`In one city the whole world perished.' - Bishop Jerome reacting to the sack ofRome in 410.'
At first he ardently desired to eradicate the Roman name and to make all the Roman territory an empire of the Goths in fact as well as in name, and that ... Gothia should be what Romania had been.' - Orosius, fifth century AD.'
he man who profited most from the fall of Stilicho was Olympius, a senior bureaucrat rather than a soldier, who headed one of the main government departments as Magister Officiorum. As usual, there was a bloody purge of men associated with the dead leader and the wives and families of the barbarian soldiers who had remained loyal to him were massacred. Most of the men who survived promptly deserted to Alaric. Stilicho's son was hunted down and killed, although the torture of suspects failed to provide any evidence to back the claim that his father had been plotting to make him emperor. Since the deal with Alaric had done so much to discredit Stilicho, Olympius and Honorius refused to honour the agreement and rejected new attempts at negotiation. Yet they also failed to prepare for war and could not prevent Alaric being reinforced by another group led by his brother-in-law Athaulf. Grand claims were made for the victory won over Athaulf by a party of 300 Huns sent by Olympius, but this did not hinder the union of the two Gothic armies.3
Alaric invaded Italy once again and was able to advance almost unopposed as far as Rome, which he blockaded in the winter of 408409. The Gothic army seized Portus, the great harbour town that supplied the city, and so cut off the bulk of its food supplies. Stilicho's widow Serena was now executed under trumped up charges of collusion with the enemy. It is even claimed that the nervous Senate wanted to revive public sacrifice and other pagan rituals in an effort to avert harm from the city. Zosimus claimed that the bishop of Rome - already more and more often known as the pope - grudgingly agreed as long as the rites took place in secret, but since this would have invalidated them nothing was actually done. The story is probably invented, but does give an idea of the fear pervading Rome at this time. Honorius and his ministers in Ravenna did nothing to help. Large numbers of slaves - most of them probably recently captured Goths, many in the war against Radagaisus - deserted to join Alaric's men. The Senate decided to negotiate, paying the Goths to end the blockade and sending a delegation to Ravenna to open talks between the emperor and Alaric. The latter was still hoping for official status within the imperial system and withdrew his army north to Ariminum (modern Rimini) where the discussions would take place.4
The talks failed within a matter of months. Olympius refused to grant Alaric a new command, but offered enough concessions to lose face and soon afterwards fled into exile rather than face execution. The new power at the imperial court was Jovius, a sometime associate of Stilicho, now praetorian prefect of Italy and chief negotiator with the Goths. With Olympius out of the way, Jovius became increasingly intransigent in the negotiations, blamingAlaric when these finally broke down. The imperial government similarly spurned further requests from him to be granted Noricum or a similar province even without a formal command. No doubt the emperor and his advisors were happy to see the reduced Gothic demands as a sign of weakness. The Goths marched south and once again blockaded Rome. This time Alaric decided on a new tactic and persuaded a distinguished senator and the current prefect of the city, Priscus Attalus, to allow himself to be proclaimed emperor at the end of 409. Although a pagan he was quickly baptised, for there was unlikely to be much support for an emperor who was not at least nominally Christian. Alaric was named as Master of Soldiers, while Athaulf received a lesser post, as did a number of men who were more obviously Roman - several senior senators were appointed in prominent roles.'
Africa, so vital for keeping Rome and Italy supplied with food, remained loyal to Honorius. Attalus showed that he was more than just a puppet by refusing to let Alaric send some of his Gothic warriors - one source claims just 500 of them - to secure the province, instead sending a Roman commander with regular troops. These were seriously defeated, so the new emperor and his Gothic commander led their main army back to Rimini to threaten Honorius more directly. The latter was nervous enough to consider accepting Attalus as an imperial colleague. For his part, the new emperor was determined to depose Honorius and send him into exile, possibly after being mutilated - rendering him unfit for the elaborate ceremonial central to the imperial role. The arrival at Ravenna of some 4,000 soldiers from the eastern army stiffened Honorius' resolve, making him confident that he could defend the city against attack. The talks broke down.'
