54. The Decline of the Roman Empire. Now that Christianity had won, it might be thought that the Roman Empire would flourish. But the victory came too late; Rome was doomed.

No one in all the empire had any real power but the Caesar, and many of the later emperors were weak and foolish men. The people were burdened by heavy taxes, and this money was wasted on things which did no good. Everywhere existed the curse of slavery, and the people had forgotten how to be brave in war. Even the wealthy and intelligent Romans, weakened by luxury, could no longer lead in peace or on the battlefield. Learning itself declined. No more fine poems or books were written, and the buildings were not so beautiful as before. The world seemed to be dying.

In course of time things would perhaps have come right again, just as a man recovers from a long sickness, but this was not to be. Outside of the Roman Empire, in the region of dark forests across the Rhine and the Danube, had long dwelt a fierce and sturdy race called the Teutons, or Germans. When the Romans were conquering all the other peoples it seemed as if Germany, too, would fall beneath their sway.

But the Teutons dearly loved their freedom, and when Augustus had succeeded in subduing some of their tribes, they suddenly revolted, under the lead of a brave chief named Hermann. As the legions of the great Roman emperor were toiling through the wild Teutoburger forest in pursuit of the rebels, Hermann and his strong warriors suddenly fell upon them and destroyed the whole force.

The Romans were thus taught that Germany must be free. Though they had many other wars with the Teutons, and sometimes defeated them in battle, even the strongest Caesars had to content themselves with guarding their own frontier.

Bands of the Germans soon began trying to break over the Roman boundaries for the sake of plunder. One large party which thus invaded Gaul had been destroyed by Julius Caesar. But though constantly driven back, the Germans kept returning to the attack. A large part of the Roman army had to be kept on the Rhine and the Danube to check them. But as the empire grew weaker and weaker, this became always more difficult to do.

Strong rulers like Constantine the Great tried to strengthen the empire so that it might better resist the barbarians. He thought it would be better if the provinces in the east should have a capital of their own, since the city of Rome was too far away. On the celebrated strait now called the Bosporus had long stood an ancient Greek city called Byzantium. This was just the place, thought the great emperor, to found a second Rome. So he rebuilt the old Greek town and named it after himself, Constantinople, the city of Constantine. Spreading out like a great crescent from the blue waters of its harbor, this magnificent city soOn equaled and even excelled Rome in beauty and importance.

The founding of Constantinople and other changes greatly strengthened the Roman Empire for a time. But when weak Caesars came into power all went wrong again.

55. The Downfall of Rome (476 A. D.) Now appeared a new and terrible danger. From central Asia swept, like a swarm of destroying locusts, a fierce race of wild horsemen called the Runs. Mounted on shaggy ponies, hideous of form, and cruel and savage in disposition, these people, with their overwhelming numbers, swept all before them.

Pressed by such enemies, the German tribes strove more desperately thanever to cross the Roman boundaries, and at last the weakening legions gave way before them. When a Teutonic people called the Goths appeared on the Danube, and begged permission to cross, the Romans made the fatal mistake of allowing this huge multitude of barbarians to enter their territory. But when they had crossed the river the Goths soon defied the Roman emperor, defeated his army, and slew him in a great battle at Adrianople.

All chance of keeping out the barbarians was now lost, and one tribe of Germans after another swarmed over the Rhine and the Danube, pillaging and destroying.

But far more cruel and destructive than the German tribes were the fierce Huns, who, under the leadership of their terrible chieftain, Attila, followed at their heels. To the terrified Romans it seemed, indeed, that the Huns left nothing but smoking ashes in their track, and with trembling lips they repeated Attila's awful boast, that the grass never grew where his horse's hoofs had trod. It seemed that before their onslaught civilization would be blotted out. So great was the danger to all, that Goths and Romans combined their forces against the Huns, and on the battlefield of Châlons, in Gaul, the fate of the empire was decided. Long the issue was in doubt. But when the king of the Goths was slain, his warriors charged with such desperate courage to avenge him Chat the Huns gave way. When night came, Attila was beaten and Europe saved.

Though the Huns were still troublesome and later penetrated even into Italy, they were never again so dangerous, and finally withdrew eastward. The present people of Hungary, now justly ranked among the most civilized nations ot Europe, are believed by many people to be the descendants of Attila's ferocious warriors.

But though the empire was thus saved from the Huns. Huns, conditions were still bad enough. The Teutonic tribes kept pressing in, and though they were not indeed savages, they wrought destruction only a little less terrible than had the Huns themselves. Less and less able to resist them became the enfeebled Roman legions. When the Eternal City herself was taken and sacked by the northern invaders, a long night for art, learning, and industry began. (410 A.D.)


The Leading Facts. 1. The Roman Empire was benefited by Christianity, but weakened by many other things, such as slavery, heavy taxes, and the feebleness of many of the emperors. 2. The Romans had never been able to conquer the brave Teutonic tribes who lived across the Rhine and the Danube. 3. These people kept trying to break into the empire. 4. As it became hard to keep them out, able emperors like Constantine did their best to strengthen the Roman power. 5. Finally the terrible Huns came into Europe from central Asia. 6. They drove some of the Teutons before them into Roman territory. 7. The Huns were finally defeated at thç battle of Châlons. 8. The Teutonic tribes kept coming into the Roman Empire to plunder and to conquer. 9. The city of Rome itself was finally captured and sacked.

Study Questions. 1. Make a list of things which weakened the Roman Empire. 2. Who were the Teutons? 3. Why did the Romans not conquer them? 4. Why did the Teutons wish to invade Roman territory? 5. Explain how Constantine tried to strengthen the Roman Empire. 6. Why is Constantinople well situated to be a great city? 7. What was the character of the Huns? 8. Tell the results of their coming into Europe. 9. Why was the battle of Châlons more important than most battles? 10. Why was it better that the Roman Empire should be conquered by the Teutons rather than by the Huns?

Suggested Readings. Tappan, The Story of the Roman People, 223-237; Yonge, Young Folks' History of Rome, Guerber, The Story of the Romans.

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© 2000 by Lynn Waterman