The Little Horn of Daniel 7 grows into the Beast of Revelation.


Antichristus, a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder of the pope using the temporal power to grant authority to a generously contributing ruler

The 11th horn of Daniel 7 comes out of the Roman Empire. It was “little” when it came up (Dan 7:8) but it grew and became “larger in appearance than its associates” (Dan 7:20). That means that it will dominate the other horns that came up from the Roman Empire. Daniel 8 also indicates that the little horn started “small” but “grew exceedingly great” (Dan 8:9). That little horn becomes the Antichrist (Dan 7:25). It will become so important that a court will sit in heaven to judge between it and God’s people (Dan 7:22, 26). This horn is the Beast of the Book of Revelation:

The whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast; …  they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?’” (Rev 13:3-4)

To identify the Beast of Revelation, we must identify the little horn of Daniel 7. The current article is one of a series on the history of the Church. Another article identifies the 11th little horn as the formal Christian Church as it existed during the Middle Ages. The specific purpose of the current article is to explain how and when the Church became “larger in appearance” than the other 10 horns. Other articles address the other identifying marks of this little horn, as found in Daniel 7. 



There always was a power struggle between the Church and the kings over ultimate authority, for the Church and the State demand the loyalty of the same people.

After Christianity was legalized in 313, the Roman emperors believed that they had the right and duty of regulating by law the worship and doctrines of the Church. After the Islamic conquests weakened the remainder of the Roman Empire, the Church was subordinate to the rulers of the Carolingian Franks (in the 9th century) and the Ottonian dynasty (in the 10th century).  

In the eleventh century, for the first time in its existence, the church was able to resist the dominance of the kings. In this and subsequent centuries, known as the High Middle Ages, the popes not only claimed independence from the state but also authority over the state. During these centuries, the Church rose to become the dominant power in the West. This was when the church became “larger in appearance than its associates.”


During the period known as the Byzantine Papacy, the Papacy was subject to the demands of the Eastern Roman Emperor. In the 8th century, due to Muslim conquests, much of the Christian world suddenly was under Muslim rule. Consequently, Byzantine authority all but vanished in Italy, making an end to the Byzantine Papacy. 

This drove the Papacy to find a new protector.  After a period of volatility, the popes linked their fate to the Carolingian dynasty.  This was a large Frankish-dominated empire in western and central Europe during the Early Middle Ages (800–888), also called the Holy Roman Empire. This was the first time, after the fall of Rome, that most of western Europe were ruled by a single monarch. The Carolingians followed in the footsteps of their Roman predecessors by asserting “immense authority over the Western church” (Britannica).

In the 10th century, the Ottonian dynasty in Germany established a new imperial line and became the preeminent power in Latin Europe. The Ottos, similar to the previous empires, appointed bishops on royal nomination and forbidden appeals to Rome. (Britannica)


After the fall of Rome, the church in Rome actually grew stronger:

    • While there was no single government that united all people, the Church had a strong, centralized organization.
    • Secular governments came and went through chaos and warfare, but the Papacy remained. 
    • The Church gave people a sense of communal identity. 

Other factors that, in later years, allowed the Church to become “larger” than the kings of Europe include the following:

Ordinary people had to ‘tithe’ 10 percent of their earnings to the Church. This allowed the Church to amass great wealth.

The Church taught that escape from eternal hell was only possible through the sacraments of the church.  If a king disobeyed the pope, the pope could refuse to perform certain sacraments in the king’s lands, scaring the king’s subject and causing civil unrest.

Christian monasteries became storehouses of knowledge, education, crafts, artistic skills, and agriculture. 

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Catholic Church authorized military expeditions called Crusades to expel Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land and to return it to Christian control. The crusades greatly enhanced papal prestige.  They gave the people a common purpose, and they inspired waves of religious enthusiasm among people.


The Cluniac reform, which began in the year 910, placed monasteries under the direct control of the pope rather than under the secular control of feudal lords.

The College of Cardinals, organized in 1059, vested with the right to name new popes in this institute and restricted interference from political rulers. 

The Church attempted to control most marriages among the great by prohibited marriages involving blood kin and kin by marriage to the seventh degree of relationship. Under these rules, almost all great marriages required a dispensation.

The European monarchs traditionally controlled appointments to the higher church offices within their lands. These are called lay investitures. Beginning in the mid-11th century, the popes challenged this authority. This is known as the Investiture Controversy. Church and State reached a compromise in 1122 in the Concordat of Worms.


The Church was not satisfied to have authority over itself.  It reasoned that the pope has full power over the whole church and that that makes it the ultimate ruler of the kingdoms within Christendom. From a catholic perspective, emperors and kings, to reign lawfully, had to be in communion with the Pope. Otherwise, the Pope could declare the ruler unfit to reign. 

