24 August 410 – Sack of Rome

24 August 410 – Sack of Rome

Roman Empire

“The thicker the hay, the easier mowed!” (Alaric)
“But for Alaric the sack of Rome was an admission of defeat, a catastrophic failure. Everything he had hoped for, had fought for over the course of a decade and a half, went up in flames with the capital of the ancient world. Imperial office, a legitimate place for himself and his followers inside the empire, these were now forever out of reach. He might seize what he wanted, as he had seized Rome, but he would never be given it by right. The sack of Rome solved nothing and when the looting was over Alaric’s men still had nowhere to live and fewer future prospects than ever before.” (Michael Kulikowski)
“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 Rome had perished. And he cried out and said, ‘And yet it has just eaten from my hands!’ For he had a very large fowl, Rome by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: ‘But I thought that my fowl Rome had perished.’ So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.” (Procopius)
“A dreadful rumour reached us from the West. We heard that Rome was besieged, that the citizens were buying their safety with gold. The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken; nay, it fell by famine before it fell to the sword.” (St Jerome)
The administrative divisions of the Roman Empire in 395, under Theodosius I
“This dismal calamity is but just over, and you yourself are a witness to how Rome that commanded the world was astonished at the alarm of the Gothic trumpet, when that barbarous and victorious nation stormed her walls, and made her way through the breach. Where were then the privileges of birth, and the distinctions of quality? Were not all ranks and degrees leveled at that time and promiscuously huddled together? Every house was then a scene of misery, and equally filled with grief and confusion. The slave and the man of quality were in the same circumstances, and everywhere the terror of death and slaughter was the same, unless we may say the fright made the greatest impression on those who had the greatest interest in living.” (Pelagius)

Rome had long harbored a great fear of the “other”, those people from outside the boundaries of what they defined as civilisation. In an age without comprehensive mapping and nations, it was often unclear what powers lay far beyond the frontiers – such as when the Gauls under Brennus had sacked Rome in 390 BC, or when the Roman Republic had been pushed to the brink by the marauding Cambri and Teutones from Jutland in the late Second Century BC. The followers of the Emperor Augustus had adopted Caesar’s divide and conquer strategy that had served him so well in Gaul to deal with the German tribes betwixt the Rhine and Elbe, though when Arminius united this desperate collection of tribes to destroy three legions at Teutoburg, the Rhine would become the permanent frontier of Rome, with campaigns east of it raiding expeditions rather than campaigns of conquest. Similarly to the south, while there would be the outliers of the brief annexation of Dacia, the Danube would become Rome’s other boundary. These two great rivers would serve Rome well, creating natural barriers to an empire which utilized the far more impenetrable barriers of the Sahara, Arabia and Atlantic as other frontiers, coupled with the Euphrates and Tigris marking a loose border with the Persians and Hadrian’s Wall erected to mark the end of Roman rule in Britannia. Rome worked closely with those German tribes across these two great rivers, and over time became increasingly integrated with them. As the centuries passed they ceased to be the bizarre “other” from an alien world, and became increasingly Roman at a time when the empire’s legions were composed of franchised foreigners rather than the citizen smallholders of old.

Throughout history there are periods when the warriors of the Steppe migrate en masse, and in so doing clash with the settled societies, often causing huge changes to the existing civilisations. The Medes would migrate east to trigger a chain of events that would see the mighty Assyrian Empire collapse, while Genghis Khan would unite the Steppe tribes to destroy the leading powers of the Medieval world and create the largest contiguous empire the world has seen. In the late Fourth Century AD the Huns were moving west, and as they did they set off a domino effect that would see a huge plethora of Germanic tribes pushing west to escape them, Faced with a choice of contesting with the Huns or the Romans, these tribes chose the Romans. Franks, Goths, Alans, Vandals, Burgundians, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and more all began crossing into the Roman Empire as the Rhine and Danube became increasingly porous frontiers.

