Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine – Fifth Century Arianism

This is a further article in the series on the historical development of the Trinity doctrine.  The current article considers the development in the Fifth Century.  This article is also an overview of the events in the preceding century.

Summary

Early Church Fathers

Irenaeus
IRENAEUS

The church fathers of the first 300 years were not Trinitarians.  For them, the Father was “the only true god.”  They also had an extremely high view of Christ, namely that He was “born of the very substance of the Father” “before time began.”  Nevertheless, they saw the Son as subordinate to the Father, who is “the Head of Christ.”

Nicene Creed

COUNCIL AT NICAEA

After he legalized Christianity in 313, Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325.  That creed elevates the Son to “true god from true god.” (I use the word “god” because the ancient languages did not have a word equivalent to our word “God.” In Greek they used the word theos, which is a general word for all gods.) 

Fifty Year Arian Period

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. Soon after Nicaea, Emperor Constantine became convinced that the Nicene Creed was not Biblical.  During the next 50 years, the emperors were Arian.  Arianism, therefore, dominated the church.  Religious freedom was not part of Roman culture.  During the fifty-year Arian period, the church converted many Germanic peoples to Arian Christianity.  At this time, also, large numbers of Germanic people began to migrate into the Roman Empire. 

In 380 Theodosius became emperor.  Being a zealous Nicene Christian, he immediately outlawed Arianism.  He so effectively persecuted Arianism that it disappeared among the elite in the empire.  However, the ‘barbarians’ remained Arian.

Barbarian domination of the Western Empire

After Theodosius’ death in 395, the ‘barbarian’ immigrants became a dominant part of the Roman Empire.  They tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476, when an Arian Germanic chieftain deposed the last Western Roman Empire.  They divided territory of the western provinces between the Germanic tribes but these tribes continued to function as part of the Roman Empire.  Since these ‘barbarians’ were Arians, the Western Roman Empire was once again Arian dominated.

Roman Church in the Fifth Century

The Roman Church survived throughout this period. One reason is that the ‘barbarians’ intended to remain part of the Roman Empire and the Roman Church was officially part of the Roman system of government.  The emperors appointed the bishops and they were accountable to him. For that reason also, the Roman Church actually grew in strength.  

One consequence of the growing strength of the Church in Rome was that ‘barbarian’ nations converted to the Nicene Church, rather than to Arianism.  At the end of the fifth century, the Franks were the first.  The other nations converted to Nicene Christianity over the subsequent centuries.

Conclusion

The Roman Emperors decided what Christology the church should adopt.  The fact that the church today is dominated by the Trinity doctrine is the direct result of decisions taken by Roman Emperors.

These concepts will now be discussed in more detail.

Church Fathers of the First 300 Years

The church fathers of the first 300 years were not Trinitarians.  They described the Father alone as the “Lord God Almighty,” as “the only true god, the unbegotten and unapproachable” and as “Lord of the universe.”

But they also had an extremely high view of Christ: They wrote that He was “born of the very substance of the Father” “before time began.”  “Every knee should bow” before Christ Jesus.  But that is not because Jesus is the Almighty, but because it is “the will of the invisible Father.”  In other words, in their view, the Son is subordinate to the Father, who is the only true ‘god’.  Justin Martyr explicitly put Jesus “in the second place” next to God.  Irenaeus, quoting the New Testament, refers to the Father as “the Head of Christ.”  Polycarp, also quoting the Bible, identified the Father as Jesus’ God.

Nicene Creed (325)

After Christianity was legalized in 313, emperor Constantine had a huge role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325.  While the Bible and the early fathers described the Father as “the only true god,” the Nicene Creed elevated the Son as Homoousios (of the same substance) as or with the Father and to “true god from true god.”  This elevates the Son to near equality with the Father.  The article Nicene Creed discusses whether that creed declares the Son to be fully EQUAL to the Father.

The words God and god

The reader might be surprised by the references to “god” rather than to “God.”  The reason is that ancient languages did not distinguish between upper case and lower case letters. Consequently, the Bible writers and these early fathers did not have a word that is exactly equal to the modern word “God,” which we use today as a name for one specific Being; the uncaused Cause of all things.  The ancient word which they used (theos in Greek) had a more general meaning and is equivalent to the modern word “god.” They used that same word for the Greek gods.

These early writers (Ignatius, Irenaeus), therefore, literally referred to the Father as “the only true god,” but to Jesus as “our god.”  To translate theos as “God,” with a capital “G,” is an interpretation.  Translators today, generally, assume the Trinity doctrine in which Jesus Christ is equal with the Father. Both are regarded as the uncaused Cause of all things.  Such translators translate theos, when it describes Jesus, also as “God.” 

It is important to know that that is an application of the Trinity doctrine and does not necessarily reflect the intention of the early writers.  

As shown above, the earliest church fathers had an extremely high view of Christ but did not regard Christ as equal to the Father.  I, therefore, prefer to use the word “god” rather than “God.”  I think that reflects the meaning of these ancient writers better.  For example, the phrase “true God” is a tautology, for there is only one true God.  But “true god” is a logical phrase.  See the article Jesus is our God for a further discussion of this crucial subject.

Fifty Year Arian Period (330-380)

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. The bishops went on teaching as they had before. Within a few years after Nicaea, Church leaders convinced emperor Constantine that the Nicene Creed was not Biblical.  During the 50 years after Nicaea, the emperors were Arian.  Arianism, therefore, in that period dominated to the church (See Fourth Century Arian Period.). 

Religious freedom was not part of the culture of the Roman Empire.  Just like Constantine exiled all church leaders who did not accept the Nicene Creed, the emperors after Constantine viciously persecuted the church leaders who taught the Nicene Creed. 

Many alternative creeds were formulated during that 50-year Arian period, such as the Long Lines Creed.