One famous incident during the Investiture Controversy illustrates how powerful the pope has become. Henry IV, the mightiest king in Europe at the time, had to wait for three days, stripped of his royal robes and clad as a penitent, barefoot in ice and snow, before pope Gregory was willing to withdraw his ex-communication of the king.


The authority of the Pope also resulted in the massacre of Christians:

Innocent III (1198–1216) called the Albigensian Crusade, which resulted in the massacre of Christians.

The Inquisition is infamous for the severity of its tortures. The Spanish Inquisition alone resulting in some 32,000 executions. (



There always was a power struggle between the Church and the kings of the world over ultimate authority (Springfield Public School), for the Church and the State demand the loyalty of the same people.

In ancient times, in most civilizations, there was no distinction between religion and state. People worshiped the gods of the particular state in which they lived. (Britannica

After Christianity was legalized in 313, the Roman emperors dominated the Church: Emperor Constantine controlled the Council of Nicaea, emperors Constantius and Valens exiled Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and emperor Theodosius unilaterally declared Arianism illegal.  The emperors believed that they had the right and duty to regulate the worship and doctrines of the Church.

After emperor Justinian destroyed the major Arian nations in the sixth century, the Church was subject to the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman emperors for two centuries. After the Islamic conquests weakened the Byzantine Empire. the Church sought the protection of the Carolingian Franks, but the Franks also dominated the church in the 9th century. After the Frankish empire was weakened, the Ottonian dynasty dominated the Church in the 10th century.  

During the eleventh century, for the first time in its existence, the church was able to resist the dominance of the temporal rulers over it. As is discussed below, the popes not only sought independence from the state but eventually claimed authority over the state.


The term “Middle Ages” describes Europe between the fall of Rome in the 5th century and the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The High Middle Ages was the period of European history that commenced around 1000 and continued for some centuries. During these centuries, the Church rose to become the dominant power in the West (Wikipedia). This was when the church became “larger in appearance than its associates.”

The remainder of the article discusses the developments more or less in chronological sequence, beginning where the previous article ended, namely the Byzantine Papacy.


The Early Muslim conquests of the 7th century began to expand the sway of Islam beyond Arabia. Their first clash with the Roman Empire was in 634. This was followed by decades of war between Islam and the Roman Empire.

In the 8th century, the Byzantine Empire lost its richest provinces—Egypt and Syria—to the Arab caliphate.  Suddenly, much of the Christian world was under Muslim rule. Over the subsequent centuries, the Muslim states became some of the most powerful states in the Mediterranean world. 


Byzantine authority all but vanished in Italy.  Pope Zachary, in 741, was the last pope to seek the emperor’s approval for his election. By 751, Rome ceased to be part of the Byzantine Empire.  This was the end of the Byzantine Papacy

Muslim conquests of the territories of the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem left in effect only two patriarchates, namely those of Rome and Constantinople.

With the dominance of Islam in the east, the power base of the Catholic Church shifted from Constantinople to Rome.  The Bishop of Rome became the Pope and the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. 

Though the Roman church claimed religious authority over Christians everywhere, it was unable to stamp out ‘heresy’ among the vast numbers of Christians in Muslim lands for the new Muslim rulers tolerated all Christian sects. 

Additionally, subjects of the Muslim Empire could become Muslims simply by declaring a belief in a single deity and reverence for Muhammad. As a result, the peoples of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria largely accepted their new rulers and many declared themselves Muslims within a few generations.


In the sixth century, Justinian was willing to negotiate a truce with the nations that later became Muslim but viciously attacked his fellow (Arian) Christian nations is the west.  If he did not do that, the Muslims probably would not have been able to defeat the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire.


After the demise of effective Byzantine protection of Italy in the 8th century, the Lombards again emerged as a threat to the Papacy.  This drove the Papacy to find a new protector.  For this purpose, it appealed to other Germanic rulers for protection.

After a period of volatility, the popes gained a powerful protector by linking the fate of the Papacy to the Carolingian dynasty.  This was a large Frankish-dominated empire in western and central Europe during the Early Middle Ages (800–888 – Wikipedia).  

The Frankish-papal alliance was reinforced when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Patricius Romanorum (Holy Roman Emperor) on Christmas Day, 800. This laid the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire, which was to last until 1806.

Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was King of the Franks from 768, then also King of the Lombards from 774, and then Holy Roman Emperor from 800. He was the first recognized emperor to rule western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. The expanded Frankish state that Charlemagne founded is called the Carolingian Empire (Wikipedia).

