A Brief History
On August 24, 410, the city of Rome fell to foreign invaders for the first time in 800 years. Although no longer the capital of the Roman Empire (that had moved to Ravenna in 402), Rome was still the symbol of the Roman culture and world.
Rome had suffered the indignity of a previous sack in 387 BC (or 390 BC depending on dating system used) at the hands of the Gauls (from France). The defeated Romans were forced to pay a ransom to get the Gauls to leave.
In 410 AD, the invaders were the Germanic tribe, the Visigoths, the Western tribe of Germanic people known as Goths. Roman relations with the Goths had its ups and downs, alternating between warfare and peace treaties for many years in the 4th and 5th Century AD. This time, under the leadership of King Alaric I, the Visigoths were expanding their territory into Gaul, and after sacking Rome also settled in Iberia.
The Roman Empire had peaked around the mid-2nd Century AD and a precipitous decline began with the rise of the Goths in 376. Goths had experienced a dramatic increase in technology and sophistication over the centuries of Roman influence and by the late 4th Century and early 5th Century had been fighting the Eastern and Western Roman Empires to expand their territory.
The two Roman Empires had their hands full as Goths under Alaric I invaded Greece and even approached Constantinople. By 398, the Eastern Roman Empire had to negotiate an arrangement with Alaric, and the attention of the Visigoths turned to Italy. In 401, Alaric began his first invasion of Italy, the heart of the Western Roman Empire, but was defeated by Roman general Flavius Stilicho.
The Visigoths’ invasion of Italy received a renewed effort in 407, and Rome itself was besieged in 408. At this time Rome was probably the most populous city in the world with about 800,000 people. Rome was defended by Honorius (western Roman Emperor 393-423) with a garrison of probably less than a thousand men, while Alaric fielded an army of 40,000. Christian Rome was in a panic at the siege, and many reverted to Pagan rituals in an effort to deter the Visigoths. Incredibly, even Pope Innocent I agreed to allow those Pagan rituals, as long as they were not done publicly. Pagans insisted on public rituals, and were refused by authorities. (Apparently, those prayers and rituals, Christian or otherwise did not work.)
Horrible conditions in besieged Rome, starvation and disease, led the Romans to beg for a truce, which was granted by Alaric at the cost of nearly all Roman money, valuables, and slaves. In 409, Honorius sent legions to Rome to fortify the city and evict Goths from the adjacent areas, but that army was defeated and largely massacred en route.
This second siege also ended in humiliation for the Romans, and by 410, a third siege had been mounted after Honorius tricked Alaric into coming to Ravenna for peace negotiations where the duplicitous (not so “Honor-ious!”) Honorius attacked Alaric and his men, which backfired on the Romans as Alaric again besieged Rome. By August 24, 410, Alaric and his Visigoths entered Rome and the sack began. The sack lasted for 3 days which resulted in virtually everything of value taken by the invaders. Public and private buildings were ransacked and captives were taken, including rich and powerful people. Roman citizens were tortured to reveal the location of hidden valuables, and the usual raping, murder and pillaging took place. Many captives were removed as slaves, and refugees poured out of the city. After the three days of sacking the city, Alaric and his army left for new places to conquer in Southern Italy. In spite of the savagery of the sack, this incident is considered mild for its type, considering there was no mass slaughter/annihilation of the masses and that the two main cathedrals were allowed to stand as respected sanctuary.
In a side note, both sad and hilarious at the same time, Emperor Honorius was given the news that “Rome has perished.” The Emperor initially thought he was being told his favorite chicken, named “Rome” was dead!
Question for students (and subscribers): Was this event the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Charles River Editors. The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D.: The History of the Event that Marked the Final Decline of the Western Roman Empire. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Lipps, Johannes, C Machado, et al. 410 – The Sack of Rome: The Event, its Context and its Impact (Palilia) (Italian Edition) (Italian and English Edition). Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2013.
Moorhead, Sam and David Stuttard. AD 410: The Year That Shook Rome. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.
The featured image in this article, Alarich in Rom by Wilhelm Lindenschmit from Illustrierter Katalog der III. Internationalen Kunstausstellung (Münchener Jubiläumsausstellung) im Königl. Glaspalaste zu München (München, 1888) (Digitalisat der BSB), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.
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