This Day in History: Fall of the Roman Empire

On September 4, 476 AD, Emperor Romulus Augustus, derisively known as Romulus Augustulus, was forced to resign by Odoacer, one of the German mercenaries who in theory were serving in Rome’s army.  By traditional consensus among historians, the resignation of Romulus marks the end of the Roman Empire.  Well, at least the western Roman Empire; the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, was to last for almost another millennium. 

It is fitting that the empire ended with a Romulus because, according to legend, Rome was founded by a Romulus—Romulus and Remus—some 1,229 years earlier.  Rome was originally a kingdom, but from 509 BC onward it was a Republic, ruled by its senate.  The Roman Senate would elect two consuls to serve as the executive branch for a term of one year although, in times of war or crisis, the senate would elect a single dictator to serve for a six-month term.  By the late republican era, strong men like Sulla and Julius Caesar were able to impose themselves on the senate for longer periods, or indefinitely. 

The first real emperor was Caesar’s great nephew and adopted son, Octavian, who gained total power after defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC.  The following centuries saw some 90 Roman emperors come and go; 35 were murdered, 5 committed suicide, 3 were executed after being captured in battle, and one, Carus, was struck by lightning.

During most of this time, Rome was the dominant world power, defeating her enemies, or co-opting them and incorporating them into the empire.  Since Rome’s fall, the world has never seen a nation and a military force quite like her.  More recently, France under Napoleon and Germany under Hitler experienced short-lived dominance in Europe, but since 476 there has never been anything like the centuries-long military dominance of Rome. 

Rome is mentioned in Scripture, as the legs of iron in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream statute.  (Dan. 2:33, 40) “Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom. It will be as strong as iron. Iron breaks and smashes everything to pieces. And the fourth kingdom will crush and break all the others.” Dan. 2:40.

The early Christians who were living within the Roman Empire sometimes referred to Rome in code as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), probably because Nebuchadnezzar’s great city is where Rome’s pagan religious system originated. 

We see in the Book of Revelation that the code name “Babylon” applies to both pagan Rome and papal Rome.  The papacy took over Rome’s pagan religious system and melded it with Christianity and Greek philosophy.  In its papal phase, the Roman Empire is still with us today, although her influence is greatly reduced from what it was during the 1260 years (Dan. 7:25) of papal ascendancy.