Western Roman Empire

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The division of the Roman Empire into the Western Roman and Eastern Roman Empire after the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395
West and East Strom in 476

The so-called Western Roman Empire , also Westrom or Western Empire (Latin Hesperium Imperium ), came into being in 395 through the division of rule in the late ancient Roman Empire under the two sons of Emperor Theodosius I. While the older brother, Arcadius , was in Constantinople as senior Augustus ruled over the Roman East , Honorius ruled first from Milan , then from Ravenna as iunior Augustusthe west of the empire; exceptionally, the Western Roman emperors also resided in the city of Rome. Formally, Westrom was never an independent state, but only the western half of the indivisible Roman Empire .

In older literature, the deposition of the emperor Romulus Augustus (mockingly called "Romulus Augustulus") by the mutinous Western Roman general Odoacer in 476 is seen as the end of the Western Roman Empire . The timing is controversial in recent research. Possible endpoints are:

  • the abolition of the Western Roman court by Justinian in 554 , since most of the state institutions, especially the Senate and the (now imperial) Western Roman court, had continued to exist for decades after 476;
  • the incursion of Lombard warriors into Italy in 568 , by which large parts of the peninsula were withdrawn from imperial rule.


The Western Roman Empire after the division of 395

As early as the late 3rd century , multiple empires with regional division of tasks had become the rule, and since the death of Constantine I in 337, the two halves of the Roman Empire had mostly been ruled by at least two emperors. Ruled the West (partly as usurpers ): Constantine II (337–340), Constans (340–350), Magnentius (350–353), Julian (as Caesar , 355–360), Valentinian I (364–375 ), Gratian (375-383), Magnus Maximus (383-388), Valentinian II (383-392) and Eugenius (392-394). These emperors, who were responsible for the administration and defense of the West, had mostly resided in Gaul ( Trier ); only Valentinian II and Theodosius I preferred Milan.

It should be noted that Westrom was formally never a separate state. It was not the Roman Empire that had been divided up, but the Empire. Since Jovian's death in early 364 there have always been at least two Augusti , and since the civil war victory over Magnus Maximus in 388 there have been two imperial courts in the Roman Empire . For the contemporaries, who had long since become accustomed to a multiple empire, the division of 395 did not differ from the earlier ones - it was not foreseeable that it would be the last. Rather, the very fact that Arcadius and Honorius were brothers and passed common laws seemed to guarantee imperial unity. The term "Western Roman Empire" was rare in late antiquity and only became more common in Marcellinus Comes in the early 6th century ; According to the prevailing contemporary view, there was still only one Roman Empire under two rulers ruling together and there was still only one Roman citizenship. A split of the empire into two independent halves was neither intended nor carried out in 395. The late antique historian Eunapios von Sardis said: “The emperors rule a single empire in two bodies”. For this reason, the emperors in East and West always claimed a right to have a say if, after the death of Augustus, the succession had to be regulated in the other part of the empire. If there were prolonged vacancies in the throne in the west, the emperor residing in Constantinople was automatically considered to be the ruler of the orphaned part of the empire, for example from 465 to 467 and after 480.

Just like the “beginning” of Western Rome, its “ end ” is also problematic. An increasing number of ancient historians are of the opinion that the events of the years 475-480 were merely a military coup : Thus, while the Western Roman Empire was at that time, the core was not intact, albeit in the end largely on Italy and the Alpine region limited "state" Westrom sank. The civil administration and the Western Roman Senate continued to exist almost seamlessly after 476 and only went under after 550. In addition, the West was not formally imperial: after 480 the emperors residing in Constantinople saw themselves as rulers of the entire empire, and their claims were generally recognized in the West in the 6th century. Phases in which no emperor had resided in Italy for a long time already existed in the 4th century. For this reason, the decades following 476 up to the dissolution of the Western Roman court in 554 or until the incursion of the Lombards in 568, which finally destroyed many ancient structures and ended the national unity of Italy for centuries, as part of the understand Western Roman history.


The time of Honorius

Although the Western Roman Empire only existed for 81 years after 395, it had a total of twelve generally recognized rulers and three (according to another opinion four) usurpers .

Honorius was the younger son of Emperor Theodosius I , the last emperor who had effectively ruled both halves of the empire together for a few months. Honorius was still a child when he came to power in 395, which is why Theodosius presumably appointed the army master Stilicho , son of a Romanized vandal and a Roman woman, to be his guardian . Stilicho claimed reign not only in the west, but also in the east of the empire; this should have been entirely right in circles at the court of Honorius, since here they did not want to submit to senior Augustus Arcadius .

