Fall of The Roman Empire…in the 15th Century: Crash Course World History #12


Hi there, my name’s John Green; this is
Crash Course: World History, and today we’re going to talk about the fall of Rome. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, Mr. Green!
Who’s that pretty lady? That lady, me-from-the-past, is Emperor Justinian.
We’ll get to him in a minute. [Theme Music] How and when Rome fell remains the subject
of considerable historical debate— but today I’m going to argue that the Rome
didn’t really fully fall until the middle of the 15th century. But first, let me introduce you to The Traditional
View: Barbarians at the Gates.
My, don’t you look traditional? If you want to be really technical about it,
the city of Rome was conquered by bar bar bar barbarians in 476
CE. There was a last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus,
who ruled the empire for less than a year before being deposed and sent into exile by
Odoacer, who was some kind of barbarian- we don’t
know for sure. Ostrogoth, Hun, Visigoth, Vandals;
they all looked the same to the Romans. Rome had been sacked by barbarians before,
most notably by Alaric the Visigoth in 410- Is it Uh-lar-ick or Uh-lair-ick?
The dictionary says Uh-lair-ick but The Vampire Diaries say Uh-lar-ick so
I’m going to go with Uh-lar-ick. But anyway, after 476, there was never again
a “Roman” emperor in Rome. Then there’s the hipper anti-imperialistic
argument— that’s nice, but if you really want to go
full hipster you should probably deny that you’re being
hipst— right, exactly—which goes like this: Rome was doomed to fall as soon as it spread
outside of Italy because the further the territory is from
the capital, the harder it is to govern. Thus imperialism itself sowed the seeds of
destruction in Rome. This was the argument put forth by the Roman
historian Tacitus, although he put it in the mouth of a British
chieftain. That sounded dirty, but it’s not,
it’s all about context here on Crash Course: “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying
name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace.” There are two ways to overcome this governance
problem: First, you rule with the proverbial topaz
fist— that’s not the proverb? Really, Stan?
It’s an iron fist? But topaz is much harder than iron.
Don’t these people know their Mohs scale of mineral hardness?.. Regardless,
the Romans couldn’t do this because their whole identity was wrapped up in an idea
of justice that precluded indiscriminate violence. The other strategy is to try to incorporate
conquered people into the empire more fully: In Rome’s case,
to make them Romans. This worked really well in the early days
of the Republic and even at the beginning of the Empire.
But it eventually led to Barbarians inside the Gates. The decline of the legions started long before
Rome started getting sacked. It really began with the extremely bad decision
to incorporate Germanic warriors into the Roman Army. Rome had a long history of absorbing people
from the empire’s fringes into the polity first by making them allies and then
eventually by granting them full citizenship rights. But usually these “foreign” citizens had
developed ties to Rome itself; they learned Latin, they bought into the whole
idea of the aristocratic republic. But by the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, though,
the empire had been forced to allow the kind of riffraff into their army
who didn’t really care about the idea of Rome itself.
They were only loyal to their commanders. —And as you no doubt remember from the historical
examples of Caesar, Pompey, Marius, contemporary Afghanistan—
this is not a recipe for domestic bliss. So here is Rome,
stuck with a bunch of expensive and bloody wars against Germanic peoples who were really
good at fighting and then they had a great idea:
Why not fight with these guys? So they essentially hired them
and soon the Roman Legions were teeming with these mercenaries
who were loyal mostly to gold, secondarily to their commanders,
and not at all to Rome which is a place that very few of them ever
even saw. I mean, why would they give a crap about the
health and well-being of the empire? Am I allowed to say crap, Stan?
