The decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century

The decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century

Behind the 4th century AD. AD, our collective imagination very often sees an irremediable decline in the power and luster of the ERoman mpire. It is easy to imagine hordes of barbarians thirsty for the riches of the Empire, ready to throw themselves on Rome to sack it. We think of the Roman army as a vast decrepit institution, populated by bawling and disorderly barbarians. We also see Romans getting lost in endless orgies, political concerns long forgotten. We also think of an impoverishment of art and culture in general. But what is it really, beyond all the commonplaces that sometimes distort our vision of history.

Barbarian invasions?

To begin this short presentation, let's take a look at the case of the barbarians, these famous Germans unkempt paintings by neoclassical artists, depicted plundering the Roman world in a primitive frenzy. Formerly, the vision of these peoples was particularly pejorative, simply because we did not want to perceive with acuity the reality of their cultures. The plural is appropriate here, because the whole which we designate under the generic term of Germans, covers very diverse realities.

Indeed, there were two main elements constituting the barbaricum of the Romans; the western element and the eastern element, more marked by steppe culture. Indeed, during their migration, the Goths, the most famous representatives of this group, mingled with different groups of populations as they wandered from Scandinavia (probably) to the shores of the Black Sea and the Danubian border of the Empire. What we designate under Goths, in fact represents only a motley mosaic of different ethnic groups, which only recognize the authority of a chief (or several) supreme for short periods of wars.

This is what happens during the offensive leading to the victory ofAdrianople in 378, but the army soon broke out into a multitude of much smaller groups which beat the countryside. On the western side, since the third century, familiar names appear; the Franks, the Alamans, the Saxons ... These designations again represent groups of different peoples, but much more homogeneous than in the case of the Eastern Germans, where there again political centralization is almost completely absent. These names actually designate war leagues, much more than states. In any case, one thing is common to these peoples: the practice of war.

It is indeed a social act, an obligation. For them, in fact, freedom, and therefore the exercise of political rights, comes through arms, as was the case with the Greeks and Romans, in the time of soldier-citizens. This practice of combat is organized according to looting raids, both against neighboring peoples and against the Romans. But the Empire, by virtue of its wealth, stirred up many appetites ... In addition, it should be noted that in the vast majority of cases, raids are carried out only by groups of a few hundred individuals, led to separate into several detachments in order to cover more ground, but exposing themselves to hostility from the peasant world.

During one of these attacks, the emperor Julian surprises a group of six hundred Frankish warriors, which shows the numerical weakness of the barbarians during the majority of the attacks. Thus explained, the apparently customary violence of these barbarians appears less terrible. Large gatherings are indeed rare; one can count the campaign leading to the battle of Strasbourg in 357 which brings together more than 30,000 Alamans and the attack of the Goths towards Adrianople in 378 which brings together forces can be roughly similar. We are far from bloodthirsty hordes marching by hundreds of thousands on the Empire. This corresponds more to the situation of the 5th century, except that the thousands of souls represent entire peoples and where the warriors are obviously in the minority.

The Roman army in the 4th century

But, faced with the pressure exerted by the barbarians, what were the Romans doing? How did they prevent them from plundering their land, a phenomenon endemic since the 3rd century AD? AD? Theroman army had to restructure. The former heavy formation of the Legion was reformed by Emperor Diocletian, reducing its strength (mostly of these units) from about five thousand men to nearly a thousand, and their total numbers were greatly increased. This confirmed a state of affairs, because to respond to the multiple attacks the legions had been divided into vexillations (detachments). With more flexible tactical units, the Romans are more effective.

The number of combatants is also increased, passing from 300,000 men in the second century, to nearly 500,000. New corps are also created, such as the cavalry archers. The place of the light troops is reinforced ... As we can see, the Roman military apparatus emerges profoundly changed from the crisis of the 3rd century, and the Romans learned from their past disappointments. And the result is up to the task; the threat is contained much more effectively than in the previous century. Defeats are very rare, the only really significant being Adrianople in 378, but its impact is overestimated; the main problem is the authorization that the Emperor Valens gives the order to the Goths to settle in the Roman territory in 376 because Roman officials try to starve the barbarians rather than proceed to their assimilation as it was the case so far.

The Goths thus retain their political independence and thus constitute a state within a state. Victory or defeat in 378 does not change much for the Romans because a foreign element and unassimilable from now on, entered their territory. The Goths are also defeated by Theodosius, without the problem being resolved in depth. It resurfaced with Alaric and the plunder of Rome in 410, after the death of the great emperor. In any case, as long as it exists (and it will not disappear until the fifth century) the Roman army continues to ensure the security of the Roman world. She practiced a real policy of terror among the barbarians and the examples of massacres of entire villages abound with the reference author of the time, Ammien Marcellin, a former soldier who had been converted into a historian.

