The Sack of Rome (395–411)

The fall and ruin of the world will soon take place, but it seems that nothing of the kind is to be feared as long as the city of Rome stands intact. But when the capital of the world has fallen [. . .] who can doubt that the end will have come for the affairs of men and the whole world?

Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7.151

January 395: A Divided Empire with Child Emperors

Julius Caesar famously began his Gallic Wars by saying that ‘all Gaul is divided into three parts’; some four and a half centuries later, on the death of Theodosius I, the Roman Empire was formally divided into two parts, and so it would remain until 476, when it would be reduced to just one. The Byzantine Empire is sometimes regarded as beginning at this point, although people living at the time would probably not have seen it that way.

The contemporary historian Eunapius describes the state of play in January 395 like this:

It is recorded that Theodosius’ sons [Arcadius in the East; Honorius in the West] succeeded him as Emperor. But if one were to give a truer picture of what happened (and truth is, after all, the purpose of history), they took the title of Emperors, while in reality total power lay with Rufinus in the East and Stilicho in the West.2

Arcadius was in his late teens and just on the verge of being able to rule in his own right, but for now the Praefectus Praetorio Flavius Rufinus held the reins of power. In a change to the fourth-century model of itinerant Augusti, Arcadius and his court stayed at Constantinople.

In Mediolanum the most powerful individual was the half-Vandal general Stilicho. He had been born great – he was a talented commander and an intelligent statesman – and was now having greatness thrust upon him. He had already been married to Theodosius I’s niece Serena for over ten years, and when the Emperor breathed his last, Stilicho announced that his dying wish was that he, Stilicho, should not only be regent for the eleven-year-old Honorius in the West, but also for Arcadius in the East. In the Oration on the Death of Theodosius, Bishop Ambrose explicitly endorsed Stilicho’s claim, as did Stilicho’s Alexandrian Greek poetical spin-doctor Claudian. This was tantamount to seeking authority over the entire Roman world, and the Eastern court was having none of it. The inevitable conflict now produced the rise of Alaricus (‘Alaric’) the (Visi)goth.

Alaric the Visigoth and Stilicho the Half-Vandal

Alaric’s origins and status are hard to pinpoint: Claudian claims that he was born on an island in the Danube; he was now in his mid-twenties and had married the sister of the Gothic leader Athaulph; and he certainly held Roman offices, but what their specific titles were is often unclear. When, or indeed whether, he became King of the Goths is a difficult question. Some Roman sources call him rex (King), although, at different points in his career, Greek ones use phylarkhos (tribal chieftain), hegemon (leader) and tyrannos(tyrant/king), while some sources quite pointedly give him no title at all. It is similarly tricky to establish the precise nature of his forces, their activities and their demands; although what seems to have mattered most at the time was that they were simply thought of as ‘the Goths’. The designation Visi, as in ‘Visigoths’, does not appear until the Notitia Dignitatum.

Alaric’s first move was to lead his Goths out of Italy into Thrace and Macedonia and cause chaos there before menacing Con stantinople. Rufinus may have tried to buy Alaric off, and Stilicho was told to return the contingents that had marched west during River Frigidus campaign of 394 to their bases in the East. He complied and sent them back under the Comes Rei Militaris Gaïnas. But Gaïnas may have had secret instructions:

The Emperor was persuaded to come out before the city. Rufinus, the city prefect, accompanied him. But, once Gaïnas and his men had prostrated themselves and received due welcome from the Emperor, Gaïnas gave the signal. All at once they surrounded Rufinus, falling on him with their swords. One sliced off his right hand, another his left, while another cut off his head and ran off singing a victory song.3

The main beneficiary of this incident was not Stilicho but a eunuch named Eutropius who was the Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi, and who had already arranged Arcadius’ marriage to Aelia Eudoxia, the daughter of a Frankish general called Bauto, who was perhaps Arbogast’s father.

