<<Animula vagula blandula, Hospes comesque corporis, Quae nunc abibis in loca, Pallidula, rigida, nudula, Nec ut soles dabis iocos>>
<<Little soul, you charming little wanderer, my body’s guest and partner, Where are you off to now? Somewhere without colour, savage and bare; Never again to share a joke>>
Augustus (whose prosperous government passed between 27 BC-14 AD) leaned on his third wife: Livia (probably the most important woman in Roman history), to which the tradition gives her a life starring poisonings and conspiracies, although in aspects of government exerted a remarkable and fruitful influence. Together, she and her husband, undertook a great work of construction of infrastructures, temples and monuments, and increased the influence of the empire beyond its borders.
The only stain of this period was that caused by the great defeat of Teutoburg in 9 AD, where General Varus lost in an ambush the best legions of the Empire, led by Arminius (officer of German origin, of the tribe of the Cherusci, which betrayed the Romans), and abandoned the dream of consolidating a border on the Elbe River (which certainly would have been narrower and better defensible if it had consolidated) and retreated back again to the Rhine. Historians, probably somewhat exaggerated, tell that the emperor spent a year wandering around the palace without shaving or cutting his hair, asking Varus to return his legions. Anyway, thanks to generals like Germanicus, they avenged the fallen and recovered the lost eagles, although the frontier never returned to the Elbe.
Octavius Augustus inaugurated the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was succeeded by relatives until the year 68: Tiberius (at first a good administrator of the inherited situation, but lost in his private life because of his twisted moral), Caligula (ill-fated emperor who among his exploits is to appoint as his horse as senator, squander everything accumulated in the imperial coffers by his predecessors and condemn to death anyone who wanted to), Claudius (good emperor who invaded Britannia and skillfully managed the Empire) and Nero (other misfortune for Rome, whose capital is believed to set fire appealing to his magnificent artistic skills and that pushed the outstanding Seneca to use cicuta to end his life).
After a brief period of struggle for succession with ephemeral emperors (Galba, Otho and Vitellius), the Flavian dynasty took power from 69 to 96, and counted on the emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian (the latter was also another blemish for nation, standing out for its despotism and cruelty, until finally he ended up murdered, ending with him this dynasty). In this period the Jewish people was submitted and wih its wealth the iconic work of the Colosseum was financed.
It is at this time that one of the most flourishing and splendid stages begins since the death of Julius Caesar: the time of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty (96-192), standing out among them: Nerva (elected by the Senate and who initiated the tradition of choosing heirs to the throne by aptitudes and merits and not by dynastic rights), the magnificent Hispanics Trajan (who subdued the current Romania: the Dacia, with the help of his magnificent African general Lusius Quietus who commanded his legions, and he dreamed to emulate the epic of Alexander the Great, that is, extending the limits of the empire to the Indian Ocean and India itself, reaching as far as no Roman emperor ever did) and Hadrian (the great traveler and infrastructure builder: under his rule was built the famous wall in Britannia, which bears his name, and which marked the imperial limits with respect to the warlike Scoti and put an end to the Roman expansionism protecting the Empire behind its borders), and also Antoninus Pius (who administered from Italy the provincial conflicts delegating to the governors, promoting a policy of appeasement and improvement of life in the provinces and even raised a wall farther north than that of Hadrian, although its duration was ephemeral: the Antonine Wall). Finally Marcus Aurelius (the philosopher, had to face the conflicts in the Germanic limes and in the East to the Parthians and an uprising that crushed).
The Antonines stood out for their high human condition and for their work for imperial stability and prosperity. Its rulers were known as the five good emperors. To this period (next to August’s pax romana) corresponds the most brilliant stage of well-being of the Mediterranean and Europe up to the present: it was the moment of the great public works, of the maximum territorial expansion (with very large domains on three continents), of greater trade and more lasting peace. The contributions of the provincial middle classes were decisive and highly enriching to achieve what centuries ago would have been no more than a dream.
