In 476CE or so we are told, the last Roman emperor was removed from power by his barbarian masters and with that the Roman Empire came to an end. This is what we are told, we historians don’t like hard and fast dates, we know better. I could argue to you that Julius Nepos would continue with the title and be recognized as the western Emperor by Zeno the eastern Emperor until in 480 Nepos died. Or I might argue that the empire fell with Constantine XI Palaiologo in 1453 with the fall of the eastern empire. Here at least we have three dates all with equal weight. And yet none are correct, by 350CE the Roman Empire was neither. Almost all the western provinces from Britain to North Africa were lost to barbarian kingdoms of one stripe or another. The Emperors no longer sat in undisturbed splendor in the palaces among the hills of Rome. Instead they either marched from one threatened area to another, or hid among the marshes and lakes of Revenna pathetically awaiting the end. All that splendor gone, and lost not to barbarians, but to the Romans themselves.
There never was a ‘good’ system for selecting the next guy on top. This lead to an ad hoc system of ‘who ever was the strongest gets it’ law of the fittest. In the process civil war became epidemic. Emperors dare not sneeze in public for fear of one worthy or another taking it as a sign the time was right for a change of command. And what made a good contender to the throne? Only two things: Money and the Army. Time and time again the army fought itself. Killing legionnaires and progressively destroying the strength of the empire to defend it self from outside invasion. It is interesting to note that whenever the Empire was at peace with itself and barbarians invaded they were defeated.
And yet was ‘The End’ like what we all carry around in our heads? After all, we all know what happened right? The barbarians came destroying everything in sight, defeating the army, raping and pillaging; the way Hollywood does it; and one day with Sophie Lauren weeping in the foreground the empire fell….right? Weeeellllll, no. In fact the empire didn’t fall, first of all there is no ‘up’ from which a political system can fall down from, and more importantly many of the people who found themselves living in a newly settled barbarian kingdom didn’t know the Empire was gone. Barbarian kings went out of their way to present themselves as Romans or at least guardians of the Roman Empire. Of course they were neither and after awhile they dropped the whole ‘I’m as Roman and the next guy’ routine and just got on with ruling in their own name. By the time the empire was forgotten the barbarian kingdoms weren’t so barbarian and the people ruling were the locals. New languages sprung up from Latin, the new institutions took something from the empire and something from the barbarians and something form the locals and created France, Spain, England, Portugal, Italy and more. So I think it’s fairer to say the empire disintegrated in some areas and dissipated in others.
So what was The End like? Can we ever get a full and clear picture of it? No. The fall of the empire happened not on a grand scale of sweeping armies, filthy barbarian warriors, or dastardly villains out for number one regardless of the consequences. It was personal and private, a quiet passing, a simple accepted in the hearts of each generation, each imperial citizen, even each citizen of Europe who watched the passing of Rome and entered into the new world.