As with today, this mass migration was met with surging nationalism and resentment by the native population, and the Roman principle of seeking to settle these people on the understanding they were broken into smaller groups, disarmed, and integrated into Roman society began to unravel. A group of Visigoths under Fritigern retaliated against their oppression to ravage the Balkans, and in 378 defeated the eastern legions and killed Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. Now they were a major military force within the borders of Rome, something the Romans had not faced since those days of the Cimbri invasion four centuries earlier. The Emperor Theodosius settled the issue by seemingly integrating them as Roman vassals, allocating them land and autonomy in return for composing Rome’s military, though they would clearly be compelled more to serve their own interests than Rome’s.

When Fritigern died Alaric was elected as the tribe’s leader, who looked to increase Gothic power by invading the lands of the Eastern Emperor, where he was defeated by Theodosius and his adjutant Stilicho to be forced to concede to Roman suzerainty afresh in 392. Two years later the Goths fought for Theodosius in his civil war as he marched west, emerging triumphant from the Battle of Frigidus. Although they were on the winning side to reunify the Roman Empire for the last time, Alaric’s Visigoths suffered heavy casualties and tensions deepened as it was clear they had borne the brunt of the fighting to weaken them.

When Theodosius died on 10 January 395 Alaric considered their treaty of vassalage to have died with him.

As a result, he led his Visigoths back to their allocated lands in the Balkans where most of the troops defending the Danube, largely Goths that had accepted Roman suzerainty, joined him in rebellion. He invaded Thrace to approach Constantinople while the Huns also invaded Asia Minor, while the Roman court descended into chaos as Stilicho sought to become the de facto ruler of both halves of the empire with the sons of Theodosius still infants. Constantinople paid Alaric off to leave the city, while Stilicho marched east to besiege his camp in Greece, though as the general’s opponents grew strong in his absence, the emperor recalled him, freeing Alaric to pillage cities including Piraeus, Corinth, Argos and Sparta, with Athens paying him off. Stilicho would again return to Greece to trap Alaric, though would again fail to defeat him, leaving the Gothic king to move north to Epirus as he retreated to Italy. Stilicho had apparently either been paid off by Alaric or had so many Goths in his legions they refused to fight him, and the general was declared a public enemy in Constantinople. Alaric’s rampage across Epirus saw Constantinople grant him the rank of military leader for the eastern empire, giving him the pay, armaments, province, and legitimacy he desired.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy after riots in Constantinople saw 7,000 Goths killed and the Huns increasingly employed. He besieged the capital of Mediolanum (Milan) after meeting little resistance, though Stilicho returned from his campaign against the Vandals and Alans to lift the siege. The two sides drew in a clash at Pollentia on 6 April 402, though Alaric was then defeated at besieged at Verona in June. Goths began deserting Alaric’s army as Fortune left him, while the cowed Emperor Honorius moved the capital to Ravenna, expecting its swamps to make the port more easily defensible. Alaric became a useful ally for Stilicho to achieve his own ambitions, though the flood of Vandals, Alans and Suebi across the Rhone saw Gaul temporarily splinter off as a rival empire under Constantine III. Alaric used the rising chaos to demand a huge payment to not invade Italy, and Stilicho’s agreement crippled his support in the imperial court that now saw him in cahoots with the Gothic king.

The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883

The emperor died before the payment was made, and as rumors spread that Stilicho would place his own son in the purple, the general was lured to Ravenna and executed on 22 August 408. His death unleashed a fresh wave of racism as Romans and native soldiers began to massacre the Germans they lived beside. The wives and children of the barbarian mercenaries were slain by local Romans, with up to 30,000 killed across the peninsula. Unsurprisingly, the soldiers that had been serving Rome now flocked to Alaric in Norcium (modern Austria) for protection, and the Gothic king was declared an enemy of the emperor. As Alaric crossed the Alps to invade Italia, the conspirators realised they had let the empire’s army dissolve and turn against them, with no policy for how to deal with this embittered and hostile force aside from individual assassinations. Alaric now lacked the legitimacy to collect taxes and garrison cities that he had held under Stilicho, and offered to move his army to Pannonia for payment and a minor Roman military title. Considered an advocate of Stilicho, the court refused him.

