The Roman Empire was one of the greatest empires in the ancient world.
It left us a host of languages based on Latin, as well as many cultural institutions which still exist.
While the Roman Empire is gone, when exactly did it cease to exist?
Learn more about exactly when the Roman empire fell and if such a thing even makes sense on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The idea of the “Fall of the Roman Empire” was popularized by the British historian Edward Gibbon when, in the late 18th century, he published his popular six-volume book titled, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
It is a seminal work that begins the story of the decline of the Empire with Emperor Commodus, the son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and who was famously portrayed in the movie Gladiator.
Gibbon outlines many different causes of the decline of the Empire, and there have been many other scholars over the last 250 years who have proffered their own theories as to why the Empire eventually fell.
These reasons include everything from the rise of Christianity to lead poisoning.
The purpose of this episode isn’t to go through the reasons why Rome eventually fell. That is a much larger topic that would command its own episode and a subject that could probably be enough for a multi-hour series on the topic.
Instead, I want to focus on a much easier question. When did the Roman Empire fall?
If you type that literal question into Google, it will return an exact date. This date, which I’ll get to in a bit, is usually the date that is given in most textbooks and history courses.
The problem is the fall of Rome isn’t that cut and dry.
There are some empires in history that did end quite abruptly. For example, Nazi German had a definitive end. Hitler died on April 30, 1945, and then on May 7th, the German government officially surrendered unconditionally, and Nazi Germany was no more.
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist. It was legally dissolved, and on that date, the Soviet hammer and sickle was lowered over the Kremlin, and the Russian tricolor was raised, and that was that.
In both cases, the lead-up to the fall was a process that took years, but the end was a very definitive point in time.
The collapse of Rome wasn’t like that.
If there were newspapers back then, at no time would there have been a headline that read, “Roman Empire Falls”….actually, there might have been one date, but I’ll get to that in a bit as well.
The fall of the Roman Empire was more like the fall of the British Empire.
The British once had a vast empire that they directly controlled. Over time, bits and pieces began to splinter and change. Some colonies, as in the Americas, became totally independent. Others were granted dominion status before becoming independent.
Some became independent but kept the British monarch as their head of state.
Today, Britain still has a bunch of tiny islands all over the world, and there are still over a dozen countries that have King Charles as their head of state.
It is hard to put a finger on when Britain stopped being an empire or if it ever even did.
It is a lot like defining what a heap of sand is. If you see a heap of sand, you know what it is, but if you start taking away grains of sand, at what point does it cease being a heap?
With that, I want to go over some of the dates which have been proposed for when the Roman Empire ended.
The first date I’d propose is January 17, 395.
The Roman Empire was split in two by Emperor Diocletian, and then it was merged again under Constantine, and then it was split again. The final split between east and west took place in 395 with the death of Emperor Theodosius I.
After Theodosius, there was no longer a single Roman Empire. There were now Roman Empires, plural.
Everyone who lived in either the east or the west considered themselves Romans and believed they lived in the Roman Empire. So, no one then would have thought that the empire had fallen, even though in hindsight, we can see that the Empire had passed a significant turning point.
The next date that I would propose would be 455.
This was the year that the Vandals sacked Rome. The administrative capital of the Western Empire had moved to Ravenna fifty years earlier, but Rome was still the birthplace and heart of the Empire.
The Visigoths had previously sacked Rome in 410, but the 455 sack was considered much worse. They knocked down all of the aqueducts going into the city and stole many of the cultural treasures inside the city.
The damage was so great that the modern term vandalism came from the Vandal’s sack of Rome.
The sack of Rome showed that Rome was no longer the great military power that it once was. Such a thing was inconceivable several centuries earlier. Now, Rome was no longer a great Empire but rather just one player among many in Europe.
The next date is the one that is most commonly given: September 4, 476.
This was the date that the last western Roman emperor, the eleven-year-old Romulus Augustulus, was deposed.
By 476, there wasn’t much of a western empire left. It consisted mostly of the Italian peninsula and land on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, in what is today Croatia.
Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer. Odoacer didn’t take the title of emperor for himself. He considered himself the King of Italy.
However, everyone still considered themselves Roman, and Odoacer ruled with the consent of the Roman senate, which was the defining characteristic of every previous Roman Emperor.
Odoacer even collected the imperial regalia and sent it to the eastern emperor in Constantinople, which was a move that acknowledged that he ruled under the authority of the Roman Emperor.
People in the empire had gotten used to some guy overthrowing some other guy to become emperor. Odoacer overthrowing Romulus Augustulus wasn’t really any different than what happened before, save for the fact that Odoacer was German.
You can definitely say that 476 was the end of Roman Emperors in the West, sort of, and you could say that you can’t have an empire without an emperor.
However, it still leaves the oh-so-slight problem that everything was going along just swimmingly in the eastern half of the empire, centered around Constantinople.
The Roman Empire was different and smaller and not based in Rome, but its direct continuation was still going strong after 476.