During those fifty years, the Gothic convert and Arian bishop Ulfilas went as a missionary to the Gothic tribes across the Danube.  Ulfilas translated the Bible in Gothic language and had success in converting the Goths to the Arian form of Christianity.  The conversion of Goths led to a widespread diffusion of Arian Christianity in the years 340 to 350 among other Germanic peoples as well, such as the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Lombards, Svevi, and Burgundians. (See the Wikipedia page on Arianism and the Britannica pages for Goth and Ulfilas.)

More or less at this time also people from the Germanic tribes began to migrate in large numbers into the Roman Empire.  (See Migration Period.)  Rome referred to them as “barbarians,” but they were the people that occupy most of Europe today.

Death of Arianism (380)

In 380 Theodosius became emperor.  He was a zealous Nicene Christian and immediately outlawed Arianism.  He so effectively persecuted Arianism that it disappeared among the elite in the empire.  However, not being subject to the Roman emperor, the ‘barbarian’ nations remained Arian.

Barbarian Control of the Western Empire

As discussed in The Fall of Rome, more and more ‘barbarian’ immigrants were recruited into the Roman army.  The Imperial forces became dependent on ‘barbarian’ soldiers.  They were also appointed in top positions in the military of the Western Roman Empire.  Since Roman generals always were very influential in the Roman Empire, this put the ‘barbarians’ in a very strong position. 

Theodosius was the last Roman emperor to rule the entire Empire. Soon after his death in 395 ‘barbarians’ were, in reality, in charge of the Western Roman Empire    But the ‘barbarian’ peoples were still treated as second class citizens by the Graeco-Roman population.  Therefore, to secure for themselves equal rights and permanent residency in the empire, the ‘barbarians’ revolted against the severe conditions of their tenure in the Roman Empire.  They sacked Rome in 410 and again in 455. (See Fall of the Roman Empire.)  

Although they dominated the Western Empire already from the beginning of the 400s (fifth century), they tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476, when Odoacer—an Arian Germanic chieftain—deposed the last Western Roman Empire.  He soon conquered Italy. During the fifth century, the territory of the Western Empire provinces was divided between the Germanic tribes, particularly the Goths and Vandals.  However, to some extent, they still functioned as part of the Roman Empire.  In name at least, they were subject to the emperor in Constantinople.  For these reasons, historians today prefer to refer to the Transformation of the Western Roman Empire; rather than its Fall.  It was a slow process over decades and even centuries during which the ‘barbarians’ wrestled control of the Western Empire from the Romans. 

These ‘barbarians’ received their Christianity during the 50 years from 330 to 380 when Arianism dominated the church.  Theodosius had made an end of Arianism among the Roman people in 380, but now, through the ‘barbarian’ domination of the Western Roman Empire, it was once again Arian dominated.

The Roman Church in the Fifth Century

The Roman Church should have perished.

The Roman Church survived throughout this period. There are at least two reasons why we might have expected the Church in Rome to perish with the demise of the Western Empire:

Firstly, the Church in Rome was part of the government of the Roman Empire. 

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT

After emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313 AD, the church became closely married to political powers of the times.  It became very different from what we know today as a church: It rather functioned similarly to a government department.  The emperor was the real head of the church.  He appointed bishops and they were accountable to him.  The emperor also had the final say with respect to controversies in the church, for example, with respect to Christology.  For example:

Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the decisions of the Council of Nicaea.  He called the council, presided over it, guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the important word Homoousios and exiled all bishops that did not agree.

When Theodosius I became emperor in 380, the imperial capital was solidly Arian. But he immediately outlawed all other forms of Christianity, exiled Arian bishops and banned Arians from the Council of 381.  The 381 Council was simply a formality.  (See Death of Arianism.)

Christianity, consequently, became wealthy and the religion of any ambitious civil official.

Secondly, the Church in Rome advocated Nicene Christology, while the Germanic peoples were Arians. 

Since Nicaea in the year 325, due to the fact that the Church functioned as a department of government, these two groups often exiled and persecuted one another.  Constantine’s successors—the emperors Constantius and Valens actively encouraged the church to reverse the Nicene Creed and exiled bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed, crushing the Nicene party (see Fourth Century Arian Period).  Theodosius, on the other hand, was a Nicene Christian and acted mercilessly against ‘heretics’. He was responsible for the first official executions of Christian ‘heretics’. [Jones 1964, p. 164]

The Roman Church Survived.

In spite of these factors, the new Arian rulers in the Western Empire allowed the Church in Rome to continue unhindered.  Arianism and the Nicene church of the Roman people existed side by side in the fifth century (400’s) and beyond.  The Jewish Encyclopaedia describes the situation:

“Most Germanic peoples—such as the eastern and western Goths, as also the Franks, the Lombards, the Suevi, and the Vandals—were baptized into Arian Christianity.  These tribes settled in widely spread districts of the old Roman empire.  A large number of Jews, already resident in those lands, fell under Arian domination. In contrast with the domination of the orthodox church, the Arian was distinguished by a wise tolerance and a mild treatment of the population of other faiths.  This conduct was traceable in some degree to certain points of agreement between the Arian doctrine and Judaism.  The very insistence upon the more subordinate relationship of the Son to the God-father is much nearer to the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah than to the conception of the full divinity of the Son, as enunciated at Nicaea.”
(Kohler, Kaufmann; Krauss, Samuel. “ARIANISM”. Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation.)

The Wikipedia – State Church of the Roman Empire states that the tolerance of the Arian Germanic tribes towards other religions resulted in entirely separate Arian and Nicene (catholic) systems of churches and bishops in the previous Western Empire. 

Although the Arian Germanic tribes were generally tolerant towards Nicene Christians, the Vandal regime in North Africa tried to force their Arian beliefs on their North African Nicene subjects, exiling Nicene clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Nicene Christians.  This matter will become important when we read of emperor Justinian’s efforts in the sixth century to regain control of the Western Empire, for the first ‘barbarian’ nation he attacked was the Vandals.

Why the ‘Barbarians’ tolerated the Roman Church

The Arian nations allowed the Roman (Nicene) Church to co-exist unhindered for at least the following reasons:

The ‘barbarians’, after they took control of the Western Empire, intended to remain part of the Roman Empire and the Roman Church was part of the Roman system of government; accountable to the emperor.  The ‘barbarians’ voluntary—in name at least—subjected themselves to the Roman Emperor, who reigned from the east. 

