Today In Church History: September 4


476 The Fall of the Roman Empire in the West

Though Rome was sacked in 410 by a Visigothic horde and again in 451 by a Vandal fleet, the empire in the West itself continued to exist, though in a much weakened condition. An emperor ruled, at least on paper, from Ravenna on the northeast Italian coast. Real power was in the hands of the generals, many of them of Germanic descent, in charge of the few Roman armies left in the field and of the barbarian chieftains whose tribes had overrun most of the West. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts, Scots, Alemanni, Burgundians, etc., had all carved off pieces of the empire.

In 475 a teenager by the name of Romulus Augustulus had been set up as Western Emperor by one of his generals but he exercised no real power. The next year an army of Ostrogoths led by Odoacer finished its conquest of the Italian peninsula by taking Ravenna. Romulus was forced to hand over the imperial regalia — crown, orb and scepter — to his barbarian conqueror but his life was spared. The position of emperor had fallen so low that the incumbent was not even worth killing; the boy was simply sent on his way with a pension to console him. Odoacer never bothered to claim the throne either, pretending to rule Italy on behalf of Zeno, the emperor in Constantinople to whom he sent the regalia. Zeno then declared the division of the empire at an end; henceforth until 1453 the Roman Empire was ruled from Constantinople.

Italians could not have been too unhappy or dismayed by those events. Peace was restored and taxes continued to be collected. One vexatious point was that the Ostrogoths were Arian (non-trinitarian Christians) with their own hierarchy of bishops ruling over a largely Trinitarian (Catholic, Chalcedonian, Nicene; take your pick) population. Toleration was usually the order of the day — for the Gothic rulers Arianism was a tribal badge — but Catholic bishops often had to struggle to keep their church buildings. The Ostrogoths built a number of beautiful churches in Ravenna, especially the Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, with its gorgeous mosaics. (Arians in North Africa were much less accommodating and genuine persecution took place there.)