The Decline of Roman Power in the West – J.B. Bury

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Synopsis:

In The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, distinguished historian J.B. Bury offers a narrative account of the deluge of barbarian invasions, and mass migrations which afflicted the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. He also chronicles the early evolution of the barbarian kingdoms in Western Europe throughout late antiquity.

The chapter Bury dedicates to the decline of Roman power in the western half of the empire centers on the institutional collapse of the state, and the ensuing snowball of barbarianization within the army. The barbarianization of the army thus allowed for the eventual consummation of an Italian kingdom under the rule of the barbarian warlord Odovacar.

Excerpts:

“The contribution which the Vandals made to the shaping of Europe was this: the very existence of their kingdom in Africa, and of their naval power in the Mediterranean, acted as a powerful protection for the growth of the new German kingdoms in Gaul and Spain, and ultimately helped the founding of a German kingdom in Italy, by dividing, diverting, and weakening the forces of the Empire. The Vandals had got round, as it were, to the rear of the Empire; and the effect of their powerful presence there was enhanced by the hostile and aggressive attitude which they continuously adopted.

“He (Ricimer) became through circumstances an emperor-maker; and his difficulty was this. If he set up too strong a man, his own power would have probably been overridden; his own fall would have been the consequence; while on the other hand weak upstarts were unable to maintain their position for any length of time, since public opinion did not respect them.

“It is also to be noted that in the intervals between the reigns of the emperors whom Ricimer set up and pulled down, when there was no emperor regnant in Italy, it did not mean that there was no emperor at all. At such times the imperial authority was entirely invested in the eastern emperor who reigned at Constantinople, the Emperor Leo; and this, too, was fully acknowledged by Ricimer, who indeed selected two of his emperors by arrangement with Leo.

“Odovacar had statesmanlike qualities, and he decided against the system of Ricimer, which had proved thoroughly unsatisfactory and unstable. His idea was to rule Italy under the imperial authority of Constantinople, unhampered by a second emperor in Italy, whom recent experiences had shown to be worse than useless. There would have been no difficulty for Odovacar in adopting this policy, if there had existed no second emperor at the time; but Julius Nepos was still alive, and, what was most important, he had been recognized at Constantinople.

“Odovacar was not hampered, as Ricimer had been, by the nominal authority of a resident emperor; he was able to pursue his own policy without any embarrassment, and to act as an independent ruler. His policy was one of peace; he was entirely averse from aggression. It must be noted, too, that his position was much easier than that of Ricimer, because the Vandal hostilities had ceased. Gaiseric had died in 477; and two years before his death he had made peace with Rome, and Odovacar had induced him to restore Sicily in return for a yearly payment.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, Endeavour Press Ltd.

Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire – Ian Hughes

Synopsis:

In his survey of the late Roman Empire and its rulers, Ian Hughes examines the internal as well as external causes of the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The core of the book is devoted to the imperial leadership of the last twenty years of the empire.

Cultivated amid the collapsing institutions of the Roman state was unexpectedly an impressive array of men that ascended the purple. Majorian, Anthemius, Avitus, and Glycerius were all attractive, energetic, and able rulers that under better circumstances may have established lasting dynasties.

Excerpts:

“…it is possible to declare that as far as the (self-deluding) Senate of Rome was concerned, the only territory lost during the period when Ricimer ‘ruled’, between 456 and 472, was a small part of Hispania to the Sueves. The ‘rebellions’ of both Aegidius and Marcellinus would be seen as temporary and having little effect on the Empire overall.

“…the large number of plagues that occurred in the fifth century; the refusal of great landowners to allow their workers to be taken for military service; and the pressure of taxation causing many citizens to abandon their loyalty to the Empire and transfer it to either local bishops or barbarian leaders, all weakened the Empire in one way or another.

“Whenever the Empire brought overwhelming force to bear the barbarian kings could easily submit, safe in the knowledge that the troops were too valuable to be risked in battle and would soon be removed for service elsewhere in the Empire. At that point it would be possible to revert to an aggressive policy. At many key points this also explains why the barbarian kingdoms were allowed to continue, and also how they managed to pursue policies inimical to the survival of the Empire without being destroyed by Rome.

“Yet there remains the fact that emperors who concentrated any significant resources outside Italy, such as Avitus, Majorian and Anthemius, quickly lost the affiliation of Italy and thus their rule and their lives, encouraging the alienation of non-Italians to the emperor and their change of allegiance to powerful men – usually barbarian kings – who would fulfill the role of protector once provided by the legions.

“In Gaiseric the emperor had a political and military genius as an opponent. Gaiseric was able to successfully conquer large parts of the Western Mediterranean and repel two major Roman invasions, whilst at the same time continuing a political policy of divide and conquer that enabled him to make peace with East and West separately whilst continuing attacks on the other.

*All excerpts have been taken from Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire, Pen and Sword.

The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Synopsis:

The 6th century AD Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius ascended the peak of power and influence amid the post-Roman state of Theoderic the Great. After the dissolution of Roman authority in the late 5th century AD,  Theoderic seized control of Italy and formed a successor state to the Western Roman Empire, which would maintain the ancient traditions, offices, and formal structure of the old Roman heartland. This continuity allowed Theoderic to pacify the Roman population, as well as permitted him to concentrate his power and influence over the Italian peninsula.

Late in the reign of Theoderic, the career of Boethius would come to an abrupt end with the latter being charged with treason by the former. In prison Boethius would go on to write The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his own execution. The book is written in dialogue form between Lady Philosophy and Boethius. The subjects of the dialogue include: the origin and preservation of happiness, pursuit of virtue, inconstancy of fortune, as well as time and free will.

Excerpts:

“…I shall present you with this corollary: since men become happy by achieving happiness, and happiness is itself divinity, clearly they become happy by attaining divinity. Now just as men become just by acquiring justice, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so by the same argument they must become gods once they have acquired divinity. Hence every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity.

“The outcome of human actions is entirely dependent on two things, will and capability. If one of these two is absent nothing can be accomplished. For if the will is lacking, people do not even embark on action which they have no wish to carry out; on the other hand, if they are incapable of doing it, it is vain to will it. It follows from this that if you observed someone wanting to acquire something but totally failing to get it, you can be certain that what he lacked was the ability to attain what he desired.

“…he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal.

“Since goodness alone can raise a person above the rank of human, it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition.

“God must not be visualized as prior to the created world merely in length of time; rather, it is by virtue of possession of his simple nature. This condition of his, unchanging life in the present, is imitated by the perpetual movement of temporal things. Since that movement is unable to achieve and to match that unchanging life, it degenerates from changelessness into change. From the simplicity of the present it subsides into the boundless extent of future and past.

*All excerpts have been taken from Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.