Ancient Rome—Fall of Empire

235 to 565 A.D.
Military Anarchy to Reign of Justinian I

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Fall of Empire

Military Anarchy—The 43-year Severan dynasty was brought to an abrupt end at the hands of Maximinus, a Thracian barbarian of enormous physical strength who had risen to a high position in the emperor's private guard. He had served the Severan family for over thirty years when he suddenly murdered Alexander Severus, seized the throne, and plunged the imperial government into chaos. He killed his enemies, which included virtually anyone from the ruling classes without mercy. He was murdered by his own troops after three wretched years in power, but the empire never recovered from this upheaval. The military anarchy which followed lasted until the reign of Diocletian, saw over twenty emperors in the space of fifty years, only one of whom died a natural death. None were distinguished, and the only notable event of the period was the rebellion of Queen Zenobia in Syria. She came close to conquering the eastern half of the Roman empire, but was put down by the emperor Aurelian in 272.

Diocletian and ConstantineDiocletian, who came to the throne in 284, finally brought order to an empire in chaos. He divided the empire into four districts, two in the east and two in the west, and appointed a junior and senior governor of each division (called caesar and emperor respectively). Upon the death or retirement of the emperor, the caesar would be elevated to emperor and appoint another caesar. This system worked for exactly one generation, but it allowed Diocletian to retire in peace and die a natural death, an accomplishment nearly unprecedented in imperial history.

One of the caesars appointed by Diocletian was Constantius, the father of Constantine. When Constantius died, Constantine was elected to replace him. He spent the early part of his reign consolidating power by fighting off rivals from both the east and west. The second half of his reign was dedicated to civil reforms and building his new capital at Constantinople. Most notably, Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and his edict of Milan in 313 made Christian worship legal throughout the empire. From this point on, with the exception only of Julian the Apostate, the imperial court was at least nominally Christian.

The peace and prosperity which took root during the thirty year reign of Constantine was short lived. On his death the empire was divided among his three sons but they quarreled among themselves while the empire sunk slowly back into disorder. All of Constantine's sons died without heirs, and after the death of his nephew, Julian the Apostate, the empire was permanently divided into an eastern and a western half. The only remaining emperor of note was Theodosius, who ably governed the eastern empire from 379 to 395, and put down some of the early Visigoth invaders. He is remembered for his willingness to do public penance for the slaughter of the Thessalonians, which was imposed on him by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. The idea that even emperors were subject to the laws of God was a radically new idea that made a permanent mark upon Western civilization.

Fall of the Western Empire—Meanwhile, the empire of the west was already suffering from waves of barbarian invaders that the government was powerless to put down. By the time that the city of Rome was overrun by the Visigoths in 410, most of Gaul had already been abandoned to the invading Franks and the legions had been pulled from Britain in hopes of defending Italy.

The waves of barbarians that descended upon Italy during the fifth century only finished off a process that was already under way. The Western empire had ceded much of its territory without a fight, most wealthy families had moved away from Rome and the emperor himself had moved to Ravenna. By the time the city of Rome was invaded there was not even an army to send in its defense, since the cowardly Honorius, who sought only to appease the Visigoths, had murdered Stilicho, his most capable general. Still, the Visigoth invasion of 410 was mild compared to that of the Vandals, who plundered the city to ruin in 455. The Visigoths were at least Christian, semi-civilized, and desired a treaty with the Western Empire that would allow them self-governing territories. This they eventually obtained, and a Visigoth empire was established in Spain shortly after the death of Alaric the Visigoth. The Visigoths were allies of the Western Empire as long as it lasted and helped to ward off Attila the Hun, who overran Western Europe in 450.

By this time the area actually controlled by the Western emperor was reduced to Italy, and when it passed from the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, to the barbarian chief Odoacer in 476, it caused hardly a ripple. Odoacer was soon overthrown by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who ruled Italy for many years but made no pretense of being an emperor. Ten years later, the last Gallo-Roman province of France, was conquered by Clovis. At that point, all of the old Roman provinces in Gaul, Hispania, and Italy were controled by German chieftains, who preserved some of the old Roman customs, but governed as independent commanders.

Christianity and Church Fathers—As the western empire collapsed, the power and influence of Christianity increased. Because of the fluid organization of the church, it was able to adapt and grow in an environment of political unrest. Kingdoms, chieftains, and empires might come and go, but the church provided a degree of continuity and civilization that was increasingly attractive to citizens of the collapsed empire. Many important leaders of the church who arose during this time of chaos while political powers rose and fell. Some of the influential christian leaders who lived during the decline of the Roman Empire were St. Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose, Eusebius, Athanasius, and Benedict of Nursia.

Eastern Empire—Several generations after the fall of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire enjoyed a brief resurgence. Between 530 and 560 A.D., under the rule of Justinian the Great, Constantinople won back much of the territory that had been lost to barbarians in the west. These included the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals, the reconquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths, and several important victories against the Sassanid Empire in Persia. These victories were almost all due to the efforts of Belisarius, one of the greatest generals in Roman history, and for a brief time it looked as if the Roman Empire would reemerge as a dominant power. But a long period of decline followed the brilliant career of Belisarius, and Northern Italy was overrun by the Lombards only a few years after his death.

