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27 Jul

The Beginning of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is a period in European history that followed the classical antiquity. The beginning of the Middle Ages is traditionally dated to year 476 when the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic chieftain Odoacer who became the first Germanic King of Italy. The event marks the end of the Western Roman Empire but all historians do not consider it as the start date for the Middle Ages.

The transition from the classical antiquity to the Middle Ages did not happen overnight and the Western Roman Empire was only a shadow of the mighty Roman Empire when Odoacer deposed the Romulus Augustulus. The western half of the Roman Empire never truly recovered from the Crisis of the 3rd Century, while the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Great only postponed the fall of Rome.

The Crisis of the 3rd Century caused dramatic institutional, economic, social well as religious changes and the western half of the Roman Empire became unable to defend itself from the invasions of the barbarian peoples after permanent division of the empire in 395. By the mid-5th century the barbarians settled most part of the Western Roman Empire as foederati who were neither Roman colonies nor Roman citizens. In return for being allowed to settle on the Roman territory, they provided military assistance to the Romans but occasionally, they turned against Rome as well.

The Western Roman Empire was ruled by weak emperors after death of Valentian III in 455, while the real power was in hands of barbarian military commanders. Odoacer’s deposition of Romulus Augustulus was therefore a consequence rather than the cause of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse. For that reason there are several alternative dates to year 476 as the end of classical antiquity and beginning of the Middle Ages:

  • Year 313 when Roman Emperor Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan proclaiming religious toleration and ending persecution of the Christians
  • Year 375 when the Huns destroyed the state of the Goths at the Black Sea initiating the Migration Period
  • Year 378 when Visigoths decisively defeated the Roman army and killed Emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople
  • Year 395 when the Roman Empire permanently split into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire which later came to be known as the Byzantine Empire
  • Year 410 or the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths led by Alaric I
  • Year 480 or death of the last de jure Western Roman Emperor, Julius Nepos
  • Year 529 when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I closed the last pagan school in Athens
  • Year 647 or the Muslim conquest of North Africa
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