After just a few months Alaric deposed the emperor he had made, although Attalus seems to have remained with him and been treated with some honour. He threatened Ravenna more directly, but any chance of fresh negotiations ended when Sarus, the Gothic officer in service with Honorius, launched a surprise attack on Alaric's men. It was probably no more than a skirmish, motivated as much by a personal vendetta as anything else, but it was enough to shatter any trust. Alaric withdrew and for the third time he marched against Rome itself. There had been little enough reward for his followers in recent years. The grain supply from Africa was most likely still interrupted, while the farmlands around Rome had been plundered twice by his own army when he had threatened the city before. This time he decided to reward the men with Rome itself.'
The city had no effective garrison, nor was there any real organisation to defend its high, but very long, circuit of walls. No one wanted to go through another long blockade, nor did Alaric want to keep his army in one place for the months required to achieve this. On the night of 23/24 August 410 the Goths entered Rome through the Salarian Gate. They were probably admitted, for this does not seem to have been a formal assault. For three days they plundered at will. Some houses and monuments were burned in the process, but Alaric had given strict orders to respect churches and the clergy. This restraint by the Arian Goths was widely praised by Christian writers, content for the moment to overlook their heretical doctrine. Churches went unplundered, priests in general were not killed and nuns not raped. Others were not so lucky. The sack of Rome was ordered, but it was still a sack, even if the inhabitants suffered no more than those of any city stormed by a Roman army in the long cycle of civil wars. Rome had shrunk in size and population since the early empire, but it was still vast. Sheer size meant that not everyone was robbed or maltreated, but that was little consolation to those who fell victim.
Alaric had rewarded his soldiers with massive plunder, but sacking Rome destroyed his negotiating power for the immediate future. In this sense it was a sign of failure. Honorius may not have lifted a finger to save the city - there was a story that when the news arrived he misunderstood it and worried that his favourite cockerel named Rome had died. According to the sixth-century historian Procopius, the emperor cried out and said,
`And yet it has just eaten from my hands!' ... and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: `But I, my good fellow, thought that my fowl Rome had perished.' So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.'
Fool or not, Honorius could never be seen to negotiate with the 'barbarian' who had sacked Rome, especially while there was still a strongly entrenched usurper in the west ready to take advantage if he became unpopular. Alaric headed south, planning to gather ships and take his men across to Africa. This would have provided a largely unplundered and wealthy base, with ample food for his followers and the ability to control the supply so vital to Italy. A bout of storms wrecked both his plans and the vessels he had gathered. Alaric died soon afterwards. Legend claimed that a river was diverted to bury the leader and his vast treasures, then channelled back to cover them. To preserve the secret, the slaves who had undertaken the work were then all killed. Good stories of this sort are worth repeating, but that does not mean that we have to believe them.'
Athaulf was left as leader of the Gothic army. He and his followers were still very wealthy from the sack of Rome. They also had with them as a prisoner Honorius' sister, Galla Placidia. Now in her early twenties, she had been raised in the household of Stilicho and Serena, but this does not seem to have created any bond of affection. Her first appearance on the political stage was when she aided the Senate in condemning Serena to death. She was unmarried, quite possibly because Stilicho had hoped to arrange a union with his son. Now she was a valued hostage, treated with considerable respect by the Goths.'°
In 409 Honorius had recognised Constantine as a colleague, since he had been unable to defeat him. The latter had by this time overrun all of Spain and defeated a rebellion raised there by some of Honorius' relatives, who were all executed. Yet even before this was known in Ravenna, relations between the two emperors were strained and broke down completely when Constantine brought troops to Italy to fight against Alaric. Fears of a plot prompted Honorius to execute one of his Masters of Soldiers and there was no significant effort to co-operate with the other army. Constantine withdrew, and the news of the executions in Spain widened the rift. Around this time, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi left northern Gaul and crossed over the supposedly guarded passes of the Pyrenees into Spain. Then they spread out, each moving into a different area to make it easier to survive by plundering and extortion. The Roman army - the Notitia Dignitatum lists sixteen field army regiments in Spain - did not hinder them.
