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What Happened to Roman Emperors after Rome Was Sacked in 410?

What Happened to Roman Emperors after Rome Was Sacked in 410?

By the time of Alaric’s Sack of Rome in 410, the Roman Empire had been divided in two. The Western Roman Empire ruled the tumultuous territory to the west of Greece, while the Eastern Roman Empire enjoyed the comparative peace and prosperity of the east.

In the early 400s the Eastern Empire was wealthy and largely intact; the Western Roman Empire, however, was a shadow of its former self.

Barbarian forces had taken control of most its provinces and its armies were largely composed of mercenaries. Western emperors were weak, as they had neither the military nor economic power to protect themselves.

Here is what happened to the Roman emperors during and after the Sack of Rome:

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The Sack of Rome in 410

By the time it was sacked, Rome had not been the capital of the Western Empire for over a century.

The ‘eternal city’ was unruly and difficult to defend, so in 286 Mediolanum (Milan) became the imperial capital, and in 402 the emperor moved to Ravenna. The city of Ravenna was protected by marshland and strong defences, so it was the safest base for the imperial court. Nevertheless, Rome still remained the symbolic centre of the empire.

Honorius, emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 410, had a turbulent reign. His empire was fragmented by mutinous generals and incursions from barbarian factions like the Visigoths.

Honorius had come to power at the age of just 8 years old; at first he was protected by his father-in-law, a general called Stilicho. However, after Honorius killed Stilicho he was vulnerable to Rome’s enemies like the Visigoths.

The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths.

In 410 King Alaric and his Visigoths army entered Rome and plundered the city for three whole days. It was the first time in 800 years a foreign force had captured the city, and the cultural impact of the sack was enormous.

The aftermath of the Sack of Rome

The Sack of Rome astonished occupants of both halves of the Roman Empire. It showed the weakness of the Western Empire, and both Christians and Pagans alike pointed to it as an indication of divine anger.

Honorius was less severely affected. One account describes how he was informed of the destruction of the city, safe at his court in Ravenna. Honorius was only shocked because he thought the messenger was referring to the death of his pet chicken, Roma.

Despite the pillaging of its symbolic capital, the Western Roman Empire limped on for another 66 years. Some of its emperors reasserted imperial control in the west, but most oversaw the empire’s continuing collapse.

Fighting Huns, Vandals and usurpers: the Western Roman Emperors from 410 to 461

Honorius’ weak rule continued until 425 when he was replaced by the young Valentinian III. Valentinian’s unstable empire was initially ruled by his mother, Galla Placidia. Even after he came of age Valentinian was really protected by a powerful general: a man named Flavius Aetius. Under Aetius, Rome’s armies even managed to repel Attila the Hun.

Not long after the Hunnic threat had subsided, Valentinian was assassinated. In 455 he was succeeded by Petronius Maximus, an emperor who ruled for only 75 days. Maximus was killed by an angry mob when news spread that the Vandals were sailing to attack Rome.

After Maximus’ death, the Vandals viciously sacked Rome for a second time. Their extreme violence during this pillaging of the city gave rise to the term ‘vandalism’. Maximus was briefly followed as emperor by Avitus, who was deposed in 457 by Majorian, his general.

The Vandals sacking Rome in 455.

The last great attempt to restore the Western Roman Empire to glory was made by Majorian. He launched a series of successful campaigns in Italy and Gaul against the Vandals, Visigoths and Burgundians. After subduing these tribes he headed to Spain and defeated the Suebi who had occupied the former Roman province.

Majorian also planned a number of reforms to help restore the empire’s economic and social problems. He was described by the historian Edward Gibbon as ‘a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species’.

Majorian was eventually killed by one of his Germanic generals, Ricimer. He had conspired with aristocrats who were worried about the impact of Majorian’s reforms.

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The decline of the Western Roman Emperors from 461 to 474

After Majorian, the Roman Emperors were mostly puppets of powerful warlords like Ricimer. These warlords could not become emperor themselves as they were of barbaric descent, but ruled the empire through weak Romans. Following his coup against Majorian, Ricimer placed a man named Libius Severus on the throne.

Severus died soon after of natural causes, and Ricimer and the Eastern Roman Emperor crowned Anthemius. A general with a proven battle record, Anthemius worked with Ricimer and the Eastern Emperor to try repel the barbarians threatening Italy. Eventually, after failing to defeat the Vandals and the Visigoths, Anthemius was deposed and killed.

After Anthemius, Ricimer placed a Roman aristocrat called Olybrius on the throne as his puppet. They ruled together for only a few months until they both perished of natural causes. When Ricimer died, his nephew Gundobad inherited his positions and his armies. Gundobad installed a Roman named Glycerius as the nominal emperor of Rome.

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The fall of the Western Roman Emperors: Julius Nepos and Romulus Augustus

The Eastern Roman Emperor, Leo I, refused to acknowledge Glycerius as emperor, since he was merely a puppet of Gundobad. Leo I instead sent one of his governors, Julius Nepos to replace Glycerius. Nepos ousted Glycerius, but was very quickly deposed by one of his own generals in 475. This general, Orestes, placed his son on the throne instead.

Orestes’ son was named Flavius Romulus Augustus. He was to be the last Western Roman emperor. Romulus Augustus’ name is probably his most notable aspect: ‘Romulus’ was the legendary founder of Rome, and ‘Augustus’ was the name of Rome’s first emperor. It was a fitting title for Rome’s final ruler.

Romulus was little more than a proxy for his father, who was captured and killed by barbarian mercenaries in 476. The leader of these mercenaries, Odoacer, quickly marched upon Ravenna, Romulus’ capital.

Odoacer’s forces besieged Ravenna and defeated the remnants of the Roman army who garrisoned the city. Only 16 years old, Romulus was forced to abdicate his throne to Odoacer, who spared his life out of pity. This was the end of 1,200 years of Roman rule in Italy.

Map of the Eastern Roman Empire (purple) during the abdication of Augustus Romulus. Credit: Ichthyovenator / Commons.

The Eastern Roman Emperors

Romulus’ abdication marked the end of the Western Roman Empire. It closed a chapter in history which saw Rome as a kingdom, a republic and an empire.

However, the Eastern Roman Emperors continued to influence politics in Italy, and occasionally attempted conquests of the former empire in the west. Emperor Justinian I (482-527), via his famous adjutant Belisarius, successfully re-established Roman control across the Mediterranean, capturing Italy, Sicily, North Africa and parts of Spain.

Ultimately, the Roman state and its emperors continued for another 1,000 years after Odoacer seized control of Italy. The Eastern Roman Empire, which was later known as the Byzantine Empire, ruled from their capital at Constantinople until it was sacked by the Ottomans in 1453.

At its height the Roman Empire stretched from Britain and the Atlantic to North Africa and Mesopotamia. In the fourth century AD, however, what Pliny the Elder had called the ‘immense majesty of the Roman peace’ was menaced by invasions of Germanic peoples from beyond the frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube. Among them were the Visigoths, whose leader from around 395 was a chieftain in his mid-20s named Alaric. That same year also saw the death of the Emperor Theodosius the Great, after which the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western halves under his sons, Arcadius in the east and the ten-year-old Honorius in the west. Honorius’s capital was moved from Rome to Ravenna, which was more easily defended.

Honorius’s regent was his father’s choice, an able general called Stilicho, himself half-German and half-Roman and who kept a loyal German bodyguard. In the early 400s Alaric, who had been attacking the Romans in the Balkans, turned to repeated invasions of Italy, which Stilicho repelled. He hoped to draw the Visigoths into an alliance against the eastern Romans, but now hordes of other Germanic warriors invaded the western empire across the Rhine. In 408 Stilicho was beheaded in Ravenna as a traitor who, it was claimed, had conspired with Alaric to put his own son on Honorius’s throne.

What Alaric really wanted was land on which his people could settle and an accepted place within the empire, which the authorities in Ravenna would not give him. Needing to keep his followers well rewarded, he marched on Rome and besieged it until the Roman senate paid him to go away. In 409 he attacked Rome again and was able to set up a temporary emperor, Priscus Atallus, who did not last long. In 410, with the authorities in Ravenna still refusing his demands, Alaric led his warriors against Rome once more.

The Visigoths appeared outside the city in force and the senate prepared to resist, but in the middle of the night rebellious slaves opened the Salarian Gate to the attackers, who poured in and set fire to the nearby houses. ‘Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome,’ Gibbon pronounced, ‘the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.’

The licentious fury was not as bad as it could have been. Peter Heather, Professor of Medieval History at King’s College, London, has called it ‘one of the most civilised sacks of any city ever witnessed’. The palaces of the aristocracy were looted, Romans who resisted were killed and women raped by the Visigoths or by slaves who took the opportunity to revenge themselves on their masters. Yet not many buildings and monuments were destroyed and it was said that the attackers did not slaughter nearly as many of the inhabitants as they might have.

Being Arian Christians, the Visigoths respected Christian sites and treasures. According to one story, a group of them refused to steal rich gold and silver vessels when told that they belonged to St Peter and on Alaric’s orders the sacred objects were carried safely through the streets to St Peter’s Church, respectfully accompanied by a throng of Christian citizens who were only too glad to find sanct-uary there themselves. St Augustine told this story in City of God to help rebut allegations by pagans that the sack of Rome was the fault of the Christians, who had enraged the city’s pagan gods.

The Visigoths withdrew from the city after three days. Lumbering slowly along with their weighty spoils and the prisoners they had taken as slaves or for ransom, they moved south along the Appian Way, plundering as they went. One of the captives they had taken in Rome was Honorius’s 20-year-old half-sister Galla Placidia, who was respectfully treated.

Intending to find somewhere to settle in North Africa, the Visigoths had reached Calabria when Alaric, now aged about 40, suddenly fell ill and died near modern Cosenza. He was buried in a river bed, with a wealth of grave goods to see him right in the next world, in a spot which was afterwards kept secret. His successor was his brother-in-law Athaulf, who after negotiations with the authorities in Ravenna led the Visigoths to the south-west of France, where they established their own kingdom. In 414 Athaulf married Galla Placidia, who thus became queen of the Visigoths. After Athaulf’s death, through an extraordinary turn of events she became empress of Rome.

The sack of the city sent a thrill of horror round the Roman world, which has been echoed ever since: ‘In one city,’ St Jerome wrote, ‘the whole world perished.’ By the end of the fifth century the Roman Empire in the west was no more.

Sack of Rome

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Sack of Rome, (24 August 410). "Rome, once the capital of the world, is now the grave of the Roman people," wrote Saint Jerome of a cataclysm that no one could have predicted. After several generations of Roman superiority and arrogance, the Visigothic "barbarian" mercenaries reminded their erstwhile masters of where the real military power lay.

Alaric, leader of the Visigoths, had been left embittered by the experience at the Battle of Frigidus. For years he waged war on the Eastern Roman Empire yet the Western Empire feared the Visigoths’ anger, too-so much so that in 402 the Romans moved their capital from Rometo the more readily defensible Ravenna, in northeastern Italy. That same year, Alaric invaded Italy, but was turned back by the great general Flavius Stilicho at Pollentia in Piedmont. Another Gothic warlord, Radagaisus, was stopped by Stilicho in 406, but the Visigoths kept coming. By 408 Alaric was back in Italy, besieging Rome.

Even now, the Romans hoped to bring the tenacious Visigoths back into harness as defenders of the empire. Several barbarian peoples, from Germanic warriors such as the Vandals and Sueves to Asiatic nomads such as the Alans and the Huns, had crossed the Rhine and now roamed and ransacked at will beyond the Alps. Alaric was ready to compromise with Rome: he offered to spare the city in return for the promise of an annual payment and a place in the official military hierarchy of the empire. Yet, with Rome itself at stake, Emperor Honorius haughtily refused.

On the night of 24 August 410, rebel slaves, a suborned official, or some other unknown party quietly opened the gates of Rome to admit the Visigoths. They embarked on a three-day spree of plunder and destruction that left the Eternal City a smoking ruin.

The Sack of Rome, 410

David Jones describes how romanized Gothic and Vandal leaders overran the capital of a declining Empire in the fifth century.

The sack of Rome by Alaric and his Gothic army sent a shock of horror through the ancient world. Twice in the past two years the Goths had camped at the gates of the city but on August 24th, 410, the unthinkable, the impossible, happened. In Gibbon’s words, ‘Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia’.

The city was easily captured and its occupation was of no strategic significance. The Goths had been granted land in northern Greece and Bulgaria thirty years earlier by the Emperor Theodosius: Alaric himself had spent most of his life within the frontiers of the Roman Empire. He was no savage barbarian chief, but had held high command in the imperial forces.