When Eutropius saw that the Emperor was intrigued by his account of the girl, he showed him a painting of her, which increased Arcadius’ enthusiasm even more, and persuaded him to choose her for his wife.4

Eutropius is one of antiquity’s most colourful characters, and his power led him to become a bizarre role model:

Even some who were already grown men, craving to be eunuchs and yearning to become Eutropiuses, disposed of both their sense and their testicles that they might enjoy the condition of Eutropius.5

Claudian had a field day with him in his lengthy poem Against Eutropius:

His pallor and cadaverous appearance disgusted his masters, and his anaemic face and emaciated form repelled all who met him, frightening the children, sickening everyone who dined with him, shaming fellow-slaves, an ill-omen to any who crossed his path.6

Yet Eutropius manipulated the court politics to become the dominant figure in Constantinople; Gaïnas became Magister Militum in Thrace; Alaric didn’t have the resources to take Constantinople, so he chose a softer target and went on the rampage in Greece (395–396), where he sacked Athens; Stilicho intervened in the Peloponnese, which he tried to detach from the East, but Alaric, to whom Eutropius granted the title of Magister Militum per Illyricum around now, fought him off and moved into Illyricum out of Greece. According to Zosimus, Stilicho, who had been declared a public enemy by Eutropius, had allegedly become diverted by luxury, comic actors and shameless women, but a more important distraction was Gildo, Africa’s Magister Utriusque Militiae, who at Eutropius’ bidding caused huge worry in Italy by diverting the grain supplies to Constantinople.

However, Stilicho knew that Rome still trumped Constantinople, and by some smooth diplomacy he got the Senate to make Eutropius the public enemy and declare war on Gildo. Gildo was ultimately defeated by his brother Mascazel, who held a grudge against him, but Stilicho still had Mascazel drowned, just to be on the safe side: Zosimus says he laughed as Mascazel was swept away by the current.

From now on, the hatred between Eutropius and Stilicho was no longer hidden. Everyone was talking about it [. . .] Stilicho married his daughter Maria to the emperor Honorius, while Eutropius kept Arcadius like a fattened animal.7

Stilicho became the new hard man, and he now focused his attention northwards. Britain and Gaul had both suffered withdrawals of troops from the time Magnus Maximus had made his bid for glory in 383, and the units that had been withdrawn had also suffered high rates of attrition, particularly at the Battle of the Frigidus. Magnus Maximus may have tried to devolve responsibility for local policing in Britain onto some urbanbased tribal leaders (many Welsh genealogies claim him as an ancestor under his Cymric name Macsen Wledig), and, rather oddly, at this period metalwork associated with Rome’s regular army is only found south of a line roughly from the Severn estuary to Yorkshire, which may suggest a strategic withdrawal. It is also possible that Saxon mercenaries were introduced into Britain around this time (Rome’s central government could not afford to fund mercenaries itself), at least if the superbus tyrannus (‘proud tyrant’) of Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain refers to Magnus Maximus and not the semi-legendary Vortigern (‘High King’) whose rule began in 426 and resulted in the establishment of the royal house of Gwynedd (if this is fact and not later legend). The presence of the mercenaries in the south-east zone may be archaeologically visible in the distribution of distinctive belt-buckles that were used as military status-badges.

So, on behalf of Honorius, Stilicho moved in and checked the seaborne invasions into Britain in 396–398, although his success was probably less spectacular than Claudian suggests when he puts these words into the mouth of Britannia:

Next spoke Britannia, veiled with the skin of a wild beast of Caledonia, her cheeks tattooed, her blue cloak sweeping over her footprints like the surge of Ocean: ‘I too,’ she said, ‘when neighbouring tribes were destroying me – I too was fortified by Stilicho, when the Scotti set all Ireland astir, and [the sea] frothed with the enemy’s oars. His was the care which ensured I should fear not the spears of the Scotti, nor tremble at the Picti, nor watch all along my shore for the arrival of the Saxons with the shifting winds.’8

Claudian also tells us that the Eastern court made Alaric their Magister Utriusque Militiae in 399. Crucially, this allowed Alaric access to supplies via legitimate Roman military channels. Yet at the same time the Eastern court was not without its problems. Eutropius had done well against some Huns invading Asia Minor and had been elevated to the rank of Patricius (the Empire’s senior honorific title) and made Consul in 399, but the Gothic Comes Tribigild had also rebelled and caused disturbances in the same region.

Eutropius detailed Gaïnas to sort Tribigild out, but instead he made a pact with his fellow Goth and also got Arcadius to dismiss and then execute Eutropius. Gaïnas’ ascendancy was short-lived, though. His attempts to impose himself by military force backfired in the summer of 400. He occupied Constantinople, but when he demanded a Catholic church for his Arians he was opposed by Ioannes Khrysostomos (John Chrysostom), the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the people of the city slaughtered 7 000 of his Gothic troops. Arcadius used Fravitta, another Goth who wasMagister Militum per Orientem, to subdue the remainder of Gaïnas’ troops, and the fugitive Gaïnas himself was killed by a Hun called Uldin or Uldes (the first named Hunnic leader that we know of). January 401 saw his severed head paraded through Constantinople, and in the same month Aelia Eudoxia, who was becoming more and more the political mistress of the East, was elevated to Augusta. Fravitta, however, was murdered shortly after his success. Public opinion was turning decidedly anti-Gothic.

