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AD455 - the fall of the Roman west?
#1
The exact date of the fall of the western Roman empire is one of those hoary old questions that comes up pretty regularly (most recently on this board here). The most common answer seems to be AD476, with the deposing of Romulus Augustus, or 480 and the murder of Julius Nepos.

In one sense it's a completely unnecessary question: the empire 'fell' by gradual stages, not suddenly on a single date, and many aspects of Roman culture and even politics continued in Italy long after the takeover by the barbarian kings.

But since the question is unlikely to go away, and thinking about it might help to frame various other questions connected to the era, I'd like to propose, for the sake of argument, a different and slightly earlier date for the 'fall of Rome'... [Image: wink.png]

In AD455 Valentinian III, last emperor of the direct Theodosian line, was murdered by a pair of Hunnic mercenaries. The previous year, Valentinian had personally executed Flavius Aetius, the last truly effective Roman military commander in the west. A few months after Valentinian's death his successor Petronius Maximus was killed by a rioting mob. Days later, a Vandal fleet rowed up the Tiber, captured the city and commenced a comprehensive two-week sack. They not only stripped Rome of much of its portable wealth, but took many prominent members of the aristocracy and imperial family captive and removed them to Carthage. Supposedly further destruction of the city was only averted by the pleas of Pope Leo.

The indirect cause of these events was the capture of North Africa by the Vandals in 439 - after that, Rome's slow demise was almost certain. But it took another sixteen years for the final blow to fall.

After AD455, then, the western empire ceased to be a viable political entity. It was no more than an appendage of the eastern empire, manipulated by ambitious generals: a kind of zombie polity that staggered on for another twenty years, with only the occasional appearance of independent life. The final extinction of the imperial line in 476 was no more than an afterthought.

So if we wanted to set a particular date when 'Rome fell', AD455 would seem a lot more certain than the traditional later dating.

Does anybody else agree? [Image: smile.png]
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#2
(05-08-2017, 06:49 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote: After AD455, then, the western empire ceased to be a viable political entity. It was no more than an appendage of the eastern empire, manipulated by ambitious generals: a kind of zombie polity that staggered on for another twenty years, with only the occasional appearance of independent life. The final extinction of the imperial line in 476 was no more than an afterthought.


Yes and no. Indeed it's and age-old question, and I guess answers depend on how you ask the question. For instance, many scholars take Adrianople or the accession of Theodosius as the start of the 'Byzantine' Empire. Others have taken the fall of Rome in 410 as the sign of the end. Or indeed 476, or 480. For me it's actually 474, when the Patricius Gundobad rather returns home to Burgundy and succeed to the Burgundian Kingdom after the death of his father, than remain in Rome and rule the Western Roman Empire.

In your definition, 455 signified the end because after that the West was a puppet of the East. Was it? Indeed the West was severely weakened after the Vandal attack, but it was not exactly powerless. Maioran comes to mind, and several actions by other armies, even though localised sometimes.
And if you think about it, wasn't Honorius as powerless without aid from Constantinople too? Especially after the death of Stilicho, the West can be seen as a diminished Empire. By that definition, 408 would be as good as 455?
_________________________________
Robert Vermaat
MODERATOR: Forum rules
FECTIO Late Roman Society
THE CAUSE OF WAR MUST BE JUST
(Maurikios-Strategikon, book VIII.2: Maxim 12)
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#3
(05-09-2017, 08:17 AM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: Maioran comes to mind, and several actions by other armies

Yes, I did wonder about Majorian. It's a shame we don't know more about his victories, and the army he used to win them - the remains of the western field army, or largely barbarian foederati? For all his abilities, he does seem to have been largely under the power of Ricimer though, and his victories were brief and soon overturned. His campaigns - and those of Marcellinus and others - were more directed at recovering small amounts of lost territory. We could imagine that he - or Ricimer - with the help of eastern forces perhaps, might have turned the tide at some point and recovered Africa, or even Gaul, but they did not.


(05-09-2017, 08:17 AM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: Especially after the death of Stilicho, the West can be seen as a diminished Empire. By that definition, 408 would be as good as 455?