Nice. This was of course a recipe for civil war,
and that’s exactly what happened with general after general after general
declaring himself Emperor of Rome. So there was very little stability in the
West. For instance, between 235 and 284 CE, 41 different
people were either emperor or claimed to be emperor. And after the year 200,
many of the generals who were powerful enough to proclaim themselves emperors weren’t
even Roman. In fact, a lot of them didn’t speak much
Latin. Oddly enough, one of the best symbols of the
new face of the Roman Empire was sartorial. Instead of the traditional tunic and toga
of the glory days of the Senate, most of the new general-emperors adopted that
most practical and most barbaric of garments: pants. Oh, which reminds me,
it’s time for the Open Letter. An Open Letter to Pants: But first let’s see what’s inside the secret compartment. Oh, look, it’s Rosie the Riveter! And she’s wearing PANTS. Dear Pants, Although you eventually became
a symbol of patriarchal oppression, in your early days you were worn by both men
and women. And in the days of the Roman Republic, they
hated you. They thought you barbarous.
They thought that people wearing you was the definition of people lacking civilization. They ventured north and the wind blew up through
their togas and lo and behold, they adopted pants. And there’s a history lesson in that, pants,
which is that when people have to choose between civilization and warm genitals,
they choose warm genitals. Best Wishes,
John Green And now a note from our sponsor:
Today’s episode of crash course is brought o you by
the all-new Oldsmobile Byzantium, mixing power and luxury in a way-
Really? Oldsmobile isn’t a company anymore? And Byzantium is a place?
Are you sure? So remember when I said the Roman Empire survived
til the 15th century? Well that was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly
known as the Byzantine Empire (although not by the people who lived in it
who identified themselves as Romans). So while the Western empire descended into
chaos, the eastern half of the Empire had its capital
in Byzantium, a city on the Bosporus Strait that Constantine
would later rename Constantinople, thereby paving the way for
They Might Be Giants only mainstream hit. Constantine had lots of reasons to move his
capitol east. For one thing he was born in modern-day Croatia,
also he probably spoke better Greek than Latin, and plus the eastern provinces were a lot
richer than the Western provinces and from a looting perspective, you just
want to be closer to where the good warring is. The enemies in the East, like the Persian
Parthians and the Persian Sassanians, were real empires,
not just bands of warriors. And no matter who you were in world history,
if you wanted to make a name for yourself in terms of war,
you really needed to be up against the Persians. EVEN IF you were—
wait for it— the Mongols. Not this time, friends. As the political center of the Roman Empire
shifted east, Constantine also tried to re-orient his new
religion, Christianity, toward the east, holding the first Church council in Nicaea
in 325. The idea was to get all Christians to believe
the same thing- that worked-
but it did mark the beginning of the emperor having greater control over the Church. That trend would of course later lead to tensions
between the church centered at Constantinople and the one centered in Rome.
But, more on that in a bit. To give you a sense of how dramatic this shift
was, by the 4th century CE, Constantinople’s
population had soared while Rome’s had gone from 500,000 to 80,000. And although the Byzantines spoke Greek not
Latin, they considered themselves Romans and if they did then we probably should too.
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. There was a lot of continuity between the
old, Western Roman Empire, and the new, Eastern one.
Politically, each was ruled by a single (sometimes there were two, and once there
were four– but let’s forget about them for now)
who wielded absolute military power. War was pretty much constant as the Byzantines
fought the Persian Sassanian Empire and then various Islamic empires. Trade and valuable agricultural land that
yielded high taxes meant that the Byzantine Empire was like the Western Roman Empire,
exceptionally rich, and it was slightly more compact as a territory
than its predecessor and much more urban, containing as it did all of those once independent
Greek city states, which made it easier to administer. Also like their Western counterparts, the
Byzantines enjoyed spectacle and sport. Chariot races in Constantinople were huge,
with thousands turning out at the Hippodrome to cheer on their favorites. Big bets were placed and there was a huge
rivalry not just about sports but also about political affiliations between
the two main teams, the Blues and the Greens-
Thanks for putting us on the Greens, Thought Bubble.
That rivalry was so heated that riots often broke out between them.
In one such riot, an estimated 30,000 people were killed. Thanks Thought Bubble.
But perhaps the most consistently Roman aspect of Byzantine society was that they followed
Roman law. The Romans always prided themselves on being
ruled by laws, not by men,
and even though that’s not actually the case after the second century BCE,
there’s no question that the Eastern Roman Empire’s codification of Roman laws
was one of it’s greatest achievements. And much of the credit for that goes to the
most famous Byzantine Emperor, at least after Constantine,
Justinian. I like your brooch, sir. In 533 Justinian published the Digest, an
800,000-word condensation of 1,528 Latin law books. And to go along with this he published the
Institutes, which was like a curriculum for the Roman
law schools that existed all through the Empire. Justinian, incidentally, was by far the most
awesome of the Byzantine emperors. He was like the David Tennant of doctors. He was born a peasant somewhere in the Balkans
and than rose to became emperor in 527. He ruled for almost 30 years and in addition
to codifying Roman law, he did a lot to restore the former glory of
the Roman Empire. He took Carthage back, he even took Rome
back from the Goths, although not for long. And he’s responsible for the building of
one of the great churches in all of time— which is now a mosque—
the Hagia Sophia or Church of Saint Wisdom. So after one of those sporting riots destroyed
the previous church, he built this,
which with its soaring domes became a symbol for the wealth and opulence of his empire. The Romans were remarkable builders and engineers
and the Hagia Sophia is no exception: a dome its equal wouldn’t be build for another
500 years. But you would never mistake it for a Roman
temple; It doesn’t have the austerity or the emphasis
on engineering that you see, for instance, the Coliseum. And this building in many ways functions a
symbol for the ways the Eastern Roman Empire was both Roman and not. But maybe the most interesting thing Justinian
ever did was be married to his controversial Theater Person
of a wife, Theodora.
Hey Danica, can we get Theodora up here? Wow that is perfect. It’s funny
how married couples always look like each other. Theodora began her career as an actress, dancer,
and possible prostitute before become Empress. And she may have saved her husband’s rule
by convincing him not to flee the city during riots
between the Blues and Greens. She also mentored a eunuch
who went on to become a hugely important general- Mentoring a eunuch sounds like a euphemism,
but it’s not. And she fought to expand the rights of women
in divorce and property ownership, and even had a law passed taking the bold
stance that adulterous women should not be executed. So, in short,
the Byzantines continued the Roman legacy of empire and war and law for almost 1000
years after Romulus Augustus was driven out of Rome. The Byzantines may not have spoken Latin,
and few of their emperors came from Rome, but in most important ways they were Romans.
Except one REALLY IMPORTANT way. The Byzantines followed a different form of
Christianity, the branch we now call Eastern or sometimes
Greek Orthodox. How there came to be a split between the Catholic
and Orthodox traditions is complicated – you might even call it Byzantine. What matters for us are the differences between
the churches, the main doctrinal one being about the dating
of Easter, and the main political one being about who
rules whom. Did I get my whom right there, Stan?
YES! In the West there was a Pope and in the East
there was a Patriarch. The Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic
Church. He sort of serves as god’s regent on earth
and he doesn’t answer to any secular ruler. And ever since the fall of Rome,
there has been a lot of tension in Western Europe between Popes and kings
over who should have the real power. But in the Orthodox church they didn’t have
that problem because the Patriarch was always appointed
by the Emperor. So it was pretty clear who had control over
the church, so much that they even have a word for it-
caesaropapism: Caesar over Pope. But the fact that in Rome there was no emperor
after 476 meant there was no one to challenge the Pope,
which would profoundly shape European history over the next, like, 1200 years. So I would argue that in some important ways,
the Roman Empire survived for a thousand years after it left Rome,
but in some ways it still survives today. It survives in our imagination when we think
of this as east, and this as west; It survives in football rivalries that have
their roots in religious conflicts; and it survives in the Justinian law code
which continues to be the basis for much of civil law in Europe. Next week we’ll talk about the emergence
of Islam over here… How’d I do, Stan?
Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Thanks for watching. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller, our script supervisor is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history teacher Raoul Meyer and myself and
our graphics team is Thought Bubble. Last week’s Phrase of the Week was
“Aristotelian logic”. You can guess this week’s Phrase of the
Week or suggest new ones in Comments, where you can also ask questions that our
team of historians will endeavor to answer. Thanks for watching, and as we say in my hometown,
Don’t forget to be awesome.

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