Religious persecution was part of the Roman culture.  Roman emperors always used religion to strengthen the unity of their vast empire and persecuted religions that threaten unity.  Religious persecution was perhaps not part of the ‘barbarian’ culture’.  (Who is ‘barbarian’ now?)

The Roman Church became stronger.

Actually, instead of perishing, the Church in Rome grew in strength after the ‘barbarians’ wrestled control of the western provinces from the original Graeco-Roman population (Britannica).  The reasons include the following:

The transformation of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century was a time of great political chaos and warfare and the well-organized church became the only stabilizing force. 

Another reason is the ‘moral’ support the Church in Rome received from the Roman Emperor.

Arian conversions to Nicene Christology

One consequence of the strength and influence of the Church in Rome was that ‘barbarian’ nations converted to the Nicene Church, rather than to Arianism:

The Franks and the Anglo-Saxons also were Germanic peoples but never were Arians. They entered the Western Roman Empire as Pagans.  

In 496 Clovis, king of the Franks, and one of the major Germanic king, converted to Nicene Christianity—as opposed to the Arianism of most other Germanic tribes.  Consequently, sometime between 496 and 508, Clovis I forcibly converted the Franks to Christianity. (So much for religious freedom!)  This led to widespread conversion among the Frankish peoples across what is now modern-day France, Belgium and Germany.  Three centuries later it led to Charlemagne‘s alliance with the Bishop of Rome.  This was the first of the Germanic peoples to convert to Catholic Christianity.

Æthelberht of Kent did the same for the Anglo-Saxons (see also Christianity in Gaul and Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England)Visigothic Spain was Arian until 589.  The Lombards were Arians until the 7th century.

Conclusion

The first main conclusion from this article is that Roman Emperors had decided what Christology the church should adopt.  Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.  During the next 50 years, the emperors Constantius and Valens were Arians.  Religious freedom was foreign to Roman culture.  Arianism, therefore, then dominated the church.  In 380 Theodosius—a zealous Nicene Christian—became emperor and immediately outlawed Arianism.  In the fifth century, the ‘barbarian’ immigrants dominated the Western Empire.  Since they were Arians, the West was Arian once again.  But they tolerated the Roman Church and it actually grew in strength.  Over the next centuries, the ‘barbarian’ nations converted to the Nicene Christology.

The fact that the church today is dominated by the Trinity doctrine is the direct result of decisions taken by Roman Emperors.

The second main purpose of this article is to explain how the Papacy rose to dominance.  This topic will be developed further by subsequent articles.

Articles in this series

Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
 – Introduction
 – Polycarp
 – Justin Martyr – Current Article
 – Ignatius of Antioch
 – Irenaeus
 – Tertullian – work in progress

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god.
Fourth Century (State Church)
 – Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
 – The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
 – Fourth Century Arianism 

 – What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
 – Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
 – Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fifth Century
 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire
 – Why the Roman Empire fell 
 – The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.
 – Roman Church grew in strength in spite of Arian domination 
Middle Ages

 – The massacres of the Waldensians

 

The Book of Daniel correctly predicted the HOW of the Fall of Rome.

This article discusses the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD.  This article frequently abbreviates this to the “Fall of Rome.”

SUMMARY

PURPOSE: TO PROVE THAT DANIEL IS TRUE PROPHECY

Daniel the prophetsThe Book of Daniel claims to been written in the 6th century before Christ as a prediction of future events.  However, many theologians do not believe that it is not really a prophecy. They propose that Daniel was written after the fact in the form of prophecy.  That would mean that Daniel is a fraud. The purpose of the current article is to prove that Daniel is a true prophecy by showing that it correctly predicts HOW the Western Roman Empire was to fall in the fifth century after Christ.

The vision of Daniel 2 presents the Roman Empire as the iron legs of an image of a man, followed by “feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” The feet “will be a divided kingdom.”

Daniel 7 depicts the Roman Empire as a fourth beast that will be “dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong.” “It devoured and crushed and trampled down.”  Eleven horns grow out of it.  These are eleven “kingdoms” into which the Roman Empire subdivides; equivalent to the “divided kingdom” in Daniel 2.

These prophecies predict:

      • That the Roman Empire will be very cruel;
      • That it will be subdivided into many kingdoms
      • Which will be a continuation of it. 

The purpose of the current article is to show that historians confirm these three principles. 

FOUNDING PRINCIPLES OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

The vast Roman Empire was a unity of many different nations; enforced by violence.  The emperors and Roman aristocrats very wealthy by looting other nations.  

DECLINE AND FALL OF ROME

It is possible to identify major milestones or events in the decline of the Roman Empire, but it is more important to identify the underlying trends. 

The first major trend was the migration of Germanic tribes from outside its borders into the Empire throughout the 4th and 5th centuries.  The immigrants did not intend to destroy the Roman Empire or to replace it with something new, but to take part in its benefits.  They sought permission to settle in Roman territory, and Imperial authorities also granted such permission.  However, severe conditions were set for them which made them second class citizens. 

The second major trend was that many ‘barbarians’ were recruited into the Imperial Forces.  Furthermore, the ‘barbarians’ eventually controlled the Roman military machinery.  They became generals and even top generals.  Since the real power of the Empire always was its army, the top generals in the Roman Army often became emperor.  For ‘barbarians’ to become to top generals, therefore, meant that ‘barbarians’ have progressively become the real rulers of the Western Empire, but they were not allowed to become emperor.  The consequence was that the emperors in the West Roman Empire in the 5th century became mere figureheads.

‘CATASTROPHIC’ FIFTH CENTURY EVENTS

‘Barbarians’ sacked Rome in 410 and again in 455.  They deposed of the last Western Emperor in 476.  These major events did NOT CAUSE the Empire to fall or decline.  These events should rather be seen as indications of how weak the Empire has become by then.  These ‘catastrophes’ divided the Empire up into separate political entities.  The question is, what really happened? 

