Ancient History & Civilisation

VI

FALL

AD 476 is the official date for the end of the western half of the Roman empire. It fell not with any grand, dramatic fanfare, nor with the crashing boom of fire and iconoclasm, war and revolution. Instead it fell with the gentle rhythmic pounding of a horse’s hoofs and perhaps the whirring rumble of wheels on a single imperial wagon. Those sounds belonged to a messenger heading east to Constantinople, rushing across the Roman roads of the empire and carrying with him the imperial vestments, diadem and purple cloak of the western Roman emperor. He had been sent by Odovacar, a Germanic king based in Italy, and instructed to deliver the possessions to the eastern Roman emperor. Odovacar had come to a decision: they wouldn’t be needed any more.

Odovacar was, by origin, from the Germanic tribe of the Sciri. He had been a highly successful general in the Roman army in the middle of the fifth century. By 476 so successfully had he built up a loyal power base of Roman soldiers and landowners in Italy that he was able to launch a coup d’état and become the effective ruler of the whole peninsula. There was, however, one problem with his complete grasp of power in Italy: there still existed a western Roman emperor. Admittedly, he was a very nominal emperor – a boy of sixteen and the son of a usurper, and since he controlled nothing outside Italy, he posed absolutely no threat to Odovacar’s position. Nonetheless, this was the time to make a clean break – a chance to tie up loose ends.

Odovacar wrote to Zeno, the Roman emperor of the east, informing him that he was going to depose the western emperor. This decision, though, was perhaps less significant than the one that followed. Odovacar also made it clear that he had no intention of appointing another emperor. The ancient post, forged by Augustus over five hundred years earlier, was now so utterly devoid of meaning and power that it really was not worth his while. Zeno’s reply implicitly agreed. Although the eastern emperor paid lip-service to constitutional rectitude by telling the king that his status would need to be recognised by the western emperor’s predecessor, there was no hiding the reality: Zeno effectively acknowledged Odovacar’s seizure of power. When he received that news, King Odovacar ceremoniously dispatched to the eastern emperor the vestments, diadem and cloak of the now defunct western office.

The ancient sources do not tell us very much about the character of King Odovacar. They leave only questions, one of which is whether he had a sense of irony. The name of the boy emperor whom he had just deposed was Romulus Augustulus. The names – one of the mythical founder of Rome and the other meaning ‘Little Augustus’ – reflect how Roman history had neatly come full circle from Rome’s earliest ruler to its most recent; from the first emperor, who had created the age of the Caesars, to its last, a powerless, deposed child. The Roman empire in the west had risen, ruled the Mediterranean world for over seven hundred years and had now fallen, fragmenting into kingdoms ruled by ‘barbarians’. While the eastern Roman empire, administered from Constantinople, survived for another thousand years in the form of the Byzantine empire, the western half – Rome, Italy and western Europe – fell into the Dark Ages. How had the greatest, most influential empire of the ancient world come to this? How had it fallen?

The answers given to this, the most enduring question of ancient history, have run well into the hundreds. They range from malaria, lead poisoning and tumours created by too many hot steam baths to soil erosion and climate change; from childlessness and depopulation to ineffective government and bankruptcy; from the disillusion of provincial élites and the collapse of moral standards to the crumbling of traditional religions and the disintegration of army discipline. In the eighteenth century Edward Gibbon devoted three volumes of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to answering the same question. Reflecting the age in which he wrote, Gibbon chronicled the best part of three hundred years of Roman history in the West (from 180 to 476) and pinpointed Christianity as a chief culprit. Belief in the afterlife, he suggested, utterly sapped Romans of the steely resolve and discipline required to suffer hardships for the sake of maintaining the empire. Gibbon’s view of an inevitable, slowly evolving and complex process was highly influential over the centuries that followed him. Recent scholarship, however, has taken a different view. The Roman empire collapsed staccato style; it did so not inevitably, but under the impact of key, spectacular shock waves in its last hundred years; and the people who created those crises were barbarian invaders.1

This chapter will focus on one of those critically decisive moments: the sack of Rome in August 410. It will tell the story of how the greatest city of the ancient world, the city-state that ruled a massive empire for over seven hundred years, fell to barbarians and was ritually sacked. The destruction of the ancient city is an enlightening, pivotal moment because the forces that brought about the sack epitomize the shock waves that shattered the western Roman empire between 376 and 476. Perhaps the greatest of these forces was the motivation of the barbarians. Their invasions came down to a single belief – that the Roman empire was an El Dorado that offered a chance for a better life. They came not to destroy Rome, but to become part of it. However, in trying to win acceptance within the empire, to win peace terms and a slice of that prosperity, destroying the empire is exactly what would happen.

The man who led the sack of Rome was a Goth by the name of Alaric. Almost everything about him and his vast number of followers subverted the Roman concept of a ‘barbarian’. He was no mindless, irrational thug, but a Christian and a man of his word. His troops were no hot-headed, marauding horde, but an organized and efficient army. They besieged Rome not for immediate, smash-and-grab looting of gold and treasure, but with foresight, with a view to executing a long-term plan. In short, Alaric the Goth, the barbarian, the sacker of Rome, was much more of a Roman. Extraordinarily, he had fought and trained in the Roman army and showed a strategic thinking and determined, calculating mind that resembled not barbaric invaders but the greatest Roman generals – a Caesar or an Augustus, a Vespasian or a Constantine. In one respect, though, he was very un-Roman. The sack of a foreign city would not, for him, rate as a success or victory, but as a complete and utter failure.

This is the story of how ambition, betrayal and internecine conflict felled the greatest city of the ancient world. The same themes on which Romulus had founded Rome some 1200 years earlier would come back to haunt the city once again at the very moment of its destruction.

BREACHING THE EMPIRE

AD 376. The Roman empire had for over a decade been unofficially divided into two halves. The emperor Valens ruled in the east from Constantinople, and the emperor Gratian ruled from the imperial capital of Milan. In that year, however, Valens was not to be found in his eastern seat of government. He was closer to the frontier of the Roman east, in Antioch, trying to put out a fire: King Shapur, the leader of a resurgent Persian empire, was threatening the eastern Roman border. Valens was channelling all the resources he could to face the threat. Huge numbers of the eastern army at his disposal were being deployed, and to feed them, Valens was taking a bigger cut of the agricultural tax. In the mid-fourth century the economy and manpower of the Roman empire were robust enough to sustain such demands. What the empire was not prepared for, however, was a dramatic chain of events taking place on its border in the northeast. On the river Danube, at some point between modern Bulgaria and Romania, the Roman empire was about to witness the greatest refugee crisis of the ancient world. It would also find itself fatally exposed.

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Facing the rushing expanse of the Danube, perhaps as many as 200,000 Goths had gathered on Rome’s northern frontier. They were not an invading army, but a nation of Gothic families – men, women and children seeking asylum en masse. They had come in their wagons, with their livestock, ploughs and whatever possessions they could carry – chairs, hides, wheelmade pottery, silver drinking vessels and utensils of bronze and iron. On reaching the border, they had camped out on the northern bank of the broad river, and their leadership had sent an envoy humbly asking permission from the emperor Valens to cross the frontier and live in his dominions.2 They had come because they had been forced to: life outside the empire’s northern borders had become too dangerous. They had been hounded out of their lands along the northwestern shores of the Black Sea and south of the Carpathian mountains (see map, page 373). These were lands that they had occupied because it was here they could settle, establish their farms and benefit from the economies of the client-states of Rome – the communities in the regions bordering the Roman empire who traded with the Romans. However, in the year 376 the wealth of the lands the Goths had adopted had come under the envious eyes of others who wanted a slice of the action.

The people who had set the crisis on the Danube in motion, the people who were ‘the seed-bed and origin’ of the crisis, were the Huns. The best Roman historian of this period, Ammianus Marcellinus, describes them as abnormally ‘savage’, possessors of ‘squat bodies, strong limbs and thick necks’, a people ‘so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals’.3 A less partisan, more modern view, however, reveals that they were a nomadic people, expert in the use of the bow, who came from the Eurasian steppes. This was territory that stretched from Mongolia to the eastern margins of Europe. The poor quality of the land and the unfriendly weather conditions there dictated the people’s roaming way of life. Perhaps spying the wealth of the Black Sea region, the Huns had moved west, causing havoc by raiding and destabilizing Gothic territories en route. This was the ‘big bang’ moment – the moment that forced the Goths off their lands and on to the Roman empire’s frontiers.

In approaching Rome, however, the Goths, a nation of farmers, were taking a huge gamble. Seeking asylum was a decision they had pondered for a long time. It was true that the Roman empire represented a stable, developed economy, that life within its frontiers offered the chance for a better, more protected future than life outside. That old life was now overshadowed by the constant threat of assault from the Huns. Yet at the same time, in crossing the frontier they were putting their entire nation at the mercy of Rome; they were exposing themselves to a new potential threat – that of slavery or death. The Gothic leaders had eventually made up their minds: life under Rome would be the lesser of two evils. Cautiously they sent their request to Emperor Valens. Little did they know that they were not the only ones to handle the crisis tentatively.