Perhaps so. But I do think it was the loss of Africa in 439 that really created the preconditions for the extinction of imperial power in the west. Africa was a vital source of food and manpower, a redoubt of Roman culture, and a fallback position for an embattled Italy if necessary. Once it was gone, the remnants of imperial power in Italy had nowhere to turn but eastward - a relationship that would soon resemble clientship.

Back in 408, the west still had a field army (I've come to suspect that Honorius and co believed that Constantine III was a greater threat than Alaric, and so chose not to risk weakening their army by a direct attack on the Goths, perhaps in fact to try and co-opt Alaric once again and turn him against their other enemies - a foolish strategy, if so, but the thinking behind it is understandable, perhaps...)

But after 439, the armies available to the western emperors seem to have been scattered and rather small in scale; they lacked a real chance of retaking Africa, or even challenging the Goths in Gaul and Spain. The best they could do was to hold their own territories for a while.

Certainly the western empire was in trouble in 408, but I think they still had the potential to recover. The combination of events in 455 made that impossible, perhaps - and the Vandalic sack of the city, much longer and more thorough than Alaric's work, seems to represent a more definitive tipping point than any relatively minor readjustments of residual power in later decades.
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#4
Quote:In AD455 Valentinian III, last emperor of the direct Theodosian line, was murdered by a pair of Hunnic mercenaries.

Actually it's not stated what ethnicity they were. Their names were Optila (Occila) and Thraustila, which are Gothic. It's thought they were Huns because they were former buccellarii of Aetius, but they could very well have been Goths. Aetius inherited Pelagia/Boniface's buccellarii and likely also commander Placidia's buccellarii (the Placidi Valentiniani).

Quote:Yes, I did wonder about Majorian. It's a shame we don't know more about his victories, and the army he used to win them - the remains of the western field army, or largely barbarian foederati? For all his abilities, he does seem to have been largely under the power of Ricimer though, and his victories were brief and soon overturned. His campaigns - and those of Marcellinus and others - were more directed at recovering small amounts of lost territory. We could imagine that he - or Ricimer - with the help of eastern forces perhaps, might have turned the tide at some point and recovered Africa, or even Gaul, but they did not.

There may have been some Roman forces but the evidence says the majority of them were destroyed or deserted over the course of 451-455.

Avitus, Majorian, and Marcellinus' campaigns were an extension of one begun under Aetius in 453, where Aetius and Frederic retook Carthaginiensis from the Suebes with the ultimate goal of crossing the Gibraltar and retaking Africa, without Eastern assistance (Which wasn't available anyways since the East wouldn't recover from the Hun invasions until the 460's).
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#5
(05-09-2017, 05:43 PM)Flavivs Aetivs Wrote: Actually it's not stated what ethnicity they were.

Thanks. I know it's difficult to determine ethnicity by names, but I'd seen them described as Huns before (in secondary sources). The end result was the same either way!


(05-09-2017, 05:43 PM)Flavivs Aetivs Wrote: There may have been some Roman forces but the evidence says the majority of them were destroyed or deserted over the course of 451-455.

If so, it's further weight to the theory that the western empire (or the political and military authority of the western emperors) came to an end in 455, right?

After that, it was just various barbarian groups and warlords, and their puppet rulers, fighting over the ruins... [Image: smile.png]
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#6
(05-09-2017, 01:57 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(05-09-2017, 08:17 AM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: Maioran comes to mind, and several actions by other armies

Yes, I did wonder about Majorian. It's a shame we don't know more about his victories, and the army he used to win them - the remains of the western field army, or largely barbarian foederati? For all his abilities, he does seem to have been largely under the power of Ricimer though, and his victories were brief and soon overturned. His campaigns - and those of Marcellinus and others - were more directed at recovering small amounts of lost territory. We could imagine that he - or Ricimer - with the help of eastern forces perhaps, might have turned the tide at some point and recovered Africa, or even Gaul, but they did not.


