Friday, August 2, 2013

The Last Lights in the Encroaching Darkness of Imperial Rome

The Roman Empire under Theodosius the Great
It was on this day in 461 AD that the Roman Emperor Majorian was deposed by Ricimer, one of the German barbarians who had adopted Roman customs and rose to prominence as a military commander. Barbarian commanders like Ricimer were not uncommon at that time; some being good (like the civilized Vandal Stilicho who helped prop up the teetering Roman Empire with his considerable skill) and others being bad (such as Odoacer who presided over the removal of the last Western Roman Emperor). However, Emperor Majorian is a much better figure to focus on. Unfortunately, very few are familiar with his inspiring story and he is usually relegated to a mere brief mention in most history books, simply listed among the last of the Roman emperors in the west during a period of rapid decline before the supposedly inevitable collapse. This has given many people the mistaken impression that, for quite some time previously, the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse and in the midst of one, long, downward spiral.

Emperor Majorian
The truth is that, even in the last period of the Western Roman Empire, there were several bright spots. The reign of Emperor Majorian may have been the last but his was not the first. Because our own times give little reason for optimism, it may be a good time to highlight some examples from history of a people pulling back from the brink of disaster. Since there is very little, in my view, that cannot be learned simply by studying the history of the Roman Empire, it may be worthwhile to take a look back at what so many view as the “decline and fall” of Imperial Rome which actually has several examples of the Roman Empire struggling back from near collapse to reassert the powerful position it had in better times. The final fall seems inevitable to us only because we have the benefit of hindsight. However, actions have consequences and people always have the freedom of choice. If certain people had made different choices in those days, the Western Roman Empire might have continued to survive for quite some time longer. Some historians have dated the “beginning of the end” of the Roman Empire at a ridiculously early date. This should not be so. It is also worth noting that many of these types have a religious prejudice that motivates them with many bending the facts or omitting certain evidence in an effort to make the case that Rome began to fall as soon as Christianity began to really take hold and put down roots.

Emperor Constantine I
One place to start would be late 324 AD. It was then that Emperor Constantine the Great, ruler of the Western Roman Empire, defeated Licinius (ruler of the east) at the battle of Chrysopolis. By this victory, Constantine made himself Emperor of the entire Roman world and having only one man in charge was something the Roman Empire had not seen in a while. Of course, the Roman Empire was not as large as it had been in the glory days of Emperor Trajan, but it was not all that different from the size it had been under the great Augustus and just like Augustus Caesar, Emperor Constantine also worked to restore traditional Roman values and, in his case, encourage Christian values as well with laws against sexual misconduct, ritual prostitution and gladiatorial combat. He won victories over the Franks, the Germans and re-conquered territory in what is now Romania. In fact, his founding of the new capitol city of Constantinople was done, in part, to symbolize the reunion of the eastern and western empires into the one great united Roman Empire of the past. Power and prosperity was restored on such a level that, at the time of his death, Emperor Constantine was preparing a massive campaign for the conquest of Persia. Had he left different instructions in his will or had his sons managed to settle their differences peacefully, the empire of Constantine the Great might have persevered and even reached greater heights in the future than was actually the case.

Emperor Theodosius I
After the death of Emperor Constantine the Great, and the sorry end of the Constantinian dynasty, many have dated the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire to the defeat and death of the Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378 AD. However, Rome saw a dramatic revival just after his death in the reign of his successor Emperor Theodosius the Great. Starting out in the east, Emperor Theodosius consolidated his power and dealt firmly with every challenge to his authority, eventually suppressing all opposition in the west and becoming the last Roman Emperor to rule both the east and the west together. There was not much expansion because of the focus on internal enemies and Theodosius is most known for his establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire (despite what many think, Constantine only made Christianity legal, he did not enforce it as the one and only religion) while doing his best to put confine paganism to the realm of history. Emperor Theodosius began to forge a more strongly united Roman Empire with one secular and spiritual government, one emperor and one religion. He restored imperial authority, fended off attacks from external enemies, suppressed internal enemies, suppressed heresy and upheld Christianity. Again, however, after the death of Emperor Theodosius, the Roman Empire again split into the old eastern and western divisions.

After that, things began to go downhill again, though even then, there were men of energy who provided bright spots of hope for Roman civilization. One of those at his funeral was the Vandal-Roman commander Stilicho (who was actually married to the niece of Emperor Theodosius), a man who, mostly during the reign of Honorius, was dashing all over the Roman Empire fending off attacks in Italy, the Balkans and even Africa. Flavius Aetius was another inspiring Roman general who, during the reign of Emperor Valentinian III, gave cause for hope by his stunning victory over the seemingly unstoppable Attila the Hun at the battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451 AD. However, both Stilicho and Flavius Aetius ended up being the victims of their own success, killed by their own countrymen who feared them because of their ability. This is another lesson the peoples of today would do well to remember; when success is punished rather than rewarded the only inevitable result is that failure becomes the norm.

Emperor Majorian
By the time Emperor Majorian came along (becoming Emperor of Rome in 457 AD), it is true that things were pretty far gone and, in retrospect, we can see that the end was near. Even the Roman emperors were increasingly becoming figureheads while powerful military chieftains or political cliques held the real power. However, Emperor Majorian once again proved that the old Roman virtues had not disappeared completely. At a time when there was little left of the Western Roman Empire beyond the borders of Italy (and even there some areas were precarious), in only a few short years Emperor Majorian succeeded in restoring almost everything that had previously been lost. He put new domestic policies into place but was most occupied with securing Italy and re-conquering Hispania and Gaul. His successful campaigns might well have continued and won back even more had it not been for the betrayal of others and, as stated at the outset, Emperor Majorian himself was finally arrested and deposed by a mutinous leader of the barbarians who were making up more and more of the Roman military. He was Emperor for less than four years and yet, he accomplished amazing things in that short span of time and if loyalty had been a virtue more strongly upheld, he seemed well capable of doing even more, restoring all that had been lost in the years before his reign.

Again, we see a moral failing on display. It was the corrupt political elite who set Emperor Majorian up to be deposed and later murdered because his reforms were forcing them to make sacrifices for the good of the Empire which they were not prepared to tolerate. Like others before him, Emperor Majorian was effectively punished for being too successful. Still, he is a shining example of how much just one driven man can accomplish. The noted author on Roman history Edward Gibbon described Emperor Majorian as a figure, “to vindicate the honour of the human species” which is quite a compliment coming from someone who had very little positive to say about Imperial Rome in its final days. The point is that, it is never too late to try. At some point, we cannot deny, it may be too late to succeed, but that can only be known with absolute certainty after the fact and even when things are falling apart all around us and even if there really is no realistic reason to carry on, we should be inspired by Emperors like Constantine, Theodosius and Majorian who really did seem to turn back the clock. Of course, we could go even further and point to the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian who went quite far toward restoring the whole Roman Empire even after the west had fallen completely.

I have about as gloomy an outlook as one could have and yet, perhaps it is because of my background, the land I was born in, the honored place of a crumbling, old Spanish mission, that just because the odds against you are absolutely insurmountable, it would be absurd to think that was any reason to give up the fight.

Semper Fidelis


  1. Great Post MM , also Happy August . It is named after Emperor Augustus Caesar .

  2. Thank you for this informative post about an often overlooked Emperor (Majorian). Still, don't you think the failure to re-conquer North Africa from the Vandals helped accelerate the end of the Western Empire? This was where much of Italy's grain came from and when the Vandals conquered North Africa (which they held until the early years of the reign of Justinian) this basically cut off much of Rome's food supply.


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