History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Month: February 2020

The Fall of the West; Vandals, Goths and Huns

Raphael: Pope Leo bargaining with Attila

Theodosius I [AD 379 – 395] had been the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the western and eastern parts of the Empire. His sole daughter, Galla Placidia – a younger, paternal half-sister of emperors Arcadius and Honorius – we have met earlier as the wife of Athaulf, brother-in-law to Alaric, King of the Visigoths, and his eventual successor. When Honorius required the services of the magister militum Constantius III to put down a nasty revolt undertaken by co-emperor Constantine III, who had raised his standard in Britain AD 407, he gave him his widowed sister [ † Athaulf AD 415] as wife in the bargain, who proceeded to give birth to Valentinian III in AD 419, (Latin: Flavius Placidius Valentinianus Augustus; 2 July 419 – 16 March 455) who was Western Roman Emperor from 425 to 455 and one of the chief engineers of the Imperial collapse.

Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia in Ravenna

At that time, the “men” behind Emperor Valentinian III, who was six years of age in the year of his installation, AD 425, were his mother Placidia and the generals Aetius and Boniface. These two officers might have been able to protect the West had they cooperated; as they intrigued against each other, they largely failed, with one glorious exception, to keep the sinking ship afloat. As Edward Gibbon delineates, the designs of Aetius precipitated at length the losses of Spain and Africa:

The abilities of Aetius and Boniface might have been usefully employed against the public enemies, in separate and important commands. … But Aetius possessed an advantage of singular moment in a female reign; he was present; he besieged, with artful and assiduous flattery, the palace of Ravenna; disguised his dark designs with the mask of loyalty and friendship; and at length deceived both his mistress and his absent rival by a subtle conspiracy which a weak woman and a brave man could not easily suspect.
He had secretly persuaded Placidia to recall Boniface from the government of Africa; he secretly advised
Boniface to disobey the Imperial summons: to the one he represented the order as a sentence of death; to the other he stated the refusal as a sign of revolt; and when the credulous and unsuspectful count [Boniface, ¶] had armed the province [Spain] in his defence, Aetius applauded his sagacity in foreseeing the rebellion which his own perfidy had exited [AD 427].
A temperate inquiry into the real motives of Boniface would have restored a faithful servant to his duty and to the republic; but the arts of Aetius still continued to betray and to inflame, and the count was urged by persecution to embrace the most desperate counsels. The success with which he eluded or repelled the first attacks could not inspire a vain confidence that at the head of some loose, disorderly Africans he should be able to withstand the regular forces of the West, commanded by a rival whose military character was impossible for him to despise. After some hesitation, the
last struggles of prudence and loyalty, Boniface despatched a trusty friend to the court, or rather to the camp, of Gonderic, king of the Vandals, with the proposal of a strict alliance and the offer of an advantageous and perpetual settlement. (23)

the little drummer boy, p. 80

Boniface played a Spanish Gambit, so to say, based upon the momentary situation in Spain. The north-eastern parts of the land were controlled by the Visigoths; technically in the name of Honorius respectively Valentinian III, but as a matter of fact, control over the important parts lay in the hands of Athaulf’s successors. The north-western parts of the Iberian Chersonnese, however, known as Gallicia, had been the stage of a protracted tug-of-war between the two German tribes of the Suebi and the Vandals, who for an ancient feud were perpetual enemies.
The Vandals had only recently defeated a large band of Suebi when Boniface’s solicitation arrived. The missive invited them to turn their desires of settlement on the far richer provinces of Africa, which Boniface offered to share. There were, as he explained, no further Roman forces to be concerned with than the two legions routinely stationed in Numidia, which, however, were of low quality, and whose marginally better cohorts were in the process to be redeployed to Germania.

The Migrations of the Vandals

The offer seemed to promise the Vandals [FN1] a chance for permanent settlement, and a fortuitous occasion improved the chances of its acceptance: King Gonderic had had the decency to expire at the proper moment and had been succeeded by his half-brother Genseric [r.AD 428-477, ¶], who, with Alaric and Attila, was to become the third member of the barbarian troika which scourged the Empire in the fifth century AD. The native Celtiberians felt so elated by the Vandals’ intention to leave their soil that they assisted the Germans, who were not a seafaring nation, in the construction of the vessels necessary to get across the Pillars of Hercules, as Gibraltar and its opposite African promontory were called at that time.

[FN1] The bad reputation of the Vandals results from the entirety of their history having been written by their enemies. The Vandals were Arians, thus, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, heretics. But other Germanic tribes that were Arians, like the Goths, did not attempt to convert Catholics to Arianism, but the Vandals did. Chris Wickham observed: “Only the Vandals assumed that their version of Christianity should be the universal one, and that others should be uprooted, as the Romans themselves did: hence also the negative tone of contemporary accounts, which are all written by Catholics.” (25)

The size of the journeying multitude was augmented by the Alani, who had been faithful companions of the Vandals on the long trek from the eastern bank of the Danube to the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently onmipresent, a band of
Goths joined as well. Yet the number of travellers, which is usually given at about 50,000 warriors plus families and slaves, seems lower than it could reasonably be expected from the gathering of two complete tribes plus some Goths. Apparently, more than a few Vandals and Alans liked what they had found in Spain and detested further adventures.

The journey succeeded, and two lucky circumstances soon increased the number of Genseric’s followers in Africa. The indigenous and indigent inhabitants of Mauritania and Numidia had never been assigned a different role by the Romans than that of a feeder race for the slave markets, but when the Moors carefully approached the recent invaders, they could see at first glance that the new arrivées were different from their former oppressors. It took little diplomacy to convince the Moors that the enemy of their enemies was their friend, and “a crowd of naked savages rushed from the
woods and valleys of Mount Atlas to satiate their revenge on the polished tyrants who had injuriously expelled them from the native sovereignty of the land.” (24)
The second beneficial opportunity Genseric was able to exploit was the support of the Donatists, a Christian congregation that had settled in Africa Provincia just after AD 300. They found themselves objecting to the authority of the local metropolitan, Bishop Caecilian of Carthage, whom they labelled improperly consecrated, and after Emperor Constantine judged in favour of Caecilian, a schism occurred, for the Donatists did not give in. (26) Enmity ruled the next century until, after a formal debate in Carthage AD 411, the Catholic Church demanded their persecution, and seventeen years before the Vandals’ arrival, Emperor Honorius authorized the extinction of Donatism and supported the orthodox belief with the strongest of incentives. Edward Gibbon could barely hide his disgust:

The Vandal Kingdom at its greatest extent …

Three hundred bishops, with many thousands of the inferior clergy, were torn from their churches, stripped of their ecclesiastical possessions, banished to the islands, and proscribed by the laws if they presumed to conceal themselves in the provinces of Africa. Their numerous congregations, both in cities and in the country, were deprived of the rights of citizens and of the exercise of religious worship. …
By these severities, which obtained the warmest approbation of St. Augustine, great numbers of the
Donatists were reconciled to the Catholic Church, but the fanatics who still persevered in their opposition
were provoked to madness and despair; the distracted country was filled with tumult and bloodshed; the armed troops of “Circumcellions” alternately pointed their rage against themselves or against their adversaries; and the calendar of martyrs received on both sides a considerable augmentation.
Under these circumstances, Genseric, a Christian but an enemy of the Orthodox communion [being an Arian,
¶), showed himself to the Donatists as a powerful deliverer, from whom they might reasonably expect the repeal of the odious and oppressive edicts of the Roman emperors. The conquest of Africa was facilitated by the active zeal, or the secret favour, of a domestic faction; the wanton outrages against the churches and the clergy of which the Vandals are accused may be fairly imputed to the fanaticism of their allies; and the intolerable spirit which disgraced the triumph of Christianity contributed to the loss of the most important province of the West. (27)


The news of Genseric’s invasion and its success astonished the Emperor, the Senate, the bishop and the people of Rome. The opinion was pronounced by a number of Count Boniface’s supporters that it was hard to believe that a tried and trusted servant of the realm had indeed handled the pearl of the Empire to the uncouth chieftain of a barbarian mob and left the province he was supposed to protect to the doubtful benefactions of vengeful heretics or the savage tribes of the desert. An embassy was dispatched to Carthage post-haste, to investigate and report.

