Theodosius had been strong enough to control the Germanic elements in the empire, but those who succeeded him were not, and barbarians soon dominated virtually every level of government. Even the army was unrecognizable; the traditional Roman infantry had given way to barbarian cavalry, and the orderly legions were now a strange, heterogeneous mix with each group sporting different armor and speaking a different language. Emperors were dutifully crowned in the East and the West, but the men who commanded the unwieldy armies held the real power. A series of petty, barbarian strongmen rose to prominence in Constantinople, appointing puppet emperors and squandering any chance to revive imperial power in their desire to maintain control. Ignoring the enemies pouring over the frontiers, the foolish rulers of Constantinople looked with fear and loathing at the brilliant half-Vandal general named Stilicho, serving under the weak emperor Honorius, who was now the master of Rome. To the detriment of the entire Roman world, they insisted on seeing him as their true enemy.
It was fortunate that the West had Stilicho, for it was now fighting for its life. The winter of 406 was the coldest in living memory, and far to the north of Rome, the Rhine River froze completely over. Germanic barbarians, hungering for the warmth and riches of the Mediterranean, came streaming across the porous frontiers and had soon overrun Gaul and pushed into Spain. Stilicho raced from North Africa to the Rhine, putting down revolts and fighting off invasions along the way. Twice he came to the East’s defense by driving away the Goths, and twice he was labeled a public enemy for his trouble. If the two halves of the empire had been able to put aside their differences and maintain a united front against the threats confronting them, they could perhaps have pushed back the Dark Ages for a few centuries, but the East was consumed by petty squabbles and was more fearful of the powerful Stilicho than the barbarian threat. When a new Visigothic king named Alaric united the Goths and went rampaging through the East, suspicions between the two governments were so bad that instead of fighting Alaric, Constantinople encouraged him to invade Italy.
Stilicho was strong enough to shield the West from the Goths, but for all his military brilliance, he made for a lousy politician. For years, he had ignored the treacherous court at Ravenna and the poisonous intrigue at Rome, too busy off fighting for the empire, and in any case trusting that his obvious service to the state would see him through. The Senate, however, composed as it was of illustrious names who held little real power, despised the general and deeply resented the fact that a half-barbarian upstart held power over them. Ever since Stilicho had destroyed the Sibylline Books, the conservative, pagan senators had hated him with frightening intensity.* When the general appeared before them and asked them to come up with the four thousand pounds of gold needed to buy off the Visigothic threat, they erupted in outrage.
It wasn’t surprising that Stilicho had decided to bribe Alaric instead of going to war against him. The general had been fighting a desperate battle to maintain the West’s integrity for years, but his exhausted, underpaid army couldn’t be everywhere at once. With his overcommitted troops stretched to the limit, paying off the Visigoths was the only sensible solution, but to the senators sitting safe in Rome this seemed like an unnecessary humiliation.* In such a charged atmosphere, it was easy for one of them to convince the weak emperor Honorius that Stilicho had betrayed Rome’s glorious prestige with his shameful request and must be executed. Guards were quickly sent to arrest him, escorting the stunned general out of the church service he was attending, and killing him safely out of the sight of his troops.
The Senate didn’t have long to relish its spiteful triumph. With the great champion of the West gone, Italy was defenseless before the terrible Goths. After crossing the Alps in a matter of months, the gleeful Alaric drew up his army before the gates of the empire’s ancient capital. The citizens of Rome refused to believe the evidence of their eyes, trusting in the formidable reputation of the city that had ruled the world. Defiantly, they promised the Goths that each citizen would fight to the death before a single barbarian crossed the threshold. Alaric simply laughed at their bluster, murmuring “The thicker the hay, the easier to mow.” He threw his army at the walls, and in late August of 410 the unthinkable happened. For the first time in eight hundred years, an invading army entered Rome.
The Senate had only itself to blame as it watched the Goths climbing over the seven hills. For three days, the barbarians sacked the Eternal City, even breaking into the mausoleum of Augustus and scattering the imperial ashes. As these things generally went, the pillaging was not especially brutal, but it had a profound impact that sped out in shock waves to every corner of the empire. Saint Jerome, writing from Bethlehem, put into words the surreal horror that everyone felt: “A dreadful rumor has come from the West…. My voice sticks in my throat…. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”*
The shock of seeing this supposedly inviolate city at the mercy of barbarians hopelessly shattered the western view of the empire as a divinely ordered state. Here was the first great crack in worldviews between the East and the West. Safe in Constantinople, the East eventually would recover from the trauma and regain its faith in the universal and divine claims of the empire. In the West, however, such beliefs were no longer possible. Rome was revealed to be merely a mortal creation, and no government or state this side of paradise could truly claim to be divinely ordained. Christians were not citizens, but rather pilgrims traveling through a world that was not their home, and any empire—whether based in Rome or Constantinople—was only transitory. Such divergent beliefs at first seemed almost insignificant, but they would soon grow into a great cultural divide that would split the old empire more thoroughly than any barbarian army could have.
The Romans could take some grim satisfaction from the fact that Alaric didn’t enjoy his triumph for long. A few months after his victory, the barbarian king expired of a fever, but the damage to the imperial reputation had already been done.† The legions were powerless, and no city seemed safe from the waves of barbarism engulfing the empire. The eastern emperor Theodosius II was so alarmed that he immediately ordered huge new walls built around Constantinople. Rising forty feet high and nearly sixteen feet thick, these powerful defenses of stone and brick would throw back every hopeful invader for the next thousand years. The sack of Rome may have deeply scarred the Roman psyche, but it had also created the most impressive defensive fortifications ever built in the ancient or medieval worlds. The empire would seldom know peace in the long years to come, but at least the defenses of its capital city would be secure.
