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This week in history: The western Roman Empire falls

By Cody K. Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20 2014 4:02 p.m. MDT

Around Aug. 23, A.D. 476 , the German military leader Odoacer was proclaimed King of Italy by his army. This event is generally considered to be end of the Roman empire in the west.

In the early third century, the emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in order to have a more strategically secure city. Additionally, the Eastern Empire, the crossroads of civilizations, had always contained the more wealthy and dynamic provinces. By moving his seat to Constantinople, Constantine ensured that the lucrative east would no longer subsidize western backwaters in France, Britain and Spain as it had in the past.

Given the vast distances of the empire, Constantine's successors often divided the empire between two emperors. While Rome had an emperor once again, often he acted as a deputy to the eastern emperor and served at his pleasure, though occasionally wars did break out between the two. Western autonomy waxed and waned for much of the next century.

Though barbarians had raided the empire on occasion for centuries, the Visigoth invasion in A.D. 376 signaled the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire. Initially invading the Eastern Empire, by A.D. 410 the Germanic Visigoths had sacked Rome and settled in France, essentially as a foreign nation within the borders of the empire.

Further barbarian invasions followed. Attila's Huns invaded Italy and threatened Rome in the 440s and early 450s, and the Vandals sacked Rome again in 455. These repeated invasions exacerbated the Western Empire's already fragile military, economic and political positions.

Unlike the days of the Roman republic and early empire, most fourth- and fifth-century Romans did not see honor in serving in the military. Consequently, the Roman military (in both west and east) frequently suffered manpower shortages and increasingly came to rely on Romanized Germans for commanders and soldiers. The western economy likewise was falling apart. Without subsidies from the east, the urban breakdown that accompanied a lack of patrons to invest in infrastructure and never-ending problems of debasing coinage (leading to inflation), the Western Roman economy was stretched to the limit.

The year after the sack of Rome in 455, the Germanic General Ricimer gained increasing power within the empire. With the title Magister Militum (Master of Soldiers), Ricimer exercised vast authority from behind the scenes even as a series of emperors sat on the throne. When Ricimer had a disagreement with an emperor, a coup was staged and the emperor replaced.

In the book “The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000,” historian Chris Wickham noted that after an unsuccessful campaign against the Vandals: “Ricimer concentrated on Italy, which he defended effectively, and left the rest of the empire largely to its own devices. … Ricimer is hard to assess through the sources that are both hostile and sketchy, but there is no sign that he had political interests or ambitions which extended beyond Italy; he is a clear sign that imperial horizons were shrinking.”

A brief power struggled ensued after Rimicer's death in 472, and eventually Orestes, a Roman citizen of German stock who served as a secretary to Attila, rose to the rank of Magister Militum. Launching a rebellion against the Western Emperor Nepos, Orestes continued the tradition of ruling from behind an imperial puppet and named his son, the teenager Romulus, to the purple. Soon Romulus was known by the nickname Augustulus, “Little Augustus.”

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