Firstly, 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 faction of the Roman Army that revolted.

Secondly, it was the severe conditions under which the ‘barbarians’ were allowed to reside in the Empire that triggered these ‘catastrophes’. 

Thirdly, the Goths did not aim to replace the Roman Empire with something new but to be treated as equal citizens, as part of the Empire.

Fourthly, the Empire approved the ‘Barbarian’ Rule. After Odoacer conquered Italy, the Eastern Emperor Zeno granted Odoacer the title of patrician, effectively recognizing his rule as King of Italy in the name of the Eastern Empire. A few years later, Zeno appointed the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great to be king of Italy. 

The Western Roman Empire, therefore, did not come to an end in 476, when Odoacer deposed the last emperor.  Deposing the emperor was simply a formality that aligned outward form to existing reality, namely that the ‘barbarians’ were already in control of the Western Empire since the beginning of the fifth century.  Roman power, practices, economy and culture continued after the emperor was deposed.  Even the Roman Church, whose bishops were appointed by and accountable to the emperor, was allowed to continue. 

CONTINUATION OF WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE

After the ‘barbarians’ assumed control of the Western Roman Empire, there always remained a desire and pressure to reunite the empire:

In the fifth century, after the Western Roman Empire was divided into many fairly independent ‘nations’, the Roman Church played a cohesive role between the ‘barbarian’ nations and the Empire.  

In the sixth century, to strengthen the Church in Rome, and therefore to strengthen Roman control, Justinian I neutralized some of the Arian ‘barbarian’ nations.  This resulting in the Byzantine Papacy; a period of about two centuries during which the Eastern Roman Empire had significant control over the nations in the West through the church.

Francia at its greatest extent in 814

The Kingdom of the Franks (481–843), which at its greatest expanse covered much of the previous Western Roman Empire, was a continuation of the Roman Empire.  

The civilization of Medieval Europe emerged from a SYNTHESIS between the Graeco-Roman world and the Germanic civilizations penetrating the Roman Empire.

CONCLUSION

In summary, over a period of centuries, ‘barbarians’ migrated into the Empire and were absorbed into the Empire.  Many of them were recruited into the Imperial Forces until they controlled the military machinery.  From that point forward, the ‘barbarians’ were the real rulers of the Western Empire, but they were still treated as second class citizens. In the fifth century they rebelled against their Roman overlords and took by force what the Empire was not willing to award them voluntarily, namely permanent residency. 

The Western Roman Empire did not fall.  The ‘barbarians’ did not replace the Roman Empire with a different political system.  They did not drive the Graeco-Roman population or the Roman church out of their territories.  Their purpose was to remain part of the Empire.  What actually happened was that the ‘barbarian’ immigrants wrestled control of the Empire from the original Graeco-Roman population. 

The ‘barbarians’ simply contributed to an ongoing process of transforming Roman institutions. It was a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall.

PROVES DANIEL AS TRUE PROPHECY

This confirms Daniel prophecies:

The vast Roman Empire was a unity of many nations, held together by violence; by military force.  “It devoured and crushed and trampled down.” 

As predicted by the “divided kingdom” of Daniel 2, and the eleven horns in Daniel 7, the Roman Empire subdivided into a number of kingdoms.  It is amazing that Daniel could predict, one Millenium before it happened, that the fourth empire would not be conquered by another mighty empire.

Like the iron in the legs in Daniel 2 continued in the feet, and like the eleven horns grew out of the fourth beast in Daniel 7, the principles of the Roman Empire continued in the kingdoms that arose from it; particularly in the form of The Evil Eleventh Horn.

The concepts will now be discussed in more detail.

PURPOSE – TO VALIDATE DANIEL

IS DANIEL A FRAUD?

The Book of Daniel itself claims that it was written in the 6th century before Christ (e.g. 12:4).  It presents itself as a prediction of future events.  For example, the book explicitly refers to “the kingdom of Greece” (9:20-21; cf. 11:2), which only became a ‘world empire’ in the fourth century BC (see Alexander the Great). 

However, many, perhaps even most, theologians do not believe that God knows the future.  Many accept that God knows everything, but argues that the future does not yet exist, and is therefore not knowable.  The point is, if true prophecy does not exist, then Daniel is a fraud, for then it was written after the events it pretends to predict. 

The article Daniel is not a Fraud presents much evidence from within Daniel (internal evidence) and from outside Daniel that argues against the view that Daniel is a fraud. 

Correctly predicts the Fall of Rome

In the fifth century, the vast territory of the Western Roman Empire was divided into several independent ‘nations’, each controlled by a different ‘barbarian’ group, such as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Alans and the Sueves, Lombard or Huns.

The purpose of the current article is to provide further evidence of the reliability of the Book of Daniel by showing that it correctly predicts HOW the Roman Empire will fall in the fifth century after Christ.  Copies of the book of Daniel are available that have been dated undeniably to the second century BC.  If Daniel correctly predicts events in the fifth century AD, then it is a true prophecy, and God does know the future.

DANIEL 2 – DIVIDED KINGDOM

The vision of Daniel 2:30-35 depicts the history of mankind by means of an image of a man, consisting of various metals:

Daniel explained the head of gold as the Babylonian empire (v38).  The phrase “another kingdom” in verse 39 indicates that the head of gold does not refer to King Nebuchadnezzar himself, but to his entire empire.

The other parts of the man are identified in the article series on the Prophecies of Daniel as follows:

        • The “breast and its arms of silver” represent Medo-Persia.
        • Its “belly and its thighs of bronze” represent Greece.
        • The “legs of iron” are the Roman Empire.
        • The “feet partly of iron and partly of clay” is a historical period after the Roman Empire came to an end.

All these kingdoms are destroyed by the Return of Christ (v34, 44-45).

The important point, for the current article, is the difference between what happened after these empires:

The first three empires are replaced by the next empire.  For example, “After you there will arise another kingdom” (v39-40).