In Ravenna, meanwhile, the correspondence between Boniface, Aetius and Placidia was inspected, compared, and Aetius’ deception easily discovered: but the hastily enacted new resolutions turned out to change too little, and too late, to prevent the loss or to enable the recapture of the key province. Boniface was hastily reinstated to the graces of the court and the command of the African legions: he was able to hold, for a while, the important cities of Carthage, Cirta and Hippo Regius, but the vast domain of Africa and her fertile pastures were lost. Worse, perhaps, it also made the Vandals perpetual enemies of the Empire, as it happened with the Visigoths twenty years later, and Chris Wickham points out that “the conquest of the grain heartland of Africa by the Vandals in 439, which the Romans mistakenly did not anticipate and resist, seems to be the turning point, the moment after which these potential [Germanic] supports might turn into dangers.” (28)

But for the moment, Boniface, who had returned from Hippo Regius to Ravenna, faced civil war when Aetius led a force of German mercenaries from Gaul into the field in Gallia Cisalpina in an effort to overthrow him. Aetius lost the ensuing battle which, however, claimed Boniface’s life and left the Empire vulnerable. But in the following years, it was Aetius who showed the military knack that perhaps saved Italy from both Huns and Goths, by playing them against each other.
In AD 451, the principal Hunnish invasion of Gaul by the united tribes under Attila commenced. It would appear that Attila had received an embassy from Genseric just earlier, which described the mutual benefits that could be achieved by a strategic coordination against the Empire: if, say, the Huns were to invade the north-east while the Vandals attacked Sicily, and then Italy proper, the Empire, its protector Boniface dead, would be caught in a vise. [FN2] Attila may have pondered a similar scenario and his cavalry was in place at the eastern border at the right time: within days of the signal to attack the East was overwhelmed by his rapacious hordes and Theodosius II, successor of Arcadius and last of his line, had to accept a harsh peace treaty which made him, the Augustus of the East, a subaltern of the King of the Huns, and the debtor of an annual payment of twelve thousand pieces of gold.

[FN2] Chris Wickham explains the military and geostrategic factors that much differentiated the fate of the two parts of the Empire as follows: “It probably did derive in part from the greater exposure of heartland areas in the West, Italy and especially central and southern Gaul, to frontier invasion; attacks on the Balkans in the East rarely got past Constantinople into the rest of the empire, but attacks on the western military regions, northern Gaul and the Danube provinces, could get further much more easily. Accepting invading groups into the western empire and settling them as federates was a perfectly sensible response to this, as long as those federate areas did not become so unruly that Roman armies had to be held back to fight them, or so large that they threatened the tax base of the empire, and thus the resources for the regular armies themselves. Unfortunately for the West, however, this did happen.” (29)

Hunnish possessions around AD 450

He was not more of a military man than his uncles Honorius and Arcadius had been, and for all practical purposes, the state of the realm was only improved when his horse, on the Lycus River, threw off its rider who broke his spine and promptly expired. His sister Pulcheria was proclaimed Empress of the East by the courtiers, officers and plebs, and, aware of the sensible position a female reign might be exposed to in the time of war, she married, only a few days later, the senator Mercian, who, at the festive occasion, was invested with the Imperial title, purple and regalia.
The former senator was of solemn nature and an experienced administrator but unused and hostile to the arts of flattery and duplicity which are second nature to courtiers in the palaces of the East, then and now. He dared to send a
reply more independent than servile in nature to the envoys of the King of the Huns, who arrived in Constantinople to demand the delivery of the annual tribute [AD 450]. Yet as much as Attila was enraged by the rebuke, his recent designs had centred on the West, on Gaul and Italy, and the attention of civilization soon centred on Aetius, who seemed to vacillate between being the hope or the dread of the Empire.

After Boniface’s death, Aetius had undertaken a trip to Attila, to borrow a horde of Hunnish cavalry for aiding him to return to Rome with impunity, and “he solicited his pardon at the head of sixty thousand barbarians.” (30) Aetius was also promoted to generalissimo of the Western Empire: it speaks for his caution that he allowed Valentinian to wear the purple and his mother Placidia to sign the documents he supplied. But at AD 450, the balance of powers in the west had changed to the detriment of the Romans: most of Spain now belonged to the Suebi, the rest to the Visigoths, who also filled the south of Gaul. The northern and central parts of the region were held by the Franks, and Africa, alas, had been lost to the Vandals.
Notwithstanding his volatile loyalties, Aetius was well aware that a Hunnish conquest of Gaul and Italy would result in the collapse of the West: the Huns, being nomads, did not know any forms of positive laws or continuous government but the license of their chieftains, whose tyranny, caprice and ignorance could not support the complicated economical interdependencies of the Mediterranean nations nor sustain the regularities of commerce. That a decision, at length, had to be sought with military means became a foregone conclusion for both Huns and Romans, and both sides began to court Gothic mercenaries.

Attila was able to exploit yet another occasion of internal strife among the dukes of the Franks as a pretext for the invasion of Gaul he launched in AD 451, where he was met in the field by his former ally Aetius. The new commander-general of the West had collected a conglomerate of regular legions, mercenaries, and Gaul and German volunteers who had settled in Gallia and were esteemed to fight for their possessions with zeal perhaps superior to that of a common mercenary. In addition to this motivational advantage, Aetius was intimately familiar with Hunnish cavalry tactics and hence able to prepare his troops on what to expect. The typical moments of surprise and confusion, which accompanied Hunnish attacks and often resulted in their breaking the enemy’s lines, failed to materialize at the Battle of Chalons [AD 451]. Aetius’ troops were able to maintain their cohesion and inflicted on the Huns the first defeat they suffered in generations.
The loss at Chalons confused but did not diminish the Huns’ lust for conquest, or, rather, pillage and plunder, for notwithstanding their many military victories, the thought of becoming a settled people never entered their heads. In the spring of the following year, a substantial Hunnish army was discovered marching into lower Italy, but the Gauls and Germans who had defended their possessions in Gallia Provincia had no interest to spill their blood in the preservation of their titular Roman overlords, and no aid against Attila issued from Gaul.

Invasion of the Barbarians or The Huns approaching Rome

The Huns’ eventual appearance in the Po valley, hardly threescore leagues from Ravenna [AD 452], finally alerted the Imperial person. Valentinian’s life would have been safe in the fortress, but his timidity found expression in an urgent embassy to Rome, where he hoped to confiscate sufficiently luxurious and expensive items as might be suitable to deflect Attila’s attention from the conquest of the Italian heartland. In the old capital, he collected not only such valuable things as the owners would freely contribute to the Imperial cause, but resorted to expropriation as well, in the alleviation of his own generosity.
The senator Avienus was chosen, with his colleague Trigetus and Leo, bishop of Rome, to undertake an expedition to the King of the Huns, who reposed at the famous Lago di Garda, the Garda Lake in the Southern Alps, only a few miles west of Verona, the town made immortal by Dietrich von Bern and Romeo and Julia. The deputation was not only carrying goods of secular value: with a huge dowry, a painting of the princess Honoria was delivered, whose hand was promised to the King of the Huns for his moderation. While those financial and amorous offerings may have belonged to diplomacy as usual, it was the keen mind of Leo who had thought of a different approach.

Huns plundering a Roman Villa

The respect that the Huns extended to matters of superstition and divination was well known in the Empire, and Leo recognized their potential usefulness: he guided the attention of the king and his nobles to the recognition of the horrible fates that destiny had imposed on the enemies of the eternal city.
Romulus’s bane lay over the town, the priest explained: no conqueror would live to reign over her but for a year. King Brennus, Leo pointed out, after seizing Rome in 387 BC, had died soon later [nobody had an idea when], and had not Alaric himself, the great king of the Visigoths, failed to survive the end of the year that saw his entry into Rome? Hannibal, Leo further elucidated, the greatest general Rome ever faced, had never even tried to actually take the city, well aware of the curse. Even Gaius Marius had not survived his own conquest of the city in the civil war more than a few weeks; if history punished Rome’s own sons so harshly, what could a stranger expect?

The priest’s arguments were well-chosen, but there was an additional factor which mitigated the Huns’ resolves to destroy the Empire; the fact that the barbarians had begun to cherish the temptations of civilization. The rough sons of the steppe, whose diet had been, for centuries, raw flesh and, perhaps, some fermented goat’s milk, were introduced to the Imperial Roman cuisine; to the taste of condiments and spices; the tender meat of suckling pigs and calves; the multitudes of vegetables and the sweet sensation of honey: they could not resist.
Their tents did not favourably compare to Roman buildings, whose heated floors and concrete foundations were able to withstand the winter’s frost or the whims of floods. But it was wine in particular that tended to undermine their earlier resolves and replaced thoughts of the ravages of war with the contemplation of a sunset drink with friends on the terrace of a villa, perhaps in the company of a few light-skirted nymphs.
Attila eventually granted peace but reminded the Roman delegation that the delivery of the annual financial contribution and the royal bride Honoria was to occur the very same year, to prevent his army’s return to Italy in a more adversarial mood. Thus spoken, the king retired to his eastern possessions and prepared for the royal encounter with Honoria.

