Placidia having died in 450, Valentinian III was free to err in the first person. As Olympius had persuaded Honorius to kill Stilicho who had stopped Alaric at Pollentia, so now Petronius Maximus persuaded Valentinian to kill Aëtius who had stopped Attila at Troyes Valentinian had no son, and resented the desire of Aëtius to espouse his son to Valentinian’s daughter Eudocia. In a mad seizure of alarm the Emperor sent for Aëtius and slew him with his own hand (454). “Sire,” said a member of his court, “you have cut off your right hand with your left.” A few months later Petronius induced two of Aëtius’ followers to kill Valentinian. No one bothered to punish the assassins; murder had long since become the accepted substitute for election. Petronius elected himself to the throne, compelled Eudoxia, Valentinian’s widow, to marry him, and forced Eudocia to take as her husband his son Palladius. If we may believe Procopius,48 Eudoxia appealed to Gaiseric as Honoria had appealed to Attila. Gaiseric had reasons for responding: Rome was rich again despite Alaric, and the Roman army was in no condition to defend Italy. The Vandal King set sail with an invincible armada (455). Only an unarmed Pope, accompanied by his local clergy, barred his way between Ostia and Rome. Leo was not able this time to dissuade the conqueror, but he secured a pledge against massacre, torture, and fire. For four days the city was surrendered to pillage; Christian churches were spared, but all the surviving treasures of the temples were taken to the Vandal galleys; the gold tables, seven-branched candlesticks, and other sacred vessels of Solomon’s Temple, brought to Rome by Titus four centuries before, were included in these spoils. All precious metals, ornaments, and furniture in the imperial palace were removed, and whatever remained of value in the homes of the rich. Thousands of captives were enslaved; husbands were separated from wives, parents from children. Gaiseric took the Empress Eudoxia and her two daughters with him to Carthage, married Eudocia to his son Huneric, and sent the Empress and Placidia (the younger) to Constantinople at the request of the Emperor Leo I. All in all, this sack of Rome was no indiscriminate vandalism, but quite in accord with the ancient laws of war. Carthage had leniently revenged the Roman ruthlessness of 146 B.C.
Chaos in Italy was now complete. A half century of invasion, famine, and pestilence had left thousands of farms ruined, thousands of acres untilled, not through exhaustion of the soil but through the exhaustion of man. St. Ambrose (c. 420) mourned the devastation and depopulation of Bologna, Modena, Piacenza; Pope Gelasius (c. 480) described great regions of northern Italy as almost denuded of the human species; Rome itself had shrunk from 1,500,000 souls to some 300,000 in one century;49 all the great cities of the Empire were now in the East. The Campagna around Rome, once rich in villas and fertile farms, had been abandoned for the security of walled towns; the towns themselves had been contracted to some forty acres as a means of economically walling them for defense; and in many cases the walls were improvised from the debris of theaters, basilicas, and temples that had once adorned the municipal splendor of Italy. In Rome some wealth still remained even after Gaiseric, and Rome and other Italian cities would recover under Theodoric and the Lombards; but in 470 a general impoverishment of fields and cities, of senators and proletarians, depressed the spirits of a once great race to an epicurean cynicism that doubted all gods but Priapus, a timid childlessness that shunned the responsibilities of life, and an angry cowardice that denounced every surrender and shirked every martial task. Through all this economic and biological decline ran political decay: aristocrats who could administer but could not rule; businessmen too absorbed in personal gain to save the peninsula; generals who won by bribery more than they could win by arms; and a bureaucracy ruinously expensive and irremediably corrupt. The majestic tree had rotted in its trunk, and was ripe for a fall.
The final years were a kaleidoscope of imperial mediocrities. The Goths of Gaul proclaimed one of their generals, Avitus, emperor (455); the Senate refused to confirm him, and he was transformed into a bishop. Majorian (456–61) labored bravely to restore order, but was deposed by his patricius or prime minister, the Visigoth Ricimer. Severas (461–5) was an inefficient tool of Ricimer. Anthemius (467–72) was a half-pagan philosopher, unacceptable to the Christian West; Ricimer besieged and captured him and had him killed. Olybrius, by grace of Ricimer, ruled for two months (472), and surprised himself by dying a natural death. Glycerius (473) was soon deposed, and for two years Rome was ruled by Julius Nepos. At this juncture a new conglomeration of barbarians swept down into Italy—Heruli, Sciri, Rugii, and other tribes that had once acknowledged the rule of Attila. At the same time a Pannonian general, Orestes, deposed Nepos, and established his son Romulus (nicknamed Augustulus) on the throne (475). The new invaders demanded from Orestes a third of Italy; when he refused they slew him, and replaced Romulus with their general Odoacer (476). This son of Attila’s minister Edecon was not without ability; he convened the cowed Senate, and through it he offered to Zeno, the new Emperor of the East, sovereignty over all the Empire, provided that Odoacer might as his patricius govern Italy. Zeno consented, and the line of Western emperors came to an end.
No one appears to have seen in this event the “fall of Rome”; on the contrary, it seemed to be a blessed unification of the Empire, as formerly under Constantine. The Roman Senate saw the matter so, and raised a statue to Zeno in Rome. The Germanization of the Italian army, government, and peasantry, and the natural multiplication of the Germans in Italy, had proceeded so long that the political consequences seemed to be negligible shifts on the surface of the national scene. Actually, however, Odoacer ruled Italy as a king, with small regard for Zeno. In effect the Germans had conquered Italy as Gaiseric had conquered Africa, as the Visigoths had conquered Spain, as the Angles and Saxons were conquering Britain, as the Franks were conquering Gaul. In the West the great Empire was no more.
The results of the barbarian conquest were endless. Economically it meant reruralization. The barbarians lived by tillage, herding, hunting, and war, and had not yet learned the commercial complexities on which cities thrived; with their victory the municipal character of Western civilization ceased for seven centuries. Ethnically the migrations brought a new mingling of racial elements—a substantial infusion of Germanic blood into Italy, Gaul, and Spain, and of Asiatic blood into Russia, the Balkans, and Hungary. The mixture did not mystically reinvigorate the Italian or Gallic population. What happened was the elimination of weak individuals and strains through war and other forms of competition; the compulsion laid upon everyone to develop strength, stamina, and courage, and the masculine qualities that long security had suppressed; the renewal, by poverty, of healthier and simpler habits of life than those which the doles and luxuries of the cities had bred. Politically the conquest replaced a higher with a lower form of monarchy; it augmented the authority of persons, and reduced the power and protection of laws; individualism and violence increased. Historically, the conquest destroyed the outward form of what had already inwardly decayed; it cleared away with regrettable brutality and thoroughness a system of life which, with all its gifts of order, culture, and law, had worn itself into senile debility, and had lost the powers of regeneration and growth. A new beginning was now possible: the Empire in the West faded, but the states of modern Europe were born. A thousand years before Christ northern invaders had entered Italy, subdued and mingled with its inhabitants, borrowed civilization from them, and with them, through eight centuries, had built a new civilization. Four hundred years after Christ the process was repeated; the wheel of history came full turn; the beginning and the end were the same. But the end was always a beginning.