The Fall of the West: The Slow Death of the Roman Superpower

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AD476 the last emperor of Rome was overthrown in a coup orchestrated
by a German general. The deposed emperor was little more than a
child, the last and weakest of a series of puppet rulers on the
Roman throne. It was a nice irony that his name was Romulus, the
same as the legendary founder of the city.

There could
be no better symbol of the decline and fall of an ancient superpower.
More than a millennium after the foundation of the city, this second
Romulus was no charismatic hero like the first – but such a
juvenile nonentity that (as Adrian Goldsworthy puts it in The
Fall of the West
) he was not even “worth the trouble
of killing.” He spent the rest of his life in subsidised retirement
in south Italy.

was a neat symmetry. But for most modern historians it has seemed
rather too neat. From Gibbon on, they have questioned how significant
the coup of AD476 was in marking the end of the ancient Roman empire.
For one thing, since the 4th century that empire had been split
in two. Although the city of Rome itself may have fallen in the
5th century, the eastern half of the empire, based in Constantinople,
survived until 1453. We call this the “Byzantine empire,”
but the “Byzantines” would have been horrified by this
demeaning title. They called themselves Romans and traced their
descent directly back to the first Romulus.

Besides, even
in Italy, AD476 did not mark a clear break between classical antiquity
and the Middle Ages. All kinds of “Roman” features remained
long after the departure of the second Romulus. The Colosseum, that
most visible symbol of Roman civilisation, was richly restored by
Odoacer himself, the German general who ousted Romulus. And animal
hunts (although not gladiatorial shows) were performed there well
into the 6th century. On a more intellectual level, Boethius, one
of the greatest philosophers of antiquity, in the tradition of Plato
and Aristotle, was funded by the German rulers of Rome – although
he was later (in time-honoured tradition) executed by them. As late
as AD800, more than 300 years after the German coup, Charlemagne
was taken seriously when he was crowned “Roman Emperor”
in St Peter’s at Rome.

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21, 2009

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