Attila at his wooden palace in Pannonnia

Yet, in the meanwhile, Attila relieved his tender anxiety by adding a beautiful maid, whose name was Ildico, to the list of his innumerable wives. Their marriage was celebrated with Barbaric pomp and festivity at his wooden palace beyond the Danube; and the monarch, oppressed with wine and sleep, retired at a late hour from the banquet to the nuptial bed. His attendants continued to respect his pleasures, or his repose, the greatest part of the ensuing day, till the unusual silence alarmed their fears and suspicions; and after attempting to awaken Attila by loud and repeated cries, they at length broke into the royal apartment.

They found the trembling bride sitting by the bedside, hiding her face with her veil and lamenting her own danger as well as the death of the king, who had expired during the night [AD 453]. An artery had suddenly burst; and as Attila lay in a supine posture, he was suffocated by a torrent of blood which, instead of finding a passage through the nostrils, regurgitated into the lungs and stomach. (31)


The simple social order of the Huns ensured that Attila’s realm fell apart the very minute that the news of the king’s death reached the various hordes. The aspirations of a dozen subaltern leaders and the hopes of numerous bastard sons converged in one great conflagration, which removed the traces of the realm of the Huns from the continent, and history in general, in a matter of days. The tribes returned to their homelands in the Asian steppe, and neighbouring tribes found the fields north and east of the Danube empty. The Avares were the first people to inundate the former Hunnish plains and mountains, whence they soon came into contact with the Empire.
The disappearance of the Huns, however, also undermined Aetius’ design to provoke enmity between them and the Goths in Gaul, by which he hoped to have the menaces destroy each other. But now little military power remained available to him in the case of a Gothic invasion, and if the situation had not been bad enough to start with, the emperor himself partook in the acceleration of the realm’s demise by the murder of his general. “From the instinct of a base and jealous mind, he [Valentinian] hated the man who was universally celebrated as the terror of the Barbarians and the support of the republic.” (32)

Constant insinuations of eunuchs and courtiers urged the emperor to be aware of the danger a virtuous man might pose to the throne. The general’s presence was requested for some court business in Ravenna, and in perhaps the sole action history can reliably ascribe to the emperor’s person, the monarch drew his sword and buried it in Aetius’ breast; the breast that had, whatever the general’s moral shortcomings, at various occasions preserved the Empire and the West. The elite of the court assisted the emperor with their own daggers, and as soon as the general had expired, counselled the monarch that the victim’s friends must share his fate, for the good of the realm and to deter revenge. The cabal attracted Aetius’ friends, foremost Boethius, the praetorian prefect, to visit the Imperial Palace on the fabrication of some urgent business, where they were murdered wholesale [AD 454].

The court issued an edict that a conspiracy against the Empire and the monarch had been unveiled and, luckily, averted. Not a single of the emperor’s subjects, who were well aware of Aetius’ mistakes but also his merits, believed the gospel, and what had been public contempt for the feeble emperor was replaced, in Edward Gibbon’s phrase, by “universal abhorrence“. (33)

Consequently, the people were not surprised when Valentinian, after adding to the number and quality of his misdeeds a variety of illicit erotic affairs, which peaked at his rape of the wife of senator Maximus, was assassinated by two officers on the occasion of a military parade on the Field of Mars, outside the city [March 16, AD 455]. Valentinian had barely expired when Maximus, having observed his revenge fulfilled, was hailed as the new emperor by the express consent and salutations of the attending officers and domestics.
The murders of Aetius and Valentinian mark the beginning of the final disintegration of the Western Empire. What might have transpired had Maximus managed to exert any effective governance over his titular possessions no one can say: the sudden appearance of a Vandal war fleet under Geiseric’s command at the port of Ostia, only a dozen miles from
Rome swiftly concluded the reign of Maximus: when he appeared in public, flight on his mind, a furious multitude stoned him to death.

Three days after the emperor’s demise, Genseric led his troops upon the former capital of the known world, and the patience, wisdom and diplomacy of Bishop Leo became the instruments of a second negotiation. At length, Genseric promised to direct certain limitations upon the enthusiasm and the liberties of his army, but the rapacious reality of the second sack of the town within forty-five years broke the city’s vitality, and the catastrophe inflicted upon the eternal city a millennium of political insignificance and economic pauperism.

Genseric – The Sack of Rome

It took over 1,200 years until the mayor of Rome could again tally the same number of inhabitants as had dwelled there in the early fifth century AD. The Vandals’ vessels not only transported away everything of material value, copper and bronze being pilfered just as silver and gold: the empress Eudonia and her two daughters were compelled to share the ride, accompanied by thousands of Romans that were designated to the slave markets of Africa.


The decline of the geostrategic importance of Italy had long since become obvious by the labours of the generals and legions from Gaul, for this was where the action was: the Franks and Alemanni that had crossed the Rhine a century earlier had by now advanced deeply into Gaul, until they encountered the dominions of the Visigoths, who, for the moment, blocked further expansion south- and westward. The south-eastern corner of Gaul was settled by Burgundians, who had been placed there by Aetius himself, but it was the Franks and the Goths that played the main roles in the wake of Maximus’ death. Before his ignominious demise, the emperor had promoted a local Gallic nobleman named Avitus to the post of master-general of Gaul. The promotee considered himself, unlike his military colleagues, an educated man; the embassy sent by the emperor reached him while he was reposing in a precious villa near Clermont. Accepting the lofty rank, Avitus assumed the command of the local troops, which consisted mainly of Visigoths, with a sprinkle of other Germans thrown in. In deference to the factual holder of power, Avitus embarked on a journey to Theodoric II, the king of the Visigoths [r.AD 453-466]. He had barely reached his host when the sudden news of Genseric’s assault on Rome and Maximus’ death was delivered.

Whatever his original designs may have been, on the occasion of the unexpected message Theodoric convinced him to “claim the imperial office” [AD 455]. (34) The new emperor soon appeared in Rome, where, for the sincerity of his motives, he accepted the consulship; yet in a time when the office of the Augustus meant predominantly “toil and danger, [Avitus] indulged himself in the pleasantries of Italian luxury: age had not extinguished his amorous inclinations; and he is accused of insulting, with indiscreet and ungenerous raillery, the husbands whose wives he had seduced or violated.” (35)
The new emperor’s principal armoured support, the Visigoths, was temporarily unable to stabilize Avitus’ tenuous regency, because of their urgent business of fighting the Suebi, the former adversaries of the Vandals, for the dominion of northern Spain. When Count Ricimer, one of the captains of Rome’s few remaining battle-worthy legions, succeeded in annihilating a Vandal war fleet of sixty ships that had felt too secure in its harbour, he was applauded as the deliverer of the nation; and was able to convince Avitus to abdicate after a reign of fourteen months and many seductions of cooks and chambermaids.

After an interregnum of half a year, Ricimer installed his own favourite, Majorian, in the highest office of the West, who arrived in the capital with the news of a great victory he had inflicted upon the Alemanni and was subsequently installed as Augustus in Ravenna [AD 457]. The Alemanni had never heard of him. But it appeared that Majorian showed too much independence for Ricimer’s taste, and thus the magister militum had the emperor quickly assassinated and then ruled “until his death in 472, through a succession of mostly puppet emperors ….” (36) The successor of Majorian was one Livius Severus, of whom history has recorded no worthwhile activities; Ricimer managed the government: declining the purple and the diadem, he organized the treasury, trained the military and performed diplomacy.
Now Genseric reappeared on the radar. The Vandals had been busy rebuilding the fleet they had lost to Ricimer, and southern Italy quickly suffered the renewed and repeated visitations of his hordes. Of an advanced age, the king still commanded the raids. His rapines he explained with the failure of the Imperial court to respectfully entrust him with those parts of the realm that he was entitled to by the rights of inheritance and possession. This right the king claimed on behalf of the recent marriage of his elder son Hunneric to Eudocia, the dowager empress Eudonia’s daughter. The proud father-in-law accordingly considered himself qualified to pre-inherit a substantial portion of the Empire, for his family now represented the last bough of Theodosius’s family tree.

