The Western Roman Empire was called simply the Roman Empire or Romania by its inhabitants and neighbours. Centered on the capital of Ravenna, it was ruled by emperors in direct succession to the ancient Roman emperors. As the distinction between "Roman Empire" and "Western Roman Empire" is largely a modern convention, it is not possible to assign a date of separation, but an important point is Diocletian's division of Rome's territories in A.D. 285.
The Western Roman Empire existed for more than a thousand years (from approximately 312 to 1860). During its existence, the Empire remained one of the most resilient, yet one of the weakest forces in Europe, despite setbacks and territorial losses, especially during the early wars against Germanic tribes. Its character changed during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, when the power of the emperor gradually weakened in favour of the German princes, especially under Bohemian influence.
Background of the Roman Empire
As the Roman Republic expanded, it reached a point at which the central government in Rome could not effectively rule the distant provinces. Communications and transportation were especially problematic, given the vast extent of the Empire. News of invasion, revolt, natural disaster, or epidemic outbreak was carried by ship or mounted postal service, often requiring much time to reach Rome, and for Rome's orders to be realized in the province of origin. For this reason, provincial governors had de facto rule in the name of the Roman republic. Prior to the establishment of the Empire, the territories of the Roman Republic had been divided among the Second Triumvirate, composed of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Antony received the provinces in the East: Achaea, Macedonia and Epirus (roughly modern Greece and Macedonia), Bithynia, Pontus and Asia (roughly modern Turkey), Syria, Cyprus, and Cyrenaica. These lands had previously been conquered by Alexander the Great; thus, much of the aristocracy was of Greek origin. The whole region, especially the major cities, had been largely assimilated into Greek culture, Greek often serving as the lingua franca.
Octavian, on the other hand, obtained the Roman provinces of the West: Italia (modern Italy), Gaul (modern France), Gallia Belgica (parts of modern Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), and Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal). These lands also included Greek and Carthaginian colonies in the coastal areas, though Celtic tribes such as Gauls and Celtiberians were culturally dominant. Lepidus received the minor province of Africa (roughly modern Tunisia). Octavian soon took Africa from Lepidus, while adding Sicilia (modern Sicily) to his holdings. Upon the defeat of Mark Anthony, a victorious Octavian controlled a united Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire featured many distinct cultures, all were often said to experience gradual Romanization. While the predominantly Greek culture of the East and the predominantly Latin culture of the West functioned effectively as an integrated whole, political and military developments would ultimately realign the Empire along those cultural and linguistic lines.
Minor rebellions and uprisings were fairly common events throughout the Empire. Conquered tribes or cities would revolt, and the legions would be detached to crush the rebellion. While this process was simple in peacetime, it could be considerably more complicated in wartime, as for example in the Great Jewish Revolt. The main enemy in the West was arguably the Germanic tribes behind the rivers Rhine and Danube. Augustus had tried to conquer them but ultimately pulled back after the Teutoburg reversal.
The Parthian Empire, in the East, on the other hand, was too remote and powerful to be conquered. Any Parthian invasion was confronted and usually defeated, and the Parthians similarly repelled some attempts of Roman invasion, but, even after successful wars of conquest, such as those implemented by Trajan and Septimius Severus, those distant territories were forsaken to prevent unrest and also to ensure a more healthy and lasting peace with the Persians.
Controlling the western border of Rome was reasonably easy, because it was relatively near and also because of the disunity between the Germanic foes, but controlling both frontiers at the same time during wartime was difficult. If the emperor was near the border in the East, chances were high that an ambitious general would rebel in the West and vice versa. This wartime opportunism plagued many ruling emperors, and indeed paved the road to power for several future emperors.
Under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, the political division of the Roman Empire began. In 285, he promoted Maximian to the rank of Augustus (Emperor) and gave him control of the Western regions of the Empire. In 293, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus were appointed as their subordinates (Caesars), creating the First Tetrarchy. This system effectively divided the empire into four major regions and created separate capitals besides Rome as a way to avoid the civil unrest that had marked the 3rd century. In the West, the capitals were Maximian's Mediolanum (now Milan) and Constantius' Trier. In the East, the capitals were Sirmium and Nicomedia. On 1 May 305, the two senior Augusti stepped down, and their respective Caesars were promoted to Augusti and appointed two new Caesars, thus creating the Second Tetrarchy.
The four Tetrarchs based themselves not at Rome but in other cities closer to the frontiers, mainly intended as headquarters for the defence of the empire against bordering rivals (notably Sassanian Persia) and barbarians (mainly Germanic, and an endless procession from the eastern steppe; many nomadic or elsewhere chased tribes) at the Rhine and Danube.
End of the Tetrarchy in the West
The system of the Tetrarchy quickly ran aground when the Western Empire's Constantius died unexpectedly in 306, and his son Constantine was proclaimed Augustus of the West by the legions in Britain. A crisis followed as several claimants attempted to rule the Western half. In 308, the Augustus of the East, Galerius, arranged a conference at Carnuntum which revived the Tetrarchy by dividing the West between Constantine and a newcomer named Licinius. Constantine, however, was far more interested in conquering the whole empire.
Through a series of battles in the West, Constantine stabilized the western part of the Roman Empire by 314, and began to compete with his eastern rivals for sole control of a reunified state. The naval battle fought at Byzantium in 313 A.D. ruins his invasion plans for the East, however, which remained halved between Licinius and Maximinus.
