A dreadful rumour reaches us from the West. Rome is occupied: her citizens ransom their lives for gold; but no sooner are they stripped of their possessions than they are again besieged and, having already lost their goods, they must now lose their lives as well. My voice is choked with sobs as I dictate these words. The city that has conquered the universe is now herself conquered . . . She dies of hunger before dying by the sword - scarcely do any men survive to be led off into captivity. The fury of the starving fastens on to nourishment unspeakable; they tear each other to pieces, the mother not sparing even the infant at her own breast.. .
St Jerome, Letter cxxvii, 12
Theodosius the Great was the last Emperor to rule over a united Roman Empire before the final collapse of the West. From the moment of his death the Western Empire embarks on its inexorable eighty-year decline, the prey of the Germanic and other tribes that progressively tighten their grip upon it until the day when the ironically named young Romulus Augustulus makes his final submission to a barbarian king. The states that rise from its ashes, amalgams of Teuton and Latin, of conquerors and conquered, have little to do with the old order: their laws, languages and institutions are shaped by new influences from the north and east. The gravitational pull that once held them together is no longer there; they move off centrifugally, each in its own direction. But the Empire of the East, in contrast with that of the West, survives. For various reasons - not least the hopeless mediocrity of its fifth-century rulers - its development is slow at first; gradually, however, it gains momentum, acquiring as it does so an individual, oriental personality of its own. Latin gives way more and more to Greek, the world of the intellect to that of the spirit; yet the classical tradition remains unbroken. The Byzantine Empire is less the inheritor than the continuation of the ancient world. That world itself, however, has passed away; and, for more than one recent historian, it is on the fateful night of 17 January 395 that the Middle Ages begin.
When Theodosius died his elder son, Arcadius, was not yet eighteen; Honorius, as we have already seen, was ten. The care of both he therefore entrusted to his nephew-by-marriage Stilicho, the most trustworthy of the surviving male members of his family. Stilicho's star was now rising fast. Of his early life we know little, except that he was the son of a Vandal chieftain who had fought loyally but with no outstanding distinction under Valens, and that he had been a member of the diplomatic mission to Persia that had negotiated the treaty with Shapur III. It was then, presumably, that he attracted the attention of Theodosius, for a few months later we find him married to Serena - the Emperor's niece, adopted daughter and particular favourite: the only one, it was rumoured, who could calm him in those terrible rages when no one else dared approach.
The poet Claudian, whose admiration for Stilicho borders on idolatry, tells us that the tall, good-looking young Vandal with the prematurely grizzled hair possessed so powerful a presence that people instinctively made way for him in the street; despite this advantage, however, and despite his new imperial connections, he does not seem to have attracted the notice of contemporary historians until the battle of the Frigidus. It was in recognition of the courage which he showed during that encounter that he was appointedmagister militum in Italy. In this capacity, though technically responsible for the well-being of both the young Emperors, Stilicho's principal charge was Honorius, now Emperor of the West; Arcadius, far away in Constantinople, fell under less desirable influences - the strongest and most pernicious of which was that of the Praetorian Prefect Rufinus.
It was almost certainly Rufinus who, five years before at Milan, had incited Theodosius to order the Thessalonica massacre. Originally a lawyer from Aquitaine, he too was outstandingly handsome; unlike Stilicho, however, he had reached his present exalted position, while still in his early middle age, less through any military or diplomatic ability than through a combination of high intelligence and a totally unscrupulous eye to the main chance. His greed and avarice were renowned throughout Constantinople, as was his corruption; not surprisingly, therefore, he had become possessed of immense and steadily increasing wealth. Above all he was ambitious, and his ambitions were centred on a single object: the imperial throne.
Even to an energetic and self-willed young Emperor, such a man as Rufinus would have been dangerous enough; Arcadius, alas, was neither. Small, dark and swarthy, slow in both speech and movement, with heavy-lidded eyes that always seemed about to close in sleep, he was in fact even stupider than he looked; and his character was as weak as his intellect. People meeting him for the first time found it hard to believe that he was his father's son. One thing only prevented him from being a mindless puppet in Rufinus's hands: the influence of the so-called Superintendent of the Sacred Bedchamber (Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi), an elderly eunuch named Eutropius. Physically, with his egg-bald head and wrinkled yellow face, Eutropius was even less prepossessing than his master; nor would his past life, which included outstandingly successful careers first as a catamite and subsequently as a procurer, normally have been considered ideal recommendations for a trusted position in the Imperial Household. But, like Rufinus - whom he naturally detested -he was intelligent, unscrupulous and ambitious; he too wished to control the Emperor; and to that end he was determined to thwart his enemy in every way he could.