In the east Valens should have been delighted by the news of the Goths’ arrival: they represented the prospect of raw recruits for the Roman army. Indeed, by filling the ranks with them, said the flatterers in Valens’s court, the empire would stand to make more money from the provinces. In place of the usual levy of troops, the eastern Roman court could ask the provinces to contribute gold instead. The truth, though, was very different. Valens and his advisers were more probably thrown into a complete panic over the situation on the Danube. With the bulk of the Roman army on the eastern frontier, the troops in the west were spread very thinly along its northern borders. The shortage of soldiers meant that far from being in control of the situation, the Romans were in no position whatsoever to police the refugee crisis. Nonetheless, Valens gave permission for one of the Gothic tribes to cross the Danube. Transported in Roman ships day and night, the Tervingi tribe was ferried across the dangerous rapids of the river, and poured over the frontier like ‘lava from mount Etna’. Meanwhile, the Roman forces available patrolled the river, keeping out the Greuthungi tribe. To those who made it over the border, however, it would quickly become apparent just how unprepared the Romans were for their arrival.4

During the winter of 376–7, while the Roman generals on the border waited for Valens to spare troops from the eastern frontier to help deal with the refugees, the Goths endured a long, agonizing delay. The sea of tents and makeshift homes on the Roman side of the Danube belied the horrendous conditions they experienced that bleak, freezing winter. Poor sanitation and a crippling shortage of food made their life hell. The Roman generals had no inclination to do anything about it. In fact, they were quite prepared to make it worse. Turning black marketeers, they seized an opportunity to make a quick profit out of the suffering ‘barbarians’. In exchange for slaves and even children of some of the poorer Gothic citizens, the Roman generals gave the starving refugees fresh food. The Goths who had traded must have been doubly revolted to discover that they had bartered away children for dog meat.5

Tensions between Roman and barbarian quickly reached boiling point. In order to prevent the crisis spiralling out of control, the chief Roman general ordered the Goths to move on to the Roman regional base at Marcianople. However, he did not have enough soldiers both to police the frontier and to accompany the Tervingi Goths. The Greuthungi Goths, realizing that the border was no longer being patrolled, secretly crossed the river in makeshift rafts and canoes made from hollowed tree trunks, and thus slipped quietly into Roman territory. With the Greuthungi following at a significant distance behind, the Tervingi and the Greuthungi reached Marcianople. They were, however, in for another nasty surprise.

The majority of the Goths were kept outside the walls of the town by Roman soldiers. Inside, the Roman generals invited the ‘barbarian’ leaders to a sumptuous dinner. Perhaps in a bid to throw the Goths into confusion and thus seize control of the situation, the Romans made a botched attempt to assassinate the Gothic leaders. For the Goths, after their months of misery, this was the last straw. When their people outside Marcianople heard about the assassination attempt they were incandescent with rage. Hearing the riotous fury outside, the Gothic leaders thought quickly on their feet: they told the Romans that if they pressed ahead and killed them, there would certainly be a war. Only by setting them free could that be avoided.

Given the shortage of troops, the Romans were forced to release the Gothic leaders. But this was the most disastrous of all outcomes. The masses of refugees were not only starving, but utterly alienated and seething with anger. Once reunited with their angry, disenchanted leaders, the refugee Goths quickly overcame the Roman soldiers guarding them and pillaged Marcianople. War had been declared.

The war took place between 377 and 382, and the battlefield was the Balkans. Valens made a hasty peace with the Persian king, released whatever forces he could from the eastern frontier and raced to tackle the Goths. Although the conflict was unfolding in his half of the Roman empire, Valens nonetheless called upon the western emperor to help. Gratian agreed, but was unable to release his army immediately; he was preoccupied with securing the middle Danube from a further breach in the frontier made by a Germanic tribe called the Alamanni. During this delay, the Goths raided freely just to survive, and the people of Thrace bore the violent brunt of Roman inaction. Soon, however, the Goths would be brought into line again. It would not be long before they faced the full force of the Roman army.

The great conflict between the Goths and Valens’s troops turned on the events of 9 August 378. The battle was fought at Hadrianople (modern-day Edirne in Turkey) and it was riven with mistakes from the start. As the weeks of the summer passed and Gratian’s army failed to appear, Valens’s troops grew demoralized. Then, when the Romans believed they had the Goths in a position to engage them in battle, a fateful Roman council of war was called. Valens’s generals informed him that the enemy army was much smaller than it really was. Furthermore, while some officers advised caution, others did not. The latter were in belligerent mood, and in order to get their way, they knew how to press the emperor’s buttons. Valens was jealous of Gratian’s military success in the west. This was his chance, they now told him, to show what the eastern empire was made of. Valens had long ago run out of patience waiting for Gratian to arrive. Now, piqued and prodded by his hawkish generals, he decided to go it alone, to deal with the Goths once and for all. His advisers were right, he believed: he really did not need Gratian.6

After a forced march of eight hours over rough country and under a scorching August sun, Valens’s army was given neither food nor rest. All the soldiers received was the order to advance. When the two sides clashed, Valens and his men discovered to their horror that the Goths were no bedraggled barbarian horde. They were an organized, well-equipped and disciplined army 20,000 strong. The wings of the Gothic cavalry immediately wiped out the Roman left wing. Then the Goths brought all their power to bear on the Roman centre. Close-packed and with their shields raised, the Romans were too huddled together to draw their swords and use them to any effect. In addition, a cloud of dust blew up above the place where the fighting was at its fiercest and camouflaged the javelins and spears that rained down upon the Romans. The enemy fire was picking them off one by one.

Exhausted and confused, the soldiers of the Roman army thrust with their swords as best they could without any purpose or plan. Some killed their own men. Eventually, the Roman line gave way and the massacre reached its climax. By nightfall even the emperor’s bodyguard had been murdered, and Valens himself had been mortally wounded. What was unthinkable to the Romans had actually come to pass: a barbarian force had cut the heart out of the eastern Roman army, which had vastly outnumbered it. The principal general, no fewer than thirty-five military tribunes and perhaps as many as 13,000 soldiers had all died. The battle of Hadrianople was the worst Roman defeat at the hands of a foreign enemy since Hannibal’s annihilation of the Romans at the battle of Cannae nearly six hundred years earlier. By the time Gratian arrived on the scene, there was nothing to see but a field dark with blood and covered with Roman corpses.

The defeat sent a shock wave throughout the Roman world. Hadrianople had smashed the idea of an invincible Roman empire. Its integrity had been breached, and Rome would never get it back again. Goths were now the conquerors of the Balkans, free to roam as they pleased, free to stay. A region of the empire had been lost, but the reality of a Gothic nation camped out on Roman territory presented an even more threatening situation. The Goths continued to war with the Romans for six years and the result was the ravaging of the countryside, the wiping out of agricultural produce and the erosion of the empire’s tax base. A diminished tax base spelt a reduction in imperial expenditure on the army – bad news when two-thirds of the money paid into the imperial treasury was usually spent on the military. The bottom line revealed a truly bleak state of affairs: the circumstances in which the emperors of Rome most needed the army occurred at exactly the moment when their ability to pay for it was most under threat. Something had to be done.

Valens’s successor as emperor of the east was Theodosius I. He raised a new army, but that too was defeated. Having utterly failed to overcome the Goths in war, on 3 October 382 he was forced to talk peace. The terms of the treaty agreed with the Gothic leaders allowed the tribes of the Tervingi and the Greuthungi to settle in the Balkans, not as Roman citizens but as virtually autonomous allies of Rome. In Constantinople a spokesperson for Theodosius’s regime put a positive spin on the peace, casting it as a victory. The Goths, he said, had exchanged war for farming. The reality was very different. Throughout Roman history it had always been the Romans who controlled whether to accept immigrants or not. If they did, it was because the barbarian had sufficiently prostrated himself and abjectly begged to be a part of the empire and the Romans had benevolently, powerfully bestowed the gift of admittance.7 In 382, however, it was the immigrant Goths who, to a large part, had dictated terms to the Romans. The balance of power had shifted, but it would soon shift again.

Despite Roman attempts to treat the Goths fairly and equally, the Goths suspected that their improved status in Roman eyes was only a temporary measure. Indeed, they believed that the Romans were secretly looking for any excuse to undo the peace agreement. Their suspicions centred on the one clause in the treaty that made the peace so uneasy: should the emperor call upon them, significant parts of the Gothic army were required for service in the Roman army. Might the Romans use this to weaken the barbarian allies? In the minds of many Goths those suspicions were about to be resoundingly confirmed.

In early September 394, by the river Frigidus in modern-day Slovenia, Theodosius I had amassed a huge Roman army. The ranks of soldiers were lined up to face the rebellious forces of Eugenius, a usurper of the western empire. Before attacking, Theodosius placed the Gothic contingent, several thousand men strong, in the vanguard of the assault. When battle was joined, the Goths inevitably suffered the worst of the casualties on a calamitous first day of fighting. Although Theodosius eventually won the battle, for the Goths it was an overwhelmingly pyrrhic victory: approximately 3000 of their men are understood to have died. What further proof was needed, the Goths asked themselves, of the plain truth that the Romans considered them nothing but expendable, second-rate citizens?

One of the Gothic leaders who voiced the widespread discontent had been a mere boy when the Goths first crossed the Danube in 376. In 394, at the battle of Frigidus, he was the young general in charge of the Gothic allies fighting alongside the Romans. In the following year, when Theodosius I died, he was appointed leader of the united Tervingi and Greuthungi tribes. His name was Alaric and his message was clear. The Goths would avenge their catastrophic losses at Frigidus; they would fight until the treaty of 382 was rewritten; they would fight for a better, more secure future.

The very same force that was once at the service of Rome and that had secured the key Roman victories at the end of the fourth century, was now about to be turned against it. But there was one man who would stand in Alaric’s way. He was a Roman general who had also fought at the battle of Frigidus – as Alaric’s colleague. Intriguingly, however, Flavius Stilicho would become not only Alaric’s great nemesis, but also his lifeline and ultimately his ally.