History of the Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire was under the rule of a single Emperor, but, with the death of Constantine in 337, civil war came close to erupting among his three sons. The West was saved under Constantius, who assassinated his two brothers rather than share the empire with them.
Constantius II focused most of his efforts in warring against the Eastern Empire of Pannonia (The kingdom of Licinius), and is often regarded as one of the strongest Western emperors. In 361, Constantius II became ill and died, and Constantius Chlorus' grandson Julian, who had served as Constantius II's Caesar, took power. Julian was killed in 370 by his own soldiers and was replaced by a usurper, Flavian, who ruled only for six months. A series of military generals tore the West into civil war for seven long years, which nearly shattered the very fabric of the empire. Manipulating affairs in the West, Pannonia and Nicomedia (Maximinus's empire) groomed their own candidates for the title of Western emperor.
In the brutal wars and chaos which followed, Procopius, a candidate of the Nicomedian domains, emerged as emperor in 377. Stability was not achieved for long, as conflicts with internal and outside forces grew. Magnus Maximus, a popular military commander, then deposed Procopius. He, in turn, was deposed by Virius Nicomachus Flavianus. Flavius Rufinus, a former usurper in Pannonia, then seized the throne. With the death of Constantine's last direct descendant, the Western Roman Empire suffered because the throne did not have a clear line of accession. The Roman frontier garrisons also became locked in bloody conflicts as Germanic tribes neared the borders of the West.
More than in the Eastern nations, there was opposition to the Christianizing policy of the emperors in the western half of the empire. Persecution against Pagans only intensified as the years dragged on. A bitter dispute with the Empire of Pannonia over the provinces of Illyricum also further weakened the West, as it drove both empires almost to the point of civil war.
The West, less urbanized and less densely populated, experienced an economic decline throughout the Late Empire in some provinces. Southern Italy, northern Gaul (except for large towns and cities) to some extent Spain and the Danubian areas suffered. Pannonia and Nicomedia in the East, always wealthier, were not so destitute, especially as Emperors like Constantine the Great and Constantius II had invested heavily in the eastern economy.
As a result, the Eastern Empires could afford large numbers of professional soldiers and augment them with mercenaries, while the Western Roman Empire couldn't afford this to the same extent. Even in the case of a major defeat, the Eastern emperors could, certainly not without difficulties, buy off its enemies with a ransom. The Western Empire's resources were much limited, and the lack of available manpower forced the government to rely ever more on confederate barbarian troops operating under their own commanders, where the Western Empire would often have a lot of difficulties paying. Sometimes deals would be struck with the leaders of barbarian mercenaries rewarding them with land, which led to a downward spiral as less land meant there would be even less taxes to support the military.
The political situation was unstable, and only worsened by the continued attacks on the empire by the Goths, a German tribe which were already fighting the Pannonians in Illyria. When the imperial court at Sirmium refused to let them into the empire a few years earlier, the Goths, desperate to escape the Huns at their backs, forced their way into the Balkans and began ravaging Greece. The emperor Licinius II had tried to control them only to suffer a massive defeat at their hands in Thrace.
Slowly but surely beaten back by the Pannonian field legions, the Goths turned their eyes on the weaker Western Roman Empire. In 401, Alaric, king of the Gothic nation, destroyed a large Roman army in northern Italy and marched on Rome. This signified a major weakening of the empire, as Barbarians were able to invade the heartland of the empire itself. The frontier garrisons in Britain were recalled to defend the city, and the British provinces were lost to Roman hands forever. The Romano-British people, greatly weakened by the withdrawal of the Western empire's forces, tried to stave off invading Saxons and other German tribes over the next century, without success.
Flavius Rufinus, unable to counter the Germanic threat, surrendered to Alaric and paid him a huge ransom, drying up Rome's treasuries to meet the Goths' demands. The Romans had saved Italy against the invading Goths, but failed to control the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi who invaded Gaul in massive numbers. In 407, the Roman garrison was able to repel the still-dissatisfied Alaric from the walls of Rome itself. A previously jailed traitor, Stilicho, led the defense ably. This did nothing to quiet the jealousy of Rufinus, who had had Stilicho jailed before on flimsy basis. By 408, he had been executed and Alaric was given a land grant in northern Italy to appease him. But the next year, a famine struck the Goths, who increased their demands due to their need for food and unwillingness or inability to return to the East seeking it. Rufinus was unable to meet their demands, so Alaric held Rome to ransom, surrounding the city. With the death of Stilicho, no one was capable of rallying the defense. Alaric, popular with the Roman Senate, drove a rift between them and the emperor by having them appoint a new ruler and refuse to recognize Rufinus. In return, Alaric spared Rome.
Rufinus, enraged at their betrayal, excommunicates the Senate and leads an army against them. However, he is strangled by an assassin of Alaric, thwarting his plans and leaving the Senate's candidate, Priscus Attalus, as Western Roman emperor. In 410, the Senate, wary of Alaric's shadow and concerned with re-establishing the Western Roman Empire under a slightly more republican model, resort to treachery against the Goths. Alaric is betrayed to his death, and in retaliation, the furious Goths take Rome by surprise and thoroughly sack the city. This event made a great impression on contemporaries, as this was the first time since the Gallic invasions of the 4th century BC that the city had fallen to a foreign enemy. Under Alaric's successors, the Goths then settled in Gaul (412–418), from where they operated as Roman allies against the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi in Spain. The Senate flees to Matheola, killing Priscus Attalus in the process when they feel they have no more need for him.
