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|Sack of Rome (410)|
|Part of Fall of Western Roman Empire|
Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre
|Western Roman Empire||Visigoths|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
Unknown civilian losses
The Sack of Rome occurred on August 24, 410. The city was attacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I. At that time, Rome was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire, having been replaced in this position by Mediolanum in 286 and then by Ravenna in 402. Nevertheless, the city of Rome retained a paramount position as "the eternal city" and a spiritual center of the Empire. The sack was to prove a major shock to contemporaries, friends and foes of the Empire alike.
This was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy. The previous sack of Rome had been accomplished by the Gauls under their leader Brennus in 387 BC. The sacking of 410 is seen as a major landmark in the fall of the Western Roman Empire. St. Jerome, living in Bethlehem at the time, wrote that "The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken."
Barbarian tribes had grown stronger for some time, and united themselves to challenge Roman hegemony. In the late 4th century, however, the Huns began to overrun barbarian territories. In 376, they forced many Thervings, led by Fritigern, to seek exile into the Eastern Roman Empire. Soon after, high taxes, Roman prejudice, and government corruption turned them against the Empire. The group began looting and pillaging throughout the Eastern Balkans. In the Battle of Adrianople in 378, Fritigern decisively defeated the Eastern Emperor Valens, who died during, or soon after, the battle. Peace was eventually established in 382, when the new Eastern Emperor, Theodosius I, signed a treaty with the aggressors, later known as the Visigoths. The Treaty of 382 made the Visigoths subjects of the empire. They were allotted the northern dioceses of Dacia and Thrace, and the land was to remain under Roman sovereignty, but the Visigoths were considered autonomous.
Soon after, Alaric I, who would later become King of the Visigoths, began rising through the ranks. He accompanied Theodosius' army invading the West in 394, where, at the Battle of the Frigidus, around half the Visigoths present died fighting the Western Roman army led by Eugenius and his general Arbogast. Theodosius won the battle, but Alaric was likely convinced that the Romans sought to weaken the Goths by making them bear the brunt of warfare.
Alaric was practically ruler of the Visigoths by the time Theodosius died in 395; Fritigern had died in 380.
Return to hostilities
Alaric soon resumed hostilities against the Eastern Empire after Theodosius died. Flavius Stilicho, the Eastern Empire's top general, soon chased him into, and through, Italy.
In 402, in fear of the Visigoths, the Western Roman Empire moved its capital from Mediolanum to Ravenna, which was more easily defended. In the meantime, Alaric had made several attempts at invading Italy, but was halted by Stilicho and decisively defeated at the Battle of Pollentia and later in the Battle of Verona. In time, Alaric became an ally of Stilicho, agreeing to help reclaim Illyricum for the Western Empire. When the Vandals and Sueves crossed the Rhine and invaded Gaul, however, the invasion was called off and Alaric was left with the expense of preparations for the campaign. Stilicho persuaded the Roman Senate to reimburse Alaric, but the fiasco had resulted in resentment amongst both the Romans and Alaric's Goths.
In 408 Emperor Arcadius died after a short illness, and Honorius wanted to journey East to settle the succession of the Eastern Empire. Stilicho forbade it and suggested that he go instead. Rumor spread that Stilicho wanted to place his son on the Eastern throne. Soon after, a mutiny of the army was staged by Olympius, a Roman bureaucrat, wherein most of Stilicho's appointees were killed. After persuading Honorius that Stilicho was an "enemy of the state", Olympius was appointed Magister Officium. Stilicho, who was taking refuge in a church, was arrested and executed. These events were followed by more violence on the part of the Roman army, aimed at the barbarian soldiers and slaves in Italy, many of whom were captured by Stilicho in his many wars. Around 30,000 escaped Italy and fled to Alaric's banner, giving him a massive army with which to force a deal out of the Romans.