Honorius as general; Ivory diptych from 406

Honorius' rule was unstable. The Visigoth foederati mutinied as early as 395 , and in 397 the commander Gildo rose in the province of Africa , which was one of the richest Roman provinces and was the granary of West Rome . Although Gildo's rebellion, behind which the Eastern Roman court stood, could be put down very quickly, this was only the beginning of a whole series of upheavals with which Westrom was confronted. After the invasion of the again mutinous Visigoths in 402 on the Italian peninsula, Honorius moved his court from Mediolanum ( Milan ) to Ravenna , which was considered impregnable. Stilicho meanwhile had to withdraw troops from the borders in order to be able to defend Italy: In the civil war between Eugenius and Theodosius I in 394 a large part of the western Roman troops had been destroyed; this now took revenge, since Westrom lacked regular soldiers to cope with the consequences of the so-called mass migration . Meanwhile, on the British Isles, the soldiers, who felt they had been abandoned, rebelled under Marcus and Gratian (406/407) and Constantine III. (407-411); The troops crossed over to Gaul and left the population - who continued to regard themselves as Romans - to themselves or to the Anglo-Saxon attacks that began soon afterwards, although the Anglo-Saxons initially came to Britain in small groups, mainly as mercenaries, to serve the people there Romans defend the northern border.

In the midst of the civil war, the exposed Rhine border collapsed: on December 31, 406, Vandals, Suebi and the (originally) Iranian Alans , probably on the run from the Huns , invaded northern Gaul at the Rhine crossing ; Franconian "Foederati" and Roman border troops (" Limitanei ") who opposed them were beaten. In addition, a Gothic army under Radagaisus had invaded Italy in 405 , which, however, was destroyed by Stilicho. In 408 the Eastern Emperor Arcadius died surprisingly , and now Honorius, now the senior Augustus in the entire empire, had his adviser and master Stilicho, the actually strong man in the West, murdered for fear of his power. But now the empire lacked a competent military leader, so that the rebellious Visigoth foederati under their leader Alaric , after repeatedly denying them the land grants promised by the government in Ravenna, plundered Rome in 410 , which had lasting consequences for the self-confidence of the Romans and had the authority of the government in Ravenna.

Meanwhile, the usurpations tied up additional forces: Constantine III, Jovinus in Gaul and the Roman senator Priscus Attalus 409/410 and 414/415, who was the candidate of the Visigoth mercenaries. In 409 the Suebi, Alans and Vandals invaded Hispania, taking advantage of the turmoil . The Visigoths, now allies of Ravenna again, subsequently destroyed parts of the vandals that had invaded Hispania. Under the power-conscious army master and later short-term emperor Flavius ​​Constantius , the Romans were able to stabilize the situation from 411, end usurpations and initially bring many of the Germanic groups that had invaded and take them into their service. Thus the Visigoths were settled in Aquitaine in 418 as foederati , which was hoped for in Ravenna as an inner bulwark against rebellions and at the same time a strong union against the external enemies as well as the Vandals and Suebi. The Visigoths actually behaved - viewed as a whole - loyally, which of course did not prevent them from looting and military campaigns in order to enlarge their sphere of influence; However, the Treaty of 418 was not actually breached until the late 1960s, when the central Western Roman power collapsed.

Constantius (III.) Was able to eliminate his rivals for power one after another and force them to marry into the imperial family; but he died in the autumn of 421 after only a few months of reign before he was able to expand and consolidate his successes. His death left a power vacuum in the West that Honorius was unable to fill.

Internal power struggles and the war with Attila

After Honorius' death in 423, the usurper Johannes , a civilian who was not recognized by the Eastern Emperor, ruled Ravenna . In 425 he was defeated after another civil war, and Valentinian III. , a toddler and nephew of Honorius, became the new Augustus of the West with the support of his cousin Theodosius II ; he was to be the last emperor of the Theodosian dynasty. During his reign the actual loss of the province of Africa (from 429) to the military commander Geiserich falls ; northwestern Hispania fell to the Suebi , and around 440 the Saxons rebelled in Britain.

Soon after his accession to the throne, rivalries arose over control of the child emperor. The civil administration and the imperial family were faced with a growing dominance of the army leadership. Initially, the business of government was in the hands of his mother Galla Placidia , but soon there were fights between various military men who rivaled for de facto power: The army master Flavius ​​Felix and the comes Africae Bonifatius supported Bonifatius until their deaths (sometimes more, sometimes less) the politics of Galla Placidia, which endeavored to play the generals off against one another. After the death of Boniface (432), however, their long-time opponent, the patricius and army master Flavius ​​Aëtius , ruled the western empire from 433 for about twenty years and relied mainly on Gaul and on his long-term close relationship with the Huns, which he had brought them to power. His main opponent was Geiseric . The life of Emperor Valentinian, who visited Constantinople in 437, otherwise moved between Ravenna and Rome; relations with the eastern part of the empire were good and close. However, the west was not stabilized. The time after 433 was marked by movements of apostasy, because the actual rule of patricius lacked legitimacy and was often not recognized. Among other things, Bagauden rebelled again against the government in Ravenna, and the warrior groups of the Suebi, Franks and Visigoths initially rejected the army master. In Gaul , Aetius was able to maintain himself with difficulty despite this pressure; a rebellion of the Burgundians on the Rhine was bloodily crushed by his Hunnic auxiliaries in 436.

