Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.


The epics of Homer, the wars of Caesar, and temples and palaces characterize the image of classic antiquity and the cultures of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. They are the sources from which the Western world draws the foundations of its philosophy, literature, and, not least of all, its state organization. The Greek city-states, above all Athens, were the birthplace of democracy. The regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and great parts of Northwest Europe were forged together into the Roman Empire, which survived until the time of the Great Migration of Peoples. Mighty empires also existed beyond the ancient Mediterranean world, however, such as those of the Mauryas in India and the Han in China.


Alexander the Great



From Constantine to the Rise of Byzantium



The Roman Empire under Valentinian and Theodosius

The emperors Valentinian I and Theodosius the Great strengthened the Roman Empire for the last time. While Valentinian undertook an internal consolidation, Theodosius made Christianity the state religion.

The rise of Christianity was not greeted favorably everywhere in the empire, and the reaction of Julian the Apostate had met with some approval, above all in the circles of the old Roman elite. However, Christianity as the religion of the empire did not collapse, and the empire was able to withstand the onslaught of the Germanic tribes once more due to the policies of the emperors Valentinian and Theodosius.

In February 364, the officer 4 Valentinian was declared emperor.

4 "The Colossus of Barletta,"
a statue of Valentinian I

At the request of his army, he made his younger brother, Valens, who resided in Constantinople, co-emperor in the East. Valentinian dedicated himself first to the urgently needed strengthening of the empire's borders. In Gaul he pushed the invading Alemanni back across the Rhine and erected border fortifications from the North Sea to Rhaetia. Then he initiated his financial policies, which demanded extreme austerity and economizing and found little favor with the Roman upper class.

His brother in the East had to contend with 6 Goths and Persians.

6 Peace agreement between the Goths and Emperor Valens, 369

In 376 he settled the Visigoths in Thrace, but they pushed down to Greece. A military confrontation was unavoidable. His nephew Gratian hurried to his aid with imperial troops, but Valens did not wait and was defeated by the Visigoths in 378 at the Battle of Adrianople. He was killed, and the Goths took Eastern Europe.

Valentinian's successor in the West was his son 1 Gratian, but general 3 Theodosius I (the Great) held political leadership, and Gratian selected him as augustus of the East in January 379.

1 Portrait bust of a youth, believed
to be Emperor Gratian or Valentinian II


3 Theodosius I (the Great)

Theodosius then concluded a treaty with the Visigoths in 382, granting them territory south of the lower Danube as "federates" of the empire. After Gratian's death, Theodosius dedicated himself to the complete Christianization of the empire, fought against heathen cults and in 392 continued the theology of the Nicaean council and Rome as the religion of the empire.

Gratian and Theodosius were the first emperors to discard the traditional title of pontifex maximus, which the pope now assumed, and to 5 subject themselves to the decisions of the Church.

5 Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius, Anthony van Dyck.

Theodosius was religiously and politically visionary and an honest ruler, but his decision to call upon Teutonic army commanders for aid against the usurper 2 Eugenius left a difficult legacy for his successors.


2 Emperors Eugenius and Theodosius I holding a symbol of victory


The End of the Western Roman Empire

In 395 the empire was irrevocably divided into the Western and Eastern empires. Until the end of the Western Empire in 476, the emperors were dominated by Teutonic army commanders.

When Theodosius died in January 395, he left the empire divided among his sons.

The elder, 7 Arcadius, received the eastern part with Constantinople; the younger, Honorius, received the western Roman half.

The sons and grandsons of Theodosius were for the most part dependent on their Teutonic commanders. Honorius, who shifted the Western capital from Rome to Ravenna in 402, was dominated by his imperial general Flavius Stilicho, a Vandal who from 395 held back the Germanic tribes. The impending invasion of the Visigoth Alaric into Italy evoked an anti-German backlash in Rome and led to Stilicho's execution in 408.

Shortly alter this, Alaric sacked 9 Rome in August, 410.

Valentinian III, the last emperor of Theodosian dynasty, was under the influence of his mother 8 Galla Placidia, who served as his regent between 425 and 437.

The Roman general Flavins Aetius, the "Patrician," was virtual ruler in the West from 433. In 437 he destroyed the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine and allied with the Visigoths, with whose help he defeated Attila and the Huns at the Battle of Chalons in 451. Valentinian, who felt threatened by Aetius' power, stabbed him to death during an audience in 454 and was then himself assassinated in March, 455 by Aetius' followers.

Thereafter, the decline of the Western Empire took on a rapid pace, particularly as the relationship to the Eastern Empire, which was growing in strength, had been tense since 450. Finally, in 475 Romulus Augustulus ("Little Augustus") ascended the throne in Ravenna.

7 Arcadius,
son of Theodosius the Great,
marble bust, ca. 395

9 The conquest of Rome by the Visigoths
led by Alaric, 410

8 Tomb of the Empress Galla Placidia
in Ravenna, finished ca. 450


When Odoacer, a Germanic prince, conquered Ravenna in 476, he 10 dethroned the last emperor and exiled him.

Odoacer became the first barbarian king of Italy, and with thai the Latin Western Empire had come to an ignominious end; now the only Roman emperor was the emperor of Byzantium.

