Western Roman Empire  

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This page Western Roman Empire is part of the Ancient Rome series.  Illustration: Antichita Romanae (1748) by Piranesi
This page Western Roman Empire is part of the Ancient Rome series.
Illustration: Antichita Romanae (1748) by Piranesi

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The Western Roman Empire refers to the western half of the Roman Empire, from its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, today widely known as the Byzantine Empire.

Rome ceased to be the capital from the time of the division. In 286, the capital of the Western Roman Empire became Mediolanum (modern Milan). The capital was moved again in 402, this time to Ravenna.

The Western Empire existed intermittently in several periods between the 3rd century and 5th century, after Diocletian's Tetrarchy and the reunifications associated with Constantine the Great and Julian the Apostate (324-363). Theodosius I (379-395) was the last Roman Emperor who ruled over a unified Roman empire. After his death in 395, the Roman Empire was permanently divided. The Western Roman Empire ended officially with the abdication of Romulus Augustus under pressure of Odoacer on 4 September 476, and unofficially with the death of Julius Nepos in 480.

Despite a brief period of reconquest by its counterpart, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Western Roman Empire would not rise again. As the Western Roman Empire fell, a new era began in Western European history: the Middle Ages and more specifically the Dark Ages.


As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, the new Germanic rulers who conquered the provinces upheld many Roman laws and traditions. Many of the invading Germanic tribes were already Christianized, although most were followers of Arianism. They quickly converted to official imperial Christianity, gaining more loyalty from the local Roman populations, as well as the recognition and support of the powerful Bishop of Rome. Although they initially continued to recognize indigenous tribal laws, they were more influenced by Roman Law and gradually incorporated it as well.

Roman Law, particularly the Corpus Juris Civilis collected by order of Justinian I, is the ancient basis on which the modern Civil law stands. In contrast, Common law is based on the Germanic Anglo-Saxon law.

Latin as a language never really disappeared. It combined with neighboring Germanic and Celtic languages, giving rise to many modern Romance languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, Occitan, and Romansh.

Latin also influenced Germanic languages such as English, German, and Dutch; all surviving Celtic languages, Albanian, and such Slavic languages as Polish and Czech, and even the non-Indo-European Hungarian. It survives in its "purer" form as the language of the Catholic Church (the Mass was spoken exclusively in Latin until 1969), and was used as a lingua franca between many nations. It remained the language of medicine, law, diplomacy (most treaties were written in Latin), of intellectuals and scholarship.

The Latin alphabet was expanded due to the splits of I into I and J and of U into U, V, and in places (especially Germanic languages and Polish) W; it is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. Roman numerals continue to be used, but were mostly replaced by Arabic numerals.

The ideal of the Roman Empire as a mighty Christian Empire with a single ruler continued to seduce many powerful rulers. Under the principle of translatio imperii, the Holy Roman Empire explicitly proclaimed itself as the continuation of the Western Roman Empire. The title of the Western Roman Emperor was revived when Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards, was crowned as Emperor of the Romans of the West by Pope Leo III in 800. The status of the Holy Roman Emperor as the rightful Western Roman Emperor in the medieval era was further legitimated by the recognition as "co-emperor" from the Eastern Roman Emperor, who was in direct succession to the ancient Roman Emperors. The Holy Roman Empire continued to regard itself as the successor state of the Western Roman Empire until its downfall in 1806. The French King Louis XIV, as well as French Emperor Napoleon I, among others, also tried to resurrect the Empire, albeit unsuccessfully.

A very visible legacy of the Western Roman Empire is the Roman Catholic Church. The Church slowly began to replace Roman institutions in the West, even helping to negotiate the safety of Rome during the late 5th century. In many cases the only source of law and civil administration was the local bishop, often himself a former governor like St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Germanus of Auxerre. As Rome was invaded by Germanic tribes, many assimilated, and by the middle of the medieval period (c.9th and 10th centuries) the central, western, and northern parts of Europe had been largely converted by the Roman Catholicism and acknowledged the Pope as the Vicar of Christ.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Western Roman Empire" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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