What determines the final demise of the empire is notoriously difficult. The easiest date to use is the fall of Rome… but which one? 410 doesn’t mark the end of the list of western Roman emperors, nor does 455. The other problem is that while Rome was the cradle of the empire, by the 5th century it was neither the most important city (Constantinople), nor the capital of the Western Roman Empire (Ravenna).
The second date that could be used is 476, when Romulus Augutulus was deposed. Again, this doesn’t work because the eastern Roman emperor was still the most powerful person in the world (except for the emperor of China). His empire might have become known as the Byzantine empire, and its inhabitants might have begun speaking Greek, but they considered themselves to be as Roman as Julius Caesar – right up until the bitter end – an ending that happened twice.
The Byzantine empire was the victim of the Fourth Crusade and was conquered in 1204. This was the end of the empire then, surely?
However, just a couple of generations later, it threw off its western overlords, and the emperors returned. These were to last until the Ottoman conquest of 1453 (where the last eastern Roman emperor, unlike the last western one, did go down in a blaze of glory on the city’s battlements).
So does 1453 count as the end of the empire? This is an even harder date to use because the 15th-century world was very different to that of the Roman empire at its peak. Worse still, since Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans in 800, there had been a number of Germanic rulers who would, by the Middle Ages, claim to be ‘holy Roman emperors’. They were no such thing, but the title was still in play.
And yet, still later dates could be used: when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, two very different dynasties took up the title of Roman emperor and Caesar. Firstly the Ottoman sultan took the title because he had just conquered the old eastern capital. Secondly, as Constantinople had been the capital of Orthodox Christianity, the Russian rulers, as defenders of the Orthodox faith, took the title Caesar (‘tsar’ in Russian).
None of these dates are satisfactory, so the last fact is really a question. Which date would you choose?
For the Romans, though, there were many gods and little fixed doctrine. Although the Roman state focused on a few important gods, like Jupiter, Juno, Mars and Apollo, for individuals there were countless possibilities, including exotic gods like Serapis [a Graeco-Egyptian god] and Isis [the patroness of nature and magic, first worshipped in ancient Egyptian religion]; and more homely deities like Mater Matuta [an indigenous Latin goddess] and Silvanus [a Roman deity of woods and fields]. The absence of scripture or a church orthodoxy allowed for a certain flexibility in how Romans thought about these gods.
Roman unity under Constantine proved illusory, and 30 years after his death the eastern and western empires were again divided. Despite its continuing battle against Persian forces, the eastern Roman Empire–later known as the Byzantine Empire–would remain largely intact for centuries to come. An entirely different story played out in the west, where the empire was wracked by internal conflict as well as threats from abroad–particularly from the Germanic tribes now established within the empire’s frontiers–and was steadily losing money due to constant warfare.