The next date you could use is 565, which marks the death of Emperor Justinian.
Justinian was an eastern emperor, but he was the last one to attempt to retake the western empire. He managed to reconquer the Italian Peninsula and Dalmatia, as well as some territory in Libya, Tunisia, and Southern Spain.
After Justinian, the eastern empire, which was now just the Roman Empire, stuck to the eastern Mediterranean.
Another date you can use is 603, which was the last known date that the Roman senate passed anything. The senate was the defining institution of Rome, dating back to when it became a republic in 509 BC. The emblematic phrase which defined Rome was Senatus Populusque Romanus, abbreviated as SPQR. SPQR is still on the manhole covers in Rome today.
The next low point was in 636 with the Roman defeat at the Battle of Yarmouk.
I’ve previously done an entire episode on the Battle of Yarmouk, but it was basically the battle that established the Islamic Caliphate as the power in the Middle East.
For the next 800 years, the Roman Empire kept shrinking and becoming more and more insignificant. Islam expanded, as did powers in the west.
The next big date, which is certainly ‘the’ biggest date on this list, is May 29, 1453. The day Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire.
I mentioned before that there might have been a day when the newspaper headlines would have read “Roman Empire Falls,” and this was that day.
Again, I did an entire episode on this subject, but this was the date when, whatever flame the Roman Empire had burning, was extinguished.
The last Roman Emperor, with some sort of direct link back to Augustus, had died, and the capital established by Constantine had been sacked.
While this might have extinguished the flame of Rome, believe it or not, there were still a few embers burning after Constantinople fell.
Even though Constantinople was gone, there were still parts of the Empire that hadn’t yet come under Ottoman control. These rump states all had the same Roman lineage as the greater Byzantine Empire. If the fall of Constantinople was putting out the last flame, these were small glowing embers.
The Empire of Trebizond was a small state located along the coast of the Black Sea in what is today Northern Turkey and the Crimean Peninsula.
The Emperors of Trebizond, after the fall of Constantinople, claimed they were the heirs of the Roman Emperors.
Trebizond didn’t last very long and was conquered by the Ottomans in 1461.
Trebizond also had a successor state, the Principality of Theodoro, located on the Crimean Peninsula’s southern shore.
They were conquered by the Ottomans in 1475.
The last of the Byzantine successor states, the Despotate of Epirus, located on the western coast of Greece and Albania, was conquered in 1479.
With the final embers of the Eastern Roman empire extinguished, you’d think that we might be done.
However, we are not.
If you remember back to my episode on the Holy Roman Empire, they claimed the mantle of the Western Roman Empire. This was confirmed by the pope who crowned Emperor Charlagmane and who also controlled the city of Rome.
If you accept the Holy Roman Empire as the successor to the Roman Empire, then the end of the Roman Empire was in 1806.
However, wait, there’s more!
The daughter of the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was married to the leader of Russia. The Russians used this marriage tie to call themselves an Empire, and the Russian leader began to use the term “tsar”, which is Russian for “caesar”.
If the Russian Empire was the successor state, then the Roman Empire ended with the Russian revolution in 1917.
However, the Ottomans claimed the mantle of Rome by the right of conquest.
If you accept the Ottomans as the Roman successors, then the Roman Empire ended in 1922.
I grant that these last few cases are pretty extreme. Nonetheless, they do show just how long the lingering influence of the Roman Empire was.
Personally, I think the only reasonable date you can assign to the Fall of the Roman Empire is 1453.
While 476 was the year of the last Western Roman Emperor, I just don’t think it resulted in enough major changes to say that that was the end of the Empire.
The crumbs of empire which existed after the fall of Constantinople are too small to carry the mantle of Rome.
However, no matter where you draw the line, the one thing you have to admit is that it took a long time for the Roman Empire to fall.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener John Wood on Facebook. He writes;
Good morning Gary. Let me just say it’s great to put a face to the voice that I’ve been listening to for the past couple of months. I just wanted to thank you for all the hard work you do putting out this show. I am a proud member of the completionist club twice. I’m actually going through your catalog again, picking out episodes I really liked and listening to them for a third time. You know, really commit them to memory lol. I started listening in August of 2022 and completed your entire back catalog by the end of September. I’m a truck driver and regularly listen to your show for 10 to 14 hours a day with absolute joy. Keep up the amazing work, Gary! Whether you know it or not, you’re making the world a better place. From all the curious people out in the world, thank you. Hopefully, I’ll be listening someday and hear you read this message. I hope you have a wonderful day.
Thanks, John! It appears that there is a growing community of truck drivers that listen to the show.
As such, I think it is formally time to announce the establishment of TDU: Truck Driver University.
As the chancellor of TDU, I’d like to welcome you to the inaugural class. TDU is the only online university that lets you learn as you drive.
If you know of any potential TDU students, just send them to their favorite podcast app for matriculation.
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