Rufinus, he knew, planned to marry his daughter to Arcadius. Once he had become a member of the imperial family it would be but a short step to the throne itself, and Eutropius's own chances of survival would be slim. The eunuch's only hope was to find a rival candidate for the Emperor's affections; and, in default of progeny of his own, he picked on a young Frankish girl of startling beauty who, after a sophisticated upbringing in Constantinople, had exchanged her outlandish barbarian name for a more harmonious Greek one and was now known as Eudoxia. Taking advantage of Rufinus's brief absence in Antioch to supervise the execution of a distinguished official, he introduced her into the Palace and, with a skill born of long practice, quickly aroused the Emperor's interest. By the time the Praetorian Prefect returned to the capital, Arcadius and Eudoxia were betrothed. It was typical, however, of the devious character of Eutropius that he allowed no public announcement to be made of the bride's identity; and Zosimus relates with glee the colourful if somewhat improbable tale of how, on the wedding morning, an imposing procession of court officials wound its way through the streets to fetch her. Eager to catch a glimpse of their future Empress, an
1 'The wardrobe of the sovereign, the gold plate, the arrangement of the Imperial meal, the spreading of the sacred couch, the government of the corps of brilliantly attired pages, the posting of the thirty silentiarii who, in helmet and cuirass, standing before the second veil, guarded the slumbers of the sovereign, these were the momentous responsibilities which required the undivided attention of a Cabinet Minister of the Roman F.mpirc" (T. Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, Book I, Chap. 3).
expectant crowd had gathered outside the house of Rufinus; and great was their astonishment when the cortege marched straight past it, stopping instead at the far more modest residence of Eudoxia - who shortly afterwards appeared in full nuptial array, to be borne in state to the Palace and her waiting bridegroom.
At just about the time of the wedding - it took place on 27 April 395 -the Goths within the Empire rose again in revolt. By this time they had adopted as their leader the twenty-five-year-old Alaric, who had noted that the vast majority of the Eastern troops that had accompanied Theodosius to the West were still in Milan, and that the Eastern Empire was consequently almost defenceless. The opportunity was too good to miss: pretending fury at the appointment of Stilicho in preference to himself as magister militum after the battle of the Frigidus, in a matter of weeks he and his followers spread havoc through Moesia and Thrace, advancing to within a short distance of the walls of Constantinople itself. Here he turned back - probably bribed by Rufinus, who, disguised as a Goth, is known to have paid several visits to his camp and whose neighbouring estates remained suspiciously undevastated - and headed west again towards Macedonia and Thessaly. But although the citizens of the capital breathed again, it had been an uncomfortable moment; and Arcadius sent an urgent message to Stilicho in Milan, ordering him to bring back the eastern army with all possible speed.
Stilicho started as soon as he could, having further strengthened the eastern army with several crack contingents from the West; but instead of leading them directly back to Constantinople he marched straight down to confront Alaric in Thessaly. There he found to his irritation that the Goths had withdrawn inside a fortified stockade; and he was still trying to persuade them to come out and fight when he received another order from the Emperor. The army was to come at once to the capital; he himself however was to advance no further, but must return to the West where he belonged. The order probably came as a blow to Stilicho, who already had ambitions where the Eastern Empire was concerned; but he did as he was bid. The eastern army he placed under the command of a Gothic captain named Gainas and dispatched to Constantinople; then, taking the western elements with him, he set off for home.
After the departure of the imperial army, Alaric and his followers were once again free to continue their advance unimpeded. Southward they marched through Thessaly, passing without obstruction through the historic defile of Thermopylae and emerging into Boeotia and Attica. Few towns or villages on their path escaped their attentions; the port of Piraeus was completely destroyed, and the same fate would surely have befallen Athens itself had its walls been less formidable. Zosimus tells us that Alaric's courage failed him only when he was vouchsafed a vision of the goddess Athena in full armour standing upon the ramparts while Achilles, scowling horribly, patrolled the battlements; however this may be, he was certainly regaled at a sumptuous banquet by the commander of the garrison and persuaded to come to terms. Pausing only to set fire to the great temple of Demeter at Eleusis, he and his army crossed the isthmus of Corinth into the Peloponnese, ravaging the Argolid and descending southward to sack Sparta and the rich cities of the central plain. Then, in the spring of 396, they struck to the west, meeting the sea somewhere near Pylos and swinging north again up the coast into Elis. But here a surprise awaited them: Stilicho was back, together with a new army brought by sea from Italy, Suddenly, at Pholoe on the river Alphaeus - not far from Olympia - the Goths found themselves surrounded. At last, it seemed, the magister militum had them at his mercy. But now there occurred one of those inexplicable twists of which early history is so maddeningly full, especially when contemporary records are poor or in short supply. Just as Stilicho was on the point of victory, and about to give the Goths their coup de grace,he deliberately allowed them to escape.
Why? Zosimus's claim that he was 'wasting his time with harlots and buffoons' is patently ridiculous, while Claudian's suggestion that he had received orders from Arcadius, who had come to a secret agreement with Alaric, is scarcely borne out by the facts: had such a contract existed, the Goths would hardly have continued across the Gulf of Corinth and north as far as the mountains of Epirus, pillaging and plundering as they went. Only in the following year did they finally conclude a peace treaty with the Empire. By its terms, Alaric was invested with the title of magister militum per Illyricum - a curious reward for the havoc he had caused. Obviously, he had struck some bargain at Pholoe; but it must have been with Stilicho, not with Arcadius. Later in the chapter we shall have to speculate - though that is all we can do - on the nature of this bargain; but for the moment we must wait, and let the story unfold.