Before long, the Eastern Emperor Leo condescended to bestow an annual financial donation upon the Vandal’s treasury, to ensure the inviolability of his shores. As a consequence of Leo’s liberality, Genseric and his men concentrated their efforts upon the Italian coastline. Confronted with the easy manoeuvrability the enemy enjoyed by its ships, Ricimer, having none,
was at a loss how to counter the raids, and saw no other remedy than to apply to Constantinople in a quest for naval assistance. He addressed the Eastern Augustus Leo with the request to install a person of the emperor’s choice upon the throne of the West, which, luckily, was vacant, for Libius Severus had had the decency to expire at the most appropriate moment. The successful candidate should then be supported with men and ships and sent against the Vandals. Leo selected Anthemius, a court favourite, to fill the vacancy, and announced in a message to the world that after the destruction of the Vandal plague and the recovery of Africa Provincia, he and Anthemius were to govern the realm in philadelphial dedication. An earnest attempt was made to raise and train a new army, and, more important, a new navy: the treasury was considerably depleted and two corps of troops, on two separate fleets, were dispatched to invade Africa in a two-pronged invasion, in the hope to catch the enemy between the pincers and thus end the barbarian affront and Genseric’s hubris [AD 468].

Alas, the operation “was not only a failure but an extremely expensive one.” (37) A good part of the Roman fleet was attacked while still on the open sea, before they could unload their precious cargo, the legions, on the beaches: with the sinking ships much of the infantry found a watery grave. The rest of the force was blown by the winds all over the Syrte and lost contact. The Vandals had no big problem to eliminate the survivors piecemeal wherever they made landfall. The sorry outcome of the campaign resulted in a fall-out between Anthemius and Ricimer; the latter left Africa, gave up Rome and Ravenna, and re-established himself in Milan. He had devised a plan to invest another puppet on the Imperial throne, that is, as soon as Anthemius was gone, and to this end, collected an army of chiefly Burgundian and Suebian mercenaries, which he subsequently led upon Rome. He camped on the Field of Mars outside the town and waited for the arrival of his new Imperial candidate, a fellow named Olybrius.
Nobody had ever accused Olybrius of valour or other virtues, but what he did possess, and represent, in a way, was a most impressive pedigree: he had married Placidia, the younger daughter of Eudonia, the dowager empress still
detained in Africa, and thus was able to present, as his qualification for the office of Augustus of the West, an “illustrious name and a royal alliance.” (38) With the exception of a year’s service as (honorary) consul, the candidate did not profess to possess any education or experience in the business of administering an empire, but, with Leo’s consent, accepted the honours and set out to Italy to enjoy his new possessions.

A protracted siege followed Olybrius’ arrival near the eternal town, which was defended by a troop of Gothic mercenaries in Anthemius’ employment. In due time an assault on the Castle and Bridge of Hadrian found a weak spot in
the defence, whose exploitation resulted in the subsequent slaughter of the defenders, including their leader Gilimer [July 11, AD 472]. The town was sacked again; Anthemius summarily executed and whatever the Vandals might have overlooked seventeen years ago was now picked up by Ricimer’s acquisitive mercenaries.
Before long, however, the mysterious curse of Romulus struck again: the year AD 472, which had observed the town’s third sack in sixty-two years also beheld the demise of the main creators of the present calamity: Ricimer died only forty days after his success, and his Imperial marionette Olybrius followed him in October of the same year. Any semblance of order in Italy disintegrated.

In Constantinople, Leo needed to find a successor to the husband of Placidia, and after a few extended name-dropping sessions, it was remembered, fortunately, that the empress Verina had recently given the hand of one of her nieces to one Julius Nepos, who was, at the moment, the administrator of Dalmatia. This man, the court divined, might be persuaded to accept the glorious promotion.

The wheels of the court, alas, moved so ponderously that before a proper embassy, with a military guard, could be sent to Dalmatia, the Burgundian prince Gundobald – who had inherited the command of Ricimer’s mercenaries in Rome – had already elevated a minor official named Glycerius to the Imperial dignity. Advised of the error, Gundobald corrected his prematurity swiftly and Glycerius found himself demoted to the bishopric of Salona, on the Dalmatian coast. Italy saluted Julius Nepos.

Nepos was quite unaware of the condition of his empire, and, as Edward Gibbon observed, “the treaty of peace which ceded Auvergne to the Visigoths is the only event of his short and inglorious reign.” (39) It did not take very long
until the new emperor was confronted by a mutiny of the legions of Gaul under a general Orestes, and thought it safest to return to Dalmatia, where, five years later, he was “assassinated at Salona by the ungrateful Glycerius, who was translated, perhaps as the reward of his crime, to the archbishopric of Milan.” (40) It was a post apparently suited to Glycerius’ modest talents.
The new strong man was aforementioned Orestes, who had been born in Pannonia and learned the trade of a soldier in the service of Attila. His faculties had propelled him to the lofty position of secretary to the great king, and Attila had not only sought his military opinions but also entrusted him with diplomatic missions to Constantinople and Ravenna. His oath of fealty had expired with his master’s death, and he translated himself to the Imperial service in Italy. He advanced rapidly through the ranks until, at the occasion of Julius Nepos’s investiture, he was promoted to master-general of the
Western Empire, that is, of whatever was left of it.

Orestes was a bona fide hero, a soldiers’ soldier, in contrast to the Imperial domestics and retainers, who were acquainted with the use of daggers solely from banquets. It is reported that he was able to confer, or at least to make himself understood, with the Goths, Suebis and Burgundians who constituted the main part of his troops, but also with those tribes that had only recently presented themselves at the Imperial frontiers: the Heruli, Seyri, Alani, Rugi and Turcilinghi.
After Nepos’s retreat to Dalmatia, Orestes found himself essentially the only figure left in the game and wondered why he not might as well govern himself. Yet in remembrance of his predecessor Ricimer’s modus operandi, he chose to remain the power behind the throne and presented to the gathering of his subalterns as his choice of emperor his son Romulus, who was called “Augustulus” [diminutive of Augustus, i.e. “little Augustus”, ¶]. The young man was installed on the throne of the Occident and supplied with a number of concubines and a monthly allowance to occupy his time, while his father conducted the business of the Empire of the West.

Romulus Augustulus and Odoacer

Orestes had barely reigned a year when he faced another sedition of the legions. It seems that the Italian units demanded benefits equal to those which their colleagues in Gaul and Spain enjoyed, that is, the provision of land at the conclusion of their service. They felt defrauded of this reasonable reward and petitioned Orestes with the proposition to immediately reserve, and swiftly allocate, one-third of Italy’s fertile soil to the use of his supporters.
Sometimes a man is allowed but a single mistake, and so it came to pass in the case of Orestes. His refusal of the modest suggestion immediately effected the ascension of a new favourite of the legions, who promised that should the
men unite under his banner, the delivery of their desires was to occur immediately.

Odovacar, or Od0acer. which was the officer’s name, had been a military tribune and perceived clearly that the demands of the mob could not be gainsaid without provoking an instant mutiny. What he privately thought of the land deal is not known, but the word of his affirmative message spread like the wind and from all duty stations prospective heroes flocked to his standard. The expanse and speed of the insurrection surprised Orestes outside of Ravenna and forced him to retreat to the closest fortified town, Pavia, which was, unfortunately, neither equipped for war nor for a siege. The town was besieged at once and duly taken; Orestes executed for treason, and Romulus arrested [AD 476]. But then Odovacar deviated from the examples of Aetius and Ricimer, as Chris Wickham relates:

Odovacar, the next effective military supremo in Italy (476-93), did not bother to appoint any emperor of the West, but instead got the Roman senate to petition the eastern emperor Zeno that only one emperor was by now needed; Odovacar then governed Italy in Zeno’s name, as “patricius”, i.e. patrician, a title used by both Aetius and Ricimer, although inside Italy Odovacar called himself “rex“, king. (41)


After some hesitation, Zeno granted the supplication and Odovacar, now invested with legal authority, could afford to show leniency toward Romulus. Edward Gibbon applauds:

The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement. (42)

Odoacer’s Domain, AD 480

It is this year AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire, a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years. But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The perhaps most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in.

The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too.
It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. …
Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)


The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial Reconquista (which depleted his treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theoderic’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

Hits: 116

The Sack of Rome: Alaric

Alaric entering Athens

Emperor Theodosius [AD 379 – 395] had been able to keep the lid on the boiling kettle of barbarians for a decade; to a large extent by his personality, his knowledge of battle, moderation in judgement and practical hand in the administration of the state. These were qualities that impressed the Goths much more than being literate or educated in Christian hypocrisy, and as long as Theodosius lived the Goths refrained from major transgressions. It should, however, not have come as too big a surprise that, after Theodosius’s sudden demise in January 395, it took the Visigoths less than three months to take up arms and reclaim their independence. The pretext was some complaint about annual subsidies that had arrived too late or not at all, and the Goths stormed into the renewed campaign led by their duke Alaric.