But the fourth empire becomes divided.  The iron of the legs continues into the feet, but the feet are a mixture of iron and clay.  “It will be a divided kingdom” (v41). “It will have in it the toughness of iron” (v41). In other words, the nature of the Roman Empire will continue after the demise of that empire. See Daniel 2 for a more detailed discussion.

DANIEL 7 – ELEVEN HORNS 

Daniel 7 elaborates on the prophecy of Daniel 2.  It presents the same four empires, but now as beasts of prey.  We focus on the fourth beast, which is the same as the fourth metal (iron) in Daniel 2.  The fourth beast is not identified as any known animal but is described as “dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong” (v7). “It had large iron teeth” (v7), which is the same metal as the fourth empire in Daniel 2.  “It devoured and crushed and trampled down” (v7), which describes its cruel nature.

Eleven horns grow out of that fourth beast.  These are eleven “kingdoms” (v24) into which the Roman Empire subdivides.  (See Daniel’s evil horn.)  These eleven horns are equivalent to the “divided kingdom” in Daniel 2.

These prophecies contain at least the following predictions with respect to the Roman Empire:

It will be very cruel. It “devoured and crushed and trampled down.”

Second, while the previous ‘world’ empires (Babylon, Medo-Persia and Greece) were all replaced by another single large empire, but the Roman Empire will be subdivided into many empires.

Third, since the eleven horns grow out of the fourth beast, they are a continuation of that beast.

HISTORIANS CONFIRM THESE PRINCIPLES

Lately, I have been studying the development of the Trinity doctrine, from the very earliest church fathers, through the fourth, fifth and later centuries.  In the process, I read up on the Fall of Rome, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that historians confirm the three principles above.  The purpose of the current article is to reflect on the Fall of Rome, as explained by historians.  The goal is for the reader to understand that the Empire did not really fall but simply was transformed and continued to exist even into the Middle Ages. 

For that purpose, much of the information in this article is a summary of Wikipedia’s articles pertaining to that period, particularly the articles about the Events and the Historiography of the Fall of Rome, but also a summary of many other Wikipedia articles. The Events article has an excellent animated map showing the growth and decline of the Roman Empire.  The events described by the Wikipedia articles are summarized on this website by the article on the Decline and Fall of Rome

FALL OF ROME

ORIGINATING RATIONALE

The vast Roman Empire was a unity of many different nations.  These nations were not held together by culture or religion or economy.  It was a unity that was enforced by violence.

Rome became prosperous, not through trade or manufacturing, but by looting other nations.  The Roman Empire reached its peak in the 2nd century. There-after, when it no longer expanded, and therefore no longer was able to derive wealth from looting other nations, it started to decline.  It slowly declined over many centuries. 

IN-MIGRATION

It is possible to identify major events in its decline, but it is more important to identify the underlying trends.

The Roman Empire conquered the previous Greek (Macedonian) Empire and established an empire that was much larger than the Greek Empire.  Still, there always were areas and peoples outside of the Roman Empire which it was not able or interested to conquer.

The first major trend was the migration of Germanic tribes from outside its borders into the Empire.  Historians mention the year 376 and the Crossing of the River Rhine in 406 as decisive events, but throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, in what is known as the Migration Period, large numbers of ‘barbarians’ migrated into Roman territories.  It was one of the first signs of weakness, for it means that the Empire became unable to repel invading ‘barbarians’. 

What did the immigrants want?

Henri Pirenne published the “Pirenne Thesis” in the 1920s. This thesis remains influential to this day. It holds that the Germanic ‘barbarians’ migrated into the Empire not to destroy it or to replace it with something new, but to take part in its benefits, and thus they tried to preserve the Roman way of life.

They sought permission to settle in Roman territory, and Imperial authorities also granted such permission, on certain severe conditions.  As early as 376, Emperor Valens allowed Goths to settle within the borders of the Empire.

Second Class Citizens

‘Barbarians’ were accepted into the Empire, but as second class citizens; as cheap labor or even as slaves.  Alaric, for example, through his siege of Rome in 408, liberated 40,000 Gothic slaves in Rome.  As another example, it was the foederati that revolted and deposed the last emperor in 476. Foederati were ‘barbarians’ whom the Roman Empire allowed to stay within the Empire in exchange for military assistance. 

There always remained friction and even hatred between the original Graeco-Roman inhabitants of the Empire and the increasingly dominant ‘barbarian’ peoples.  At times, the Graeco-Romans massacred the ‘barbarians’.  For example:

In 400, the citizens of Constantinople massacred 7000 armed Goths and as many of their people and their families as they could catch.

In 408, the western Graeco-Roman population massacred tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman military.

RECRUITED INTO THE ARMED FORCES

The second major trend was that many ‘barbarians’ were recruited into the Imperial Forces.  For example, the great Roman General Stilicho urged Roman soldiers to allow their personal slaves to fight beside them.  And, after he defeated the Gothic invaders, he drafted 12,000 prisoners from the defeated invaders into his service.

One may speculate about the reasons for this dangerous practice, for its armed forces were the basis for the Empire’s power.  Perhaps the armed forces were insufficiently funded, and only second class citizens, such as these ‘barbarians’, were willing to work for such low wages.  Others historians estimate that the Graeco-Roman population in the Western Empire declined, and became too small for the size of the army required by the Empire.  Therefore the Imperial Forces became dependent on the service of Goths. 

Goths became Top Generals

A related trend was that the ‘barbarians’ eventually controlled the military machinery.  They became generals and even top generals.  For example:

Gainas was a Goth, but was promoted to magister militum (literally, master of the military) in the Eastern Roman Empire.  For a few months in 399, he was in control of Constantinople; the Eastern capital. 

Stilicho’s mother was Roman but his father was a Vandal cavalry officer. Nevertheless, after Theodosius’ death in 395, Stilicho came to be the commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in the west.  Few years he became the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. 

Alaric also was a Goth but Theodosius appointed him as leader the army’s 20,000 Gothic troops.  After Alaric became a threat to the eastern capital, the emperor appointed him as magister militum (master of the military).