ALLIANCE OF ENEMIES

Before he died at the start of the year 395, the emperor Theodosius I wanted to establish a new imperial dynasty. He made his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, emperors of the east and west. However, Arcadius, the ruler of the east, was only seventeen years old, while Honorius, the emperor of the west, was just ten. The man Theodosius turned to on his deathbed and asked to act as the boys’ guardian was his most successful and distinguished general – Flavius Stilicho. Stilicho, however, was not a typical Roman.

While his mother was Roman, his father, a cavalry general, was a Vandal. The Vandals were a Germanic people who possibly came from the Przeworska culture located in modern-day Poland. Through his extraordinary achievements on the battlefield under Theodosius, Stilicho had risen to the highest ranks of Roman politics, had become the emperor’s chief adviser and had married his niece. His official title was magister militum – commander-in-chief of the Roman army. At the end of the fourth century the people who had risen to the top of the army were also the top politicians of the day and the most influential figures in the imperial court. So when Theodosius died, Flavius Stilicho, a soldier of Vandal origin, became the most powerful man in the entire Roman world. In both east and west, he was the empire’s effective ruler.

Although we don’t know much about his character, one incident suggests that he was a man of considerable tenacity and ambition. While his regency over Honorius, the emperor in the west, was accepted, Stilicho claimed that he was also regent to Arcadius in the east. We have only Stilicho’s word that this was Theodosius’s dying wish because he alone was present at the old emperor’s deathbed.8 It is possible that Stilicho made it up in order to maintain the unity of the empire that Theodosius had brilliantly but briefly resurrected. If that was Stilicho’s ambition, it was short-lived. As soon as Arcadius was settled in Constantinople, the imperial court officials in the east refused to be ousted by a mere Vandal in the west, and intrigued for control of the young man. Stilicho was forced to shelve his ambitions in the east and to focus, for the time being, on guiding Honorius and governing the west. Within a few years of his charge’s accession, he married Honorius to his own daughter. Over the next thirteen years Stilicho would become like a father to the young emperor. Indeed, the young man on the throne was going to need Stilicho’s firm grip to retain it. The rumble of war was building once again to a crescendo. Alaric had begun his rebellion.

Under Alaric’s leadership, the Goths first set their sights on forcing the eastern empire into a new deal. To help encourage Arcadius’s court to come to the negotiating table, Alaric decided to apply some pressure. Departing from their base in Bulgaria, the Goths ransacked their way through the Balkans, into Greece and along the Adriatic coast. The display of violence paid off and a deal was soon forthcoming, but it did not last. When the conciliatory court official responsible for brokering the deal with Alaric was toppled by more hawkish colleagues, the agreement was torn up. Reaching a dead end, Alaric decided to exploit the division in the Roman empire, to play one side off against the other. He turned the full firepower of his army on the west, and in 402 invaded Italy. Perhaps, thought Alaric, force would prove more fruitful there.

Alaric’s demand was simple: long-term legal recognition for his people. This he wanted to achieve in two ways. The first step was his appointment to magister militum because he hoped that this high-ranking military position would help him make the Gothic allies legitimate and equal partners in the Roman army. The second step was a food subsidy. He wanted Stilicho, his former comrade in arms, to grant the Goths part of the agricultural produce from the region they had settled. It was to be levied as a tax dedicated to the Goths. Stilicho, however, had other ideas. He was not about to give in to these demands; he was not prepared to stake his entire political career on a peace with the Goths just because they were prepared to put a knife to the western empire’s throat. It was not a political gamble he wanted to take.

As a result, the armies of Stilicho and Alaric clashed on two occasions, but in both battles there was no decisive outcome. Negotiations by war seemed to have reached stalemate. Cut off from his food supplies and with no victories to his name, Alaric was forced to make a weary, miserable retreat from northern Italy back to the Goths’ base south of the Danube in modern-day Bulgaria. His policy to get a better deal from Rome seemed to be going nowhere fast. He could not then have imagined how, within a few years’ time, all that would change. In 406 Stilicho was prepared to make a pact with the devil.

Stilicho sent his negotiator, Jovius, to Alaric: the regent ruler of the west had a message for him. It revealed that, far from thinking the Goths were a thorn in his side, Stilicho now saw them as the key to fulfilling his plans. He wanted to kill three birds with one stone. First, he wanted to grant the Goths the legal rights to the land they occupied. If he did this, he would achieve his second aim, which was to use the Gothic army to secure the northeastern Roman frontier from further invasion. However, there was a problem. The lands where Alaric and the Goths were settled – Dacia and Macedonia (east Illyricum) – belonged not to the western empire, but to the eastern half. If Stilicho were able to remove that province from the eastern imperial court through a display of military muscle, he would gain a third advantage – an excellent and much-needed recruiting ground for soldiers for the western army. And so, on behalf of Stilicho, Jovius proposed the following: in exchange for granting Alaric’s demands, the Goths would join forces with Stilicho and together they would march on the eastern empire. Alaric agreed.9 But just when peace between Romans and Goths was at last in sight, all prospect of it was hopelessly shattered.

Alaric waited for Stilicho’s army, but it never arrived. A year passed and there was still no sign of it. Stilicho had been detained by events way beyond his control. A second massive shock wave had been sent rippling through the Roman empire, leaving only chaos in its wake. The year 406–7 had just become a second critical moment in the collapse of the western empire.

In the space of approximately twelve months Stilicho had to confront not one but three crises in the west. All three events were provoked by a second wave of Hunnic raiders overrunning the lands to the northeast of the Roman empire. First, another Gothic king, Radagaisus, accompanied by a huge following, crossed the Danube and invaded Italy. He reached as far as Florence, where Stilicho met him and, with the best Roman army he could muster, overcame his forces. Radagaisus was executed and thousands of his troops were drafted into Stilicho’s ranks. Much more crippling, however, was the second crisis to swamp Stilicho: the breaching of the empire’s northern frontier by a new wave of barbarian invaders.

This group was made up of Vandals, Alans (a nomadic people from the Black Sea) and Suevi (a Germanic-speaking people who had long been based on the Hungarian plain). Together they crossed the river Rhine near the town of Worms in Germany, sacked the old imperial capital of Trier, wreaked havoc across Gaul, and eventually crossed the Pyrenees to reach Spain. Thus a second vast group of barbarians had breached the Roman frontier, ravaged Roman territory and had no intention of going back.

The third crisis originated with the army in Britain. At this time, the western Roman army consisted of garrison forces stationed along the frontiers, large field armies in Gaul and Italy, and smaller field units in North Africa and Britain. In 407, that army in Britain proclaimed the self-styled Constantine III as the rightful emperor of the western empire. When Constantine crossed over to Gaul and tried to stem the flood of the Vandals, Alans and Suevi into the west, his popularity soared and he won over the Gallic field army too. The provinces of Britain, Gaul and Spain thus fell into his control. It was a potent power base from which to launch an attack on Italy.

Under the impact of these three blows, the western Roman empire was on the brink of collapse. Stilicho was still in control of the large field army of Italy, the same force that had neutralized Radagaisus’s invasion. But while this army may have been sufficient to defend the country from the likes of Radagaisus, they were not strong enough, however, to attack either Constantine the usurper or the combined invading force of the Vandals, Alans and Suevi. And as for the proposed venture with Alaric’s Goths in the Balkans – that was now out of the question. Suddenly the great generalissimo of the west found his hands tied behind his back. The full effects of the crisis, however, were only just beginning to be felt.

Finding new forces to fight back required money. But at the start of the fifth century, money in the western Roman empire was in short supply. Now, in 406–7, with the western empire convulsed by both the arrival of tens of thousands of barbarian invaders and the seizure of Britain, Gaul and Spain by the usurper Constantine, tax revenues in those provinces were, for the time being, as good as lost. Money was scarcer than ever before: only Italy, Sicily and North Africa were paying into the imperial coffers. Now the crisis was about to get worse. The Goths, tantalized by the prospect of Stilicho’s hand of peace, were beginning to get itchy feet.

After waiting over a year to pursue Stilicho’s planned attack on the east, Alaric knew full well that the alliance with the western Roman empire was slipping away once again. Nonetheless, he expected payment for maintaining his army at Stilicho’s request during that time. He therefore sent a message requesting 4000 pounds (1800 kilograms) of gold. It was money the west could ill afford. To put teeth into his request Alaric advanced his army closer to Italy, pitching camp in Noricum (modern-day Austria). When the request reached Stilicho, he travelled to Rome to consult the emperor Honorius and the Senate about what to do. The matter sparked a furious, barnstorming debate.

The majority of the senators offered a succinct and brutal response to Alaric’s invoice. It merited nothing less, they said, than a declaration of war – a war to wipe out the threat of the wretched Goths once and for all! Stilicho’s, however, was the voice of restraint: we must pay the money, he said, and maintain our peace with the Goths. This controversial position only caused more of a furore. Why on earth, the senators demanded to know, should Rome suffer the dishonour and shame of paying such a vast sum of money to these miserable barbarians? Stilicho’s reply was plain: it was as a result of his alliance with the Goths. This had been agreed with a view to winning back for Honorius the critical province of east Illyricum from the eastern court. It was also intended, he reminded the right honourable senators, to settle the Goths, bolster the northeastern frontier and rejuvenate the depleted army with new recruits.10

This was the policy on which Stilicho had staked his political clout in 406. Now, in the crisis enveloping the western empire, he had to stick with it. Rome had no choice. Beneath the debate there lurked an impasse. While the majority of senators advocated war, Stilicho knew full well that the western empire had no forces with which to fight the Goths. Stilicho, it was becoming clear, was right to advocate paying Alaric. One hawk, called Lampadius, conceded to Stilicho’s policy, but accepted defeat ungraciously. ‘This,’ he cried out, ‘is not a peace but a pact of servitude!’11 However, there was another man present in the Senate who was quietly prepared to take the long view.

