On this Memorial Day weekend, I’d like to extend the remembrances to the Roman legions. Why? Because on this date 558 years ago, the Roman Empire fell.
Well, sort of. Ask 10 historians when Rome fell and you’ll get 10 different answers. Some popular dates for the fall: 293 AD when Diocletian radically changed the administration; 330 when Constantine moved the primary imperial residence to Byzantium, aka Constantinople, beginning, according to some, “the Byzantine Empire” (though this is a modern term never used by anyone who lived in it – they still called the place the Roman Empire); 363 at the death of Julian, the last pagan emperor; and 410 when the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome. When the western emperor Honorius, who lived in Ravenna, heard about what the Visigoths had done, he took bold action by declaring it illegal to wear pants – pants being Germanic attire. The date for the fall of Rome most commonly found in schoolbooks is 476 AD. Nothing much happened then. The Ostrogoths were German allies of Rome who had been allowed to settle in Italy; Odoacer, their chief, in 476 deposed the useless western emperor Romulus Augustulus in Ravenna without even bothering to kill him. Yet, Odoacer didn’t set up an independent kingdom. The Roman Senate made Odoacer a Roman patrician, and emperor Zeno then appointed him to administer Italy, which remained part of the Roman Empire. Nothing at all changed for the residents of Italy. Theodoric the Great then invited Odoacer to dinner and killed him – “the Great” apparently didn’t refer to his qualities as a host. Theodoric, in turn, became a viceroy for Zeno. The emperor Justinian later restored Italy to direct Roman imperial rule, without any more nonsense about western emperors or Ostrogothic viceroys. The end of Justinian’s reign in 565 is another date commonly favored as “the end” of Rome.
My own preferred date, following Edward Gibbon, is May 29, 1453 at about 11 o’clock in the morning. On that day, after relentless battering by massive cannons, the walls of Constantinople fell. Turkish troops under Muhammad the Conqueror rushed the city, and the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus Augustus, was killed fighting them in the rubble. The city was sacked. The Empire was unmistakably and irretrievably over.
The Romans are overrated. They surely knew how to build bridges, but they were stolid authoritarians who hampered technological and social innovation. Still, we in the West owe much of what and who we are to them, and to the troops who defended them for 2000 years. Without them holding the line for so long, we might never have had the time and chance to grow beyond them.
Is there a lesson we can take away from any of this? Perhaps that it’s a bad sign when the powers-that-be issue rules about pants.