Fifth Century Western Emperors were figureheads.

The real power of the Empire always was its army.  As stated, the Empire was a unity of many different nations which was enforced by violence.  Consequently, in the Roman system, the top generals often became emperor:

For example, both Constantine the Great and Theodosius, two key emperors in the fourth century, first earned their reputations as top generals. 

As another example, in 475, Orestes, the Magister militum (master of the military) in the west, drove the emperor out of Italy and proclaimed his own young son Romulus as emperor.

For ‘barbarians’ to become to top generals, therefore, was a most significant development.  It means that ‘barbarians’ have progressively become the real rulers of the Western Empire.  

Note that the examples above (Gainas, Stilicho and Alaric) are all from the few years after Theodosius’ death.  It is perhaps true to say that the ‘barbarians’ were in control of the Western Empire as from Theodosius’ death.

The consequence was that the emperors in the West Roman Empire in the 5th century became mere figureheads: The military power came to reside in the hands of ‘barbarians’, but they were not allowed to become emperor.

When Odoacer—a Germanic chieftain—deposed the last emperor in Italy (Romulus Augustus) in 476), he chose neither to assume the title of Emperor himself nor to select a puppet emperor.  This confirms that the position of Emperor in the West no more had any value.

MAJOR EVENTS OF THE FIFTH CENTURY

‘Barbarians’ sacked Rome in 410 and again in 455.  They deposed of the last Western Emperor in 476.  These major events did NOT CAUSE the Empire to fall or recline.  They should rather be seen as indications of how weak the Empire has become by then. 

Under Theodosius, the entire Roman Empire—east and west—was still controlled by a single emperor.  He died in 395.  Fifteen years later, Rome was sacked.  The decisive events of THOSE 15 YEARS WERE A TURNING POINT in the history of the Roman Empire.  But the causes of these events have existed for much longer. 

A separate article discusses the causes of the Fall of Rome.  These must include Theodosius’ decree that his two underage sons would rule the Empire after his death.  These boys were not capable of keeping the nations of the vast empire united, which was a very difficult task.

The major events of the fifth century divided the Empire up into separate political entities.  The question is, what really happened?  Did the ‘barbarians’ replace the Roman system, or did they remain part of the Roman system?  Did they seek to control the Empire or did they merely want to have equal rights with the Graeco-Roman population? 

Not Foreign Armies

Firstly, it was not foreign armies that sacked Rome in 410 and 455, or that deposed the last Roman Emperor in 476: It was a part of the Roman Army that rebelled.  It was, namely, the Goths in the Roman army that rose up.

To become equal citizens

What triggered these decisive events? 

It was after the massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman military that the Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, and they sacked Rome in 410.

It was the foederati, under Odoacer’s leadership, that deposed the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 because they were no longer willing to suffer the harsh conditions set for them to remain in Italy. 

Furthermore, what motivated the Goths? The following are indications that the Goth rose up—not to make an end of the Roman system, but to be treated as equals with the Graeco-Roman population:

In 399, the Ostrogoths in the Eastern Empire demanded to be allowed to settle within the boundaries of the Empire.

The Visigoths laid siege to Rome in the years 408 to 410 to secure rights to settle within Roman territory.

Our second conclusion is therefore that the Goths did not aim to replace the Roman Empire with something new but to be treated as equal citizens with the Graeco-Roman population, as part of the Empire.

The Empire approved the ‘Barbarian’ Rule.

It has been traditional to refer to the year 476, when Odoacer—a ‘barbarian’ soldier and statesman—deposed the last western emperor, conquered Italy and proclaimed himself ruler of Italy, as the Fall of Rome.  However, the following indicates that this is not an appropriate view of history:

After Odoacer conquered Italy, the Eastern Emperor Zeno granted Odoacer the title of patrician, effectively recognizing his rule as King of Italy in the name of the Eastern Empire.

Odoacer issued coins with both his image and that of the Eastern Emperor Zeno. 

In 484 Zeno appointed the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great to be king of Italy.  Zeno, thereby, turned one troublesome, nominal vassal against another. Theodoric invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula.

Peter Brown concluded that the Ostrogothic rulers of Italy considered themselves upholders of the Roman tradition.

JB Bury (see Odoacer) wrote that 476 stands out prominently as an important stage in the process of the division of the Empire into different parts, but that it is not more important than other similar events, such as:

The largely powerless but still influential Western Roman Senate continued to exist in the city of Rome under the rule of the Ostrogothic kingdom.

The Goths did not drive the Graeco-Roman people out from their territories.  Not did they persecute the previous citizens: The two groups existed fairly peacefully on the areas conquered by the ‘barbarians’.

The Roman Empire did not Fall.

The Western Roman Empire, therefore, did not come to an end in 476, when Odoacer deposed the last emperor.  Deposing the emperor was simply a formality that aligned outward form to existing reality, namely that the ‘barbarians’ were already in control of the Western Empire since the beginning of the fifth century.  The ‘barbarians’ were no longer scared of the Eastern Roman Empire but still submitted to it.  Roman power, practices, economy, culture and religion continued after the emperor was deposed.  

CHURCH IN ROME

There are at least two reasons why the ‘barbarians’ should have made an end to the Church in Rome. 

Firstly, the Church was part of the State.  Separation of Church and State is a modern concept.  After Christianity was legalized in 313, the emperors became the real heads of the church and the church became part of the Roman Government.  Bishops received their appointment and duties from the emperors and were accountable to the emperors. 

Secondly, in those years, Christology was the main controversy in the church. The Church in Rome accepted Nicene Christology but the Goths were Arian Christians.  In the fourth century, the emperors persecuted people with opposing Christological views. 

In spite of these factors, when the ‘barbarians’ took control of the Western Empire, they allowed the Nicene Church in Rome (the Papacy) to continue unhindered in their areas.  One may ask why, but it is at least an indication that the ‘barbarians’ did not intend to destroy or replace the Roman system.  Rather, they continued it, and the Church in Rome was part of the system which they continued.

