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I trace the senatorial and military elite responses to the 472 civil war and the willingness of senatorial aristocrats to ally themselves with the powerful general Ricimer to restore the city. The efforts of some senatorial aristocrats from the leading families of Rome, the Anicii and the Decii in particular, attest to the continuing influence of a shrinking group of civic leaders. But senatorial aristocrats had developed ties to the Germanic generals and king Odoacer, ensuring their continued role in the recovery of Rome. The removal of a western emperor by the end of the fifth century gave increased political influence to senatorial aristocrats in an admittedly smaller city. The idea of an eastern emperor allowed for the continuation fo the ideals of empire, without undermining senatorial political ascendancy in Rome and Italy. Indeed, the growth of senatorial influence can also be seen in their involvement in religious conflicts of the day. With the absence of a western emperor and living under Germanic Kings, the popes of Rome relied increasingly on senatorial aristocrats as they asserted their independence from eastern imperial and patriarchal control.
I focus on why the competition for power among senatorial, imperial, and military elites that had stimulated the recovery of the city of Rome in the face of multiple civic and military crises no longer was effective in the later sixth and early seventh centuries. The end of Rome’s political senatorial aristocracy and its political body, the Senate, is the final “fall” of Rome. In its place, a papal-focused city dependent on Byzantine military might would emerge in the seventh century.
My focus is on elites who competed for influence in the wake of events that the Romans themselves characterized as “crises.” In narrating these five crises, I emphasize the critical role in Rome of senatorial aristocrats and the slow growth of the influence of the bishops and clergy of Rome, two segments of Roman society whose continued focus on the city provides a key thread through these centuries. Although generals and emperors came and went, the institutionalized presence of the senatorial aristocracy, the Senate, and the church persisted. After each crisis, senators reinvested in the city, fueling its resurgence time and again. The bishops, too, returned to the city to restore Christian communities.
After thirty years of Ostrogothic rule in Italy (493–534) that ended with the ensuing destruction of the Gothic War (535–54), the eastern emperor Justinian sought to reassert direct control over Italy. The sixth-century Wars of Procopius vividly describes three sieges and two sacks of Rome during the course of this war. But the focus of this chapter is rather on Roman recovery in the aftermath of the war. I emphasize the constitutions in an underappreciated document from this period, Justianian’s Pragmatic Sanction. These enactments, along with texts and material evidence, show how damaging the Justinianic reconstruction of Italy was to Rome and senatorial aristocratic society. In this vacuum, the popes of Rome took on an ever-greater secular role, as the letters of Pope Pelagius show.
This focus on the senators and the clergy is important because, in my view, too much of the discussion of Rome in late antiquity has focused on either the catastrophic impact of barbarian invasions or the baleful influence of weak emperors and strident generals. Although I am not the first to recognize the vital role played by senatorial aristocrats nor to show the limited influence of the bishops in Rome, new information about the city in late antiquity, new scholarly work on its history, and a new appreciation of the role of the bishops of the city require a new perspective on the very old topic of the “Fall of Rome.”
After the violent murders of the emperor Valentinian (March 16, 455) and his senatorial successor, Petronius Maximus (May 31, 455), in a series of coups, the Vandals occupied and then systematically plundered the city. Yet Roman elites – senators, contenders for the imperial throne, and military leaders – marshalled the will and resources after 455 to restore the city. Within a decade, Rome had reconstituted its government, with a stronger senatorial and military presence but a weakened imperial presence. Papal response after 455 focused on restoring clergy and church property.
The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Gothic General Alaric was the result of years of failed imperial negotiations. It dealt a significant psychological blow to the city, but the physical damage was limited. By focusing on the actions of Rome’s civic officeholders, I demonstrate how senatorial aristocrats engaged in competitive reconstruction efforts as they also developed new ties to the imperial court and the military. In contrast, the popes of Rome had limited resources and so left wide-scale rebuilding efforts to the emperor and senatorial officeholders. Only with the return to Rome of the emperor Valentinian III (425–55) do we see a rise in the civic profile of Rome’s then bishop, Leo (440–61).
Over the course of the fourth through seventh centuries, Rome witnessed a succession of five significant political and military crises, including the Sack of Rome, the Vandal occupation, and the demise of the Senate. Historians have traditionally considered these crises as defining events, and thus critical to our understanding of the 'decline and fall of Rome.' In this volume, Michele Renee Salzman offers a fresh interpretation of the tumultuous events that occurred in Rome during Late Antiquity. Focusing on the resilience of successive generations of Roman men and women and their ability to reconstitute their city and society, Salzman demonstrates the central role that senatorial aristocracy played, and the limited influence of the papacy during this period. Her provocative study provides a new explanation for the longevity of Rome and its ability, not merely to survive, but even to thrive over the last three centuries of the Western Roman Empire.