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 show 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.