Characters—Fall of Empire

Character/Date Short Biography

Military Anarchy

d. 238
Thracian giant. Rose to head of army, seized imperial throne, and reigned as a barbarian.
Emperor who reunited the empire during the Military anarchy. Led campaign in Palmyra against Zenobia.
~ 267
Queen of Palmyra. Attempted to control the eastern empire, only to be crushed by Rome.


Restored order to the empire after fifty years of chaos. Broke empire into four regions.
First Christian emperor. Unified empire. Moved capital to Constantinople near Black Sea.
Julian the Apostate
Last emperor of the Constantinian dynasty. Tried to restore paganism.
Missionary bishop who translate the bible into the Gothic language and converted the Goths to Arian Christianity.

Late Western Empire

Roman general who fought off the Visigoths before they overran Rome. Murdered by Emperor Honorius.
Last great General of the Western Empire. Defeated Attila the Hun at Chalons.
Visigoth General who was master of Rome during the final years of the Empire.
Alaric the Visigoth
Chieftain who led the Visogoths into northern Italy, and then besieged and sacked Rome.
Attila the Hun
Barbarian chieftain who overran and terrorized much of Europe. Defeated at the Battle of Chalons.
Leader of Vandals. Conquered Northern Africa and Sicily. Invaded and ransacked Rome.
Deposed last Roman Emperor and became King of Italy. Later overthrown by Theodoric the Ostrogoth.
Theodoric the Ostrogoth
Ostrogoth king who invaded Italy and successfully formed a Gothic-Roman kingdom.
d. 573
King of the Lombards who crossed the Alps and invaded Northern Italy. Made Pavia capital of Lombards.
Founder of the Frankish Kingdom. Converted to Christianity by his wife Clotilda.

Late Eastern Empire

Eastern Emperor embroiled in wars in Persia and with the Goths. Died fighting Visigoths at Adrianople.
Emperor excommunicated by Ambrose for massacre of civilians at Thessalonia.
Justinian the Great
Ruled Byzantine Empire for 40 years. Well known for legal reforms known as Code of Justinian.
Empress Theodora
Born in humble circumstances, she married Justinian the Great and became his trusted advisor.
General associated with Julian the Great, reconquered much of lost Roman territory.

Timeline—Fall of Empire

AD YearEvent
239 Alexander Severus is assassinated —throne usurped by barbarian chief Maximinus.
239-284> Military anarchy.
259 Emperor Valerian taken prisoner by the Persians after the Battle of Edessa and tortured to death.
270 Civil War in the East with Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.
285-305> Diocletian takes control of the Roman government and divides it into four provinces.
306 Constantine proclaimed Augustus by his legions after the death of his father.
312 Constantine gains Control of the Western Empire at Battle of Milvian Bridge.
313 Edict of Milan: Christianity is made legal throughout Roman Empire.
324-337 Constantine becomes sole ruler of both Eastern and Western Empires.
325 First Council of Nicaea is held to combat the Arian heresy.
330 The City of Constantinople is founded as the capital of Constantine's empire.
337-361 Empire languishes under waring sons of Constantine.
362 Julian the Apostate tries to restore paganism.
379-395 Theodosius reigns in the east. Fends off Usurpers in the West and briefly reunites the empire.
410 Alaric the Visigoth, leader of the Visigoths, Invades Rome.
451 Visigoths and Romans Fend off Attila and his Huns at the Battle of Chalons.
455 Genseric Sacks and Plunders Rome.
468 Failed Expedition against the Vandals of Africa sent by Emperor Leo.
476 Imperial leadership passes to a barbarian king, Odoacer.
486 Clovis defeats Syagrius, the last Roman governor in Gaul, at the Battle of Soissons.
496 Clovis is baptized as a Catholic Christian in Reims on Christmas Day..
493 Theodoric the Ostrogoth reigns in the Ostrogoth kingdom of Italy.
527-565> Reign of Justinian the Great in the Eastern Roman Empire.
533 Belisarius Reconquers Vandal Kingdom of Africa.
538 Belisaurius Besieges Ravenna, and regains Italy for the Eastern Kingdom.
572 The Lombards, under Alboin, cross the Alps and Conquer Italy.

Recommended Reading—Fall of Empire

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Selections

Haaren - Famous Men of Rome   Constantine the Great to End of the Western Empire (2)
Haaren - Famous Men of the Middle Ages   Alaric the Visigoth to Justinian the Great (8)
Guerber - The Story of the Romans   The Gigantic Emperor to End of the Western Empire (9)
Tappan - The Story of the Roman People   From Aurelius to Diocletian to The Last Centuries (3)

Supplemental Recommendations

Lansing - Barbarian and Noble   A Roman and a Barbarian to Attila the Scourge of God (4)
Morris - Historical Tales: Roman   An Imperial Savage to The Downfall of Rome (4)
Bradley - The Goths    entire book
Oman - The Byzantine Empire    entire book
Church - The Count of the Saxon Shore    entire book