Gothic Armies Sack Rome Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gothic armies sacked Rome and revealed the crisis afflicting the Roman Empire in the west, shattering the myth of Rome’s invincibility and security.

Summary of Event

When Emperor Theodosius the Great died in 395 c.e., the breakup of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves was inevitable. From that time onward, the civil rulers in the west were under the power of barbarian leaders. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric I in 410 should be seen as one episode in the final stages of the disintegration of the united empire. Alaric I Honorius Stilicho, Flavius

Theodosius’s successors were his sons: eighteen-year-old Arcadius, who was designated augustus in the east; and Honorius, a mentally impaired child of eleven who was designated augustus in the west. Actual rule in the west was in the hands of the army under the leadership of a Vandal, Flavius Stilicho, chosen by Theodosius as regent for Honorius.

Alaric, a member of the Balth Dynasty of Gothic kings and a leader of the Visigothic allies of the Romans, took advantage of the death of Theodosius to make a bid for power in the Balkans and southern Greece. Stilicho tried to stop Alaric in the north but was deflected by an order from Arcadius to lead his army back to Constantinople. Later, Stilicho managed to come to terms with Alaric in Greece. Alaric and his Goths settled in Epirus, and Alaric had the satisfaction of receiving the title magister militum, or master of the soldiers, from the eastern court. This title was tantamount to official recognition as a military dictator.

The Visigoths have often been pictured in popular lore and culture as an aggressive, war-hungry group of barbarian invaders. Modern historians, however, have stressed the one-sidedness of this view. Far more than invaders, the Goths were refugees fleeing the turmoil in their homelands, which were being invaded by waves of nomads from the east. The Goths were not an ethnically homogeneous group; they were a collection of warriors and their dependents, who were largely Germanic but included Alani and Sarmatian elements as well. By the time Alaric became Visigothic leader, the Goths had lived within Roman borders for a generation. They were no longer fully “barbarians”; they were far more interested in gaining a piece of Roman prosperity than in destroying the empire by warfare and looting. The Visigoths were Christians, although they adhered to the Arian heresy. Despite their acculturation into Roman ways, however, the Goths still constituted a large group on the move, hungry and skilled at fighting. Their management presented a formidable challenge to Stilicho and the other Roman authorities.

In 401 c.e., Alaric first invaded Italy but was forced to withdraw by Stilicho. Stilicho checked a similar attempt in 403. For a time, Alaric joined forces with Stilicho to help him in taking Illyricum, which Stilicho was attempting to restore to Honorius. News of an uprising in Gaul, however, caused Alaric to sense an opportunity for advancing his own cause. He hurried north, demanded employment for his troops, and succeeded in obtaining four thousand pounds of gold from the senate. Alaric’s adviser in this negotiation was Stilicho, who soon after, in 408, was killed by enemies in court who thought he was plotting to make his own grandchild emperor. Stilicho’s murder was an imprudent action accompanied by an antibarbarian purge in which soldiers, along with their wives and children, were brutally murdered. The result was that barbarian troops defected to Alaric.

With Stilicho out of the way, Italy was defenseless, and Alaric had his opportunity to strike at the heart of the Western Roman Empire. He demanded lands and supplies for his men. Honorius refused and barricaded himself at Ravenna, northeast of Rome. In 408 c.e., Alaric and his Goths marched on Rome but were bought off. They marched on Rome again in 409, and Alaric set up a rival emperor, Priscus Attalus. Having secured supporting troops from the Eastern Roman Empire, however, Honorius refused to capitulate. Indeed, Honorius sought to counter Alaric by setting up Sarus, a Gothic bandit, as a rival candidate for chieftain of the Goths, and internal dissension between Alaric and his puppet Attalus led to the latter’s deposition.

Alaric I receives presents from the Athenians.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Finally, on August 24, 410 c.e., Alaric and some forty thousand Goths seized Rome and plundered it for three days. The actual physical destruction was relatively slight, but the impression on contemporaries was shattering. The event marked the first time in more than eight hundred years that Rome had been taken by an enemy. It appeared that an era or even a civilization had come to an end. When the news reached Bethlehem in Palestine, the scriptural scholar Saint Jerome wrote that all humanity was included in the ruins of Rome. Saint Augustine was moved by the event to write his great masterpiece of political and historical theory, De civitate Dei (413-427 c.e.; The City of God, 1610), in which he answered those who charged that Christianity was the cause of Rome’s decline.

Significance

After his attack on Rome, in which he took Honorius’s sister Galla Placidia as one of his prizes, Alaric attempted to invade Africa, the granary of Italy. This invasion failed when his ships were wrecked in a storm. Alaric died soon after and was buried in the Busento River, near modern Cosenza, by followers who were killed thereafter to prevent anyone from knowing the exact location of the body and desecrating the remains.

If Alaric had any consistent policy, it seems to have been the acquisition of lands in the Roman Empire, preferably in Italy, where his people might settle. In this attempt, he failed. According to Jordanes, historian of the Goths, another aim of Alaric was the union of the Goths and the Romans as a single people. In this, Alaric had unrealistic expectations in terms of his own time, although later generations saw the assimilation of the two peoples in Spain and southern Gaul. Alaric’s successor, his brother-in-law Ataulf (r. 410-415 c.e.), married Honorius’s sister, Galla Placidia, and thus cemented the terms of peaceful coexistence between Goths and Romans. Ataulf led the Goths into Gaul and from there into Spain, where he died in 415. The next Visigoth leader, Wallia, negotiated with the Romans and was given lands in southern Aquitania, in Gaul, in 418. Spasmodic struggles between Goths and Romans continued for another sixty years, but after 477, with the total collapse of Roman authority in the West, the Goths’ sovereignty in southern Gaul and Spain—the so-called kingdom of Toulouse—was assured.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, Michael. The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld, 1990. Good discussion of Honorius’s relationships with Flavius Stilicho and Alaric.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heather, P. J. The Goths. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. An overall history of the Goths, which includes the Roman period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heather, P. J. Goths and Romans, 332-489. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. In contrast to Wolfram below, Heather seeks to diminish the emphasis on Alaric’s belonging to the Balth Dynasty of Gothic rulers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. 1987. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Emphasizes Alaric as a historical participant in fifth century Roman politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Flynn, John M. Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1983. The definitive source on Stilicho.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orosius, Paulus. The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1964. This fifth century historian established the theme of Alaric’s sack as the calamitous end of Roman greatness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. A detailed and well-researched account of the Gothic migrations.
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