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Ethnicities and the Fall of Rome

Bishop Eusebius saw god-induced harmony under Constantine's rule, and he believed that this harmony would continue with rule by Constantine's three co-emperor sons. But the sons quarreled. The eldest son, Constantine II, claimed authority over his two brothers, who were unwilling to submit. One of the brothers, Constans, defeated the eldest, and the eldest died. Constans was killed by a rebel military commander. The surviving son, Constantius, ruled over the entire empire, and to consolidate his rule he had members of his army murder possible rivals within his family: half-brothers and others.

Constantius (to be known to historians as Constantius II) attempted to extend his victories into the realm of religion. Unlike his deceased brothers and some others in his family, Constantius held to the Arian version of Christianity rather than the Trinity version. Believing that he was advancing the cause of Christianity, he exiled numerous Trinity-believing bishops. And, to advance the cause of Christianity, he banned the ritual sacrifices of pagans, making participation in such rituals a capital offense. Mobs of zealous Christians followed the lead of Constantius by invading pagan temples and overturning alters. Pagans were offended, and across the empire they responded with bitterness and rioting.

Constantius had chosen to rear a five-year-old nephew name Julian, orphaned by the killings within his extended family. As Julian grew into teenhood he became oppressed by Christian strictness and the earnestness with which his guardians espoused Christianity. He became bookish and acquired a love for Hellenistic culture. Christian bishops were proud of their Greek learning. Julian was allowed to further his Hellenist education, and secretly he became a neo-Platonist – a pagan philosophy – while continuing an outward appearance of Christian devotion.

When Julian was twenty-three, Constantius sent him to Gaul at the head of an army. And in 357 at the Rhine River at Strasbourg, Julian and his army succeeded in expelling Germanic intruders into the empire: the Franks and Alamanni. Constantius became jealous of the glory won by Julian. He kept Julian and his army short of funds and kept him under surveillance. In 360 in Lutetia (Paris) Julian's soldiers acclaimed him emperor. Constantius died of fever in 361. Julian became the last of Rome's non-Christian emperors. He began his rule with an acceptance of other faiths. he rescinded a law that forbade marriage between Jews and Christians. He rescinded the law that banned Jews from entering Jerusalem, and he allowed Jews in Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.

While maintaining the rights of Christians as citizens, including their right to worship, Julian moved to abolish privileges that had been bestowed upon the Christian clergy, including their positions as teachers. The hostility of Christians toward Julian grew. In 363, he led a military campaign against the imperialism of the Sasanian (Persian) monarch Shapur II, pushing Shapur's forces back to his capital, Ctesiphon. Julian's army captured many, including women and youths, and he allowed no one to molest them. Again he went into battle against the Persians, and he died of wounds from an arrow or spear. Christians rejoiced at news of his death, and they expressed their belief that Julian's death was the work of God. The following year, 364, the Greek orator, Libanius of Antioch, stated that Julian had been assassinated by a Christian who was one of his own soldiers.

In early 364 an army declared its commander as Rome's emperor, a Christian to be known as Valentinian, age 43. Valentinian believed that defense of the empire required at least two emperors, and in March 364 he appointed his brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Valentinian continued religious toleration, declaring that no religion was to be declared criminal. He created schools throughout his realm. And to protect the poor he created offices called Defenders of the People.

Valentinian and his army defeated German invasions three times, and he remained at the Rhine frontier for seven years, building fortifications. He reigned for eleven years, until his death at the front in present-day Hungary from natural causes in the year 375. Valens died in 378 fighting Goths as the Battle of Adrianople. The last emperor of the entire empire was Theodosius. Meanwhile, in addition to Germanic invasions the empire was threatened by an internal lack of support for the ;empire's defense. Some on in the imperial bureaucracy wrote a tract ("On Matters of Warfare") describing official corruption and the rich oppressing the poor as causing disorder. The author saw a need for an increase in patriotism in the empire for the sake of the empire's defense.