Alaric [ca. AD 370-410, ¶] had served in the legions and risen to command, but had, uncommonly for an officer, sought education in politics and statecraft as well. He was aware that his people had exploited the meagre lands of Thrace for all it was worth, but that the remaining morsel in the vicinity – Constantinople – was too cumbersome to be swallowed, due to its fortifications. He resolved to seek fame and riches in southern Greece, which, as Edward Gibbon remarked, had hitherto escaped the ravages of war. (13)

The Sack of Rome, French Miniature, 14th Century

The nation consequently packed its belongings and set foot upon a trek that was to last more than a hundred years. The first victims of their plunderlust were the famous towns of Mycenae, Corinth, Thebes and Argos, whence Ajax and Agamemnon, Menelaus and Achilles had sailed for Troy. The West sent philadelphial support, if too late to save the towns: in AD 397 the master-general of the West, Stilicho, arrived with the greater part of the western legions. Of Vandal origin, he was, perhaps, a military match for Alaric, but not, as it turned out, in his league as a diplomat. But when he arrived in Arcadia, the mythical home of Pan, he was able to force the Goths to retreat into a fortified camp, which he promptly besieged.
Sieges are vexatious affairs, and after a few weeks, Stilicho left for some well-deserved rest and recreation. He had barely spent a month on the beach when he was informed of the fact that the war was over – Alaric had succeeded in concluding a treaty with Arcadius, son of Theodosius and new emperor of the East. The contract not only reinstated the most amicably relations between Goths and Romans but also promoted Alaric to the rank of master-general for the Illyrian provinces. Thus, the memorable and profane event occurred in a few Greek cities that the barbarian chieftain who had only weeks earlier besieged them was greeted as the new and legitimate general of the commonwealth, and among his new subjects were “the fathers whose sons he had massacred [and] the husbands whose wives he had violated.” (14) He already had a plan to secure the armed superiority of his people. Edward Gibbon relates what followed:

The use to which Alaric applied his new command distinguishes the firm and judicious character of his policy.
He issued his orders to the four magazines and manufacturers of offensive and defensive arms, Margus,
Rataria, Naissus, and Thessalonica, to provide his troops with an extraordinary supply of shields, helmets,
swords and spears; the unhappy provincials were compelled to forge the instruments of their own
destruction; and the Barbarians removed the only defect which had sometimes disappointed the efforts of
their courage.

The birth of Alaric, the glory of his past exploits, and the confidence in his future designs insensibly united the
body of the nation under his victorious standard; and with the unanimous consent of the Barbarian chieftains,
the master-general of Illyricum was elevated, according to ancient custom, on a shield and solemnly
proclaimed king of the Visigoths. Armed with this double power, seated on the verge of two empires, he
alternately sold his deceitful promises to the courts of Arcadius and Honorius; till he declared and executed
his resolution of invading the dominions of the West. (15)

In the first years of Alaric’s western campaign [AD 401-402, ¶], the geographical distance of his arms caused no immediate alarm at the court of Honorius, brother of Arcadius. But when the Goths finally arrived in Italy, the Emperor absented himself to the safety of Gallia, on the yonder side of the Alps. Stilicho, who had returned to his ordinary station in the West, collected the available intelligence and calculated numbers. He decided that he needed the support of the legions deployed on the border to Germany as reinforcement and also recalled the two African legions. The dubious value of some of these troops reflects even stronger on the quality of Stilicho’s generalship when he, with the assorted leftovers of the formerly proud Roman legions, obtained the better end of Alaric at the Battle of Polentia in March 403. The initial success enabled Stilicho to follow Alaric’s subsequent retreat and to defeat him twice again: in Verona and in the mountains of Illyria whither the Goths had withdrawn.
The Gothic danger apparently averted, Emperor Honorius declared to celebrate his victory over the barbarians and the delivery of the realm with a triumph unprecedented in the history of the capital. It was to last for several months: for the last time, cruel games were presented in the Flavian Amphitheatre, known as Coliseum, and the populace fed on free grain from Africa.

The Sack of Rome, by J.N, Sylvestre

That the Emperor’s dear life should not be threatened again in the future, the administrative capital of the West was moved a second time in AD 402, from Trier to Ravenna, an ancient Roman colony south of the estuary of the Po. The town was formidably fortified, and a secure port facility established at a distance of three miles from the citadel. The stronghold was surrounded by morass and swamps at all sides which prevented the employment of heavy siege engines and rendered military conquest of the fortress nigh impossible. The person of the Emperor was now reliably protected.
The defence of the western provinces, however, became a perpetually bleeding wound upon the Imperial resources, for continuous migration pushed German tribes without end over the frontiers. An especially large troop of Goths, with an admixture of Burgundians, Suevians, Alans and Vandals, under the leadership of one Radagaisus [also known as Rhodogast, ¶] crossed the Alps and appeared in the Po valley in AD 405. The throng consisted of perhaps half a million warriors, families and slaves.

It was too big to be handled by the Italian legions alone, and Stilicho had to recall troops from the German frontier a second time, [FN1] which was to have negative consequences later. This time, Stilicho borrowed a page from Julius Caesar’s famous siege of Alesia, the strategy of circumvallation. Like Fabius Maximus, Stilicho closed in on the Germanic throng cautiously, shadowing, but avoiding battle. Once Radagaisus’ undisciplined mass of freebooters and adventurers had to settle down near Florence, tired from the quest, the legions began to construct ramparts, surrounding the enemy camp with a double wall: an inner wall to keep the adversary immobile and inflicting, sooner or later, the horrors of famine and thirst upon them, and a second, outer ring that frustrated any hope of relief from the outside. The method had worked for Caesar and it did not fail against the multitude of Radagaisus’ barbarians. Famine at length reduced them to ignominious surrender: their capitulation was solemnly accepted but their dignity was violated: Radagaisus was ignobly beheaded and those of his community who had survived hunger sold into slavery. Their health was so poor that each head fetched no more than a single gold piece; yet the numbers made it up for Stilicho, who was praised as the deliverer of the Fatherland [AD 406].

[FN1] Chris Wickham reflects: “This was probably a mistake, for it was followed by an invasion of central European tribes led by the Vandals, over the Rhine on New Year’s Eve 406, an eruption into western Gaul and then (in 409) into Spain which was almost unresisted; and also in 407 another invasion of Gaul, this time by a usurper, Constantine III (406-11), at the head of the army of Roman Britain.” (16)

But before the news of Stilicho’s success arrived at Ravenna, Emperor Honorius had already contacted Alaric with a financially attractive proposition to aid the Empire against Radagaisus’ hordes. By Stilicho’s miraculous removal of the menace, however, the basis of Honorius’s proposal had suddenly evaporated, and Stilicho’s and Alaric’s armies eyed each other nervously in Lower Italy: Honorius had discovered that jinni is easier summoned than disposed of.
A sort of three-man chess game developed around AD 407: two armies and their respective generals were vying for the legitimacy that could be conferred on only one of them. Honorius, safely hiding in the fortress of Ravenna, bewailed his fate, but avoided a decision as to whom of the two formidable generals to support, while maintaining, by evenly distributing his pecuniary assistances, his interest in coming out, whichever the end might be, on the side of the winner. At length, Stilicho was ordered to deliver to the king of the Goths a subsidy in the amount of four thousand pounds of gold, with Honorius’s best regards, perhaps, for the Gothic king’s moderation in squeezing out Italy. But in Stilicho’s absence Ravenna’s court politics entered into a cascade of envy and suspicion of the successful general. Honorius, twenty-five years of age and ignorant of the virtues of a statesman or general, was impressed by the flatteries and suspicions conveyed by his two principal ministers Olympius and Heraclian, and at length convinced of Stilicho’s guilt. The Imperial ire awoke and a warrant for the present and immediate execution of the hero was issued, which Heraclian personally effected, on August 23, AD 408. The last great Roman general fell victim to the whims of a knave on the throne of the

Four months after the deed, Honorius presented his subjects with a proclamation that explained the imminent dangers to the Empire that were luckily averted by the timely execution of the traitor: Stilicho, the document divulged, had planned to sell Italy to the Goths [whom he had defeated three times, at Pollentia, Verona and Florence, ¶], or, perhaps, to the Ostrogoths [who had not moved an inch from their Pannonian pastures, ¶], or to some other folks. In addition, he had schemed to invest his son Eucherius with the royal regalia. As soon as the conspiracy had conferred the Imperial purple on his juvenile shoulders, the obedient son had intended to restore idolatry and paganism to the Empire and effect a renewed prosecution of Christianity as a whole and the Catholic Church in particular. By his interception of the unholy design and the fiend’s timely demise, Honorius had not only saved the lives and properties of his subjects but their eternal souls as well.

