Why do people mistakenly believe the Roman Empire fell in the in the 400s?
It is because of a basic misunderstanding of history and a long told political lie that leaked into modern education.
By 285 CE the Roman Empire had become to large to manage. Communication channels of the period could not rapidly move information through the empire to allow centralized control. Diocletian surveyed the empire at that time and determined that most of the wealth was now centered on the Eastern, greek speaking regions. To make the empire workable, he split the empire into two parts, moving the capital of the entire Empire to the city of Byzantium, establishing a center of rule in Roman with backup administration in Ravenna, and allowed more freedom and independence to the southern and northern extents.
In 378 CE Emperor Valens, the senior member of the pair that ruled east and west, fought a significant battle against the Goths and lost. Called Adrianople, the loss caused confusion in the east, and Roman forces were withdrawn from most of the extremities of the empire to defend the empire's capital, Constantinople. The western portions were still considered part of the empire, but were cast off to fend for themselves.
In Roman literature there is a continual paean that calls for the recapture of the lost eastern provinces. With the sack of Rome, issues had gone a long way to making that impossible. Part of the issue was that the young Christian church had several branches each claiming supremacy. The Roman church, based in Rome, claimed supremacy based on a theory that Peter was the person who established that church. The Orthodox (read that to me official or genuine) Christian church believed that the church was Rome, and Rome was the church, and since it was based in the Empire, with a headquarters in Constantinople, this was the official church.
Interestingly, in the 500s Emperor Justinian, sensing the time was correct, dispatched the great General Belisarius to the west to recapture as much of what they called the lost territories as could be grabbed. If Justinian had seen the course through, the west would have been recaptured. From 533 to 540 he beat the stuffing out of everyone, deposed the Western Pope Silverus and won much of the old territories. This victory was not sustainable because of Justinian’s paranoia, and Belisarius returned to Rome and served as a heroic defender of the capital Constantnople, until his popularity and effectiveness caused him to be tried for corruption.
It is interesting that all of the writings about Belisarius call him the Roman Empire's greatest general, if he served 75 years after the fall of the Empire.
With the failed reconquest by Rome of the west, a thousand year marketing campaign started of people who wanted to claim the mantle of true Rome. Everyone wanted to be the official Christian Church, and politically, this meant everyone wanted to be the Roman Empire without a break from the old empire. The fact that the Roman Empire existed, that millions of peoples called themselves Roman, and that the fall of the city of Rome was not as consequential as it would seem to an empire that had long since moved its riches and capital east, was simply ignore by many.
Not by all though. Pope Leo the III started in the 790s agitating for a recognition of Rome’s religious supremacy and the contingency of Rome proper in Italy, but the city of Rome was no longer capable of administrating a street cleaning. Instead he turned to a rising star in the west, Charles, King of the Franks. The Frankish Kingdom was growing at the time around a group of tribes with long Imperial ties, and there was a minor florescence of renaissance as scholars from Romanized regions under control of invaders migrated to this new empire.
With the defeat of the encroaching Caliphate at Poitiers by Martel, the father of Charles, The Frankish kingdoms grew in stature and respect. Further military campaigns, even the relatively unsuccessful ones into Iberia, caused Charles to be hailed by many, including the Roman Emperor Constantine VI, as a hero of Christianity. In 800 there began a strange dance between Leo and Charles. Leo decided to bestow the title Emperor of Rome on Charles. Charles decided to treat the title more like a Christian protector. There was, after-all, a Roman Emperor. Leo then declared the Kingdom of the Franks the Roman Empire and stated that as the most Holy Empire the Roman Pontiff was in essence the leader of the realm, but that he graciously handed this burden to Charles. Charles thanked him and ignored the issue, except that of course his Kingdom was Christian and followed the western practice of faith. And that leads some students on history tests to craziness because the Frankish Kingdom never became the Roman Empire, and the French recognized the Roman Empire in the east as the true bearer of the name.
The title of Holy Roman Empire was too cool to leave laying around. In 962 a German prince, Otto I, concerned that Europeans saw his people as jumped up Barbarians and relatives of the people who invaded the empire, grabbed the title for himself. Voltaire would later quip that the Holy Roman Empire was three lies in one sentence. It was neither Holy, Roman, or an Empire. France never bothered with the idea that the Holy Roman Empire was much more than a weak conglomeration of German states, and even went so far as to allow the papacy during the schism years to house itself in Avignon, In a piece of extreme irony the Holy Roman Empire mostly abandoned Catholicism during reformation, and was given a mercy killing by Napoleon Bonaparte.
So what about the Roman Empire? It continued to chug along, calling itself the Roman Empire, its citizens Romans, and its religion Orthodox Christianity. Eventually though you find scholars with religious background wishing to find some way to make sure that everyone knew the Roman Empire was a Christian empire. They start calling the Roman Empires the Byzantium Emperors as a cluster, to make sure everyone knew they were not the same as the ones who sacrificed to Zeus. At the same time the Empire slowly started to shrink, acting as a bulwark protecting Europe from progressive waves of Central Asian invaders. This was aided by the Christianizing of several powerful tribes, the Kievan Rus, the Greater Slavs, and the Armenians all expanded their ranges and Christianized, and looked to Rome for inspiration. You can see this today in the use of the term Caesar to represent a leader in all of these regions.
The pressure from the East though proved to much for the Roman Empire. Slowly through ethnic cleansing the invaders pushed Greek speaking Romans from much of Anatolia. European efforts to aid the Roman Empire proved counterproductive or futile. The Fourth Crusade in 1204 actually sacked Constantinople, and in 1396 the combined might of a European army had its collective bottom handed to it by the Turks at Nicopolis.
Although a successor state existed for a short while, the historically accurate end of the Roman empire is dated to 29 May, 1453 when the last Emperor of the Roman people, Constantine XI Palaiologos, lead a charge of 7000 soldiers against a Turkish force of 85,000. He was last seen in combat against dozens of Turks and his body was never recovered.
Travel through the regions of the Empire today and you will see the words that means Imperial Rome. Although scholars call them Byzantines for political reasons, they called themselves Romans, and the last emperor died never having heard of the name the Byzantine Empire.
A note to my visitors. In years past I have shared many of my short stories and even books with players of the Virdea games (such as Total Eclipse by Shrapnel Games). With an effort to produce a new generation of writing, I have decided to withdraw both my handmade books and my small pressrun fan copies. It is my intention to make some of these stories commercially available, and to provide others free again or at cost once I have negotiated a contract with an agent. As always, please feel to communicate with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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