(05-09-2017, 08:17 AM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: Especially after the death of Stilicho, the West can be seen as a diminished Empire. By that definition, 408 would be as good as 455?

Perhaps so. But I do think it was the loss of Africa in 439 that really created the preconditions for the extinction of imperial power in the west. Africa was a vital source of food and manpower, a redoubt of Roman culture, and a fallback position for an embattled Italy if necessary. Once it was gone, the remnants of imperial power in Italy had nowhere to turn but eastward - a relationship that would soon resemble clientship.

Back in 408, the west still had a field army (I've come to suspect that Honorius and co believed that Constantine III was a greater threat than Alaric, and so chose not to risk weakening their army by a direct attack on the Goths, perhaps in fact to try and co-opt Alaric once again and turn him against their other enemies - a foolish strategy, if so, but the thinking behind it is understandable, perhaps...)

But after 439, the armies available to the western emperors seem to have been scattered and rather small in scale; they lacked a real chance of retaking Africa, or even challenging the Goths in Gaul and Spain. The best they could do was to hold their own territories for a while.

Certainly the western empire was in trouble in 408, but I think they still had the potential to recover. The combination of events in 455 made that impossible, perhaps - and the Vandalic sack of the city, much longer and more thorough than Alaric's work, seems to represent a more definitive tipping point than any relatively minor readjustments of residual power in later decades.
Hi,
O.K.
....let me sum it up.
-408 Arcadius dies. Stilicho accused of treason and executed. His bodyguards slain.
Alarich/The Visigoths  enter/s Italy.
 
-410 Fall/Sacking of Rome by the Visigoths under Alarich
 
-439 Losing northern Africa to the Vandals under King Geiserich.
 
-455 Aetius murdered, as a result Valentinian III murdered, too.
- 474 Burgundian Prince and west-roman Patricius Gundobad declines offer for the western throne and goes home instead.
Peace treaty between Geiserich and east-roman Emperor Zeno. Acknowledging the Vandal reign over "Africa" -- maintaining the fiction of still having roman-supremacy over "Africa"
 
-476 Romulus Augustulus dethroned. Throne henceforth vacant.
-480 Murder of Julius Nepos -- the Nepos(= nephew) of the eastern-roman Emperor
Did I get everything right, am I missing something essential ??
I hope I summed that up correctly.
Now far as I am concerned I'd introduce two further dates (two more nails to the coffin, if you will ) that are debatable here:
- 460 A joint effort of eastern and western force to recover "Africa" again.
Failed completely. The joint forces nearly annihilated as the fleet is burned at Cartagena.
 
-468 The "Vandal War" : A "fail" of that 3-stage operation after the fleet lost out again
against the Vandals.
 
In short:
Viewing those dates as essential, but equally so, I'd still maintain 476 as THE date of western Rome's end, the dethronisation of Romulus Augustulus being an overwhelming "signal" for the "end",
beyond the military facts.
I think that an earlier dating of the "end" overlooks some military facts :
There is more than a slight probability that the Rhine-frontier was still maintained up to then.
 (Numerous "late" finds at some places still under garrison.
These were now mostly  manned with germanics of a more" northward" provenience.
e.g. Neuburg/Donau, Worms,Sasbach-Jechtingen, Alzey)
"Allamanic" finds in those areas or better on the right bank of the Rhine in general are being dated now well after the middle of the 5th century.
(BTW: I would also consider this as being one of the causes for the swift victories of the Franks over the Alamanni )
The western roman empire, however, had been losing  its ability to maintain a certain amount of "stateliness" und military striking power step by step.
The attempt to install "Ivlivs Nepos" as the western roman Emperor by the Eastern Emperor Leo , seen in this context, rather looks like reviving a dead man.
As for the other dates:
408 and 410: e.g. the Rhine-frontier is still maintained after that.
439: A further weakening but no fatal blow as the ensuing dates clearly show.
455: The battles against the huns still show a slight supremacy of roman imperial forces
over their enemies and allies alike. The Visigoths surely seem to have decided "to go in their own" by now. The following dates still show a certain striking power having been left, although more or less dwindling.
460: Depriving the western empire of most its capability to strike on their own for good.
468: A "repeat performance" further weakening both parts of the empire.
474: Likely that Gundobad judged the peace treaty after repeated conflicts with the Vandals still
detrimental to the western Roman Empire. But since there was a treaty now between the Vandals
and the eastern roman empire  (Leo I.) that was kept till 491 AD.,  you would hardly call this an "end date".
476: It's obvious now that there is NO western roman emperor in his own right.
480: If it was not for Eastern Rome, this would rather NOT have taken place.
BTW: Quite similar to the later efforts of Justinian I. which were successful  then, but at a price.
 
