Sack of Rome (410): Wikis


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Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410, by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890.
An anachronistic fifteenth-century miniature depicting the sack of 410.

The Sack of Rome occurred on August 24, 410. The city was attacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I. The Roman capital had been moved to the Italian city of Ravenna by the young emperor Honorius, after the Visigoths entered Italy.

This was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy. The previous sack of Rome was by Gauls under their leader Brennus in 387 BC. It is seen as a major landmark in the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. St Jerome, a citizen in Rome at the time, wrote that "The city which had conquered the whole world was itself conquered..."



Troubles in the East

Barbarian tribes had been growing stronger for a long time, uniting in fear of the Roman juggernaut. However, in the late 4th century, 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, however, high taxes, Roman prejudice, and government corruption turned them against the Empire. The Visigoths began looting and pillaging throughout the Eastern Balkans. In the Second Battle of Adrianople in 378, Fritigern decisively defeated the Eastern Emperor Valens, who died during or soon after the battle.

A peace was forged in 382, in which the new Eastern Emperor, Theodosius I, signed a treaty with these Goths (later known as the Visigoths) that recognized their claim to the province of Thrace.

Soon Alaric the Visigoth was rising through the Visigothic 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 which was led by Eugenius and his general Arbogast. Theodosius had explicitly ordered the Goths to charge the usurpers army before he engaged his Roman soldiers, with the intent of weakening both the Visigoths and the Western Romans. Theodosius won the battle, but Alaric was likely convinced by this point that the Romans sought to weaken the Goths by making them bear the brunt of warfare, in anticipation of a day when the Goths were weak enough to be completely subjugated.

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 (and later the Western Empire's top general), soon chased him into, and then through, Italy.

In 402, fearing the Visigoths, the Western Roman Empire moved its capital from Mediolanum to Ravenna, which was strategically located so as to be easily defended. In the meantime, Alaric 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, he became an ally of Stilicho, agreeing to help reclaim Illyricum for the Western Empire. However, when the Vandals and Sueves crossed the Rhine and invaded Gaul, 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 sown resentment in both the Romans and in 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. Having persuaded 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, this time aimed at the barbarian soldiers and slaves in Italy, many of them 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.

First siege

The Visigoths soon invaded Italy and followed suit with Rome, laying siege to the city in late 408. Starvation and disease rapidly spread throughout Rome. The Senate then decided to negotiate a deal with Alaric; giving him 5,000 pounds gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, and an unspecified amount of silk and pepper in exchange for lifting the siege.

Second siege

The Senate sent several envoys, including the Pope, to Ravenna to encourage the Emperor to make a deal with the Goths. Alaric went to Ariminum where he discussed such a deal 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, this time, under pressure from Alaric, appointing Priscus Attalus as a rival Emperor. Alaric was made Magister Utriusque Militium and his brother-in-law Ataulf, who had arrived with reinforcements, Comes Domesticorum Equitum. They marched toward Ravenna to depose Honorius, and 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. 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. Because the barbarians had converted to the Christian sect Arianism, it was not a particularly violent looting with relatively little rape, murder and damage to buildings[1], but it still had a profound effect on the city. 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. This was the first time the city had been sacked in 800 years, and its citizens were devastated.

Tens of thousands of Romans fled the economically ruined city into the countryside, with many of them seeking refuge in Africa.


After the sack, Alaric and his forces journeyed south, where they expected to take ships to Africa. However, the ships were destroyed 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.

See also


  1. ^ Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire. A new History (London, 2005), pp. 227-229
  • The Histories of Olympiodorus of Thebes
  • Historia Nova, by the Greek Historian Zosimus

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