This situation affected Alaric badly. His standing under Rufinus, Eutropius and his fellow Goth Gaïnas was undermined by the summer uprising of 400, and regime change at Constantinople may have meant he lost his military command. This in turn meant he was deprived of official resources to feed and pay his men. So he invaded Italy late in 401. Stilicho was not expecting this. He was currently sorting out frontier issues in Raetia, where a Gothic king called Radagaisus had violated the Empire’s borders. The Western court relocated to Ravenna, which was better fortified than Mediolanum, but their fears were allayed when Stilicho managed to hold Alaric off in battles fought at Pollentia (modern Pollenzo) on Easter Day 402, where Alaric’s wife and family were taken prisoner, and some months later near Verona.

The decisiveness of Stilicho’s victories is often overplayed, particularly by the coinage, which shows Honorius trampling a Goth, and by Claudian: Stilicho was not in a position to destroy Alaric at this stage, and instead he probably returned Alaric’s family and let the Goths withdraw to Pannonia. Alaric himself drops off our sources’ radar until 405, and it remains unclear whether he held an official command or acted independently. For his part Stilicho altered his strategy and started using Goths as his allies as he attempted to wrest Illyricum away from the Eastern Empire. The Goths eventually moved back to their former possessions in Epirus, which put pressure on Thessalonica.

For Stilicho’s nineteen-year-old boss Honorius, it was celebration time. His generalissimo’s successes against Alaric called for a triumph and in 404 as he rode into Rome. It was a glittering occasion. Claudian said that the women of Rome ogled the bejewelled Honorius, who was as handsome as the god Bacchus with his rosy cheeks and fine shoulders:

The roar of the adoring multitude [. . .] rises up like thunder from the hollow bowl of the arena, reverberating round the seven hills to echo back as one the name ‘Honorius’.9

The Emperor was careful to pay due deference to the Senate and their pagan sympathies: they still had some power and influence, both in the minds of the people and in terms of the constitution, and although Honorius was Christian, he nevertheless poured a libation to river god Tiber. It may have been just a gesture, but it was not an empty one.

It is entirely understandable that Stilicho’s focus on internal politics made him pay less attention to the barbarians outside the Empire than he should have done. Now, any future plans that he might have been formulating had instantly to be put on hold, because Radagaisus reappeared on the scene, leading an army that his contemporaries numbered at 200 000 or even 400 000. His position might have come under threat in the face of the dominance of the Huns, and he was probably seeking either a safe haven in the Empire or a swift military success that would generate enough prestige and booty to reassert his position in barbaricum. Either way, he was disappointed: Stilicho deployed thirty units of the Roman field army, plus some allied Huns and Alani, surrounded him near Ticinum in Liguria, and captured and executed him on 23 August 406. Some 12 000 of Radagaisus’ warriors were drafted into the Roman army, and so many others were enslaved that the price of slaves in Italy plummeted.

No sooner had Stilicho made his triumphant return to Ravenna than he was apprised of a series of usurpations in Britain. Two Britons, Marcus and Gratianus, had been raised to the purple only to be assassinated in swift succession before the army elected a soldier called Flavius Claudius Constantinus (Constantine III). This was possibly a response to the lack of protection that the province was receiving from the central authorities, but it soon became more than a local issue. Channelling his more illustrious namesake, who had also been proclaimed in Britain, he renamed his sons Constans and Julian, and then took the decision to sacrifice Britain in order to save Gaul.

The effect of Constantine III’s withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain can be seen from a letter written by Honorius a few years later, in 410 (if its reference to the people of Brittia is indeed to Britannia, and not Bruttium in Italy, and if Zosimus has not confused Bolonia in Italy with Boulogne in Gaul, both of which were called Bononia by then), which tersely instructs its inhabitants to see to their own defence: the raising of local forces would not be considered an act of rebellion. But with no Counts, Dukes,vicarii, governors or generals left, there was little that they could do. So, letter or no letter, the Britons ejected the Empire’s officials and ruled themselves. But the island was denuded of its field army because Constantine III had taken it across the Channel to confront yet another barbarian menace, which historians call ‘The Great Invasion’.

