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Invasion across Gaul; Visigoths besiege and burn Rome


Journey of the Visigoths (from Wikimedia Commons), with dates in white: 376, 378, 397, 410 (the year they sacked Rome), and 418 into Hispania.

Around 395, bands of Huns invaded Armenia, and they moved into Syria and Cappadocia, where they plundered and killed. The Huns pushed against eastern Germans: Vandals, Suebi (or Suevi) and Burgundians. These Germans crossed the Danube River in great numbers, into the Roman province of Pannonia. The Roman population there fled westward. The empire was further challenged in 399 when Alaric and his army of Visigoth warriors and civilians moved across the Alps and into Italy.

In 402 and 403, a Roman army led by Flavius Stilicho drove Alaric and the Visigoths back to Illyricum. In 405, Vandals, Suevi and Burgundians united under a leader named Radagaisus. He and about a third of his force moved from Pannonia into northern Italy, destroying cities and pillaging. The western emperor, Honorius, fled from the city of Ravenna and found refuge behind the walls of Florence, forty miles southwest of Ravenna. From behind these walls the call went out for volunteers to help combat the invaders. No force of volunteers came, but Stilicho left his battle with invaders on the frontier and arrived just in time to rescue the emperor and the city of Florence. He had Radagaisus beheaded and those of Radagaisus' army who had survived sold into slavery.

Stilicho forced the greater part of what had been Radagaisus' army northward into what is now Germany. There he did the best he could for the empire by arranging an alliance with the Franks, and he won the neutrality of Alamanni Germans. With the Franks he defeated the remainder of Radagaisus' army, and for this he received the title "Deliverer of Italy."

In the winter of 406-07 came the greatest of invasions: Vandals, Suevi, Burgundians and Alans, with their farm animals and children, crossed the frozen Rhine River into Gaul. The frontier there had been undermanned and weakened by desertions, and soldiers in populated areas behind the frontier had been hanging around wine shops and spending their time in debauchery. The German invaders found only feeble opposition. They spread out, ravaged, burned and raped, some of them making it all the way to the Pyrenees mountains between Gaul and Hispania, while only a few towns, among them Toulouse, attempted a significant resistance.

In 408, Arcadius suddenly died, leaving his six-year-old son, Theodosius II, as emperor in the east. In the west, an aide to Honorius was hostile to Stilicho and warned Honorius that Stilicho was plotting against him and aiming to put his own son on the eastern throne. The moronic Honorius believed the aide. The aide organized a coup against Stilicho and his supporters, who included the best military officers in the empire. These officers were largely Germans, like Stilicho. Inspired in part by hostility against Germans, Stilicho's supporters were massacred, as were the families of German soldiers serving as auxiliaries to the Roman army in the western half of the empire. Those still alive and attached to Stilicho called on him to rally his supporters and fight back. Instead, Stilicho went to the emperor's court at Ravenna without his bodyguard to meet Honorius. He was taken prisoner, charged with treason, and without a trial he and his son were executed. The last of the great Roman military commanders was dead, and thirty thousand or so German soldiers fled from Rome's army and joined Alaric and the Visigoths.

In the autumn of 408, encouraged by the death of Stilicho, Alaric and the Visigoths crossed the Alps and poured into Italy, to Ravenna. After failing to break through Ravenna's walls, Alaric decided to push on to North Africa, believing that grain grew there in great abundance, and he decided that on his way he would attack Rome to gain what he could.

Rome shut its gates as Alaric and his army approached. Alaric and his army besieged the city, and Rome's inhabitants grew hungry. As the siege continued plague appeared within Rome and corpses appeared on its streets. Rome's Senate decided to negotiate with Alaric and suggested it was not afraid of a fight. Alaric laughed and demanded gold, silver, moveable property and some three thousand pounds of Indian pepper in exchange for sparing the city and its inhabitants. Alaric gave Germans and slaves in the city safe passage out, some of whom joined his ranks, increasing Alaric's forces to about 40,000.

For more than a year Alaric kept Rome surrounded while waiting for his ransom. Then in August, 410, with assistance from within, his troops slipped into the city. For three days they looted and destroyed the houses of the rich. They killed some people, but being Christians they spared the Christian churches. Then Alaric and the Visigoths left for southern Italy, hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa.

News of what had happened to Rome left many across the empire believing that the end of civilization was at hand. In Palestine, the Christian scholar Jerome lamented that in the ruins of Rome the whole world had perished. Many Christians had believed that Rome would last until Armageddon, and when no Armageddon came they were bewildered.

In Rome, pagan survivors saw the sack of their city as the work of Rome's old gods – those gods whose power they believed had made Rome the most powerful of cities. They blamed the Christians for angering these gods. Hoping to appease their gods, some pagans called for performance of the sacred rites of the past, and the Christian authorities in Rome, wishing help from any source, approved such rites. But, distrusting the Christian authorities, none of the pagans had the courage to attempt their rites in public, where it was thought they had to be performed if they were to be effective.

Bishop Augustine, at the city of Hippo in North Africa, protested against the view that God had participated in Rome's destruction. Augustine argued against the view of Bishop Eusebius, from a century before, that had linked Rome and Christianity. Augustine linked Rome with the devil and told that Christians that they were not citizens of Rome but of the heavenly city on the hill: Jerusalem


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.