The popes gained security from the relationship with the Carolingian dynasty, but the Carolingians followed in the footsteps of their Byzantine and Roman predecessors by asserting “immense authority over the Western church” (Britannica). The Carolingians blended the authority of the church and the state: Charlemagne used both secular and religious people as his representatives and claimed to govern both. On the other hand, the pope exercised influence in Carolingian affairs by maintaining the right to crown emperors and by sometimes directly intervening in political disputes. Church and state were re-united:

The great harlot … with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality” (Rev. 17:1-2).


As Carolingian power waned in the late 9th and the 10th century, the papacy once again found itself threatened by powerful local nobles, seeking to control it.

In the 10th century, the Ottonian dynasty in Germany established a new imperial line and became the preeminent power in Latin Europe.

Otto I was German king (from 936) and Holy Roman Emperor (962–973).  By suppressing rebellious vassals and his decisive victory over the Hungarians, he consolidated the German Reich and revived Charlemagne’s empire in 962. He used the church as a stabilizing influence to ensure a secure empire.  For this reason, he required papal stability and deposed Pope John XII (955–964) for immorality.

The Ottos, accustomed to the tradition in which great landowners built and owned the churches on their estates as private property, treated Rome and all important sees in this spirit. Bishops were appointed on royal nomination and forbidden appeals to Rome. (Britannica)


The article on the Fifth Century provides some reasons why the Roman Church, after the Western Roman Empire fell, actually grew stronger, such as:

      • While there was no single government that united all people, the Church had a strong, centralized organization.
      • Secular governments came and went through chaos and warfare, but the Papacy remained. 
      • The Church gave people a sense of communal identity. 

Other factors that, in later years, allowed the Church to become “larger” than the kings of Europe include the following:


Ordinary people across Europe had to ‘tithe’ 10 percent of their earnings each year to the Church. This allowed the Church to amass a great deal of money and power.

One indication of the high status of the Church during the Middle Ages is that cathedrals were the largest buildings in medieval Europe.  They could be found at the center of towns and cities across the continent.


In the Middle Ages, people did not have access to information. Consequently, the Church was able to teach that salvation—escape from eternal hell—was only available through the Church, namely through the sacraments and ceremonies which priests and other clergy administered.  The church used this monopoly on salvation to wield power over political rulers:

Popes excommunicated disobedient kings. This meant the king is denied salvation and his vassals are freed from their duties to him.

If an excommunicated king continued to disobey the pope, the popes used an even more frightening weapon; the interdict.  Under an interdict, many sacraments and religious services could not be performed in the king’s lands. As Christians, the king’s subjects believed that, without such sacraments, they are doomed to hell.


Christian monasticism is the practice of individuals who live ascetic and typically secluded lives that are dedicated to Christian worship. This became popular in the Middle Ages.  The monastic communities became storehouses of knowledge.  In addition to being centers for spiritual life, they preserved crafts and artistic skills and were centers for agriculture and production. 

Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, books were works of art. Craftsmen in monasteries created handmade books with colored illustrations, gold and silver lettering, and other adornments.

Convents were one of the few places where women could receive an education.  Nuns wrote, translated, and illuminated manuscripts as well.

The monasteries elevated the authority of the Roman Catholic (McFarland). Many times, monasteries were the only reason the Bible and records of history survived at all (Bainton, 1964, 129). 


Toward the end of the 11th century, the Catholic Church began to authorize military expeditions, or Crusades, to expel Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land and to return it to Christian control. In 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade when he received an appeal from Byzantine emperor Alexius I to help ward off a Turkish invasion.

Crusaders, who wore red crosses on their coats to advertise their status, believed that their service would guarantee the remission of their sins and ensure them eternal life. They also received worldly rewards, such as papal protection of their property and forgiveness of some kinds of debts.

The crusades were unsuccessful, and brutality committed by the armies of both sides left a legacy of mutual distrust between Muslims and Christians.

The Crusades were a sign of the increased authority of the popes over the political rulers, for the pope called for the crusades. The kings, by (1088–99) participating in the crusades, in a sense, submitted themselves to the authority of the pope. 

The crusades also greatly enhanced papal prestige in the 12th and 13th centuries.  They gave Catholics a common purpose, and they inspired waves of religious enthusiasm among people.



The Cluniac reform of monasteries already began in the year 910. This placed abbots under the direct control of the pope rather than under the secular control of feudal lords.

The popes, during this time of increasing dominance, also sought to establish the primacy of Rome over the church worldwide. This worsened tensions between Rome and Constantinople and eventually brought about the Schism of 1054 between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

One important measure—initiated in 1059—was the organization of the College of Cardinals in which was vested with the right to name new popes. This served to restrict interference from political rulers. 