Alaric marched his host of embittered followers on Rome to avenge their murdered families and brethren. He bypassed the imperial court at Ravenna, protected by widespread marshland and served by a port, and in late 408 was outside the walls of the Eternal City itself. Enforcing a blockade, he starved the city into submission. When the Senate met him to proffer terms, they hinted at what the despairing citizens may achieve, to which Alaric laughingly replied: “The thicker the hay, the easier mowed!” He was paid a ransom of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. Alaric also recruited some 40,000 freed Gothic slaves. Some 624 years after Rome had refused to yield to the might of a 50,000-strong Carthaginian army that had just killed 80,000 legionaries at the Battle of Cannae, now the city meekly surrendered to a band of 30,000 Gothic-led barbarians as it lacked the resources, the will, and the military power to challenge them.

Having signed off on Alaric’s terms to lift the blockade – including making Alaric the head of the Roman army – the Emperor Honorius promptly reneged on them. Alaric not only renewed his siege of Rome, he declared the leading Senator Priscus Attalus as emperor. This new “emperor” unsurprisingly bestowed on Alaric the position he desired. Attalus lost control of the African grain supply to the Honorius loyalist Heraclian, and an army he sent to Africa to secure it was promptly annihilated.

The Eastern Roman Empire sent six legions to Italy to support Honorius.

These were not the 30,000 strong indomitable force of Rome’s halcyon days, as Diocletian’s reforms to usher in the Dominate a century earlier had included making legions smaller and more mobile – now each just 1,000 men. Alaric ambushed these lesions on the march, and only a handful reached Rome. Attalus thus marched with Alaric on Ravenna to demand the deposing of Honorius. The emperor prepared the flee to Constantinople, and seeing he would not negotiate, Alaric deposed Attalus in an attempt to reopen negotiations with the emperor. Negotiations may have succeeded had it not been for Sarus, the former adjutant of Stilicho, who attacked Alaric’s men. Alaric interpreted this event as being directed by Ravenna, and a betrayal by Honorius. Alaric’s patience had reached its end, and negotiations would not suffice. He summoned his host for a third, and final, march on Rome.

The beleaguered citizens of Rome looked to agree terms with Alaric’s Gothic army, and settled on provisions for the Goths and a number of Gothic slaves entering Roman servitude in return for lifting the siege. The slaves turned out to be a deception, and as the haughty citizens celebrated their salvation in August 410, Alaric’s undercover ‘slaves’ set about opening the city gates for his returning army. For the first time since the Gauls under Brennus had sacked Rome exactly 800 years earlier, an enemy army was within the Eternal City. Alaric’s sack of Rome lasted three days and, while brutal, those sheltering within churches were spared. Artifacts looted from the basilica of St Peter were ordered returned, and a celebratory procession of Romans and barbarians through the streets supposedly erupted in a hymn in a “display of Christian unity” – though this was likely a revisionist addition by the church.

Booty from the city was likely not the reason for Alaric’s sack – what he needed was food. His people lacked the organizational nous of the Romans and struggled to feed themselves when not provisioned by Roman authorities. Property damage was substantial, and visible still in the following century, while the Romans were traumatized by the sack. Emperor Honorius fell to “wailing and lamentation”, until it was apparently explained to him that the “death” was of the city, and not his pet fowl, also called Roma. The shock of the sack reverberated around the empire – Rome was not an administrative capital anymore, though it was still a cultural nexus. Rome had stood indomitable for eight centuries, and its demise was a microcosm of how far the fortunes of the empire itself had plummeted. The emperor’s sister was among those who were captured as the city of Rome was left scarred.

Alaric had a deep respect for the Roman Empire and its institutions, and it was a sign of how marginalized he had become that he took to sacking the city. In so doing though he forfeit all hope of achieving his key goal – legitimacy for himself, and recognition for his people. Alaric had come not to conquer and occupy Rome, but to settle his people into its dominions in return for representing them. His misfortune was in being caught between the court politics of east and west, and thus perennially being denied the command he sought.

The number of people in Rome on the grain dole was 800,000 in 408 AD. By 419, it was 500,000.

