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The Fall of Rome Through the Eyes of its People: A Comparison of Sources and Interpretations

In a letter written in the aftermath of Alaric the Goth’s first sack on Rome in 410, St. Jerome writes,

The brightest light of the whole world is extinguished; indeed the head has been cut from the Roman Empire. To put it more truthfully, the whole world has died with one City. Who would have believed that Rome, which was built up from victories over the whole world, would fall; so that it would be both the mother and the tomb to all peoples.[1]

Despite what Jerome’s account implies, the Roman Empire did not collapse in 410. The city lived to be sacked again in 455, and the rule of the imperial court remained more or less intact and suffered slow decline, until 476 when Romulus Augustulus was disposed and the Ostragoth Odovacer became King of Italy. Even then, the Eastern part of the Roman Empire endured until Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Roman Empire[2] did not end in an abrupt crash, as Jerome’s account would have readers believe, and yet it would be rash to assume that accounts such as Jerome’s ought to be discounted. Determining the historical value of such dubious stories and understanding what a reader of history should glean from them is in fact rather difficult.

This paper will explore the ways that several primary texts of the fifth and sixth centuries describe the disintegration of the Empire, drawing comparisons to some of our current historical interpretations. I will begin by examining some of the historical and archaeological evidence that sheds light on the state of affairs in Europe during the collapse of the Empire. Next, I will draw from three literary texts; The Life of Saint Severin, The Ruin of Britain, and The Life of Saint Germanus; seeking to determine how the authors understood the political, ecclesial and economic climates of their day. In closing, I will discuss how these texts reflect in part the common historical narrative we have, yet also express a different paradigm, one which redefines what it means that Rome “fell.”

The question of accuracy in written records of the decline of the Empire depends entirely on what categories we use to define “the Empire.” By “the Empire,” do we mean the political structure, the economy, the religion? All of these systems changed in different ways after the Germanic kingdoms were established. The answer we give must account for all of these, and consider the intertwined complexity of the various factors that make up civilizations, and our inability to fully appreciate the Roman paradigm. For our contemporary perception of “the Roman Empire” might not reflect how the writers in question thought of it, and even they give a polyphony of voices, such that each account tells a slightly different story.

Thus, when reading historian Bryan Ward-Perkins’ defense for describing the disintegration as a decline in civilization in his book, The Fall of the Roman Empire, we must be aware that he admits his definition of civilization “is a very material one.”[3] His arguments include much archaeological evidence that the standard of living throughout the empire drastically declined after the arrival of the Germanic peoples. Ward-Perkins uses the example of pottery to reflect the economy, explaining that during periods prior to the demise of the Empire even remote locations of lower economic standings afforded fine-quality pottery.[4] Similar evidence can be given for roof tiles and coins from the Empire.[5] The evidence suggests that the standard of living was high for all socio-economic groups in all parts of the Empire. After the Germanic peoples came, things changed drastically.

Ward-Perkins demonstrates that the collapse is distinguishable by physical evidence. The quality and quantity of pottery diminished, roofs were made of straw instead of tile, coins were circulated in smaller numbers, and population levels dropped.[6] After the Germanic peoples sacked Rome, the living standards were alarmingly low; Ward-Perkins surmises that they “sank to a level of economic complexity well below that of the pre-Roman Iron Age.”[7] During this time, the great production of Rome declined—the German invaders could not compete with the advances of the Romans, and the people of the Roman Empire could honestly mourn such a change.

Despite Ward-Perkins’ analysis of the economic situation of the time, there do seem to be examples of the German invaders assimilating Roman culture into their new kingdoms, thereby growing to resemble the Empire. Judith Herrin, an English historian of Late Antiquity writes,

In Italy, Gaul, Burgundy, Spain, and central North Africa, barbarian kings ruled, sometimes in the name of Rome, but with unrestricted independence in fact. They pursued was has been called a “sub-Roman” way of life, conditioned by a relationship with the culture that had conquered, facilitated by the use of Latin, which supplanted tribal vernaculars as the official language, and by the adoption of Christianity.[8]

