Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine – Fifth Century Arianism

This is an article in the series on the historical development of the Trinity doctrine. The current article considers the Fifth Century but also provides an overview of the events of the preceding centuries.


Pre-Nicene Church Fathers


The church fathers of the first 300 years were not Trinitarians. The Trinity doctrine was only developed in the fourth and fifth centuries. For the pre-Nicene church fathers, in general, the Father was “the only true god.” They had an extremely high view of Christ, for example, that He was “born of the very substance of the Father” “before time began” but they nevertheless regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father, who is “the Head of Christ.” For example, see Irenaeus.

Nicene Creed


After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 313, he has an important role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325 in that he allowed a small minority to determine the final form of that creed. That creed elevates the Son to “true god from true god.”

(I use the word “god” because the ancient languages did not distinguish between upper- and lower-case letters. Consequently, the ancient languages did not have a word equivalent to the modern word “God.” In Greek, they used the word theos, which is a general word used for all gods.) 

Fifty year Arian period

However, after the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, the Arian controversy continued. That council rejected Arius’ views, but it caused a second controversy; not between Arius and the rest, but between the followers of Origen and the minority party that added the word homoousios with Constantine’s blessing. (See – Eusebius of Caesarea)

Soon after 325, Emperor Constantine became convinced that the Nicene Creed is not Biblical. During the next 50 years, all Christian emperors rejected the Nicene Creed. Consequently, the church also rejected the Nicene Creed. (Religious freedom was not part of Roman culture.) During the next 50 years, there was a range of alternative theories about the relationship between God and His Son. Trinitarians often cluster them all under the title Arianism but most of them were very different from what Arius taught.

Several alternative creeds were accepted by the church during those 50 years. While the Nicene Creed sought to emphasize equality between the Father and Son, in all of the creeds formulated in the 50 years after Nicaea, the Son was regarded as subordinate to the Father. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed.

During that fifty-year period, the church converted many Germanic peoples to Christianity and taught them a non-Nicene Christology. Also at this time, Germanic people began to migrate into the Roman Empire in large numbers.

However, in the year 380, Theodosius became emperor. Being a zealous supporter of Nicene Christianity, he immediately outlawed all other forms of Christianity. He persecution nwas so effectively that non-Nicene Christology disappeared among the elite in the empire. However, the Germanic peoples (called ‘barbarians’ by the Romans) remained Arian.

Barbarian domination of the West

After Theodosius died in 395, the Germanic immigrants, due to their numbers and military prowess, became a dominant force in the Roman Empire. They tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476. However, in that year a Germanic chieftain deposed the last Western Roman Emperor. They then divided the territory of the western provinces between the Germanic tribes. However, these tribes continued to function as part of the Roman Empire. Since these Germanic tribes were non-Nicene, the Western Roman Empire was once again non-Nicenedominated.

The Roman Church in the Fifth Century

The Roman Church survived throughout this turmoil. One reason is that the Germanic tribes wished to remain part of the Roman Empire and tolerated the Roman Church because it was an official part of the Roman system of government. For that reason also, the Roman Church actually grew in strength.

One consequence of the growing strength of the Church in Rome was that the Germanic peoples converted to the Nicene Church, rather than to Arianism. The Franks were the first to convert. The other nations converted to Nicene Christianity over the subsequent centuries.


The purpose of this article series is to show that the religious preferences of the Roman Emperors determined the Christology of the church. The fact that the church today is dominated by the Trinity doctrine is the direct result of decisions taken by Roman Emperors. The current article refers to the roles which Constantine and Theodosius played. The next article discusses Justinian’s wars on the Arians.


Church Fathers – First 300 Years

The Church Fathers of the first 300 years were not Trinitarians. For them, the Father alone was the “Lord God Almighty,” “the only true god, the unbegotten and unapproachable” and the “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 (e.g. Rev. 3:12).

Nicene Creed (325)

After Christianity was legalized in 313, emperor Constantine played 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 (same substance) with the Father and as “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 in this article to “god” rather than to “God.” The reason is that ancient languages did not distinguish between upper- 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, etc.), 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. For that reason, it may be preferable to use the word “god” rather than “God.” That might reflect the intentions 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 principle.

Fifty-years 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. For that reason, Arianism dominated the church in that period (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, for example, 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 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, 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 Germanic tribes remained Arian.

Barbarian Control of the Western Empire

As discussed in The Fall of Rome, more and more Germanic immigrants were recruited into the Roman army. The Imperial forces became dependent on Germanic 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 Germanic people were, in reality, in charge of the Western Roman Empire. But the Graeco-Roman population still treated them as second-class citizens. Therefore, to obtain equal rights and permanent residency in the empire, the Germanic people 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 (the fifth century), they tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476. In that year Odoacer—an Arian Germanic chieftain—deposed the last Western Roman Empire. He soon conquered the whole of Italy. During that time, the territory of the Western Empire 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 to its Fall. It was a slow process over decades and even centuries during which the Germanic people wrestled control of the Western Empire from the Romans. 

Theodosius had made an end of Arianism among the Roman people in 380, but now, through the Germanic domination of the Western Roman Empire, it was once again Arian dominated.

The Roman Church in the Fifth Century

The Roman Church could 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:

Part of the Roman Government 


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

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 as 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, such as concerning 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 – because the Church functioned as a department of government, these Nicene and Arian Christians often exiled and persecuted one another. Constantine’s successors—the emperors Constantius and Valens actively encouraged the church to reverse the Nicene Creed and they 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]


Despite these factors, the new Germanic Arian rulers in the fifth century 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. 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 to 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 which he attacked was the Vandals.


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

The Germanic people, 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 Germanic people 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. But, according to Daniel, the Roman Empire “devoured and crushed and trampled” (Dan. 7:7). Perhaps the barbarians were not as barbaric as the Romans.


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 Church had a strong, centralized organization: The pope in Rome is the head of the Church. All clergy, including bishops and priests, fell under his authority. Bishops supervised priests; the lowest ranking members of the clergy. For most people, local priests served as the main contact with the Church.

At the same time, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was no single state or government that united all people who lived on the European continent. 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. As secular governments came and went, the Papacy remained. The church was a stable force during an era of constant warfare and political turmoil.

The Church also bonded people together. It gave a sense of communal identity. At the local level, the village church was a unifying force in the lives of most people. It served as a religious and social center. Religious holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, were occasions for festive celebrations.


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, 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 Nicene 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.


The first main conclusion from this article is that the religious preferences of the Roman Emperors determined the church’s Christology. Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed. During the next 50 years, the emperors Constantius and Valens enforced Arianism. In 380, Theodosius—a zealous Nicene Christian—became emperor and immediately outlawed Arianism. In the fifth century, Germanic immigrants dominated the Western Empire. Since they were Arians, the West was Arian once again. But, as the next article will show, in the sixth century, emperor Justinian gave Arianism a death wound and it died during the subsequent Byzantine Papacy. 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.


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 Arian Period 

 – What did Arians 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
Sixth Century
Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy eliminated Arianism.
Middle Ages

 – The massacres of the Waldensians

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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