A part of the disorder that Theodosius faced was the hostility of Christians toward Jews. Christians viewed Judaism as the work of the devil, as an evil manifest in the rejection of Jesus and responsible for the death of Jesus – however much it was a divine plan of sacrifice and lifting of sin for humanity's sake. At Christian torchlight meetings, among the angry slogans shouted were those against Jews and Jew lovers. As Roman citizens, Jews were protected from attack by law, and when Christians burned a synagogue, Theodosius ordered it rebuilt, the cost to be paid by the Church. The influential Bishop Ambrose told Theodosius that he, Theodosius, was threatening the Church's prestige. He convinced Theodosius to let the destruction of synagogues stand. Across the empire the burning of synagogues continued. In Judea, entire Jewish villages were set on fire. Gone was the toleration that Julian had advocated. New rules against Jews were created: they were to be excluded from holding any state office, serving in the military and forbidden to proselytize or intermarry with Christians.

In the city of Salonica (in eastern half of the empire) a military commander imprisoned a popular chariot driver for homosexuality. A crowd of outraged fans lynched the commander, and Theodosius responded by ordering a massacre of several thousand. This outraged Bishop Ambrose, and he refused sacraments to Theodosius until he accepted penance for this deed. Theodosius did his penance, and he reconciled with Ambrose by accepting Ambrose's views on what should be done about paganism. Theodosius banned the Olympic games – which were considered pagan. He prohibited visits to pagan temples and he forbade all pagan worship. Christians were delighted, and mobs of Christians joined the anti-pagan program, robbing pagan temples and looting temple libraries.

A military commander who was German and not eligible to be emperor tried to put in power an anti-Christian puppet named Eugenius. Eugenius announced that the hour of deliverance from Christianity was at hand. Theodosius made pagan worship punishable by death, and in 394, he led an army against Eugenius and defeated him at the Frigidus River in the extreme northeast of Italy, a victory the Church was later to interpret as the work of God triumphing over paganism.

The Edict of Toleration created in 313 was dead. Theodosius made his two sons junior emperors. After Theodosius died in 395 the eldest, Arcadius, 18, became emperor for the east and Honorius, age 11, emperor for the west. In 406 came the greatest of migrant invasions, across the frozen Rhine and into Gaul. These were Germanic warriors and their families and farm animals, Germans called Vandals, Suevi, and Burgundians. The invaders found little resistance. The frontier military units had been undermanned and weakened by desertions. Imperial authorities had not allowed local populations self-defense forces, fearing rebellion, and some local people are reported to have not cared whether they were ruled from Rome or by the invaders. Some of the invaders made it as far east the Pyrenees mountains, while only a few towns like Toulouse attempting a significant resistance.

Meanwhile, Germanic people called Anglo-Saxons had been invading Britannia. A Germanic army of warriors and civilians called Visigoths were joined by others wandering through the empire looking for sustenance. In 408 they crossed the Alps into Italy. They were planning to push on to North Africa, where they believed grain grew in abundance, and they decided that on their way they would grab from the great but little-protected city of Rome what they could. Rome shut its gates. The Visigoth army besieged the city through the year 309, waiting for a ransom from Rome's senate. Plague appeared in the city and corpses were on the streets. The Visigoths allowed slaves and their fellow Germans within the city free passage out, and some joined the Visigoth ranks. In August 410, with help from inside, the Visigoths were able to slip into the city. For three days they looted, destroying homes of the wealthy. (The Visigoths were among those Germans who had been converted to the Arian branch of Christianity outside the empire during the previous century, and they spared churches.) Satisfied, the Visigoth army went south, still planning to cross the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa.

News of what happened to Rome left some people across the empire believing that the end of civilization was at hand. In Palestine, the Christian scholar Jerome (son of Eusebius and translator of scripture into Latin) claimed that with Rome in ruins the world had perished. Many Christians had believed that Rome would stand until Armageddon, and when Armageddon did not happen they were bewildered. Pagans were also upset, and they blamed Christians for having angered Rome's gods – their gods.

The Visigoths were unable to find passage to North Africa, and they pushed northward to Gaul. Emperor Honorius made peace with them. His sister, Placidia, married their new leader, Atauf, and in 418 Honorius granted the Visigoths legal domain in southwestern Gaul. Eventually they would expand into Hispania and around 589 they would convert to Trinitarian Christianity.

Those Germanic people called Vandals (from southern Scandinavia) crossed the Pyrenees and had arrived in Hispania by 409. They too were Arian Christians. In the year 429, with others having joined their ranks, and having been pushed by the Visigoths, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa. With no imperial army to stop them they There was no imperial Roman army to stop them. They overran the Trinity-believing Christians, and by 439 they had expanded their authority to Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.