The Church also attempted to control most marriages among the great. In 1059, the Church prohibited marriages involving consanguinity (blood kin) and affinity (kin by marriage) to the seventh degree of relationship. Under these rules, almost all great marriages required a dispensation.


Beginning in the mid-11th century the popes challenged the traditional authority of the European monarchs to control appointments to the higher church offices within their territories. This is known as the Investiture Controversy. Investiture means “the action of formally investing a person with honors or rank.”


One famous incident illustrates how powerful the pope has become:

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII, with the Dictatus Papae (1075), claimed the pope as the highest authority in the church and banned lay investiture. 

In response, the German emperor—King Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire, ordered Gregory to step down from the papacy. Gregory then excommunicated the king. Afterward, German bishops and princes sided with the pope. To save his throne, the king tried to win the pope’s forgiveness:

Stripped of his royal robes, and clad as a penitent, Henry had to come barefooted in ice and snow, and request for admission to the presence of the pope. All day he remained at the door of the citadel, fasting and exposed to the wintry weather, but was refused admission. A second and third day he thus humiliated and disciplined himself, and finally, on 28 January, l077, he was received by the pontiff and absolved from censure. (Cath. Ency. VI, 794)

Henry was the mightiest king in Europe at the time. Imagine the head of the mightiest nation today having to ask the pope for forgiveness in this way.  This shows how powerful and arrogant the Church has become.


Gregory died in exile, but his ideals eventually prevailed, for royal intervention in church affairs was seriously curtailed. The successors of Gregory and Henry continued to fight over lay investiture until 1122. In that year, representatives of the Church and the emperor met in the German city of Worms. They reached a compromise known as the Concordat of Worms. By its terms, the Emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and agreed that the Church would appoint their own officials, but that the emperor could veto the appointment of the bishops. This was a victory for the pope, but the emperor did retain considerable power over the Church.

While on the surface it was over a matter of official procedures regarding the appointments of offices, underneath was a power struggle for control over who held ultimate authority, the King or the Pope.


The Church was not satisfied to have authority over itself.  It reasoned that the pope has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole church and that that makes it the ultimate ruler of the kingdoms within Christendom.  It believed that the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, should have authority over the state:

Emperors and kings had to … be in communion with the Pope, as essential conditions of their reigning lawfully; if these conditions were broken, of which the Pope was the judge, then … he could … declare their ruler unfit to reign. [Cath Dic, 257]

Pope Leo III’s crowning of Charlemagne as emperor in 800 was a first attempt to establish the tradition that Papal endorsement is required for the crowning of emperors. 

During the High Middle Ages, the Popes claimed the right to depose the kings of Western Europe. They were sometimes successful. For example, Sixtus V (Cath. Ency. I729) excommunicated Protestant Henry III of Navarre and sent an army to unseat him.  Sixtus promised the Spanish King a subsidy for the Armada, with which England was to be subjugated.  

In consequence to these developments, powerful popes, such as Alexander III (r. 1159–81), Innocent III (r. 1198–1216), Gregory IX (r. 1227–41), and Innocent IV (r. 1243–54) claimed authority over emperors and kings.

The Catholic Church therefore reformed from being subordinate to the secular power to be supreme over the secular rulers.  It developed political power, rivaling that of the secular rulers of Europe. For more detail, see:

Church and state in medieval Europe (Wikipedia)
The Power of the Church


The 11th century was a period of change. In the 12th century, both the popes and kings adjusted to the new realities.

The papacy evolved into a great administrative bureaucracy. The papal court created legal machinery of great sophistication and became, in some ways, the highest court of appeals, exercising jurisdiction in a broad range of matters (Britannica).


In the pontificate of Innocent III (1198–1216), the papal claims to authority reached their zenith. Innocent:

      • Declared that the pope stood between God and humankind as the vicar (stand in the place) of Christ.
      • Expanded papal legal authority by claiming jurisdiction over matters relating to sin.
      • Involved himself in the political affairs of France and the Holy Roman Empire.
      • Called the Fourth Crusade (1202–04), which led to the sack of Constantinople.
      • Also called the Albigensian Crusade, which was intended to end heresy in southern France and resulted in the massacre of Christians classified as heretics by the Papacy.
      • Approved legislation requiring Jews to wear special clothing.

Innocent’s successors continued his policies and further extended papal authority.