And what, it may be asked, of the great army of the East, so hastily summoned home by the Emperor Arcadius? Its newly appointed commander, Gainas, led it as instructed along the Via Egnatia1 to Constantinople, halting in the Campus Martius just outside the Golden Gate, where by tradition Emperors came out to welcome their returning armies. Here on 27 November Arcadius duly appeared, accompanied by Rufinus, who - and at this point we may raise our eyebrows a little -was expecting to be made co-Emperor on that very day, and was consequently even more proud and arrogant than usual. After the review, however, he seemed to relax somewhat and began mingling with the troops, insidiously soliciting their support for his forthcoming elevation. At first he did not notice that they were slowly closing in around him; when he did so it was already too late. Suddenly, a sword flashed. Others followed, and a moment later Rufinus fell dead to the ground. His body was swiftly hacked to pieces, and his magnificent head carried on a pike through the streets. One group of soldiers, with a particularly nasty sense of the macabre, even struck off his right hand at the wrist and carried it from house to house, crying, 'Give to the insatiable!' as they pulled the tendons to make the fingers jerk open and shut.
According to Claudian one of the assassins shouted, as he struck, that he was acting on behalf of Stilicho; but there is no other evidence to suggest that the murder had been instigated by the magister militum of the West. It may equally well have originated with Eutropius, or with Gainas and his soldiers on their way to the capital, or with any combination of the three. In fact, whoever was responsible, the death of Rufinus had little effect on the conduct of affairs. Now that Eutropius alone had the Emperor's ear, corruption, peculation and the open buying and selling of offices became more widespread than ever. 'One man,' laments Claudian, gives his country seat for the government of Asia; another uses his wife's jewels for the purchase of Syria; yet a third buys Bithynia, and buys it too dear, by the sacrifice of the home of his fathers. In the public antechamber of Eutropius there hangs a tariff, showing the prices of the various provinces . .. The eunuch seeks to wipe out his personal ignominy in the general disgrace and, as he has sold himself, now desires to sell everything else.2
In 399 Eutropius managed to get himself nominated Consul - a step which almost certainly hastened his downfall. Although the title had long been purely honorary, it remained the highest distinction that the
1. The imperial highway which ran from the Adriatic across the Balkan peninsula and Thrace to Constantinople.
2. In Eutropium, i, 199-207. 'But,' warns Professor Bury, 'wc must make great allowance for the general prejudice existing against a person with Eutropius' physical disabilities.'
Empire could bestow, one which the Emperors themselves were proud to bear - usually more than once - during their reigns; when it was given outside the imperial family it had been invariably reserved for Romans of high birth and with long records of distinguished service behind them. To see it now assumed by an erstwhile slave and emasculated male prostitute was more than the free-born Roman population of Constantinople could stand. Ironically, matters were brought to a head not by the Senate or the Roman aristocracy but by a Goth - that same Gainas whom Stilicho had entrusted with the army of the East and whose soldiers had cut down Rufinus four years before. On his arrival in the capital his appointment as magister militum per orientem had been confirmed; thus, when in the spring of 399 a new revolt broke out among the Gothic settlers in Phrygia, Gainas was - despite his own Gothic origins - one of the two generals sent out to crush it. On his arrival, however, he secretly changed sides; and in the ensuing battle he and the rebels swiftly destroyed the Roman elements in the army and were left masters of the field. Still posing as a loyal servant of the Emperor, he then sent a message to Arcadius informing him that the insurgents were too numerous to be put down by force and that it would be necessary to come to terms with them; fortunately they were making only a few most reasonable demands which, he recommended, should be accepted without further ado. The first of these proved to be the surrender of Eutropius. Arcadius hesitated; he needed his old chamberlain and relied on him. But now another powerful voice was heard - that of the Empress Eudoxia herself.
Eudoxia is the first of that long line of Byzantine Empresses, beautiful, worldly and ambitious, whose names were to become bywords for luxury and sensuality. Widely rumoured to entertain whole strings of lovers -one of whom, a nobleman whom we know only as John, was probably to be the father of her son Theodosius - she was said to flaunt her depravity, together with her court ladies, by wearing a fringe combed down low over the forehead, the recognized trademark of a courtesan. She owed her position entirely to Eutropius; foolishly, however, he had reminded her of the fact once too often, and she was furthermore deeply jealous of his influence over her husband. In the four years since their marriage, relations between herself and Arcadius had deteriorated to the point where they no longer made any secret of their mutual loathing.
And so, reluctantly, the Emperor gave the order; and Eutropius fled in terror to seek asylum in the Church of St Sophia, flinging himself at the feet of the bishop, St John Chrysostom - who, he whimperingly pointed out, also owed his elevation to him alone. This lugubrious cleric, who had been lured by a trick to the capital in the previous year and had never wanted the see in the first place, had no more affection for his self-styled benefactor than did Eudoxia; but he could not deny the right of sanctuary. When the soldiers arrived soon afterwards to demand the surrender of the fugitive, he stood implacably before them and turned them away, while the trembling eunuch cowered beneath the high altar.
Eutropius was safe in St Sophia; unfortunately, as he well knew, he was also trapped there. On the following day - a Sunday - after a cold and uncomfortable night, he had to suffer the additional humiliation of listening to a blistering sermon of the kind that had earned the preacher his name,1 pronounced in the presence of a vast congregation but addressed to him alone, on the text: 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'.2 It was probably this homily - which must have shrivelled him up more than ever - that persuaded Eutropius to surrender himself at last, on condition that his life should be spared. He was exiled to Cyprus, but at the insistence of Gainas was shortly afterwards brought back and - on the transparently specious grounds that his physical immunity was assured only in Constantinople - tried at Chalcedon, where he was condemned and executed.