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Sack of Rome 410 CE

In August of 410 CE Alaric the Gothic king accomplished something that had not been done in over eight centuries: he and his army entered the gates of imperial Rome and sacked the city. Although the city and, for a time, the Roman Empire would survive, the plundering left an indelible mark that could not be erased. Alaric and his army marched through the Salarian Gates and pillaged a city that had earlier suffered famine and starvation. Although they left churches such as St. Peter and St. Paul untouched, the army destroyed pagan temples, burned the old Senate House, and even kidnapped Emperor Honorius' sister Galla Placidia.

The Goths

Since the early days of the Empire, Rome had continually struggled with the protection of its frontier borders. So, when the Gothic tribes - the Tervingi and Greuthungi - sought refuge from the marauding Huns, the Romans contemplated the options and eventually allowed them to settle on the Balkan frontier, of course, at a cost. Alliances were made and alliances were broken. Many in Rome remained unhappy with the decision and viewed the Goths as nothing more than barbarians although most of them were, in fact, Christian. Unreasonable demands were made of the new settlers, and they suffered at the hands of unscrupulous commanders. Facing starvation due to inadequate provisions and a lengthy famine, the Goths rose up against the Romans and began a long series of raids and pillaging of the countryside.


The differences between the two culminated in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. Emperor Valens (r. 364-378 CE) who had only sought only personal glory was soundly defeated. It was a defeat that not only cost the lives of many veteran soldiers but also revealed the military weaknesses of the west. Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE) replaced Valens as emperor and another alliance in 382 CE was signed. This new alliance offered land for the Gothic setters in exchange for their providing soldiers for the Roman army. With the defeat of Emperor Magnus Maximus (r. 383-388 CE) in Gaul, Theodosius reunited (for the last time) both the east and west and immediately banned all forms of pagan worship. It appeared that Rome and the Gothic tribes might be, for a time, finally at peace.

Shadow Emperors in the West

With the Theodosius' death in 395 CE, his two young sons Arcadius (r. 395-408 CE) and Honorius (r. 395-423 CE) were named as his successors - Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west. Since Honorius was only ten at the time, Flavius Stilicho, the magister militum or commander-in-chief, was named as regent. The half-Vandal half-Roman Stilicho's attempt to assume regency over the east failed. It was something that would plague him for years to come.


Unfortunately for the west, the emperors from Valens to Romulus Augustus (r. 475-476 CE) proved to be highly incompetent, isolating themselves from forming policy and becoming increasingly dominated by the military. They were sometimes referred to as the “shadow emperors.” Honorius did not even live in Rome but had a palace at Ravenna. The east and west began to gradually drift apart as the west became more and more susceptible to attack. The weakness of the west became evident when in 406 CE Vandals, Alans, and Suevi crossed the frozen Rhine into Gaul, eventually marching further south into Spain. The Roman troops who normally defended Gaul had been withdrawn to face a usurper from Britain, the soon-to-be Constantine III. With a government in crisis, the time had finally come for the Gothic tribes to rise up against the Romans.

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The Goths had never completely trusted the Romans holding to their promises of 382 CE and hoped to rewrite the old alliance made with Theodosius. The Goths especially disliked the clause making them provide soldiers to the Roman army. It was a condition they believed would severely weaken their own defences. The disparity between Rome and the Goths grew, forcing them to return to the practice of ransacking the Balkan countryside. Although long desired by Rome, this was an area that was technically part of the empire that belonged to the east. Still hoping to rewrite the alliance, the Goths changed their strategy and planned to forge a new deal with Arcadius a plan that would ultimately fail.

Alaric, who had fought at the Battle of the River Frigidus and even allied himself with Stilicho, turned his attentions to the west and Emperor Honorius, eventually leading to the invasion of Italy in 402 CE. His demands for peace were simple: he wanted to be named a magister militum - a title that would give him prestige and help the Gothic status in the empire, - food subsidies, and a percentage of the crops raised in the region. Stilicho, speaking on the behalf of Honorius, said no to all of the demands. With no hope for a new alliance, the two sides clashed twice with no clear winner, both sides suffering heavy losses. Alaric was forced to retreat having been cut off from his supplies.


Despite their differences, Stilicho hoped to appease Alaric with a new alliance: rights in exchange for securing the frontier border against future invasions. In the new proposal Alaric and Stilicho would work together to secure the Balkans for the west. Stilicho had had his eye on the Balkans since being named Honorius' regent. He believed the Balkans would provide additional (and much needed) troops for the Roman forces in the west. Alaric moved eastward and waited for his new ally to arrive. Unfortunately, Stilicho would never arrive. He was detained the Gothic king Radagaisus crossed the Danube and invaded Italy only to be defeated and executed, the Vandals and their allies crossed the Rhine into Gaul, and Constantine III, the usurper from Britain, was declared emperor by his army and soon had Gaul and Spain under his control. Stilicho was overwhelmed and desperately needed money to wage war against the invaders. Alaric, still waiting in the east, also demanded money. His new ally, Stilicho, appealed to the Roman Senate to approve a possible peace with Alaric. Unfortunately, the hawkish Roman senator Olympius disagreed and wanted only war.

Sack of Rome

All the problems appeared to be the fault of Stilicho. Accusations were also aimed at Stilicho, questioning his intent in the east. Honorius, now listening more to Olympus than Stilicho, agreed, and his former regent was arrested and executed. The only real chance for peace with Alaric was gradually disappearing. Alaric took the death of Stilicho to be a sign of things to come and turned his attention to Italy towns such as Concordia, Cremona, and Aviminum soon fell to his army. Instead of obviously seizing the Ravenna home of Honorius, he turned his attention to Rome, believing it would be a more suitable hostage. He surrounded all 13 gates. Supplies in the city soon ran low: food was rationed, corpses littered the streets, a stench filled the air, but Honorius refused to help. The Tiber was cut off from access to the port of Ostia and supplies of grain from North Africa. Rome became a “ghost town.”

With the arrival of Alaric's brother Athaulf with additional forces of Goths and Huns, Rome, who had vowed to fight to the bitter end, realized a truce must be reached. Alaric agreed to lift the siege in exchange for 12 tons of gold, 13 tons of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 fleeces, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. The Roman Senate was desperate: statues had to be melted and the treasury was completely emptied, but the siege was over and supplies began arriving.


Although Alaric and his brother had riches, they still hoped to negotiate a new alliance with Honorius. The Senate agreed and the reluctant emperor appeared willing to talk. Representatives from the Senate were sent to Ravenna. In reality, however, the talks were only a delaying tactic until Roman troops arrived from the east. Alaric would soon learn of the treachery behind the emperor and his commander Olympius. Although Honorius agreed in principle to much of an alliance, he agreed with Olympius that any land grant would spell disaster for Rome. Land grants would mean no revenue for the empire, no revenue meant no army, and no army meant no empire. While there still appeared to be some hope, Alaric and his army withdrew from the city.

Honorius used the Gothic army's departure to dispatch 6,000 soldiers to Rome. Alaric spotted the Romans, pursued them, and wiped out all 6,000 troops. About the same time, Athaulf and his Gothic force were attacked by the Romans under the leadership of Olympius. Losing over 1,000 men, Athaulf reorganized and attacked the Roman forces, causing Olympius to retreat to Ravenna. Honorius was desperate and quickly dismissed Olympius who fled to Dalmatia.


Honorius turned to his commander-in-chief Jovius who invited Alaric and Athaulf to Ariminium to negotiate a new alliance. Jovius had been instrumental in forging the alliance between Stilicho and Alaric. The Romans had no alternative. If they fought Goths they faced the possibility of diminishing the Roman forces and thereby opening the door for an invasion from Constantine. Although he had little trust in the emperor's promises, Alaric still hoped for a settlement. Alaric's terms were simple: an annual payment of gold, an annual supply of grain, and land for the Goths in the provinces of Venetia, Noricum, and Dalmatia. In addition he wanted a generalship in the Roman army. The reply was yes to the grain supply but no to the land and generalship. Alaric left the meeting, threatening to sack and burn Rome. After a few days to regain composure, Alaric wanted an end to war and said he would be willing to settle for land in Noricum. Honorius completely refused, leaving the enraged Goth with little alternative but to march on Rome.

A surprise attack by the Roman commander Sarus left little hope for any truce. With a little help from inside the city, the Salarian gate was opened, and Alaric and his army of 40,000 marched into the city. While leaving the Christian churches untouched and those seeking refuge inside alone, the Goths raided the pagan temples and the homes of the rich, demanding gold and silver. Many houses of the rich and some, not all, public buildings were burned. Historian Peter Heather in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire claims that Alaric did not want to the sack the city. He had been outside the city for months and could have sacked it at any time. His only goal was, as it always had been, to negotiate a new alliance, rewriting the one forged in 382 CE. Others, however, saw the sacking of the city in a different light. Heather wrote that many non-Christians believed that fall of the city was due to the abandonment of the imperial religion while Saint Augustine, speaking on behalf of the Church, saw it as an indication of the empire's centuries-old desire to dominate.


The next two decades would bring drastic changes to the west. The Goths would leave Rome and eventually find a permanent home in Gaul. Shortly after leaving the city, Alaric would die of illness - his gravesite is unknown - leaving his brother to lead the Goths. Leadership of the west would also change: Honorius would die in 423 CE while the usurper Constantine III would be defeated by Constantinus. Athaulf would not lead the Goths very long. After marrying Galla Placidia, he would die (possibly murdered) in 415 CE. Galla would return to her brother's forgiving arms. She would be forced to marry Constantinus. Their son would be Valentinian III (425-455 CE), the future emperor in the west. She would serve as her son's regent. In 476 CE the barbarian Odoacer and his army would ride into Italy and depose the young emperor Romulus Augustus. Oddly, the conqueror would not assume the title of emperor. Although arbitrary, the year 476 CE is recognized by most historians to indicate the fall of the west, but the sack of the city in 410 CE had brought the city to its knees, and it never recovered. The Byzantine Empire in the east would, however, survive until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.

What happened to Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire?

The feudal system started because the Roman Empire fell. It affected the European society by making Europe be divided into Barbarian kingdoms. It was also affected by Europe not having a civilization anymore and in addition, Europe started the Middle Ages.

One may also ask, what political system arose in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire? The political system Europe had between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of feudalism was essentially a proto-feudal or seignioral system that came about after a mini- Dark Age we like to call the Roman Crisis of the Third Century.

Besides, what was Western Europe like after the fall of the Roman Empire?

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages began in Western Europe. During this time, Europe remained connected to the rest of the world but encountered many problems, including the Black Death. During the High Middle Ages, European trade began to flourish, and European culture was revived.

Why are they called the Dark Ages?

Another reason why the Middle Ages are often called the Dark Ages is because, compared with other eras, historians don't know as much about this time. In some ways, this period of time has been lost to history. Many important records from this time have not survived.


Since 1776, when Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Decline and Fall has been the theme around which much of the history of the Roman Empire has been structured. "From the eighteenth century onward," historian Glen Bowersock wrote, "we have been obsessed with the fall: it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears." [4] The Fall is not the only unifying concept for these events the period described as Late Antiquity emphasizes the cultural continuities throughout and beyond the political collapse.


The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was the process in which it failed to enforce its rule. The loss of centralized political control over the West, and the lessened power of the East, are universally agreed, but the theme of decline has been taken to cover a much wider time span than the hundred years from 376. For Cassius Dio, the accession of the emperor Commodus in 180 CE marked the descent "from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron", [5] while Gibbon also began his narrative of decline from the reign of Commodus, after a number of introductory chapters. Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke argue that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in republican times, while Theodor Mommsen excluded the imperial period from his Nobel Prize-winning History of Rome (1854–56). As one convenient marker for the end, 476 has been used since Gibbon, but other key dates for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West include the Crisis of the Third Century, the Crossing of the Rhine in 406 (or 405), the sack of Rome in 410, and the death of Julius Nepos in 480. [6] [ page needed ]


Gibbon gave a classic formulation of reasons why the Fall happened. He gave great weight to internal decline as well as to attacks from outside the Empire.

The story of its ruin is simple and obvious and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

Gibbon felt that Christianity had hastened the Fall, but also ameliorated the results:

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors (chapter 38). [7]

Some modern Roman historians do not believe that Christianity per se had a significant role in the Empire's fall, in part because of the Eastern (and thoroughly Christian) empire’s continuation for almost a thousand years longer. [8]

Alexander Demandt enumerated 210 different theories on why Rome fell, and new ideas have emerged since. [9] [10] Historians still try to analyze the reasons for loss of political control over a vast territory (and, as a subsidiary theme, the reasons for the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire). Comparison has also been made with China after the end of the Han dynasty, which re-established unity under the Sui dynasty while the Mediterranean world remained politically disunited.