The popes carried out the Inquisition, which was a powerful office set up within the Catholic Church to root out and punish heresy. Beginning in the 12th century and continuing for hundreds of years, the Inquisition is infamous for the severity of its tortures. Its worst manifestation was in Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition was a dominant force for more than 200 years, resulting in some 32,000 executions. (

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The Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire

This article summarizes the key events and circumstances that caused the Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire; more or less in chronological sequence. This is to support another article, which shows that the prophecies of Daniel correctly predicted HOW the Western Roman Empire was to fall. 

Much of this article is a summary of Wikipedia’s articles about that period.


The Roman Empire reached its zenith in the 2nd century. Thereafter it slowly declined. 

Emperor Theodosius’ Death (395)

Theodosius was the last emperor to rule the entire Roman Empire; east and west. He died in 395. Rome was sacked by barbarians in 410. This indicates how weak the empire has become in the only 15 years since Theodosius died. Theodosius’ death initiated a series of major changes, as described below, and was a major turning point in the history of the Roman Empire. Rome was again sacked in 455 and the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476, but the real change occurred before 410. 

Crossing of the River Rhine (406)

The eagles were a popular symbol among the Goths.

From the fourth century onward, the Empire was less able to repel invading barbarians. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, large numbers of barbarians migrated into Roman territories. In the year 376, an unmanageable number of Goths and other non-Roman peoples migrated into the Empire. But during the 15 years after Theodosius’ death, in 406, the Crossing of the River Rhine by Germanic tribes was a decisive event in the Migration Period.

To become part of the Empire – These barbarians did not enter the Empire to tear it down or to replace it with something new, but to become part of the Empire. They sought permission to settle in Roman territory, and Imperial authorities also granted such permission, on certain severe conditions. In other words, these “barbarians” were absorbed into the empire.

Second-class citizens – These barbarians were accepted into the Empire, but as second-class citizens or even, what we could say, as migrant laborers or slaves. However, the Goths resisted and sought full and equal citizenship.

Barbarians controlled the Roman army.

Recruited – Many barbarians were recruited into the Imperial Forces. The Imperial Forces became dependent on the service of Goths. Historians speculate about why barbarians were allowed into the army. But the Roman Empire required a strong army, for its armed forces were the basis for its power.

Top Generals – Some of the barbarians became generals and even top generals.

Emperors were figureheads.

The real rulers in the West always were the military strongmen. The top generals of the armies often also became the emperor. After the ‘barbarians’ gained control of the army, in the 5th century, Western Emperors became mere figureheads.

Compete for control of the empire

There always remained friction and even hatred between the original Graeco-Roman inhabitants of the Empire and the increasingly dominant Barbarian peoples as they competed for control of the Empire. At times, the Graeco-Romans massacred the barbarians. However, if we combine the two principles, namely that the top generals were the real rulers and that the barbarians became top generals, then we can see that the barbarians were progressively in control of the empire.

Not foreign armies – For that reason, it was not foreign armies that sacked Rome in 410 and 455, or that deposed the last Roman Emperor in 476: It was the Gothic section of the Roman army that eventually gained the upper hand in the struggle for control of the Empire.

Civil wars – The Empire was not only threatened by barbarian invasions, but also by civil wars between the Romans themselves. 

The Western Roman Empire did not fall.

Based on the analysis above and the more detailed discussion below, the Western Roman Empire did not come to an end in 476 when Odoacer deposed the last emperor. A more appropriate description of what happened is that the Germanic faction of the Roman Empire became strong enough to take over control of the army, and therefore of the Western Empire itself. This is confirmed by the continuation of Roman power and practices after the emperor was deposed.


In summary, what happened, over more than 100 years, is that the barbaric faction in the Roman Empire became stronger and stronger, while the Gracio-Roman control of the Empire became progressively weaker until the barbarians took over control of the Western Roman Empire. 

The barbaric faction did not use its military supremacy to replace the political and legal structures of the Roman Empire with a different system, but to become part of it: They continued the culture and practices of the empire. 

The sack of Rome in 410 did not cause the fall of the Western Roman Empire; the sack of Rome was an indication of how far the Roman Empire has declined by then.

The Western Roman Empire, therefore, did not fall. Bowersock (2001) described the process as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall.


Barbarians were accepted into the empire.

From the fourth century, the Empire’s military capacity was insufficient to repel or exterminate the invading barbarians. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, various Germanic tribes from southern Scandinavia and northern Germania migrated into the Empire’s territories in Western Europe and Northwestern Africa, in what is sometimes called the Migration period

I do not like the term “barbarian” because these people were the forbearers of the French, German and other peoples, but the literature often refers to them as such and this term is useful to refer to a diverse group of people. 