The loss of the province of Africa to Geiseric and the Vandals (finally with the conquest of Carthage and the fleet lying there 439) is of great importance in this context, since Geiseric, unlike the leaders of most of the other warrior groups, due to his enmity with Aëtius the Fundamentally rejected the government in Ravenna and thus founded the first de facto independent regnum on imperial territory, although in 442 he established a new foedus with Valentinian III. lock. However, the fact that Geiserich allowed himself to be promised at the time that his son would marry a daughter of the emperor as soon as she was old enough shows that he too was interested in participating in the Roman Empire , not in destroying it. From then on he repeatedly intervened in Western Roman domestic politics. Through the occupation of Carthage he could cut Italy off at any time from its African granary, from where it had been supplied with grain in the form of taxes; the vandals supplied grain, but at high prices. In addition, Aëtius and the government in Ravenna now lacked the tax revenue from rich Africa . All of this resulted in a significant economic burden on West Rome and underfunding of the regular troops. Around this time the Anglo-Saxon mercenaries mutinied in Britain, who felt they were not paid enough, and established their own spheres of power in the west of the island.

The political situation in the western Mediterranean region from 450 to around 476/480; the map shows the shrinking of western Roman rule in the periphery ( Britannia , Gallia , Hispania , North Africa apart from a few exclaves in northern Gaul and Dalmatia ) to the core province of Italy ; Gustav Droysen : General historical hand atlas , 1886

In 450 the alliances were reversed: in 450 a court party led by Valentinian's sister Honoria called the Huns under Attila against Aëtius for help. In 451 the army master was able to persuade the Huns, who had invaded Gaul with a large multiethnic army, to retreat with a Roman-Visigoth army in the battle on the Catalaunian fields with enormous losses, but in 452 a Hunnian attack on Italy could only with Eastern Roman help be fended off. In 454, however, when Attila died, Valentinian, in an act of helplessness, slew his overpowering General Aëtius himself in order to finally take power himself - only to be the victim of an assassination himself the following year. In Dalmatia , meanwhile, General Marcellinus created a de facto independent empire and renounced Ravenna. With the loss of reputation of the government, the rise of such warlords went hand in hand in many places , and especially outside of Italy they filled the power vacuum that had developed. These local rulers, some Roman officers like Marcellinus, some non-Roman reges like Geiseric, later called the cleric Gildas "tyrants" and described them emphatically as follows:

“They spend their days terrorizing and pillaging the innocent while sheltering robbers and murderers. They take many wives and also have concubines and lovers. They swear oaths very quickly and break them again more quickly. They make vows and lie. They wage many wars, but their wars are unjust because they are directed against their own fellow citizens. They pretend to want to fight crime, but they make criminals their table mates, ingratiate themselves with them and reward them. They appear to be generous to worthy undertakings, but at the same time they secretly acquire wealth and sin through their crimes. They hold judgment, but seldom do they give a fair judgment. They despise the defenseless and the lowly, and they value the bloodstained, haughty, murderous and oath-broken. "

The non-imperial warrior groups, who called themselves Visigoths, Suebi, Burgundians or Franks, were formally federates and ruled the provincial Roman population in the name of the emperor and with the support of Roman civilians, which preserved the appearance of imperial rule and also the possibility for political and military interventions by Ravenna increased. However, over time these areas actually gradually slipped out of western Roman control until the Visigoths under Eurich (II.) Finally terminated the treaty with Ravenna in 469.

The last years of West Rome - the time of the shadow emperors

With the murder of Valentinian III. the time of the so-called "shadow emperors" began in 455, who only ruled for a short time and, despite all efforts, could hardly take action to save the collapsing western Roman state. After Valentinian's desperate attempt to regain control of the empire through the murder of his army master had led to disaster, the military finally took over the reins, led by Roman and “barbaric” generals who often fought each other. A military junta was now in effect in Ravenna , and the central government subsequently lost control over ever larger areas. In view of the weakness of the emperors, the leaders of the foederati increasingly formed states within the state and thus withheld important tax revenues from the headquarters that would have been necessary to maintain the regular army, which in turn led to a further weakening of the government. Neither the emperors nor the generals who dominated them succeeded in breaking this vicious circle.

As a high-ranking senator Petronius Maximus was first in the chaos after the death of Valentinian III. (April 16, 455) Emperor. Perhaps he can be seen as a representative of the former followers of Aëtius. He tried to legitimize his empire dynastically, by marrying into the Theodosian dynasty, and to make an alliance with the Visigoths, but quickly succumbed to his internal and external enemies. While fleeing from another vandal raid in Rome , Petronius was slain by the urban population of Rome on May 31st. The Vandals robbed a daughter of Valentinian III, who - as agreed in 442 - was married to Geiseric's son, and in the years after their move to Rome in 455 they conquered the rest of North Africa, Sicily, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, which ended the Roman maritime sovereignty in the Mediterranean , and devastated the coasts. Geiserich continued to intervene repeatedly in the power struggles in West Rome and from then on repeatedly demanded the elevation of Senator Olybrius to emperor; he was the brother-in-law of his new daughter-in-law. A victory over Geiseric's vandals and the recovery of rich North Africa finally became a question of survival for the Western Roman government.