Constantine was facing a different threat from Spain, led by the commander he had sent there. This man, a Briton named Gerontius, had heard that he was to be replaced and so had rebelled, declaring his son Maximus as emperor. He may well have drawn allies from the warbands now operating in the peninsula. In 411 he defeated Constantine's son Constans and then besieged the emperor himself at Arelate (modern day Arles). Honorius had also decided to act against the western usurper and sent an army into Gaul. Most of Gerontius' men defected to this force, forcing him to flee. The siege continued until Constantine was forced to capitulate. He was taken prisoner, but then beheaded on the way to Ravenna. The officer who gained most of the credit for the victory was named Constantius. Originally a supporter of Stilicho, he had survived the latter's fall. He would quickly rise to the same sort of prominence once enjoyed by his patron."
Athaulf left Italy in 411, arriving in Gaul soon after a local aristocrat proclaimed himself emperor amidst the wreck of Constantine's regime. The Goths supported him, and in the course of the fighting had the satisfaction of killing Sarus. However, they then changed sides, Athaulf proclaiming that he was fighting on behalf of Honorius against Gerontius. The latter was quickly defeated and shared the same fate as Constantine, being killed during the journey to Ravenna. His defeat was quickly followed by another rebellion in Africa, whose military commander led an invasion of Italy. Athaulf was settled in Aquitania with imperial approval. However, the authorities failed to provide them with supplies of grain, so the Goths refused to release Galla Placidia. Effectively, they had ceased to be under Honorius' control. Athaulf and his men raided widely, captured the cities of Narbo and Tolosa (modern Narbonne and Toulouse respectively), and even attacked Massilia (modern Marseilles). Constantius blockaded the coast.
In response, Athaulf took the truly remarkable step of marrying Galla Placidia. Never before had an emperor's sister become the wife of a barbarian leader, let alone one who was fighting against forces loyal to her brother. The ceremony took place on i January 414 at Narbo, with the groom dressed as a Roman general and the wedding song sung by Priscus Attalus. The former emperor was once again named as Augustus. The marriage produced a son, who was given the blatantly imperial name of Theodosius, especially significant because Honorius was childless. Nevertheless pressure on the Goths was growing as a result of the blockade and they moved again, crossing into Spain and occupying Barcelona and the surrounding area. The infant Theodosius died at this point, then in 415 Athaulf was stabbed while inspecting his horses in a stable and died of his wounds. The man then proclaimed king was Sarus' brother. He publicly humiliated Galla Placidia, making her walk ahead of his horse, but he was then himself murdered within a week and a new leader called Wallia emerged."
Wallia and Constantius soon afterwards agreed terms. The widowed Galla Placidia was sent back to Ravenna - Constantius was probably already hoping to marry her himself, despite her loathing for him. Attalus was also handed over and was led in triumph when Honorius visited Rome. Two fingers were cut off his hand to symbolise the two occasions when he had usurped imperial status, but he was not executed and instead sent into exile to the island of Lipari. Without the backing of the Goths, he was simply not important enough to be dangerous. Wallia and his men were now enlisted to fight against the other barbarians still in Spain. The state provided them with food. They attacked and shattered the power of the Siling Vandals and Alans. This may have been enough of a demonstration for the other groups to accept peace on terms more favourable to the imperial authorities. In 418 Constantius recalled the Goths from Spain to Gaul and settled them in the province of Aquitania Secunda. The details are obscure, but it is more probable that they were given land rather than simply a share of tax revenues. Wallia died in this year, but his successor Theodoric I continued to rule as king, running the Goths' internal affairs, but with the obligation to aid the Western Empire as allies."
Constantius married Galla Placidia in 417 and she bore him a son in 419, who was named Valentinian. There was no trace of the genuine affection she seems to have felt for Athaulf and she was still attended by loyal Gothic retainers. An ungainly man, with a long neck, bulbous eyes and large head, Constantius was in public inclined to slump in the saddle and shoot shifty glances in all directions. Privately he was far more effusive, at banquets matching the professional comedians and clowns. Whatever his character, he had successfully suppressed the usurpers and rebellious groups within the empire and brought some degree of control to the frontiers. Already holding Stilicho's old rank of Master of all Soldiers, and the title of patrician, he was made consul three times.