The dynasty was completed by a sixth emperor: Commodus (whose government was degenerating to provoke a political crisis that after his murder led to a stage of new civil wars known as “the year of the five emperors”, by the number of suitors there were) .
After the ephemeral Pertinax (killed a few months by the Praetorian guard) and Didio Juliano (raised to power to win the bid to win praetorian loyalty), Septimius Severus is proclaimed emperor by his legions of Pannonia and march on Rome eliminating Julian and two other opponents of the purple, thus inaugurating a new stage: the dynasty of the Severians.
The son of Severo, Caracalla, granted in the year 212 the Roman citizenship to all the free population under the dominion of the Empire. After that, while the richest and most fertile provinces prospered, Italy began to decline economically. Inflationary problems were suffered due to the minting of coins that contained less and less silver. Similarly, in the ruling class progressively increased the military and in the army the barbarian soldiers, who were less disciplined and efficient, and of course less patriotic than their predecessors.
Soon began a period starring the soldiers emperors.
The barbarization of the army was a key factor in understanding the subsequent dismemberment of the empire. Other no less important were: the end of the wars of conquest (absence of booty), entrenchment behind the limes with extensive territories to defend (large increase in spending), constant border pressures especially by the Germanic peoples (social and economic instability), the suffocating economic crisis of the 4th century and especially the 5th (loss of economic muscle to deal with problems), and the profound religious and values change of most of the population (in the face of misfortune, the plebs thought more in the justice of the coming world than in that of its present). All these factors together with more or less widespread corruption and civil confrontations for power ended up bleeding the Empire.
After the transformation of the Empire into a military monarchy during the 3rd century (permanently relegating the Senate to a testimonial role) and alternating with periods of anarchy, the Illiric dynasty ascended to power. Their emperors provided a solid restoration, territorial cohesion, and a reinforcement of the borders on more appropriate lines.
In this dynasty Aurelian highligthed. Considered one of the best emperors, he rebuilt the Empire after fifteen years of rebellions and dismemberments. He successively defeated the tribes of Sarmatians, Alamanni, Goths and Vandals, the insurgents of the Gallic Empire and Palmyra and raised new and stout walls in the capital with a perimeter of around 19 km to protect it from the increasingly troubling barbarian raids. On the contrary, he was forced to withdraw the troops definitively from the province of Dacia for a better defense.
Diocletian also highlighted, deepening the reforms of the institutional apparatus initiated by Aurelian, dividing the Empire into four parts for better government resulting in the “Tetrarchy” composed of two Augusti and two Caesars. After his abdication he was succeeded by another of the great emperors: Constantine, who on his deathbed converted to Christianity, having previously proclaimed freedom of worship and having relied on the Church to reinforce his political power. He achieved a certain economic splendor, but the great military expenses, those generated by the multiple public works in all the territory (fundamentally in the capitals of the Tetrarchy and in the second capital of Rome: Constantinople, which he himself founded), together with the derived from the extensive internal administrative bureaucracy, they soon plunged the entire nation into a severe crisis.
Rome was beginning to show signs of weakness, and that was a dreadful message for the barbarian peoples who had been installing themselves north of the limes. They lived in misery knowing the advantages and luxuries of the urban life of the Empire, they were still warrior peoples and with more population, while Rome began to relax their combative spirit by importing new customs and oriental refinements. On the other hand, Christianity, a new cult that transcended beyond earthly power, spread rapidly through the less favored layers. The few legions entirely Latin that remained, wasted their offensive superiority by entrenching behind the continental limes, an impressive wall of hundreds of kilometres that protected the lands between the Rhine and the Danube, and other outposts along these two rivers.
It was the propitious moment, which the Germanics had waited so long, to take action, to demand with their strength the benefits of civilization and to occupy a preeminent place in history.
As the State lost its official link with the pagan cults, it became interested in the affairs of the Church, being generally on the side of Arianism (Christian current opposed to the orthodoxy of the Roman clergy and therefore heretical), for its adaptation to the prevailing political structure.
