The collapse of the Roman Empire in the west happened very suddenly, in the course of a single generation, and must have come as a devastating surprise to the inhabitants of a state which had survived all perils for over 400 years, and a city whose history went back in legend for more than a thousand.
In 375 the Emperor Valentinian died. He had been an effective ruler of the western half of the Roman Empire, which now went to his teenage son Gratian, while his much less able brother Valens ruled the east from Constantinople. In 378, the Visigoths crossed the Danube into modern Bulgaria. Originally Valens raised no objection; but when they ran out of food and started to cause trouble, he decided to teach them a lesson. Without waiting for reinforcements from the west, he attacked their encampment at Adrianople; where he and his entire army were slaughtered. This was undoubtedly one of the most decisive battles of European history, because afterwards the Goths could not be expelled from the Empire. The vast horde was perpetually on the move, though unable to take the walled cities. They did not seek to destroy the Empire, but their constant need for food caused devastation. The only remedy was to buy them off. Their presence on the border between the eastern and western halves of the Empire caused endless disputes and hostility as the different Emperors in Constantinople and Milan tried to get the Goths out of their territory.
The reign of Honorius in the west, 395-423, was the most disastrous in Roman history. He was proclaimed Emperor at the age of just 12, solely because he was the son of the great and powerful Emperor Theodosius; and proved to be an extremely feeble character, showing little interest in actually governing, but instead being totally reliant on his military commander, Stilicho the Vandal.
In 402 Alaric, King of the Visigoths, crossed the Alps into Italy, but was defeated by Stilicho near Turin and retreated. Honorius made his only visit to Rome to celebrate an undeserved Triumph, but then felt it prudent to move the capital from Milan to Ravenna, protected by marshes and with good sea links to Constantinople.
Meanwhile pressure was building up on the Rhine frontier, where the garrisons were barely holding the line of the river against the Germanic tribes. Then on New Year’s Day 406/7, the Rhine froze solid. Huge numbers of Vandals, Alamanni, Burgundians, Franks and others crossed the river, swept aside the defences and poured down through France and ultimately into Spain. They were probably desperately seeking food rather than conquest, and were eventually allowed to settle down as “foederati” acknowledging the sovereignty of the Emperor and supplying him with troops, but living under their own laws. These events led the Romans to abandon Britain entirely; Honorius telling the Britons to defend themselves in future as the last legions departed. The “Dark Ages” quickly engulfed Britain: for the next 200 years there are hardly any written records.
In 408 Alaric was in Italy again, threatening Rome itself. The Senate, urged by Stilicho, agreed to buy him off with an immense sum of gold, but Honorius suspected Stilicho of seeking to take the throne for himself and had him executed. Alaric probably had ambitions of replacing Stilicho as the Emperor’s warlord; but found that while Honorius couldn’t fight him, he wouldn’t negotiate, and still hadn’t paid the protection money! Disgusted with this double-dealing, and fed up with waiting, on August 3rd 410 Alaric’s Visigoths entered Rome and plundered it, meeting little resistance. It was a very mild plundering, lasting just three days: Christian churches were left untouched, though pagan temples were pillaged; there was no arson, and only one building was destroyed. But the psychological effect was enormous: no barbarians had taken Rome for over 700 years; and to many it must have seemed the end of civilization. Over in North Africa, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo near Carthage, found that many pagans blamed the disaster on Rome’s abandonment of its old gods. He was moved to write his great masterpiece “The City of God”, trying to find the workings of God’s will in what had occurred.
Within a year, Alaric was dead, and his Visigoths resumed their wanderings, moving into Spain and driving out the Germanic tribes who had recently settled there. One group of these, the Vandals under Genseric, crossed over into north Africa and in 439 captured Carthage. There they built a fleet, threatening Mediterranean trade with their piracy and in particular disrupting the grain supply from Egypt, upon which Rome had long depended. This might in fact be the single most important cause of the collapse of the western Empire.
The eastern Empire at Constantinople was now much stronger and more stable than the western, where the later Emperors at Ravenna were often mere puppets in the hands of German mercenary warlords. And now there was the problem of the Huns: a particular menace when Attila, “the scourge of God” became king of all the Hun tribes and assembled a mighty horde. These really were savages, unlike the Christian Goths and Vandals; a deadly menace and a common enemy to all. In 451 the Huns invaded across the Rhine, spreading panic and devastation. Facing them was General Aetius, “the last of the Romans”. He assembled a composite army, of Romans together with Franks, Alamanni and Visigoths, which fought the Huns to a standstill in a gigantic battle near Chalons. Following this, Attila retreated back into Germany, and the west was saved. This was the second decisive battle of the period, after Adrianople.
Next year, Attila invaded Italy; causing, according to tradition, terrified refugees to flee to the islands that became Venice. He approached Rome, but was somehow persuaded to withdraw by Pope Leo I. Months later Attila was no more, choked to death after a feast, and his empire fell apart; with the Huns withdrawing to the eastern Ukraine. In 454, the Emperor Valentinian III, jealous of Aetius, personally stabbed him to death. (“You have cut off your right hand with your left”, the Emperor was told).
Rome was now defenceless. In 455 Genseric’s Vandal fleet from Carthage descended on the once-mighty capital and plundered it for two weeks; doing a much more thorough job than the Visigoths a generation earlier. Genseric promised Pope Leo there would be no killing or arson, but the ancient palaces on the Palatine hill were completely ransacked, the gilded tiles were removed from the roof of the Temple of Jupiter, and the Menora, the great sacred Jewish candlestick seized from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus back in AD 70, was taken back to Carthage (The picture is of the relief on the Arch of Titus in the Forum in Rome. I’m not sure what happened to the Menora after this: it would seem to be a suitable subject for an Indiana Jones film)
There was now little reason for the Germanic peoples to prop up the Empire any longer. Rome was pillaged again in 472 by Ricimer, a German mercenary. Finally, in 476, another German mercenary, Odoacer, deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, a mere boy, and informed the Emperor Zeno in Constantinople that there was now no emperor in the west. The western Roman Empire was finally at an end. It was almost a century since Adrianople, but in truth, for most of this time the Empire in the west had been little more than a feeble ghost of its former glory.
(The third and final part of this essay will describe the unsuccesful attempt by Justinian to rebuild the Empire in the west)