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 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
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.
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.
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 , 649 , 649 , 666 , 675 
(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)