Olympius was an insidious senator, a highly ambitious courtier and the unofficial leader of the hawks in Honorius’s administration. As he watched the debate go Stilicho’s way, he could console himself that as soon as the threat from Constantine III had been dealt with, the full western Roman army of Britain, Gaul and Italy could regroup and fight the Goths another day. Indeed, it is easy to imagine why Olympius’s thoughts might have drifted to the future. The emperor Honorius was still young, suggestible and weak. He had known only the flatteries of court life and nothing of the real world. Stilicho’s hold over him was slipping away day by day. Yes, it was true that the great general had won the debate in the Senate, but he had done so at the cost of expending all his reserves of political capital. To Olympius, the high-wire act of Stilicho’s Gothic policy was looking decidedly perilous. It was only a matter of time before he lost his balance. Olympius would soon be proved right.

When Honorius’s brother Arcadius, the eastern Roman emperor, died in 408, Stilicho fell out with his adolescent charge. Honorius said that, as western emperor, he wanted to go to Constantinople and arrange affairs for the smooth hand-over of power. Stilicho disagreed. Perhaps he believed that Honorius was too inexperienced to take on such a responsibility. Perhaps he was simply unwilling to surrender the power to which he, as the young emperor’s guardian, had become accustomed. No, insisted the general, he was the one who should go to Constantinople. The reason? There was no money to pay for the imperial entourage to travel east. What’s more, said Stilicho, the situation in the west was too precarious. With Constantine III so close in Arles, Italy needed Honorius. Bruised, bitter and sulking, Honorius gave way. As soon as Stilicho had gone, Olympius spied his opportunity and moved in for the kill.

With an affected display of modesty and Christian rectitude disguising the fork in his tongue, Olympius sidled up to Honorius as they travelled together to review the army at the military headquarters in Ticinum (modern-day Pavia). Perhaps he reminded the emperor of the crisis the west was in. Constantine in Gaul was virtually on Italy’s doorstep; the Vandals, Alans and Suevi were making themselves at home in Spain; and Alaric and his army of Goths were at a loose end, still hovering menacingly in Noricum. This, he would have argued, was the fault of one man and one man alone: Stilicho. To cap it all, that same man was once again pursuing his ambitions to control the east as well as the west – just as he had tried to do from the start of Honorius’s reign. He had gone to the east, said Olympius, not to manage the situation there, but to seize the ‘opportunity of removing [Arcadius’s chosen successor] the young Theodosius, and of placing the empire in the hands of his own son, Eucherius’.12

Stilicho had been the closest thing to a father that Honorius had known. The emperor was, of course, married to Stilicho’s daughter. Nonetheless, Olympius seemed to be winning over the young man’s attention. If there was any residue of feeling for his old guardian, the uncertain, peeved Honorius probably did not show it. Olympius would now have had one final argument up his sleeve, one final dagger to plunge. Let’s not forget, he perhaps suggested, that Stilicho himself is one of ‘them’ – a barbarian.

It would have been quite normal for someone like Olympius to use such a tack in casting a slur on a man’s character. The old, deeply ingrained prejudice of the Romans was a reworking of Aristotle’s view of human nature and ran as follows. All humans were made up of rational and animal elements. In Romans the rational element was dominant. It gave them the capacity, in war and politics, for foresight, for holding strong under pressure and determinedly persevering towards an agreed goal in spite of short-term failures encountered along the way. In barbarians, by contrast, the animal element was dominant. They were rash, fearful, disorganized. They were prone to panicking and losing their heads in the face of adversity, victims of the slightest vicissitude of fortune.13Above all, as Olympius no doubt pointed out, they were not to be trusted.

Honorius remained for four days at Ticinum, rallying and encouraging the soldiers for the fight against the rebel Constantine. During his review of the ranks, Olympius maintained his show of Christian piety by visiting the sick and the wounded from the recent military engagements with the usurper. In reality, he was doing no such thing. Among the officers whom he could trust he was spreading the same insinuations he had made to Honorius: the Romans, he whispered, needed to be rid of the barbarians once and for all – and who better to start with than Stilicho? It was all part of a covert, carefully organized plan to reverse Stilicho’s policy of pragmatic toleration towards barbarians and end his influence. But the subtlety of Olympius’s infiltration of the Roman army disguised the utter brutality of his desired effect.

On Honorius’s last day at Ticinum, Olympius gave the signal. The soldiers who were in on the plan turned on Stilicho’s allies in the army and the imperial court and started killing. To the shock and horror of many, a bloody military coup had come from nowhere and was now raging viciously. Unsuspecting commanders of the cavalry and infantry, prefects of the court, magistrates, treasurers, heralds and stewards of the emperor were all murdered for their association with Stilicho. If they tried to escape, they were swiftly hunted down. Honorius could do nothing about it. He rushed out of the palace dressed in no more than his undergarments and a short cloak, ran into the city centre and shouted out unheeded orders to stop. Ticinum was in chaos. But it was only the beginning.14

In his proposed journey east Stilicho had got no further than Bononia (Bologna), 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Ticinum. Perhaps, for reasons that are not clear, he never intended to go to Constantinople.15 When he heard news of the mutiny at Ticinum, he was distraught. He immediately called a council of some soldiers who had accompanied him. These were the recently drafted Goths from the army of Radagaisus. It is revealing that these ‘barbarians’ were now the ones who were determined to place their loyalty with Stilicho and the Roman emperor. It was decided that if the emperor had been killed in the mutiny, Stilicho’s force of 12,000 Goths would march on Ticinum and punish the Roman soldiers who had carried out the atrocity. When news arrived that the emperor was safe, however, the plan was dropped. The general knew that inflicting heavy losses on the military establishment of northern Italy would only open the door to either Alaric or Constantine III. Indeed Stilicho, the dutiful officer, faithful to the status quo and to the integrity of the western Roman empire, had no intention of upsetting the balance between Romans and barbarians by inciting his largely Gothic Roman soldiers against native Roman soldiers. It was simply not the honourable thing to do. He had devoted his entire career to achieving just the opposite and he was not going to change now.

Eventually he decided to return to Ravenna, Honorius’s preferred imperial capital, and to confront the new situation.16 As he made his way there, he had perhaps already guessed that he could no longer trust Honorius’s friendship. However, he was not expecting quite such a cold welcome. Olympius, now ‘master of the emperor’s inclination’, had sent out orders to soldiers at Ravenna to arrest Stilicho at the earliest opportunity. Getting wind of this on the night of his arrival, Stilicho took refuge in a church. He knew that no one could touch him there. What’s more, the sanctuary would give him valuable time to talk with the allies and friends who had accompanied him and to work out what to do.

The following morning Olympius’s soldiers came knocking on the church door. They presented the bishop with a letter from Honorius permitting them to put Stilicho in custody. They swore to the bishop that Stilicho would not be killed. Against the wishes of his allies Stilicho agreed to leave the church, but as soon as he did so a second letter was produced. It pronounced that for his crimes against the western empire, Stilicho was to suffer the punishment of death. The throng of Stilicho’s supporters went mad with fury and promised that they would find a way to rescue him. In an angry, menacing tone of voice, Stilicho told them to stop such talk. It would only make the situation worse. With that, he calmly submitted himself to the soldiers, laid bare his neck and was beheaded on 22 August 408.17

The violent fallout from Stilicho’s death was as devastating as it was clinical. Olympius damned all memory of his predecessor by extracting false accusations against him under torture. His chosen method was to have his victims bludgeoned. In this way he forged evidence that Stilicho ‘coveted the throne’.18 Stilicho’s son, some of his relatives and all his remaining allies in the army and administration were murdered. His daughter, the emperor’s wife, was lucky; she was unceremoniously removed from Honorius’s presence and sent to live with her mother. The tentacles of the purge reached as far as Rome. Olympius ordered the confiscation of all property from those who had held any office under Stilicho. The soldiers in Rome took this as their cue, indeed, as their licence, to vent some repressed rage. They raided houses both in Rome and in cities up and down Italy, and fell upon every man, woman and child of barbarian origin, slaughtering them in their thousands. The purge had now become a massacre, an ancient Roman pogrom.

One contemporary historian’s epitaph for the dead general described him as ‘the most moderate and just of all the men who possessed great authority in his time’.19 Perhaps he had been overly ambitious for power, but this ambition was focused on the preservation of the western state. Stilicho’s great virtue had been his loyalty – to emperor and to Rome. Apart from being Rome’s greatest general in the late Roman empire, Stilicho was the lynchpin of relations between Roman and barbarian. He had seen that accommodating and Romanizing the Goths was the key to maintaining the future and, above all, the military security of the western Roman empire. Once he had gone, that policy vanished with him. Olympius’s hawks shrieked for war.

The massacre, however, had not accounted for everyone. Some 10,000 Gothic soldiers from the army of Radagaisus had escaped the pogrom. They turned to the only person who would offer them sanctuary – Alaric, in the mountains and hills of Noricum. When they reported the horrific news from Italy, Alaric knew that the tables were turning against him once again. With the death of Stilicho, he knew he had lost not just his once great adversary, but also his greatest ally. With a wholesale change of personnel at the western court complete, he knew he had also lost his greatest hope for peace. When his initial offers for terms were rejected by the new regime, the sheer callousness of Honorius’s rejection must only have added salt to the wound.

Faced with a new deadlock, Alaric was left with only one option. It was the option he least wanted: to use force, to take the dagger of his Gothic army – now swollen to 30,000 soldiers – and place it at the throat of the western Roman empire. At the end of the calamitous year 408, Alaric invaded Italy. This time he was not going to leave without getting what he wanted.

ALARIC’S PEACE

In quick succession the northern Italian towns of Aquileia, Concordia, Altinum, Cremona, Bononia, Ariminum and Picenum all fell to the Goths under Alaric’s furious assault in the autumn of 408. However, there was one city that the Gothic leader omitted: the imperial seat of Ravenna. It was a natural fortress, which was why Honorius had retreated there even though Milan was the imperial capital of the west. For the same reason Alaric decided that, even with his substantial army, he could not take his fight directly to the emperor. Rome, the revered ancient capital of the old Roman empire, would be a much softer target, a much more attractive hostage to take. By November Alaric’s army had surrounded the city. Forces were garrisoned outside each of the thirteen gates, and a blockade of the Tiber cut off the city’s access to its port at Ostia, and thus its grain supplies from North Africa. A neat, hermetically sealed siege of the ancient treasure chest of the western empire would, thought Alaric, be the best way to hurt Honorius.

Within a matter of weeks, the city-state that had ruled the known world, the home of the ancient gods, the God of the Christians and the Senate, became a tomb, a desolate, morbid ghost town. Gothic boats patrolled the river, and sentry guards kept an eye on every inch of the city’s walls. Inside those walls the daily food rations for the city’s inhabitants were cut by two-thirds, and people died in their thousands. Corpses could not be taken out of the city, so they littered the streets, their stench a miasmic mantle hovering over everything. As the winter drew closer, there were those who would turn to cannibalism. Only the wealthy could draw on secret reserves of food. While some, no doubt, desperately hoarded their goods, the wife and mother-in-law of Gratian, the former emperor of the west, were known for their philanthropic handouts.20 Among the well-to-do caught up in Alaric’s grip was someone whose presence in Rome would have added to the impact the siege had on Honorius in Ravenna. Galla Placidia was none other than the emperor’s sister. Despite this, however, the obstinate Honorius did not lift a finger to help Rome. Indeed, the first delegation the Gothic leadership received came not from Ravenna, but from two of the city’s leading senators. Far from being humbled by the siege, they were in a blustering mood.

The two men had a simple message for Alaric: Rome was armed and ready for a fight. ‘The thicker the grass,’ replied Alaric, ‘the more easily it is cut down!’ And with that he let out a big belly-laugh. He was not alone in finding the pathetic, pumped-up posturing of the senators amusing. When he had first reached Rome, Alaric had sent for reinforcements, and his brother-in-law Athaulf had duly arrived with additional forces of Goths and Huns. Perhaps Athaulf now shared in his brother’s joke.

Realizing that their diplomacy had got off to a disastrous start, the Roman envoys changed tack. They adopted a more modest tone and tried to find a way of ending the crippling siege. The Gothic brothers conferred. Yes, there was something that could be done to alleviate matters somewhat: all the city’s gold, silver, movable items and barbarian slaves resident in the city might do the trick. ‘But if you take all these things, what would be left for those inside the city?’ ‘Their lives,’ came Alaric’s cold, terse reply.21

Within days, a spectacular, unprecedented procession of wagons left the city of Rome. They carried 2250 kilograms (2 tons) of gold, 135,000 kilograms (13 tons) of silver, 4000 silk tunics, 3000 scarlet-dyed fleeces and 1350 kilograms (3000 pounds) of pepper. Since the imperial treasury in Rome was entirely empty, the senators had to pull every string, use every form of compulsion to levy the goods. Even precious statues from the ancient temples were melted down.22 In return, Alaric and Athaulf agreed that the siege be lifted for three days only. The ports and markets opened once again, food entered the city and Rome breathed a sigh of relief.

But while Athaulf perhaps rejoiced at receiving the treasure and enjoyed the sight of Goths dishing out to Rome her just deserts, the gold and other riches were not what Alaric wanted. True, he knew they were needed urgently in the short term: he had fresh recruits, as well as his original force of 20,000 men, to keep happy and loyal. He needed to reward them, to assure them of their prestige. But in the long term Alaric wanted Gothic prestige to take an entirely different form – a form much more durable than the transitory gleam of lucre. To that end he again approached the Roman senators. He had a little task for them.

While the siege was temporarily lifted, Alaric urged the senators to use the time wisely. They should go to Ravenna as his ambassadors and bring the emperor Honorius to the negotiating table. Alaric wanted to discuss terms for the one thing he really wanted, the one reason why he was besieging the city: a permanent peace and alliance with Rome. The senators duly set off.

At the emperor’s palace in Ravenna the senators found an imperial court unhappy and under the thumb of Olympius. Honorius had divorced his wife (Stilicho’s daughter) and had thus cut the last tie to the old regime of his dead father-in-law. Yet now that Stilicho was gone for ever, the emperor was perhaps realizing just how valuable he had been. Indeed, Stilicho’s skills as a general and a leader at the service of the empire were just what was needed now. Without them, none of the problems affecting the west had shown any sign of improving; in fact, they had just stagnated and grown worse. As a result, when the senators arrived at the imperial palace, the emperor was no longer willing to reject out of hand Alaric’s request for negotiation.

Honorius agreed in principle to a military alliance with Alaric. The details of land settlement, of a secure source of revenue, were not, for the time being, on the table. Nonetheless, the offer was an important step in the right direction. Or so it seemed. On closer inspection, Honorius’s response revealed the fingerprints of Olympius’s influence. Perhaps the emperor’s chief adviser had reminded him that the granting of a new land settlement spelt only more trouble. The tax revenues from Rome and Italy were already decimated thanks to Alaric’s ravaging of the peninsula. Any further handing over of land to the Goths would only make matters worse: no land meant no tax revenues; no money meant no army; and no army, perhaps suggested Olympius, rising to his theme, meant no empire. Ultimately, the greatest advantage of the non-committal agreement was that it bought the emperor more time. He could profitably expend this precious time trying to gather the Roman forces to face Alaric on an even military footing so that he would never have to honour the agreement anyway. So, while promising much, the offer actually gave nothing away. Batting the ball straight back into Alaric’s court, Honorius dismissed the senators to Rome.

The Goth was delighted at the news. Peace, he believed, was within sight. Since his plan of besieging Rome seemed to be reaping rich dividends, he and his army agreed to withdraw from Rome and headed north. What Alaric had failed to realize, however, was a lesson he should have learnt long ago. He was trying to forge an alliance with people who believed he was nothing more than an uncouth barbarian leading an uncivilized rabble. The fact was that Honorius had no intention of honouring an alliance. As Alaric waited patiently in northern Italy for a proper agreement to come, the duplicity of the western court soon became painfully apparent.

Honorius had used the hiatus to try to reinforce the defences of Rome. He had dispatched to the city an élite corps of 6000 soldiers, the cream of the Roman army in Italy. Before they even reached Rome, however, Alaric’s men had spotted them. Immediately, Alaric amassed the totality of the Gothic army, sent it in pursuit and promptly wiped out all 6000 Roman soldiers. Later on there were further indignities for the imperial forces to endure. When Athaulf and a detachment of Goths stationed near Pisa were peremptorily assaulted by an army led by Olympius himself, they were taken completely by surprise. The Goths lost over a thousand men in the conflict, but as soon as they had reorganized, they revealed to the Romans the full extent of their numbers and fury. Olympius’s pathetic army retreated to Ravenna in disgrace.23

As the unscathed Roman soldiers beat their hurried, ignoble retreat and scurried through the Golden Gate of Ravenna, perhaps Honorius looked on from a window in his palace. The sorry picture threw the contrast between Olympius and Stilicho into stark relief. Shortly afterwards some eunuchs in the emperor’s court spied an opportunity for the kind of wholesale blood-letting common to autocratic regimes throughout history. In front of the emperor they accused Olympius of heaping more disasters upon the state. The emperor saw absolutely no reason to disagree. Indeed, disillusion quickly turned to anger. As if waking from a drug-induced stupor, Honorius was perhaps at last seeing things clearly; or perhaps he was just lurching petulantly from one ill-judged strategy to another. The sources don’t say. Either way, the young Honorius finally made a decision. As quickly as he had been adopted as the emperor’s unctuous chief counsellor, so Olympius was unceremoniously dumped.24

On a black winter’s night in Italy, some time in early 409, the signs that the future of the western empire had once again hit rock bottom were to be seen in three places at once. Somewhere north of Ravenna, in a dismal bid to save his life, the deposed, ruthless courtier Olympius was in flight to Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia) and anonymity. Further south, Alaric was wasting not a moment to vent his scorching fury. Perhaps vowing never again to be made a fool of, never again to be so roundly dishonoured and insulted by the Romans, he gave his army clear instructions to return to Rome, to put it again under siege, and to make the city suffer once more. Meanwhile, in the imperial palace of Ravenna, the forlorn Honorius was in despair. His hated enemy Alaric would soon be slowly strangling the life out of Rome and, while the Roman army in Italy was stretched to its limit in its failed efforts to deal with the Goths, day by day the usurper and self-proclaimed emperor Constantine III in Gaul grew in stature and power. Indeed, Honorius was at such a low ebb that around this time he even dispatched the purple imperial robes of office to his rival emperor and formally recognized Constantine’s claim to power. The real ruler of the west had clearly come to the depressing conclusion that he might, after all, need the armies of Britain and Gaul under the usurper’s command. And yet, despite the gloom, there was a glimmer of hope for Honorius.

It came in the forms of his Praetorian prefect, Jovius, and his most senior general, Sarus. The latter was a military commander of considerable experience, who had proved his abilities under Stilicho and Olympius. Indeed, the Italian army could still boast a total of 30,000 soldiers, and Honorius could rely on Sarus to lead them. But the general had another key quality: he was by origin a Goth, a nobleman, a man of the same stock as Alaric. The two men came from rival Gothic families, and it is very possible that Alaric had beaten Sarus to the leadership of the Goths in 395. That contest would not have been the clean-cut election of modern politics, but something closer to a blood feud, the vanquished possibly losing not just his chance to lead, but his family too in the victor’s cull of potential rivals. Sarus, rejected by his own, had taken his military skills to the emperor and the service of Rome.25 A Goth with a bitter, ancient grievance against the enemy of the emperor – who better to help Honorius outwit Alaric? Jovius, however, was even more key to the emperor’s future.

Jovius had been Stilicho’s chief administrative officer in Dalmatia. As such, his responsibility had been to help supply Alaric’s Goths and organize them for the planned joint attack on the east back in 406. Jovius was the man who had negotiated that old agreement between Alaric and Stilicho, the man who had spent days in the company of the Goth in Epirus (modern-day Albania), the man who could almost call Alaric his friend. Honorius now turned to Jovius and promoted him to chief adviser. Perhaps, thought the young emperor, there was a way out of this awful mess after all.

THE SACK OF ROME

The historian Zosimus tells us that Jovius was conspicuous for his ‘education’.26 He now used his wisdom, tact and diplomacy to advocate to Honorius the only viable solution to the spiralling crisis: peace with Alaric.

Jovius knew that Alaric had the western empire exactly where he wanted it. The Gothic army had an extraordinary force of 40,000, their numbers recently swollen by runaway slaves. That mighty force was surrounding Rome, and Honorius could do nothing about it. True, the Roman army in Italy could be deployed against them, but since their numbers were evenly matched a fight was far too much of a gamble – there could be no guarantee that the Romans would win. True, Honorius’s recognition of Constantine III had taken the sting out of his rival’s threats for the time being, but both he and Jovius were not yet prepared to capitulate the entire western empire to the usurper. By the spring of 409 Constantine III had elevated his sons to emperor, thus establishing a new dynasty, and had also established his ‘imperial’ seat at Arles in southern Gaul. He had his feet firmly planted on the doorstep of Italy. Should Honorius’s forces be weakened by Alaric, Constantine was ready to break in: to cross the Alps and add the remainder of the western empire to his swag bag of imperial domains.27 Honorius had decidedly run out of bargaining chips.

Alaric knew this too. So when Jovius sent a delegation to Rome informing him of the Roman about-face and inviting him and Athaulf to Ariminum (Rimini) near Ravenna to negotiate a settlement, Alaric was, most probably, not in the least surprised.28Although the worth of the emperor’s word and the meaningfulness of so-called Roman honour and justice had become seriously devalued commodities, he was nonetheless persuaded.

Admittedly, he had Rome under siege and had once again pinched an artery of the western empire, but he had no intention of executing his threat and sacking it. That would be futile and result only in failure: he would be forsaking the chance of a permanent, long-term peace for short-term gains that would only mean more running, more looking over his shoulder, more insecurity for his people. It would be the political equivalent of banging his head against a brick wall. Slowly he picked himself up, begged his disaffected brother-in-law to lend him his support, and together the disgruntled men headed north to meet Jovius. He was at last going to prise all he could out of the Romans.

Alaric put his terms on the table. He wanted an annual payment of gold, an annual supply of grain, and an agreement that the Goths could settle in the Roman provinces of the two Venetias (the region around Venice), Noricum and Dalmatia. His final term – a senior generalship for himself in the Roman army – would secure his influence at court and a voice to protect the interests of his people. The terms were dispatched to Honorius, and Jovius, Alaric and Athaulf awaited the emperor’s response. When it came back the letter was read out and at first it sounded promising. Honorius agreed to the corn and the gold, but he made no mention of the land question. And as for the generalship. . . Allow a barbarian a principal role in his government? No, that was absolutely out of the question!29

Alaric flew into a rage. Thumping his fist on the table, he threatened the immediate burning, sacking and destruction of Rome, and promptly marched out. Jovius left too, though for Ravenna, and more out of fear that the deal had blown up in his face. It took some days for Alaric to regain his composure. Finally, he asked some bishops to act as his emissaries and sent the emperor a radically revised offer. He did not want the money or the position, or even Venetia or Dalmatia. All he wanted, he said, was the measly province of Noricum for his people, a province that was ‘situated at the far end of the Danube, was continuously harried by invasions, and contributed little tax to the treasury’.30

This was an extraordinary moment. Here was a man who could have destroyed the western empire at the nod of his head, who had all the power and held all the aces. Yet he was prepared to sacrifice that power in return for a durable peace, a stable home and a permanent end to the suffering of his people. Ultimately, he wanted the Roman empire to survive just so long as his people had a place in it. Even Honorius was astounded. When the bishops read out Alaric’s offer, ‘everyone alike was amazed at the man’s moderation’.31 Incredibly, however, the callow, capricious emperor refused Alaric’s request. The sources don’t make clear exactly why. Perhaps in the end he preferred to sacrifice the city of Rome rather than come to terms with his enemy. Ultimately, he was prepared to allow even the city in which his sister was held hostage to be destroyed rather than suffer the humiliation of having to make the Goths Roman partners on Roman soil.

For the third time Alaric marched on Rome. Athaulf and his generals, snorting plumes of scorn and hatred for Honorius and the western empire, must have bayed for their leader to honour his threat. Alaric, however, was not going to attack yet. Admittedly, he had now given up on the western Roman emperor, but he was determined not to give up on the western Roman empire. In the summer of 409, to the problem of how to apply pressure without resorting to violence, Alaric devised a cunning solution. He recruited in Rome the help of an ambitious, patrician senator with a fondness for Rome’s ancient past and ideas above his station. The Goth sanctioned this man’s appointment by the Senate to the rank of emperor, and set up a new seat of power in the ancient capital to rival that of Honorius in Ravenna. As a result, in the summer of 409 there were, unbelievably, three ‘emperors’ in the west: Honorius, Constantine III and now Attalus. Alaric at last had a temporary place in the western Roman state: as Attalus’s commander-in-chief.

The bold plan certainly hurt Honorius. As Alaric’s army won over northern Italy to Attalus’s cause, Honorius was sent spinning into a panic. He even considered abandoning the western empire, and had some ships prepared to whisk him off to Constantinople. His resolve to face the enemy was given a much-needed injection of steel only when 4000 reinforcement soldiers from the eastern empire arrived just in time and defended Ravenna. Soon, however, perhaps urged by Jovius, Honorius came up with a way to counter the rebellion.

The province of North Africa, on whose grain supply Rome relied for food, was still loyal to Honorius, so the one legitimate western emperor simply ordered it to be cut off. Attalus’s brief, insubstantial regime quickly became discredited. Even Alaric, who had effectively promoted him to emperor, grew disillusioned with, and tired of, this irritating, pathetic mock-emperor. He stripped him of his imperial robes and sent them to Honorius to prove his change of strategy once again. In the end, Alaric took Galla Placidia, Honorius’s sister, hostage. Cocooned in Ravenna, the insensitive Honorius still turned a blind eye to the ancient capital on its knees. And still the Goth did not attack Rome.

Alaric’s decisiveness, his foresight and determination to achieve his vision are all the more astonishing because the stakes were now higher than ever. He had a new battle on his hands – this time with his own administration. Not to punish Rome violently for Honorius’s treatment of the Gothic nation encamped on Italian soil was a highly unpopular policy. Athaulf and others would have made their position clear: a treaty with the Romans was simply pie in the sky. The Romans could not even be trusted to keep their word! Athaulf and the restless administrators had reason on their side. Indeed, it was now so difficult to sell a policy of negotiation rather than force that Alaric’s leadership was on the line. Nonetheless, with the odds utterly stacked against him, he was prepared to stake all his quickly evaporating political clout on one final throw of the dice.

When he sent one last delegation to Ravenna little did he know it, but Honorius was, most probably, finally ready to make peace. A deal was on the table. But if Honorius and Alaric were expecting to resolve the great problem of the Goths by negotiation, their hopes were to be shattered in the most unexpected and tragic way. As Alaric, Athaulf and their detachment of Gothic soldiers made their journey north and reached to within 12 kilometres (7 miles) of Ravenna, they were ambushed by the Roman general Sarus. Alaric was completely stunned.

Unbeknownst to the emperor, Sarus had decided to act on his own initiative. He knew that any settlement between Alaric and the Romans would have completely jeopardized his own hard-earned position at the Roman top table. If there were to be an agreement, it had to involve him. If not, he would lose his position and probably his life. His attack also gave him a chance to settle an old score against his rival. Just at the moment when there was a real chance of peace between Roman and Goth, he was utterly determined to torpedo it. Acting out of spite and revenge a Goth, not a Roman, finally scuttled any chance of negotiation.

When Honorius heard the news of the ambush, perhaps he felt that the whole sorry episode proved his old prejudice: no barbarian, not even a Romanized one such as Sarus, could ever be trusted. Heading south, having narrowly escaped with their lives, Alaric and Athaulf too were licking the wounds of a prejudice they believed had been painfully confirmed. Honorius, they thought, had proved to be the same cowardly embodiment of deceit he had always been. They had been betrayed one last fatal time. In the heat of a mid-August day in 410 the Goths’ leaders returned for the final time to Rome.

Arranged in neat columns around the city wall was the most extraordinary sight: an army of 40,000 men, the equivalent of eight old Roman legions. The city had last been sacked by the Celts in 390 BC. Now, some eight hundred years later, a new force of soldiers thronged outside. The more senior commanders and noblemen wore helmets, body armour and short capes of wolfskin or sheepskin. Their swords would have been carefully engraved with herringbone patterns, sheathed in scabbards of wood or leather, and lined with fur. The ranks of Gothic soldiers had only the protection of their short tunics and trousers, and their armoury of shields, barbed javelins, bows and throwing axes.

The tall, graceful Athaulf felt vindicated. With his brother’s policy of reason utterly destroyed, he was in belligerent mood, urging on the ranks as they beat their weapons against their shields. The clatter that greeted Alaric as he left his tent to take command built to a crashing, unstoppable crescendo. Rome was utterly hamstrung, on its knees. Nearly two years earlier, Alaric had first raised the sword over the city’s neck. Now he let it fall. But when he gave the signal to attack, on 24 August 410, the proud, ambitious Alaric knew that he had failed.32

The city was easy to overpower. On the night of the assault somebody opened the Salarian Gate for the Goths. According to a later account, a noblewoman had taken the action out of a desperate desire to put the city out of its prolonged misery. More probably, whoever invited the Goths in had been bribed.33

Inside too there was little resistance: Rome had no army – only a small, ramshackle ceremonial guard. There is no detailed account of what happened over the next three days. What is clear is that in all the chaos there was a surprising level of order and restraint. This was not quite the uncivilized act of savagery by a barbarian horde one might have expected.

Alaric was not only a Christian, but a Christian who had been helped over the previous two years by bishops. Out of respect for them and his faith, the basilicas of St Peter’s and St Paul’s became places of sanctuary. With the exception of a massive silver Eucharist cup donated by Constantine, Christian treasures and the churches that housed them were respected and preserved.34 In contrast to the infamous Roman sacks of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC, in which wholesale destruction, mass slaughter, enslavement and looting were the standard, the sack of Rome was very un-Roman indeed. Nonetheless, although Alaric and his Goths may have been Christians they were not saints. They had come to plunder, to exact revenge.

Perhaps guided by the slaves who had defected to Alaric, Gothic squads searched the streets for the houses of the rich. When they found them they put the sharp blade of an axe at their victims’ heads and demanded all their gold, silver and treasures. The pagan temples were looted for movable statues and precious objects, and the treasures from the Temple of Jerusalem, the victims of a Roman sack some 350 years earlier, were stolen once again. Some Romans escaped to the places of asylum, but the many who resisted or could not flee were killed, tortured or beaten up. The stories of defiant heroic women who resisted rape, or who were battered but mustered the courage to protect another (found in the writings of Orosius, Sozomen and Jerome), suggest that for widows, married women and virgins quite the opposite was true.35

On the third day the Gothic army, its efficient and horrific work complete, reassembled. Some grand houses and public buildings – notably the mansion of Sallust, the Basilica Aemilia and the old Senate House – were set on fire. With the thick black smoke of this last act rising above the Salarian Gate, the Goths abandoned the battlefield of their ‘victory’ over the Romans. The army was laden down with loot, but Alaric, with no homeland and no peace, came away empty-handed.

EPILOGUE

The after-shock of the disaster reverberated across the breadth of the Roman world. In Jerusalem St Jerome lamented how, ‘In one city the whole world perished’.36 Pagans and Christians alike used the destruction of the Eternal City to score points. For pagans the sack was proof that once the traditional gods had been rejected and had left the city, so too had its protection. To St Augustine in North Africa, however, the lesson to be learnt was quite different. He met eyewitnesses who had fled to that province to escape the Goths, and what he learnt from them confirmed only one thing: Rome had been on a slippery slope of moral decline ever since the sack of Carthage in 146 BC. Without the fear of that Mediterranean power to keep it in check, Rome had free reign to indulge in the selfish passions of greed and domination. Now, in the sack of Rome, that process had come to its logical, revolutionary conclusion. All human, earthly cities – even the new Christianized Rome of Constantine – were transitory and ephemeral, concluded St Augustine.37 Only the City of God in heaven was eternal and supreme. The natural order of the world, the ancient scheme of things, anchored in the city that had dominated the Mediterranean world for hundreds of years had gone topsy-turvy.

The Gothic invasion of Italy, its culmination in the sack of Rome, and the western emperor’s utter inability to find a solution to the crisis had dealt the western Roman empire a critical death blow. But it was not knocked out yet. Certainly the facts painted a bleak picture. The barbarian grouping of Vandals, Alans and Suevi still occupied territories in Spain; Constantine III still had his ambitions and controlled Britain, Gaul and the rest of Spain; and Alaric’s Gothic nation was still in Italy. Yet the Roman state in the west had by no means fallen.

Indeed, against the odds, the western Roman empire would be pieced back together again. The architect of this extraordinary resurgence was a brilliant general and politician who took on the dual role of magister militum forged by Stilicho; he was the commander-in-chief of Roman forces in the west and, overshadowing the weak emperor Honorius, effective ruler of the western empire. Indeed, Flavius Constantius, an utterly ruthless career soldier born in Naissus (modern-day Nis in Serbia), was one of the last great leaders of the Roman world, an individual in the mould of Julius Caesar, a man who, by the mere fact of his existence, could turn the course of history.

First, Constantius’s hands were significantly freed when the Goths eventually left Italy. After the failure to negotiate a peace with Honorius, Alaric planned to make a home for the Goths in North Africa. However, before this could occur, the man who had promised so much met an anticlimactic end. Seized by a violent fever, Alaric died in 410 perhaps without having reached even his fortieth birthday. He received a Gothic burial fit for a king: the Busento river in Cosenza (in modern-day Calabria) was diverted, and in the river bed was dug a grave. Once Alaric’s corpse had been laid to rest in it, the dam was broken and the waters rushed over his dead body. The Roman captives who had carried out the burial were afterwards executed to keep its precise location a secret for ever. Athaulf now succeeded his brother, abandoned the plan for North Africa and, plundering Italy along the way, moved the Goths to southern Gaul in 412. In the hopes of coming to an alliance with the western court, Athaulf had brought with him a bargaining chip. The Roman princess Galla Placidia was still a hostage of the Goths and would soon become Athaulf’s wife and mother of his son. Should Athaulf succeed in winning a place at the imperial court, that child would be a potential emperor in waiting.

With strategic room to manoeuvre, Flavius Constantius finally moved the Roman army in Italy against Constantine III and defeated him. The usurper was captured, executed and his head taken to Honorius at Ravenna. With the Roman armies of Britain, Gaul, Spain and Italy united once more, Constantius now had the military muscle to seek a permanent settlement with the Goths – but on his terms. In particular, Constantius refused to make Athaulf an equal partner in the Roman administration. For Athaulf this was a deal-breaker. His obstinacy proved very unpopular when Constantius applied force and tried to starve the Goths into an agreement by blockading them at Narbonne (southwestern France). The Goths eventually toppled their leader, and a moderate successor agreed terms with Constantius. In 418 Alaric’s dream of a homeland for his nation was realized. The Goths were finally settled in Aquitaine in the Garonne valley of southwest Gaul (modern-day Bordeaux). In keeping with the return of advantage to Rome, Galla Placidia was handed back to Honorius and married off, against her will, to Flavius Constantius. Her son by Athaulf having died prematurely, she would, in due course, bear her new husband two children.

The final parts of the jigsaw were the Vandals, Alans and Suevi. Constantius now used his peace with the Goths to his advantage. Reinvigorating his Roman army with Gothic allies, he moved south to Spain, defeated the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, and brought the Iberian provinces back under Roman control. In the space of just ten years Constantius had brilliantly extricated the western Roman empire from the crisis that had nearly killed it. He pulled together once more all the threads of the western domains that a decade earlier had looked to be hopelessly untangling, and held them in the grip of his hand. In achieving this brilliant feat, however, there had been a high price to pay.

The years of looting and the ravages of warfare across the west meant that agricultural produce, and hence revenues, were down. With the Goths settled in Gaul, there was a much smaller area of provincial territory able to deliver tax into the imperial coffers. For example, the island of Britain, ignored by Constantius as his army focused on putting out fires in Gaul and Spain, was now detached from the western empire and lost for ever. Henceforth it could not rely on the protection by the western empire’s forces. As a result of such changes, there were few resources to rejuvenate a western army that had been reduced by almost half in the wars against the barbarians during the critical years of Honorius’s reign (395–420). Although the emperor remedied the western army’s huge losses by providing more units, the majority of these were not new field army units, but lower-grade auxiliary units that had been upgraded and reclassified. The money did not stretch far enough for anything more than a military facelift.38

The final hangover from the years of invasion was widespread disaffection among the provincial landowning élites. These were the local self-governing centres of power that organized tax-gathering, and on whom the imperial centre of the west depended for the task’s successful administration. They were not happy, and their disaffection centred on one simple fact. The emperor Honorius had not been able to keep his side of the bargain – to provide military protection for their property in exchange for the collection of taxes. After years of upheaval and diminishing security, it was becoming obvious that the ancient contract between emperor and local élite was slowly being torn up.39

This disaffection could easily turn to outright defiance. The train of thought perhaps ran as follows: if life under a Gothic or Vandal king would prove safer, if it offered the benefits of protection from war, and if it proved more conducive to sustaining their lifestyle, why bother to be part of the Roman empire at all? In the early fifth century cases of local élites breaking away from the centre were isolated, but this could and would become a trend. With five per cent of western Roman citizens owning 80 per cent of the land, the loosening of this old cornerstone of the Roman empire was a critical effect of the barbarian invasions – another hammer blow in the fall of the western empire.