Greez
 
Simplex
 
 
Siggi K.
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#7
(05-09-2017, 07:01 PM)Simplex Wrote: am I missing something essential ??

I think the murder of Petronius Maxinus very soon after Valentinian, and the sack by the Vandals only a few days later, were pretty pivotal.


(05-09-2017, 07:01 PM)Simplex Wrote: There is more than a slight probability that the Rhine-frontier was still maintained up to then.

Hmm, interesting - but maintained by whom? Surely not by the emperors in Rome or Ravenna? I could well imagine that the western successor states would want to keep up the Rhine defences - and the material record of their occupation would be scarcely different to that of a late 'Roman' one, I would think.

But you're quite right - as I say, the empire 'fell' by stages, rather than at a single moment.

I realise that what I'm arguing for here is a sort of symbolic end (coupled with a very violent and dramatic set of successive incidents!) - the murders of Flavius Aetius (representative of the army) followed by Valentinian (representative of the imperial household) and then Petronius (representative of the great families of the senatorial aristocracy) - killed by the emperor, the soldiers and the Roman mob respectively - and followed by the 'death' of the city at the hands of the barbarians, seem to represent a quite conclusive demolition of the three props that had supported imperial power for centuries.
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#8
(05-09-2017, 07:47 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(05-09-2017, 07:01 PM)Simplex Wrote: There is more than a slight probability that the Rhine-frontier was still maintained up to then.

Hmm, interesting - but maintained by whom? Surely not by the emperors in Rome or Ravenna? I could well imagine that the western successor states would want to keep up the Rhine defences - and the material record of their occupation would be scarcely different to that of a late 'Roman' one, I would think.
The Empire was of course more than the rulers in their respective capitals. Even without an Emperor in Rome or Ravenna, the 'local nobles' could maintain some form of defense (they would have to anyway), and the soldiers and federates along the frontiers would do their jobs without knowledge of the person who actually ruled over them. There had been breakdowns before, even for years sometimes, but rescuing armies had always been sent their way eventually. Frankish commanders and Gaulish duces did not know any better - the population as not expecting any different. It was a tough fabric to break, so to speak. The real break would be when some folks realise that there won't be any suppot from Italy anymore.

With a bit more luck and without that damning East-West conflict I firmly believe the West could have ben held somehow. It took about 60 years to wear it down.
_________________________________
Robert Vermaat
MODERATOR: Forum rules
FECTIO Late Roman Society
THE CAUSE OF WAR MUST BE JUST
(Maurikios-Strategikon, book VIII.2: Maxim 12)
[Image: artgroepbutton.jpg]
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#9
(05-10-2017, 12:09 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: the soldiers and federates along the frontiers would do their jobs without knowledge of the person who actually ruled over them.

Yes - like that unfortunate garrison in the Life of Saint Severinus, hanging about on the Danube wondering why they hadn't been paid in ages!


(05-10-2017, 12:09 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: It was a tough fabric to break, so to speak. The real break would be when some folks realise that there won't be any suppot from Italy anymore.

It seems as if what you're talking about here is a sort of cultural idea of Romanness, rather than the western empire as a political entity. Undoubtably people continued to feel Roman, and behave in a Roman way, following Roman political and cultural forms, long after the empire was a dead letter in the west.

But I think, as I said above, that what I'm arguing for here is a symbolic 'fall' - symbolism, particularly following Diocletian and Constantine, was an extremely important aspect of imperial power and authority: the godlike emperor, addressed always in terms of sycophantic flattery, with his face on the coins and his name on the laws, reflecting in his awesome majesty the divine order of the universe...