On New Year’s Eve 405,10 an enormous force of Silingi and Hasdingi Vandals (from Silesia in modern Poland, and the border with Dacia respectively), Suevi and Alani had crossed the Rhine. Gibbon propagated a myth that they crossed the river when it was frozen, although no ancient source corroborates this. The Franks put up some stiff resistance and slew the Vandal king, but were unable to hold out. The Christian Bishop Orientius later wrote that ‘all of Gaul smoked as a single funeral pyre’.11 As the invaders swept onwards (their itinerary is not clear, but Moguntiacum, Borbetomagus (modern Worms), Remi (Reims) and Treveri were all overrun – see Map 8), the British army stepped in. Constantine III secured most of Gaul and then won over Spain. Honorius’ relatives Didymus and Verenianus tried to dislodge him from Spain, but Constantine III’s general Gerontius defeated, captured and executed them, and Constantine III’s son Constans was placed in charge there.

For once Stilicho acted too slowly. In 408 he dispatched a Gothic officer called Sarus to stop Constantine III. However, choosing Sarus was an inexplicably bad decision, and despite some initial success he soon retreated back to Italy, while Constantine III took the area around Arelate (modern Arles). Constantine III would subsequently seek recognition from Honorius, who would send him an imperial robe – an unequivocal acknowledgement that he was indeed his fellow Emperor.

Alaric suffered a temporary crisis when his daughter Maria died, thereby severing his familial ties with Honorius (she had married the Emperor in c.398), but a swiftly arranged wedding between the Emperor and Maria’s sister Thermantia put things back on track. Alaric saw other opportunities too. He vacated Epirus and moved to Noricum, which gave him two good options: he could menace Italy, with or without Constantine III’s collaboration; or he could block the Alpine passes and keep Constantine III out. From this position of strength Alaric demanded an exorbitant 4 000 pounds of gold for ‘services rendered’ in Illyricum, and sought permission to take his army into Pannonia, which would presumably have become a Gothic homeland. Honorius remained intransigent, though, and the Senators at Rome, who would be the ones to find the gold, initially voted to resist. Stilicho persuaded them otherwise, however, leading Lampadius famously to shout, ‘That is not peace, but a bargain of servitude!’ before taking refuge in a church.12

Just to complicate matters, the Eastern Emperor Arcadius died on 1 May 408, leaving Honorius’ seven-year-old nephew, Theodosius II, as successor. Stilicho saw the new situation in the East as a good opportunity to assert his authority over the Balkan region. So he made a deal with Alaric in which Alaric would attack Constantine III, freeing himself up to take control of the succession in the East. However, Stilicho’s plans all came crashing down when Honorius’ Magister Officiorum, the eunuch Olympius, started falsely to allege that Stilicho was plotting to overthrow Theodosius II and to install his own son, Eucherius, in his stead. In fairness, Stilicho had already made some moves in this direction by betrothing Eucherius to Arcadius and Honorius’ half-sister Galla Placidia, but the troops at Ticinum (modern Pavia) swallowed Olympius’ extreme conspiracy theory and slaughtered a number of Stilicho’s supporters. Stilicho headed for Ravenna, but when Sarus defected to Olympius and massacred his Hunnic bodyguards in a night-time stealth attack, he could only flee and take refuge in a church in Ravenna. At daybreak on 22 August 408 Olympius’ henchmen, led by Heraclianus, caught up with him. There, Stilicho was lured out with a promise that he was only going to be arrested, and was promptly executed.

Olympius immediately instigated a reign of anti-Stilicho terror: senior figures in the administration were publicly tortured in Ravenna to try to make them confess that Stilicho had been plotting to overthrow Honorius, and when they didn’t they were clubbed to death; Honorius divorced Thermantia and sent her back to her mother Serena in Rome; Stilicho’s son, Eucherius, still engaged to the Emperor’s half-sister Galla Placidia, was assassinated; Stilicho’s brother-in-law Bathanarius was relieved of his post as commander of Africa, which was reassigned to Heraclianus; and Honorius’ soldiers proceeded to massacre thousands of barbarian men, women and children in Italy, which induced some 30 000 survivors to look to Alaric for protection and vengeance.