Petronius Maximus was succeeded on July 9 or 10, 455 by the Gallo-Roman Eparchius Avitus to the imperial throne. Under Aëtius he had held high civil and military posts and had been active as an ambassador between Rome and the Visigoths, but now had to resolve problems with Markian , the energetic Eastern Roman ruler, and in particular to keep the army master Ricimer calm: the general was second from Avitus magister militum per Italiam (the first magister militum was the Visigoth Remistus) and quickly developed into the true ruler of Western Rome. Avitus tried to rely on the Goths and the Gallic aristocracy, but failed: after he had used up his fortune and could no longer finance the troops, he was overthrown in 456 by Ricimer, who headed the Italian senators and soldiers who perhaps felt neglected by the "Gauls" Avitus. The fact that he had never been recognized by his imperial colleague Markian as the legitimate Augustus of the West had further weakened his position.

After several non-warlike civilians on the throne, an attempt was made in the opposite direction: The energetic General Majorian , previously Ricimer's colleague as the new second magister militum in Italy, was proclaimed ruler by the troops on April 1, 457; Soon recognized by Ostrom, he tried to maintain a good relationship with the Senate and remained emperor for almost four years. He tried to stabilize his position through military services. After the years of decline of the central government, he actually succeeded in regaining control over Italy and large parts of Gaul temporarily; the Visigoths and Burgundies were at least temporarily immobilized. Majorian was also able to pacify parts of Hispania - for a long time the first and at the same time the last western emperor to lead an army himself. Domestically, it was possible to get the Senate on its side for the time being through more concessions and the people through an improved economic policy; in the city of Rome renovations were carried out on public buildings. However , he was not recognized as emperor by Pope Leo because, from the point of view of the Church, he was too tolerant of heretics (especially those Christians who did not recognize the Council of Chalcedon ). After a punitive expedition against the Vandals 460 had already failed in the beginning and he had withdrawn to Gaul, Majorian was overthrown by Ricimer on his way to Rome in early August 461 and executed shortly afterwards. However, as an Arian (follower of a non-Orthodox Christian faith group) and a non-Roman, Ricimer was apparently unable to take over the rule himself. The decisive factor, however, was that the increasingly powerless empire of the West, which was limited in its ability to act, was now only of limited appeal to energetic men like him: the position of the strong man behind the throne was now more attractive.

Ricimer's main concern was the defense of Italy; in the rest of the western empire he evidently had only a secondary interest; this may also have been the reason for the break with Majorian and the subsequent military coup . At Ricimer's instigation, after an interregnum in November 461, Senator Libius Severus became the new emperor of West Rome, as the overpowering general believed he could not do without an Augustus in the long run. However, this was not recognized by Ostrom and therefore formally remained a usurper . Under his reign, the vandal looting of the west coast of Italy began again and the situation became increasingly critical. Meanwhile, the army master of Gaul, Aegidius , a friend of Majorian's, had risen against Ricimer and the government in Ravenna and in northern Gaul, based on the remains of the Rhine army, established a Gallo-Roman special empire that was to last until 486. He should not be the only late Roman " warlord " who benefited from the collapse of central power.

After four years, Libius Severus died in 465 (allegedly poisoned by Ricimer). In 467, after a two-year vacancy from the throne, during which the emperor in Constantinople also formally ruled over the West, the Eastern Roman aristocrat and military man Anthemius took his place . This was provided with money and troops by the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I ; he is generally considered to be the last really capable and energetic ruler of West Rome. Ricimer and Anthemius pursued the restoration of imperial rule over the Vandals to secure Italy as an urgent goal. The fleet of the Roman general Basiliscus recorded some initial successes. In 468 there was a large naval expedition in which Eastern Roman and Western Roman troops fought together against the Vandals. But surprisingly the vandals defeated Basiliscus off the African coast. Now Anthemius tried his luck in Hispania. But the campaign against the Visigoths, who had broken the treaty of 418 under their king Eurich (II) and had conquered further territories since 469, was unsuccessful and ultimately led to a break between the emperor and Ricimer. These last military efforts had severely strained the financial and military possibilities of West Rome. Hispania was now lost. Ostrom had also put a large part of his treasury into the naval expedition against Geiseric's vandals and could no longer help the West. Finally, a civil war broke out over the conflicts between Ricimer and the emperor, who did not want to be just a puppet of his army master. The church stood on the side of the army master, because Anthemius had fallen out of favor with the Roman bishop due to a tolerant religious policy.

Ricimer won, and Anthemius was executed in 472; but the mighty army master died only a little later. Since the Visigoths no longer came into question as allies, the old demand of Geiseric was given in and Senator Anicius Olybrius , who came from a noble family, was made the new emperor. But he did not have a full year of reign behind him: after his accession to the throne in the spring of 472, he died of an illness just seven months later. Ricimer's successor as commander-in-chief of the Italian army, which now almost exclusively consisted of foederati , was meanwhile succeeded by his nephew Gundobad . As emperor followed Olybrius Glycerius , who only ruled from 473 to 474 and was probably not recognized by the eastern part. Under him, East and West Rome made a peace with the Vandals, while the Visigoths conquered most of what is now Provence and finally renounced imperial suzerainty. At the same time, Glycerius was able to defend Italy against a Visigoth attack.