The West had no such luxury. Honorius had fled the moment the Goths were spotted, and with the weakness of Rome revealed, he officially moved the capital to the more defensible Ravenna. But even in a new city, the western emperor was powerless to stop the decay and could only watch as the provinces fell away. The Visigoths and Franks overran Gaul, Spain flared up in revolt, and Saxon invaders swarmed into Britain. The anxious British wrote to Honorius begging for help, but the answer they received made it all too clear that the imperium was failing in the West. “Look after your own fates,” the emperor advised.* He could hardly do otherwise; the imperial armies were everywhere on the retreat, and Britain was abandoned to its long and futile fight against the Saxons.†Rome still had the wealth of North Africa, but by the time Honorius finally expired of edema of the lungs in 423, the Vandals had wrested most of it from his control.
The eastern government did what it could to help its dying counterpart, but it had its own problems with a terrifying new enemy. Descending from the central Asian steppe in a wild, undisciplined horde, the Huns came crashing into imperial territory, destroying everything in their path and spreading terror and death wherever they went. Unlike the other peoples the empire dismissively called uncivilized, the Huns were barbarians in every sense of the word. Wearing tunics sewn from the skin of field mice, they never bathed or changed clothes, slept on their horses under the open stars, and ate their food raw. To the people of the empire, this wild, screaming horde seemed like some kind of awful divine punishment, and their terrible leader, Attila, was known throughout Europe as “The Scourge of God.”
Brushing aside the frantic imperial armies sent against him, Attila sacked every major city from the Black Sea to the Propontis and extracted humiliating treaties from Constantinople that allowed him to cross the border at will. With the government completely cowed and promising him two thousand pounds of gold per year to maintain his good graces, Attila seemed content to leave the empire in peace, but a few months later the entire Roman world learned the frightening news that the Huns were on the march again. This time, however, the Romans only had themselves to blame. In order to escape a forced marriage to an unpleasant Roman senator, the emperor’s sister Honoria had foolishly sent a letter—along with a ring—to Attila asking him for help. Whether or not she was asking for marriage, the great khan chose to interpret it as a proposal and informed the terrified emperor that he was coming “to claim what was rightfully his.”
Crossing into Gaul, Attila unleashed his horde, while the frightened Roman army scattered, and its commanders looked on helplessly.* There was nothing now that could spare the empire’s ancient capital, and the panicked city watched the horizon and prayed that Attila would turn away. The long absence of emperors from Rome had left a power vacuum, and with no secular leaders rising to the occasion, more and more of these temporal responsibilities had been filled by the only real leader left in the city—the pope. When Attila arrived, there were no glittering troops or majestic emperors to shield the city from his fury, just the lonely figure of Pope Leo who trudged out on foot to meet him. There, in the dust of an army camp, the pontiff—armed only with his intellect—met with the barbarian to try to turn the long-expected blow aside.
There is no record of their conversation, but whatever Leo said, Attila turned his soldiers around and left Italy, leaving the city of Romulus unexpectedly intact.* He stopped long enough to add another child bride to his harem and spent the night feasting and drinking heavily. When he failed to appear the next morning, his warriors broke into his bedroom and found him dead. During the night, an artery had burst and the Scourge of God had expired from a glorified nosebleed. Singing songs to the “terror of the world,” his men buried him in three coffins—one of gold, one of silver, and the last one of iron. Howling with grief, they tore their clothes and gashed their faces, all to the glory of the man before whom kings and emperors had groveled. Far away in Constantinople, the emperor dreamed of a broken bow and knew the mighty Attila was dead. The empire could breathe again.
* The Sibylline Books were a collection of prophetic verse bought by the legendary last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud. Though the originals were destroyed in a fire in the first century BC, replicas were kept in a vault beneath the temple of Apollo on the Palatine. At great moments of crisis the senate would consult them to determine what religious observances were needed to avert catastrophe.
*One of them is said to have remarked, “Non est ista pax sed pactio servttutts”—“That is no peace, but a mere selling of yourselves into slavery.”
*Charles Christopher Mierow, The Letters of St. Jerome (Westminster: Newman Press, 1963).
†He was buried with his loot in the bed of a river that had been diverted for that purpose. When the body had been interred, those who dug the grave were killed and the river was allowed to resume its course, forever hiding the resting place of the conqueror of Rome.
*Such advice was typical of the rather pathetic Honorius. When informed that Rome had fallen, he thought at first that something had happened to his pet rooster Roma and was relieved to find that it was only the city that had been sacked.
†The invading Saxon horde eventually extinguished classical civilization in Britain, but before it did, a Romanized British leader made a last stand to hold the darkness at bay. He failed, but the attempt inspired the legend of King Arthur.
*The citizens of the little town of Aquileia fled at Attila’s approach to the safety of the nearby lagoon. Recognizing the superb defensive position it offered, they elected to stay put, laying the foundations of what would become the mighty Republic of Venice. Its oldest island, Torcello, still has a crude stone chair dubbed by the locals “Attila’s throne.”
*Attila was known to be extremely superstitious. Perhaps the crafty Leo simply pointed out that the conquest of Rome had proved quite lethal to the last man (Alaric) who had attempted it.