ROMAN EMPIRE MORPHED INTO THE MIDDLE AGES

After the ‘barbarians’ assumed control of the Western Roman Empire, there always remained a desire and pressure to reunite the empire.

The Roman Church played a cohesive role.

In the fifth century, after the Western Roman Empire was divided into many fairly independent ‘nations’, the Roman Church played a cohesive role among the ‘barbarian’ nations.  The Church was better organized than the ‘barbarian’ nations and the bishops continued to play a political role, even though they now had to depend on the Arian ‘barbarian’ nations for military protection.

In the sixth century, to strengthen the Church in Rome, Justinian I neutralized some of the Arian ‘barbarian’ nations.  This resulting in the Byzantine Papacy; a period of about two centuries during which the Church in Rome was both protected and controlled by the Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire).  To some extent, Roman control was re-established in this period, namely that the Byzantine Empire ruled the nations in the West through the church.

The Frankish Empire continued the Western Empire.

The Pirenne thesis was published in the 1920s. It remains influential to this day and has been supported by recent historians such as François Masai, Karl Ferdinand Werner, and Peter Brown.  This thesis:

Regards the rise of the Kingdom of the Franks (481–843) as a continuation of the Roman Empire.  (This empire was the largest post-Roman barbarian kingdom in Western Europe and the predecessor of the modern states of France and Germany.  The greatest expansion of the Frankish empire was secured by the early 9th century.  By this point dubbed as the Carolingian Empire.)

Validates the crowning of Charlemagne (AD 800), one of the main kings of the Franks, as the first Holy Roman Emperor as a successor of the Roman Emperors. 

Morphed into the Middle Ages

The Pirenne thesis also concludes that the Roman world underwent a gradual (though often violent) series of transformations, morphing into the medieval world.  In other words, the transformed Roman Empire continued right into the Middle Ages.

The French historian Lucien Musset argued that the civilization of Medieval Europe emerged from a SYNTHESIS between the Graeco-Roman world and the Germanic civilizations penetrating the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not fall or decline; it just TRANSFORMED. The same applies to the Germanic populations which invaded it.

Late Antiquity – Period of Transition

Traditionally, historians spoke of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire as the marker of the end of the Ancient Era and the beginning of the European Middle Ages.  Since historians have largely turned away from the idea that the Roman Empire fell, accepting instead Pirenne’s thesis of the CONTINUITY of the Roman Empire before and after the Germanic invasion, more recently they have defined a period which they call Late Antiquity. This is the period of transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, with the roots of MEDIEVAL culture contained in Roman culture.  They see a gradual process of TRANSFORMATION, with no clear breaks, occurring over centuries. 

Brown proposed that Late Antiquity stretches more or less from the 3rd to the 8th centuries. 

CONCLUSIONS

In summary, what happened, over a period of centuries, is that ‘barbarians’ migrated into the Empire.  They were absorbed into the Empire and its culture and many were recruited into the Imperial Forces until, eventually, they controlled the military machinery, soon after Theodosius’ death in 395.  From that point forward, the ‘barbarians’ were the real rulers of the Western Empire.  They were still treated as second class citizens; often without the assurance of permanent residency. But they continued to tolerate figurehead emperors for a number of centuries before they deposed the last emperor in 476.  They successfully rebelled against their Roman overlords and took by force what the Empire was not willing to award them voluntarily, namely permanent residency.  This was a gradual (though often violent) process of decline over centuries. 

The ‘barbarians’ did not intend to replace the Roman Empire with a different political or legal structures and they did not drive the Graeco-Roman population or the Roman church out of their territories. Their purpose was to remain part of the Empire.  The nations into which the Roman Empire was divided, continued Roman culture and economy in most parts of the former Western provinces into the 6th century and beyond (Historiography). 

The Western Roman Empire, therefore, did not fall.  What really happened was that the ‘barbarian’ immigrants wrestled control of the Empire from the original Graeco-Roman population.

Observing the cultural and archaeological continuities between the Roman Empire and the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms, Fustel de Coulanges (1875–89) argued that the ‘barbarians’ simply contributed to an ongoing process of transforming Roman institutions. (Histoire des institutions politiques de l’ancienne France)

Bowersock (2001), similarly, described the process as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall. (Bowersock 2001, pp. 87–122)

CONFIRM DANIEL’S PROPHECIES

Daniel describes the fourth beast as “dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong.” “It devoured and crushed and trampled down” (v7).  The Roman Empire was a unity of many nations, held together by violence; by military force.

In Daniel 2, the fourth “iron”-empire goes over into the “divided kingdom” of the feet.  In Daniel 7, eleven horns (kings – v24) come out of the fourth empire.  “Horns” in Daniel do not represent individual kings, but empires, each consisting of a series of kings (8:20-22). (For a detailed discussion, see the article series on the prophecies of Daniel, including Daniel 2, Daniel 7 and the Evil Horn.)  The fourth empire in Daniel, therefore, subdivides into ten + one kingdoms.  (The number “ten” should be understood as “many;” not as exactly ten (cf. 1:20).  The Roman Empire did divide into many different empires.  The exact number varied continually.  Since previous empires were conquered by a new empire, it remains amazing that Daniel could predict, centuries before it happened, that the fourth empire would not be conquered by another mighty empire, but that it would subdivide.

Since the eleven horns grow out of the fourth beast, they are a continuation of that beast.  Historians confirm that the Roman Empire, in reality, did not fall or decline, but continued right into the Middle Ages.  This was particularly in the form of The Evil Eleventh Horn. In Revelation that horn is the Sea Beast (13:1).  It received a deadly wound (13:3), but in the end-time, an image to the beast will be made and come alive (13:14-15).  In other words, the culture of the Roman Empire will be revived, and it will again devour and crush and trample down (Dan. 7:7). 

Articles in this series include the following:

Christology of the persecuted church – first 300 years
Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
Fourth Century Arianism 

What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fall of the Western Roman Empire
Why the Roman Empire fell 
Fall of Rome confirms Daniel as true prophecy.– Current Article
The massacres of the Waldensians – Middle Ages

Why did the (Western) Roman Empire Fall?