Harper identifies a Roman climatic optimum from about 200 BCE to 150 CE, when lands around the Mediterranean were generally warm and well-watered. From 150 to 450, the climate entered a transitional period, in which taxes were less easy to collect and bore more heavily on the working population. After about 450, the climate worsened further in the Late Antique Little Ice Age. [11] [ page needed ] Climate change has also been suggested as a possible driver of changes in populations outside the Empire, in particular on the Eurasian steppe, though definite evidence is lacking. [12]

Alternative descriptions and labels

From at least the time of Henri Pirenne scholars have described a continuity of Roman culture and political legitimacy long after 476. [ citation needed ] Pirenne postponed the demise of classical civilization to the 8th century. He challenged the notion that Germanic barbarians had caused the Western Roman Empire to end, and he refused to equate the end of the Western Roman Empire with the end of the office of emperor in Italy. He pointed out the essential continuity of the economy of the Roman Mediterranean even after the barbarian invasions, and suggested that only the Muslim conquests represented a decisive break with antiquity. The more recent formulation of a historical period characterized as "Late Antiquity" emphasizes the transformations of ancient to medieval worlds within a cultural continuity. [13] In recent decades archaeologically-based argument even extends the continuity in material culture and in patterns of settlement as late as the eleventh century. [14] [15] [ page needed ] [16] [ page needed ] Observing the political reality of lost control (and the attendant fragmentation of commerce, culture, and language), but also the cultural and archaeological continuities, the process has been described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall. [17] [ page needed ]

Height of power, systematic weaknesses

The Roman Empire reached its greatest geographical extent under Trajan (r. 98–117), who ruled a prosperous state that stretched from Armenia to the Atlantic. The Empire had large numbers of trained, supplied, and disciplined soldiers, drawn from a growing population. It had a comprehensive civil administration based in thriving cities with effective control over public finances. Among its literate elite it had ideological legitimacy as the only worthwhile form of civilization and a cultural unity based on comprehensive familiarity with Greek and Roman literature and rhetoric. The Empire's power allowed it to maintain extreme differences of wealth and status (including slavery on a large scale), [18] [ page needed ] and its wide-ranging trade networks permitted even modest households to use goods made by professionals far away. [19]

The empire had both strength and resilience. Its financial system allowed it to raise significant taxes which, despite endemic corruption, supported a large regular army with logistics and training. The cursus honorum, a standardized series of military and civil posts organised for ambitious aristocratic men, ensured that powerful noblemen became familiar with military and civil command and administration. At a lower level within the army, connecting the aristocrats at the top with the private soldiers, a large number of centurions were well-rewarded, literate, and responsible for training, discipline, administration, and leadership in battle. [20] City governments with their own properties and revenues functioned effectively at a local level membership of city councils involved lucrative opportunities for independent decision-making, and, despite its obligations, became seen as a privilege. Under a series of emperors who each adopted a mature and capable successor, the Empire did not require civil wars to regulate the imperial succession. Requests could be submitted directly to the better emperors, and the answers had the force of law, putting the imperial power directly in touch with even humble subjects. [21] The cults of polytheist religion were hugely varied, but none claimed that theirs was the only truth, and their followers displayed mutual tolerance, producing a polyphonous religious harmony. [22] Religious strife was rare after the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 (after which the devastated Judaea ceased to be a major centre for Jewish unrest).

Nevertheless, it remained a culture based on an early subsistence economy, with only ineffective inklings of a germ theory of disease. Despite its aqueducts, the water supply did not allow good hygiene, and sewage was disposed of on the streets, in open drains, or by scavenging animals. Even in the Roman Climatic Optimum, local harvest failures causing famines were always a possibility. [23] [ page needed ] And even in good times, Roman women needed to have, on average, six children each in order to maintain the population. [23] [ page needed ] Good nourishment and bodily cleanliness were privileges of the rich, advertised by their firm tread, healthy skin color, and lack of the "dull smell of the underbathed". [24] Infant mortality was very high, diarrhoeal diseases were a major cause of death, and malaria was endemic in many areas, notably in the city of Rome itself, possibly encouraged by the enthusiasm of rich Romans for water features in their gardens. [23] [ page needed ]

Climatic worsening and plague

From about 150, the climate became on average somewhat worse for most of the inhabited lands around the Mediterranean. [25] [26] Heavy mortality in 165–180 from the Antonine Plague seriously impaired attempts to repel Germanic invaders, but the legions generally held or at least speedily re-instated the borders of the Empire. [27]

Crisis of the Third Century

The Empire suffered multiple serious crises during the third century. The rising Sassanid Empire inflicted three crushing defeats on Roman field armies and remained a potent threat for centuries. [28] Other disasters included repeated civil wars, barbarian invasions, and more mass-mortality in the Plague of Cyprian (from 250 onwards). Rome abandoned the province of Dacia on the north of the Danube (271), and for a short period the Empire split into a Gallic Empire in the West (260–274), a Palmyrene Empire in the East (260–273), and a central Roman rump state. The Rhine/Danube frontier also came under more effective threats from larger barbarian groupings, which had developed improved agriculture and increased their populations. [29] [30] The average nutritional state of the population in the West suffered a serious decline in the late second century the population of North-Western Europe did not recover, though the Mediterranean regions did. [31]

The Empire survived the "Crisis of the Third Century", directing its economy successfully towards defense, but survival came at the price of a more centralized and bureaucratic state. Under Gallienus (Emperor from 253 to 268) the senatorial aristocracy ceased joining the ranks of the senior military commanders, its typical members lacking interest in military service and showing incompetence at command. [32] [33]

Reunification and political division

Aurelian reunited the empire in 274, and from 284 Diocletian and his successors reorganized it with more emphasis on the military. John the Lydian, writing over two centuries later, reported that Diocletian's army at one point totaled 389,704 men, plus 45,562 in the fleets, and numbers may have increased later. [34] With the limited communications of the time, both the European and the Eastern frontiers needed the attention of their own supreme commanders. Diocletian tried to solve this problem by re-establishing an adoptive succession with a senior (Augustus) and junior (Caesar) emperor in each half of the Empire, but this system of tetrarchy broke down within one generation the hereditary principle re-established itself with generally unfortunate results, and thereafter civil war became again the main method of establishing new imperial regimes. Although Constantine the Great (in office 306 to 337) again re-united the Empire, towards the end of the fourth century the need for division was generally accepted. From then on, the Empire existed in constant tension between the need for two emperors and their mutual mistrust. [28]

Until late in the fourth century the united Empire retained sufficient power to launch attacks against its enemies in Germania and in the Sassanid Empire. Receptio of barbarians became widely practised: imperial authorities admitted potentially hostile groups into the Empire, split them up, and allotted to them lands, status, and duties within the imperial system. [35] In this way many groups provided unfree workers (coloni) for Roman landowners, and recruits (laeti) for the Roman army. Sometimes their leaders became officers. Normally the Romans managed the process carefully, with sufficient military force on hand to ensure compliance, and cultural assimilation followed over the next generation or two.

Growing social divisions

The new supreme rulers disposed of the legal fiction of the early Empire (seeing the emperor as but the first among equals) emperors from Aurelian (r. 270–275) onwards openly styled themselves as dominus et deus, "lord and god", titles appropriate for a master-slave relationship. [36] An elaborate court ceremonial developed, and obsequious flattery became the order of the day. Under Diocletian, the flow of direct requests to the emperor rapidly reduced and soon ceased altogether. No other form of direct access replaced them, and the emperor received only information filtered through his courtiers. [37]

Official cruelty, supporting extortion and corruption, may also have become more commonplace. [38] While the scale, complexity, and violence of government were unmatched, [39] the emperors lost control over their whole realm insofar as that control came increasingly to be wielded by anyone who paid for it. [40] Meanwhile, the richest senatorial families, immune from most taxation, engrossed more and more of the available wealth and income, [41] [42] while also becoming divorced from any tradition of military excellence. One scholar identifies a great increase in the purchasing power of gold, two and a half fold from 274 to the later fourth century, which may be an index of growing economic inequality between a gold-rich elite and a cash-poor peasantry. [43]

Within the late Roman military, many recruits and even officers had barbarian origins, and soldiers are recorded as using possibly-barbarian rituals such as elevating a claimant on shields. [44] Some scholars have seen this as an indication of weakness others disagree, seeing neither barbarian recruits nor new rituals as causing any problem with the effectiveness or loyalty of the army. [45]

In 313 Constantine I declared official toleration of Christianity, followed over the ensuing decades by establishment of Christian orthodoxy and by official and private action against pagans and non-orthodox Christians. His successors generally continued this process, and Christianity became the religion of any ambitious civil official. Under Constantine the cities lost their revenue from local taxes, and under Constantius II (r. 337–361) their endowments of property. [46] This worsened the existing difficulty in keeping the city councils up to strength, and the services provided by the cities were scamped or abandoned. [46] Public building projects became fewer, more often repairs than new construction, and now provided at state expense rather than by local grandees wishing to consolidate long-term local influence. [47] A further financial abuse was Constantius's increased habit of granting to his immediate entourage the estates of persons condemned of treason and other capital charges this reduced future though not immediate income, and those close to the emperor gained a strong incentive to stimulate his suspicion of plots. [46]

Constantine settled Franks on the lower left bank of the Rhine their settlements required a line of fortifications to keep them in check, indicating that Rome had lost almost all local control. [38] Under Constantius, bandits came to dominate areas such as Isauria well within the empire. [48] The tribes of Germany also became more populous and more threatening. [29] In Gaul, which did not really recover from the invasions of the third century, there was widespread insecurity and economic decline in the 300s, [29] perhaps worst in Armorica. By 350, after decades of pirate attacks, virtually all villas in Armorica were deserted, and local use of money ceased about 360. [49] Repeated attempts to economize on military expenditure included billeting troops in cities, where they could less easily be kept under military discipline and could more easily extort from civilians. [50] Except in the rare case of a determined and incorruptible general, these troops proved ineffective in action and dangerous to civilians. [51] Frontier troops were often given land rather than pay as they farmed for themselves, their direct costs diminished, but so did their effectiveness, and there was much less economic stimulus to the frontier economy. [52] However, except for the provinces along the lower Rhine, the agricultural economy was generally doing well. [53]

The numbers and effectiveness of the regular soldiers may have declined during the fourth century: payrolls were inflated so that pay could be diverted and exemptions from duty sold, their opportunities for personal extortion were multiplied by residence in cities, and their effectiveness was reduced by concentration on extortion instead of drill. [54] However, extortion, gross corruption, and occasional ineffectiveness [55] were not new to the Roman army there is no consensus whether its effectiveness significantly declined before 376. [56] Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a professional soldier, repeats longstanding observations about the superiority of contemporary Roman armies being due to training and discipline, not to physical size or strength. [57] Despite a possible decrease in its ability to assemble and supply large armies, [58] Rome maintained an aggressive and potent stance against perceived threats almost to the end of the fourth century. [59]

Julian (r. 360–363) launched a drive against official corruption which allowed the tax demands in Gaul to be reduced to one-third of their previous amount, while all government requirements were still met. [60] In civil legislation Julian was notable for his pro-pagan policies. All Christian sects were officially tolerated by Julian, persecution of heretics was forbidden, and non-Christian religions were encouraged. Some Christians continued to destroy temples, disrupt rituals, and break sacred images, seeking martyrdom and at times achieving it at the hands of non-Christian mobs or secular authorities some pagans attacked the Christians who had previously been involved with the destruction of temples. [61]

Julian won victories against Germans who had invaded Gaul. He launched an expensive campaign against the Persians, [46] which ended in defeat and his own death. He succeeded in marching to the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon, but lacked adequate supplies for an assault. He burned his boats and supplies to show resolve in continuing operations, but the Sassanids began a war of attrition by burning crops. Finding himself cut off in enemy territory, he began a land retreat during which he was mortally wounded. His successor Jovian, acclaimed by a demoralized army, began his brief reign (363–364) trapped in Mesopotamia without supplies. To purchase safe passage home, he had to concede areas of northern Mesopotamia, including the strategically important fortress of Nisibis, which had been Roman since before the Peace of Nisibis in 299.

