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Three of the many horsemen of the Roman apocalypse. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is often laid at the feet of the barbarians from the north: the Goths, the Lombards, and the Vandals. There is speculation that the Great Wall of China, begun in the 3rd century B.C.E. as a defense against nomads from the north, eventually caused the Huns, coming out of Mongolia, to bypass China in an expansionist time, and head westward towards Europe, eventually Italy itself, in 452 C.E.

A lot of people were moving about, pushing one against the other, and ultimately the pressure created pushed hard against the Romans and their territories. The Goths came out of Scandinavia (Gotland), invading the Roman Empire north of the Danube River, expanding into the Balkans. They did convert to Christianity, but were defeated by the Huns in the middle of the 4th century B.C.E. They then split into two groups, the Ostrogoths in the east ("ostro" from the Latin for "east"), and the Visigoths (you guessed it - Latin for “west”).

The Ostrogoths, pushed by the advancing Huns, captured much of the Balkans, and invaded Italy in the late 5th and early 6th centuries C.E. Their leader, Theodoric, ruled Italy from 493 to 526.

The Visigoths were also pushed by the Huns, defeating a Roman army in what is today Turkey. They also got into the Balkans, expanding southward, and attacked Rome in 410. Then the Visigoths moved into France and Spain, first as Roman subjects, and then independently, taking over former Roman territory.

The Lombards, settlers along the lower Elbe in Germany, were allowed to settle in what is today Hungary and Eastern Austria by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 547. In 568 they invaded northern Italy, penetrating deep into the south, with the exception of Ravenna. The Romans constantly sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

The Vandals were a Germanic tribe, which had migrated steadily southward (seems as if everyone was heading for the sunny shores of Italy), actually going to Spain and Africa. They then attacked Rome itself in 455, sacking it, as the expression goes, and causing so much destruction that the term for totally barbaric behavior "vandalism," has stuck to this day. In 534 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s general Belisarius destroyed their kingdom.

There is more to the story than that. Rome apparently developed a soft underbelly of citizens who wanted to stay at home and let mercenaries fight for them. Inference could be drawn to “let the United Nations do it” today, even after the United States was personally attacked in 2001. Their ranks became filled with Germanic tribes, who apparently loved Roman rule and order. A major incentive for joining the Roman Legions was the granting of citizenship to soldiers. At some point they simply took over. That is the military side of the collapse.

The economic side declares that Rome simply had outreached itself , and that it could not support the Empire. It had simply grown too large, its collective needs too great, and collapsed. Some blame a decaying and collapsing infrastructure, not properly attended to, specifically: roads, buildings, and then Nero's fire, which caused great destruction (though that was very early - the 1st century C.E.). Since this is an architectural course, we can cite an analogy made to a building, which grew too large for its foundation; it toppled over.

Lastly, there is an argument for gradual change. It is suggested that with so much assimilation, particularly in the Germanic north (we mentioned Germanic soldiers before), the Empire just was not "Roman" anymore. Any analogies here? Those arguing this point state that, basically, Roman law continued, Christianity - the official State religion - actually expanded, and the Byzantine half of the Empire continued to exist. Blame for the ultimate collapse is then laid at the feet of the Islamic nation, which was spreading around the eastern and southern sides of the Mediterranean, and into Spain, but this was not until the 7th century. There are many lessons to be learned from all of these probable and accumulative causes.

But to summarize the effects of Roman architecture, we could state that as a whole it provided the most influential legacy for succeeding development and styles in Western Architecture. The Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, the late 18th and 19th century Neoclassic Revival, United States Federal design, the 19th century French École des Beaux-Artes, and finally late 20th century Post Modernists all owed their ideas to Roman designs – which, of course, were in great measure derived from the Greeks (except for the arch).

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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