The imperial forces are fiercely fighting, as evidenced by the behavior of Gallic legionaries, who, besieged in the Amida fortress in Syria by the Persians, insistently and insolently ask for permission to make an exit. They gain permission and fight an opponent in vast numerical superiority, inflicting significant losses, before retreating in order to the fortress. The barbarians who entered the army are not to be outdone and generally fight with exceptional courage in the name of Rome. The most popular units are also the Palatine auxiliaries, elite shock troops, such as the Pétulant, the Heruli, the Batavians ...

In this Roman army, and a bit like at all times, the soldiers have a very strong temperament which often leads them to brave their leaders, but who are at the same time capable of the most impeccable disciplined. It is a paradox inherent in the Roman army and this since the origins, because a large part of personal initiative is left to soldiers and inferior officers (this gives the army greater reactivity in the face of events) while at the same time, the soldiers' obedience to orders is demanded. Nevertheless, the attitude of combatants and officers in combat is mostly excellent. Outnumbered, the thirteen thousand men of Emperor Julian make carnage against the Alamans in Strasbourg, killing more than six miles of their enemies, leaving 253 men on the ground, knowing that the figures provided by the chronicler are reliable ; they gave rise to an official account. We could go on for a long time on the feats of arms of this army, but then we see that its bad reputation is only a myth and does not support the study.

A time of vices?

Let’s now look at a possible depravity of morals. The traditional image of the limitless Roman orgy obsesses us all. And yet, this is ignoring the emergence at this time of new social conventions more rigorous in terms of moderation and modesty. It is indeed in contact with these new philosophical currents that the essential of the austere doctrine of the Christian Church is built. The ideal of monastic life developed from this period. Morality has hardened and the image of the sober man becomes a standard. But of course, some nobles continue to compete in daring in monumental banquets where the search for rare ingredients is almost a competition.

Make no mistake about it; this is in no way representative of the vast majority of roman people who lives according to varying pleasures, subject to climatic conditions to have sufficient crops. Opulence is the result of a minority, and the rest of the population is far from this type of practice. At the top of the state, opulence is not desired, far from it. The imperial figure must represent strict values, in relation to what we have seen previously. He is above all, in these warlike times, a leader who must set an example for his men and therefore often share their daily lives (Julien in particular was zealous in this behavior and the soldiers adored him). All of this contributes to questioning the old theories of abandoning the concerns of the government of the Empire.

Cultural decline of the Roman Empire

Let us now ask ourselves about art and culture. For a long time, historians saw in Roman art from the late period an impoverishment of the ancient classic rigor. They deplored in fact representations that were more and more figurative and less and less realistic. But they then proceeded by value judgment, and more objectively, one realizes at this time of a profound mutation of art which becomes essentially figurative. The attributes of the imperial person thus correspond to certain codes such as wide eyes, an impassive face, to see terrible ... unlike the verism of previous centuries. We then feel in this new art the future Byzantine, Russian and even medieval art. It is therefore not a weakening, a decline of techniques, but a change in mentalities, in ways of thinking, which is underway. In letters, the fourth century is prolix.

First of all, Ammien Marcellin whom we quoted above, supports the comparison with his illustrious predecessor Tacitus. His work is distinguished by a great objectivity for a Roman. Syrian of origin, he writes in Latin and conducts his story by adding examples from his own existence, often epic passages. He analyzes his time with a very critical eye, and his reading of events is often very correct. Emperor Julian is also a major author of his time. Originally a philosopher, he composed panegyrics for Constance II, philosophical essays, speeches, and maintains an abundant correspondence. Végèce composes a treaty of military art and Libanios restores the rhetorical art. There are also abbreviators like Eutrope and Aurelius Victor. The Christian literature It also holds a place of choice, with Saint Augustine in the lead. It is also the time of the great compilations of laws, and the Theodosian code is an excellent representative. The list could be disproportionate. If the third century saw texts become scarce, the fourth century had them in profusion.

Thus, the fourth Roman century appears to us in a slightly less gloomy light than in the past. This belittled vision is largely due to the pessimism that shines through the works of contemporaries, who lived while awaiting the return of the golden age and viewed their own time in a very negative light. But many current historians, like Jean-Michel Carrié or Bertrand Lançon are working today to rehabilitate this unloved period, when everything was not as bad as it was long thought. Let us leave the last word to B. Lançon who considers this late antiquity as "theIndian summer of the Roman Empire ».


- Jean-Michel Carrié, Aline Rousselle, L'Empire romain en mutation, Paris, 1999.

- History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon. Robert laffont, 2010.

- Bertrand Lançon, L'Antiquité tardive, Paris, 1997.

- Yves Modéran, L'Empire romain tardif, Paris, 2003.

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