It is not known what his subjects thought of the story, but the military aspects were soon obvious enough, for the murder of Stilicho had cleared the last obstacle in Alaric’s way. Following Stilicho’s execution, it seems that Honorius instigated a conspiracy to slaughter the families of the barbarian legionaries and to kill any Gothic hostages remaining from earlier occasions, that is, chiefly children of the Gothic nobility. How exactly the intended massacre should have endeared the Goths to the Imperial cause was unclear. The homicidal mob, however, that took upon the encouragement of their monarch appeared surprised when the about 30,000 legionaries of Germanic origin immediately transferred their allegiance to Alaric and the Goths. The Goths’ renewed offensive passed the Alps, marched with little difficulty through Gallia Cisalpina, crossed the Po and descended, upon the Via Salaria, the ancient road traversing the Apennines, in the direction of Rome. The town had not been threatened by foreign military forces since Hannibal, 690 years ago, and it would seem that diplomacy could have halted the Gothic king in his progression, but “the Romans would not consistently make peace with him, even though he blockaded Rome three times.” (17) By the fourth time, the patience of the king had worn out, and the Goths laid siege upon the former capital of the Empire.

By a skilful disposition of his numerous forces, who impatiently watched the moment of the assault, Alaric
encompassed the walls, commanded the twelve principal gates, intercepted all communication with the
adjacent country, and vigilantly guarded the navigation of the Tiber, from which the Romans derived the surest and most plentiful supply of provisions [AD 408]. The first emotions of the nobles and of the people were those of surprise and indignation that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune; and their unmanly rage, instead of being directed against an enemy in arms, was meanly exercised on a defenceless and innocent victim.

Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother, of the reigning emperor: but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated or overawed by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of her guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitudes were astonished to find that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately procure the retreat of the Barbarians and the deliverance of the city. That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity and at length the horrid calamities of famine. (18)

The fighting abilities of the Goths and the strategic abilities of their king and general were little challenged during the siege. After the terrified town had received notice from Ravenna that the Emperor had abandoned their cause, the defenders despaired and the town was eventually sacked, 797 years after King Brennus and his Celts, and 1163 years after her mythical foundation.
The quills of the contemporary observers composed divergent tales regarding the exact frightfulness of the subsequent events. It appears that Alaric had ordered churches exempted from the general pillage, but while this command may have had some effect on the Christian Goths, it was an outlandish directive to the Hunnish mercenaries, who formed the greater part of his cavalry and widely disobeyed. In general, the historical observations report par for the course of a successful siege, that the men were slaughtered, the women raped and gold and glitter stolen. Yet it has been found that only one (1) Roman senator lost his life in the melee, and that the Goths, thank God, left the town within seven days while, for example, the pious Catholic troops of the French King Charles V, in the sixteenth century, stayed for nine months and left smouldering ruins in their wake.

Burial of Alaric in the Busento River

Yet the sack of Rome was something of an accident, in part a result of Honorius’s refusal to work on any reasonable solution, and, as Chris Wickham points out, the sack was “without other repercussions, and was only one step in the long Visigoth road to settlement.” (19) The Goths now headed for Sicily, but a tempest sunk the ships they had procured to take them to Africa and a sudden, rapidly progressing illness struck down the king himself [AD 410]. He was buried, the story goes, in the bed of a temporarily diverted river, a place where no man could disturb his perpetual rest. Alaric was followed in the royal dignity by Athaulf, or Adolphus, whom history, perhaps unjustly, treats much like an afterthought to Alaric. He was an educated man, and his credo was reported to the historian Orosius as it follows here:

“In the full confidence of valour and victory, I once aspired (said Adolphus) to change the face of the universe; to obliterate the name of Rome; to erect on its ruins the domination of the Goths; and to acquire, like Augustus, the immortal fame of the founder of a new empire. By repeated experiments, I was gradually convinced that laws are essentially necessary to maintain and regulate a well-constituted state; and that the fierce, intractable humour of the Goths was incapable of bearing the salutary yoke of laws and civil government. From that moment I proposed to myself a different object of glory and ambition; and it is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger who employed the sword
of the Goths not to subvert but to restore and maintain the prosperity of the Roman Empire.” (20)

Athaulf eventually found a way to bargain with Honorius, and, after marrying his daughter Galla Placidia, and in possession of the Emperor’s license, led the Visigoths to Gaul. That did not work, for the province was mired in the civil wars of up to four different usurpers in AD 411, and after a detour to Spain, fighting the Vandals in the name of Rome, they settled in Gallia Narbonensis, today’s Languedoc and Provence in AD 418. The magister militum of Gaul, Constantius, was able to unite Gaul in this decade and, by marrying Athaulf’s widow Galla Placidia, became a short-lived emperor in his own right, before his and Placidia’s son Valentinian III enjoyed a relatively long, if passive, reign [AD 425-455], with his mother as regent. (21)

For the moment not only the East, ignored for half a century by barbarian invaders, but the West “had achieved, after a decade of turmoil, substantial stability as well. Most of the frontier was still manned by Roman troops. There were barbarian’ groups settled in the empire, it is true, separate from the Roman military hierarchy, the Visigoths between Bordeaux and Toulouse and the remnants of the Vandal confederacy in western Spain, Suevi in the north and Hasding Vandals in the south; but all these had been defeated, and the Visigoths at least were in a formal federate alliance with Rome.” (22) Yet before long, fresh trouble approached from the East.

(13) (14) (15) (18) (20) Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library 2003-5, First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005 Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, pp. 644 [547], 649 [551], 649 [551], 666 [566], 675 [573]

(16) (17) (19) (21) (22) Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 80, 80, 80, 85, 82

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/20)

Hits: 115

We skip the light fandango – Hyacinth and the Mermaid

A still photograph from Luana Wolf’s Video – see below

On May 12, 1967, the British record label DERAM released the first song by a completely unknown band called Procol Harum, as its single number 126. The band did not yet exist as a permanent ensemble, and a studio musician (Bill Eyden) was hired to play the drums. The line-up consisted of Gary Brooker (vocals and piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ M-102), Ray Royer (guitar), David Knights (bass) and Bill Eyden (drums), Keith Grant was the sound engineer and Denny Cordell produced the piece.

Live in 2018

In the – officially still unpublished – original the song was around nine minutes long – we can’t really say, for the original 4-track master tape was unfortunately lost at some point. For the release of the single, the song was cut to just over four minutes in length, leaving only two of the original four stanzas intact. The lyrics were, and remain, on the strange side:

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

She said, there is no reason
And the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as well’ve been closed

She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’
Though in truth we were at sea
So I took her by the looking glass
And forced her to agree
Saying, ‘You must be the mermaid
Who took Neptune for a ride.’
But she smiled at me so sadly
That my anger straight way died

If music be the food of love *
Then laughter is its queen
And likewise if behind is in front
Then dirt in truth is clean
My mouth by then like cardboard
Seemed to slip straight through my head
So we crash-dived straight way quickly
And attacked the ocean bed

A still photograph from Luana Wolf’s Video

This was the psychedelic phase of pop music, and no one expected a text to necessarily make sense, but unlike much textual humbug of the time, the song remains in popular consciousness – due to its obscene sales figures, and many – which the author hereby joins – have found themselves triggered to prolonged speculation and interpretations.