The Sack of Rome (410)

Alaric had an axe to grind. He had no formal command, his legitimacy was shaky, and his 4 000 pounds of gold was still unpaid. So once more he struck camp and headed for Italy. But this time his itinerary took him to Rome itself. The Senate panicked. They accused Stilicho’s widow Serena of having treacherous contact with Alaric, and following a meeting of the Senate in late 408, they asked her cousin and former foster daughter Galla Placidia, who was also the ex-fiancée of Serena’s son Eucherius, to endorse a death sentence. She did.

However, strangling Serena was not the solution: Alaric was strangling Rome. By October 408, he had the city surrounded and controlled Portus at the Tiber mouth. Rome was starving. Jerome relates that new mothers had to eat their newborn babies, ‘so that the belly received again what a short time before it had given forth’,13 and with famine came disease. The pagans blamed the Christians for this: Rome had ruled the universe when the old deities were honoured, but now Christianity had supplanted them, and just look at what had happened. Honorius was still at Ravenna, and so the Roman Senate held crisis talks and decided to negotiate. But their two envoys, one of whom, Ioannes, was on amicable terms with Alaric, got the tone completely wrong. They told him that Rome was indeed ready to make peace, but she was also well prepared for war, and not afraid of Goths. Alaric had the perfect riposte:

He said that he would not end the siege unless he got all the gold in the city; and all the silver too; not to mention any movable property that there might be in Rome; and all the barbarian slaves. When one of the ambassadors asked, ‘If you take all this, what will you leave us?’, Alaric replied, ‘your lives’.14

The Senators backed down.

Alaric said he was prepared to accept 5 000 pounds of gold, 30 000 pounds of silver, 4 000 silk tunics, 3 000 scarlet-dyed skins and 3 000 pounds of pepper, and a Senator named Palladius tried to work out how much each Senator should contribute. But he couldn’t balance the books and it came to the point where he had to order the melting down of gold and silver statues of the gods. This was traumatic, particularly the destruction of the statue of Virtus (Manliness/Courage):

When it was taken away, such bravery and virtue as the Romans possessed went with it.15

Meanwhile, the Senate sent envoys to Ravenna to tell Honorius what was happening, and Alaric added an offer of his own: if Honorius would ratify the treaty, give him land and provide hostages, the Goths would not just make peace, but join with Rome against her enemies. Honorius said that he accepted the terms, and Alaric was stupid enough to believe him.

Alaric granted a seventy-two-hour suspension of hostilities, but the hostages never arrived. On the contrary, news filtered through of grand celebrations at Ravenna in honour of Honorius’ eighth consulship. The Senate dispatched three of its most accomplished diplomats, including a certain Priscus Attalus, to Ravenna to discover what was going on, and to get Honorius to give Alaric the land and the hostages. Unfortunately, Olympius refused to endorse any deal that had the slightest hint of his old nemesis Stilicho’s policy of cooperation with Alaric, and so Honorius didn’t deliver. Instead, he sent the ambassadors back, having appointed one of them, Caecilianus, as Prefect of Rome, and made Priscus Attalus Comes Sacrarum Largitionum (Finance Minister). He also summoned five legions from Dalmatia to go to Rome under a commander named Valens, who naively allowed his force to be ambushed by Alaric: 6 000 soldiers set out; just 100, including Valens and Priscus Attalus, made it to Rome.

The Senate could hardly believe what had happened. They sent a second deputation to Honorius, which included Pope Innocent I and probably Priscus Attalus as well, and needed special permission and an escort from Alaric to make the journey. By now, though, the court at Ravenna was in chaos, a situation that wasn’t helped by the fact that Alaric’s brother-in-law Ataulf (Ataulfus to the Romans; Athavulf , ‘Noble Wolf’, to the Goths) was now in Italy bringing reinforcements. Honorius mobilized the Italian garrisons and dispatched Olympius and 300 Huns to make a pre-emptive strike against Ataulf. The Huns made a successful night raid, but in the cold light of day they realized how heavily outnumbered they were. Returning to Ravenna, Olympius knew his days were numbered, and so he fled to Dalmatia.