With the Spanish Theodosius, the last of the great emperors, the Empire was reborn when its decline accelerated year after year. Under his government, political and religious unity was again achieved around the Roman Church (anti-Arian). His death supposed the definitive division of the country in two: Western Empire (with capital in Rome) and Eastern Empire (with capital in Constantinople, called later Byzantium).
Despite carried out with the motivation to better defend the borders and help each other in case of need, the East turned its back more than once on the West against the invading waves of Germanics (especially the Goths) and Huns (from the depths of Asia Central, and of Mongolian ethnicity).
In this period appear the last two great Roman generals: mainly Flavius Stilicho (360-408), son of a Vandal cavalry commander, who won the trust of Theodosius and at his death received the mission of watching over his children and managing the nation until they were old enough to take power: Honorius and Arcadius (future emperors of the West and the East, respectively). From Byzantium he did not have the necessary support and dealt with the defense of the West, defeating the Visigoths of Alaric and recapturing Gaul and part of Britannia, thus becoming the leader that the people needed to maintain the pride of being Roman.
We are already in the last century of existence of the Western Roman Empire. Stilicho commands legions formed by a thousand men, of light infantry, because the soldiers are bothered of carrying the heavy equipment in the combats and displacements. Even so, this general is able to move his legionaries with the old discipline and instil fear in the enemy. He had its base of operations in Milan or Mediolanum and among its legions had the Jovian, the Herculian and the III Augusta, in addition to several auxiliaries that at this time differed little. The majority coming from Gaul, around five thousand men. The best of the Empire that centuries ago had come to deploy up to 350,000 men on the borders. With these meager elite legions he moved from Britannia to Africa and from Gaul throughout northern Italy, saving all crises. Such success and glory reached, that earned him the ungrateful envy of the immature Honorius, who vilely executed him after a military revolt, turning the successes of Stilicho into fragile and ephemeral.
On the other hand, Flavius Aetius, the last great military man in the decline of the Western Empire, who was honoured all his life with successes in his campaigns against the Germanics, sometimes curiously using the Huns as mercenary allies, was immersed in the leadership of troops from all corners of the Empire, the Visigoth allies of Theodoric and also some Franks, in a decisive battle of a huge and incomparable numerical magnitude if we look at the sources that narrate it (Jordanes, historian of the Eastern Empire, 6th century): the battle of the Catalaunian Plains (in the north of the Gaul, current region of Champagne that owes its name). He defeated the unstoppable Huns of Attila, where according to legend 200,000 Roman-Germanic faced off against some 500,000 Huns.
Aetius could not avoid the imminent fall of Rome into the hands of the wild Germanic tribes (who ultimately, by admiration of a superior culture adopted the Roman language, law and administration, fusing their cultures with those of the inhabitants of the provinces). What he did achieve with his victory was that the legacy of the classical culture, that is still alive today, would remain, a legacy that Attila threatened to erase from the face of the earth.
As we will see in the section of Barbarian Invasions, the western part suffered Germanic raids (mainly Goths, Vandals, Suebi, Burgundians and Alans) from the beginning of the 5th century. Alaric, commanding Gothic troops assaulted and sacked Rome in the year 410, and Genseric did the same commanding the Vandals in 455. Throughout this century of complete decadence, the Romano-Germanic kingdoms were formed (seed of the next dream of European unity: the Holy Roman Empire and origin of modern states), with some autonomy (treaties of coterritoriality and mutual defense) as in the case of the Visigoths in Hispania (in federated regime or foedus), or with total independence as was the case of the vandals in North Africa (provinces of Mauretania and Numidia) after putting the East of Hispania to the sword.
This house of cards that supposed the invaded and fragmented Roman Empire, collapsed when a barbarian king dominating Italy, Odoacer, defeated Orestes, the father of the last emperor (Romulus Augustus) in Pavia and sent the imperial insignia of the western part to Zeno, eastern emperor, at the same time as declared the intention to govern as his lieutenant. It was the last occupation of the imperial capital and Rome never rose again.
This happened in 476 and is officially considered as the date of the fall of Rome, but as will be seen below, it was not so, unofficially, and hardly the people who lived those events were conscious of such historical significance.
Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina