The three sons of the late emperor, Constantine, Constantius, and Constans, as soon as their father was dead, put to death their two cousins, Hannibalianus and Dalmatius, with many more of their relatives; only Gallus and Julian, the children of Julius Constantius, being left alive. They then divided the empire, A.D. 337, Constantine, the elder, retaining the new capital, Constans receiving the western provinces, while to Constantius was left Syria and the East. Sapor, king of Persia, invaded the Eastern provinces, and defeated the Romans in various battles. Meanwhile a quarrel broke out between Constantine and Constans, and the former, having invaded his brother's provinces, was defeated and slain, A.D. 350. Ten years afterward Constans was himself put to death by Magnentius, an ambitious soldier, who at once assumed the name of emperor. Constantius marched against him, but found that Vetranio, præfect of Illyricum, had joined him, instigated by the Princess Constantina. He finally, however, defeated Magnentius, and deposed the aged Vetranio, and thus became the master of Rome. Having recalled Gallus and Julian from banishment, the emperor gave them the title of Cæsars. Gallus proved unfit for public affairs, while Julian won the esteem of all men by his conduct and valor. He drove the Germans out of Gaul, which they had invaded, and even crossed the Rhine, in imitation of Julius Cæsar.
Constantius now became jealous of the rising fame of Julian, who was beloved by the Western legions, and commanded him to send the finest part of his army to the East. Julian prepared to obey, but the soldiers rose in revolt, proclaiming him Julian Augustus. He sent messengers to the emperor demanding the recognition of his election; but war could not long be averted. Julian abjured Christianity, which he had hitherto professed, together with his allegiance to the emperor, and led a small army of well-chosen soldiers against his rival. Meantime Constantius, in A.D. 361, November 3d, died of a fever in Syria, while Julian entered Constantinople December 11th, amid the applause of the people. He was acknowledged emperor. He was now in his thirty-second year, in many particulars the most remarkable of the second Flavian family.
Julian had been educated by the Platonic philosophers, and resolved to restore the ancient form of religion. He sacrificed to the pagan gods, rebuilt their temples, revived the practice of augury, or divination, and vainly strove to impose upon the human mind a superstition which it had just thrown off. In order to mortify the Christians, he resolved to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, and restore the Jews to their ancient seat. But some natural phenomenon interposed; the workmen were driven away by balls of fire, and Julian abandoned his design.
Except this unphilosophical hostility toward the Christians, whose faith he had once professed, Julian seems to have made a sincere attempt to improve the condition of his people. He lived with frugality, rewarded merit, and encouraged learning, except where it was employed in the defense of Christianity. He was also successful in his wars against the Germans and the Persians, but at length was defeated by the latter, and was killed A.D. 363, June 26th.
Julian affected in his dress and manners the rudeness and indifference of a philosopher, was free from vice, possessed considerable learning, and wrote a work of some value, in which he compared and studied the characters of the long line of his predecessors.
Jovian was now proclaimed emperor by the Eastern army, and concluded a dishonorable peace with the Persians. He next published an edict restoring Christianity, but was found dead in his bed, A.D. 364.
Valentinian was next chosen emperor, who gave the Eastern provinces to his brother Valens. He made Milan the seat of his own government, while Valens reigned at Constantinople; and the empire was from this time divided into the Eastern and the Western. The whole of the Western world was distressed by the invasion of barbarous tribes, and Valentinian now made his son Gratian his heir, in order to remove all doubt as to the succession. The Saxon pirates, meantime, harassed all the coasts of Gaul, while Britain was invaded by the Picts and Scots. Theodosius, however, defeated them, and was soon after sent to quell an insurrection in Africa. This he succeeded in doing, when Valentinian died suddenly, A.D. 375.
Valens, his brother, meantime had suppressed a rebellion in the East, led by Procopius; and then, having become an Arian, commenced a severe persecution of the orthodox, of whom no fewer than eighty ecclesiastics were put to death for supporting the election of a bishop of their own faith at Constantinople. Valens also succeeded in repelling the attacks of the Persians.
In the West Valentinian had been succeeded by his sons Gratian and Valentinian II. The brave Theodosius, meanwhile, whose valor had preserved the peace of the nation, was executed by order of Gratian, and soon after the Huns appeared upon the Danube. These savages are thought to have entered Europe from Tartary. Their faces were artificially flattened and their beards plucked out. They left the cultivation of their fields to the women or slaves, and devoted their lives to warfare. A wandering race, they built no cities nor houses, and never slept beneath a roof. They lived upon horseback. The Huns first attacked their fellow-barbarians, the Ostrogoths, and made a fearful carnage, putting all the women and children to death.
The Gothic nation now begged permission from the Romans to cross the Danube, and settle within the Roman territory. Their request was granted, upon condition that they should surrender all their arms; but this condition was imperfectly fulfilled. The celebrated Bishop Ulphilas about this time converted the Goths to Arianism, invented a Gothic alphabet, and infused among the Goths a hatred for the Catholic faith, which served to increase their zeal in all their future conflicts with the Romans. Ill-treated by the Roman commissioners who had been sent by the Emperor Valens to superintend their settlement, the Goths marched against Constantinople. Valens wrote to Gratian for aid, and the latter, although his own dominions were harassed by the Germans, marched to the aid of his uncle, but died at Sirmium. Valens encountered Fritigern, the Gothic leader, near Adrianople, in A.D. 378, and was defeated and slain. Nearly the whole of the Roman army was destroyed upon this fatal field.
Gratian now chose as his colleague Theodosius, the son of the former brave commander of that name, and Theodosius for a time restored the Roman empire. He defeated the Goths, won their affections by his clemency, and induced them to protect the frontiers of the Danube. Gratian was defeated and put to death, A.D. 383, by a usurper, Maximus, who also deprived Valentinian II. of his province of Italy. Theodosius, however, defeated the usurper in A.D. 388, and generously restored Valentinian to his throne. Valentinian was murdered by a Frank, Arbogastes, in A.D. 392, but Theodosius marched against him, and defeated and destroyed the rebels Arbogastes and Eugenius, A.D. 394.
Theodosius the Great, who had thus reunited the empire under his own sway, belonged to the orthodox faith, and sought to suppress Arianism, as well as many other heresies which, had crept into the Christian Church. He was a prudent ruler, and resisted successfully the inroads of the barbarians. He divided his empire between his two sons, Honorius and Arcadius, the former becoming Emperor of the West, the latter, who was the elder, succeeding his father at Constantinople; and Theodosius soon after died, lamented by his subjects. Rufinus, who became the chief minister of Arcadius, oppressed and plundered the Eastern empire. He was universally hated by the people. Stilicho, on the other hand, who also became the chief minister of Honorius, was a very different character. He was a brave and active commander, and restored the former glory of the Roman arms. His chief opponent was the famous Alaric, who now united the Gothic forces under his own command, and, having penetrated into Greece, ravaged and desolated that unhappy country. The barbarians plundered Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and Argos; and those cities, once so renowned for valor, seemed to offer him no resistance, so fallen was the ancient spirit of the Greeks. Stilicho, however, pursued Alaric into Elis, and would, perhaps, have totally destroyed the barbarians had not the feeble Arcadius not only made peace with Alaric, but appointed him to the command of Illyricum. Alaric, not long after, invaded Italy, but was defeated by his rival. In A.D. 403 he again invaded Italy, and was induced to retreat by a considerable bribe.
The Emperor Honorius removed from Rome to Ravenna, where he believed himself more secure; and when a new horde of barbarians invaded Italy in A.D. 406, and had besieged Florence, they were totally defeated and destroyed by Stilicho. A portion of the invaders escaped into Gaul, where they committed great ravages, until Constantine, the governor of Britain, was proclaimed emperor, who wrested Gaul and Spain from the dominion of Honorius. This weak prince, in A.D. 408, consented to the murder of Stilicho. His new minister, Olympius, directed the slaughter of the families of the barbarians throughout Italy, a cruelty which was fearfully avenged.
Alaric, the scourge of Rome, marched into Italy, and in A.D. 408 besieged the capital. Pestilence and famine soon raged within the walls of Rome, until the Senate purchased a respite from their calamities by an enormous ransom. Honorius refused to confirm the treaty, and the next year Alaric once more appeared before the city. He took possession of Ostia, the port of Rome, reduced the Senate to surrender, and proclaimed Attalus emperor. Honorius still refusing to yield to his demands, Alaric resolved to punish Rome for the vices of its emperor. The sack of that city now followed, one of the most fearful tragedies in history.
No foreign enemy had appeared before the gates of Rome since the invasion of Hannibal, until Alaric made his successful inroad into Italy. The city still retained all that magnificence with which it had been invested by the emperors. The Colosseum, the baths, the aqueducts, the palaces of the Senators, the public gardens, and the ancient temples, still remained; but its people were lost in luxury and vice. Learning was no longer respected among them, the gamester or the cook being more esteemed than philosophers or poets; and the luxurious Senators passed their lives in frivolous and degrading amusements. The indolent people were maintained by a daily distribution of bread, baked in the public ovens; and oil, wine, and bacon were also provided for them during a part of the year. The public baths were open to the people, and for a small copper coin they might enter those scenes of luxury where the walls were incrusted with precious marble, and perpetual streams of hot water flowed from silver tubes. From the bath they passed to the Circus, where, although the combats of gladiators had been suppressed by Christian princes, a succession of amusements was still provided. In this manner the luxurious nobles and people of Rome passed their tranquil, inglorious lives.
The wealth of the capital was such as might well attract the barbarous invader. The palaces of the Senators were filled with gold and silver ornaments, and the churches had been enriched by the contributions of pious worshipers. Many of the nobles possessed estates which produced several hundred thousand dollars a year, and the wealth of the world was gathered within the walls of its capital.
We have no means of estimating accurately the population of Rome. Its walls embraced a circuit of twenty-one miles, and it is probable that nearly a million of people were contained within the walls and the suburbs.