The brothers Valens (r. 364–378) and Valentinian I (r. 364–375) energetically tackled the threats of barbarian attacks on all the Western frontiers [62] and tried to alleviate the burdens of taxation, which had risen continuously over the previous forty years Valens in the East reduced the tax demand by half in his fourth year. [63]

Both were Christians and confiscated the temple lands that Julian had restored, but were generally tolerant of other beliefs. Valentinian in the West refused to intervene in religious controversy in the East, Valens had to deal with Christians who did not conform to his ideas of orthodoxy, and persecution formed part of his response. [64] The wealth of the church increased dramatically, immense resources both public and private being used for ecclesiastical construction and support of the religious life. [65] Bishops in wealthy cities were thus able to offer vast patronage Ammianus described some as "enriched from the offerings of matrons, ride seated in carriages, wearing clothing chosen with care, and serve banquets so lavish that their entertainments outdo the tables of kings". Edward Gibbon remarked that "the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity", though there are no figures for the monks and nuns nor for their maintenance costs. Pagan rituals and buildings had not been cheap either the move to Christianity may not have had significant effects on the public finances. [29] Some public disorder also followed competition for prestigious posts Pope Damasus I was installed in 366 after an election whose casualties included a hundred and thirty-seven corpses in the basilica of Sicininus. [66]

Valentinian died of an apoplexy while shouting at envoys of Germanic leaders. His successors in the West were children, his sons Gratian (r. 375–383) and Valentinian II (r. 375–392). Gratian, "alien from the art of government both by temperament and by training" removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate House, and he rejected the pagan title of Pontifex Maximus. [67]

Battle of Adrianople

In 376 the East faced an enormous barbarian influx across the Danube, mostly Goths who were refugees from the Huns. They were exploited by corrupt officials rather than effectively resettled, and they took up arms, joined by more Goths and by some Alans and Huns. Valens was in Asia with his main field army, preparing for an assault on the Persians, and redirecting the army and its logistic support would have required time. Gratian's armies were distracted by Germanic invasions across the Rhine. In 378 Valens attacked the invaders with the Eastern field army, perhaps some 20,000 men—possibly only 10% of the soldiers nominally available in the Danube provinces [68] —and in the Battle of Adrianople, 9 August 378, he lost much of that army and his own life. All of the Balkan provinces were thus exposed to raiding, without effective response from the remaining garrisons who were "more easily slaughtered than sheep". [68] Cities were able to hold their own walls against barbarians who had no siege equipment, and they generally remained intact although the countryside suffered. [69]

Partial recovery in the Balkans, internal corruption and financial desperation

Gratian appointed a new Augustus, a proven general from Hispania called Theodosius. During the next four years, he partially re-established the Roman position in the East. [70] [71] These campaigns depended on effective imperial coordination and mutual trust—between 379 and 380 Theodosius controlled not only the Eastern empire, but also, by agreement, the diocese of Illyricum. [72] Theodosius was unable to recruit enough Roman troops, relying on barbarian warbands without Roman military discipline or loyalty. In contrast, during the Cimbrian War, the Roman Republic, controlling a smaller area than the western Empire, had been able to reconstitute large regular armies of citizens after greater defeats than Adrianople, and it ended that war with the near-extermination of the invading barbarian supergroups, each recorded as having more than 100,000 warriors (with allowances for the usual exaggeration of numbers by ancient authors). [73]

The final Gothic settlement was acclaimed with relief, [71] even the official panegyrist admitting that these Goths could not be expelled or exterminated, nor reduced to unfree status. [74] Instead they were either recruited into the imperial forces, or settled in the devastated provinces along the south bank of the Danube, where the regular garrisons were never fully re-established. [75] In some later accounts, and widely in recent work, this is regarded as a treaty settlement, the first time that barbarians were given a home within the Empire in which they retained their political and military cohesion. [76] No formal treaty is recorded, nor details of whatever agreement was actually made when the Goths are next mentioned in Roman records, they have different leaders and are soldiers of a sort. [77] In 391 Alaric, a Gothic leader, rebelled against Roman control. Goths attacked the emperor himself, but within a year Alaric was accepted as a leader of Theodosius's Gothic troops and this rebellion was over. [78]

Theodosius's financial position must have been difficult, since he had to pay for expensive campaigning from a reduced tax base. The business of subduing barbarian warbands also demanded substantial gifts of precious metal. [79] Nevertheless, he is represented as financially lavish, though personally frugal when on campaign. [80] At least one extra levy provoked desperation and rioting in which the emperor's statues were destroyed. [81] A contemporary reports that at his court "everything was for sale", with corruption rampant. [82] He was pious, a Nicene Christian heavily influenced by Ambrose, and implacable against heretics. In 392 he forbade even private honor to the gods, and pagan rituals such as the Olympic Games. He either ordered or connived at the widespread destruction of sacred buildings. [83]

Civil wars

Theodosius had to face a powerful usurper in the West Magnus Maximus declared himself Emperor in 383, stripped troops from the outlying regions of Britannia (probably replacing some with federate chieftains and their war-bands) and invaded Gaul. His troops killed Gratian and he was accepted as Augustus in the Gallic provinces, where he was responsible for the first official executions of Christian heretics. [84] To compensate the Western court for the loss of Gaul, Hispania, and Britannia, Theodosius ceded the diocese of Dacia and the diocese of Macedonia to their control. In 387 Maximus invaded Italy, forcing Valentinian II to flee to the East, where he accepted Nicene Christianity. Maximus boasted to Ambrose of the numbers of barbarians in his forces, and hordes of Goths, Huns, and Alans followed Theodosius. [85] Maximus negotiated with Theodosius for acceptance as Augustus of the West, but Theodosius refused, gathered his armies, and counterattacked, winning the civil war in 388. There were heavy troop losses on both sides of the conflict. Later Welsh legend has Maximus's defeated troops resettled in Armorica, instead of returning to Britannia, and by 400, Armorica was controlled by Bagaudae rather than by imperial authority. [86]

Theodosius restored Valentinian II, still a very young man, as Augustus in the West. He also appointed Arbogast, a pagan general of Frankish origin, as Valentinian's commander-in-chief and guardian. Valentinian quarreled in public with Arbogast, failed to assert any authority, and died, either by suicide or by murder, at the age of 21. Arbogast and Theodosius failed to come to terms and Arbogast nominated an imperial official, Eugenius (r. 392–394), as emperor in the West. Eugenius made some modest attempts to win pagan support, [81] and with Arbogast led a large army to fight another destructive civil war. They were defeated and killed at the Battle of the Frigidus, which was attended by further heavy losses especially among the Gothic federates of Theodosius. The north-eastern approaches to Italy were never effectively garrisoned again. [87]

Theodosius died a few months later in early 395, leaving his young sons Honorius (r. 393–423) and Arcadius (r. 383–408) as emperors. In the immediate aftermath of Theodosius's death, the magister militum Stilicho, married to Theodosius's niece, asserted himself in the West as the guardian of Honorius and commander of the remains of the defeated Western army. He also claimed control over Arcadius in Constantinople, but Rufinus, magister officiorum on the spot, had already established his own power there. Henceforward the Empire was not under the control of one man, until much of the West had been permanently lost. [88] Neither Honorius nor Arcadius ever displayed any ability either as rulers or as generals, and both lived as the puppets of their courts. [89] Stilicho tried to reunite the Eastern and Western courts under his personal control, but in doing so achieved only the continued hostility of all of Arcadius's successive supreme ministers.

The ineffectiveness of Roman military responses from Stilicho onwards has been described as "shocking", [90] with little evidence of indigenous field forces or of adequate training, discipline, pay, or supply for the barbarians who formed most of the available troops. Local defence was occasionally effective, but was often associated with withdrawal from central control and taxes in many areas, barbarians under Roman authority attacked culturally-Roman "Bagaudae". [91] [92] [93]

Corruption, in this context the diversion of public finance from the needs of the army, may have contributed greatly to the Fall. The rich senatorial aristocrats in Rome itself became increasingly influential during the fifth century they supported armed strength in theory, but did not wish to pay for it or to offer their own workers as army recruits. [94] [95] They did, however, pass large amounts of money to the Christian Church. [96] At a local level, from the early fourth century, the town councils lost their property and their power, which often became concentrated in the hands of a few local despots beyond the reach of the law. [97]

The fifth-century Western emperors, with brief exceptions, were individuals incapable of ruling effectively or even of controlling their own courts. [89] Those exceptions were responsible for brief, but remarkable resurgences of Roman power.

Without an authoritative ruler, the Balkan provinces fell rapidly into disorder. Alaric was disappointed in his hopes for promotion to magister militum after the battle of the Frigidus. He again led Gothic tribesmen in arms and established himself as an independent power, burning the countryside as far as the walls of Constantinople. [98] Alaric's ambitions for long-term Roman office were never quite acceptable to the Roman imperial courts, and his men could never settle long enough to farm in any one area. They showed no inclination to leave the Empire and face the Huns from whom they had fled in 376 indeed the Huns were still stirring up further migrations which often ended by attacking Rome in turn. Alaric's group was never destroyed nor expelled from the Empire, nor acculturated under effective Roman domination. [91] [92] [99]

Stilicho's attempts to unify the Empire, revolts, and invasions

Alaric took his Gothic army on what Stilicho's propagandist Claudian described as a "pillaging campaign" that began first in the East. [100] Alaric's forces made their way along the coast to Athens, where he sought to force a new peace upon the Romans. [100] His march in 396 passed through Thermopylae. Stilicho sailed from Italy to Greece with his remaining mobile forces, a clear threat to Rufinus' control of the Eastern empire. The bulk of Rufinus' forces were occupied with Hunnic incursions in Asia Minor and Syria, leaving Thrace undefended. Stilicho's propagandist Claudian reports that only Stilicho's attack stemmed the plundering as he pushed Alaric's forces north into Epirus. [101] Burns' interpretation is that Alaric and his men had been recruited by Rufinus's Eastern regime, and sent to Thessaly to stave off Stilicho's threat. [87] No battle took place. Zosimus adds that Stilicho's troops destroyed and pillaged too, and let Alaric's men escape with their plunder. [a]

Stilicho was forced to send some of his Eastern forces home. [102] They went to Constantinople under the command of one Gainas, a Goth with a large Gothic following. On arrival, Gainas murdered Rufinus, and was appointed magister militum for Thrace by Eutropius, the new supreme minister and the only eunuch consul of Rome, who controlled Arcadius "as if he were a sheep". [103] Stilicho obtained a few more troops from the German frontier and continued to campaign ineffectively against the Eastern empire again he was successfully opposed by Alaric and his men. During the next year, 397, Eutropius personally led his troops to victory over some Huns who were marauding in Asia Minor. With his position thus strengthened he declared Stilicho a public enemy, and he established Alaric as magister militum per Illyricum. A poem by Synesius advises the emperor to display manliness and remove a "skin-clad savage" (probably Alaric) from the councils of power and his barbarians from the Roman army. We do not know if Arcadius ever became aware of the existence of this advice, but it had no recorded effect. [104] Synesius, from a province suffering the widespread ravages of a few poor but greedy barbarians, also complained of "the peacetime war, one almost worse than the barbarian war and arising from military indiscipline and the officer's greed." [105]

The magister militum in the Diocese of Africa declared for the East and stopped the supply of grain to Rome. [87] Italy had not fed itself for centuries and could not do so now. In 398, Stilicho sent his last reserves, a few thousand men, to re-take the Diocese of Africa, and he strengthened his position further when he married his daughter Maria to Honorius. Throughout this period Stilicho, and all other generals, were desperately short of recruits and supplies for them. [106] In 400, Stilicho was charged to press into service any "laetus, Alamannus, Sarmatian, vagrant, son of a veteran" or any other person liable to serve. [107] He had reached the bottom of his recruitment pool. [108] Though personally not corrupt, he was very active in confiscating assets [103] the financial and administrative machine was not producing enough support for the army.