Two unofficial but complete versions may be found, for example, on YouTube:

Video by Luana Wolf

Link (in the case of embedding malfunction): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIWCSrG1d-Y

A second video may be found on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYBqv3NIqho

The first video was posted by Luana Wolf, who explains:

It seems that many have their own interpretations to the meaning of this song. Anywhere from drugs, death, lost love and some just plain comical But according to Keith Reid who wrote the lyrics He explained… “It’s sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story. It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room.” Together with the music written by Gary Brooker this song turned out to be one of the greatest of that era..,. So… while putting this video together I followed the journey, and made my own story. Setting the stage as a fantasy love story. Maybe you can smell the ocean air? …..I claim no rights to the music nor the photos. All belong to their respective owners…

What all interpretations more or less agree on is that it is a story about love, or at least sex, rather of the unfortunate kind, and that the sea has special connotations to it. The German wiki page contributes some basic interpretations, which we like to quote here:

In September 1994, Tim de Lisle received the following explanation from Keith Reid [the lyricist]: A nervous wannabe seducer drinks to his courage at a party. The increasing amount of alcohol affects his perception through wandering thoughts: fragments from childhood experiences and his faint-hearted goals. The recurring metaphor in the song is about a ship disaster that draws a parallel between a romantic conquest and the dangers of the sea. …

The confusion about the meaning is also due to the fact that half of the text was removed before the recording session. Originally it consisted of four stanzas, the second and third were deleted when the music was recorded. The meaning becomes more obvious if one adds the missing stanzas. Then it becomes obvious that the narrator is on a ship at sea. There are also surrealistic word games and bizarre word cascades, which can also be found in later works by the group. The – also in English-speaking countries – mysterious, mystical, if not impenetrable text also takes on sound functions, which is underlined by Brooker’s expressive voice.

At the beginning is the riddle of the title, which lost the originally intended subtitle “(The Miller’s Tale)” * and whose wording Keith Reid accidentally claims to have picked up during a conversation: “My God, you’ve just turned a whiter shade of pale. “Procol Harum biographer Johansen compares the wordplay of the song with that of the earlier rhythm and blues, which metaphorically treats the relationship between men and women (especially sexuality). In A Whiter Shade of Pale, the couple’s eroticism begins with the flamenco-like fandango, which is considered particularly seductive and is accompanied here by exuberant dance wheels (“cartwheels”) and an encouraging audience (“the crowd called out for more”). The beginning of the chorus also indirectly and repeatedly emphasizes the topic of sexual seduction with the reference “as the miller told his tale” by alluding to Boccaccio’s cycle of novels “Decameron” or Chaucer’s rather saucy “The Miller’s Tale”.


There is more or less agreement that the story takes place on a ship, with dance and alcohol involved, and love falling as it does, comparing its violence and dangers to that of the sea. Ms Wolf’s video shows this very imaginatively.

The most instructive article on the song known to the author is by Mike Butler from the book “Lives of the Great Songs” and may be found here. One section:

The song explores what it means to be wrecked, in more than one sense of the word. A nervous seducer sustains his courage with alcohol. As he becomes more drunk, his impressions of his unfamiliar partner become confused by stray thoughts, fragments of childhood reading and his own faint-hearted aspirations. The song’s recurring metaphor is of maritime disaster, and a parallel is drawn between romantic conquest and the allure and peril of the sea. The hero is a callow juvenile, far happier with a book than risking the emotional bruising of relationships. This ambivalence is underscored by frequent allusions to nausea.

As befits a night of excess, there are gaps in the telling. The evasive ‘And so it was that later …’ is given weight by repetition and its positioning just before the hook (‘Her face at first just ghostly / Turned a whiter shade of pale’). The listener is invited to fill the gaps with his or her own (prurient) imagination. An entire verse was dropped early in the song’s gestation. Another is optional (‘She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’ / Though in truth we were at sea’) and was excised from the recorded version at the insistence of producer Denny Cordell, to make the record conform to standard single length.

For a pop song, A Whiter Shade of Pale carries an unprecedented amount of literary baggage. Although, Reid reveals, the reference to Chaucer is a red herring. ‘One thing people always get wrong is that line about the Miller’s Tale. I’ve never read Chaucer in my life. They’re right off the track there.’ Why did he put it in then? (In mild dismay at the peremptory demolition of this intellectual prop.) ‘I can’t remember now.’ The analogy with Canterbury Tales, whether welcomed by Reid or not, holds good. Both are quintessentially English works, the one established in the canon of literature, and the other a pop standard. Both have associations of piety and decorum. (The song has become a regular fixture of the wedding ritual, supplanting Handel’s Wedding March as the tune to walk down the aisle to after the ceremony: it was played, indeed, at the wedding of Gary Brooker and Françoise, known as Frankie, with Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher in the organ loft.) Both, beneath their respectable surface, are puerile and sex-obsessed works. 


Those, however, wanting to immerse themselves as deeply as possible in the speculations of humanity in general about the lyrics, you will find all this and more in a second article – on “Beyond The Pale” (the big Procol Harum fan site) – under this link… Would you like, perhaps, an explanation from Luz Laulo?

Well, quite simply I think this is a tale of a man who met a mermaid (or some sort of Siren) who took “shore leave” in a pub or perhaps a dance hall … they danced and he ended up falling in love with her and making love to her that night … I think they ended up in on the ocean in a boat and it seems her secret was revealed then … they both plunged into the sea together. Her face turning a whiter shade of pale may have been another way of saying she had died along with the fellow. I don’t quite understand the allusion to the miller; that may have been a reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and may have just been poetic license. This is one of the most beautiful rock songs I have ever heard.

Another still from Luana’s Video

On the etymology of the band name: It was or is claimed that the band name is of Latin origin and means something like “Behind the things”, which the author – unfortunately – (after eight years of Latin in high school) has to denude as fake news. The second theory is that the name is based on the name of a cat in the former extended band family. Who knows? Who knows anything?

(© John Vincent Palatine 2020)

Hits: 17

The Schlieffen and Moltke Plans – Summaries, Documents, Discussion

German Cavalry enters Warsaw

The following is a collection of three articles on a matter of popular and continuing discussion in the realm of military history – the German plans for the Great War, developed between 1889 and 1914 by the two chiefs of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen and his successor, Colonel-General Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger).

These are some of the first articles in English that incorporate the results of the most recent German MGFA study of 2007.

In 2007, the German Military History Research Office (MGFA) published “The Schlieffen Plan: Analyses and Documents“, edited by Michael Epkenhans, Hans Ehlert and Gerhard P. Gross. Wiki informs us that “This volume contains a copy of Schlieffen’s 1905 Memorandum misfiled in the German Military Archives at Friedberg, and German deployment plans from the year 1893/94 to 1914/15, most of which had been lost otherwise. These documents, not yet available in English translation, are said to strongly support the traditional ideas of a “Schlieffen Plan” that Zuber disputed.”

Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan

The following three articles discuss the:

(1) Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan

An introduction to the subject and recent literature plus operational analyses by John Keegan and the author …

(2) The Real German War Plan

A continuation of (1) with the ongoing publication of newly available original documents on the Moltke Plan from the new German study and

(3) Plans and War Guilt – The Story of early August 1914

Few treaty clauses had a greater impact on subsequent history than the asinine War Guilt Clause Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles – who actually invaded whom in August 1914?

Near Reims, 1914

… to be continued

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/20)

Hits: 59

Anton Drexler – Founder of the DAP (NSDAP)

The real problem that men like Dietrich Eckart, as well as other nationalists, anti-Semitists and Pan-Germanists in Munich and Germany, shared in 1918 was the fact that the right-wing was hopelessly atomized in a multitude of little parties, clubs and fraternities; the lack of someone able to address the broad masses was felt most critically. One of these tiny political groups in Munich was a fellowship formed by a man called Anton Drexler.

Anton Drexler was one of those rather simple-minded workmen who believe that the poor, the exploited, and
the oppressed will always be vindicated in the end. His father was a Social Democrat, and he remembered vividly being taken on May Day to a Social Democrat outing in the woods near Munich when he was a child.

In those days the names of Ferdinand Lassalle and August Bebel were still revered by German workingmen, who remembered that it was the Social Democrats who had wrested from Bismarck the highly developed social legislation that was the envy of workingmen all over the world. Drexler came out of the soil of Social Democracy as a plant grows out of the earth. He belonged to the working class, and it would never have occurred to him that there was any other class worth belonging to.


After his journeyman years, he returned to Munich and was employed in October 1902 by the Royal Bavarian Central Railway Repair Works as a blacksmith and toolmaker. He volunteered for the Bavarian army in August 1914, but the railroad office refused to release him for service. The war awakened his political conscience, and on March 7, 1918, he founded the “WORKER’S COUNCIL FOR A GOOD PEACE”. In the fall of the same year, Drexler met Karl Harrer, a sports reporter of the MÜNCHEN-AUGSBURGER ABENDZEITUNG, a local newspaper. The two decided on the foundation of another little club, the “POLITICAL WORKERS’ CIRCLE”, which met once or twice a week to discuss solutions for the world’s major issues. Harrer,
politically better connected than Drexler through his membership in the Thule Society, insisted that the topics of their weekly discussions were duly recorded for posterity, including the names of the attendees. The protocol for December
1918 to January 1919 read:

Meeting on 12/05/1918, Topic: “Newspapers as the Tools of Politics”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/11/1918, Topic: “The Jew, Germany’s greatest Enemy”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/17/1918, Topic: “Why the War Happened”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Lotter, v.Heimburg, Girisch, Kufner). 12/30/1918, Topic: “Who Bears the Guilt for the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brunner, Sauer, Kufner). 01/16/1919, Topic: “Why we had to Win the War”, Speaker Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner, Brunner). 01/22/1919, Topic: “Were we able to Win the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner). 01/30/1919, Topic: “Why was the War Lost?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brunner).


