4 September 476: the fall of the Roman Empire

On this day in September 476, the barbarian Odoacer deposed Rome’s last emperor, the teenage Romulus Augustulus.

As a pre-industrial society, the Roman Empire was not rich by modern standards. British economic historian Angus Maddison estimated that, even in central Italy, more prosperous than the rest of the empire, GDP per head was only around $800 (at 1990 prices). That's barely ahead of contemporary Burundi.

However, it's also roughly the same as medieval England, colonial America or Mao-era China – so, in historic terms, extremely prosperous. This wealth was a result of Rome's famously straight roads and its military dominance, which allowed trade to flow across the Mediterranean.

Pax Romana did not come cheap. About two-thirds of Roman taxes went on the armed forces. By the 300s, the model was coming unstuck as Germanic tribes migrated into the empire in huge numbers. Unable to fight off or bribe Goths, Huns and Vandals, the western empire gave them land. This eroded the tax base further, and when north Africa fell to the Vandals in 435, Rome lost Mediterranean dominance and access to some of its most productive farmland.

The poverty of the Roman exchequer made the empire untenable. In September 476, the barbarian Odoacer deposed Rome's last emperor, the teenage Romulus Augustulus, capping a state of almost permanent crisis since the sack of Rome in 410. The empire fragmented into kingdoms that could not facilitate long-distance trade. This led to the return of subsistence agriculture, causing urban populations to collapse.

By 550 AD, Rome – once home to more than a million people – had a population of just 30,000.

Recommended

30 September 1965: Thunderbirds Are Go!
This day in history

30 September 1965: Thunderbirds Are Go!

On this day in 1965, International Rescue launched its first operation, as the classic Thunderbirds TV show aired for the first time.
30 Sep 2020
30 September 1935: The Hoover Dam is dedicated
This day in history

30 September 1935: The Hoover Dam is dedicated

On this day in 1935, thousands of spectators crowded into Black Canyon to see Franklin D Roosevelt celebrate the completion of “the greatest dam in th…
30 Sep 2020
29 September 1829: London’s bobbies pound the beat for the first time
This day in history

29 September 1829: London’s bobbies pound the beat for the first time

On this day in 1829, the first of London's 'Peelers' hit the streets as the Metropolitan Police Force began its patrols.
29 Sep 2020
28 September 1894: Marks & Spencer opens its first 'Penny Bazaar'
This day in history

28 September 1894: Marks & Spencer opens its first 'Penny Bazaar'

On this day in 1894, Michael Marks and Tom Spencer opened their first ‘Penny Bazaar’ market stall in Leeds.
28 Sep 2020

Most Popular

Investors are shunning UK stocks – but they might regret that in a year’s time
UK stockmarkets

Investors are shunning UK stocks – but they might regret that in a year’s time

There are a number of reasons why investors aren't buying UK stocks, says John Stepek. But they may want to rethink that strategy.
29 Sep 2020
Are we really in a stockmarket bubble?
US stockmarkets

Are we really in a stockmarket bubble?

The rise of “cash shell” companies, sky-high valuations – everything seems to point to a stockmarket bubble. But all may not quite be as it appears, s…
28 Sep 2020
How the stamp duty holiday is pushing up house prices
Stamp duty

How the stamp duty holiday is pushing up house prices

Stamp duty is an awful tax and should be replaced by something better. But its temporary removal is driving up house prices, says Merryn Somerset Webb…
25 Sep 2020