In 399, Tribigild's rebellion in Asia Minor allowed Gainas to accumulate a significant army (mostly Goths), become supreme in the Eastern court, and execute Eutropius. [109] He now felt that he could dispense with Alaric's services and he nominally transferred Alaric's province to the West. This administrative change removed Alaric's Roman rank and his entitlement to legal provisioning for his men, leaving his army—the only significant force in the ravaged Balkans—as a problem for Stilicho. [110] In 400, the citizens of Constantinople revolted against Gainas and massacred as many of his people, soldiers and their families, as they could catch. Some Goths at least built rafts and tried to cross the strip of sea that separates Asia from Europe the Roman navy slaughtered them. [111] By the beginning of 401, Gainas' head rode a pike through Constantinople while another Gothic general became consul. [112] Meanwhile, groups of Huns started a series of attacks across the Danube, and the Isaurians marauded far and wide in Anatolia. [113]

In 401 Stilicho travelled over the Alps to Raetia, to scrape up further troops. [114] He left the Rhine defended only by the "dread" of Roman retaliation, rather than by adequate forces able to take the field. [114] Early in spring, Alaric, probably desperate, [115] invaded Italy, and he drove Honorius westward from Mediolanum, besieging him in Hasta Pompeia in Liguria. Stilicho returned as soon as the passes had cleared, meeting Alaric in two battles (near Pollentia and Verona) without decisive results. The Goths, weakened, were allowed to retreat back to Illyricum where the Western court again gave Alaric office, though only as comes and only over Dalmatia and Pannonia Secunda rather than the whole of Illyricum. [116] Stilicho probably supposed that this pact would allow him to put Italian government into order and recruit fresh troops. [106] He may also have planned with Alaric's help to relaunch his attempts to gain control over the Eastern court. [117]

However, in 405, Stilicho was distracted by a fresh invasion of Northern Italy. Another group of Goths fleeing the Huns, led by one Radagaisus, devastated the north of Italy for six months before Stilicho could muster enough forces to take the field against them. Stilicho recalled troops from Britannia and the depth of the crisis was shown when he urged all Roman soldiers to allow their personal slaves to fight beside them. [117] His forces, including Hun and Alan auxiliaries, may in the end have totalled rather less than 15,000 men. [118] Radagaisus was defeated and executed. 12,000 prisoners from the defeated horde were drafted into Stilicho's service. [118] Stilicho continued negotiations with Alaric Flavius Aetius, son of one of Stilicho's major supporters, was sent as a hostage to Alaric in 405. In 406 Stilicho, hearing of new invaders and rebels who had appeared in the northern provinces, insisted on making peace with Alaric, probably on the basis that Alaric would prepare to move either against the Eastern court or against the rebels in Gaul. The Senate deeply resented peace with Alaric in 407, when Alaric marched into Noricum and demanded a large payment for his expensive efforts in Stilicho's interests, the senate, "inspired by the courage, rather than the wisdom, of their predecessors," [119] preferred war. One senator famously declaimed Non est ista pax, sed pactio servitutis ("This is not peace, but a pact of servitude"). [120] Stilicho paid Alaric four thousand pounds of gold nevertheless. [121] Stilicho sent Sarus, a Gothic general, over the Alps to face the usurper Constantine III, but he lost and barely escaped, having to leave his baggage to the bandits who now infested the Alpine passes. [121]

The empress Maria, daughter of Stilicho, died in 407 or early 408 and her sister Aemilia Materna Thermantia married Honorius. In the East, Arcadius died on 1 May 408 and was replaced by his son Theodosius II Stilicho seems to have planned to march to Constantinople, and to install there a regime loyal to himself. [122] He may also have intended to give Alaric a senior official position and send him against the rebels in Gaul. Before he could do so, while he was away at Ticinum at the head of a small detachment, a bloody coup against his supporters took place at Honorius's court. It was led by Stilicho's own creature, one Olympius. [123]

Stilicho's fall and Alaric's reaction

Stilicho had news of the coup at Bononia (where he was probably waiting for Alaric). [124] His army of barbarian troops, including a guard of Huns and many Goths, discussed attacking the forces of the coup, but Stilicho prevented them when he heard that the Emperor had not been harmed. Sarus's Gothic troops then massacred the Hun contingent in their sleep, and Stilicho withdrew from the quarreling remains of his army to Ravenna. He ordered that his former soldiers should not be admitted into the cities in which their families were billeted. Stilicho was forced to flee to a church for sanctuary, promised his life, and killed. [125]

Alaric was again declared an enemy of the Emperor. The conspiracy then massacred the families of the federate troops (as presumed supporters of Stilicho, although they had probably rebelled against him), and the troops defected en masse to Alaric. [126] The conspirators seem to have let their main army disintegrate, [127] and had no policy except hunting down supporters of Stilicho. [128] Italy was left without effective indigenous defence forces thereafter. [90] Heraclianus, a co-conspirator of Olympius, became governor of the Diocese of Africa, where he controlled the source of most of Italy's grain, and he supplied food only in the interests of Honorius's regime. [129]

As a declared 'enemy of the Emperor', Alaric was denied the legitimacy that he needed to collect taxes and hold cities without large garrisons, which he could not afford to detach. He again offered to move his men, this time to Pannonia, in exchange for a modest sum of money and the modest title of Comes, but he was refused as a supporter of Stilicho. [130] He moved into Italy, probably using the route and supplies arranged for him by Stilicho, [124] bypassing the imperial court in Ravenna which was protected by widespread marshland and had a port, and he menaced the city of Rome itself. In 407, there was no equivalent of the determined response to the catastrophic Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE, when the entire Roman population, even slaves, had been mobilized to resist the enemy. [131]

Alaric's military operations centred on the port of Rome, through which Rome's grain supply had to pass. Alaric's first siege of Rome in 408 caused dreadful famine within the walls. It was ended by a payment that, though large, was less than one of the richest senators could have produced. [132] The super-rich aristocrats made little contribution pagan temples were stripped of ornaments to make up the total. With promises of freedom, Alaric also recruited many of the slaves in Rome. [133]

Alaric withdrew to Tuscany and recruited more slaves. [133] Ataulf, a Goth nominally in Roman service and brother-in-law to Alaric, marched through Italy to join Alaric despite taking casualties from a small force of Hunnic mercenaries led by Olympius. Sarus was an enemy of Ataulf, and on Ataulf's arrival went back into imperial service. [134]

Alaric besieges Rome

In 409 Olympius fell to further intrigue, having his ears cut off before he was beaten to death. Alaric tried again to negotiate with Honorius, but his demands (now even more moderate, only frontier land and food [135] ) were inflated by the messenger and Honorius responded with insults, which were reported verbatim to Alaric. [136] He broke off negotiations and the standoff continued. Honorius's court made overtures to the usurper Constantine III in Gaul and arranged to bring Hunnic forces into Italy, Alaric ravaged Italy outside the fortified cities (which he could not garrison), and the Romans refused open battle (for which they had inadequate forces). [137] Late in the year Alaric sent bishops to express his readiness to leave Italy if Honorius would only grant his people a supply of grain. Honorius, sensing weakness, flatly refused. [138]

Alaric moved to Rome and captured Galla Placidia, sister of Honorius. The Senate in Rome, despite its loathing for Alaric, was now desperate enough to give him almost anything he wanted. They had no food to offer, but they tried to give him imperial legitimacy with the Senate's acquiescence, he elevated Priscus Attalus as his puppet emperor, and he marched on Ravenna. Honorius was planning to flee to Constantinople when a reinforcing army of 4,000 soldiers from the East disembarked in Ravenna. [139] These garrisoned the walls and Honorius held on. He had Constantine's principal court supporter executed and Constantine abandoned plans to march to Honorius's defence. [140] Attalus failed to establish his control over the Diocese of Africa, and no grain arrived in Rome where the famine became even more frightful. [141] Jerome reports cannibalism within the walls. [142] Attalus brought Alaric no real advantage, failing also to come to any useful agreement with Honorius (who was offered mutilation, humiliation, and exile). Indeed, Attalus's claim was a marker of threat to Honorius, and Alaric dethroned him after a few months. [143]

In 410 Alaric took Rome by starvation, sacked it for three days (there was relatively little destruction, and in some Christian holy places Alaric's men even refrained from wanton wrecking and rape), and invited its remaining barbarian slaves to join him, which many did. The city of Rome was the seat of the richest senatorial noble families and the centre of their cultural patronage to pagans it was the sacred origin of the empire, and to Christians the seat of the heir of Saint Peter, Pope Innocent I, the most authoritative bishop of the West. Rome had not fallen to an enemy since the Battle of the Allia over eight centuries before. Refugees spread the news and their stories throughout the Empire, and the meaning of the fall was debated with religious fervour. Both Christians and pagans wrote embittered tracts, blaming paganism or Christianity respectively for the loss of Rome's supernatural protection, and blaming Stilicho's earthly failures in either case. [144] [103] Some Christian responses anticipated the imminence of Judgement Day. Augustine in his book "City of God" ultimately rejected the pagan and Christian idea that religion should have worldly benefits he developed the doctrine that the City of God in heaven, undamaged by mundane disasters, was the true objective of Christians. [145] More practically, Honorius was briefly persuaded to set aside the laws forbidding pagans to be military officers, so that one Generidus could re-establish Roman control in Dalmatia. Generidus did this with unusual effectiveness his techniques were remarkable for this period, in that they included training his troops, disciplining them, and giving them appropriate supplies even if he had to use his own money. [146] The penal laws were reinstated no later than 25 August 410 and the overall trend of repression of paganism continued. [147]

Procopius mentions a story in which Honorius, on hearing the news that Rome had "perished", was shocked, thinking the news was in reference to his favorite chicken he had named "Roma". On hearing that Rome itself had fallen he breathed a sigh of relief:

At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Roma had perished. And he cried out and said, "And yet it has just eaten from my hands!" For he had a very large cockerel, Roma by name and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Roma which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: "But I thought that my fowl Roma had perished." So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.

The Goths move out of Italy

Alaric then moved south, intending to sail to Africa, but his ships were wrecked in a storm and he shortly died of fever. His successor Ataulf, still regarded as an usurper and given only occasional and short-term grants of supplies, moved north into the turmoil of Gaul, where there was some prospect of food. His supergroup of barbarians are called the Visigoths in modern works: they may now have been developing their own sense of identity. [148]

The Crossing of the Rhine in 405/6 brought unmanageable numbers of Germanic and Alan barbarians (perhaps some 30,000 warriors, 100,000 people [149] ) into Gaul. They may have been trying to get away from the Huns, who about this time advanced to occupy the Great Hungarian Plain. [150] For the next few years these barbarian tribes wandered in search of food and employment, while Roman forces fought each other in the name of Honorius and a number of competing claimants to the imperial throne. [151]

The remaining troops in Britannia elevated a succession of imperial usurpers. The last, Constantine III, raised an army from the remaining troops in Britannia, invaded Gaul and defeated forces loyal to Honorius led by Sarus. Constantine's power reached its peak in 409 when he controlled Gaul and beyond, he was joint consul with Honorius [152] and his magister militum Gerontius defeated the last Roman force to try to hold the borders of Hispania. It was led by relatives of Honorius Constantine executed them. Gerontius went to Hispania where he may have settled the Sueves and the Asding Vandals. Gerontius then fell out with his master and elevated one Maximus as his own puppet emperor. He defeated Constantine and was besieging him in Arelate when Honorius's general Constantius arrived from Italy with an army (possibly, mainly of Hun mercenaries). [153] Gerontius's troops deserted him and he committed suicide. Constantius continued the siege, defeating a relieving army. Constantine surrendered in 411 with a promise that his life would be spared, and was executed. [154]

In 410, the Roman civitates of Britannia rebelled against Constantine and evicted his officials. They asked for help from Honorius, who replied that they should look to their own defence. While the British may have regarded themselves as Roman for several generations, and British armies may at times have fought in Gaul, no central Roman government is known to have appointed officials in Britannia thereafter. [155] The supply of coinage to the Diocese of Britannia ceases with Honorius. [156]

In 411, Jovinus rebelled and took over Constantine's remaining troops on the Rhine. He relied on the support of Burgundians and Alans to whom he offered supplies and land. In 413 Jovinus also recruited Sarus Ataulf destroyed their regime in the name of Honorius and both Jovinus and Sarus were executed. The Burgundians were settled on the left bank of the Rhine. Ataulf then operated in the south of Gaul, sometimes with short-term supplies from the Romans. [157] All usurpers had been defeated, but large barbarian groups remained un-subdued in both Gaul and Hispania. [155] The imperial government was quick to restore the Rhine frontier. The invading tribes of 407 moved into Spain at the end of 409 the Visigoths left Italy at the beginning of 412 and settled themselves around Narbo.

