The last emperors  


Romulus Augustule
Romulus Augustule

From the death of Constantine, the state of the empire grew desperate; no wisdom could obviate its decline, no courage oppose the evils that surrounded it on every side.

The Gothic chiefs led a courageous people to the conquest of nations corrupted by vice and enervated by luxury.
They had been increasing in their hideous deserts, amidst regions frightful with eternal snows. The emperors who had to contend with this people had no courage. Their residence in Asia enervated their manners, and produced a desire in them to be adored like the monarchs of the East.

Constantius, who reigned thirty eight years, was weak, and timid, and unsuccessful; governed by his eunuchs and his wives, and unfit to prop the falling empire. Julian, his successor, surnamed the apostate upon account of his relapsing into Paganism, was a very good and valiant prince. He, by his wisdom, chased the barbarians, who had taken fifty towns upon the Rhine, out of their new settlements; and his name was a terror to them during his reign, which lasted but two years.

Jovian and Valentinian had virtue and strength sufficient to preserve the empire from immediately falling under its enemies. Valentinian's life was employed in fortifying the banks of the Rhine, making levies and raising castles; but an event that no human prudence could foresee, brought a new enemy to assist in the general destruction.

That tract of land which lies between the Palus Maeotis, the mountains of Caucasus and the Caspian sea, was inhahited by a savage people which went by the name of the Huns and Alani. Their soil was fertile, and the inhabitants fond of plunder and robbery. As they imagined it impracticable to cross the Palus Maeotis, they were unacquainted with the Romans, so that they remained confined within the limits which their ignorance had designed them, while other nations plundered with security.

It had been the opinion of some, that the slime which was rolled down by the current of the Tanais, had by degrees formed a kind of incrustation on the surface of the Cimmerian Bosphorus, over which those people passed. Others relate, that two young Scythians being in pursuit of an heifer, the terrified creature swam over an arm of the sea, and the youths immediately following her, found themselves in a new world on the opposite shore. At their return they related the wonders of the strange lands and countries, which they had discovered. Upon their information an innumerable body of the Huns passed those straits; and meeting first with the Goths, made that people fly before them.

The Goths presented themselves on the banks of the Danube, and entreated the Romans to allow them a place of refuge. This they easily obtained from Valens, who assigned them several portions of land in Thrace, but left them destitute of all needful supplies. Stimulated by hunger and resentment, they soon after rose against their protectors; and in a dreadful engagement, which was fought near Adrianople, they destroyed Valens, and the greater part of his army.

Thus the empire sunk gradually under the weight of attacks made upon it on every side. Their devastations were at first limited to Thrace, Mysia, and Pannonia; but when these countries were ruined, they destroyed Macedonia, Thessaly, Greece and Norcium. The empire was continually sinking, and Italy became the frontier of its own dominions.

The valor and conduct of Theodosius, in some measure retarded the destruction that had begun in the time of Valens; but upon his death the enemy became irresistible. A large body of the Goths had been called in to assist the regular forces of the empire, under the command of Alaric, their king; this was a fatal step.

This Gothic prince, who is represented as brave, impetuous, and enterprising, peceiving the weakness of the state, put himself at the head of his barbarous forces, and declared war against his employers. He fought the armies of the empire for some years with success, and at length passed the Alps, and poured down like a torrent among the fruitful valleys of Italy.

The timid inhabitants beheld with terror a dreadful enemy ravaging their country, while their wretched emperor, Honorius, who was then in Ravenna, only seemed resolved to keep up his dignity, and to refuse any accommodation. But the inhabitants of Rome felt the calamities of the times with double aggravation.

This great city that had long sat mistress of the world, now saw itself besieged by an army of fierce and terrible barbarians; and being crowded with inhabitants, it was reduced, by the extremities of pestilence and famine, to a most deplorable situation. In this extremity the senate despatched their ambassadors to Alaric, desiring him either to grant them peace upon reasonable terms, or to give them leave to fight with him in the open field.

To this message the Gothic monarch only replied with laughter, that "thick grass was more easily cut than thin;" implying that their troops, when cooped up within the narrow compass of the city, would be more easily overcome than when drawn out in order of battle.

When they came to debate about a peace, he demanded all their riches and all their slaves. He was asked, "what then he would leave them" : he sternly replied, "their lives." These were hard conditions for such a proud city to accept : but compelled by necessity, they raised an immense treasure, both by taxation and stripping the heathen temples, and bought off their fierce invaders.

This, however, was but a temporary removal of the calamity; for Alaric now finding that he might become master of Rome, returned with his army and took it. Thus that city, which for ages had plundered the rest of the world, and enriched herself with the spoils of mankind, now felt the sad reverse of fortune. The soldiers had free liberty to pillage all places except the Christian churches.

In the midst of this horrible desolation, so great was the reverence of these barbarians for our holy religion, that the pagan Romans found safety in applying to those of the Christian persuasion for protection. This dreadful devastation continued for three days; and precious monuments, both of art and learning, sunk under the fury of the conquerors.

What Alaric, therefore, spared, Genseric, king of the Vandals, not long after, contributed to destroy; his merciless soldiers, for fourteen days together, ravaged the city with implacable fury. Neither private dwellings, nor public buildings, neither sex, nor age, nor religion, were the least protection against their lust or avarice.

The capital of the empire being thus ransacked several times, and Italy overrun by barbarous invaders, from the remotest skirts of Europe, the western emperors, for some time, continued to hold the title without the power of royalty.

Honorius lived till he saw himself stripped of the greater part of his dominions, his capital taken by the Goths, the Huns in possession of Pannonia, the Alani, Suevi, and Vandals established in Spain; and the Burgundians settled in Gaul, where the Goths also fixed themselves at last. The inhabitants of Rome also, being abandoned by their princes, feebly attempted to take the supreme power into their own hands.

But the power of the state was entirely broken, and those who assumed the title of emperors only encountered certain destruction. The very name of Emperor of the West, expired upon the abdication of Augustulus; and Odoacer, general of the Seeruli, assumed the title of king of all Italy.

Such was the end of this great empire, that had conquered mankind with its arms, and instructed the world with its wisdom; that had risen by temperance, and fell by luxury; that had been established by a spirit of patriotism, and sunk into ruin when the empire was become so extensive, that a Roman citizen was but an empty name.

Its final dissolution happened about five hundred and twentytwo years after the battle of Pharsalia, an hundied and fortysix after the removal of the imperial seat to Constantinople, and four hundred and seventy-six.

Previous page                                                                         top of page