History of the Fall of the Roman Empire: the Short Version

Bill Petro
6 min readSep 4, 2022

On September 4, 476 AD, Odoacer captured the city of Ravenna and deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus, marking the Fall of the Roman Empire. What do we mean by the Fall of the Roman Empire?

First, what do we mean by Roman Empire?

This part of the statement needs clarification first. When we say Roman Empire, we’re only talking about the “Western Roman Empire.”

There was another Roman Empire?

Correct. Kind of.

Roman Empire: West and East

Since the time of Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century, the Empire was so large that two co-ruling emperors usually managed it:

  • one in the Latin-speaking West, usually in Rome, but sometimes in Mediolanum (Milan) or Ravenna
  • the other in the Greek-speaking East, in Constantinople or Nicomedia.

Following Emperor Theodosius I, it was permanently divided into western and eastern spheres, the whole still referred to as the Roman Empire with two co-equal rulers rather than one. Sometimes they got along, being of the same family; sometimes, they sought to kill each other and occasionally succeeded.

At other times, especially during and following the reign of Diocletian, there were four rulers or a tetrarchy. In both the west and east, there was an Augustus and two subordinate Caesars.

You’ll remember from our discussion of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste and the aftermath of the story of Easter how Emperor Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome in the early 4th century. Subsequently, in 324 AD, he moved the capital of the Empire to the east, to Byzantium, the “New Rome,” renamed Constantinople, which we now know as Istanbul. This capital of the Eastern Roman Empire was the largest and most prosperous city in Europe for almost a millennium until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks.

What do we mean by Fall?

This is the more difficult part of the question, “what do we mean by Fall?” Historians…

Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com