27 August 2018

The 410 Sack of Rome

Invasion that signalled terminal decline of Western Roman Empire

Alaric and the Visigoths entering Rome, as depicted by the 19th century German artist Wilhelm Lindenschmit the Younger
Alaric and the Visigoths entering Rome, as depicted by the
19th century German artist Wilhelm Lindenschmit the Younger
The ancient city of Rome was left in a state of shock and devastation after three days of looting and pillaging by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric came to an end on this day in 410.

An unknown number of citizens had been killed and scores of others had fled into the countryside. Countless women had been raped. Many buildings were damaged and set on fire and Alaric and his hordes made off with vast amounts of Roman treasure.

It was the first time in 800 years that an invading army had successfully breached the walls of the Eternal City and many historians regard the event as the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire.

It could have been more devastating still had Alaric, a Christian, been a more cruel leader.  Although he struggled to control his men - historians believe they were an ill-disciplined rabble rather than an organised fighting force - he stopped short of ordering large-scale slaughter of the Roman population, while silver and gold objects they were told had belonged to St Peter were left behind.

A book illustration showing Alaric in Athens after conquering the city in 395
A book illustration showing Alaric in Athens
after conquering the city in 395
It was brought to a swift conclusion because Alaric had other targets he wished to attack in the far south of Italy and in northern Africa. In the event, he died not long afterwards of a fever, somewhere near what is now the city of Cosenza in Calabria.

Alaric had risen to become King of the Visigoths in 395, the same year that saw the death of the Emperor Theodosius I, who had signed a peace treaty with the Goths in 382. Leadership of the Eastern and Western Empires was inherited by Theodosius’s two sons, Arcadius in the east and 10-year-old Honorius in the west. The western capital was moved from Rome to Ravenna, which was more easily defended.

Wanting to create a new settlement for his tribes, Alaric staged regular attacks in northern Italy in the early part of the fifth century but these were always repelled by Honorius’s regent, the brilliant military strategist and general Flavius Stilicho.

Stilicho, who was half-German, had many soldiers of German origin under his command and wanted to enlist the help of the Visigoths to fight against the Eastern Empire. Alaric himself had even served in battle under the command of Stilicho, whom he greatly admired and even considered a friend.

But his position changed when Honorius dismissed his demand to be given land and political power and he set his sights on Rome, which was still the symbolic heart of the Empire, even if the seat of government was now in Ravenna.

Alaric is buried in the bed of a river near where he died, along
with personal treasures, as imagined by Heinrich Leutemann
He was unconcerned about Honorius but knew he faced a formidable adversary in Stilicho and it was out of fear and respect for Stilicho that he stopped short of invading Rome after advancing to its gates in 408.

But after Stilicho, suspected of planning an insurrection, was executed on the orders of Honorius later the same year, the obstacle he presented was removed.

As a consequence, after long months laying siege to the city, during which time Roman citizens became hungrier and more desperate, Alaric first set a series of demands in front of Honorius, promising to call off the siege if they were met.  When they were refused, he ordered his tribes to enter the city on August 24, 410.  They did so without much of a fight, ushered in either by corrupt officials or rebellious slaves who opened the Salarian Gate.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire did not happen as a direct result of Alaric’s invasion. In fact a more severe sacking of the city was still to come, carried out by the Vandals in 455, but the 410 invasion was a symbolic moment in an end game that was to reach its conclusion in 476, when another Germanic leader, Flavius Odoacer, removed the Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and declared himself King of Italy, which is the moment at which many historians consider the Western Empire to have been no more.

The facade of the cathedral in Cosenza
The facade of the cathedral in Cosenza
Travel tip:

Cosenza, a city with an urban area in which more than 260,000 people live, combines a no-nonsense modern city with a small and atmospheric old city, a medieval town with a network of steep, narrow streets, at the heart of which is a cathedral originally built in the 11th century.  The old town also boasts the 13th century Castello Svevo, built on the site of a Saracen fortification, which hosted the wedding of Louis III of Naples and Margaret of Savoy but which the Bourbons used as a prison.  The pedestrianized centre of the new city has sculptures by the likes of DalĂ­, De Chirico and Pietro Consagra.

Dante's tomb in Ravenna
Dante's tomb in Ravenna
Travel tip:

As well as being the former capital of the Western Roman Empire, Ravenna was also the city where the 13th century poet Dante Alighieri lived in exile until his death in 1321. Dante's tomb is in the church of San Pier Maggiore. The city is renowned for its wealth of well-preserved late Roman and Byzantine architecture and eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture is the Basilica of San Vitale, which is famous for its fine Byzantine mosaics.

More reading:

How Rome was sacked by the Ostrogoths in 546

Mutinous troops sack Rome in 1527

The death of Dante Alighieri

Also on this day

1576: The death of the great Renaissance artist Titian

1707: The birth of actress Zanetta Farussi, mother of Casanova


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