Speaking in terms of culture, perhaps Rome did not “fall” the way Ward-Perkins describes. The rulers of the Visigoths and the Franks adopted Latin, became Christians (though many accepted the Arian heresy), and attempted to preserve Roman culture. Ward-Perkins gives the example of a letter written in Latin by a Frankish count. Sidonius, a Roman poet and bishop from fifth century Gaul, compliments the count’s Latin saying, “You plead that you only trifle with refinement, when you have drunk deep at the spring of Roman eloquence.”[9] Even in the reign of Odovacer, which effectively marks the end of the Western Empire, public buildings were restored, and new seats were installed in the Colosseum.[10] Historian Roger Collins reports that Ostrogothic King Theodoric also repaired “aqueducts, public baths, city walls and palaces—the latter being centres of administration and not just private residences—in a variety of major Italian cities, including Rome, Ravenna, Verona, and Pavia.”[11] Even the ever popular circus games were held to honor Theodoric’s visit to Rome in 500 A.D.[12] The evidence suggests that Roman culture did not crumble with the sack of Rome and the invasion of the Germanic peoples, even if Roman culture was slowly assimilated into German life. It is safe to say that since Germanic peoples admired Roman culture, they sought to preserve it as they understood it.[13]

Yet even this cultural analysis does not give a full account of the experience of Roman citizens. In his chapter “Living Under the New Masters,” Ward-Perkins points out that while “most of the basic structures of society, which needed experienced Romans to maintain them (the Christian Church, the cities, secular administration, Roman law, and so on) persisted under Germanic rule, at least in the early days,”[14] it was not always pleasant. In the Ostragothic kingdom, a Roman was valued at half the blood price of a Goth; the Goths continued in part to speak their native tongue; and Theodoric was careful to represent himself with a mustache on the currency, thereby declaring himself still a Goth and not a Roman.[15]

The evidence given in these different historical accounts leads us to assume that the fall of Rome was materially severe, but culturally neither immediate nor drastic. Comparing this muddled picture to what impressions the literature of the time provides is far from easy. Much of what has been detailed above depends on our reading of primary sources, so an objective evaluation is simply not possible. Beyond that, the sources themselves are not consistent, and we have reason to doubt the accuracy of some accounts. Yet it is still possible to note that the sources seem to paint a slightly nuanced different picture than the one we’ve been shown.

Though none of the primary texts in question can claim the absence of biases, The Life of Saint Severin seems to have no purpose other than to relay Severin’s work and miracles; it is politically straightforward. While the text was likely written to cast Severin in a favorable light, it was also written sometime between 509 and 511, roughly 23 years after the Romans left Noricum, and is thought by most modern historians to be “a first-hand record of greatest importance.”[16] The Life describes the state of affairs in the land of Noricum Ripense, an area on the southern bank of the Danube River. By the time Severin arrives, Noricum has already experienced almost fifty years of political instability with the Germanic peoples around it, and the Life makes it clear that all is not well in Noricum.

Severin intercedes many times on behalf of his people, asking the Germanic kings for permission to trade, the release of captives, and the recall of exiles.[17] This shows that the Germanic presence was established and oppressive to the people. There is no suggestion of assimilation, and there are abundant references that the towns that are still being ravaged by the Rugi, Alamans, Ostrogoths, Thuringians and Herules.[18] As Ward-Perkins comments, “The Life of Saint Severin makes it clear that the process of invasion was highly unpleasant for the people who had to live through it.”[19] The stories detailed are not ones of the Germanic peoples peacefully entering into a Roman way of life; they are of dangerous travels, emigration from threatened towns, and oppression.

However, it would be wrong to say Eugippius, the monk who authored the Life, tells of unrelenting terror. In some cases, Eugippius does reveal a desire for cooperation between the Germans and the Romans. We are told that Givuldus, king of the Alamanni, greatly honored Severin and desired to grant him a boon.[20] The same is true of King Odovacer, who recalls Ambrosius from exile for Severin after inviting Severin to make a petition.[21] In an even more telling case, Severin works with the king and queen of the Rugi, demanding that the queen stop persecuting Christians. Heeding Severin’s plea, she is later willing to take advice from Severin.[22] Overall, the text does reveal tensions among the people, and yet Eugippius does not dwell on images of ravaged towns. Instead, he writes about religious matters and tells stories of Severin working to establish peace for the Romans. The picture in the Life seems to reflect a reading of history that accounts for that Roman experienced a fall, and that argued by historians like Collins and Herrina who say the fifth and sixth centuries were a time of assimilation—it speaks of trials and of lasting social structures. Roman civilization suffered in an economic and militaristic sense, yet the institution of the church remained, as Severin still held authority,[23] and the Germans were sometimes willing to compromise with the Romans.

