The fall of Rome is often portrayed as a cataclysmic event that marked the end of an Empire—the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The fall of Rome, or more correctly, the fall of the Roman West, had significant consequences. Yet, the idea that it was a sudden and complete collapse is greatly exaggerated. Not only that, the fall of the Roman West was a gradual process that unfolded over centuries. For the Romans, 476 CE, the traditional date of the infamous “Fall of Rome”, was not the end of the world. In fact, the Roman Empire continued to exist for more than a millennium and is known as the Byzantine Empire. We could talk about several “Falls of Rome”, with only the last one – that of the 29th of May 1453, being truly epoch-defining.
Rome Ceased to Be Imperial Capital Long Before the “Fall of Rome”
The “Fall of Rome” usually refers to the collapse of the Roman West – the end of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century CE. The traditional view, however, of the violent and catastrophic fall cannot be further from the truth. Yes, Rome, which for centuries was the symbol of the Roman Empire, was sacked twice, in 410 by the Visigoths under Alaric, and in 455, by the Vandals. Both events shocked the Roman world, leaving the eternal city in ruins and its wealth plundered. However, at that time, Rome was not the imperial capital. It was not even a capital of the Roman West. Instead, the Western Roman emperor was based in Ravenna, while the Eastern Roman Empire was ruled from Constantinople, the city founded by Constantine the Great in 330 CE. And after Roman West disappeared from the map, Constantinople remained the empire’s capital until 1453.
The Roman Empire Shifted to the East
While the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to exist for a thousand more years. To make things more interesting, the people we call the Byzantines considered themselves Romans – the Rhomaoi. And their empire – Basilea ton Rhomaion – was the “Empire of the Romans”. The Byzantine emperors considered themselves the heirs of Augustus, and ruled their empire from New Rome – Constantinople. Thus, the Byzantines (or the Romans) remained a major power in the Middle Ages, leaving a lasting mark on European civilization long after the “fall of Rome.”
The Brief Reconquest of the Roman West
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The “fall of Rome” in 476 led to the withdrawal of imperial control from Italy, the ancient heartland of the Roman Empire. For several decades, the former Roman lands in the West were divided into the barbarian successor kingdoms. However, the barbarian kings recognized the emperor in Constantinople as a nominal ruler. For their part, the Romans tolerated the barbarians until finally, in the mid-sixth century, emperor Justinian embarked on an ambitious campaign to restore the former Roman West. Led by General Belisarius, the Roman armies reconquered Northern Africa in an ancient blitzkrieg, erasing the Vandal kingdom from the map. While the efforts to regain control over Italy were stalled by the infighting among the imperial high command, the Gothic resistance, and the deadly Justinianic plague, in the end, the Romans prevailed, and the Ostrogoth kingdom was no more.
The “Fall of Rome” Marked the End of the Middle Ages
Justinian’s reconquest made the Western Mediterranean part of the Roman Empire once again, and increased the emperor’s prestige. However, it also dangerously extended the limited resources, leaving the restored empire dangerously exposed and vulnerable to the attacks of its numerous enemies. Despite heavy setbacks, and the loss of its eastern provinces to the Arabs, the Roman Empire survived, continuing to influence Europe, Africa and Asia during the Middle Ages. In fact, under the renowned Macedonian dynasty, the empire embarked on another grand offensive, and the medieval state reached its apex during the reign of Emperor Basil II.
However, the increased pressure on its borders, and the succession of inept emperors (except for the Komnenian Dynasty), led to the weakening of the imperial defenses, culminating with the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204. While the Palaiologan emperors managed to reconquer Constantinople the Empire never recovered from that disaster. Finally, in 1453, the armies of the Ottoman Turks breached the Theodosian Walls, and conquered Constantinople, bringing the Roman Empire to an end.