The Fall of The Western Roman Empire (476 AD)

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which the Empire failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities.

"Destruction", a painting by the English painter Thomas Cole, depicting the fall of the Roman Empire.
“Destruction”, a painting by the English painter Thomas Cole, depicting the fall of the Roman Empire.

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The Late Roman Empire Architecture

The First Roman Empire (ca. 0-200), also known as Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”), was the most prosperous and stable age of Roman history. The masterpieces of Roman architecture mainly date back to this period. However, the Late Roman Empire (ca. 200-500) had its share of magnificent buildings and is of particular interest as a transition phase to the Middle Ages.

With the decline of patronage, the economy, and the population there were fewer architects and engineers with skill or experience. Over time much of this knowledge was lost and would not have been rediscovered in the West until the High Middle Ages and thereafter.

Bust of Trajan, found in Salona (Solin, Croatia), ca. 108 AD, of the so-called “Decennalia type”, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria
Bust of Trajan, found in Salona (Solin, Croatia), ca. 108 AD, of the so-called “Decennalia type”, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria

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La colonna Traiana
Trajan’s column

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Trajan's column - National Museum of Romanian History
Trajan’s column – Roman triumphal column in Rome, Italy- National Museum of Romanian History

Image source: by Jorge Lascar

The Architectural Landmarks of the Falling Empire

Overall Western Roman architecture peaked in the early Principate to the mid-Dominate (a period spanning roughly 40sBC-300sAD). This saw the construction of famous buildings and landmarks like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Trajan’s Forum and Column, and countless others.

The Flavian Amphitheater, more commonly known as the Colosseum, was built by Emperors Vespasian and Titus of the Flavian Dynasty in the early Imperial period while Trajan’s Forum, with his famous column, was built at the height of the Roman Empire right before its fall.

Finally, the Arch of Constantine was built during the very late Empire. It looks impressive enough, but many of its details were actually taken off older landmarks and cobbled back together on the Arch because artists and engineers simply didn’t have the same expertise as their earlier counterparts.

The Arch of Constantine, in Rome. One of the last Architectural landmarks of the West Roman Empire.

Image source: by User:Alexander Z.


The Baths of Caracalla

The most ambitious building project of the Late Empire was the Baths of Caracalla. Baths were a standard feature of Roman cities, while the Baths of Caracalla were large and luxurious. In addition to the actual baths, the complex included exercise roomsswimming poolsclassrooms, and libraries. The interior was richly decorated with frescoes, sculptures, mosaics, and stuccos.

Terme di Caracalla
Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.

Image source:  by teldridge+keldridge


How It Began

The Irreversible great territorial loss began in 376 with a large-scale raid by Goths and other tribes. Other barbarian groups crossed the Rhine and other frontiers of the empire, and finally, the invading army reached the outskirts of Rome, left undefended. In 410 C.E., the Visigoths, led by Alaric, breached the walls of Rome and sacked and burned the capital of the Roman Empire.

For the first time in nearly a millennium, the city of Rome was in the hands of someone other than the Romans.

File:Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 by JN Sylvestre 1890.jpg
Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410, by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890 CE. Musée Paul Valéry.

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The Causes Behind the Fall

In September 476 AD, the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by a Germanic prince named Odovacar, who had gained control of the remnants of the Roman army of Italy.

The Roman Empire had lost its strength, modern historians mention factors including the effectiveness and number of the army, the health, and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperors, internal struggles for power, the religious changes, and the efficiency of the civil administration. The growing pressure of the invading barbarians also contributed greatly to the collapse.

Map of Europe, with colored lines denoting migration routes
Routes followed by the barbarian tribes. Basic view of second- to fifth-century migrations (see also map of the world in 820)

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The Historical Relevance

For many commentators, the fall of Rome marked the death knell of education and literacy, sophisticated architecture, advanced economic interaction and, the written rule of law.

The ‘dark ages’ that followed were dark both because of the written sources that were few and far between, but because life became ugly, brutal, and short.

However, other commentators saw the ‘dark ages’ as a more necessary evil – Rome had to fall to destroy slavery on a large scale and make possible a world that valued all human beings more fairly.

In both cases, the end of the Empire was nevertheless an important event in human history.

Room of Heliodorus - The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila
Meeting Between Leo the Great and Attila the Hun, Raphael (1514).

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