Heraclianus was still in command in the diocese of Africa of the clique that overthrew Stilicho, he was the last to retain power. In 413 he led an invasion of Italy, lost to a subordinate of Constantius, and fled back to Africa where he was murdered by Constantius's agents. [157]

In January 414 Roman naval forces blockaded Ataulf in Narbo, where he married Galla Placidia. The choir at the wedding included Attalus, a puppet emperor without revenues or soldiers. [158] Ataulf famously declared that he had abandoned his intention to set up a Gothic empire because of the irredeemable barbarity of his followers, and instead he sought to restore the Roman Empire. [159] [143] He handed Attalus over to Honorius's regime for mutilation, humiliation, and exile, and abandoned Attalus's supporters. [160] (One of them, Paulinus Pellaeus, recorded that the Goths considered themselves merciful for allowing him and his household to leave destitute, but alive, without being raped.) [158] Ataulf moved out of Gaul, to Barcelona. There his infant son by Galla Placidia was buried, and there Ataulf was assassinated by one of his household retainers, possibly a former follower of Sarus. [161] [162] His ultimate successor Wallia had no agreement with the Romans his people had to plunder in Hispania for food. [163]

Settlement of 418 barbarians within the empire

In 416 Wallia reached agreement with Constantius he sent Galla Placidia back to Honorius and received provisions, six hundred thousand modii of wheat. [164] From 416 to 418, Wallia's Goths campaigned in Hispania on Constantius's behalf, exterminating the Siling Vandals in Baetica and reducing the Alans to the point where the survivors sought the protection of the king of the Asding Vandals. (After retrenchment they formed another barbarian supergroup, but for the moment they were reduced in numbers and effectively cowed.) In 418, by agreement with Constantius, Wallia's Goths accepted land to farm in Aquitania. [165] Constantius also reinstituted an annual council of the southern Gallic provinces, to meet at Arelate. Although Constantius rebuilt the western field army to some extent, he did so only by replacing half of its units (vanished in the wars since 395) by re-graded barbarians, and by garrison troops removed from the frontier. [166] The Notitia Dignitatum gives a list of the units of the western field army circa 425. It does not give strengths for these units, but A. H. M. Jones used the Notitia to estimate the total strength of the field armies in the West at 113,000 : Gaul, “about” 35,000 Italy, “nearly” 30,000 Britain 3,000 in Spain, 10–11,000, in the diocese of Illyricum 13–14,000, and in the diocese of Africa 23,000. [167]

Constantius had married the princess Galla Placidia (despite her protests) in 417. The couple soon had two children, Honoria and Valentinian III, and Constantius was elevated to the position of Augustus in 420. This earned him the hostility of the Eastern court, which had not agreed to his elevation. [168] Nevertheless, Constantius had achieved an unassailable position at the Western court, in the imperial family, and as the able commander-in-chief of a partially restored army. [169] [170]

This settlement represented a real success for the Empire—a poem by Rutilius Namatianus celebrates his voyage back to Gaul in 417 and his confidence in a restoration of prosperity. But it marked huge losses of territory and of revenue Rutilius travelled by ship past the ruined bridges and countryside of Tuscany, and in the west the River Loire had become the effective northern boundary of Roman Gaul. [171] In the east of Gaul the Franks controlled large areas the effective line of Roman control until 455 ran from north of Cologne (lost to the Ripuarian Franks in 459) to Boulogne. The Italian areas which had been compelled to support the Goths had most of their taxes remitted for several years. [172] [173] Even in southern Gaul and Hispania large barbarian groups remained, with thousands of warriors, in their own non-Roman military and social systems. Some occasionally acknowledged a degree of Roman political control, but without the local application of Roman leadership and military power they and their individual subgroups pursued their own interests. [174]

Constantius died in 421, after only seven months as Augustus. He had been careful to make sure that there was no successor in waiting, and his own children were far too young to take his place. [169] Honorius was unable to control his own court, and the death of Constantius initiated more than ten years of instability. Initially Galla Placidia sought Honorius's favour in the hope that her son might ultimately inherit. Other court interests managed to defeat her, and she fled with her children to the Eastern court in 422. Honorius himself died, shortly before his thirty-ninth birthday, in 423. After some months of intrigue, the patrician Castinus installed Joannes as Western Emperor, but the Eastern Roman government proclaimed the child Valentinian III instead, his mother Galla Placidia acting as regent during his minority. Joannes had few troops of his own. He sent Aetius to raise help from the Huns. An Eastern army landed in Italy, captured Joannes, cut his hand off, abused him in public, and killed him with most of his senior officials. Aetius returned, three days after Joannes' death, at the head of a substantial Hunnic army which made him the most powerful general in Italy. After some fighting, Placidia and Aetius came to an agreement the Huns were paid off and sent home, while Aetius received the position of magister militum. [175]

Galla Placidia, as Augusta, mother of the Emperor, and his guardian until 437, could maintain a dominant position in court, but women in Ancient Rome did not exercise military power, and she could not herself become a general. She tried for some years to avoid reliance on a single dominant military figure, maintaining a balance of power between her three senior officers, Aetius (magister militum in Gaul), Count Boniface governor in the Diocese of Africa, and Flavius Felix magister militum praesentalis in Italy. [176] Meanwhile, the Empire deteriorated seriously. Apart from the losses in the Diocese of Africa, Hispania was slipping out of central control and into the hands of local rulers and Suevic bandits. In Gaul the Rhine frontier had collapsed, the Visigoths in Aquitaine may have launched further attacks on Narbo and Arelate, and the Franks, increasingly powerful although disunited, were the major power in the north-east. Aremorica was controlled by Bagaudae, local leaders not under the authority of the Empire. [177] Aetius at least campaigned vigorously and mostly victoriously, defeating aggressive Visigoths, Franks, fresh Germanic invaders, Bagaudae in Aremorica, and a rebellion in Noricum. [178] Not for the first time in Rome's history, a triumvirate of mutually distrustful rulers proved unstable. In 427 Felix tried to recall Boniface from Africa he refused, and overcame Felix's invading force. Boniface probably recruited some Vandal troops among others. [179]

In 428 the Vandals and Alans were united under the able, ferocious, and long-lived king Genseric he moved his entire people to Tarifa near Gibraltar, divided them into 80 groups nominally of 1,000 people (perhaps 20,000 warriors in total), [149] and crossed from Hispania to Mauretania without opposition. (The Straits of Gibraltar were not an important thoroughfare at the time, and there were no significant fortifications nor military presence at this end of the Mediterranean.) They spent a year moving slowly to Numidia, defeating Boniface. He returned to Italy where Aetius had recently had Felix executed. Boniface was promoted to magister militum and earned the enmity of Aetius, who may have been absent in Gaul at the time. In 432 the two met at the Battle of Ravenna, which left Aetius's forces defeated and Boniface mortally wounded. Aetius temporarily retired to his estates, but after an attempt to murder him he raised another Hunnic army (probably by conceding parts of Pannonia to them) and in 433 he returned to Italy, overcoming all rivals. He never threatened to become an Augustus himself and thus maintained the support of the Eastern court, where Valentinian's cousin Theodosius II reigned until 450. [180]

Aetius campaigned vigorously, somewhat stabilizing the situation in Gaul and in Hispania. He relied heavily on his forces of Huns. With a ferocity celebrated centuries later in the Nibelungenlied, the Huns slaughtered many Burgundians on the middle Rhine, re-establishing the survivors as Roman allies, the first Kingdom of the Burgundians. This may have returned some sort of Roman authority to Trier. [181] Eastern troops reinforced Carthage, temporarily halting the Vandals, who in 435 agreed to limit themselves to Numidia and leave the most fertile parts of North Africa in peace. Aetius concentrated his limited military resources to defeat the Visigoths again, and his diplomacy restored a degree of order to Hispania. [182] However, his general Litorius was badly defeated by the Visigoths at Toulouse, and a new Suevic king, Rechiar, began vigorous assaults on what remained of Roman Hispania. At one point Rechiar even allied with Bagaudae. These were Romans not under imperial control some of their reasons for rebellion may be indicated by the remarks of a Roman captive under Attila who was happy in his lot, giving a lively account of "the vices of a declining empire, of which he had so long been the victim the cruel absurdity of the Roman princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defence the intolerable weight of taxes, rendered still more oppressive by the intricate or arbitrary modes of collection the obscurity of numerous and contradictory laws the tedious and expensive forms of judicial proceedings the partial administration of justice and the universal corruption, which increased the influence of the rich, and aggravated the misfortunes of the poor." [183]

Vegetius's advice on re-forming an effective army may be dated to the early 430s, [184] [185] [186] (though a date in the 390s has also been suggested). [187] He identified many deficiencies in the military, especially mentioning that the soldiers were no longer properly equipped:

From the foundation of the city till the reign of the Emperor Gratian, the foot wore cuirasses and helmets. But negligence and sloth having by degrees introduced a total relaxation of discipline, the soldiers began to think their armor too heavy, as they seldom put it on. They first requested leave from the Emperor to lay aside the cuirass and afterwards the helmet. In consequence of this, our troops in their engagements with the Goths were often overwhelmed with their showers of arrows. Nor was the necessity of obliging the infantry to resume their cuirasses and helmets discovered, notwithstanding such repeated defeats, which brought on the destruction of so many great cities. Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight. What can be expected from a foot-archer without cuirass or helmet, who cannot hold at once his bow and shield or from the ensigns whose bodies are naked, and who cannot at the same time carry a shield and the colors? The foot soldier finds the weight of a cuirass and even of a helmet intolerable. This is because he is so seldom exercised and rarely puts them on. [188]

A religious polemic of about this time complains bitterly of the oppression and extortion [89] suffered by all but the richest Romans. Many wished to flee to the Bagaudae or even to foul-smelling barbarians. "Although these men differ in customs and language from those with whom they have taken refuge, and are unaccustomed too, if I may say so, to the nauseous odor of the bodies and clothing of the barbarians, yet they prefer the strange life they find there to the injustice rife among the Romans. So you find men passing over everywhere, now to the Goths, now to the Bagaudae, or whatever other barbarians have established their power anywhere . We call those men rebels and utterly abandoned, whom we ourselves have forced into crime. For by what other causes were they made Bagaudae save by our unjust acts, the wicked decisions of the magistrates, the proscription and extortion of those who have turned the public exactions to the increase of their private fortunes and made the tax indictions their opportunity for plunder?" [189]

Gildas, a 6th-century monk and author of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, wrote that "No sooner were the ravages of the enemy checked, than the island [Britain] was deluged with a most extraordinary plenty of all things, greater than was before known, and with it grew up every kind of luxury and licentiousness." [190]

Nevertheless, effective imperial protection from barbarian ravages was eagerly sought. About this time authorities in Britannia asked Aetius for help: "To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons." And again a little further, thus: "The barbarians drive us to the sea the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." The Romans, however, could not assist them. [190]

The Visigoths passed another waymark on their journey to full independence they made their own foreign policy, sending princesses to make (rather unsuccessful) marriage alliances with Rechiar of the Sueves and with Huneric, son of the Vandal king Genseric. [191]

In 439 the Vandals moved eastward (temporarily abandoning Numidia) and captured Carthage, where they established an independent state with a powerful navy. This brought immediate financial crisis to the Western Empire the diocese of Africa was prosperous, normally required few troops to keep it secure, contributed large tax revenues, and exported wheat to feed Rome and many other areas. [192] Roman troops assembled in Sicily, but the planned counter-attack never happened. Huns attacked the Eastern empire, [193] and "the troops, which had been sent against Genseric, were hastily recalled from Sicily the garrisons, on the side of Persia, were exhausted and a military force was collected in Europe, formidable by their arms and numbers, if the generals had understood the science of command, and the soldiers the duty of obedience. The armies of the Eastern empire were vanquished in three successive engagements . From the Hellespont to Thermopylae, and the suburbs of Constantinople, [Attila] ravaged, without resistance, and without mercy, the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia" [194] Attila's invasions of the East were stopped by the Theodosian Walls, and at this heavily fortified Eastern end of the Mediterranean there were no significant barbarian invasions across the sea into the rich southerly areas of Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. [195] Despite internal and external threats, and more religious discord than the West, these provinces remained prosperous contributors to tax revenue despite the ravages of Attila's armies and the extortions of his peace treaties, tax revenue generally continued to be adequate for the essential state functions of the Eastern empire. [196] [197]

Genseric settled his Vandals as landowners [198] and in 442 was able to negotiate very favourable peace terms with the Western court. He kept his latest gains and his eldest son Huneric was honoured by betrothal to Valentinian III's daughter Eudocia, who carried the legitimacy of the conjoined Valentinianic and Theodosian dynasties. Huneric's Gothic wife was suspected of trying to poison her father-in-law Genseric he sent her home without her nose or ears, and his Gothic alliance came to an early end. [199] The Romans regained Numidia, and Rome again received a grain supply from Africa.