Gainas had won; but he was not long to enjoy his victory. Early in the year 400 he returned to the capital, where he tried to set up a power base as Rufinus and Eutropius had done before him; but hostile groups within the city prevented his ever acquiring a similar degree of authority, and a secret attempt to capture the imperial palace - presumably with the object of murdering its occupants and seizing the throne for himself - was foiled almost before it started. In the absence of adequate contemporary information it is impossible to establish the full story; some time towards the end of the summer, however, after six months of increasing unrest, Gainas suddenly ordered his army of Goths to prepare for departure. Suspecting that some fresh coup was being planned, the anxious populace gathered in the streets; and so highly charged was the atmosphere that fighting broke out between them and the departing barbarians. Most of the latter had already left the city; but the remainder, heavily outnumbered, fell easy victims to the anti-Gothic feeling that had been building up for years. The gates were shut to prevent their escape, and 7,000 were dead by morning - many having been burnt alive in their church near the imperial palace, in which they had taken sanctuary.
1 Chrysostom, literally 'the golden-mouthed'.
2 St John Chrysostom, Homily to Eutropius, Oeuvres, Vol. I, p. 3 j.
Gainas himself, with what was left of his army, wandered rather hopelessly through Thrace before attempting to cross the Hellespont into Asia, where he sustained still heavier losses at the hands of a loyalist army that awaited him on the other side. He then struggled northward again towards the Danube, eventually falling captive to the Hunnish King Uldin, who cut off his head and sent it as a present to Arcadius. Yet another adventurer, seeking to turn the growing confusion in the Empire to his own advantage, had paid the price of his temerity.
The fourth century had been a fateful one indeed for the Roman Empire. It had seen the birth of a new capital on the Bosphorus - a capital which, although not yet the sole focus of a united political state, was steadily growing in size and importance while the world of the Western Mediterranean subsided into increasing anarchy; and it had seen the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Emperor and his subjects. It ended, however, on a note of bathos: in the West with silence and inertia in the face of the barbarian menace, in the East with a whimper - the only possible description for the reactions of the most feckless Emperor yet to occupy the throne of Constantinople as he watched successive strong men meet their variously violent deaths, while his own vicious and domineering wife insulted and humiliated him in public, holding him up to ridicule as a fool, an incompetent and a cuckold. The new century, on the other hand, began with a bang. In the early summer of 401, Alaric the Goth invaded Italy.
The greatest of all the Gothic leaders - and the only one whose name was to reverberate down the halls of history - Alaric effortlessly dominates the early years of the fifth century. When it opened, he was still only some thirty years old, having been chief of the Visigoths since the age of twenty-five. In this capacity he had left friends and enemies alike in no doubt of his mettle, speading terror from the walls of Constantinople to the southern Peloponnese; but, by the obvious readiness with which he had accepted the title ofmagister militum when it had been offered him, he had also shown something else: that he was not fundamentally hostile to the Roman Empire. The truth, indeed, was quite the contrary: Alaric fought not to overthrow the Empire, but to establish a permanent home for his people within it, in such a way that they might enjoy their own local autonomy while he, as their chieftain, would be granted high imperial rank. If only the Western Emperor and the Roman Senate could have understood this simple fact, they might still have averted the final catastrophe. By their lack of comprehension they made it inevitable.
To any intelligent observer, the only surprising thing about Alaric's invasion was that he had delayed it so long. It was, after all, four years since he had withdrawn with his army into Illyricum, and he was obviously not going to remain there for ever. In those four years the Empire might have been expected to take some measures to avert the coming onslaught; it was typical of Honorius - whose only interest at this time seems to have been the raising of poultry - that nothing of any kind had been done. Thus, as news of the invasion spread, blind panic spread with it. Claudian lists a whole succession of portents and prophecies, prodigious hailstorms, an eclipse of the moon and even a comet, ending with the appearance of two wolves which suddenly started up under the Emperor's horse while he was reviewing his cavalry and whose stomachs were subsequently found to contain human hands. Slowly and, it seemed, irresistibly, the huge Gothic host lumbered down the valley of the Isonzo, their wives and families trailing behind: as so often with the barbarian invaders, this was not just an army but an entire nation on the march. Not pausing to besiege either Aquileia or Ravenna, the two greatest cities of north-east Italy (Venice was still only a cluster of desolate sandbanks in the lagoon) they headed west towards Milan, the young Emperor fleeing before them to Asti in Piedmont; and it was just a few miles from that city that they found the Roman army awaiting them, the familiar figure of Stilicho at its head.
The battle was fought just outside Pollentia - now the little village of Pollenzo, but in imperial days an important manufacturing city - on Easter Sunday, 402. Of its outcome the chroniclers of the time give widely differing reports. It seems to have been the worst kind of battle: protracted, bloody and ultimately indecisive. At any rate the Goths advanced no further but retired once more to the East. On their way, Alaric made a surprise attack on Verona where, if Claudian is to be believed, he sustained an indisputable defeat at the hands of Stilicho. Once again, however, the Vandal captain allowed him to withdraw beyond the frontiers of Illyricum, his army still basically intact.