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The Visigoths soon invaded Italy and followed suit with Rome, laying siege to the city in late 408. Starvation and disease rapidly spread throughout the city. The Roman Senate then decided to negotiate a deal with Alaric, giving him 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, and an unspecified amount of silk and pepper in exchange for lifting the siege.
The Senate sent several envoys, including Pope Innocent I, to Ravenna to encourage the Emperor to make a deal with the Goths. Alaric went to Ariminum where he discussed the terms of such an agreement with Honorius' diplomats. He wanted the provinces of Rhaetia and Noricum as a home for the Visigoths, and a generalship in the Roman army. However, Honorius refused to grant Alaric the title of Magister Militium, and insulted Alaric in a letter. In addition, Honorius tried to sneak a force of Illyrian soldiers into Rome. The army was intercepted by Alaric and, outraged by the insults, Alaric besieged Rome a second time, this time destroying the granaries at Portus.
Faced with the return of starvation the Senate surrendered again. Under pressure from Alaric, they appointed Priscus Attalus as a rival Emperor. Alaric was made Magister Utriusque Militium and his brother-in-law Ataulf, who had arrived with reinforcements, was given the position Comes Domesticorum Equitum. They then marched toward Ravenna to depose Honorius and place Priscus in the Emperor's place.
Honorius was ready to surrender when an army from the Eastern Empire arrived to defend Ravenna. In addition, Heraclian, who governed Africa, cut off Rome's grain supply, threatening the city with another famine. Alaric wanted to send Gothic soldiers to invade Africa and secure food for Rome, but Attalus refused, supposedly because he feared that the Goths would seize Africa for themselves. In response, Alaric had Attalus ceremonially deposed and reopened negotiations with Honorius.
Third siege and sack
Alaric was on the verge of an agreement with Honorius when his forces were attacked by Sarus, a fellow Gothic commander who was allied to Honorius and who had a blood feud with Ataulf. In response, Alaric returned to Rome and laid siege to it a third time. On August 24, 410, slaves opened Rome's Salarian Gate and the Visigoths poured in and looted for three days. Many of the city's great buildings were ransacked, including the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian, in which many Roman Emperors of the past were buried; the ashes of the urns in both tombs were scattered. The Goths also removed a huge silver ciborium from the Lateran Palace but left the liturgical vessels of St.Peter's in situ. The sack was nonetheless, by the standards of the age, restrained. The two main basilicas of St.Peter and St.Paul were nominated places of sanctuary. Structural damage was largely limited to the area of the Salarian Gate (where the Gardens of Sallust sustained heavy damage), and the Basilica Aemilia / Basilica Julia.  The city's citizens were devastated. Many Romans were taken captive, including the Emperor's sister, Galla Placidia, who subsequently married Ataulf. Tens of thousands of Romans subsequently fled the economically ruined city into the countryside, with many of them seeking refuge in Africa.
The historian Procopius recorded the following satire: the feeble-minded Emperor Honorius was informed by a eunuch that "Rome was destroyed" and, thinking the reference was to his favorite hen named "Roma", cried out in great consternation: "How could it be? She just ate out of my hand." Upon being informed of his mistake, the hapless emperor was greatly relieved.
After the sack, Alaric and his forces journeyed south, where they expected to take ships to Africa. The ships were destroyed, however, in a storm and Alaric died around the same time. Ataulf took command of the Goths, leading them north into Gaul, where they settled in Aquitaine.
This was the first time the city had been sacked in 800 years, and it had revealed the Western Roman Empire's increasing vulnerability and military weakness. It was shocking to people across both halves of the Empire who viewed Rome as the eternal city and the symbolic heart of their country. Jerome wrote, "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?" Many Romans felt the sack was divine punishment for turning away from the traditional pagan gods to Christianity. This spurred Saint Augustine to write The City of God.
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- St Jerome, Letter CXXVII. To Principia, s:Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume VI/The Letters of St. Jerome/Letter 127 paragraph 12.
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