At Ravenna, Honorius kept hold of Pope Innocent I, but sent Priscus Attalus back to Rome, having promoted him to Praefectus Urbis and also appointed a pagan barbarian called Generid to the military command in Dalmatia and the provinces northeast of the Alps. At this point, though, Honorius was faced with a mutiny by his garrison, which left Ravenna cut off by both land and sea. But instead of dealing with the problem directly, Honorius hid. Into the breach stepped a character called Iovius, who dealt with the mutinous troops and sought ratification of the treaty with Alaric. The Goth and his brother-in-law said no to Iovius’ offer of a meeting at Ravenna, but were happy to convene at Ariminum (modern Rimini). Alaric again asked for money and a homeland in Histria and Venetia as well as Dalmatia and the two Noricums (see Map 6). Unfortunately, Iovius also claimed that Alaric wanted Stilicho’s title of Magister Utriusque Militiae, but the court at Ravenna did not want to be reminded of Stilicho, and they handled the negotiations in an incredibly crass way. Iovius was in Alaric’s tent when their response was read out: under no circumstances would Honorius bestow any honour whatsoever on Alaric.

With relations at a very low ebb, Iovius slunk back to Ravenna and promised never to make peace with Alaric. Alaric headed for Rome, but then thought twice about it. Peace and a homeland were still his preferred options, and he was prepared to modify his demands. He would settle for just

the two Noricums, which lie at the furthest reaches of the Danube for they are regularly under attack and pay little in the way of tax. In addition, he would be content with however much corn the Emperor saw fit to give him on an annual basis. Forget about the gold; instead there would be friendship and military alliance between Alaric and the Romans.16

Rome’s future might have been very different had Iovius not stuck to his promise. Alaric did go to Rome, where he arranged to be invited into the city and to address the Senate. His plan was simple. He would appoint the next Emperor of the West, for which there was a shortlist of one: Priscus Attalus. On 4 November 409 the new Augustus delegated the day-to-day running of the State to the Senate, and control of the army to Alaric as Magister Utriusque Militiae, with Ataulf as commander of the household cavalry. As an indication of the new regime’s ambitions, Attalus Priscus’ new coins showed the personified Rome seated on a throne holding Victory on a globe, and carried the legend INVICTA ROMA AETERNA (‘Unconquerable Eternal Rome’).

If Rome were to remain unconquerable she would need grain, but the supply from Africa was being controlled by Honorius’ ruthless henchman Heraclianus. Alaric wanted to send an army to eliminate him once and for all, but instead Priscus Attalus sent an envoy called Constans to open negotiations at Carthage.

Meanwhile, Alaric and Priscus Attalus marched to Ariminum, where Iovius made a proposal on Honorius’ behalf: Priscus Attalus could become co-Augustus. But with Constantine III already strutting about in the purple robe that Honorius had sent him the previous year, a triple-Emperor solution was not an option. Instead, Priscus Attalus made Honorius an offer: he could step down, retire to wherever he liked, and live like an Emperor for the rest of his days. However, Iovius put a spanner in the works by inserting the condition that, prior to his exile, Honorius should be symbolically mutilated in one limb, most likely his right hand, the fingers of which were usually extended in a gesture symbolizing his legitimacy when any Emperor spoke. This was not acceptable to Priscus Attalus, who said that it was not customary to mutilate an Emperor who had resigned willingly, any more than it was to Honorius. However, while Honorius was weighing up the pros and cons of a life of left-handed leisure, a fleet from the East arrived surreptitiously in Ravenna carrying about 4 000 troops that had been sent from Constantinople by Honorius’ nephew Theodosius II. But for Iovius, this was too little too late. He defected to Priscus Attalus, and was replaced by the eunuch Eusebius, who was Honorius’ Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi. Eusebius was quickly supplanted by the general Allobichus, who had Eusebius clubbed to death in Honorius’ presence.

Any benefit that this may have brought to Alaric was quickly offset by news of the abject failure of Constans’ trip to Africa: he had been killed, and Heraclianus had imposed a grain embargo on Rome. So Alaric and Iovius decamped to Rome, where an emergency meeting of the Senate decided in favour of Priscus Attalus’ proposal that a Roman army should be sent to Africa, rather than a Gothic one as Iovius had suggested. Alaric was livid. He vented his wrath on Priscus Attalus’ cavalry commander Valens, who was executed for treason, and it is unlikely that he was surprised when the African expeditionary force was defeated. At this point Alaric raised the siege of Ravenna, which seemed futile, while Honorius exploited the contrast between Heraclianus’ bounty and Attalus’ food shortages to win over soldiers to his side. The people of Rome were reduced to seeking the legalization of cannibalism: ‘Put a price on human flesh!’ they chanted.17