When that symbolic power and authority was gone, real political power went with it. The murder of two emperors in quick succession, coupled with the sack of Rome and the humbling of the aristocracy, would seem to represent a very clear terminus for that symbolic power, and the authority and respect that it implied.
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#10
(05-11-2017, 01:34 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote: It seems as if what you're talking about here is a sort of cultural idea of Romanness, rather than the western empire as a political entity. Undoubtably people continued to feel Roman, and behave in a Roman way, following Roman political and cultural forms, long after the empire was a dead letter in the west.

But I think, as I said above, that what I'm arguing for here is a symbolic 'fall' - symbolism, particularly following Diocletian and Constantine, was an extremely important aspect of imperial power and authority: the godlike emperor, addressed always in terms of sycophantic flattery, with his face on the coins and his name on the laws, reflecting in his awesome majesty the divine order of the universe...

When that symbolic power and authority was gone, real political power went with it. The murder of two emperors in quick succession, coupled with the sack of Rome and the humbling of the aristocracy, would seem to represent a very clear terminus for that symbolic power, and the authority and respect that it implied.

Indeed, the 'fall' in my opinion would related to a shift in the minds of the Roman citizens.

Those emperors remained alive in the minds of everyone I think, Romans and Germans alike. The Romans saw him as a distant figure and the Germans as some heroic alien entity. But the new Frankish kings etc sought to emulate the Roman court and coins nonetheless, and even the Anglo-Saxons incorporated Caesar and Augustus in their dynastic king-lists!
_________________________________
Robert Vermaat
MODERATOR: Forum rules
FECTIO Late Roman Society
THE CAUSE OF WAR MUST BE JUST
(Maurikios-Strategikon, book VIII.2: Maxim 12)
[Image: artgroepbutton.jpg]
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#11
(05-11-2017, 04:06 PM)Robert Vermaat Wrote: some heroic alien entity. But the new Frankish kings etc sought to emulate the Roman court and coins nonetheless...

Ah, sounds like the long shadow of Rome! (or 'Caesar's Vast Ghost' perhaps?)

Empires of the heart or mind can last for a very long time - for many people, the British empire is alive and well, and the Islamic one too! [Image: wink.png]
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#12
Quote:Hmm, interesting - but maintained by whom? Surely not by the emperors in Rome or Ravenna?

Actually yeah it was. Drinkwater, "The Alamanni and Rome," 327-329. The evidence says the local Limitanei garrisons from roughly Mainz to Pannonia Prima were intact, the ones in the area of the Rhine and Raetia show evidence of a mix of Roman and Rhine Germanic recruits. Drinkwater even goes as far as to suggest that Aetius was recruiting them for his field army regiments as well. Of course, these were as professional soldiers and not foederati units.

Quote:With a bit more luck and without that damning East-West conflict I firmly believe the West could have been held somehow. It took about 60 years to wear it down.

It lasted as long as it did because it had an absolutely exceptionally competent and capable leader, Aetius, but even he could not have saved it had he lived. There was a growing rift between the Gallic and Italic aristocracies (which ended up in Majorian's assassination), serious flaws in Western Economic policy versus the Eastern, among other reasons.

If we assume Africa had never been invaded by the Vandals and the outcome of pretty much everything else was the same, then after Attila's empire collapsed in 454 maybe, just maybe, it could have survived and recovered without a major empire and serious military threat on the Rhine-Danube frontier.
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#13
(05-17-2017, 04:05 AM)Flavivs Aetivs Wrote: Drinkwater, "The Alamanni and Rome," 327-329. The evidence says the local Limitanei garrisons from roughly Mainz to Pannonia Prima were intact

Good to know - thanks. I read Drinkwater several years ago, but my interest at the time didn't extend into the 5th century, so I skipped that part...  It does appear that he says the Rhine garrisons lasted into the 450s, or until the death of Aetius, at least - no doubt some sort of garrisons continued under Aegidius, although determining the difference between 'Roman' and 'barbarian' would be tricky (and the barbarians could still claim allegiance to Rome, of course).