The losses of income from the Diocese of Africa were equivalent to the costs of nearly 40,000 infantry or over 20,000 cavalry. [200] The imperial regime had to increase taxes. Despite admitting that the peasantry could pay no more, and that a sufficient army could not be raised, the imperial regime protected the interests of landowners displaced from Africa and allowed wealthy individuals to avoid taxes. [201] [202]

444–453 attacks by the empire of Attila the Hun

In 444, the Huns were united under Attila. His subjects included Huns, outnumbered several times over by other groups, predominantly Germanic. [203] His power rested partly on his continued ability to reward his favoured followers with precious metals, [204] and he continued to attack the Eastern Empire until 450, by when he had extracted vast sums of money and many other concessions. [205]

Attila may not have needed any excuse to turn West, but he received one in the form of a plea for help from Honoria, the Emperor's sister, who was being forced into a marriage which she resented. Attila claimed Honoria as his wife and half of the Western Empire's territory as his dowry. Faced with refusal, he invaded Gaul in 451 with a huge army. In the bloody battle of the Catalaunian Plains the invasion was stopped by the combined forces of the barbarians within the Western empire, coordinated by Aetius and supported by what troops he could muster. The next year, Attila invaded Italy and proceeded to march upon Rome, but an outbreak of disease in his army, lack of supplies, reports that Eastern Roman troops were attacking his noncombatant population in Pannonia, and, possibly, Pope Leo's plea for peace induced him to halt this campaign. Attila unexpectedly died a year later (453) and his empire crumbled as his followers fought for power. The life of Severinus of Noricum gives glimpses of the general insecurity, and ultimate retreat of the Romans on the Upper Danube, in the aftermath of Attila's death. The Romans were without adequate forces the barbarians inflicted haphazard extortion, murder, kidnap, and plunder on the Romans and on each other. "So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together. The troop at Batavis, however, held out. Some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades, and no one knew that the barbarians had slain them on the way." [206]

In 454 Aetius was personally stabbed to death by Valentinian, who was himself murdered by the dead general's supporters a year later. [207] "[Valentinian] thought he had slain his master he found that he had slain his protector: and he fell a helpless victim to the first conspiracy which was hatched against his throne." [208] A rich senatorial aristocrat, Petronius Maximus, who had encouraged both murders, then seized the throne. He broke the engagement between Eudocia and Huneric, prince of the Vandals, and had time to send Avitus to ask for the help of the Visigoths in Gaul [209] before a Vandal fleet arrived in Italy. Petronius was unable to muster any effective defence and was killed by a mob as he tried to flee the city. The Vandals entered Rome, and plundered it for two weeks. Despite the shortage of money for the defence of the state, considerable private wealth had accumulated since the previous sack in 410. The Vandals sailed away with large amounts of treasure and also with the princess Eudocia, who became the wife of one Vandal king and the mother of another. [210]

The Vandals conquered Sicily, and their fleet became a constant danger to Roman sea trade and to the coasts and islands of the western Mediterranean. [211]

Avitus, at the Visigothic court in Burdigala, declared himself Emperor. He moved on Rome with Visigothic support which gained his acceptance by Majorian and Ricimer, commanders of the remaining army of Italy. This was the first time that a barbarian kingdom had played a key role in the imperial succession. [212] Avitus's son-in-law Sidonius Apollinaris wrote propaganda to present the Visigothic king Theoderic II as a reasonable man with whom a Roman regime could do business. [213] Theoderic's payoff included precious metal from stripping the remaining public ornaments of Italy, [214] and an unsupervised campaign in Hispania. There he not only defeated the Sueves, executing his brother-in-law Rechiar, but he also plundered Roman cities. [213] The Burgundians expanded their kingdom in the Rhone valley and the Vandals took the remains of the Diocese of Africa. [215] In 456 the Visigothic army was too heavily engaged in Hispania to be an effective threat to Italy, and Ricimer had just destroyed a pirate fleet of sixty Vandal ships Majorian and Ricimer marched against Avitus and defeated him near Placentia. He was forced to become Bishop of Placentia, and died (possibly murdered) a few weeks later. [216]

Majorian and Ricimer were now in control of Italy. Ricimer was the son of a Suevic king, and his mother was the daughter of a Gothic one, so he could not aspire to an imperial throne. After some months, allowing for negotiation with the new emperor of Constantinople and the defeat of 900 Alamannic invaders of Italy by one of his subordinates, Majorian was acclaimed as Augustus. Majorian is described by Gibbon as "a great and heroic character". [217] He rebuilt the army and navy of Italy with vigour and set about recovering the remaining Gallic provinces, which had not recognized his elevation. He defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Arelate, reducing them to federate status and obliging them to give up their claims in Hispania he moved on to subdue the Burgundians, the Gallo-Romans around Lugdunum (who were granted tax concessions and whose senior officials were appointed from their own ranks) and the Suevi and Bagaudae in Hispania. Marcellinus, magister militum in Dalmatia and the pagan general of a well-equipped army, acknowledged him as emperor and recovered Sicily from the Vandals. [218] Aegidius also acknowledged Majorian and took effective charge of northern Gaul. (Aegidius may also have used the title "King of the Franks". [219] ) Abuses in tax collection were reformed and the city councils were strengthened, both actions necessary to rebuild the strength of the Empire but disadvantageous to the richest aristocrats. [220] Majorian prepared a fleet at Carthago Nova for the essential reconquest of the Diocese of Africa.

The fleet was burned by traitors, and Majorian made peace with the Vandals and returned to Italy. Here Ricimer met him, arrested him, and executed him five days later. Marcellinus in Dalmatia and Aegidius around Soissons in northern Gaul rejected both Ricimer and his puppets and maintained some version of Roman rule in their areas. [221] Ricimer later ceded Narbo and its hinterland to the Visigoths for their help against Aegidius this made it impossible for Roman armies to march from Italy to Hispania. Ricimer was then the effective ruler of Italy (but little else) for several years. From 461 to 465 the pious Italian aristocrat Libius Severus reigned. There is no record of anything significant that he even tried to achieve, he was never acknowledged by the East whose help Ricimer needed, and he died conveniently in 465.

After two years without a Western Emperor, the Eastern court nominated Anthemius, a successful general who had a strong claim on the Eastern throne. He arrived in Italy with an army, supported by Marcellinus and his fleet he married his daughter to Ricimer, and he was proclaimed Augustus in 467. In 468, at vast expense, the Eastern empire assembled an enormous force to help the West retake the Diocese of Africa. Marcellinus rapidly drove the Vandals from Sardinia and Sicily, and a land invasion evicted them from Tripolitania. The commander in chief with the main force defeated a Vandal fleet near Sicily and landed at Cape Bon. Here Genseric offered to surrender, if he could have a five-day truce to prepare the process. He used the respite to prepare a full-scale attack preceded by fireships, which destroyed most of the Roman fleet and killed many of its soldiers. The Vandals were confirmed in their possession of the Diocese of Africa and they retook Sardinia and Sicily. Marcellinus was murdered, possibly on orders from Ricimer. [222] The Praetorian prefect of Gaul, Arvandus, tried to persuade the new king of the Visigoths to rebel, on the grounds that Roman power in Gaul was finished anyway, but he refused.

Anthemius was still in command of an army in Italy. Additionally, in northern Gaul, a British army led by one Riothamus, operated in imperial interests. [223] Anthemius sent his son over the Alps, with an army, to request that the Visigoths return southern Gaul to Roman control. This would have allowed the Empire land access to Hispania again. The Visigoths refused, defeated the forces of both Riothamus and Anthemius, and with the Burgundians took over almost all of the remaining imperial territory in southern Gaul.

Ricimer then quarreled with Anthemius, and besieged him in Rome, which surrendered in July 472 after more months of starvation. [224] Anthemius was captured and executed (on Ricimer's orders) by the Burgundian prince Gundobad. In August Ricimer died of a pulmonary haemorrhage. Olybrius, his new emperor, named Gundobad as his patrician, then died himself shortly thereafter. [225]

After the death of Olybrius there was a further interregnum until March 473, when Gundobad proclaimed Glycerius emperor. He may have made some attempt to intervene in Gaul if so, it was unsuccessful. [226]

In 474 Julius Nepos, nephew and successor of the general Marcellinus, arrived in Rome with soldiers and authority from the eastern emperor Leo I. Gundobad had already left to contest the Burgundian throne in Gaul [226] and Glycerius gave up without a fight, retiring to become bishop of Salona in Dalmatia. [226]

In 475, Orestes, a former secretary of Attila, drove Julius Nepos out of Ravenna and proclaimed his own son Flavius Momyllus Romulus Augustus (Romulus Augustulus) to be Emperor, on October 31. His surname 'Augustus' was given the diminutive form 'Augustulus' by rivals because he was still a minor, and he was never recognized outside of Italy as a legitimate ruler. [227]

In 476, Orestes refused to grant Odoacer and the Heruli federated status, prompting an invasion. Orestes fled to the city of Pavia on August 23, 476, where the city's bishop gave him sanctuary. Orestes was soon forced to flee Pavia when Odoacer's army broke through the city walls and ravaged the city. Odoacer's army chased Orestes to Piacenza, where they captured and executed him on August 28, 476.

On September 4, 476, Odoacer forced then 16-year-old Romulus Augustulus, whom his father Orestes had proclaimed to be Rome's Emperor, to abdicate. After deposing Romulus, Odoacer did not execute him. The Anonymus Valesianus wrote that Odoacer, "taking pity on his youth", spared Romulus' life and granted him an annual pension of 6,000 solidi before sending him to live with relatives in Campania. [228] [229] Odoacer then installed himself as ruler over Italy, and sent the Imperial insignia to Constantinople. [230]

By convention, the Western Roman Empire is deemed to have ended on 4 September 476, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself ruler of Italy, but this convention is subject to many qualifications. In Roman constitutional theory, the Empire was still simply united under one emperor, implying no abandonment of territorial claims. In areas where the convulsions of the dying Empire had made organized self-defence legitimate, rump states continued under some form of Roman rule after 476. Julius Nepos still claimed to be Emperor of the West and controlled Dalmatia until his murder in 480. Syagrius son of Aegidius ruled the Domain of Soissons until his murder in 487. [231] The indigenous inhabitants of Mauretania developed kingdoms of their own, independent of the Vandals, with strong Roman traits. They again sought Imperial recognition with the reconquests of Justinian I, and they put up effective resistance to the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb. [232] While the civitates of Britannia sank into a level of material development inferior even to their pre-Roman Iron Age ancestors, [233] they maintained identifiably Roman traits for some time, and they continued to look to their own defence as Honorius had authorized. [234] [235]

Odoacer began to negotiate with the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Zeno, who was busy dealing with unrest in the East. Zeno eventually granted Odoacer the status of patrician and accepted him as his own viceroy of Italy. Zeno, however, insisted that Odoacer had to pay homage to Julius Nepos as the Emperor of the Western Empire. Odoacer never returned any territory or real power, but he did issue coins in the name of Julius Nepos throughout Italy. The murder of Julius Nepos in 480 (Glycerius may have been among the conspirators) prompted Odoacer to invade Dalmatia, annexing it to his Kingdom of Italy. In 488 the Eastern emperor authorized a troublesome Goth, Theoderic (later known as "the Great") to take Italy. After several indecisive campaigns, in 493 Theoderic and Odoacer agreed to rule jointly. They celebrated their agreement with a banquet of reconciliation, at which Theoderic's men murdered Odoacer's, and Theoderic personally cut Odoacer in half. [236]

The mostly powerless, but still influential Western Roman Senate continued to exist in the city of Rome under the rule of the Ostrogothic kingdom and, later, the Byzantine Empire for at least another century, before disappearing at an unknown date in the early 7th century. [237]

The Roman Empire was not only a political unity enforced by the use of military power. It was also the combined and elaborated civilization of the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It included manufacture, trade, and architecture, widespread secular literacy, written law, and an international language of science and literature. [236] The Western barbarians lost much of these higher cultural practices, but their redevelopment in the Middle Ages by polities aware of the Roman achievement formed the basis for the later development of Europe. [238]

Observing the cultural and archaeological continuities through and beyond the period of lost political control, the process has been described as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall. [239]

When Rome was sacked in 410, where were the legions?

Something that I fail to wrap my head around the more I read about is the sacking of Rome in 410. In my eyes, this was the death of Rome, the years after Rome was in a vegetative state (heh) waiting for the coup de grace. However, something I can't seem to grasp is how Rome wasn't in anyway able to defend itself against Alaric and his 3(!) sieges against Rome. It is said that he basically waltzed up to Rome (think it was during the second Siege) virtually unopposed in Italy. Before the third siege, the Pope went up to Ravenna to persuade Emperor Honorious to making peace with Alaric, offering him an Imperial position to make him an ally of Rome again. The pope was accompanied by his barbarian (think Huns?) guards. There were talks about recruiting a massive Hunnic army to fight Alaric, something that never happened. And then of course, after the failed assassination attempt on Alaric during the negations, he would turn, march on Rome and sack it.

How is it that the nation that was able to take Cannae and other devastating defeats in a short time period, which saw an insane drop of the young male population, keep fighting and ending up victorious against an enemy that must have seen like a mythic legend in the form of Hannibal? How did they muster legion after legion against this foe, yet failed in anyway to defend the most holy city (even if it wasn't the capital anymore) in 410 CE? The population of Rome surly was larger in 410 then during the Punic wars, and Rome held much more territory than it did in the past (even if it is now only the Western Empire half and that is also in a state of fracturing). But there are no troops, no significant amount of soldiers or men that are seemingly able to be mustered to defend the State. In the North we have Germanic tribes fight for Rome and its territory against other Germanic tribes. Think it was the Franks that lost a battle for Rome which caused a huge sway of other Germanic tribes to plunge from across the Rhine into deeper Roman territory.

I just can't wrap my head around the fall of Rome. How is it, that we see so many pretenders to the throne in such a narrow time period rise up and fight against Rome, yet when it comes to foreign threats (such as fighting the Huns on the Catalaunian Plains) Rome is seemingly unable to defend itself and relies on mercenaries and settled tribes that in no way have been integrated into the Roman life to fight off the foreign threat, even if it is only for the last few years of its existence.

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From the fall of the Republic to the Sack of Rome, that's 450 years. a lot can happen in 450 years. 450 years ago today is 1570, which is a New World turned barren by disease and war, few European colonists, bad firearms and excellent medieval weaponry, star fortresses, the Ming Dynasty, and the Battle of Lepanto at sea between western Europe and the ascendant Ottoman Empire. The printing press had only been around 130 years at this point.