Stilicho had now had Alaric twice at his mercy - possibly three times, if we include that curious moment in Thessaly in 395 - only to let him go again; and the moment has now come to examine his motives rather more closely. From the start, his attitude towards the Gothic leader seems to have been strangely ambiguous. Professor Bury, in his History of the Later Roman Empire, first voices his suspicions when Stilicho tarries in Milan with the army of the East after the battle of the Frigidus; perhaps, he suggests, he had advance warning of Alaric's revolt and deliberately held back so that his own intervention might be even more essential at a later stage. Next comes the incident of the Thessalian stockade: does that, one wonders, ring altogether true? Was Alaric really so reluctant to fight? Or was Stilicho reluctant to weaken him? Oddest of all is the Goths' escape at Pholoe: Should we perhaps link this with Stilicho's known ambition to seize Illyricum and the Balkan peninsula from the Eastern and to attach it to the Western Empire - possibly under the dominion of his son Eucherius as co-Emperor - and deduce that Alaric may have agreed, in return for his freedom, to become his accomplice in the scheme? The hypothesis certainly seems plausible enough in view of subsequent events. We know too that Stilicho had growing dynastic ambitions; indeed, he was already the Emperor's father-in-law, having married his daughter Maria to Honorius in 398.1 Whatever the truth may be, it seems clear that he saw the Goths as being potentially useful allies in any future action against the Eastern Empire, and he had no desire either to break their strength completely or to sacrifice all of their goodwill.
At this time, however, Stilicho was still concealing his long-term plans; it was another five years before he came out into the open. Meanwhile relations between East and West had steadily deteriorated, largely owing to the character and the tribulations of the Bishop of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom. This saintly but insufferable prelate, by his scorching castigations of the Empress and her way of life, had made himself dangerously unpopular at court; and in 403 his long and impassioned dispute with Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, gave Eudoxia the excuse for which she had been waiting: Chrysostom was deposed and exiled to Bithynia. But however many enemies he may have had in high places, he enjoyed considerable support among the people: riots broke out, followed by furious fighting in the streets between the local citizenry and the people of Alexandria who had come to Constantinople to support their bishop. That night, moreover, there was an earthquake - which so frightened the superstitious Empress (it was rumoured that she had a miscarriage on the spot) that the exiled prelate was recalled and reinstated.
John had won the first round; and if only he had agreed to moderate his tone a little all might have been well. Alas, he did nothing of the kind. Only a few weeks later he made a vigorous protest when a silver statue of Eudoxia - who had had herself proclaimed Augusta three
1 The marriage evoked 100 lines of peculiarly flatulent verse from Claudian, the lipithalamium ending with an affecting picture of an infant son sitting on his parents' knees. Maria is said, however, to have lived and died a virgin.
years before - was erected in the Augusteum, just outside St Sophia: the noise of the inauguration ceremony, he claimed, interrupted his services. Thereafter the breach between bishop and imperial family was complete, Eudoxia refusing to allow her husband any communication at all with the leading ecclesiastic of the Empire. Early the following spring, in the course of another synod summoned to decide upon the dispute with Alexandria, Chrysostom was again condemned; a recent sermon of his, containing the passage, 'Again Herodias rages . . . again she demands the head of John on a platter,' may not have helped his case. On this occasion, doubtless remembering the events of the previous year, Arcadius contented himself with debarring the bishop from his church; but matters came to a head at Easter when two thousand catechumens awaiting baptism gathered in the Baths of Constantine instead. What began as a service rapidly degenerated into a demonstration; the soldiers were called in to restore order; and the baptismal water, we are told, ran red with blood. On 24 June the recalcitrant bishop was exiled for the second time; once again, disaster overtook Constantinople. That same evening St Sophia was destroyed by fire - arson was suspected but never proved - the flames being blown by a strong north wind on to the Senate House nearby. By next morning the two buildings were charred and blackened shells, and the city's most important collection of antique statuary was lost. Less than four months later, on 6 October, there came the final, unmistakable sign of divine displeasure: the Empress had another miscarriage, which on this occasion proved fatal.
Shortly before his departure, Chrysostom had appealed to Pope Innocent I in Rome, protesting against his unjust sentence and demanding a formal trial at which to confront his accusers. The Pope summoned a synod of Latin bishops, which unanimously declared the previous synod invalid and, through Innocent and Honorius, called on Arcadius to restore Chrysostom to his see; a general assembly of Greek and Latin bishops, they suggested, could then meet in Thessalonica and settle the question once and for all. Meanwhile Honorius had addressed a stern letter to his brother, deploring the various disturbances which his mishandling of the affair had brought upon the capital and chiding him for the indecent haste with which the sentence of exile had been implemented without papal approval. To this letter a deeply offended Arcadius sent no reply, and there was a pause while the parties considered their next moves. At last, in 406, a delegation was sent jointly by Honorius and Innocent to Constantinople. Including as it did no less than four senior bishops, it could not be ignored; but once again Arcadius made his attitude plain enough. The envoys were not even permitted to enter the city. Instead, they were clapped into a Thracian castle, where they were interrogated and their letters snatched from them; only then, insulted and humiliated, were they allowed to return to Italy.
