The Fall of Rome: A Q&A Discussion on Politics and Power in the Late 5th Century

The Fall of Rome: A Q&A Discussion on Politics and Power in the Late 5th Century


This article discusses the political and economic state of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century. While the East remained relatively stable, the West saw a lot of turmoil, including invasions by the Huns, the breakdown of central government, and the rise of various independent polities. The article explores the factors that contributed to the fall of Rome and considers how the political landscape of the late 5th century set the stage for future developments in Europe.

Table of Contents

  • Background: Brief overview of the political and economic state of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century.
  • Stability in the East and Turmoil in the West: Comparison of the political situations in the two regions.
  • The Impact of the Huns: Discussion of the invasions by the Huns and their effect on the West.
  • The Role of Barbarian Polities: Examination of how independent polities affected the political climate of the West.
  • The Breakdown of Central Government: Analysis of the factors that led to the collapse of the Roman government in the West.
  • Justinian and Imperial Renewal: Discussion of the Eastern Roman emperor’s efforts to revive the empire.


Q: How did the political situation in the East differ from that in the West in the late 5th century?

A: The relationship between church and state remained closer in the East, while the West experienced more instability. In 425, the East was economically stable, while the West did not begin to experience an economic revival until the late 6th century or early 7th century. Theodosian Code, a compilation of the current laws of the empire in Constantinople, was completed in 438, and defined the influential Ephesos and Chalcedon councils.

Q: What was the impact of the Huns on the Roman Empire?

A: The Huns invaded Gaul in 451 and Italy in 452. They were defeated in Gaul but retreated from Italy. Attila died unexpectedly in 453, and by 454/5, the Hunnic hegemony was broken up. Although the Huns were no longer a threat, the West still contained half a dozen “barbarian” polities with which any Roman leader would have to deal.

Q: What contributed to the collapse of the Roman government in the West?

A: The breakdown was due to a combination of factors. The West saw more trouble than the East, and Aetius won the magister militum in 433, ruling until 454. Gaul was temporarily pacified, and other ‘barbarian’ groups were persuaded to accept Roman military hegemony. Italy was less menaced by invasion in the 440s, but Africa had been lost. In the crisis after Valentinian’s death, Geiseric sacked Rome. Theoderic II of the Visigoths (453-66) persuaded Eparchius Avitus to claim the imperial office in 455.

Q: Who were the major independent polities that emerged in the West in the late 5th century?

A: The north of Gaul became effectively independent polities with ad-hoc political procedures, whereas the south of Gaul was better organized with Visigothic and Burgundian kings legislating and creating integrated Roman and “barbarian” armies. Gaul was the best-documented region of the West in the late 5th century, where half a dozen rulers faced each other with no mediation, no distant Rome/Ravenna-based hegemony.

Q: How did Justinian attempt to revive the Roman Empire?

A: Justinian, the Eastern Roman emperor, took most of his forty-year reign to devote to imperial renewal. He reconquered Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain but could not restore the Western Roman Empire’s political unity. Justinian’s building program included the completion of the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, making it the largest church in the world until the Renaissance. Justinian’s legal reforms, including the codification of Roman law and the creation of the Corpus Juris Civilis, were important achievements that influenced the development of modern law.

Q: What can we learn from the late 5th century political climate about the future of Europe?

A: The political landscape of the late 5th century, with its independent polities and the breakdown of centralized government, set the stage for the rise of new powers in Europe. The Frankish king Clovis destroyed the unity of the Western Mediterranean in 507, and the Western Roman Empire would never regain its former power. The Visigothic kingdom of Alaric II in southern Gaul and Spain, along with the Vandals and Burgundians, were influenced by the larger Gothic kingdoms by 500 or so. The stage was set for the formation of modern European nations and the eventual rise of the Holy Roman Empire.


The period of the late 5th century was a time of political upheaval and transition, as the Roman Empire in the West collapsed and independent polities emerged. The Huns, along with various “barbarian” groups and internal struggles within the Roman Empire, contributed to the breakdown of centralized government. The Eastern Roman Empire remained stable, but the West was plagued by instability and conflict. The rise of new powers in Europe was set in motion, leading eventually to the formation of modern European nations. Despite the fall of Rome, the legacy of the Roman Empire lived on through its legal systems, architecture, and other cultural achievements.

Scroll to Top