Magazine article History Today
The Visigoths Sack Rome: August 25th, 410
At its height the Roman Empire stretched from Britain and the Atlantic to North Africa and Mesopotamia. In the fourth century An, however, what Pliny the Elder had called the 'immense majesty of the Roman peace' was menaced by invasions of Germanic peoples from beyond the frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube. Among them were the Visigoths, whose leader from around 395 was a chieftain in his mid-20s named Alaric. That same year also saw the death of the Emperor Theodosius the Great, after which the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western halves under his sons, Arcadius in the east and the ten-year-old Honorius in the west. Honorius's capital was moved from Rome to Ravenna, which was more easily defended.
Honorius's regent was his father's choice, an able general called Stilicho, himself half-German and half-Roman and who kept a loyal German bodyguard. In the early 400s Alaric, who had been attacking the Romans in the Balkans, turned to repeated invasions of Italy, which Stilicho repelled. He hoped to draw the Visigoths into an alliance against the eastern Romans, but now hordes of other Germanic warriors invaded the western empire across the Rhine. In 408 Stilicho was beheaded in Ravenna as a traitor who, it was claimed, had conspired with Alaric to put his own son on Honorius's throne.
What Alaric really wanted was land on which his people could settle and an accepted place within the empire, which the authorities in Ravenna would not give him. Needing to keep his followers well rewarded, he marched on Rome and besieged it until the Roman senate paid him to go away. In 409 he attacked Rome again and was able to set up a temporary emperor, Priscus Atallus, who did not last long. In 410, with the authorities in Ravenna still refusing his demands, Alaric led his warriors against Rome once more.
The Visigoths appeared outside the city in force and the senate prepared to resist, but in the middle of the night rebellious slaves opened the Salarian Gate to the attackers, who poured in and set fire to the nearby houses. 'Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome,' Gibbon pronounced, 'the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.'
The licentious fury was not as bad as it could have been. …