Thus, when St John Chrysostom died in a remote region of Pontus -possibly as a result of ill-treatment by his guards - in September 407, he left the Roman Empire profoundly split; and Stilicho decided that the time had come to put his long-cherished designs on Illyricum into effect. Alaric, 'he knew, was standing by to help him, awaiting only the signal to march. His first step was to order a blockade on the Eastern Empire, closing all Italian ports to Arcadius's ships. It was, in effect, a declaration of war; but Stilicho was still in Ravenna preparing the army for the coming campaign when a messenger arrived from Honorius, who was then in Rome, with news that stopped him in his tracks. Alaric, it appeared, was dead. Meanwhile the Roman Governor of Britain, Constantinus, had declared himself Augustus, crossed to Gaul and raised the standard of revolt. Clearly, Illyricum would have to wait a little longer; there was more urgent business to attend to. Leaving the army at Ravenna, Stilicho hastened to confer with Honorius in Rome.
On his arrival, he found that the first half of the message had been based on a false rumour. Alaric was alive and well in Illyricum, but greatly displeased that the enterprise which he and Stilicho had planned together was still further postponed. His preparations, he pointed out, had cost him much time and considerable expense, for which he expected compensation: 4,000 pounds of gold, to be paid at once. The members of the Roman Senate, to whom this demand was addressed, were predictably horrified; but Stilicho realized that the sum must be found and, taking full advantage of his special prestige as the Emperor's father-in-law, finally succeeded in persuading them. Only one senator had the courage to protest. 'This is not a peace,' he cried; 'it is a commitment to slavery.' But even he seems to have regretted his words, for it is recorded that as soon as the session broke up he sought refuge from Stilicho's wrath in a Christian church.
Early in May 408, the Emperor Arcadius died aged thirty-one, leaving the throne to his seven-year-old son, named Theodosius after his grandfather. For Stilicho, there could hardly have been better news. If he played his cards right, he would now be able to achieve everything he wanted in the East without bloodshed or even expense; there would certainly be no need for Alaric and his Goths, who would be left free to deal with the usurper Constantinus in Gaul. He easily dissuaded Honorius from his intention of going in person to Constantinople, pointing out that the arrival of a Western Emperor in the capital of the East would create more problems than it could possibly solve; far better that he should remain at Ravenna, where he had permanently established his court after the battle of Pollentia six years before. As magister militum, he himself would have no difficulty in arranging everything satisfactorily on his son-in-law's behalf.
But, for the second time in two years, his plans came to nothing. Perhaps his personal ambition was growing a little too obvious; many Christians, certainly, had been shocked by the speed with which, on the death of his daughter the Empress Maria earlier that year, he had induced Honorius to marry her younger sister Thermantia almost before the body was cold. Perhaps, too, he had incurred more disapproval than he knew by insisting on the huge payment to Alaric. Or possibly the old jealousies were slowly coming to the surface again: he was, after all, not a Roman but a Vandal, and Vandals were expected to know their place. Moreover the unrelenting severity of his discipline had caused serious dissatisfaction in the army: twice in the past year, at Bologna and again at Pavia, there had been minor mutinies. In short, he had become dangerously unpopular. At the court of Ravenna, the hostility to him was most marked in a certain minister named Olympius; and it was he, while travelling through Italy with Honorius in Stilicho's absence, who had managed to persuade the Emperor that his father-in-law was plotting treason against him.
We do not know the precise nature of the accusations, nor can we tell whether or not they had any foundation. The one certain fact of the story is that Stilicho was arraigned, accused, tried, found guilty and, at Ravenna on 23 August 408, put to death. His son Eucherius fled to Rome, where he managed to prolong his life by a few months; his sister Thermantia was removed from the imperial palace - still, it was said, as virginal as Maria had been before her - and sent back to her mother Serena. Serena herself was spared, but some months later was strangled by order of the Roman Senate on a charge of impiety. (Years before, visiting Rome in the company of her uncle Theodosius, she had entered the Temple of Rhea, Mother of the Gods, snatched a necklace from the statue of the goddess and mockingly put it round her own neck. The incident had never been forgotten.)1
1 'We may observe,' snorts Gibbon, 'the bad taste of the age, in dressing their statues with such awkward finery."
With the execution of Stilicho, all the pent-up hatred of Roman for barbarian suddenly found its release. In garrison after garrison throughout the Empire, the Roman legionaries sprang to arms and fell upon the Gothic, Hunnish or Vandal auxiliaries, sparing neither them nor their families. The massacres were terrible; so, however, were the consequences. Those barbarians who escaped death formed themselves into bands for their own safety, wandered through the countryside looting and pillaging, and finally found their way to Alaric, swelling his army by some 30,000. Previously loyal to the Empire, they had now become its implacable enemies, determined not to rest until they had taken vengeance on the murderers of their brothers, wives and children. For much of the tribulation that the Romans were to suffer in the next two years, they had only themselves and their countrymen to blame.