And there were the Huns, a confederation of warrior bands that had integrated with groups to increase their power. They were a part of the migrations and mixing in the east and had moved into eastern Europe. They are described as having pushed the Vandals and others across the Rhine in the great invasion of Gaul in 405. Under their leader Attila the Hun they occupied territory just north of the Danube River (today Romania, Hungary, Slovakia.) The emperor of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, Theodosius I, (reigned 402 to 450), tried to buy off the Huns with regular payments of gold (the Treaty of Margus in 435). When the payments stopped Attila's forces moved into Gaul and across the Alps into Italy. A unity between armies of the emperor of the west and east and Visigoths confronted the Huns. Plague broke out among Attila's troops, and food was running out, so he returned to what is today Hungary. And there, in 453, he died. And, without his leadership, the collection of peoples that made up his empire became disunited.

The western half of the Roman Empire was still on its feet, but there was none of the harmony in the empire that Eusebius had predicted and that was needed for political survival. There was widespread social unrest and hostility to Rome's central authority and ruler incompetence. The emperor in Rome, Valentinian III, motivated by the conspiracy theory of Petronius Maximus, and fear of a coup, murdered his victorious military leader over the Huns: Aetius. In 455, Valentinian was assassinated by two followers of Aetius. Valentinian had struck a marriage deal with the ruler of the Vandals in North Africa, and a couple of months after Valentinian's death, frustrated Vandals, at war with his successor, Petronius Maximus, plundered Rome for fourteen days (the Visigoth plunder was for three days). Rome was wrecked. Aqueducts toppled. Anything removable and of value was taken. Churches were emptied of their treasures. Shiploads of captives were sent to North Africa to become slaves. A Roman mob murdered the emperor, Petronius Maximus.

Rome had failed in its response to the challenges if immigrant armies. The Roman Empire had been a collection of conquered ethnicities, and it had accepted the Visigoths who had done some conquering of their own to that collection. The rulers in Rome, moreover, were no longer ethnically Roman. Rome had been swallowed by its empire. Also, emperors in the eastern capital, Constantinople, were not always cooperating with those in power in the west. Petronius Maximus in Rome had not been recognized by the emperor in Constantinople. A military commander in the west, Recimir, could not become emperor because of Roman law, and he appointed the last emperor in the west, Romulus Augustulus also was not recognized by the emperor in Constantinople. Germanic commander, Odoacer, (an Arian Christian) overthrew Romulus Augustulus in 476. Rome's Senate gave him its support, but this was not significant. Roman law did not allow a German like Odoacer to be emperor, and he declared himself King Italy.

Division among men with power remained rampant. The political chaos that had followed the death of August Caesar four centuries before was still around. In 488 the emperor in Constantinople, Zeno, felt threatened by an army of from a province in the empire: Pannonia (today parts of Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia). There a lot of Germans called Ostrogoths had settled after the collapse of the Hun empire in the year 454. The king of the Ostrogoths, an Arian Christian to be known as Theodoric the Great, was ravaging neighboring ;provinces in Constantinople's half of the empire, and Emperor Zeno got rid of him by ordering him west against Odoacer. During four years of fighting wore down Odoacer's forces. The two agreed to divide rule in the west between them. It was another sharing of power destined not to succeed. The fighting ended in 493 with Theodoric inviting his fellow Arian Christian Odoacer to share a banquet with him at the imperial palace for the signing of a peace treaty. After the signing, the story goes, Theodoric killed Odoacer with his own hands, and he called himself the King of Italy.

With Theodoric ruling in the Italy, Sicily and what today are Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, the rest of the western half of the empire was fragmented. Theodoric's kingdom was also to fragment with the rest of the western half of the empire. The eastern half of the empire, centered at Constantinople, remained, from Greece around the eastern Mediterranean across Egypt and what today is Libya. Constantinople's emperors were to see themselves as the divinely chosen legitimate heirs of the great Roman Empire established centuries before. Early on, in the 500s, there was hope of unifying the empire and making it great again, getting it ready for Christianity's great Judgment Day. But what had torn the Roman empire apart was not to be undone.

Constantinople's empire remained into the 1100s, to diminish further in the 1200s at the time of the Fourth Crusade, and to be overrun by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Potential for the Roman empire's disintegration and diminishment was in the nature of the empire itself. The Roman Empire didn't have the spirit of a tribe or nation to hold it together against adversities in perpetuity.

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.