Some citizens saw Alaric’s sack as being the wrath from the old pantheon of gods for Rome’s turning to Christianity, while church apologists such as Augustine wrote that it was God’s wrath on the city clinging to its pagan heritage. The theologian Jerome wrote that Alaric had “extinguished the bright light of all the world”. A group of barbarians storming the Eternal City, taking whatever loot and supplies they could carry, was a shameful endorsement of just how much the empire had declined. In addition to the cultural shock, the dwindling populace of the city had endured two years of trauma caused by hunger, fear, illness, and violence. Despite this moment of apparent triumph, the Goths did not remain to occupy Rome. After three days, Alaric left the city and marched south, into Campania, from which he could sail for the breadbasket of Sicily.

Alaric and the Visigoths in Athens. Illustration from the 1920s

Just as Spartacus had never left Italia, neither would Alaric. While the former was defeated by indomitable legions being recalled from various provinces across the Mediterranean, it would be illness and the weather that would deal defeat to the latter where an emasculated Rome could not. Alaric’s fleet was destroyed in a storm, putting paid to his plans for a Sicilian expedition, much less hopes for a continued African expedition. Refugees would pour out of Rome to provinces like Africa, and Hispania, which had been “secure” for so long by being far removed from frontiers, though now they too were ripe for taking. Whereas the few remaining legions were concentrated on the Rhine, Danube and Euphrates frontiers, provinces with the natural borders of the Atlantic and the Sahara had scarcely any military presence. While Alaric and his Visigoths would not be invading Africa, the ambition would remain to be soon seized upon by another group of barbarians.

As Alaric returned north through Italy, he fell suddenly ill with fever, and died. He was 40-years-old, and had reigned as King of the Visigoths – the first autonomous people existing in Roman territory without integrating – for 15 years. His body was buried under the riverbed at Busento in accordance with the Visigoths’ ancient pagan principles, with the stream redirected from his grave while he was buried with his spoils, before it was released to flow back over him once he was buried. With the work done, the laborers who had completed it were executed, so that his grave would remain a secret. The turmoil Alaric heaped on Rome was an indicator of what was to follow. The Eternal City would be sacked again just 45 years later as the Vandals seized Carthage to control north Africa and then dominated the Mediterranean that the Romans of old had labeled “Our Sea”. More and more territory was forfeited to placate the migrating barbarians, shrinking the dominion of Rome as the barbarians went from being groups integrated into and serving Rome to becoming autonomous states establishing themselves in former Roman land. Many of these would form the basis for modern nation states, such as the Franks, Angles (England), Burgundians and Lombards, among others. 

The empire in the west would finally limp out of existence in 476, though in the east it would persevere for another millennium. 
Western Roman Emperor Honorius depicted on the consular diptych of Anicius Petronius Probus (406)

Justinian looked set to restore the full imperium of Rome in the Sixth Century, though this zenith for the Byzantines was followed by the devastating Justinian Plague and then a Persian invasion, both of which in turn were followed by the meteoric rise of Islam that smashed Rome’s hold on the Levant and north Africa that had existed for seven centuries. Still Constantinople persevered, holding out against Arab sieges and relying on civil wars to prevent its collapse to the Muslims. The Crusades proffered little respite as the Byzantines’ lack of support saw the soldiers set up independent kingdoms rather than return land to the empire, and in 1204 the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople after involving itself in a dynastic squabble and needing to pay off its debts to the Venetians for providing the fleet.

Constantinople never truly recovered, and in 1453 the last Romans finally fell to Mehmet the Conqueror as the city fell to be renamed Istanbul. Still the name would hold sway, with the Ottoman sultans assuming themselves as the heirs to Caesar, while the German states would continue as the loose collection forming the Holy Roman Empire which would continue until Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved it in 1806, and the rulers of Germany and Russia would adopt titles reflecting the former First Man in Rome, using “Kaiser” and “Tsar” respectively until their royal houses were dissolved, as was the Ottoman Empire, in the aftermath of World War I.

24 August 410 – Sack of Rome Written by Jack Tappin

Roman Empire