As an early example of this migration, in the year 376, an unmanageable number of Goths and other non-Roman people migrated into the Empire. Emperor Valens allowed Goths to settle within the borders of the Empire. However, the local Roman administrators mistreated them. They revolted, resulting in the first war against the Visigoths which climaxed in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Visigoths defeated a large Roman army and also killed Emperor Valens himself.

The important point is that imperial authorities admitted potentially hostile groups into the Empire and:

      • allotted to them lands (typically in devastated provinces),
      • allocated them a status (e.g. unfree workers (coloni) for Roman landowners), and
      • duties (sometimes, to defend a border) within the imperial system.

Cultural assimilation followed over the next generation or two. In other words, these “barbarians” became part of the empire.

Empire divided into East and West

Emperor Theodosius I died in 395. He was the last emperor to unite the western and eastern halves of the Empire under the authority of a single emperor. After his death, the empire progressively subdivided into several separate identifiable political entities.

ivory diptych, thought to depict Stilicho with his wife Serena

At his death, Theodosius’ two underage sons became the emperors of the two halves of the Empire. Honorius became emperor in the West with General Stilicho as his guardian while Arcadius was placed on the Eastern throne in Constantinople with Rufinus the power behind the throne. However, Rufinus was soon suspected of being in league with the Goths and was killed. (The Roman Empire did not fire leaders; they killed them.)

These two parts of the empire were administered fairly independently; even in opposition to one another. For example, in 406, General Stilicho demanded the return of the eastern half of Illyricum (which had been transferred to the administrative control of Constantinople by Theodosius), threatening war if the Eastern Roman Empire resisted.

A Goth ruled in the East.

Most of this article describes events in the Western Empire, but this subsection briefly mentions the rise and fall of the Goth Gainas in the East, for it highlights some of the principles we wish to emphasize.

Gainas was a Gothic leader who commanded the barbarian contingent of emperor Theodosius’ army in 394. After Theodosius’ death, in the year 399, he was promoted to magister militum (literally, master of the military) in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Gainas was required to suppress the insurrection of the Ostrogoths in Asia Minor but failed. The Ostrogoths continued to devastate Asia Minor. Gainas advised emperor Arcadius to accept the terms set by the Ostrogoths. But then Gainas showed his true colors by openly joining the Ostrogoths with all his forces. In this way, he forced the emperor to sign a treaty whereby the Goths would be allowed to settle in Thrace, entrusted with the defense of that frontier against the barbarians beyond the Danube. 

Backed by the Ostrogoths and given his position as top general of the Eastern Roman Empire, Gainas was now very powerful. He proceeded to install his forces in Constantinople (the capital of the Eastern Empire) and to depose all the anti-Goth officials.

However, the Graeco-Roman populace intensely resented both Goths and Arian Christians, and Gainas and his men were both. After a few months, in 400, the citizens of Constantinople revolted against Gainas and massacred 7,000 armed Goths and as many of his people and their families as they could catch. Some Goths built rafts and tried to flee across the strip of sea that separates Asia from Europe (the Hellespont), but their rag-tag ad hoc fleet was destroyed by another Goth in Imperial service; Fravitta By the beginning of 401, Gainas’ head rode a pike through Constantinople.

A half-Vandal reigned the Western Roman Empire.

We will now turn our attention to the West.

Stilicho was the son of a Vandal cavalry officer and a Roman mother, but he considered himself to be nothing but Roman. He joined the Roman army and rose through the ranks during the reign of Theodosius I. Theodosius promoted him to general and, seeing in him a man that would be able to lead the empire, appointed Stilicho as guardian of his son Honorius. Thus, after Theodosius died in 395, the underage Honorius became Emperor of the Western Empire, with Stilicho as his caretaker. Stilicho came to be the real commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in the west. In 400 Stilicho was accorded the highest honor within the Roman state by being appointed consul. He was now the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. Some regard this as the high point of Germanic advancement in the service of Rome. 

Visigoths rose to threaten Rome.

Alaric first appeared as the leader of a mixed band of Goths and allied peoples who invaded Thrace in 391 but were stopped by the Roman general Stilicho. In 394, Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 under the Roman Emperor Theodosius. Despite sacrificing around 10,000 of his men, Alaric received little recognition. Disappointed, he left the Roman army and was elected to be the first king of the Visigoths in 395. The Visigoths then marched toward Constantinople until they were diverted by Roman forces. Nonetheless, the Eastern emperor appointed Alaric magister militum (general in the Roman Army; literally, master of the military).

NOTE: The Visigoths were an early Germanic people who, along with the Ostrogoths, constituted the two major branches of the Goths. These tribes flourished and spread throughout the late Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or what is known as the Migration Period.

In 401 and again in 402 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated, although he did force the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths.