10 The Germanic army commander Odoacer dethrones
Romulus Augustulus in 476, wood engraving, ca. 1880



Odoacer's murder in Ravenna on March 15, 493


Odoacer of the Sciri entered the service of the Western Empire in 470 as a mercenary and, militarily victorious, was declared king by his followers. In 476 he deposed the last Western Roman emperor and gained from the Eastern Empire tacit recognition as ruler of Italy. By strengthening the Senate, he was able to shrewdly balance the Romans and the Germans in Italy. He also reconciled with Catholicism, although he was Arian, and fought off other Germanic tribes. Eventually, the Eastern Empire sent the Ostrogoths under Theodoric against him. At a banquet supposedly designed to celebrate a reconciliation in Ravenna on March 15, 493, he was assassinated by Theodoric.





King of Italy

also called Odovacar, or Odovakar
born c. 433
died March 15, 493, Ravenna

First barbarian king of Italy. The date on which he assumed power, 476, is traditionally considered the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Odoacer was a German warrior, the son of Idico (Edeco) and probably a member of the Sciri tribe. About 470 he entered Italy with the Sciri; he joined the Roman army and rose to a position of command. After the overthrow of the Western emperor Julius Nepos by the Roman general Orestes (475), Odoacer led his tribesmen in a revolt against Orestes, who had reneged on his promise to give the tribal leaders land in Italy. On Aug. 23, 476, Odoacer was proclaimed king by his troops, and five days later Orestes was captured and executed in Placentia (now Piacenza), Italy. Odoacer then deposed and exiled Orestes’ young son, the emperor Romulus Augustulus.

Odoacer’s aim was to keep the administration of Italy in his own hands while recognizing the overlordship of the Eastern emperor, Zeno. Zeno granted him the rank of patrician, but Odoacer styled himself “King.” He refused to acknowledge Julius Nepos, Zeno’s candidate, as Western emperor.

Odoacer introduced few important changes into the administrative system of Italy. He had the support of the Senate at Rome and, apparently without serious opposition from the Romans, was able to distribute land to his followers. Unrest among the German tribesmen led to violence in 477–478, but evidently no such disturbances occurred during the later period of his reign. Although Odoacer was an Arian Christian, he rarely intervened in the affairs of the Roman Catholic church.

In 480 Odoacer invaded Dalmatia (in present Croatia) and within two years conquered the region. When Illus, master of soldiers of the Eastern Empire, begged Odoacer’s help (484) in his struggle to depose Zeno, Odoacer attacked Zeno’s westernmost provinces. The emperor responded by inciting the Rugi (of present Austria) to attack Italy. During the winter of 487–488 Odoacer crossed the Danube and defeated the Rugi in their own territory. Although he lost some land to the Visigothic king Euric, who overran northwest Italy, Odoacer recovered Sicily (apart from Lilybaeum) from the Vandals. Nevertheless, he proved to be no match for the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, who was appointed king of Italy by Zeno in 488 in order to prevent the Ostrogoths from raiding in the Eastern Empire. Theodoric invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on March 5, 493; Theodoric invited Odoacer to a banquet and there killed him.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


The Consolidation of the Byzantine Empire

After 450, the emperors of Byzantium were able to strengthen the empire and assert their claim to rule in Europe. As capital of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople assumed the legacy of fallen Rome.

Under Theodosius' weak heirs, the Eastern Empire was coming to ruin as a result of enormous tribute payments to the Huns and German princes and was heading
for a fate similar to the Western Empire. This changed quite suddenly when a period of capable rule began with Marcian in 450. Mar-cian refused to pay tribute to the Huns and was able to force them off to the West. Through confederation pacts with the Visigoths and the Gepids, while fending off Arab tribes in Syria and Palestine, he was able to consolidate the empire.

In 451 he convoked à 1 council at Chalcedon in order to condemn Monophysitism, which was dividing the empire.

Marcian's successor Leo I strengthened Orthodoxy and took up the fight against Aspar, the German general who had been all-powerful in the empire since 424. He created the Isaurian Guard, an elite force made up of Isaurians—a warrior mountain tribe from his homeland—and defeated Aspar in 471, ending the dominance of Germanic generals in the Eastern Empire.

His son-in-law Zeno, who was also Isaurian, developed 3 Constantinople into a new "center of the world" after the fall of Rome.

Zeno was more of a diplomat than a warrior and so sent Theodoric, his "son-inarms," to Italy in 488, where he eventually deposed Odoacer and officially placed Italy under the sovereignty of the Eastern Empire.

Now the militarily strengthened empire needed a new internal structure.

1 The council at Chalcedon, 451 a.d.

3 Constantinople (Istanbul): View over the Bosporus

For the first time, a high administrative official, 2 Anastasius, assumed the throne in 491.

First, he dismissed the Isaurians in favor of the traditional administrative elite and fortified the empire against the Persians and the Bulgarians. Anastasius stood out for his humane legislation and through economical administration was able to accumulate immense state reserves.

2 Emperor Anastasius I, ivory diptych, beginning of the sixth century

4 Justinian I was able to build on these achievements and, as emperor from 527, led Byzantium to its first golden age.

A well-educated Illyrian farmer's son, Justinian had held a leading position in state affairs under his uncle Emperor Justin I (518-527), and in 525 married the actress 5 Theodora, who proved to be of vital support and virtually coreigned with him.


4 Emperor Justinian with entourage, mosaic, before 547


5 Empress Theodora with entourage, mosaic, ca. 547


The Empress Theodora at the Colisseum



Church historian Socrates
(died ca. 450), describing the

Wealth of Constantinople

"Many come to Constantinople;
for the city, although she feeds tremendous masses, has good reserves: By sea she imports
from everywhere necessary, but the Black Sea, which is very near, supplies her with an inexhaustible supply of cereal, if she needs this."




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