As a postscript to the assassination of Stilicho, Olympius ordered the slaughter of thousands of Stilicho’s followers, including the leaders of his barbarian legions. Alaric, who had awaited his opportunity behind the Alps, seized it now. He complained that the 4000 pounds of gold that the Romans had promised him had not been paid; in return for this payment he pledged the noblest Gothic youth as hostages for his future loyalty. When Honorius refused, he marched over the Alps, pillaged Aquileia and Cremona, won to his side 30,000 mercenaries resentful of the slaughter of their leaders, and swept down the Flaminian Way to the very walls of Rome (408). No one resisted him except a solitary monk who denounced him as a robber; Alaric bemused him by declaring that God Himself had commanded the invasion. The frightened Senate, as in Hannibal’s day, was stampeded into barbarism; it suspected Stilicho’s widow as an accomplice of Alaric, and put her to death. Alaric responded by cutting off every avenue by which food could enter the capital. Soon the populace began to starve; men killed men, and women their children, to eat them. A delegation was sent to Alaric, asking terms. They warned him that a million Romans were ready to resist; he laughed, and answered, “The thicker the hay, the more easily it is mowed.” Relenting, he consented to withdraw on receiving all the gold and silver and valuable movable property in the city. “What will then be left to us?” the envoys asked. “Your lives,” was the scornful reply. Rome chose further resistance, but starvation compelled a new offer of surrender. Alaric accepted 5000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4000 silk tunics, 3000 skins, 3000 pounds of pepper.
Meanwhile an incalculable number of barbarian slaves, escaping from their Roman masters, entered the service of Alaric. As if in compensation, a Gothic leader, Sarus, deserted Alaric for Honorius, took with him a considerable force of Goths, and attacked the main barbarian army. Alaric, holding this to be a violation of the truce that had been signed, again besieged Rome. A slave opened the gates; the Goths poured in, and for the first time in 800 years the great city was taken by an enemy (410). For three days Rome was subjected to a discriminate pillage that left the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul untouched, and spared the refugees who sought sanctuary in them. But the Huns and slaves in the army of 40,000 men could not be controlled. Hundreds of rich men were slaughtered, their women were raped and killed; it was found almost impossible to bury all the corpses that littered the streets. Thousands of prisoners were taken, among them Honorius’ half sister Galla Placidia. Gold and silver were seized wherever found; works of art were melted down for the precious metals they contained; and many masterpieces of sculpture and pottery were joyously destroyed by former slaves who could not forgive the poverty and toil that had generated this beauty and wealth. Alaric restored discipline, and led his troops southward to conquer Sicily; but in that same year he was stricken with fever, and died at Cosenza. Slaves diverted the flow of the river Busento to bare a secure and spacious grave for him; the stream was then brought back to its course; and to conceal the spot the slaves who had performed these labors were slain.42
Ataulf (Adolf), Alaric’s brother-in-law, was chosen to succeed him as king. He agreed to withdraw his army from Italy on condition that he should be given Placidia in marriage, and that his Visigoths, as foederati of Rome, should receive southern Gaul, including Narbonne, Toulouse, and Bordeaux, for their self-governed realm. Honorius refused the marriage; Placidia consented. The Gothic chieftain proclaimed that his ambition was not to destroy the Roman Empire but to preserve and strengthen it. He marched his army out of Italy, and by a judicious mixture of diplomacy and force founded the Visigothic kingdom of Gaul, theoretically subject to the Empire and with its capital at Toulouse (414). A year later he was assassinated. Placidia, who loved him, wished to remain a perpetual widow, but was awarded by Honorius to the general Constantius. After the death of Constantius (421) and Honorius (423), Placidia became regent for her son Valentinian III, and for twenty-five years ruled the Empire of the West with no discredit to her sex.
Even in Tacitus’ days the Vandals were a numerous and powerful nation, possessing the central and eastern portions of modern Prussia. By the time of Constantine they had moved southward into Hungary. Their armies having suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of the Visigoths, the remaining Vandals asked permission to cross the Danube and enter the Empire. Constantine consented, and for seventy years they increased and multiplied in Pannonia. The successes of Alaric stirred their imagination; the withdrawal of legions from beyond the Alps to defend Italy left the rich West invitingly open; and in 406 great masses of Vandals, Alani, and Suevi poured over the Rhine and ravaged Gaul. They plundered Mainz, and massacred many of the inhabitants. They moved north into Belgica, and sacked and burned the imperial city of Trier. They bridged the Meuse and the Aisne, and pillaged Reims, Amiens, Arras, and Tournai, almost reaching the English Channel. Turning south, they crossed the Seine and the Loire into Aquitaine and wreaked their vandal fury upon almost all its cities except Toulouse, which was heroically defended by its Bishop Exuperius. They paused at the Pyrenees, then turned east and pillaged Narbonne. Gaul had seldom known so thorough a devastation.
