Saturday, July 13, 2013

History mystery: The Fall of Rome

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did it crumble in a day. In a sense, the empire had begun to fall as soon as it began to rise. History has attributed Rome’s downfall to numerous causes, not the least of which was the relentless pressure exerted by barbarian tribes along its frontiers. From the time of its founding, Rome had successfully repelled myriad attackers and, by the 2nd century AD, the security of its European borders required little military effort. But this was not to last. When those many Vandals, Huns, and miscellaneous ruffians began arriving in ever greater numbers, Rome was growing smaller and weaker, making defense decidedly more difficult. Stretching from northern England to the Middle East, the Roman Empire fluctuated in extent but it always encompassed the Mediterranean, which the Romans called mare nostrum (“our sea”). But Rome found that the gigantic and extraordinary empire it had so successfully created was too unwidely to administer and protect. Its size awakened ambitious dreams of power in megalomaniacal generals and senators who waged wasteful internal wars to gain imperial control. Until the late 2nd century AD, the smooth succession emperors had ensured the stability of the empire. But this golden age ended with the death of the emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (161- 180 AD), who bequeathed the throne to his foolish son Commodius, whose assassination provoked a civil war. The Roman legions proclaimed their candidates as successors, but Septimius Severus, the commander of the largest battalions, was the winner. During his reign (193-211 AD), he diminished Rome as the imperial center and initiated a military despotism. His campaigns secured the imperial borders, and his last years were spent fighting in Britain. After his death at Eborcum (present-day York), the empire passed to his relatives, notable for their cruel and dissolute behavior. The last of his successors was assassinated in 235 AD. There followed three decades of anarchy as one emperor after another briefly came to power. The army chose an emperor for benefits he might bestow. His short reign was spent fighting his rivals, and his life ended in battle or at the hands of his erstwhile supporters. These struggles weakened imperial authority, bankrupted the empire, and left the frontiers poorly defended. In Western Europe, barbarians crossed the Rhine, overran Gaul, and penetrated as far as Spain and Italy. In the East, they invaded the Balkans and Turkey, while the rival Persian Empire conquered Armenia. After 270 AD, Rome crushed al rebels, rivals, and barbarians, restoring unity in the empire. But the military was not what it had been. The troops, firmly rooted in their provincial bases, were reluctant to serve elsewhere. The emperor’s presence was required to maintain his authority with his troops and, at the same time, he was expected to fight barbarians all along the frontier from England to Egypt. To ease this burden, the Emperor Diocletein (284-305 AD) divided the empire into eastern and western sectors, each with its own emperor, and in 285 AD moved the western capital to Milan to be closer to the northern frontier. So began the empire’s internal breakup. In 330 AD, Constantine, a Christian convert, made a Turkish city founded by Greeks, Byzantium, the East’s capital. Rebuilt by Constantine, the city was renamed Constantinople. Constantine’s new faith quickly took root and, despite religious disputes, strengthened a state destined to survive a thousand years more. In the Western Sector, the collapse of the military and financial systems was more damaging than the barbarian threat. Diocletian, seeking to reestablish the currency, ordered balanced budgets and higher taxes. When defense spending outran revenues, the government devalued the coinage to hide the deficit. The resulting inflation destroyed the government’s credit and crippled its power. When Diocletian moved the capital to Milan, Rome became provincial backwater. With the division of the empire, Rome lost the wealth of the East, which flowed instead to Constantinople. As trade and industry dwindled away, people reverted to subsistence living. Towns were abandoned. Wealthy townspeople, weary of taxes and martial law, retreated to country estates. Impoverished rural folk left their own small farms to find work on these estates or in the fortified, if increasingly empty, towns. By the late 4th century, many barbarians had converted to Christianity. At the same time, barbarian turmoil beyond Rome’s frontiers drove Visigoths, Vandals, and others to seek sanctuary within the empire, where they were permitted to settle. As a defensive measure, the Romans employed the new arrivals as mercenaries, and barbarian generals soon assumed military and political control. In 402 AD, Rome’s army led by Stilicho the Vandal beat back the Visigoths’ invasion of Italy.

But when Stilicho was murdered by the Emperor Honorius, the Visigoths poured in unopposed, demanding land and subsidies. Rome’s refusal to negotiate signaled its ruin. The Visigoths besieged the walled city, where plague and famine had already run rampant through the citizenry. Finally, in August 410 AD, the Visigoths, with help from slaves within the city, marched through its gates. Their sack of Rome was mild, almost respectful. But it dimmed Rome’s prestige, and the city became prey for more ruthless barbarians. The year 476 is usually given as the date for the fall of the Roman Empire. In that year, the barbarian general Odoacer deposed the last western emperor and, refusing to acknowledge the power of the emperor in the East, proclaimed himself King of Italy. The event passed almost unnoticed.

By this time, the regions in the West had been swallowed up by belligerent barbarians. Rome – often called “the eternal city” – revived, of course, and survives in much of its glory. In the Dark Ages, the Papacy established its importance as a spiritual center, and Roman ruins and monuments that include the Pantheon – a church for 1,000 years – now dominate the cityscape. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Rome’s citizens recycled stones and statues from ancient structures to build beautiful palaces and churches. Whither Rome today? At the beginning of the 21st century, the city is engaged in a massive effort to renovate its ancient structures, piazzas, and multifaceted treasures. When the scaffolding is pulled down, Rome may be revealed as the true caput mundi – the head of the world – if not in power, then certainly in splendor.

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