehem, whose words are to teach mercy instead of cruelty, and pardon instead of vengeance.

The empire has vanished, but its laws are written on the statute books of the world, its language is on the lips of many nations, its military camps have become flourishing cities, its roads are mighty avenues of progress, its very failures are valued lessons. This is the Roman wonder story. The mightiest panorama, the most marvelous pageant that the world has ever gazed upon is "the grandeur that was Rome."


The Germans were continually breaking into the empire. The Visigoths were allowed to cross the Danube; but the attempt to deprive them of their arms failed. The Ostrogoths, too, crossed the Danube, defeated the Romans in battle, and pressed close to Constantinople. Theodosius became emperor in the East. He quieted the Goths; but, led by Alaric, they pillaged Greece, then captured Rome. Alaric died. The Huns under Attila were overcome by Aetius and the Goths at Chalons. Later, Attila approached Rome, but was bribed to depart. Rome was plundered by the Vandals. Romulus Augustulus was the last emperor of Rome. In 476 A. D., Odoacer became ruler of the West. Theodoric the Great gave Italy a time of peace and quiet. In the other countries of Europe there was confusion. During the reign of Justinian as emperor in the East, Belisarius recovered much territory from the barbarians, and drove the Goths from Italy. Justinian collected the Roman laws. The Mohammedans won many victories, but were overcome at Tours in 732 A. D. by Charles Martel and the Franks. Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in 800 A. D. as emperor. The real fall of the Western Empire was the breaking up of the empire into separate countries. The fall of the Eastern Empire was marked by the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 A. D.

Roman history is a wonder story of how a tiny kingdom became the ruler of the world. The Roman Empire has vanished, but its influence upon the laws, languages, and governments of the world will never disappear.

Suggestions for Written Work

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