Julius Nepos

In the year 474 Glycerius was deposed and replaced by the Eastern Roman military leader Julius Nepos , who had been sent with troops to the west. Gundobad left Italy and became the leader of the Burgundian Warrior Association. Julius Nepos initially wanted to resolve the conflict with the Visigoths diplomatically. The success was moderate. In the meantime the Vandals had brought the entire western Mediterranean under their control, but remained silent for the time being after they had concluded a foedus with the Eastern Emperor in 474 and thus legalized their position. Finally, the tide turned against Julius Nepos in Rome: his patricius Flavius ​​Orestes , who could claim to have been secretary to Attila , king of the Huns , drove him out of office in August 475 and put him out of office, although he could have become emperor himself , preferred his son Romulus Augustus to the throne as a straw man - that is how unattractive the western empire had become for power-conscious men. Nepos was able to stay in the province of Dalmatia until 480, when he was murdered there - presumably at the instigation of Odoacer , but perhaps also at the instigation of Glycerius, who had become bishop after his fall.

Julius Nepos was the last Western Roman emperor whose rule was also recognized by the East.

Romulus Augustus ("Romulus Augustulus") and Odoacer

Romulus Augustus , who was only about 10 years old when he took office (according to other sources: 17 years) and was therefore given the nickname “Romulus Augustulus” (“little Augustus”, “little emperor”), is considered the last Western Roman emperor, if Julius Nepos also remained the last ruler recognized by Ostrom until his death in 480. Romulus had apparently been accepted as emperor of the west by Basiliscus, the hapless admiral of the vandal expedition, who usurped the Eastern Roman throne for a few months in 475/76, but as Romulus in autumn 476 by Odoacer , the commander of the last imperial army in Italy, was deposed, the rightful Eastern Emperor Zenon was back on the throne. Odoacer had not been able to come to an agreement with Orestes about the provision of his men, whereupon he rebelled and remained victorious in the short civil war that followed. Formally, Odoacer initially recognized Nepos, but refused to allow him to return to Italy.

Odovacar Ravenna 477 (obverse) .jpg

Romulus Augustulus (left) was deposed by Odoacer (right) in 476 .

Unlike his predecessors, Odoacer did not appoint another “ shadow emperor”, but instead sent a senatorial embassy to Emperor Zenon in Constantinople , declared that a single Roman emperor would suffice for the entire empire and formally submitted to its sovereignty; so he could rule almost independently as rex Italiae ("King of Italy"). Zenon pointed out that Italy was subordinate to Julius Nepos, but admitted Odoacer to the address patricius , which in fact made him head of the Western Roman government, and otherwise did nothing. Odoacer refused to bring Nepos to Ravenna, but sought an agreement with the Senate and ruled the rump of the western empire in the tradition of Ricimer.

As in Gaul, a longer development in Italy had come to an end, in which more and more power had shifted from the emperor and civil administration to the generals, whose position had now become hereditary and who now faced their mostly non-Roman soldiers as active while they mostly presented themselves to the church and the remnants of the Roman administration pro forma as imperial representatives. The ethnic origin of these warlords , who constantly waged civil wars against each other, was of secondary importance - structurally, the Frankish rex Childerich I could hardly have differed from Orestes or the rex Romanorum Syagrius . Westrom was not overrun and destroyed by "barbarians". Rather, it fell victim to a process of political disintegration. Since the early 5th century at the latest, the influence of the high military in the western empire increased to such an extent that the army masters now wielded true power. In addition to the military, important provinces (above all Africa , but soon afterwards large parts of Hispania and Gaul) also slipped away from imperial control. In the meantime, other military leaders or leaders of various gentes acted as warlords on their own account and thus profited from the political erosion in the western empire.

The last few years of West Rome were accompanied and overlaid by religious disputes. So Leo the Great and his successor Hilarus were in conflict with the Arians , who, in Ricimer, had the most powerful man in Western Rome on their side. Simplicius mainly disputed monophysitism in the Eastern Roman Church, which is why the Popes were skeptical to hostile towards emperors such as Anthemius and Julius Nepos, who came from the East, which further weakened their position. This development, which led to ever further alienation from East and West, continued after 476: With the ban on the followers of the Henotikon , which the Eastern Roman emperor had decreed, Felix II triggered the Akakian schism in 484 , which also led to it political cohesion between West and East was further weakened. In addition, he fundamentally argued with the Eastern Roman emperor about influence in the church. His successor Gelasius I finally formulated the two-sword doctrine in this context in 496 , which founded the theory of the separation of state and church and was to have a great impact in the Middle Ages.

Odoacer's sphere of influence in 480.