They also found, at one of the most critical moments in their history, that they lacked a commander. Whatever dark designs Stilicho may have harboured against the Eastern Empire, he had always remained a faithful servant of the West; had he been anything else, he would have had no difficulty in eliminating the idiotic Honorius years before. In such an event, his close connections with the imperial house would probably have outweighed the disadvantage of his barbarian origin and enabled him to assume the purple; even had they not, he could surely have arranged for a successor both capable and trustworthy. As it was -unless we are to accept as true the accusations of Olympius (described by Zosimus as one who, 'behind an outward appearance of deep Christian piety, concealed the most consummate villainy') - his loyalty never wavered. Stilicho was one of those barbarians who believed in the Empire; and for all his severity and occasional deviousness, he was a fine leader of men. Only when he had gone did the Romans realize just how irreplaceable he was.
Alaric too believed in the Empire - in his fashion. But he did not believe in Honorius. Still less did he trust the Roman Senate who, having reluctantly agreed to pay him the compensation he had asked, now tried to fob him off with only part of it. To do so, as they should have seen, was tantamount to an open invitation to invade; yet even now they made no attempt to mobilize the army - which had been stood down after Stilicho's death - or to strengthen their defences. So Alaric invaded; and in September 408 he found himself before the walls of Rome, his huge army of Goths drawn up behind him. Now at last the Romans began to understand the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe that they had brought upon themselves. They had never really believed that what they still persisted in seeing as an undisciplined horde of skin-clad savages could constitute a serious danger to the greatest city of the civilized world; even now there were those who maintained that the Goths lacked the patience and endurance required for successful siege warfare, and that within a few days they would turn their attention somewhere else.
A few days, however, were all that were needed for Alaric to establish a stranglehold. Every road, every bridge, every footpath, every inch of the walls was kept under constant watch, while patrols along the Tiber ensured that no provisions or supplies could be smuggled in by water. Inside the city, strict rationing was introduced. Soon the daily ration was cut to a half, soon afterwards to a third. By now, several cases of cannibalism had been reported. Daily, as winter approached, the weather grew colder, and before long the combination of cold and undernourishment brought the inevitable disease. Still the watch-towers were manned to the north-east, in the hope that an army of relief might appear from Ravenna to save the city in the nick of time; but gradually it became clear that there was no such relief to be expected: Honorius was not lifting a finger to save the old capital.
As Christmas approached, the defenders knew that they could hold out no longer. Ambassadors were dispatched to Alaric, and a ransom was agreed: 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper. The first two items involved the stripping of statues and their adornments from churches and pagan temples alike, and the melting down of countless works of art. This time, however, there were no renegations, no half-measures; the Romans had learnt their lesson, and the ransom was paid in full.
But the future remained uncertain, and Alaric still wanted a home for his people. Returning northward from Rome he stopped at Rimini, where he met the Praetorian Prefect, Jovius, with some new proposals. Honorius would make available the provinces of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum1 which, while remaining part of the Empire, would be allotted to the Goths as their permanent home, and would also grant them annual subsidies of money and corn to enable Alaric to keep them under arms; in return, Alaric would agree to a solemn military alliance, under the terms of which he would be the effective defender and champion of
1 Noricum roughly consisted of eastern Austria south of the Danube, plus the present Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia. The total area covered by the three provinces demanded by Alaric amounts to some 30,000 square miles, enclosed by a line drawn through Passau, Vienna, Dubrovnik and Venice.
Rome and the Empire against any enemy whatever. To many a Roman, the offer seemed not unreasonable; Jovius himself certainly did not reject it out of hand, forwarding it to the Emperor only with the suggestion that Alaric might be prepared to moderate his demands if he were offered the title of magister utriusque militiae -'master of both militias', i.e. cavalry and infantry - that Stilicho had borne before him.
Honorius, however, would have none of it. The grant of lands he refused point-blank; as for the title, he had no intention (he replied to Jovius) 'that such an honour should ever be held by Alaric, or by any of his race'. It was, so far as we know, the first time he had shown a trace of spirit, or of anything resembling a will of his own; but he could hardly have chosen a more inopportune moment to do so. His army was demoralized and rudderless; it would not stand the faintest chance against Alaric when the Goths renewed their attack, as sooner or later they inevitably must. The Eastern Empire to which he had appealed for help could in no way be relied upon, being in a state of turmoil after the succession to the throne of a child of seven; to the west, Gaul, Britain and Spain were in the hands of a usurper against whom a single half-hearted expedition had ended in failure and who could at any moment march into Italy. If he did so, Alaric and his Goths might well prove an invaluable bulwark.
Thus Honorius, effectively defenceless, insisted on defiance; while Alaric, who could have crushed him with hardly an effort, still strove for peace. Jovius's mistake - and we can only hope it was a mistake - of reading the Emperor's letter aloud to the Goth did not improve the latter's temper; so anxious was he to reach an agreement, however, that a few weeks later he sent a delegation of bishops to Ravenna to use their influence with Honorius, while substantially reducing his own requirements. He would forget Venetia and Dalmatia; all that he now asked for his people was Noricum on the Danube - a province already so devastated by barbarian invasions as to be practically worthless - and enough of a subsidy to allow him to feed his men.
In the circumstances, the generosity of these terms was astonishing; besides, the Emperor can hardly have been unaware of the consequences of another rejection. And yet, once again, he set his face against any compact with the Goths. Alaric's patience was finally exhausted. For the second time in twelve months, he marched on Rome and immediately set up a blockade; on this occasion, however, he changed his tactics. His purpose, he told the Romans, was not to put their city to fire and the sword but simply to overthrow Honorius, now the single obstacle to peace in Italy. If they agreed, they must declare their Emperor deposed and elect a more reasonable successor; he, for his part, would lift the siege forthwith.
The Roman Senate, meeting in emergency session, did not take long to decide. No one could contemplate the prospect of another siege, with all the horrors that it brought in its train. Besides, it was pointed out, Honorius had shown no concern for his people, either now or in the previous year; so long as he personally was safe behind the dikes and ditches of Ravenna, he seemed oblivious to the fate of anyone else. He had, in short, forfeited their allegiance. They wanted no more of him. So the gates were opened, and Alaric entered Rome in peace; Honorius was declared deposed, and it was agreed that he should be succeeded as Augustus by the Prefect of the City, an Ionian Greek named Priscus Attalus.
It was not, on the face of it, a bad choice. Attalus was an intelligent man of pronounced artistic tastes, himself a Christian but acceptable to the pagans on account of his tolerant views and his love of antique literature and culture. Fortunately, too, he had been baptised by an Arian Gothic bishop and thus enjoyed the support of all the Christian Goths, Arians to a man. Appointing Alaric his magister militum, he at once prepared to march on Ravenna; but, before he could leave, there was one major problem to be settled. Africa, the small but vital province (roughly corresponding to what is now Northern Tunisia) on which Rome was entirely dependent for its corn, was then governed by Her-aclian, the officer who had been responsible for the execution of Stilicho and who was expected to remain loyal to Honorius. For Alaric, there was only one solution: the immediate dispatch to Carthage, the capital, of an army which would depose Heraclian and ensure continued supplies. Attalus, on the other hand, preferring a more diplomatic approach, sent over a young man named Constans with instructions to take over the province peaceably in his name. This done, he set off with his magister militum for Ravenna.
With the news of events in Rome and the imminent approach of his enemies, Honorius had finally abandoned his sang-froid and had entered a state bordering on panic. He sent messages to Attalus, agreeing to his rule in Rome on condition that he himself might continue as Augustus in Ravenna; meanwhile he ordered ships to be made ready at the neighbouring port of Classis, to take him and his entourage to safety in Constantinople. Just as they were about to sail, however, there arrived at the same port six Byzantine legions - some 40,000 men, if Zosimus is to be believed - sent in the name of young Theodosius II, who had received his uncle's appeal and had responded at once. The appearance of reinforcements on such a scale restored the Emperor's courage. He would, he declared, hold out in Ravenna, at least until he heard the news from Africa: if Heraclian had stood firm, all might not yet be lost.
Nor was it; a few days later there came a report that was all Honorius could have wished: Heraclian had dealt with the unfortunate Constans just as effectively, and in much the same manner, as he had dealt with Stilicho less than two years before. To Alaric, this was a serious blow. It meant, first of all, that he could no longer hope to oust the Emperor from Ravenna; more worrying still, perhaps, it pointed to a serious lack of political acumen on the part of Attalus. Again he pressed for the forcible removal of the African governor, but Attalus was stubborn: as Augustus, he maintained, he could not send an army of Goths against a Roman province. And the Senate agreed with him. Something, on the other hand, would have to be done, and quickly: Heraclian had already cut off the grain supply and famine was again beginning to threaten. One day, it was said, when Attalus was attending the Circus, the cry was heard from the topmost tiers: 'Pretium pone carni humanae - 'Put a price on human flesh!'
Alaric had had enough. In the early summer of 410 he summoned Attalus to Rimini and, in a broad open space just outside the walls, publicly stripped him of the diadem and the purple. Then, after one more unsuccessful attempt to reach an agreement with Honorius, he marched back to Rome and besieged it for the third time. Maddeningly, we know little of the details: Zosimus, that most irritating of chroniclers, gives up at this critical moment, and such other sources as have been preserved are pitifully sketchy. But, with food already short, the city did not hold out for long. Some time towards the end of August, the Goths burst in by the Salarian Gate in the northern wall, just at the foot of the Pincian Hill.
After the capture, there were the traditional three days of pillage; but this early sack of Rome seems to have been a good deal less savage than the school history-books would have us believe - quite restrained, in fact, when compared with the havoc wrought by the Normans in 1084 or the armies of Charles V in 15 27. Alaric himself, devout Christian that he was, had given orders that no churches or religious buildings were to be touched, and that the right of asylum was everywhere to be respected. Yet a sack, however decorously conducted, remains a sack; the Goths were far from being saints and, despite occasional exaggerations, there is probably all too much truth in the pages that Gibbon devotes to the atrocities committed: the splendid edifices consumed by the flames, the multitudes of innocents slain, of matrons ravished and of virgins deflowered.1
When the three days were over, Alaric moved on to the south, intending to sail his army over to Africa, deal once and for all with Heraclian and deliver Italy from famine. But he had got no further than Cosenza when he was attacked by a sudden violent fever, and within a few days he was dead. He was still only forty. His followers carried his body to the river Busento, which they dammed and temporarily deflected from its usual channel. There, in the stream's dry bed, they buried their leader; then they broke the dam, and the waters came surging back and covered him.
1 The Decline and Pall of the Roman Empire, Chap. XXXI.