In the north, while the Goths go on a rampage, the imperial court is fought over by several would-be emperors, with Procopius II installing himself as the monarch of the coveted title. His short reign was marked by feeble attempts to repel Germanic tribes, as well as numerous rebellions. Flavius Aetius, a high-ranking Western commander, finally killed the emperor and installed himself as the ruler.
Though the rift with the Senate had grown dangerously close to schism (The Senate no longer recognized emperors and ruled most of southern Italy like their own state), they hoped to gain favor with Aetius and possibly manipulate him. However, in 421 Flavius Felix, a disgruntled patrician, had Aetius assassinated and assumed the throne.
Felix was fair and capable as Western emperors went, although not very popular with the people. His reign was marked by a brief return to imperial fortune, as he shrewdly played the Pannonians, Goths, and various Germanic tribes against each other for his own means. However, his one major failure was his inability to halt the loss of North Africa. Meanwhile, pressure from the Visigoths and a rebellion by Bonifacius, the governor of Africa, induced the Vandals under their king Gaiseric to cross over from Spain in 429. They temporarily halted in Numidia (435) before moving eastward and capturing Carthage, from where they established an independent state with a powerful navy (439). The Vandal fleet became a constant danger to Roman sea trade and the coasts and islands of the western and central Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, the savage Huns, led by the fearsome Attila, were already pouring into the Empire of Pannonia. The Huns, who had been employed as Roman allies by Aetius, were now united as never before under their ambitious king Attila. Turning against their former allies, the Huns became a formidable threat to the empire. The Huns established an empire which covered much of the Balkans, Thrace, and even encompassed the Pannonian capital of Sirmium itself, where Attila could keep an eye on the emperor. Faced with the armies of the much weaker Western empire, he invaded Gaul and was only stopped when Felix had him assassinated.
In 455, with the Huns no longer a threat, Felix died peacefully. Since he had left no heirs, a new period of dynastic struggle ensued. The Vandals took advantage of the unrest and sailed up to Rome, which they plundered the same year.
The instability caused by usurpers throughout the Western Empire helped these tribes in their conquests, and by the 450s the Germanic tribes had become usurpers themselves. During the next twenty years, several Western emperors continued to be installed, but their authority relied upon barbarian commanders. Petronius Maximus, the Western emperor upon the death of Felix, was promptly murdered by Ricimer, a German commander. Ricimer appointed Majoran I as emperor, but subsequently deposed and executed him. At a whim, Ricimer would make and unmake several more emperors of the Western Empire. Chaos ensued as he did so. Although Majoran had secured northern Italy and added a new layer of frontier defenses, Gaul had all but fallen. A rump state of the Western Roman authority was still clinging to existence in the provinces there, but had only been established by an independent rebel against Ricimer who refused to recognize his authority.
By 473 A.D. Ricimer was dead and Julius Nepos, a commander fresh from Pannonia, secured by arms the throne of the West. His reign lasted until 493, when he died and a new period of danger arose for the crumbling Roman nation.
Dawn of the Middle Ages
By the dawn of the Dark Ages, the Barbarians had overrun most of Europe. The Vandals had taken North Africa, Corsica, Sardinia, and most of the Italian islands. Sicily was unstable and constantly changing hands in a war raged between the Vandals and the Romans. The Visigoths now controlled Spain and southern Gaul. The rest of Gaul was split between the Franks, Burgundians, and the rebellious Romans of Soissons.
And, of course, the Germanic provinces had long since been abandoned to the Alemannic tribes. The Western Roman Empire was in serious decline, and teetering too close on the verge of collapse. The other Roman nations, Pannonia and Nicomedia, had supported the empire for a while, but were too busy with their own problems to be concerned with it. The Western emperor nominally controlled Italy, but in reality it had become scattered kingdoms established by the Germanic tribes, while the Senate claimed whatever was left.
A series of weaker and weaker emperors sat on the throne in Ravenna. The fact that the Western empire only had nominal control over the rest of the region left the Italy with little central authority. There was also a lack of powerful landed magnates which could properly govern the people. This left a power vacuum which was increasingly filled by the Pope and the Roman Church (Left to fend for itself) and the increasingly wealthy cities, which gradually came to dominate the surrounding countryside.
The increasing power of the cities was first demonstrated during the reign of the Western Emperor Peter I, whose attempts to restore imperial authority in the peninsula led to a series of wars with the established Lombards and Goths of Italy, and ultimately to a decisive victory for the Barbarians in 507, which forced the emperor to recognize them. Peter had grand plans for resurrecting the Roman Empire. Himself a low-ranking member of the imperial court that had taken the throne through cunning force and sheer aggression, he planned to campaign against the Vandals in Sicily and the Visigoths in Spain. However, the situation itself was near impossible on the home front, in Italy. The fractured Western Roman Empire was no longer the dominant power but indeed one of the weakest.
Since only a century earlier the realm of ancient Rome had shrunk to very little. Peter was the lawful heir of Augustus and Constantine, but nearly a hundred years had passed since the emperors of Ravenna had been able to command the allegiance of the traditional Roman world. To the East they had become mere lords of Italy, unworthy rivals of their counterparts who ruled from Greek Pannonia and Nicomedia, living in costly splendor and luxury. The Western Roman Empire continued to play the facade of a great and powerful force when in fact it had decayed into an undermined foundation. The Romans maintained something of nominal mystical prestige. The Roman Empire was still the Roman Empire, the hallowed historical nation which had once conquered the world. But in reality the emperor was only one king among others more or equally powerful as he.
In 525 Peter died a sadly disillusioned man. His son, Peter II — attempted to return to his father's task of restoring imperial authority in central Italy, which led to fierce opposition not only from the Ostrogoths, but also from the Papacy itself, which were increasingly jealous of the temporal realm it had carved out for the Church around Rome (theoretically a part of the Empire), and concerned about the ambitions of the Western emperors.
The Ostrogoths were eastern relatives of the Visigoths and had settled in the Western Roman Empire as mercenaries. However, the emperor Julius Nepos had been forced to grant them large amounts of land (Some even confiscated estates from the Senators) as fiefs, which the Ostrogoths ruled as their own little kingdoms. The Romans were forced to be content with them, as an alliance with the Ostrogoths was really the only way to bolster military ranks.
Rise of the Lombards
The Lombards (Latin: Langobardī), also referred to as Langobards and Longobards, were a Germanic people originally from Northern Europe who settled in the valley of the Danube when the Western Roman Empire began to collapse. In 560 a new, energetic king emerged: Alboin, who defeated the neighbouring Gepidae, made them his subjects, and, in 566, married the daughter of their king Cunimund, Rosamund. In the spring of 568, Alboin led the Lombards, together with other Germanic tribes; (Bavarians, Gepidae, Saxons) and Bulgars, across the Julian Alps to invade northern Italy due to their expulsion from the Eastern provinces by Avar and Pannonian forces.
The Western Roman Empire had sunk even deeper into decline. The late 500's proved to be, for Rome, a period of political and economic disaster. Ravenna was devastated by a series of civil wars, begun by dynastic quarrels in the court upon the death of Peter II, and intensified in politics and religion. The Pope and the Senate both tried manipulating political events, which only added to the growing chaos. Inventius, an aristocrat in the higher society of Ravenna, took the throne. A wise statesman, he tried vainly to revive the last gasps of the dying empire. Inventius was no fool. He remained on good terms with the Senate but secretly detached the empire farther and farther from their reach. He paid heed to the late Roman politician Theodore, who wrote a number of books pleading for a reorganization of the Roman state. Social, economic, and military affairs were at rock bottom, and Inventius tried to pull them out.
Utilizing the Byzantine political game, Inventius played off the Ostrogoth kingdoms of Italy against each other. He exchanged letters with the Pope, agreeing formally to recognize the sovereignty of the Church in the empire's nominal protection. However, Inventius could not reverse the storm which was about to hit Italy in the form of the Lombards. When the Lombards and their other Barbarian allies had invaded Italy in 560, they had mainly targeted a few small city-states and Ostrogoth domains. But the emperor recognized they would prove to a major threat to the Western empire. To that end, he conspired with the Frankish tribes which now controlled Burgundy in southern Gaul, just northwest of Italy. The Western Roman Empire was spared "by the hand of God" when the Franks finally agreed to an alliance against the Lombards. The Romans were saved by this timely intervention. The Lombards suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Frankish king Chlothar I, who was in control of Provence (ceded to him b the Visigoths) and it was enough to stall their advance into Italy.
Yet the relief of the Lombard defeat was not enough to restore the withering empire. The power of the Lombards was only kept in check a while. Inventius could take little advantage of the Frankish victory as he was only able to win back a few towns in northern Italy, with a small army comprised mainly of Ostrogoths. The threat had only been delayed; it was still present. In 574 the Lombards swept into Italy, capturing Forum Iulii. There, Alboin created the first Lombard duchy, which he entrusted to his nephew Gisulf. Soon Vicenza, Verona and Brescia fell into their hands.
Inventius died with the empire left to an uncertain future. By this point the Lombards were preparing to march on Milan. Emperor Arsaphius, the nephew and successor of Inventius, hurried to stop them. Putting together a hastily-gathered alliance of some Gothic chieftains he took his field armies and moved to counter this threat. As the battle commenced, Arsaphius initially found himself overwhelmed by the Lombards’ numerical superiority. However, his superior military skill and the firmness of his troops soon turned the odds to his favour. By the end of the day he had completely routed the enemy barbarians, thereby obtaining a decisive victory.
Arsaphius's victory played a major role in securing ground for the empire. By defeating the Lombards, he had secured Milan for the Western imperial administration and had checked further Germanic advances into the Italian regions. The local Ostrogoths honored him as 'King of the Romans' and many of the minor fiefs in the area came under more direct Roman control. Yet Arsaphius's life was generally not a happy one. He ruled in Ravenna for ten years after his great victory. His wife had died while he was away campaigning. He had been unable to have any children, and his brothers spend their time arguing needlessly with each other and attempting to intrigue against the emperor. Upon his death of an illness in 583, his brothers fought over the throne. Eventually, all of them were captured and executed by Julius Maximianus, an official of Milan. An aggressive military leader who seized the crown in 586, he campaigned against the Lombards in 570, violating a previous alliance with them due to a bribe paid by the emperor of Pannonia. Maximianus also placed an imperial governor over Venice, cementing his control over that vital coastal area.
Reign of Maximianus and Later Effects
In 574 Maximianus captured Ticinum from the Lombards, expanding the dominion of the Western emperors. However, what he longed for was the restoration of Italy. A mammoth task lay before him. Depending on alliances with friendly Ostrogoth kingdoms and the dux/kings ruling them, the emperor played each fief against themselves and then moved in with his army to conquer. Before too long he had managed to capture a number of coastal cities and a strip of territory across northern Italy. The feeble, Romanized, Ostrogoth kings were unseated, their warriors weakened by long periods of inactivity.
By 580, Maximianus had captured Rome. His troops showed no mercy, loyalist Italians rose up against their Gothic masters, and the ruler of the surrounding Ostrogoth dominions was trampled by his own warriors as they fled. Maximianus, running short of soldiers for his army, relied heavily on Lombard mercenaries and conscripts. A Roman banner again waved over Rome's walls, and for a while it seemed as if the Roman Empire was restored. But a horrified Maximianus wrote that what he conquered was a dead, melancholy, ruin. The population, which had once numbered up to over a million, had now shrunk down to less than a hundred thousand and still shrinking. Its sparse and poverty-stricken people were no longer the citizens of Rome they had once been. The Senate, bothered by the growth in imperial power, looked on Maximianus as a meddlesome foreigner. Most of the palaces had fallen apart, and Maximianus lacked funds to maintain or restore them. Only a few of the churches were still maintained within their grounds, through the efforts of the Pope and the Church.
When, in 588 Maximianus finally died, Rome continued her decline. The empire was already hard-pressed to maintain Ravenna and northern Italy, but the countless campaigning against the Ostrogoths had taken a definite toll on the Italian landscape. Commerce and industry were already dying off, deserters from both sides roamed the countryside, productive fields were torched by marauding armies, and corpses remained unburied upon the battlefields. Autonomous Italian city-states were already beginning to form. For example, with effective imperial power weighted at the northeast end of Italy, the Pope, as the largest landowner and most prestigious figure in Italy, began by default to take on much of the ruling authority that the emperors were unable to project around Rome. While the Papacy theoretically remained a de jure imperial subject, Popes began ruling their city as a miniature state.
Firmus became Western Roman emperor in 588, a popular usurper endorsed by both the Senate and the Pannonian Empire. A previously low-ranking and insignificant politician of Venice, Firmus recognized the economic decline of Italy and sought to reverse it. Turning away from the original urban structures instituted as Roman tradition, Firmus decided that agriculture was a vital element in sustaining the empire and extended benefits to Germanic farmers. He also reduced taxes to further encourage this.
During his reign, the Western Roman Empire began to be struck by larger waves of feudalism. The Italian landowners of rich estates were able to extend their control over agriculture and politics. Firmus was unwilling to reverse the concentration of landed wealth; as many such landowners included members of the Senate and he felt he needed the support of the Roman aristocracy. He also compensated many of his officials with grants of land. To important magistrates in particular Firmus granted their estates immunity from the jurisdiction of the imperial agents. This laid the groundwork for a breakup of the Western empire as more and more power was transferred from the emperor to the landed noblemen. Outside of the major cities, Roman soldiers were unable to keep the countryside secure. The army was overextended enough as it was; with frontier garrisons defending Milan and Venice.
As brigands ravaged the rural communities and smaller towns, weaker Roman citizens fled to their more powerful neighbors for protection, as the rich could afford guards and mercenaries. Thus, the empire seeped slowly into a corrupted feudal system of patchwork estates.
By this point, the aristocracy was not solidly Italian. There were still Germanic feudal rulers which upheld many Roman laws and traditions. Many of the invading Germanic tribes were already Christianised, though most were followers of Arianism. They quickly converted to Catholicism, gaining more loyalty from the local Roman populations they ruled, as well as the recognition and support of the powerful Catholic Church. Although they initially continued to recognize indigenous tribal laws, they were more influenced by Roman Law and gradually incorporated it as well.
The Western Roman Empire continued to survive with a brief resurrection of trade due to the strategic locations of Venice and Ravenna. The Senate, abolished by the emperor Mercurius after a falling out in the 600's, ruled its own rump state in southern Italy. The Pope was virtually independent of the emperors, and disliked it when they tried meddling in affairs of Rome. In 751, the Western empire was attacked again by the Lombards. The emperor Constantius III was unable to mount an effective resistance and retreated to Ravenna, confident in the city's defenses. The Lombards then burned the surrounding countryside in an attempt to starve the Romans out. Yet the emperor, with some foresight had accumulated food for the public stores. The Romans began to prevail, but the Lombards refused to give up. With the Western Roman Empire unable to defend Rome, another Lombard army made its way to the city.
Desperate, the Papacy turned to the Franks for help. Rejecting the Western emperor's concerns about involving them in Italian affairs, the Pope begged them for assistance. The Frankish armies responded quickly. By 756, the Lombards had been crushed and the Papacy's dominion expanded. The Romans, assisted by the Franks, had also managed to beat back the attacks on Ravenna.
The Western Roman Empire was more concerned with Italian affairs to notice the Islamic expansion. Due to their European location they were spared Arab Muslim attacks, which devastated the Nicomedian empire almost beyond recovery and jockeyed with Pannonia for control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Vandals, teaming with the Romano-Moorish rump state in North Africa, were able to halt the Arab expansion, but Muslim fleets would continue to harass the Greece and on isolated occasion, Sicily for years to come.
Meanwhile, affairs in the north were changing, especially among the Franks, now one of the most powerful peoples in Gaul. Until recently, the descendants of Clovis I had been Kings of the Franks. Though their one failure was to conquer the Romano-Gallo Kingdom of Soissons, they was endorsed by the Pope, who felt as if the Western emperor was far too weak and the Eastern emperors too distant for him to depend on. The Franks soon welded massive power and built an empire of their own, driving the Visigoths out of Gaul and claiming all of the province besides Brittany and Soissons.
When Mayor Charles Martel came to power among the Franks, he made himself virtual ruler of the Frankish kingdom, and his son Pepin became king. Charlemagne became a new king of the Franks, sharing power with his brother at first. The Western Roman Empire braced itself for attack as Charlemagne was married to a Lombard princess to secure an alliance. The emperor and the Pope both opposed such an alliance, as both Church and empire had faced attacks from the Lombard kingdom (based in northeastern Italy) before.
Less than a year after the marriage, however, Charlemagne repudiated Desiderata, and quickly remarried to a 13-year-old Swabian named Hildegard. Even if the Western emperor, Symeonius, was breathing a sigh of relief, he wouldn't be for long. In 772 a falling-out between the Papacy and the Lombard kingdom sucked in the unwilling Western Roman Empire when the Lombards invaded the Pentapolis, threatening several important imperial cities along the coast. The Romans were only able to offer token resistance and the angry Lombards ravaged the countryside, headed for the Papal State based around Rome.
Charlemagne sided with the Pope when he wrote to the Franks asking for assistance, and when the Lombards refused to comply, the Frankish forces invaded and laid siege to Pavia. The Western Roman Empire tried to keep its major cities like Milan and Venice out of the way, as these territories were isolated and surrounded by Lombard dominions. The garrisons were on their own, unable to receive reinforcements if either Lombard or Frank tried to attack them.
In 774, Charlemagne visited Rome and was granted the title of patrician, as well as a forced recognition from the Western Roman Empire. The Roman Republic in the South, meanwhile, controlled by the Senate, took advantage of this to crush the Lombard duke of Benevento, which at the time was occupying some territory in southern Italy. The Lombards surrendered to the Franks in the north, meanwhile, and their power came to an end.
The Franks absorbed the Lombard kingdom, controlling much of northern Italy, with the exception of the few territories claimed by the Western Roman Empire. Unwilling to simply wipe out the Romans because of his respect for the Pope, Charlemagne chose to leave them alone.
In 799, Pope Leo III was mistreated by the people of Rome, who tried to put out his eyes and tear out his tongue. Leo escaped and fled to the Western Roman emperor Romanus I, asking him to intervene in Rome and restore him. The emperor, seizing his chance to perhaps establish political dominance over the Papacy, agreed to travel to Rome, doing so in November 800 and holding a council on December 1. On 23 December Leo swore an oath of innocence, and the Pope's rule was restored. Romanus insisted from then on that Leo owed him a favor, and he would expect the Papacy to make good on it when he wished.
Romanus died the following year, succeeded by his son Constantine IV. Although the Franks continued to claim northern Italy, the enclaves of the Western Roman Empire remained out of their hands and Constantine used the Pope to make good between the empire and the Frankish kingdom which was currently expanding across Western Europe. These regions remained outside of Frankish hands until 804, when the Venetians, torn by infighting, transferred their allegiance to the Iron Crown of Pippin, Charles' son. Constantine demanded the Frankish crown return this territory, and the only instance of war between the Western Roman Empire and the Franks, as it was, began. It lasted until 808, when the Roman forces were decisively crushed by the overwhelming numbers of the Frankish army. Unwilling, however, to annex the Romans, Charlemagne was persuaded by the Pope to accept a yearly tribute instead. Venice remained more or less independent until a pro-Roman party gave their city back to Ravenna, and the two great emperors of Europe, Frank and Roman, made peace.
The age of Charlemagne was generally one of stability for Italy, though it was dominated by a non-Italian interest. The 11th century signed the end of the darkest period in the Middle Ages. Trade slowly increased, especially on the seas. The papacy regained its authority, and started a long struggle with the empire, about both ecclesiastical and secular matter. In the 12th century many of the Italian feudal aristocracy whose estates lay in the Western Roman Empire launched a successful effort to win some measure of autonomy; this made north Italy a land of quasi-independent city-states until the 19th century.
With the emperor suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Italian nobles, the Western Roman Empire underwent its first major political change. It became a highly decentralized state by the 1400's. Reeling from the defeat by the nobles, the imperial administration was divided into roughly a dozen or so individual entities governed by Germanic, Italian, and Frankish dukes, counts, bishops, abbots or other rulers, collectively known as princes. There were also some areas, such as Ravenna and Venice, ruled directly by the emperor. At no time could the emperor really issue decrees and govern autonomously over the empire. Although nominally an absolute monarchy, the emperor's power was severely restricted by the various nobles and local leaders from that point on.
Both the emperor and the feudal nobles inevitably needed each other, but also inevitably quarreled and were jealous of each others' power as well. The Western Roman Empire represented an odd exception in a feudal Europe in the fact that it possessed a standing army - a noticeably small standing army at the command of the emperor himself. All were trained volunteers from the emperor's direct jurisdictions, Venice and Ravenna. The regular soldiers were often more than enough to keep one noble at a time in line and prevent them from simply overthrowing the emperor or the political union of the empire, but not enough to keep them all in check at once. At the same time, the standing army was not enough to repel foreign invasion; thus the emperor had to rely on the nobles to argument most of his military numbers in times of war.
The Western Roman Empire also suffered because there was not a very clear line of royal accession. Military commanders in Ravenna or usurpers often seized the throne, aside from the instances when the nobles or the Papacy installed an emperor.
From the High Middle Ages onwards, the Western Roman Empire was marked by an uneasy coexistence of the princes of the local territories who were struggling to take power away from it. To a greater extent than in other Roman kingdoms such as Nicomedia, Moor, and Pannonia, the emperors after the 15th Century were unable to gain much control over the lands that they formally owned. Instead, to secure their own position from the threat of being deposed, they were forced to grant more and more autonomy to local noblemen.
All pretenses had long been dropped about the schism between the emperor and the Senate, which were now two separate kingdoms. However, the precise nature of the relationship between the Popes and Emperors — and between the Papal State and the Western Roman Empire — was not clear. Was the Pope a sovereign ruler of a separate realm in central Italy, or was the Papal State just a part of the Roman Empire over which the Popes had administrative control? Or were the Roman Emperors vicars of the Pope (as a sort of Arch emperor) ruling Christendom, with the Pope directly responsible only for the environs of Rome and spiritual duties?
In truth, after Romanus I, emperors rarely interfered in Papal affairs, both Papacy and empire keeping each other at a polite distance. By 1000, the Papal State had become effectively independent.
From 1505 to 1578, the Emperors lived in the enclave of Venice, close to Illyricum, and were under the influence of the Bohemian kings. The Kingdom of Bohemia (Czech: České království; German: Königreich Böhmen; Latin: Regnum Bohemiae) was a rising new kingdom located in the region of Bohemia in Central Europe.
Although some former rulers of Bohemia had enjoyed a non-hereditary royal title during the 11th and 12th century (Vratislaus II, Vladislaus II), the kingdom was formally established in 1198 by Ottokar I. By the 1400's the Bohemian kingdom was the most powerful state of Germania. Dominated by a banking family which founded head financing houses in Europe and set up varied organizations for the handling of money, the Bohemians gained additional influence when King Charles of Bohemia was also crowned king of Hungaria.
From there, the Bohemians inherited the crowns of a number of smaller German principalities, as well as the Polish kingdom. Through intermarriage with royal families and their general financial success, the Bohemian ruling family of Prazsky turned its eyes to the Western Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire was decaying under a series of nominal and weak emperors, while Bohemia expanded. By the 1500's, a large amount of territory had been claimed for Bohemian arms, mainly in Illyria, Lithuania and Wallachia. The Imperial capital was located in Prague. The Prazsky monarchy was usually referred to as the "Bohemian Empire" until it was dissolved in the early twentieth century.
There were already a number of Prazsky officials serving in the court at Ravenna, it was easy for the Bohemian royals to consider the Western Roman Empire another territory ripe for the picking. However, it would not be proper for the Bohemian rulers to simply annex the West into their growing dominion, so they provided enough financial backing to the empire's affairs for them to come to dominate it. Indeed, the Western Roman Empire was not coming along well at all. Its financial resources had been dried up by a series of foolish or stupid emperors, and it had entered a state of definite decay. The tragic remnants of ancient imperial authority were now just another little, struggling, nation in the European masses. Visitors coming to Ravenna to see the last vestiges of the mighty Roman Empire indeed went away disappointed. While it was still possible to see a few richly-dressed members of the imperial family, most travelers were stunned by its emptiness and void of life. Many were amazed to find such a large and once-splendid city full of crumbling, inhabitable, ruins.
There were still a few glittering palaces and a few marketplaces of merchandise, filled with those who preferred to do business there rather than in Venice, and a yearly inflow of pilgrims who arrived to see the churches and admire the shrines. But it was now clear the glory of old Rome from the days of Constantine had passed away, leaving an empty shell of an empire behind.
Venice was in much better condition, and considered one of the chief ports of Italy. It had an annual fair which was a meeting place for merchants of all nations, rivaling the Pannonian one in Thessalonica. There was less emptiness and less decay, and Venice was a vibrant city, the real seat of imperial power, while Ravenna was one in name only.
The Prazskys, having gotten into the imperial favor, began to take power and turn the Western empire into one of their monarchies, ruling in the name of a Roman emperor. In 1545 they achieved this goal when Charles Prazsky was appointed treasurer of the empire, giving them control of its wealth, what there was of it. Though many Romans opposed the growth of Prazsky influence in the nation, many others hoped that the Bohemian money would be able to allow the imperial administration to survive.
The various Prazsky possessions never really formed a single country - each province was governed according to its own particular customs. Until the mid 19th century, all of the provinces were not even necessarily ruled by the same person - junior members of the family often ruled portions of the Hereditary Lands as private apanages.
Decline in Trade
The Western Roman Empire, in spite of Bohemian support, began a long decline started in the 15th century, when it first made an unsuccessful attempts to seize some of the Croatian islands from the Pannonian emperor. It also sent ships to help defend Byzantium against the besieging Turks in the 1600's. These were destroyed by the Turkish fleet or wrecked in the stormy Aegean.
Next, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Then the Spanish found a sea route to India, destroying the empire's land route monopoly through Venice. Frankistan, England, and the Dutch soon followed them. Roman oared galleys had no advantage when it came to traversing the great oceans, and thus, the empire was left behind in the race for overseas colonies.
The Black Death devastated Venice and Ravenna in 1348 and once again between 1575 and 1577. In three years the plague killed some 50,000 people. In 1630, the plague killed a third of Venice's 150,000 citizens. The Western Roman Empire began to lose its position as a trade center during the later part of the Renaissance as Spain became Europe's principal intermediary in the trade with the East, while Frankistan and Bohemia fought for influence over Italy in the later 1600's, marginalising imperial political influence.
Road to Disintegration
Italian nationalism had been stoked during the Bohemian periods of control, as many of the people were tired and irritated by foreign affairs and Prazsky influence. In 1826, nationalist and liberal revolutions began to break out across Europe (Including in the Roman Republic and the Papal State); in 1829, a new Free Italian Movement was declared in Ravenna and Emperor John VII fled the city.
The revolutionaries set up a new Parliament and republic, initiating negotiations with the emperor and demanding that he renounce his power and take up his office with the functions of a nominal monarch. Enraged, the emperor instead gathered an army in Venice and assaulted Ravenna, but the republican defenders repulsed his forces with heavy losses.
The Free Italian Movement was in favor of establishing a more democratic republic which would give power to representatives in a governing body representing the people, not a Bohemian puppet monarch or a group of feudal-era Roman aristocrats.
The emperor was finally forced to negotiate again, and though he didn't not favor the radical options presented to him, the rebels agreed to a compromise and surrendered the city. After this, though Ravenna was again under Roman control, the civil government was never again directly in the hands of the higher nobles or the emperor. Representatives of the population in each respective province of the empire were allowed to petition the emperor for the passing of certain laws and make local decisions. The age-old aristocracy of nobles were getting sidelined, but after centuries of weakening they were unable to oppose this and were more or less pushed to one side.
Second Italian Revolution
- Main article: Republic of Greater Italy
In 1860, the Italian Democratic Republican Movement, a more radical revolution than the first, ousted the emperor from Venice. In 1861, with much of the region already in rebellion against Roman rule, the Republicans conquered the eastern two-thirds of the Western Roman Empire and cemented its hold on the south. Florence and Milan were both formally annexed by November of the same year, and a unified Republic of Greater Italy was declared.
However, the Republicans could not take possession of its capital because the Bohemians kept a garrison in Ravenna protecting Emperor Constantine XII. The opportunity to eliminate the Western Roman Empire came when the Illyrian War for Independence began in July 1863. The Bohemian government was forced to recall its garrison from Rome.
The Republic of Greater Italy seized the opportunity to attack Ravenna and the surrounding provinces. Bohemia tried to persuade the Italian republicans to accept the province in exchange for sparing the city. However, on June 29, Italy declared war on Bohemia, which promptly marched all available border troops into Venetia as a threatening gesture.
The republican leader Guivannii Visconti hastened to lead an army to counter the invasion of Venetia, while another group of rebels were to lay siege to Ravenna. The enterprise ended in disaster. The republican army encountered the Bohemians near Venice on July 7 and suffered a defeat. On July 20 the imperial forces drove the republicans from Ravenna, led by the Emperor Constantine.
The Roman army then proceeded to ravage the countryside, laying waste to the nearby villages. The people, exposed to the indescribable brutality and merciless torture of the imperial troops, began to turn against the emperor. In spite of numerous Italian losses, Illyrian success on the eastern front obliged Bohemia to withdraw from Venetia, abandoning the emperor. Under the terms of a peace treaty signed in Venice on November 3, the Bohemian government agreed to formally renounce all claims to Venice.
Realizing that all was lost, Constantine XII came to the negotiations table. The republicans demanded his abdication and called for the old Western Roman Empire to be abolished.
In the peace treaty of Ravenna, it was agreed that the annexation of the city would have become effective only after a referendum — taken on November 21 and November 22 — to let the people express their will about being annexed or not to the Republic of Greater Italy. Imperial loyalist movements suggested that the referendum in Ravenna was held under military pressure, as almost none of voters among the population raised their voice against the annexation.
A few scattered imperial forces put up some opposition to the invading republicans, to little effect. Guivannii Visconti entered Ravenna on November 24, and the banner of the Western Roman Empire was lowered for the last time. While a number of pretenders to the throne would continue to skirmish with the Italian army for the next few months, the conflict was effectively over.
The Western Roman Empire and the imperial titles and offices of traditional court officials and those of the imperial ruling family have been abolished by the Republic of Greater Italy.
The nephew of the last Emperor, Constantine XII, Pietro Cimsir, had inherited the defunct title of Western Roman Emperor and used it from 1865 until his death in 1903. By the end of the 1860's, the Republic had established its firm rule over all of the northern Italian provinces. The Kings of Soissons continued to consider themselves proper heirs to the Roman Empire, as did the rulers of Byzantium and Moor. Meanwhile, Bohemia harboured many imperial officials who had fled Italy, including some high-ranking officials and noblemen.
Several members of the Cimsir imperial family continue to live a modest life, unmolested, near Ravenna as part of the last dynasty of the Western Roman Empire.