While the Life of Saint Severin shows instances of both the persistence and decline of Roman culture, the early British historian Gildas writes of the fall of Roman civilization in Britain as a complete and utter collapse:

All controls of truth and justice have been shaken and overthrown, leaving no trace, not even a memory, among the orders I have mentioned: with the exception of a few, a very few. A great multitude has been lost, as people daily rush headlong to hell.[24]

Writing over one hundred years after the events occurred around the year 540, Gildas was speaking about a very specific element of society: The Church. His brief history is quickly followed by pages lamenting the state of the clergy and kings. His objective in writing was to spark change in the life of the church and the political structures, which at the time were linked. John Morris writes of Gildas that “he aimed to move men’s emotions, and he succeeded.”[25] That being said, Gildas’ understanding of the disintegration of the Empire seems to have little to do with Rome’s material existence, and everything to do with what Gildas saw as Rome’s “culture”—i.e. its church and its intellectual tradition. Yet even the existence of his text calls into question the reality of what he details. His is a complex and elegant piece of literature, making it hard to believe that “the cities of our land are not populated even now as they once were; right to the present they are deserted, in ruins and unkempt.”[26] Were this the case, one has to wonder how Gildas was able to contrive such a piece of writing. While Gildas laments a decline, it is not the same sort of decline that Ward-Perkins describes, and it was likely not as terrible as Gildas suggests.

It seems that Gildas’ account tends to over exaggerate the state of affairs in Roman Britain after the sack of Rome, and his account is certainly inconsistent with Constantius’ Life of Saint Germanus, which also gives a glimpse of fifth century Britain. Germanus of Auxerre, a saint from Gaul whose life spanned the fourth and fifth centuries, worked in Britain to help the people with church and political issues. In Constantius’ story, the Church is still strong in Britain despite lapses into Pelagian heresy. Constantius writes that after Germanus had helped defeat the Pelegians the first time, “Thus this most wealthy island, with the defeat both of its spiritual and of its human foes, was rendered secure in every sense. And now, to the great grief of the whole country, those who had won the victories over both Pelagians and Saxons made preparations for their return.”[27] In Constantius’ account, the religious element of the Roman culture, Christianity, was “persisting intact,”[28] in Britain as well as in other parts of the Empire. And yet, Germanus still had to fight the Saxons and to defend orthodoxy against Pelagianism.[29] However, since the text is a about the life of a saint, it makes sense that Germanus would be portrayed as a hero who makes all well in Britain, just as it makes sense for Gildas to paint his picture with gloomy colors if he was trying to spark change. We can only be sure that the difficultly depicted in the texts relates to the state of the church, and that the writers obviously thought there were difficulties to be dealt with.

The above analysis reveals the complexities of examining the accuracy of literary sources in their descriptions of the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Not only is there no agreed-upon conclusion of the state of affairs following the decline of imperial rule; it is also impossible to deduce any working narrative without relying on the literature being evaluated in this paper. And yet using only literary sources to shape our understanding is not possible, as each source speaks of a different place in the Roman Empire, a different time, and a particular objective that may have warped the telling of the events. Asking whether or not the sources overstate the disintegration of the Empire becomes, to some extent, futile, for it is precisely the texts themselves that are needed to understand how the Empire disintegrated.

After the Germanic peoples sacked Rome, standards of living certainly declined.[30] There were no more basilicas, trade declined, and the complex economic system collapsed. In this way the literature is right to describe —except the literature does not seem to care about the material aspects, at least not nearly as much as it cares about the ‘culture.’ Though there are references to economic difficulties, the focus of the texts seems to be the difficulties in the church and in learning to live peacefully with the Germans.[31]