In 409 they entered Spain, 100,000 strong. There, as in Gaul and the East, Roman rule had brought oppressive taxation and orderly administration, wealth concentrated in immense estates, a populace of slaves and serfs and impoverished freemen; and yet, by the mere grace of stability and law, Spain was now among the most prosperous of Roman provinces, and Merida, Cartagena, Cordova, Seville, and Tarragona were among the richest and most cultured cities of the Empire. Into this apparently secure peninsula the Vandals, Suevi, and Alani descended; for two years they plundered Spain from the Pyrenees to the Strait, and extended their conquest even to the African coast. Honorius, unable to defend Roman soil with Roman arms, bribed the Visigoths of southwestern Gaul to recapture Spain for the Empire; their able King Wallia accomplished the task in well-planned campaigns (420); the Suevi retreated into northwest Spain, the Vandals southward into the Andalusia that still bears their name; and Wallia shamed the faithlessness of Roman diplomats by restoring Spain to the imperial power.
Still hungry for conquest and bread, the Vandals crossed over into Africa (429). If we may believe Procopius43 and Jordanes,44 they came by the invitation of the Roman governor of Africa, Boniface, who wished their aid against his rival Aëtius, successor to Stilicho; the story is of uncertain authority. In any case the Vandal king was quite capable of originating the plan. Gaiseric was the proud bastard son of a slave, lame but strong, ascetic in regimen, undaunted in conflict, furious in anger, cruel in enmity, but with an unbeaten genius for both negotiation and war. Arrived in Africa, his 80,000 Vandal and Alani warriors, women, and children were joined by the savage Moors, long resentful of Roman domination, and the Donatist heretics, who had been persecuted by the orthodox Christians, and now welcomed a new rule. Out of a population of some 8,000,000 souls in Roman North Africa, Boniface could muster only a negligible number to help his small regular army; overwhelmingly defeated by Gaiseric’s horde, he retreated to Hippo, where the aged St. Augustine aroused the population to heroic resistance. For fourteen months the city stood siege (430–1); Gaiseric then withdrew to meet another Roman force, and so overwhelmed it that Valentinian’s ambassador signed a truce recognizing the Vandal conquest in Africa. Gaiseric observed the truce until the Romans were off their guard; then he pounced upon rich Carthage and took it without a blow (439). The nobles and the Catholic clergy were dispossessed of their property, and were banished or enserfed; lay and ecclesiastical property was seized wherever found, and torture was not spared to discover its hiding place.45
Gaiseric was still young. Though a capable administrator, who reorganized Africa into a lucrative state, he was happiest when engaged in war. Building a great fleet, he ravaged with it the coasts of Spain, Italy, and Greece. No one could tell where his cavalry-laden ships would land next; never in Roman history had such unhindered piracy prevailed in the western Mediterranean. At last the Emperor, as the price of the African corn on which Ravenna as well as Rome lived, made peace with the barbarian king, and even pledged him an imperial daughter in marriage. Rome, soon to be destroyed, continued to laugh and play.
Three quarters of a century had passed since the Huns had precipitated the barbarian invasions by crossing the Volga. Their further movement westward had been a slow migration, less like the conquest of Alaric and Gaiseric than like the spread of colonists across the American continent. Gradually they had settled down in and near Hungary and had brought under their rule many of the German tribes.
About the year 433 the Hun king Rua died, and left his throne to his nephews Bleda and Attila. Bleda was slain—some said by Attila—about 444, and Attila (i.e., in Gothic, “Little Father”) ruled divers tribes north of the Danube from the Don to the Rhine. The Gothic historian Jordanes describes him, we do not know how accurately:
He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the rumors noised abroad concerning him. He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action; mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants, and lenient to those who were once received under his protection. He was short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard was thin and sprinkled with gray. He had a flat nose and a swarthy complexion, revealing his origin.46
He differed from the other barbarian conquerors in trusting to cunning more than to force. He ruled by using the heathen superstitions of his people to sanctify his majesty; his victories were prepared by the exaggerated stories of his cruelty which perhaps he had himself originated; at last even his Christian enemies called him the “scourge of God,” and were so terrified by his cunning that only the Goths could save them. He could neither read nor write, but this did not detract from his intelligence. He was not a savage; he had a sense of honor and justice, and often proved himself more magnanimous than the Romans. He lived and dressed simply, ate and drank moderately, and left luxury to his inferiors, who loved to display their gold and silver utensils, harness, and swords, and the delicate embroidery that attested the skillful fingers of their wives. Attila had many wives, but scorned that mixture of monogamy and debauchery which was popular in some circles of Ravenna and Rome. His palace was a huge loghouse floored and walled with planed planks, but adorned with elegantly carved or polished wood, and reinforced with carpets and skins to keep out the cold. His capital was a large village probably on the site of the present Buda—a city which until our century was by some Hungarians called Etzelnburg, the City of Attila.