Drexler quickly realized that Harrer’s omnipresence, so to say, and his penchant for intimate audiences was not very likely to awaken the workers’ interest in the circle’s political agenda. He resolved that a regular party must be founded.

“One week before Christmas 1918, I explained during a circle meeting that the salvation of Germany was unlikely to be found within such a small circle as we were; that we needed a new party, a ‘German Socialist Workers’ Party,’ without Jews Thus it came to the decision to go public and form a new party (German Socialist Workers’ Party). The word ‘socialist’ was then dropped. The by-laws and guidelines of the ‘German Workers Party’ were written by me.”

DAP Logo 1920

Thus, it came to pass that on Sunday, January 5, 1919, Drexler and Michael Lotter, the circle’s record keeper, founded the “GERMAN WORKERS’ PARTY” in a room of the Munich tavern “Fürstenfelder Hof”. Drexler brought twenty-four prospective members, chiefly colleagues from the railway repair shop to the constitutive session and was elected steward of the new party’s Munich chapter. Karl Harrer was appointed – perhaps in his absence, the sources contradict each other – national chairman of the fledgeling organization, and the assembly unanimously voted for the adoption of the party statutes as composed by Drexler. The same then gave the new party’s inaugural address, which showed his humanitarian impulses: the party should strive to end the divisive class warfare and internationalism promoted by the Bolsheviks in favour of a national and patriotic socialism. Details were to follow.

There had been a bit of a problem regarding the christening of the new party; the original proposal of “German National Socialist Party” was popular, but another party with similar teachings had chosen exactly this name a few months earlier in Bohemia, and, incidentally, the Bohemians’ emblem featured a swastika. Hence, the epithets “national” and “socialist” were dropped, and the name “Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei” (DAP, German Workers’ Party, ¶) adopted. Drexler explained his liking for the name as an integrative statement: himself a slightly higher educated member of the working class, he proposed that skilled workers should not be considered simple workmen any more but should have a legal right to be counted among the aspiring middle classes. The middle classes themselves should be enlarged, at the cost of the “capitalists”. Drexler was an incurable romantic.

Although Drexler and many of his work colleagues were anti-Semitic, the only reference in the statutes and by-laws that pointed in this direction was a declaration that “religious teachings contrary to the moral and ethical laws of
Germany should not be supported by the state.” This was, comparatively, rather tame. In the wake of the foundation, Drexler wrote a small pamphlet summarizing his political thought, called MEIN POLITISCHES ERWACHEN – My Political Awakening – which he distributed at party meetings and among his colleagues in the railway repair shop.

For a time, Harrer’s original circle remained in existence, although an executive council was established which acted simultaneously as the new party’s praesidium. Still, the attractiveness of the party to Munich’s workers remained modest — a report of the general meeting of July 12, 1919, lists twenty-one persons present, the one of August 14 thirty- eight. The meetings of the circle continued in the intimacy of the usual five or six participants.

It is not entirely clear, however, how Captain Mayr’s military intelligence unit I b/P came into the possession of a typewritten invitation, dating of September 3, to a meeting of the DAP on September 12, 1919, 7:30 pm, to be held at the “Sterneckerbräu” tavern near the Isartor, one of Munich’s old town landmarks. The flyer announced that the Engineer Gottfried Feder would speak on his favourite theme of the breaking of the interest slavery, in particular of “How and by which means can we eliminate Capitalism?”

On the evening of September 12, 1919, Adolf Hitler set out to visit a meeting of the recently formed DAP. What turn would history have taken had Hitler visited, on this day, a different group on Mayr’s list, perhaps the “Society of Communist Socialists” or the “Block of Revolutionary Students”? No one knows. But it was to the Sterneckerbräu that Hitler directed his steps. The tavern was one of the smaller beer halls in Munich, and the side room, in which the meeting took place, the “Leiberzimmer”, could seat perhaps fifty or sixty people. The protocol of September 12 lists twenty-five party members and eighteen guests present, one of them Adolf Hitler.

History proceeded …

See posts:

The German Workers’ Party

A meeting of consequences …

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/20)

Hits: 42

Floralia – The Feast of Flowers and Easy Virtues

Floralia, detail

It is generally little known that Flora was one of the fifteen principal deities of Rome – she had her own priest, the Flamen floralis – and the Floralia in her honour were one of the principal festivals and special games, the “Ludi Florae” were sponsored in her honour by the plebeian aediles – because the Floralia derived from the plebeian, not the patrician roots of the people.

The Triumph of Flora – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The Temple of Flora was built in Rome upon consultation with the Sibylline Books shortly after a drought that occurred around 241–238 BCE. The temple was located near the Circus Maximus on the lower slope of the Aventine Hill, a site associated with the plebeians of Rome. Games were instituted for the founding day of the temple (April 28), and were held only occasionally until continued crop damage led to their annual celebration beginning in 173

Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, p. 110
Floralia, painting by Hobbe Smith

In general, it was a rather licentious affair …

In 238 BC, at the direction of an oracle in the Sibylline books, a temple was built to honour Flora, an ancient goddess of flowers and blossoming plants. It was dedicated on April 28 and the Floralia instituted to solicit her protection (Pliny, Natural History, XVIII.286, cf. Velleius Paterculus, I.14.8, who says 241/240 BC). Sometime later, the festival was discontinued, only to be revived in 173 BC, when the blossoms again that year suffered from winds, hail, and rain (Ovid, Fasti, V.329ff). It was celebrated annually with games (ludi Florales) from April 28 until May 3. These farces and mimes, which received official recognition, were known for their licentiousness. The prostitutes of Rome, who regarded the day as their own, performed naked in the theatre and, suggests Juvenal (Satire VI), fought in the gladiatorial arena. In the Circus Maximus, deer and hares, symbols of fertility, were let loose in honour of the goddess as protector of gardens and fields (but not of woods and wild animals) and, instead of the customary white, colourful garments were worn during the festivities, some of which were celebrated at night (Ovid, Fasti, IV.946, V.189-190, 331ff.). Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, another symbol of fertility) also were thrown to the people in the Circus (Persius, Satires, V.177ff).

Valerius Maximus (II.10.8) relates that it was the custom at theatrical presentations during the Floralia for the spectators to demand that the actresses perform naked on stage. Rather than interfere with the festivities, Cato (the Younger), who was in attendance, walked out. The audience followed him, applauding the fact that, although disgusted and embarrassed, Cato choose to leave rather than have his presence inhibit the performance. They then went back inside. Certainly, the bawdy celebration offended Cato, who is quoted by Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, X.13) as saying that a participant acted like a harlot, going from the banquet straight to the couch, where she disported herself with others. Martial is not so forgiving of such hypocritical morality, declaring in the preface to his first book of epigrams that they are written for those who are accustomed to watching the Floralia, not for the likes of Cato, who cannot be so naive as not to have known what to expect when he choose to attend “sprightly Flora’s ritual fun, the festal jests and license of the rout.” The fourth-century poet, Ausonius, is equally impatient with such behaviour when he chides those who go to the theatre during the Floralia—”the rites which they long to see who declare they never longed to see them” (Eclogues, XXIII.25).

Floralia, from the workshop of Prosper Piatti
A Sketch for Floralia (1888) by Antonio Reyna Manescau

(© John Vincent Palatine 2020)

Hits: 139

The First War of Private First Class Adolf Hitler

Private Hitler in the First World War

Until recently, say, the last twenty years, the subject of this series of articles had been somewhat buried below the historical hagiography of the Third Reich, which idolized Hitler as a war hero and destroyed everything that did not fit the bill – and the subsequent loss of many documents due to the Allied bomber campaign.

We owe it mostly to the efforts of Anton Joachimsthaler and Thomas Weber that we have improved our knowledge in the last years. Their books are of principal value for research and build the foundation for the following articles:

Part One: Adolf Hitler arrives in Munich 1913

Part Two: Outbreak of the War

Part Three: Adolf Hitler at the Western Front

to be continued …

© John Vincent Palatine 2015/2020

Hits: 61

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén