Gibbon doesn’t specify that it was raining the day that Odoacer entered Rome, so I don’t know where that image comes from. I imagine the great city battered by the centuries of instability and still bearing fresh scars from Riciner’s sacking. The walls of Rome are dark and gray, not the gleaming white of Marcus Aurelius’ capital, but with dirt accumulated after long periods of violence and neglect. The sky overhead is dark and mean, and the Tiber has long ago become a vein of pollution. Despite its wounds, though, the city still wears its majesty. It is no longer the capital of anything: Constantinople commands the greater portion of the Empire; of the two competing Emperors of the West, one, Romulus Augustulus, lives in Ravenna, and the other, Julius Nepos, is in exile in Dalmatia.

Make no mistake, though: Rome has stood as the light of the west for a thousand years, and even in degradation it is proud. I imagine then this beleaguered city under a a thick layer of dark clouds, surrounded on all sides by the enormous and terrifying army of Odoacer. Romulus has been deposed, and the barbarians await their leader to enter and proclaim himself King of Italy, and the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Actually, Gibbon doesn’t say much about Odoacer entering the city at all. He tells us that Romulus Augustulus was exiled to the Lucullan Villa in Naples, where he lived more-or-less happily for the rest of his days.

Gibbon does offer this caution against my imagined scenario:

The disgrace of the Romans still excites our respectful compassion, and we fondly sympathize with the imaginary grief and indignation of their degenerate posterity. But the calamities of Italy had gradually subdued the proud consciousness of freedom and glory. In the age of Roman virtue the provinces were subject to the arms, and the citizens to the laws, of the republic, till those laws were subverted by civil discord, and both the city and the provinces became the servile property of a tyrant. The forms of the constitution, which alleviated or disguised their abject slavery, were abolished by time and violence; the Italians alternately lamented the presence or the absence of the sovereigns, whom they detested or despised; and the succession of five centuries inflicted the various evils of military license, capricious despotism, and elaborate oppression.”

Rome had fallen long before the barbarians came. In the twenty years before Odoacer Rome had cycled through nine emperors, none of them worthy of title or our memory. Political power had long ago shifted to the eastern capital at Constantinople, where the Empire would continue to exist in alternating spasms of grandeur and decay for a thousand years. Huge portions of the Roman Empire had been carved away over time by barbarians, insurrections, and ineffectual control. The Roman Senate, the very embodiment of the Republic, had been debased so thoroughly that none, I think, missed it when it finally dissolved. (And, tellingly, nobody is sure when that actually happened.) Rome didn’t collapse in 476 so much as everybody stop pretending that it hadn’t already collapsed. Odoacer’s power wasn’t substantively different from that of Ricimer, the generalissimo who ruled as king in all but name during the preceding decades. And I suppose that the day after he became king, Romans woke up just the way they always did and went about their business.

Little by little over the course of centuries the people had signed away bits and pieces of their freedom–tiny and insignificant pieces, to be sure, and always in the service of a greater good–in a series of calculated trade-offs that slowly and invisibly undermined the entire edifice. World it be a stretch to say that the seeds of Rome’s decline had been planted at the same time as the seeds of Rome’s glory?

Like the proverbial frog in the stew pot, the temperature rose imperceptibly until they were boiled alive.

And although the empire fell, and Rome would see even greater devastation in years that followed, the result is the world we know today. I’ve been to Rome: it still stands, it still enchants, and if it is more than a little dirty it does still wear its eternal crown with a distinct and beautifully bruised pride.

But humans don’t get to live thousands of years to see how things will play out, and, rain or no rain, I would not have wanted to be inside the walls on that day in 476, looking out onto a triumphant horde, anxiously waiting for their leader to come and pass judgment on me. It must have felt like waiting for the end of the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s