It happened today - September 4, 2015
Speaking of Rome, spare a fleeting thought for Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the classic “Western” Roman Empire, deposed on September 4 back in 476 by a German barbarian named Odoacer who then gave himself the surprisingly modest, even cheesy title of “king of Italy". You knock off an emperor, I’d think you’d at least claim to be one.
Mind you, it wasn’t much of an emperor; a figurehead for his father’s own usurpation, he was known derisively as Romulus Augustulus (“little Augustus”). And there was little of Augustus about him, though he apparently survived somehow for more than 30 years after being hurled off the throne. And there wasn’t much of an empire left by the time Odoacer, a mercenary before he mutinied (a common problem as the Empire crumbled), put a formal end to it.
In another sense, though, the Roman Empire never fell. I’m not referring to its Byzantine half, which stumbled ingloriously through various difficulties and bequeathed us the adjective “Byzantine” for politics noted for excessive complexity and cynicism even by the dismal standards of the human race before fizzling out in 1453. Nor is the subsequent resurrection of the “Holy Roman Empire” convincing; as Voltaire cuttingly put it, it “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”.
What I mean is that Rome, the civilization where the rule of law first got a real solid footing, never fell culturally. I’m not even sure it fell politically except in the very formal sense. For in all the lands once subject to Rome except those conquered by Islam, and those settled from such places, a different view of government has prevailed ever since, one that accords more dignity to the individual in practice than is found elsewhere.
Rome is, famously, the place where Athens met Jerusalem, where skeptical philosophy and monotheism fused in Christianity. But it is also a place where the words “Civis Romanus sum” (“I am a Roman citizen”) brought real legal protection. And when the idea that individuals had rights on Earth met the idea that they mattered to God, the result was a very different way of seeing life and the world.
When Rome fell, the “Middle Ages” officially began. Or, in some tellings, the Dark Ages that led to the Middle Ages that were also bleak and dark. But it’s not so. There was a kind of light in Western Europe not found elsewhere, that would have been familiar to the Romans and to some extent the Greeks but not to anyone else.
To be sure, many horrors were perpetrated in what came to be known as “Christendom”, often by people loudly proclaiming their piety. But the fact remains that if you’re looking for a decent place to live, a place migrants flee to not from, you’re basically looking inside the successor states and cultures to the Western Roman Empire. That’s why I say in a very real sense the Roman Empire lived on with great power and dignity.
Unlike Romulus Augustulus, who merely lived on somewhere. No one can now find his bones. Odoacer’s dynasty, too, petered out pretty fast. But we still live in the shadow of Rome or, more truly, the light.