Previous empires, such as Babylon, Medo-Persia and Greece were conquered by the armies of the next ‘world’ empire, but the mighty Roman Empire declined and fell over a period of hundreds of years.  Historians are therefore very interested in the causes of its decline. 

EDWARD GIBBON

The historian Edward Gibbon, in his 1776 book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was the first to do in-depth research on this subject.  The purpose of this article is to reflect on the causes of the Fall.  Much of this section is a summary of the Wikipedia article, Historiography of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  References are omitted from this section but can be found in that and related articles.

This article follows on from the previous article; Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire, which summarizes the events of the Fall.  The current article provides an understanding of the underlying currents that gave rise to the major events described in the previous article.

UNDERFUNDING OF THE IMPERIAL FORCES

Underfunding of the army may have contributed greatly to the Fall.  The rich aristocrats of Rome sought protection within the strong walls of the city of Rome. In theory, they supported the armed forces but did not wish to pay for it.

For example, Stilicho, like all other generals, was desperately short of recruits and supplies.  Though devoted to the Roman Empire, he was very active in confiscating assets, for the administrative machine was not producing enough support for the army (Wikipedia).

CHRISTIANITY

The rich aristocrats did, however, pass large amounts of money to the Christian Church. Edward Gibbon attributed a significant role to Christianity in the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  He remarked that “the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes … who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

RELIANCE ON BARBARIAN MERCENARIES

Edward Gibbon placed the blame on the empire itself, for it gradually entrusted the role of defending the Empire to barbarian mercenaries who eventually turned on them. 

ROMAN SOLDIER

The historian Arther Ferrill, in The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, has also suggested that the Roman Empire declined largely as a result of an influx of Germanic mercenaries into the ranks of the legions. They were more loyal to their Germanic commanders than to the Roman government. He added that the chief cause of the agricultural decline was high taxation which drove it out of business. This taxation was spurred by the huge military budget and was thus ‘indirectly’ the result of the barbarian invasions.

MANY CAUSES IN COMBINATION

JB Bury held that a number of crises, that arose simultaneously, was the cause of the fall: Due to the depopulation of the empire, it had come to depend on the enrollment of barbarians in the army.  It was furthermore necessary to pay them well as a consequence of the decline in military spirit.

PLUNDER ECONOMY OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

Some historians argue that the Roman Empire itself was a rotten system from its inception. In their view, the Empire had a plunder economy based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new. It relied on riches from conquered territories, but this source of revenue dried up with the end of Roman territorial expansion in the second century.  Meanwhile, the costs of military defense and the pomp of Emperors and the wealthy aristocrats continued. Therefore, the Empire looted its own people through exorbitant taxation, from which the élite was exempted.  This taxation drove small-scale farmers out of business, and into dependency upon the élite.

WEAKENING CENTRAL AUTHORITY

In The Complete Roman Army (2003) Adrian Goldsworthy, a British military historian, identified weakening central authority, resulting in endless civil wars between factions of the Roman Army fighting for control of the Empire, as the main cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire.  These civil wars weakened the army, making it less able to defend itself against its enemies.

SASSANID PERSIANS

According to Peter Heather, in his The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005), the Fall was caused by a series of sequential events:

First was the emergence of the Sassanid Persian Empire (also known as the Empire of Iranians or Neo-Persian Empire) in the east. They were powerful enough to push the Romans back. Many modern readers tend to think of the “Huns” as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, but it was the Persians who held the attention and concern of the Emperors. 

To cope with the Sassanid threat, the Roman Empire stripped the Western Roman Empire of resources, weakening it.

At the same time, Hunnic incursions in Germania forced peoples on the Empire’s borders to migrate elsewhere. Due to the weakened military capacity of the Western Roman Empire, the Germanic peoples were able to force their way into the Empire.

CONCLUSION

This article will not select from these causes, for the interest of this website is not primary WHY the Empire fell, but HOW it fell, namely that the empire did not really fell, but continued.  The goal of these articles is to show that the prophecies of Daniel accurately predicted HOW the Roman Empire will fall.

Articles in this series include the following:

Christology of the persecuted church – first 300 years
Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
Fourth Century Arianism 

What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fall of the Western Roman Empire
Why the Roman Empire fell Current Article
The massacres of the Waldensians – Middle Ages

The Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire

This article summarizes the key events and circumstances that resulted in 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 pertaining to that period.

SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE

The Roman Empire reached its zenith in the 2nd century.  There-after 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 15 years since Theodosius died.  Theodosius’ death initiated in 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 prior to 410. 

CROSSING OF THE RIVER RHINE (406)

The eagles were a popular symbol among the Goths.
GOTHIC SYMBOL

From the fourth century, 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 as what we could call, 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

After Theodosius’ death and throughout the 5th century, Western Emperors were mere figureheads. The real rulers in the West were military strongmen. The top generals of the armies often also became the emperor.  

COMPETE FOR CONTROL OF THE EMPIRE

There always remained friction and 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 – It, therefore, 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 barbarian 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.

CONCLUSION

In summary, what happened, over a period of 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.

These concepts will now be discussed in more detail.

BARBARIANS 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 in Northwestern Africa, in what is sometimes called the Migration period

Personally, 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 peoples. 

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 a number of separate identifiable political entities.

ivory diptych, thought to depict Stilicho with his wife Serena
STILICHO

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 was 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 RULED 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’ death 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

In order 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.

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 rose 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 a number of 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.  In addition, 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 afterwards.

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.  

Conclusions

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 Rom. 

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

About that time the foederati in Italy rebelled.  Foederati were barbarians whom the Roman Empire allowed to stay 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 the 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
OSTROGOTHIC KINGDOM

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.

Articles in this series include the following:

Christology of the persecuted church – first 300 years
Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
Fourth Century Arianism 

What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fall of the Western Roman EmpireCurrent Article

The massacres of the Waldensians – Middle Ages