Follow-up: The West to 568

From the point of view of some researchers (e.g. Henning Börm , Christian Witschel , Jonathan Arnold), the Western Roman Empire did not end with the end of the Empire, because the Western Roman court and the Senate continued to exist, and the Roman administration functioned at least in its core Italy further. Odoacer saw his rule entirely in the tradition of the Roman Empire; He continued the tradition of a Ricimer and was eventually officially awarded the title of patricius by the Eastern Emperor , and thus at least from his point of view also the position of an imperial “governor”. Until 480 Odoacer also had coins minted in the name of the emperor Julius Nepos , who at least ruled the Roman province of Dalmatia , as Ostrom had pointed out in 476 that Nepos was the emperor “responsible” for Italy. Towards the end of his reign Odoaker was then, however, to 490 his son Thela to Caesar exclaim after Konstantin Opel recognition was withdrawn.

The Western Roman Empire was in fact extinguished in 476/80, as the Eastern Roman chronicler Marcellinus Comes was the first to write down around 520 . Overall, however, the events of the year 476 initially received hardly any attention, because in practice very little changed for the people: After all, there was still a Roman emperor in Constantinople, to whom Odoacer had also subordinated himself. The Roman Empire consequently continued to exist formally in the West. There had already been vacancies to the throne there, so that the deposition of Romulus hardly caused a stir. And until well into the 6th century, the Germanic rulers of the west then generally respected the imperial privilege of minting gold coins, and therefore put the portrait of the respective Eastern Roman Augustus on their solidi .

Assumed sphere of influence of Syagrius ; the expansion is uncertain and in this way probably exaggerated

In the area around Paris - wedged between Visigoths and Franks and cut off from the rest of the empire - the Roman governor Syagrius , son of the army master Aegidius , was able to assert himself as rex Romanorum with a larger domain until 486 ; After the conquest of his territory by the Merovingians , he was handed over by the Visigoths to the Frankish king Clovis I and executed by him around the year 486/87.

Large parts of the former Western Roman Empire were ruled by Vandals, Franks and Visigoths at the end of the 5th century, who pushed into the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman central government . The Italian peninsula and the Alpine region remained under the rule of Odoacer until the Eastern Gothic rex and Eastern Roman magister militum Theodoric the Great (formally on behalf of the emperor) invaded Italy in 489 and established Gothic rule there in 493. In 498 Emperor Anastasius sent the insignia of the Western Empire, which Odoacer had sent to Constantinople in 476, to Theodoric. Possibly this was an invitation to the Goths to raise a new Augustus for Italy, but Theodoric did not comply with this request.

The character of the Ostrogoth Empire is disputed in scholarship; Some historians see in it another post-Roman regnum , similar to the empires of the Vandals and Visigoths, while others see it as a direct continuation of Western Rome. De iure, the western areas were in any case still subject to the suzerainty of Constantinople. The western Roman senate continued, and the senators actually served the Germanic kings, but at the same time still referred to the emperor as dominus noster ("our lord"). In 519 the schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople ended, and under the Eastern Roman ruler Justinian between 533 and 553 large parts of the former Western Roman Empire (North Africa, Italy, southern Spain) were once again militarily subjugated to the emperor. The plan to raise the army master Belisarius 540 to the new Western Roman Augustus failed due to Justinian's veto. In 554 the emperor dissolved the western Roman court in Ravenna through a constitutio pragmatica , and a few years after the reconquest of Italy by the imperial troops, most of the peninsula fell to the Lombards in 568 , which, according to many historians, marked the end of late ancient Italy.

In the 7th century at the latest, the formal sovereignty of the Eastern Roman emperor in the area of ​​the former Western Empire finally expired after Emperor Maurikios had planned a renewal of the Western Roman Empire in 597, as he wanted to appoint his second oldest son Tiberios in his will as iunior Augustus residing in Rome - but the regulation never came into force. The attempt of the Emperor Konstans II to shift the center of gravity of the Roman Empire back to the west failed after a short time in the 660s. It was only Charlemagne who then renewed the empire of the West in 800 - but under completely different conditions.

Impact on the city of Rome

The decline of the Western Roman Empire was also noticeable in the city of Rome: The city, in which more than 1 million people had lived around 250 AD, slowly shrank to around 650,000 after the fact that it was no longer an imperial residence and due to competition from Constantinople Inhabitants around the year 400. While Rome seems to have recovered quickly from the sack of the Visigoths in 410, the loss of North Africa to the Vandals after 429 meant that the city's grain supply came to a standstill. The population decline began to accelerate. The two-week pillage by the Vandals 455 reduced the prosperity considerably, and 472 the fighting between Anthemius and Ricimer and an epidemic further decimated the population. Nevertheless, according to contemporary reports, Rome was also considered a culturally and politically important metropolis in the 5th century. Senators and members of the imperial family often stayed in Rome despite the relocation of their residence to Ravenna, and some emperors (such as Valentinian III or Anthemius ) resided in the city. At the beginning of the 5th century and after 439, the city expanded again with the influx of new settlers from Gaul and Africa . Around 470 Rome was still described as an important city with large buildings and a lively theater scene. The Colosseum was used until at least 523, large thermal baths until 535; Chariot races in the Circus Maximus are last recorded in 550 during the reign of the Ostrogoth Totila . Archaeologically it can be shown that at this time attempts were still made to stop the decline of public buildings and renovations were carried out.