(05-17-2017, 04:05 AM)Flavivs Aetivs Wrote: an absolutely exceptionally competent and capable leader, Aetius

Well you would say that! [Image: tongue.png]


(05-17-2017, 04:05 AM)Flavivs Aetivs Wrote: a growing rift between the Gallic and Italic aristocracies (which ended up in Majorian's assassination)

What's the story there? I thought Ricimer was behind it?
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#14
He was, but the Gallic Aristocracy was pretty much not influential in the court in Ravenna. Majorian was away from his army and his Gallic supporters, Ricimer persuaded the Italic aristocracy that he wasn't in their best interests (Ricimer was a Burgundian and Majorian had recently smashed their recent bout of expansion) and therefore he went caput.

Quote:Well you would say that!

Well yeah of course I would, but so do most authors. Unlike Stilicho or Belisarius, it's thought that Aetius really did run the empire. He managed almost every aspect of it barring some legislation and religion, which still fell under Valentinian III. He was an outstanding diplomat, administrator, and brilliant military tactician. He was also EXTREMELY pragmatic and recognized the limits of, well everything. Despite the financial losses, he recognized that after the fall of Africa these people could not afford their taxes and so gave them breaks and exemptions. Even when the possibility of uniting the Empire after Theodosius II's death was presented, giving the possibility of badly needed income and manpower from the East, he realized that even he could not lead a successful campaign against Marcian and told Valentinian III no. He probably also wanted to keep out powerful potential rivals like Aspar, Zeno, etc. at the Eastern Court.

Stilicho and Belisarius don't seem to ever reach the level of micromanaging super-general-administrator Aetius did. I'm not saying he was an angel: after all he did support an usurper, have his rival Felix brutally executed, and probably did instigate the conflict with Boniface in 432 to try and take complete control over the West. But it doesn't seem that any of his actions actually contributed it to the fall of the west. Many authors state that it was a testament to Aetius' ability that after his death it only took 22 years for the Empire to collapse. He, and his officers and bureaucrats who must have been capable men, held it together.

All nations rely on leadership. Aetius was a good leader. The empire didn't have the leaders it needed at the times of weakness that led to its collapse: Stilicho was obsessed with controlling the East when the Usurpers took Gaul and Spain and the Rhine was crossed in 406, while Ricimer wasn't acting in Roman interests at all.

It didn't help that the Huns effectively wiped out between 100,000-300,000 men and devastated the Balkans reducing the population and tax base either.

They solved the famine in North Italy though. It's just how they solved said famine that wasn't helpful...
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#15
(05-17-2017, 11:17 PM)Flavivs Aetivs Wrote: it was a testament to Aetius' ability that after his death it only took 22 years for the Empire to collapse.

Or less than ten months, if you follow my theory above! [Image: wink.png]



(05-17-2017, 11:17 PM)Flavivs Aetivs Wrote: All nations rely on leadership.

That's the general assumption. The 'strong man' theory of history would suggest that without Stilicho, Aetius and Ricimer the empire would perhaps have fallen a lot sooner. I'm not so sure though - doesn't it depend on who's doing the leading?

The rise of the magister utriusque militiae centralised a dangerous amount of military - and also civil - power in the hands of a man who was not the emperor. You could argue that this destabilised imperial authority. If the emperors tried to rein in their overmighty generals they risked mutiny, and when they killed them they effectively chopped off the head of their own armies.

With the magister dead, and so many of the army commanders, as his appointees, deposed or under suspicion, military morale and discipline was bound to suffer; Rome's enemies could take advantage of this. No surprise, perhaps, that the death of Stilicho was followed by the sack of Rome by the Goths, and the death of Aetius by the Vandal sack.

The earlier practice of using several magistri would not have this effect - as far as I know, single supreme magistri were not appointed in the east either.

So could we say that the power of the magistri utriusque militiae in the west, rather than holding the empire together, might rather have contributed to its fall?
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