Such was the condition of Rome when it was about to fall before the arms of the barbarians. August 24th, A.D. 410, Alaric approached the city, and the gates being opened to him by some Gothic slaves, his troops began at night a fearful scene of pillage and destruction. Men, women, and children were involved in a general massacre; nobles and plebeians suffered under a common fate. The Goths, as they entered, set fire to the houses in order to light their path, and the flames consumed a large part of the city. Great numbers of the citizens were driven away in hordes to be sold as slaves; others escaped to Africa, or to the islands on the coast of Italy, where the Goths, having no ships, were unable to follow them. But Alaric, who was an Arian, spared the churches of Rome, and was anxious to save the city from destruction. From this time, however, A.D. 410, began that rapid decay which soon converted Rome into a heap of ruins.
Alaric, after six days given to plunder, marched out of the city, to the southern part of Italy, where he died. His body was buried under the waters of a rivulet, which was turned from its course in order to prepare his tomb; and, the waters being once more led back to their channel, the captives who had performed the labor were put to death, that the Romans might never discover the remains of their Gothic scourge.
The brother of Alaric, Adolphus, who succeeded him, was married to the Princess Placidia, and now became the chief ally of Honorius. He restored Gaul to the empire, but was murdered while upon an expedition into Spain. Wallia, the next Gothic king, reduced all Spain and the eastern part of Gaul under the yoke of the Visigoths. The empire of the West was now rapidly dismembered. The Franks and Burgundians took possession of Gaul. Britain, too, was from this time abandoned by the Romans, and was afterward, in A.D. 448, overrun and conquered by the Angles and the Saxons, and thus the two great races, the English and the French, began.
Arcadius, the Eastern emperor, governed by his minister, the eunuch Eutropius, and by the Empress Eudoxia, was led into many cruelties; and St. Chrysostom, the famous bishop and orator, was one of the illustrious victims of their persecutions. Arcadius died in A.D. 408, and was succeeded by the young Theodosius, who was controlled in all his measures by his sister Pulcheria, and for forty years Pulcheria ruled the East with uncommon ability. Honorius died in A.D. 423, when Valentinian III., son of Placidia, his sister, was made Emperor of the West. He was wholly governed by his mother, and thus Placidia and Pulcheria ruled over the civilized world.
The Vandals, who had settled in the province of Andalusia, in Spain, were invited into Africa by Count Boniface, who had been led into this act of treachery by the intrigues of his rival Ætius. Genseric, the Vandal king, conquered Africa, although Boniface, repenting of his conduct, endeavored to recover the province; and thus Italy was now threatened on the south by the Vandal power in Africa.
The Huns, meantime, who had been detained upon the upper side of the Danube, now crossed that river, being united under the control of Attila, and became the terror of the civilized world. Attila first threatened an attack upon the Eastern empire, but at length turned his arms against the West. He was defeated by Ætius and the Visigoths in A.D. 451, but the next year he invaded Italy, demanded the Princess Honoria in marriage, and destroyed many of the Italian cities. He spared the city of Rome, however, and finally died in A.D. 453. His death alone saved the empire from complete ruin.
Valentinian III., who had put to death the brave commander Ætius, was murdered by the patrician Maximus in A.D. 455. The Vandals now besieged and plundered Rome, and sold many thousands of the citizens as slaves. Avitus, a Gaul, next became emperor by the influence of Theodoric, king of the Visigoths, but was soon deposed by Count Ricimer, and was followed by Majorian, a man of merit, who endeavored to reform the nation. He died in A.D. 461. Count Ricimer then declared Severus emperor, but was forced to apply for aid against the Vandals to the court of Constantinople, where Leo was now emperor. Leo appointed Anthemius to the throne of the West, and sent an army against the Vandals in Africa, which was totally defeated. Ricimer then deposed Anthemius, and declared Olybrius emperor; but both Ricimer and Olybrius died in A.D. 472. Leo next appointed Julius Nepos his colleague. Glycerius, an obscure soldier, made an effort to obtain the throne, but yielded to Nepos, and became Bishop of Salona. Orestes, who had succeeded Count Ricimer as commander of the barbarian mercenaries, deprived Nepos of his throne; and Nepos, having fled into Dalmatia, was executed by his old rival Glycerius.
Orestes gave the throne to his son Romulus, to whom he also gave the title of Augustus, which was afterward changed by common consent to Augustulus. But Odoacer, the leader of the German tribes, put Orestes to death, sent Augustulus into banishment, with a pension for his support, and, having abolished the title of emperor, in A.D. 476 declared himself King of Italy.
Romulus Augustus was the last emperor of the West, and bore the name of the founder of the monarchy as well as of the empire, a singular circumstance.
In this manner fell the Roman Empire, a noble fabric, which its founder hoped would endure forever. Its destruction, however, gave rise to the various kingdoms and states of modern Europe, and thus civilization and Christianity, which might have remained confined to the shores of the Mediterranean, have been spread over a large portion of the world.