In these 450 years, a lot changed for Rome. Mary Beard's book, SPQR, focuses on the shift in attitudes and values of the republic through to Emperor Caracalla, and specifically, his decision to grant citizenship to all freemen of the empire. Her book outlines the changes that Roman society underwent leading up to that decision. During the Punic Wars, Rome was conscripting men from all over Italy, often from newly conquered Italian regions. By no means had Rome conquered the whole country yet. In fact, when Hannibal went on his rampage in Italy, much of his work was trying to convince Italian towns to turn on Rome. Rome won out in the end, and the spoils of their new lands fueled fantastic wealth into the hands of the leading men of Rome. With this, the built roads and aqueducts and made life generally better all over Italy. However, it was difficult for many people to obtain "Roman citizenship," which conferred obvious and fantastic benefits to you and your family should you achieve it. The dream was in Rome, the money and jobs were there, and you worked hard to achieve it: the army was a typical route. The incentive of citizenship was a big one up until 212AD, when Caracalla just gave it away to everyone to increase the tax base.

By the time you get to Caesar's time, the leading men of Rome were by modern times multi multi billionaires. Caesar, Crassus, Clodius, Pompey, and before them, Marius and Sulla, were all beneficiaries of Marius's reforms to personally attach men in the army to their leading, sponsoring general. So, not only could you get citizenship in the army, your general might make you pretty rich in the lands they conquered (if they don't get you killed). Crassus got all his men killed: Caesar returned from Gaul with the wealth of the entire country in his hands, culminating in his civil war that ended the Senate. So all in all, you had plenty of supply of men, and the demand for army service stayed pretty high in order to get citizenship.

Skip ahead to Augustus, who succeeded Julius Caesar, inherited all his money, and also inherited his legions. Augustus expanded the army, continued to build the empire, and also created a bureaucracy for his own regime to run everything: the equestrians (knights). Augustus was the biggest man in town and needed loyalists to function in important roles, carrying orders around the growing empire and administering it effectively. The Senate in Rome was beginning to be sidelined.

If you look at the Year of the 4 Emperors after Nero's suicide, the army was beginning to discover it was the true power in the empire: they could make Emperors. That year ended in the legions of Vespasian crushing the opposition and instilling a new dynasty. After his last son, Domitian, was assassinated, the Senate took it upon itself to select Nerva as Emperor, but at the behest of the power of the army, he quickly adopted a successful general, Trajan, as his heir. The army stayed a very important influence in Roman politics through all the 5 Good Emperors (up to Marcus Aurelius).

Then skip ahead to Caracalla's father, Emperor Septimius Severus. In his bid for power, he fought one of the largest battles in European History at Lyons (Lugdunum), where 150,000 Roman soldiers fought each other between 2 rival emperors. Severus won, Albinus was killed, and the legions were badly damaged. Civil wars like this are costly and the coinage was manipulated to ill effect, weakening the Roman economy. Higher taxes were levied, but even that was not enough. By the time Caracalla, Severus's son, became Emperor, he had little choice but to grant citizenship to everyone in order to increase the tax base. Incentive for citizenship now gone, people no longer sought out the army as a viable career option.

However, Rome's army was still very powerful, and would spend much of the 3rd century battling itself among dozens of pretend Emperors. During this crisis, raids from Germania and elsewhere were hitting the empire everywhere, even reaching as far as Athens. The army was the ultimate power in the empire, even if that empire was crumbling apart amongst squabbling power seekers.

Diocletian initiated a significant reorganization of the state, and with that, started setting about regional capitals that were more relevant for the administration of the empire by an increasing number of bureaucrats and tax collectors. This is where Rome truly became sidelined: it was in a bad spot geographically to be directing military policy, and much of the regions of the empire could simply trade with each other and cut Rome out of the middle. The emperor regimes could be based near the threatened borders of the empire. The problem, however, is that now you had 4 legitimate emperors, 2 senior Augusti and 2 junior Caesars, who themselves could now contend with each other. Diocletian's system was falling apart even as Diocletian was retired, culminating in the megalomaniac Constantine winning out.

Constantine is definitely an enigma. We know him as 'The Great' for both his acceptance and support of the Christian religion, but also his massive capital building on the spot where his opponent's military forces gave him horrific trouble: Byzantion. Ever the general, Constantine saw the superiority of that site as nearly unassailable and also geographically as being an extremely important linchpin in naval and land trade routes. How did he pay to relocate the capital of the Empire here and build a new city practically from scratch? He taxed the hell out of everything. The registers records of Constantine were notorious for quantifying every olive tree, by quality and age, on a particular plot of land on a small island in the Aegean. He squeezed, and he squeezed hard. He had an army to pay for, a bureaucracy to pay for, massive construction bills for Constantinople, and also big outlays for Christian churches, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as one example.

So now every inhabitant of the empire has citizenship, but guess what? What does that get you? A tax collector up your ass all the time, practically extorting you for everything. People were ɾlected' to town council and instructed to always provide the tax rolls to the Emperor(s). These obligations became hereditary, and so became the start of a feudal system in Europe. The military regime was so ungainly and so expensive, the Roman economy truly suffered. The western provinces (except Italy) were always poorer than Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and especially Egypt. So when your populace is overtaxed, ruled over by the military, and unable to become entrepreneurs, your citizenship doesn't look so good. In fact, you wish for better circumstances. You certainly don't join the army. So the army looks for new recruits. Foreigners looking to become (or already are) Christian and want to live in the Empire look pretty attractive.

The big bust for the Roman Empire (for me) is in AD 378, at the Battle of Adrianople. Emperor Valens wouldn't wait for help, and attacked yet another annoying band of Goths raiding over the borders. Emperors had been doing this for hundreds of years now, defending against the Germans and winning most of the time. So Valens thought he would win the glory, and instead saw his cavalry massively outclassed and then his infantry surrounded and killed. He died along with many senior officials. The army was effectively shattered, and the Goths destroyed the arms factories on the Danube and tried to siege cities. General Theodosius became Emperor, but with the army in pieces, he had to accept the Goths as allies, and according to Lars Brownworth, they became the power behind the Emperor's throne. The Goths were never assimilated: they retained their identity, and lived within the Empire.

So when a powerful military force can call shots and a shattered army isn't able to easily recruit, train, and recover, what happens? You hire more foreigners as military muscle! The Germanic tribes were on the move, so the crisis continued to get worse: in order to deal with foreign invaders, you enlist foreign invaders to help you with the only money you've got left. Theodosius died and split the empire between his two boys. Honorius got the west, and basically oversaw the destruction of the Emperor regime in the west by ambitious foreign warlords and palace intrigue from Ravenna (the newest western capital). The eastern part of the empire at least had a lot of money. They too needed to throw off their Germanic powers behind the throne, and eventually, they found a tough crowd of Isaurians from south central Turkey to kick out the Germans. Where you see the story of the Western Roman Empire falling to the tribes, you also have a story of the Eastern Empire booting them out of their vicinity and 'inviting' them to go to Italy.

Alaric sacked Rome in 410, then it happened again in 455 by the Vandals, and by 476, the military warlords were tired of the charade: Odoacer deposed the last western emperor. Later on, the eastern emperor asked the Ostrogoths to go to Italy and depose Odoacer, and then Theodoric the Great took over. Rome in his time still had the stadiums and races, with a happy population. Rome wouldn't truly suffer and die until Justinian's Gothic Wars in the 6th century, when the aqueducts were cut and the city traded hands between fires and soldiers over and over again.

The End of an Era – The Sack of Rome

Rome, the city that had ruled the world, was in chaos. To the north-west, a great pillar of dirty smoke rose skywards from the Gardens of Sallust. Here, for four centuries, a labyrinthine complex of shade, water, sculpture, trees and plants had given pleasure to the citizens of the city and to many who had visited over the years.

It was an incredibly beautiful example of Roman art and culture, but now it was burning. Ancient fruit trees had been hewn with axes, tables and chairs of wood had been smashed and broken, and anything which would burn had been flung onto the fires.

In houses and villas throughout the city, the people waited in terror for the inevitable arrival of their tormentors, the soldiers of the army of Alaric, King of the Visigoths. The Visigoths were the descendants of the Germanic peoples who had for so long been the enemy of Rome during the time of the republic and the early empire. Now, in 410 AD, the ancient glory of the Roman Empire was a distant memory.

For centuries, Rome had ruled all the known world. Now she could not even provide safety to Rome’s common people.

Alaric was a strong and powerful King. He held the reins of power in the region around the Italian peninsula at the time, and he had a great host of warriors at his command.

The political situation was chaotic and volatile, and Alaric’s influence was huge. He had been a soldier in the Roman army, and commanded troops drawn from his own people, but he and his soldiers had rebelled. They wished to come to a settlement with Rome to establish their own kingdom.

The Roman Empire had reached the zenith of its power at the end of the first century AD, but for three hundred years a combination of many different factors contributed to its decline. By the time Alaric breached the gates of the city the Empire was in turmoil. Many rulers and kings claimed power across the huge territory which had once been unified under the control of the Eternal City.

Sack of Rome.

Even the status of the city of Rome had changed. It was no longer the administrative capital of the empire. The capital had been shifted to the city of Mediolanum (modern day Milan), but in response to Alaric’s invasion of Italy, it was moved again, this time to the city of Ravenna, near the sea. Why? Because Ravenna was more defensible and offered the possibility of escape by sea if the city was overrun. How things change! The ruler of an empire which had once spanned all of the known world now made his capital in a city from which he could flee the advance of a self-proclaimed rebel Germanic king.

Alaric had been intense negotiations with the Roman emperor Honorius, who was resident in Ravenna, for some time. The politics and power plays in the region were complex, and constantly shifting alliances made negotiations difficult to the point of being impossible. When Alaric was attacked in a place where he had arranged to meet and talk with Honorius, he abandoned negotiations and marched in anger upon Rome.

In the city, food was scarce. The Visigoths had besieged Rome a number of times in recent years, only to break off the attack when their demands to the Emperor were met. This time, he laid siege again and slipped agents into the city under cover of night. At dawn, these agents caused a western gate to be opened, and the army of the Visigoths flooded into the streets.

The Porta Salaria, the gate by which Alaric entered Rome, in an 18th-century etching. The Gate was demolished in 1921.

These were brutal and merciless times, but the sack of Rome by Alaric’s army, though dreadful, was by no means as vicious as it could have been. The great Gardens of Sallust were destroyed and burned, and two public buildings on the forum were also destroyed by fire, but aside from this, there was little burning. It was not uncommon for whole cities to be put to the torch in these times but on this occasion, the attacking army was more intent on plunder than on wholesale destruction.

Likewise, it would not be uncommon for the population to be slaughtered on a large scale, but again this does not seem to have happened. In fact, it seems that Alaric actively caused many people to be spared the violent death which they no doubt expected. At this time, Christianity was becoming a powerful influence in the world, and Alaric was, in name at least, a Christian king. Christian churches were off limits to the pillaging soldiers, and those who fled there for sanctuary were spared violence from the looters.

All this, of course, does not mean that the sack of Rome was not a violent and vicious affair. There were still many deaths, and the soldiers tortured those who they suspected of hiding valuable items.

The administrative divisions of the Roman Empire in 395, under Theodosius I.

An elderly lady by the name of Marcella – later to become Saint Marcella – was whipped and beaten by the soldiers when she claimed to have no hidden wealth to give them, but it was the truth. Saint Marcella, a native of the city of Rome, had lived a long life of pious poverty in the name of her Christian faith. Indeed, her way of life was to become an important influence on the development of Christian monasticism in later centuries. After the frustrated soldiers left, her student, Principia, carried her to one of the church refuges, where she died of her injuries.

Route of Visigoths.

The Visigoths committed acts of rape, killing and torture during the sack, and they captured and enslaved many Romans. Everywhere they went they carried off all the valuables they could find, and after a three-day reign of terror, the city was emptied of wealth. All who could flee the city did so and many fled to the Roman provinces in North Africa. The city was ravaged for three days before Alaric gathered his troops and marched south. The army, loaded with countless treasures and dragging thousands of prisoners, continued with their destruction, sacking every Roman city they came to.

Only a few months later, however, the powerful Alaric was struck down by an illness and died, and the army elected a new leader and marched back north. The damage, however, was done, and the sack of Rome and southern Italy marked the beginning of the last chapter in the history of the Roman Empire in the West. The economy of the region was devastated, and the rule of the Emperor irretrievably compromised. The population was declining fast, famine and disease were rife, and any semblance of political order was steadily crumbling. Less than a hundred years later, the last Emperor was replaced by a king, marking the end of the Roman Empire in western Europe.

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