One thing is sure about the body of literature that details the disintegration of the Empire: the texts speak of incredibly hard times. And so we must conclude that while the texts do seem to appropriately interpret a “fall,” none of them gives an understanding of this fall in the way that a modern historian might. Perhaps this is telling. Instead of evaluating the sources based on a concept of culture we have determined, perhaps we would do better to start with the text’s understanding of what the Roman Empire was, allowing this to shape the historical narrative of what really happened when Germanic peoples assumed rule of the former western Roman Empire.[32]

 


[1] Quoted in Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 28.
[2] For the purpose of brevity I omit the word “Western” when referring to the Roman Empire; however, it should be noted that this essay is only concerned with matters in the West, and does not claim to be telling of the situation in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire.
[3] Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 179.
[4] Ibid p. 93.
[5] Ibid p. 96.
[6] Bryan Ward-Perkins’s archaeological argument can be read in his chapter on “The Disappearance of Comfort,” p. 87-120 in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.
[7] Ward-Perkins, p. 118.
[8] Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom. (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1987), p. 35.
[9] Quoted in Bryan Ward-Perkins, p. 81.
[10] Roger Collins, Early Medieval Europe 300-100 (London: Macmillian Education LTD, 1991), p. 102.
[11] Ibid. p. 103.
[12] Ibid. p. 103.
[13] The German’s desire to adopt Roman culture is noted in many texts (see Walter Goffart, Rome’s Fall and After (London: Hambledon Press, 1989) 6; and Collins 94-108).
[14] Ward-Perkins, p. 68.
[15] Ibid. p. 71-73.
[16] Introduction to Eugippius, The Life of Saint Severin. Trans. L. Bieler, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1965), p. 8.
[17] Eugippius, The Life of Saint Severin. Trans L. Bieler, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1965) ch. 22.2, ch. 19.1-3, ch. 32.1.
[18] Ibid ch. 4.1-5, ch. 10.1, ch. 20.
[19] Ward-Perkins, p. 20.
[20] Eugippius, ch. 19.1-3.
[21] Ibid. ch. 32.1.
[22] Ibid. ch. 8.1-6 and ch. 40.1-3.
[23] Ibid. ch. 22.
[24] Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore & Co. LTD., 1978), ch. 26.3.
[25] John Morris in the introduction to Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore & Co. LTD., 1978), p. 4.
[26] Gildas, ch. 26.2.
[27] Constantius of Lyon, Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, tr. F. R. Hoare, in The Western Fathers: being the lives of SS Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Honoratus of Arles and Germanus of Auxerre, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1954) p. 302.
[28] Ibid. p. 308.
[29] Ibid. p. 300.
[30] For further reading see Ward-Perkins.
[31] This is, of course, an extreme simplification, for Eugippius does speak many times about economic hardships. Also, it makes perfect sense that the writers would dwell on religious elements, given that they were all a part of the church. However I still think the point is noteworthy, and nothing in the texts seems to suggest that they conceived of Rome as Ward-Perkins does.
[32] It could be argued that this conclusion only allows us to read the 5th century through the eyes of the Romans, and gives no consideration to the situation from the perspective of the Germanic peoples. Certainly, those experiencing invasion will always see themselves as oppressed and those invading will always see themselves as the heroes. I would like to distinguish between how the Roman’s conceived of the “fall” of Rome and how they perceived the difficulty of the situation they found themselves in. Even if we account for the fact that Theodoric most certainly would not have seen the disintegration of the Empire as a collapse of culture, even of Roman culture, this does not force us to conclude that the literature is dishonest in its depiction of a difficult time of transition. The sources’ perception of the events can still give an accurate account of the situation, even recognizing the biases that would indubitably have.

 

References:
Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000. London: Macmillan Education LTD, 1991.
Constanstius of Lyon. The Life of Saint Germanus of Auxerre. Translated by F. R. Hoare in The Western Fathers: Being the Lives of SS. Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Honoratus of Aries and Germanus of Auxerre. London: Sheed and Ward, 1954.
Eugippius. The Life of Saint Severin. Translated by Ludwig Bieler with the collaboration of Ludmilla Krestan. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1965.
Goffart, Walter. “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians.” In Rome’s Fall and After. London: Hambledon Press, 1989.
Herrin, Judith The Formation of Christendom. London: Fontana Press, 1989.
Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Winterbottom Michael, trans. Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents. Edited by Michael Winterbottom. Compiled by John Morris. Vol. 7. London: Phillimore & CO., 1978.