The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe

A 14th century chivalric-romanticized painting of "the Huns" laying siege to a city.
A 14th century chivalric-romanticized painting of “the Huns” laying siege to a city.

The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe

Peter Heather

English Historical Review: Vol.110 No.435 (1995)


Based on the Mediterranean, the Roman Empire forged Europe as far as the rivers Rhine and Danube – and, for lengthy periods, extensive lands beyond those boundaries – together with North Africa and much of the Near East into a unitary state which lasted for the best part of 400 years. The protracted negotiations required to bring just some of this area together in the European Community put the success of this Empire into perspective. Yet since the publication of Gibbon’s masterpiece (and long before), its very success has served only to stimulate interest in why it ended, ‘blame’ being firmly placed on everything from an excess of Christian piety to the effect of lead water pipes. The aim of this paper is to reconsider some of the processes and events which underlay the disappearance of the western half of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. This was an area encompassing essentially modern Britain, France, Benelux, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the Iberian Peninsula, and North Africa as far east as Libya, whose fragmentation culminated in the deposition of Romulus Augustulus on or around 4 September 476. That groups of outsiders – so-called ‘barbarians’ – played an important role in all this has never been doubted. A full understanding of the barbarians’ involvement in a whole sequence of events, taking the best pan of a hundred years, lends, however, an unrecognized coherence to the story of western imperial collapse.

There are two main reasons why this coherence has not been high- lighted before. First, most of the main barbarian groups which were later to establish successor states to the Roman Empire in western Europe, had crossed the frontier by about AD410, yet the last western Roman emperor was not deposed until 476, some sixty-five years later. I will argue, however (and this provides the main focus for the second half of the paper), that the initial invasions must not be separated from the full working-out of their social and political consequences. Not just the invasions themselves need to be examined, but also the longer-term reactions to them of the Roman population of western Europe, and especially its landowning elites. While the western Empire did not die quickly or easily, a direct line of historical cause and effect nonetheless runs from the barbarian invasions of the late fourth and early fifth centuries to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. The second reason lies in modern understandings of what caused the different groups of outsiders to cross into the Empire in the first place. These population movements did not happen all at once, but were stretched out over about thirty-five years, c. 376-410. Here again, however, a close re-examination of the evidence reveals that the years of invasion represent no more than different phases of a single crisis. In particular, the two main phases of population movement – c. 376-86 and 405-8 – were directly caused by the intrusion of Hunnic power into the fringes of Europe.

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