Consequently, despite Constantius’s success, the same forces that had so rattled Italy under the impact of Alaric’s Goths had returned to wreak havoc on the western empire during Constantius’s years of regaining control. Like a convalescent from major surgery, the western empire was now well again, but it was a pale shadow of its former self. Soon it would have to find the strength to stomach further pummellings. The most fatal of these centred on the rich Roman province of Africa, the granary of the western empire.

In 421 Constantius, now appointed co-emperor, fell ill and died unexpectedly. When Honorius passed away two years later, a protracted struggle for power was let loose with one brief regime swiftly falling prey to the bloody cull of another. Eventually, Valentinian III, the six-year-old son of Constantius and Galla Placidia, was promoted to emperor. The real ruler, the man who had actually won the power struggle in 431, was a worthy successor to Constantius. Known as the last great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius had his hands full when he became commander-in-chief of the Roman forces. During the fight for succession, the regrouped and revitalized Vandals had crossed from Tarifa in southern Spain, landed in Africa in May 429 and began heading east. Either by assault or by treaty, they gradually took control of what is now Morocco and Algeria. By 439 they had captured the empire’s third largest city – Carthage. By taking this province, the Vandals had their hands at the west’s jugular.

In the early fifth century, Africa was the chief source of grain and revenue for Rome and Italy. Under Julius Caesar, 50,000 tonnes of grain in a year was shipped from Carthage, and since that time shipments had continued from the massive extended Roman docks there. For this reason Africa was the western empire’s lifeline. Now Aetius set about resuscitating it. During the 430s he had been detained from taking action against the Vandals by a new wave of barbarian invasions and rebellions in the western provinces. By 440, however, he had brought those under control, had won – through brilliant diplomacy – assistance from the eastern empire, and had amassed an extraordinary allied fleet in Sicily. The aim of the united forces of the eastern and western Roman empire was the reconquest of the key province of Africa. However, at the moment when Aetius should have given the order for the 1100-ship fleet to sail, the mission was suddenly abandoned. The eastern forces, said the emperor of the east, were urgently required back in his half of the empire because Constantinople was facing an invasion like no other. The decision to ditch the attack on North Africa would prove to be the last critical turning point in the collapse of the west. The man who had provoked it came from the very same people who, in 376, had sparked the first ‘big bang’ moment in the fall of the west, the first invasion of Rome’s northern frontiers. His name was Attila the Hun.

Just as the Huns began the story of the fall of the western Roman empire, so they end it. During his campaigns of the 430s, Aetius had temporarily engaged the services of the Hunnic forces. However, now, in 440, with their leadership united under Attila and their ascendant empire stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic and from Germany to the central Asian steppes, the Huns were back for much more than a lucrative military partnership. In two devastating sweeps through the Balkans in 441 and 447, Attila invaded the eastern empire and made a mockery of the Roman army’s resistance. The effectiveness of his forces came down not only to the use of the bow. The Huns were the first barbarian force to work out how to storm well-defended fortress towns. The secret of their success lay in the skilful use of siege engines, battering rams and scaling ladders, which they had simply copied from the Romans. By ransacking the eastern empire in this way, Attila was able to extort incredible amounts of gold out of Constantinople. In 451, however, he received an invitation to lay his hands on new riches. Allegedly enticed by a rescue plea-cum-marriage proposal from the rebellious sister of the emperor Valentinian, Attila turned his attentions to the west.

In perhaps the last great military encounter in the history of the western Roman empire, Aetius managed to pull together an army of Romans, Goths, Franks, Burgundians and Celts, and with it decisively defeated his enemy at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains (modern-day Châlons) in Gaul. At the Huns’ second attempt, however, in 452, Aetius could offer little resistance. Attila invaded Italy and sacked several cities in the north. His greatest triumph was the successful siege of the imperial capital of Milan, and in a moral victory he also forced Valentinian III to flee from Ravenna to Rome in terror. However, at the river Po disease and inadequate supply lines brought the Huns’ campaign to a stuttering halt and they eventually retreated. Attila died that same year. According to one source, he met his end not fighting but, bizarrely, on his wedding night. He had been feasting to celebrate his marriage to a beautiful Gothic princess by the name of Hildico, and after retiring to their nuptial quarters, the great Hunnic leader suffered a nosebleed and choked to death on his own blood.

As quickly as Attila’s empire sprang up, so it disintegrated after his death. By that time, however, the death blow to the west had been dealt. Aetius may have successfully seen off Attila, but he lacked the military firepower to take North Africa back from the Vandals. He did not live to see the proof of that stark fact. In return for brilliantly defending the western empire from the blistering assault of Attila’s forces, Aetius – the ‘last Roman’ – was thanked by Valentinian III with assassination in 454. The emperor was fearful and envious of his commander’s power. Over a decade after Aetius’s death in 468, the eastern empire made one final play for North Africa. In a sea battle off the coast of what is now Libya, however, the Byzantine fleet was roundly defeated by that of the Vandals.

After the loss of Africa, the only revenues the western empire could rely on were those of Italy and Sicily. These were not nearly enough to pay for an army large enough to dictate terms to the multitude of barbarians settled in the west: the Goths, Burgundians and Franks of Gaul, the Goths and Suevi of Spain, and the Vandals of North Africa. The balance of power between the Roman army and the forces of barbarians, between the western emperors and the barbarian kings had fatally, permanently shifted. The reality of where power now lay was most clearly pronounced in the accession in 455 of Emperor Avitus. The one thing that had secured his rise to ‘power’ was a military alliance with Theodoric II – a barbarian king. In due course, further treaties were struck between the imperial administration at Ravenna and the Goths and Vandals, whom the administration acknowledged, in effect, as legitimate possessors, inheritors and partners in the west. Bit by bit the remaining Roman territories splintered out of central control. The last breath of the western empire, however, was gasped in Italy.

By 476, the financial and military muscle of the central authorities of Italy were so limp, so withered that they were no longer able to maintain themselves let alone keep intruders firmly in check. The lines defining Roman and barbarian were becoming increasingly blurred, the histories of citizen and invader ever more fused. However some distinctions were still visible, some did still matter. Take Odovacar, for example. This man made the gentle transformation from top Roman general to Germanic king when he settled his Roman soldiers in Italy. Indeed, that little rump of the Roman army in Italy wasn’t really Roman either. The soldiers were Germanic mercenaries who, like their leader, came from the people of the Sciri. Odovacar had no money to give them, so he paid them with land – possibly as much as one-third of Italy once its current Roman owners had been booted off. There could be no clearer statement of who were now the successors to the old western empire.

Odovacar thus became sole effective ruler of Italy. With the loyalty of his settled Scirian soldiers, he had now secured his personal power base too. There remained one awkward distinction left to resolve – the small anomaly of Romulus Augustulus. The office of the western Roman emperor had long been a quaint tradition in the process of fossilization, the ceremonial appointee of some barbarian commander or king. Little Romulus, however, took this trend to a new extreme. He was a sixteen-year-old boy and the son of a usurping army commander recently toppled by Odovacar. He controlled nothing outside Italy, Odovacar controlled everything within it. Legitimacy, if it existed at all, belonged really to the man whom Romulus and his father had usurped, Julius Nepos, the last emperor to be formally recognized by the eastern emperor. So, why bother keeping Romulus? Indeed, why bother finding a replacement? Surely it would be better to send him back to his family in Campania, to give him a decent pension and to let him live in peaceful obscurity?

Taking the side of caution, however, Odovacar despatched an embassy to Zeno, the eastern emperor. Why didn’t Zeno take over sovereignty of both halves of the empire, proposed Odovacar, while the Germanic king administered everyday affairs in Italy? The suggestion posed an awkward dilemma. For Zeno, deposing Romulus was not a problem – Constantinople had never recognised him anyway. The problem was Nepos whom he had recognised. But while he realised that Nepos no longer held any sovereignty, the eastern emperor did not want to be the one who effectively sanctioned the handover of power to the Germanic king, the one who formally ended the western state. Chance, however, offered him a solution.

Coincidentally Zeno had in his possession a letter from Nepos. The usurped western emperor had written to Zeno to request his help in making a last bid for power, a last bid to win back the Roman state in the west. After some reflection, Zeno made two deft, sidestepping replies. To Odovacar he said that the king needed to offer his allegiance to Nepos because the last formally recognised western emperor was the only person who could legitimately acknowledge Odovacar’s status. To Nepos, however, he made an apology: he could not offer him any practical assistance in recovering the west. Such an endeavour, he implied, was utterly futile. And with that Zeno had accepted – without having to spell it out – that the western empire was lost and Odovacar had seized power

In Italy, with Romulus deposed, Odovacar tended to one last tidying up exercise. What to do about the ceremonial robes of office of the western Roman emperor? He was certainly not going to be wearing them. He was not a sovereign Augustus – that was not his role nor the basis of his power. He was happy to call himself king. No, perhaps the best place for them was in the east, with the emperor Zeno. A messenger was summoned and the imperial vestments, diadem and purple cloak were dispatched to Constantinople.

If Odovacar was tempted to see the occasion as momentous or somehow ominous, maybe he reassured himself that there could well be another emperor some time in the future. There might one day be the occasion for just such a leader, but there was certainly no need for one now, not in his Italy. The ancient Roman authority of an Augustus, the power which had created and ruled an empire for centuries and which was embodied in those imperial signs of office, was, at least for the time being, leaving the west.

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