This is Volume II in a set of books reissued by the Folio Society – “The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire“ – that trace the invasions of the Roman Empire and Italy from the time of the Emperor Julian until Charlemagne in 800. This volume takes the story up to the fall of the Western Empire in 476. The two sections cover the years in the 430s and 440s when the Huns under Atilla dominated the scene, the latter covers the last twenty years when the hope of recovery was in an expedition to Africa to defeat the Vandals. In the end two attempts were made – one by the Western Empire under Majorian and one by the Eastern Empire, and both were defeated by the Vandals. After these disasters, the West was too weak to recover.
In the years before Attila, Hunnic mercenaries were a major factor in keeping the Germanic peoples occupying parts of Gaul and Spain in check. When Attila took over and became expansionist, this prop was removed. Only desperate exertions and an alliance with the Visigoths managed to parry the Huns’ invasion of Gaul at the Catalaunian Plains (or Chalons). The following year’s invasion of Italy was even more difficult to repel – this is the famous scene of Pope Leo the Great convincing Attila to spare Rome.
With Attila’s death, the threat of his invasion was gone, but the nations he had ruled soon broke free and became additional threats to Rome – the Ostrogoths, Lombards, Rugians were soon on the move for themselves. With the West declining in power yearly as more land was taken and fewer taxes paid to support the army, the only hope for recovery was in an invasion of North Africa to recover the lost province from the Vandals.
The Vandals were led by Gaiseric, another of the huge figures of the time. It seems that only he could have turned the Vandals into a major nation – both before and after his life they were pretty easily worked over by their neighbors. He died just a few years after Rome fell, so it is easy to imagine how with some luck, or slightly different circumstances Africa might have been retaken and financed a survivor regional state in Italy – much like the Eastern Empire survived to 1453.
After the failure of the second attempt in 468, the end was rapid. The Visigoths in Gaul began to expand again, while Ricimer, the generalissimo in the West defeated the Eastern Empire backed Emperor Anthemius in 472. His own candidate, Olybrius soon died, followed by Ricimer himself.
After this, the end was at hand. A sign of the times is when a current Generalissimo decided to quit and go back to ruling his Germanic tribe rather than the Empire – which was limited to Italy by now. A few more spasms, and finally the leader of the Germanic units of the army, Odoacer, decided to dispense with the farce and become ruler himself to give his troops land in lieu of pay.
Why did Rome fall? The real question is how had it survived for so long? One major answer is that through its history, Rome was able to use the efforts of different regions to support the whole – and those it was conquering not so long before. Hadrian was from Spain, Septimus Severus from North Africa, a whole raft of great Emperors from Illyria. But in the late 300s and 400s, the empire needed to fully use the Goths and Germans to defend itself, but never could manage to give them full power. Couple this with the increasing estrangement of the East, removing financial support and there you have it