Alaric badly needed to get rid of Priscus Attalus. He started to negotiate with Honorius, and the two came to an agreement to end the hostilities. Alaric took Attalus Priscus with him to the signing ceremony, plus Honorius’ half-sister Galla Placidia as insurance, and when the two sides convened outside Ravenna Alaric’s men relieved Attalus Priscus of his imperial regalia, and duly delivered them to Honorius. Peace should have broken out at this point, but there were other players who had vested interests in it not doing so. One such person was Sarus, the Goth who had betrayed Stilicho, who was now in Ravenna. He loathed Alaric, and just as the negotiations were being wrapped up he attacked his camp with 300 warriors. Alaric assumed that this was Honorius’ doing. His dream of a Gothic homeland had turned into a diplomatic nightmare. He decided to destroy Rome.

On 24 August 410 Alaric’s Goths entered the Eternal City. The Romans traced their ancestry back to the mythical Trojans, and now they experienced the sack of Troy all over again. According to Procopius, the ‘Trojan Horse’ of 410 was either a group of 300 of Alaric’s finest warriors who dressed up as slaves, infiltrated the city, and opened the Salarian gate, or it was a woman called Proba, from the well-to-do family of the Anicii, who was motivated by pity for Rome’s starving populace. If we believe some Christian sources (Alaric and his Goths were Christian), the city was sacked in a gentle and caring sort of way: God had sanctioned the capture of Rome; the Goths were doing His will; so they must be seen to be acting within God’s laws. The contemporary historian Orosius saw the hand of God at work, describing a storm in which the most famous places in the city, even though they had been spared by the Goths, were destroyed by thunderbolts,18 and certainly some of Rome’s most famous landmarks, like the imperial palaces and the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian, were devastated, although by human agency. But we are also told that Alaric ordered that anyone sheltering in a church was to be spared, and individual stories of clemency abound, such as that of the treatment of an old nun who was in possession of the sacred vessels of the apostle Peter. Rather than suffering rape and pillage, she became the focus of a festive, hymn-singing procession to St Peter’s that was protected by the merciful Goths and escalated into a huge Romano-Gothic carnival.

On the other hand, a radically different story probably gives a more accurate picture of the sack. A wealthy octogenarian lady called Marcella, who had dedicated her life to God, given away most of her inherited wealth and founded what is sometimes regarded as the first convent in the history of the Church, saw her institution violated by the Goths. A letter written by St Jerome to Marcella’s pupil Principia, who was there at the time, relives the terror for her:

They say that, when the soldiers burst into her house, she received them with equanimity. When asked for the gold and hidden treasure, she pointed to her old worn tunic as a sign of her poverty. But they did not believe that she had really chosen the path of poverty. They say that, even when she was being beaten with clubs and whips, she felt no pain, but lay face down before them; and begged through her tears that you, Principia, might not be taken from her; nor that your youth might mean you would suffer what her old age meant that she had no need to fear. Christ softened their hard hearts and, amidst those bloodstained swords, piety found a place. The barbarians escorted both you and Marcella to the Basilica of the Blessed Paul, that it might be your place of refuge, or your tomb.19

Marcella died of her injuries in Principia’s arms, just one victim of innumerable atrocities. Even St Augustine writes of Romans being put to death in a ‘hideous variety of cruel ways’, bodies left unburied in the streets, arson, pillage, rape, peopletrafficking and enslavement.20 Jerome tells of a woman who fell into the hands of the notorious Heraclianus:

To him, nothing was sweeter than wine or money. He claimed to serve the meekest emperor [Honorius], while being himself the cruellest of all tyrants [. . .] ‘From mothers’ arms he snatched their daughters-in-law betrothed’, and sold noble girls in marriage to Syrian businessmen – the most grasping of any in the human race.21

Both pagans and Christians reflected on the events. For the former, it was obvious that Rome fell because she had spurned her old gods, who reciprocated by spurning her. St Augustine explained their response:

If Rome had not been saved by its gods, it is because they are no longer there; as long as they were there, they kept the city safe.22

But Augustine, who had been Bishop of Hippo (modern Bone in Algeria) since 395, also wrestled with the problem that these events posed for Christians: Rome was now a Christian city, so where was God when it was sacked? And, what’s more, sacked by Christians. His answer was expounded in his monumental De Civitate Dei (City of God), written between 413 and 426.

