History Fact Friday – The Fall of Rome

In most Western history textbooks, you are taught that the Roman Empire fell to barbarian invaders in 476 AD. This is patently false.

Fact #1: The ‘barbarians’ were part of the empire.

Odoacer, the man who deposed Romulus Augustulus the last official western Roman emperor, was the commander of foederati troops. The only thing that made him different from the previous several generals who had deposed emperors was that he refused to accept the title of Augustus and sent the royal vestments to Constantinople.

The German troops that Odoacer led were not even pagans. They were Arian Christians.

Fact #2: The Empire did not fall

Long before Odoacer’s deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the center of power in the Roman Empire had shifted east to Constantinople. Rome had been considered something of a client state by the emperors at Constantinople for some time and while the ruler still nominally held the title of Augustus, it was an empty title.

What’s more, Romulus Augustulus’ claim to the title of Augustus was never ratified. Julius Nepos technically was still the Augustus in the west. Zeno, the emperor in Constantinople, seems to have barely even noticed Odoacer’s actions, especially since Odoacer pledged his allegiance to the empire as a client king in Italy.

In reality, the Roman Empire continued on quite happily for centuries after Odoacer’s attack. Theodosius I even reincorporated most of Italy back into the Empire a few years later. Even the emergence of Islam did not affect the Roman Empire too much until the coming of the Seljuks and later the Ottomans.

Modern histories call this the ‘Byzantine’ empire, but the ‘Byzantines’ themselves would have not care for you referring to them that way. They were Romans, and proud of it.

Why the Subterfuge?

First of all, the medieval Europeans saw themselves as the successors of the Roman Empire. They styled themselves “Holy Romans” and allied themselves with the pope in Rome. Because Constantinople still had a patriarch and there had been a schism in Christianity between Rome and Constantinople, the Europeans saw themselves as the ‘true’ Romans since they had the pope.

The Europeans did not want to associate themselves with the ‘Byzantines’, who had fallen to the Ottomans in 1453. They romanticized and idealized the Roman Empire in their culture, so they created a false historical succession. It went like this: Rome was great and wonderful, but was corrupted. The Germans overthrew them and then became great and wonderful themselves. We’re all Germans (and most European nations are in origin), therefore we are great and wonderful.

That’s an oversimplification, but in essence it is true. To acknowledge the truth surrounding the fall of Rome would be to destroy a cultural mythos that we still harken back to whenever we want to talk about glory. Just ask HBO.

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