Some 15 centuries after Germanic leader Flavius Odoacer deposed Flavius Romulus Augustus in 476 CE and became the king of Italy, the dissolution of the Roman Empire continues to fascinate. In The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy, Michael Kulikowski, a professor of history and classics at Penn State University, traces the long slide of the Roman Empire from the era of restored greatness it enjoyed under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century to the gloom of a ruined Italy in the sixth.
The Late Empire, divided into a wealthier east and poorer west, was beset by a host of severe problems, including repeated foreign invasions and intractable religious schisms. By the fifth century, the western emperors were largely figureheads dominated by senior army officers. An enfeebled western imperial government was unable to prevent the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric and his Visigoths. Another sack of Rome, this time by the Vandals, in 455, was followed by the deposition of the last emperor in the west in 476. Kulikowski makes clear that the “warlords and petty kings” who brought down the western empire weren’t really aiming to dismantle its political system. “Destruction,” he writes, “was merely a byproduct of their wrangling.”
The eastern empire, however, centered on the virtually impregnable city of Constantinople, would survive this period of invasions, a salient fact that is nevertheless often overlooked. The economy of the east, as Kulikowski notes, was lifted by the discovery of a new source of gold in the Caucasus, making it easier for its government to pay its bills and “bribe potential threats into oblivion.” Constantinople (known today as Istanbul) would survive for another millennium after the demise of the west.
Marc G. DeSantis is the author of Rome Seizes the Trident: The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower and the Forging of the Roman Empire (Pen and Sword, 2016) and A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War: Ships, Men, and Money in the War at Sea, 431–404 BC (Pen and Sword, 2018).
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews | Fault Lines
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