Constantius effectively ruled the Western Empire and in 421 he was formally named as Augustus and colleague by Honorius. Galla Placidia was named as Augusta, but her husband died of natural causes before the year was out. The court at Constantinople throughout failed to recognise either of the new imperial titles. A struggle to replace Constantius swiftly erupted, with some open fighting. Galla Placidia fled with her son to Constantinople. Her brother, still childless, died in 423. A usurper promptly was proclaimed with the backing of senior members of the court at Ravenna. It took a hard-fought campaign by strong elements of the eastern army and navy, as well as a fair dose of betrayal, to defeat this man. Finally, in October 425 the six-year-old Valentinian III was proclaimed Augustus at Rome.14
Theodosius II had only been a year older than this when his father died and he succeeded to sole rule of the Eastern Empire in 408. In spite of their youth, both would go on to have unusually long reigns - technically Theodosius, who was made Augustus when he was an infant, ruled for longer than any other emperor. Inevitably, their power could only be nominal until they reached at least their late teens, and neither would ever truly break free of the rule of others. Galla Placidia accompanied her son to Rome. Formally she was the Augusta, and although there was no legal title of regent, this was in practice her role. There was a conscious effort to strengthen the bonds between the two halves of the empire and her son was betrothed to the daughter of Theodosius II, herself a mere child of three. The support of the Eastern Empire came at a price, and Illyricum was ceded to the government in Constantinople in return for supporting Valentinian III in the civil war.
Imperial women played a prominent and at times very public role in the politics of the fifth century, and not simply as a convenient means of cementing alliances by marriage. In 414 Theodosius II's older sister Pulcheria was only about fifteen or sixteen, and yet she suddenly emerged as a major influence at court, being named as Augusta. A deeply religious woman, she pledged herself to a life of chastity and convinced her sisters to make the same gesture. Piety - whether in the traditional pagan rituals or since Constantine in a distinctly Christian form - had always been admired in emperors and their relatives. Politically, their refusal to marry prevented potential rivals to their brother gaining a connection to the imperial house. She took personal charge of her brother's education, dismissing his tutor. During these years the life of the court was described as more like the cloistered life of a monastic community than the heart of an empire. Theodosius was raised to study the scriptures, and to pray and fast. Yet for all the alleged simplicity of court life the pomp and elaborate ceremonies surrounding the person of the emperor as well as his senior officials continued unabated.
Neither Galla Placidia nor Pulcheria went unchallenged. Officials and army officers continued to jockey for power and influence. Both women tried to build up and maintain support amongst such men, but not all could simultaneously be kept happy with promotions and other rewards. Some loyal men also proved inept and were discredited. Inevitably, there were also disappointed men who could only advance through the fall of others. The sources may be inclined to exaggerate the role played by these women. The Roman tradition remained deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women wielding genuine political power. They were not the sole powers behind the young emperors, but they were certainly amongst the most important. In the eastern court another woman emerged as a competitor to Pulcheria. This was Eudoxia, the wife Theodosius had married in 421, who was also granted the title of Augusta two years later. Daughter of a noted - and pagan - philosopher, she had become a Christian, probably before the marriage. Although she retained an interest in traditional literature and scholarship, there was never any indication that her conversion was not sincere."
Galla Placidia, Pulcheria and Eudoxia were all intelligent and in many ways capable individuals, but their power was in the end dependent entirely on their influence over the two emperors. This was equally true of all the court officials, members of the household and army officers who gained prominence during these years. Whatever the merits of the decisions they persuaded the emperor to take, or made on his behalf, their positions remained uncertain. At any time someone else could supplant them. In both halves of the empire power remained concentrated in the hands of the emperor. Neither Valentinian III nor Theodosius II proved able to take permanent control even when they grew older, but remained indecisive and readily susceptible to the influence of others. Weakness and instability at the very heart of government made it harder for either empire to maintain consistent policy, let alone direct its efforts and resources effectively.
Warbands and Armies
Thirty years after the death of Theodosius, his grandchildren reigned as eastern and western emperors. During these decades civil war had been frequent, especially in the west, which had always produced more usurpers than the east. Even more striking was the escalation of the now endemic rivalry between senior army officers and bureaucrats into open violence. Young and weak emperors created a power vacuum at the top of the imperial hierarchy that others struggled to fill. The rise of Constantius from officer to army commander, to brother-in-law of the emperor and finally to imperial rule himself, showed what was possible. Others did not quite climb so high, but a succession of men in both the eastern and western courts came to possess effective rule in these years. Constantius was almost unique in dying of natural causes, and virtually all the others were executed. In most cases their fall was accompanied by the deaths of many of their supporters.
This constant competition within the imperial hierarchy, along with the climate of suspicion, fear of violence and ruthless personal ambition that it created, provides the context for history of this period. Alaric rebelled in the hope of exploiting a time of imperial weakness to gain position and status. He and Athaulf survived because the imperial governments were never strong enough to destroy them. Stilicho's propaganda claimed that he had the Goths at his mercy on three occasions, but was always forced to pull back. This is unconvincing. Yet it is probably also true to say that the Gothic army was too useful to be destroyed, even if this had been possible. Certainly, Alaric was given appointments as Master of Soldiers by both the eastern and later the western emperors, even if each rank was subsequently withdrawn. During his career he alternated between rebel and Roman general. Constantius preferred to send the Goths against the Vandals and Alans in Spain than try to complete their defeat. In civil wars emperors routinely hired the same barbarians who had recently been ravaging the provinces to fight against their Roman opponents. Almost always, Roman rivals were seen as the most dangerous foes.
We do not know how large the Gothic army was at any stage. It is said to have mustered 40,000 men outside Rome. The figure is not impossible, especially if it included camp followers as well as the fighting men, but we have no idea whether or not it is accurate. The demand for 7,000 silk garments as part of the price for breaking the first siege of Rome has been used to infer that there were that number of properly equipped, genuine warriors. Again, this is perfectly possible. The Goths never attempted a formal siege or assault on Rome. Whatever the size of their army they were vastly outnumbered by the inhabitants of the city, but these were not organised or equipped. The Goths needed only to be numerous enough to prevent substantial supplies of food from reaching the city. In these circumstances even a few thousand confidently led warriors could make life extremely hard inside Rome. Similarly, the various barbarian groups that crossed the Rhine seem unlikely to have been especially numerous - bands of a few thousand warriors from each group seeming more likely than armies of tens of thousands or more. Their behaviour, much like the ability of the Goths to move about, crossing mountain passes when necessary, surviving for years on plunder and foraging within the provinces, does not suggest big forces. Wherever such groups struck, the local impact was doubtless terrible, but their numbers meant that only small areas would be affected at any time. The Goths were probably the largest force, supplied at times from imperial resources and by this time largely equipped with the products of staterun arms factories. In appearance, they probably looked little different to regular Roman troops."
There is equally little impression of especially large and unambiguously Roman armies in these years. Stilicho's thirty units with allies may well have been one of the largest forces to take the field. It is also worth noting that the 4,000 soldiers sent from the east to Ravenna profoundly affected the balance of forces in the campaign. In 409 it was said that 6,ooo soldiers were sent to defend Rome itself, although they were ambushed and only a handful got through. If the figure is accurate then evidently such a number was considered adequate to protect the city. The Notitia Dignitatum does show signs of losses and desperate improvisation in the make-up of the western field armies. Many units were newly created - or at least renamed - after 395 and a significant proportion composed of units of pseudocomitatenses, regiments transferred permanently to the field army from the limitanei. It is doubtful that such units were replaced amongst the frontier troops. Yet, in considering the strength of the army, we come back to the basic problem that we do not know what size regiments were in practice or, indeed, how many existed at all other than on paper. The ease with which the mixed group of raiders crossed the Rhine, then survived in Gaul and finally went into Spain raises the question of just where the Roman army was. This problem is only increased if, as seems very likely, the number of barbarians was relatively small. Many Roman units may well have been drawn away to Italy by Stilicho or, as time went on, become caught up in the civil wars. Yet in the end it is hard to avoid the conclusion that many simply did not exist.'
What is certain is that none of the leaders during the operations in these decades was willing to risk heavy casualties. This was as true of men like Alaric, as well as whoever led the tribal bands of Vandals, Alans and others, as it was of the Romans. Major battles were extremely rare and none of them decisive. Stilicho and Constantius both seem to have had a fondness for blockading the enemy into submission rather than direct confrontation. In Stilicho's case, his military experience and talent may well have been modest, and perhaps he was aware of this limitation. Constantius may have been more gifted, but both men were primarily political soldiers. Heavy losses could not easily be replaced and might well involve a loss of face that could precipitate rapid dismissal and execution.
Similarly, Alaric depended for his significance on maintaining a formidable force of warriors under his command. The same was true of the other barbarian leaders. Warbands or armies isolated deep within the provinces had no ready source of substantial reinforcements. It is more than likely that successful groups would attract new recruits from warriors who had crossed into the empire individually or in small bands. The empire's frontier defences were in no state to prevent this. There were also army deserters and runaway slaves. Yet these would only join a leader they believed to be successful. Even minor defeats, especially several in a row, would discourage such men, as well as perhaps prompting desertions from amongst the existing warriors. Major battles were simply too risky unless a leader had an overwhelming advantage, in which case the enemy were unlikely to fight in the first place. Therefore, campaigns were generally tentative, each side aiming to gain an advantage to be used in negotiation. For the imperial governments, the enemy all too often offered the prospect of effective soldiers for their own uses. These were wars of skirmishes and raids, and doubtless the Roman army continued its fondness for ambush and surprise attacks. Campaigns would be decided by many small actions rather than major set-piece battles. For the men involved this difference was doubtless academic, and a small skirmish could be as vicious and dangerous as a famous battle.
Alaric and his successors hoped to win rank, position and as much security as possible within the Roman system. They could not overthrow the empire for there were simply not enough of them. There were stories that the Goths had taken oaths to overthrow the empire even before they crossed the Danube and Athaulf is supposed to have spoken of his plans to replace a Roman with a Gothic empire. He changed his mind when he decided that Roman laws were necessary to run a peaceful state. Yet the simple fact that they were exploiting periods of instability within both the empires also made their object harder to obtain. The rapid rise and fall of successive powers behind the emperors produced radical shifts in Roman policy. On several occasions this robbed both Gothic leaders of the chance of successful negotiation.'-
Within a few short years of the sack of Rome, Emperor Honorius celebrated a triumph in the city - and a triumph over a Roman rival, something that would have been unimaginable in the first or second century. Life in the city continued. The Senate met and, when not interrupted by civil war, the people continued to enjoy entertainments and state-supplied doles of food. Politically, the Gothic blockades and actual plundering of Rome had made no impact on the life of the empire, the centre of which had long since transferred to wherever the imperial court happened to be. Psychologically, the news of the sack shocked the Roman world, including the eastern provinces, which now had their own emperor and capital at Constantinople. Pagans blamed the disaster on the abandonment of the old gods. Christians struggled to refute these claims, with ideas we shall consider later (see page 353). Today scholars are inclined to play down its significance in the long term. In practical terms they may well be right, for the Western Empire continued to run after 410 much as it had done before. Yet this is to miss the fundamental point that the imperial government had been incapable of preventing the sack happening in the first place.
In the end, it is the impotence of the imperial government that most stands out during this period. Riven with in-fighting, nominally led by weak emperors and in practice by favourites or dominant officers whose position was always precarious, it proved even less capable of dealing with problems than the regimes of the fourth century. The military challenges it faced were not markedly greater than those faced in earlier periods. The Goths were somewhat different, in that they were an enemy that came from within the provinces, largely as a consequence of the earlier failure to defeat them fully in 382. Even so, they do not seem to have been overwhelmingly numerous. Yet there were never enough imperial troops to defeat them or, indeed, any of the other enemies that emerged, with the exception of Radagaisus' raiding party. The weakness of the empire certainly encouraged more attacks, just as it had always done, but again, there was nothing new about this. No one was ever able to marshal the still considerable resources possessed by either the Eastern or Western Empire effectively enough to meet these challenges. In the end, the Western Empire was content to accept the existence of allied, but at least semi-independent, tribal groups within the provinces. The power of the emperor in Ravenna was gradually seeping away.