Around 534 the city should still have around 100,000 inhabitants. Then the war of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I against the Ostrogoths marked the real turning point in the city's history: Between 535 and 549 Rome was besieged several times, the vital aqueducts destroyed and a large number of the senators deported or killed. The last blow to the ancient structures of Italy was the incursion of the Lombards in 568, although Rome itself was not conquered. The Western Roman Senate disappeared soon after (around 590). In the Middle Ages only a maximum of 20,000 people lived in the city. In the Roman Forum , the last ancient monument of which, the Phocas Column , was erected in 608, agriculture was finally practiced. Ancient buildings served as quarries or were misappropriated through conversions on a low level.

The decline of the Western Roman Empire and the city of Rome went hand in hand with the rise of the Church. The influence of the Bishop of Rome had grown steadily since the 5th century . In the later 6th century he increasingly took the place of the decaying secular authorities in the city, and since Gregory the Great at the latest , the bishop, now as Pope , more or less acted as city lord of Rome. As the bishop of the caput mundi , he then claimed suzerainty over Christianity in succession to the emperors .

List of Western Roman emperors

Surname Full name Reign Remarks
Honorius Flavius ​​Honorius 395-423 Co-emperor of Theodosius I and Arcadius since 393 (against Eugenius ); Regent: Stilicho (up to 408)
  Gildo unknown 397-398 Usurper (?) In Africa
  Marcus unknown 406 Usurper in Britain
  Gratian unknown 407 Usurper in Britain
Constantine (III.) Flavius ​​Claudius Constantinus 407-411 Counter-emperor in Gaul, Hispania and Britain (nominally co-emperor of Honorius in 409), from 409/10 with Constans (II., Caesar from 408) ; Caesar: Julian (from 409/10)
  Priscus Attalus unknown 409-410
Counter-emperor in Italy (through Alaric ) and southern Gaul (through Athaulf )
  Maximus unknown 409 / 10-411
418 / 19-420 / 21
Counter-Emperor in Hispania (by Gerontius or Gunderich )
  Jovinus unknown 411-413 Counter-emperor in Gaul (through Gundahar and Goar ), from 412 with Sebastianus
  Heraclianus unknown 412-413 Usurper (?) In Africa
Constantius III. Flavius ​​Constantius 421 Co-emperor of Honorius (co-regent since 417), not recognized by Theodosius II
John unknown 423-425 by Castinus (?), not recognized by Theodosius II
Valentinian III. Flavius ​​Placid (i) us Valentinianus 425-455 Caesar under Theodosius II since 424 (against John); Regents: Galla Placidia (to 437), Aëtius (435–454); recognized Geiserich and Rechiar as regents in Africa and Hispania
  Vortigern unknown 426-441? Usurper (?) In Britain; Successor: Ambrosius Aurelianus
  Pirrus unknown 428 Usurper (?) In Italy
  Tibatto unknown 435-437 Usurper (?) In Gaul
  Basil unknown 448-454? Usurper (?) In Hispania (by Rechiar?)
Petronius Maximus Flavius ​​Petronius Maximus 455 not recognized by Markian ; Caesar: Palladius
Avitus Flavius ​​Eparchius Avitus 455-456 by Theodoric II , not recognized by Markian (?)
Majorian Flavius ​​Iulius Valerius Maiorianus 457-461 by Ricimer (?), 457 nominally Caesar (?) under Leo I.
  Marcellus unknown 457? Usurper (?) In Gaul
Libius Severus Flavius ​​Libius Severus 461-465 by Ricimer, not recognized by Leo I. (?)
  Aegidius unknown 461-464 / 65 Usurper (?) In Gaul; Successors: Paulus (469?), Syagrius (until 486/87)
Anthemius Flavius ​​Procopius Anthemius 467-472 467 Caesar under Leo I; Co-regent: Ricimer (until 470/71)
  Arvandus unknown 468 Usurper (?) In Gaul (by Eurich )
  Romanus unknown 470 Usurper (?) In Italy (by Ricimer?)
Olybrius Flavius ​​Anicius Olybrius 472 by Ricimer (and Geiserich?), against Anthemius, not recognized by Leo I. (?)
Glycerius unknown 473-474 by Gundobad , not recognized by Leo I.
Julius Nepos Flavius ​​Iulius Nepos 474-480 474 Caesar (?) Under Leo II and Zenon (against Glycerius), exile from 475 in Dalmatia; recognized Eurich as regent in southern Gaul and Spain
Romulus Augustulus Romulus A (u) gustus 475-476 Counter-emperor in Italy (through Orestes ), deposed by Odoacer


colour meaning
Under-emperor or co-regent
Counter-emperor or usurper


  • Roger C. Blockley : The fragmentary classicizing historians of the later Roman Empire. Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchus (= Arca. 6 and 10). 2 volumes. Cairns, Liverpool 1981-1983, ISBN 0-905205-07-3 .