He was now (444) the most powerful man in Europe. Theodosius II of the Eastern Empire, and Valentinian of the Western, both paid him tribute as a bribe to peace, disguising it among their peoples as payments for services rendered by a client king. Able to put into the field an army of 500,000 men, Attila saw no reason why he should not make himself master of all Europe and the Near East. In 441 his generals and troops crossed the Danube, captured Sirmium, Singidunum (Belgrade), Naissus (Nish) and Sardica (Sofia), and threatened Constantinople itself. Theodosius II sent an army against them; it was defeated; and the Eastern Empire won peace only by raising its yearly tribute from 700 to 2100 pounds of gold. In 447 the Huns entered Thrace, Thessaly, and Scythia (southern Russia), sacked seventy towns, and took thousands into slavery. The captured women were added to the wives of the captors, and so began generations of blood mixture that left traces of Mongol features as far west as Bavaria. These Hun raids ruined the Balkans for four centuries. The Danube ceased for a long time to be a main avenue of commerce between East and West, and the cities on its banks decayed.
Having bled the East to his heart’s content, Attila turned to the West and found an unusual excuse for war. Honoria, sister of Valentinian III, having been seduced by one of her chamberlains, had been banished to Constantinople. Snatching at any plan for escape, she sent her ring to Attila with an appeal for aid. The subtle King, who had his own brand of humor, chose to interpret the ring as a proposal of marriage; he forthwith laid claim to Honoria and to half the Western Empire as her dowry. Valentinian’s ministers protested, and Attila declared war. His real reason was that Marcian, the new Emperor of the East, had refused to continue payment of tribute, and Valentinian had followed his example.
In 451 Attila and half a million men marched to the Rhine, sacked and burned Trier and Metz, and massacred their inhabitants. All Gaul was terrified; here was no civilized warrior like Caesar, no Christian—however Arian—invader like Alaric and Gaiseric; this was the awful and hideous Hun, the flagellum dei come to punish Christian and pagan alike for the enormous distance between their professions and their lives. In this crisis Theodoric I, aged King of the Visigoths, came to the rescue of the Empire; he joined the Romans under Aëtius, and the enormous armies met on the Catalaunian Fields, near Troyes, in one of the bloodiest battles of history: 162,000 men are said to have died there, including the heroic Gothic King. The victory of the West was indecisive; Attila retreated in good order, and the victors were too exhausted, or too divided in policy, to pursue him. In the following year he invaded Italy.
The first city to fall in his path was Aquileia; the Huns destroyed it so completely that it never rose again. Verona and Vicenza were more leniently treated; Pavia and Milan bought off the conqueror by surrendering their movable wealth. The road to Rome was now open to Attila; Aëtius had too small an army to offer substantial resistance; but Attila tarried at the Po. Valentinian III fled to Rome, and thence sent to the Hun King a delegation composed of Pope Leo I and two senators. No one knows what happened at the ensuing conference. Leo was an imposing figure, and received most credit for the bloodless victory. History only records that Attila now retreated. Plague had broken out in his army, food was running short, and Marcian was sending reinforcements from the East (452).
Attila marched his horde back over the Alps to his Hungarian capital, threatening to return to Italy in the next spring unless Honoria should be sent him as his bride. Meanwhile he consoled himself by adding to his harem a young lady named Ildico, the frail historic basis of the Nibelungenlied’s Kriemhild. He celebrated the wedding with an unusual indulgence in food and drink. On the morrow he was found dead in bed beside his young wife; he had burst a blood vessel, and the blood in his throat had choked him to death (453).47 His realm was divided among his sons, who proved incompetent to preserve it. Jealousies broke out among them; the subject tribes refused their allegiance to a disordered leadership; and within a few years the empire that had threatened to subdue the Greeks and the Romans, the Germans and the Gauls, and to put the stamp of Asia upon the face and soul of Europe, had broken to pieces and melted away.