Neither was it just Goth v Roman or pagan v Christian. The inhabitants of Rome pursued old personal vendettas amidst the chaos. All in all it had been an apocalyptic event. Jerome reflected:

Who could believe that after being raised up by victories over the whole world Rome should come crashing down, and become at once the mother and the grave of her peoples?23

Honorius could not get his head round what had happened. A story grew up that when one of his eunuchs, presumably the keeper of his poultry, told him that Rome was no more, he made a famously misguided comment:

‘And yet it has just eaten from my hands!’ For he had a very large cock, 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.24

Honorius then followed it up with an even more notorious quip, to the effect of, ‘Oh, that’s a relief!’

The Death of Alaric

From Alaric’s perspective he had undoubtedly traumatized most of the Roman world by sacking Rome, but it had done him very little good politically. Having spent three days in the city, he moved on: there were no grain supplies coming in from Africa, so he decided to go there to get them. With a convoy that also included Galla Placidia and Attalus Priscus he moved south into Campania and thence to Rhegium at the toe of Italy, but rough seas prevented him crossing to Sicily, and at that point he became seriously ill. With their leader confined to a wagon, the Goths headed north, but early in 411, at Consentia in Bruttium, Alaric died.

His people mourned him with the greatest devotion. Near the city of Consentia, the life-giving waters of the River Busentus tumble down from the foot of the mountain. After diverting the river from its course, his people gathered a workforce of captives [. . .] to dig a grave for Alaric in the middle of the river bed. At the centre of this pit, they buried their leader, surrounded by many treasures. Then they turned back the waters of the river to flow along its old course. So that no one should ever know exactly where Alaric was buried, they killed everyone who had dug his grave.25

Nobody has found Alaric’s tomb, and no one has dug up the treasure.

1   Tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds)., op. cit., p. 628.

2   Eunapius, fr. 62, tr. Wright, W. C., op. cit.; cf. Zosimus, New History 6.1–4.

3   Zosimus, New History 5.7.5–6, tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., op. cit, p. 72.

4   Ibid. 5.3.3, tr. Ridley, R. T, op. cit.

5   Eunapius, fr. 897, tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., loc. cit.

6   Claudian, Against Eutropius 121 ff., tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., op. cit., p. 73. See Long, J., Claudian’s In Eutropium: Or, How, When, and Why to Slander a Eunuch, Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

7   Zosimus, New History 5.12.1, tr. Ridley, R. T., op. cit.

8   Claudian, de Consulatu Stilichonis, 2.250 ff., tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds), op. cit.

9   Claudian, Panegyric on Honorius’ 6th Consulship 611 ff., tr. Platnauer, M., Claudian with an English Translation by Maurice Platnauer, vol. 2, London: Heinemann, 1921.

10   There is dispute over the date: 31/12/406 is also given: Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle can be read either way; Zosimus implies it was 31/12/405; Orosius says the attack happened in 408. See Kulikowski, M., ‘Barbarians in Gaul, usurpers in Britain’, Britannia 31 (2000), 325–45.

11   Orientius, Commonitorium 2. 184, tr. Kershaw, S.

12   Zosimus, New History 5.29.9, tr. Kershaw, S. The Latin is elegant: non est ista pax sed pactio servitutis.

13   Jerome, Letter to Principia 1.121, tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., op. cit., p. 97.

14   Zosimus, New History 5.40.3, tr. Ridley, R. T, op. cit.

15   Ibid. 5.41.7.

16   Ibid. 5.50.2–3.

17   Ibid. 5.6.11.

18   Orosius, History Against the Pagans 7.39.

19   Jerome, Letter to Principia 13, tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., op. cit., p. 129 ff.

20   Augustine, City of God 1.7 ff., tr. Dods, M., in Schaff, P., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Vol. 2, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1890.

21   Jerome, Letter to Demetrias, 7, tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., op. cit., p. 129 ff. The quotation comes from Virgil, Aeneid 10.79.

22   Augustine, Sermon 296.

23   Jerome, In Ezekiel, III Praef., tr. in Ward-Perkins, B., The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 28.

24   Procopius, History of the Wars of Justinian 3.2.26, tr. Dewing, H. B., in Procopius with an English Translation by H. B. Dewing in Six Volumes, II, History of the Wars, Books III and IV, London: Heinemann, 1916.

25   Jordanes, Getica 30.158, tr. Davis, W. S., Readings in Ancient History, Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, II, Rome and the West, Boston, New York and Chicago: Allyn and Bacon, 1913.

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