Massive immigration of barbarians

To protect Italy, the Empire had depleted the Rhine frontier of forces. The Crossing of the River Rhine on 31 December 406 by Germanic tribes (including the Vandals, Burgundians, Alans, and the Sueves) was a key event in the Migration Period. This brought unmanageable numbers of Germanic and Alan barbarians into Gaul. For the next few years, these barbarian tribes wandered in search of food and employment, devastating Gaul’s provinces, while Roman forces fought each other in the name of Honorius and Constantine III, who was competing for the imperial throne. The barbarians ravaged Gaul, initiating a wave of destruction and pillaging of Roman cities. Some moved on to the regions of Hispania and Africa. The Empire would never regain control over most of these lands. This was a climactic moment in the decline of the Empire and a serious setback for Stilicho’s reputation.

The revolt in Britain challenged the emperor.

In 406, the provinces of Roman Britain revolted. The garrisons chose as their leader a man named after the famed emperor of the early fourth century, Constantine the Great, who had himself risen to power through a military coup in Britain. Constantine was a common soldier, but one of some ability. 

Early in 407, the Roman military in Britain acclaimed Constantine as emperor. Constantine promptly moved to Gaul and took with him all of the mobile troops left in Britain, to confront the various Germanic invaders who had crossed the Rhine the previous winter. Constantine’s forces won several confrontations with the Vandals and quickly secured the line of the Rhine.

With the knowledge that Constantine III was a threat to his position as emperor, the Western emperor, Honorius, ordered Stilicho to expel Constantine. Stilicho’s forces defeated two of Constantine’s generals, but Constantine sent another army and Stilicho’s troops retreated into Italy, Constantine now controlled all of Gaul and garrisoned the Alpine passes into Italy. Stilicho had failed to quash Constantine III’s rebellion.

In the summer of 408, the Roman forces in Italy assembled to attack Constantine. But Constantine struck first. He sent his general Gerontius towards Hispania, where he defeated the last Roman force to try to hold the borders of Hispania.

Stilicho’s death led to the sack of Rome.

Stilicho’s death

After many years of victories against many enemies, both barbarian and Roman, the series of political and military disasters described above finally allowed Stilicho’s enemies in the court of the emperor to remove him from power, culminating in his execution in 408.

The Western Emperor Honorius furthermore incited the Roman population to massacre tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman military. The Gothic soldiers then defected en masse to Alaric, increasing the size of his force to around 30,000 men, and joined his march on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

The first siege of Rome

The Visigothic leader thereupon laid siege to Rome in 408. Alaric attempted to secure a permanent peace treaty and rights to settle within Roman territory. Alaric’s military operations centered on the port of Rome, through which Rome’s grain supply had to pass. His siege caused dreadful famine within the walls. Eventually, the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy and liberated all 40,000 Gothic slaves in Rome. That payment, though large, was less than one of the richest senators could have produced. The super-rich aristocrats made little contribution. Rather, pagan temples were stripped of ornaments to make up the total. Besides, Alaric hoped for promotion to magister militum – commander of the Western Roman Army, but Honorius refused.

Constantine becomes joint consul

Given that the Gothic army under Alaric roamed unchecked in northern Italy when Constantine’s envoys arrived to negotiate, Honorius accepted Constantine’s demands, and the two were joint consuls for the year 409. After military setbacks, Constantine abdicated in 411 but was captured and executed shortly afterward.

NOTE: Consuls were mere symbolic representatives of Rome’s republican heritage and held very little power and authority; the Emperor acted as the supreme authority.

The second siege of Rome

In 409 Alaric again tried to negotiate with Honorius. He demanded frontier land and food but Honorius responded with insults. Alaric ravaged Italy outside the fortified cities (which he could not garrison), and the Romans refused open battle (for they had inadequate forces). Late in the year, Alaric expressed his readiness to leave Italy if Honorius would only grant his people a supply of grain. Honorius flatly refused. The Visigoths again surrounded Rome. Alaric lifted his blockade after proclaiming Attalus Western Emperor.

Third siege and sack of Rome

In the summer of 410, Alaric deposed Attalus and besieged Rome for the third time. According to some accounts, allies within the capital opened the gates for him, and for three days his troops sacked the city. The city of Rome was the seat of the richest senatorial noble families. Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings, which is surprising given the massacre of Gothic women and children. In some Christian holy places, Alaric’s men even refrained from wanton wrecking and rape.


The death of Stilicho has been included in this section under the heading of the sack of Rome because many historians argue that the removal of Stilicho was the main catalyst leading to this monumental event. The city destroyed its own protection. It is also interesting to note the similarities between the massacre of the Gothic soldiers and their families in Constantinople and the massacre of Gothic women and children in the West. It shows the level of hate that existed between the Graeco-Roman people and the Gothic invaders. 