Compare also the references in the article Late Antiquity .

Overview representations

  • Henning Börm : Westrom. From Honorius to Justinian. Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-17-023276-1 ; 2nd edition, Stuttgart 2018 (current presentation that blames civil wars instead of external attacks for the disintegration of Western Rome).
  • Averil Cameron et al. (Ed.): The Cambridge Ancient History . 2nd, redesigned edition. Vol. 13 and 14, Cambridge 1998–2000 (excellent overview of late antiquity with extensive bibliography).
  • Neil Christie: The Fall of the Western Roman Empire , London 2011, ISBN 978-0-340-75966-0 .
  • Alexander Demandt : Late Antiquity . 2nd, extended edition, Munich 2007 (detailed and easily legible representation, which does not always reflect the current state of research).
  • Adrian Goldsworthy : The Fall of the West , London 2009 (popular science presentation).
  • Guy Halsall : Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 , Cambridge 2007, ISBN 978-0-521-43543-7 (material- rich manual that is in many respects an alternative to Heather (see below)).
  • Peter J. Heather : Der Untergang des Römischen Weltreichs , Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-608-94082-4 (detailed, but controversial description of the fall of the Western Rome for a broader audience, especially useful in terms of military history; Heather considers external attacks for the reason for the events).

Special studies

  • Henning Börm: The Western Roman Empire after 476 . In: Henning Börm, Norbert Ehrhardt , Josef Wiesehöfer (eds.): Monumentum et instrumentum inscriptum. Inscribed objects from the imperial era and late antiquity as historical evidence. Festschrift for Peter Weiß on his 65th birthday. Steiner, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-515-09239-5 , pp. 47-69.
  • Chris Doyle: Honorius. The Fight for the Roman West AD 395-423. Routledge, London / New York 2019, ISBN 978-1138190887 .
  • Andreas Goltz: Marcellinus Comes and the "end" of the Western Roman Empire in 476 . In: Dariusz Brodka et al. (Ed.): Continuity and Change. Studies in Late Antique Historiography (= Electrum 13). Krakau 2007, pp. 39-59.
  • Dirk Henning: Periclitans res Publica: Empire and Elites in the Crisis of the Western Roman Empire, 454 / 55–493. Stuttgart 1999 ( review by Andreas Goltz at H-Soz-Kult ).
  • John F. Matthews: Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court, AD 364-425. Oxford 1975.
  • Meaghan A. McEvoy: Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455. Oxford 2013.
  • Marinus Antony Wes: The end of the empire in the west of the Roman Empire. The Hague 1967.
  • Hans-Ulrich Wiemer (Ed.): Theodoric the Great and the Gothic Kingdom in Italy (= writings of the Historical College. Colloquia , Vol. 102). De Gruyter / Oldenbourg, Berlin / Boston 2020, ISBN 978-3-11-065820-0 .


  1. ^ "Hesperium Romanae gentis imperium" (Marc. Com. Ad ann. 476).
  2. Eunapios , Historien , Fragment 85 (Blockley).
  3. Chris Wickham : The Inheritance of Rome. A History of Europe form 400 to 1000 . Penguin Books, London 2009, ISBN 978-0-7139-9429-2 , pp. 78 .
  4. Gildas 27.
  5. See in detail on this phase Dirk Henning: Periclitans res publica. Stuttgart 1999. Henning Börm : Westrom offers a comprehensive presentation . From Honorius to Justinian. Stuttgart 2013, p. 94 ff.
  6. ^ So Henning Börm: Westrom. From Honorius to Justinian. Stuttgart 2013, p. 94 ff.
  7. See Henning Börm: Rulers and elites in late antiquity. In: Josef Wiesehöfer et al. (Ed.): Commutatio et contentio. Studies in the Late Roman, Sasanian, and early Islamic Near East. Düsseldorf 2010, pp. 159–198.
  8. ^ Friedrich Anders: Flavius ​​Ricimer. Power and impotence of the Western Roman army master in the second half of the 5th century. Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2010, ISBN 978-3-631-61264-4 , p. 506.
  9. Penny MacGeorge: Late Roman Warlords. Oxford et al. 2002.
  10. ^ John M. O'Flynn, A Greek on the Roman throne: the fate of Anthemius . In: Historia 40, 1991, pp. 122-128.
  11. Cf. Christian Witschel : Imperium im Wandel. The end of the Roman Empire in the judgment of modern history . In: Praxis Geschichte 1/2014, pp. 4–11; Jonathan Jonathan Arnold: Theoderic and Roman Imperial Restoration . Cambridge 2014, p. 25ff.
  12. See Henning Börm: The Western Roman Empire after 476 . In: Henning Börm, Norbert Ehrhardt , Josef Wiesehöfer (eds.): Monumentum et instrumentum inscriptum. Inscribed objects from the imperial era and late antiquity as historical evidence. Festschrift for Peter Weiß on his 65th birthday. Steiner, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-515-09239-5 , p. 47ff.
  13. See Börm, Das Weströmische Kaisertum nach 476 , pp. 47–69.