The sack of Rome did not cause the decline of the Roman Empire. Rather, the decline of the Roman Empire caused the sack of Rome. 

The fact that barbarians were able to roam unchecked in the Italian countryside and sack Rome are indications of the decline; not only of the Western Roman Empire but of the Empire as a whole. 

The Western Empire never recovered. Rome was sacked a second time in 455; this time by the Vandals. Although the capital in the West, by this time, has moved to Ravenna, Rome remained the West’s largest city and its economic center.

Visigoths settled in Spain.

After they sacked Rome, the Visigoths first settled in southern Gaul. They also extended their authority into Hispania, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries AD. In 507, their rule in Gaul was ended by the Franks under Clovis I, who defeated them in the Battle of Vouillé. After that, the Visigoth kingdom was limited to Hispania. In or around 589, the Visigoths under Reccared I converted from Arianism to Nicene Christianity, gradually adopting the culture of their Hispano-Roman subjects.

Last emperor in the Western Roman Empire

from a 19th-century illustration
Romulus resigns the Crown

In AD 476, Odoacer—a Germanic chieftain—deposed the last emperor in Italy (Romulus Augustus). This did not require a major battle, for by then barbarian kingdoms had established their own power in much of the area of the Western Empire, leaving the Emperor with negligible power and no effective control. The circumstances were as follows:

Romulus usurps the throne.

The Western Roman Emperor Julius Nepos appointed Orestes as Magister militum in 475. However, before the end of that year, Orestes rebelled, drove Emperor Nepos from Italy, and proclaimed his own young son Romulus as the new emperor Augustulus. Nepos reorganized his court in Dalmatia and received affirmation from Zeno—the emperor in Constantinople. Zeno refused to accept Augustulus but branded Romulus and his father as traitors and usurpers.

Odoacer leads the barbarian revolt.

At about that time the foederati in Italy rebelled. Foederati were barbarians whom the Roman Empire allowed to remain within the Empire in exchange for military assistance. They had grown weary of this arrangement. They petitioned Orestes to grant them lands and to settle them permanently in Italy. Orestes refused.

Odoacer was an officer in what remained of the Roman Army; rising through the ranks. The foederati turned to Odoacer to lead their revolt against Orestes. Odoacer and his troops quickly conquered the whole of Italy, killed Orestes, proclaimed Odoacer king of Italy, captured Ravenna (by then, the capital city of the Western Empire) and compelled the 16-year-old emperor Romulus to abdicate.

No emperor in the West

But Odoacer chose neither to assume the title of Emperor himself nor to select a puppet emperor. He, rather, proclaimed himself the ruler of Italy. He sent the Imperial insignia to Constantinople and requested the Eastern Emperor Zeno to reign over both the eastern and western parts of the Empire. Zeno agreed to this arrangement, setting Nepos’ claims aside and legalizing Odoacer’s position as Imperial viceroy of Italy. In other words, the Eastern Emperor granted Odoacer legal authority to govern Italy in the name of the Empire.

The message was clear: The title Emperor no longer had value. The emperors in the West in the fifth century were, in any case, mostly figureheads, and this arrangement made an end of the puppet emperors in the West. 

Zeno was now, at least in name, the sole Emperor of the entire Empire. Odoacer was careful to observe form and made a pretense of acting on Zeno’s authority, even issuing coins with both his image and that of Zeno. He also maintained Roman institutions, such as the consulship.

Odoacer solidus struck in the name of Emperor Zeno, testifying to the formal submission of Odoacer to Zeno.

Zeno did suggest that Odoacer should receive Nepos back as Emperor in the West, “if he truly wished to act with justice,” but Odoacer never returned any territory or real power to Nepos. Nepos remained in Dalmatia until his death.

Ostrogothic Kingdom

rose from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire

Concerned with Odoacer’s success and popularity, Zeno started a campaign against him. In 488, Zeno authorized another troublesome Ostrogoth, Theoderic (later known as “the Great”) to take Italy from Odoacer. After several indecisive campaigns, in 493 Theoderic and Odoacer agreed to rule jointly. They celebrated their agreement with a banquet of reconciliation, at which Theoderic’s men murdered Odoacer’s, and Theoderic personally cut Odoacer in half. The Ostrogoths then founded their own independent Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy under the rule of king Theodoric

Roman Senate – The largely powerless but still influential Western Roman Senate continued to exist in the city of Rome under the rule of the Ostrogothic kingdom and, later for at least another century, before disappearing in the early 7th century.

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