How did Rome Fall



THE genius of Rome expired with Theodosius. His sons within three months had once more sharply divided the empire. At a time when the only hope of delaying its ruin depended on the firm union of the two sections, the subjects of Arcadius and Honorius were instructed by their respective masters to view each other in a hostile light, to rejoice in their mutual calamity, and to embrace as their faithful allies the barbarians, whom they incited to invade the territories of their countrymen.

Honorius was fortunate for a time in the possession of a servant who rescued Africa from the usurper Gildo, saved for the Roman people the harvest of the province, drove back Alaric, king of the Goths, from Italy, and utterly crushed the horde of Germans who threatened Rome. But Stilicho's virtue and prowess met with the usual reward of an envious tyrant, and he was executed at Ravenna in 408.

Alarmed at the insecurity of Rome, Honorius about this time fixed the imperial residence within the naturally fortified city of Ravenna--an example which was afterwards imitated by his feeble successors, the Gothic kings and the Exarchs; and till the middle of the eighth century Ravenna was considered as the seat of government and the capital of Italy.

The reign of Arcadius in the East marked the complete division of the Roman world. His subjects assumed the language and manners of Greeks, and his form of government was a pure and simple monarchy. The name of the Roman republic, which so long preserved a faint tradition of freedom, was confined to the Latin provinces. A series of internal disputes, both civil and religious, marked his career of power and his reign may be regarded as notable if only for the election of St. John Chrysostom to the head of the church of Constantinople. Arcadius died in May 408, and was succeeded by his supposed son, Theodosius, then a boy of seven, the reins of power being first held by the prefect Anthemius, and afterwards by his sister Pulcheria.

THE wisdom of Honorius, emperor of the West, in removing his capital to Ravenna, was soon justified by events. Alaric, king of the Goths, advanced in 408 to the gates of Rome and completely blockaded the city. In the course of a long siege, thousands of Romans died of plague and famine, and only a heavy ransom, amounting to pound 315,000, relieved the citizens from their terrible situation in the year 409.

In the same year Alaric again besieged Rome, after fruitless negotiations with Honorius, and his attempt once more proving successful, he created Attilus, prefect of the city, emperor. But the imprudent measures of his puppet sovereign exasperated Alaric. Attilus was formally deposed in 410, and the infuriated Goth besieged and sacked Rome and ravaged Italy. The spoil that the barbarians carried away with them comprised nearly all the movable wealth of the city.

The ancient capital was devastated, the exquisite works of art destroyed and nearly all the monuments of a glorious past sacrificed to the insatiate greed of the conquerors. Fire helped to complete the ruin wrought by the Goths, and it is not easy to compute the multitude of citizens who, from an honourable station and a prosperous fortune, were suddenly reduced to the condition of captives and exiles.

THE complete ruin of Italy was prevented by the death of Alaric in 410. His successor, Adolphus, concluded a peace with Honorius, received the emperor's sister Placidia in marriage, and, as his ally, re-established the authority of Rome in Gaul and Spain. Death suspended his operations in 415. The assassination of his murderer on the seventh day of his usurpation gave the Gothic sceptre to Wallia, who completed the work of Adolphus and handed his conquests to the obedience of Honorius. These victories encouraged the court of Ravenna to decree the honours of a triumph to the feeble sovereign, and he entered Rome like the ancient conquerors of nations in 418.

During the reign of Honorius, the Goths, Burgundians and Franks were settled in Gaul. The maritime countries, between the Seine and the Loire, followed the example of Britain in 409, and threw off the yoke of the empire. Aquitaine, with its capital at Arles, received, under the title of the seven provinces, the right of convening an annual assembly for the management of its own affairs.

Honorius died in 423, and was succeeded by Valentinian III, the son of Placidia, widow of the Gothic king Adolphus, and the general Constantius. His long reign was marked by a series of disasters which foretold the rapidly approaching dissolution of the western empire.

Genseric, king of the Vandals, in 429 crossed into Africa, conquered the province and set up in the depopulated territory, with Carthage as his capital, a new rule and government. Italy was filled with fugitives from Africa, and a barbarian race, which had issued from the frozen regions of the north, established their victorious reign over one of the fairest provinces of the empire. Two years later, in 441, a new and even more terrible danger threatened the empire.

THE Goths and Vandals, flying before the Huns, had oppressed the western world. The hordes of these barbarians, now gathering strength in their union under their king, Attila, threatened an attack upon the eastern empire. In appearance their chieftain was terrible in the extreme; his portrait exhibits the genuine deformity of a modern Calmuck: a large head, a swarthy complexion, small, deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, and a short, square body of nervous strength, though of a disproportioned form. He had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired.

This savage hero, who had subdued Germany and Scythia, and almost exterminated the Burgundians of the Rhine, and had conquered Scandinavia, was able to bring into the field 700,000 barbarians. An unsuccessful raid into Persia induced him to turn his attention to the eastern empire, and the enervated troops of Theodosius the Younger dissolved before the fury of his onset. He ravaged up to the very gates of Constantinople, and only a humiliating treaty preserved his dominion to the 'invincible Augustus' of the East.

AFTER the death of Theodosius the Younger and the accession of Marcian, the husband of Pulcheria, Attila threatened, in 450, both empires. An incursion of his hordes into Gaul was rendered abortive by the conduct of the patrician Aetius, who, uniting all the various troops of Gaul and Germany, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Franks, under their Merovingian prince, and the Visigoths under their king, Theodoric, after two important battles, induced the Huns to retreat from the field of Chalons.

Attila, diverted from his purpose, turned into Italy, and the citizens of the various towns fled before the savage destroyer. Many families of Aquileia, Padua and the adjacent towns, found a safe refuge in the neighbouring islands of the Adriatic, where their place of refuge evolved, in time, into the famous Republic of Venice.

VALENTINIAN fled from Ravenna to Rome, prepared to desert his people and his empire. The fortitude of Aetius alone supported and preserved the tottering state. Leo, Bishop of Rome, in his sacerdotal robes, dared to demand the clemency of the savage king, and the intervention of St. Peter and St. Paul is supposed to have induced Attila to retire beyond the Danube with the Princess Honoria as his bride. He did not long survive this, his last campaign, and in 453 he died, and was buried amidst all the savage pomp and grief of his subjects. His death resolved the bonds that had united the various nations of which his subjects were composed and domestic discord quickly extinguished the empire of the Huns.

The courage and success of the patrician Aetius excited only the hatred of Valentinian and that prince closed his ignoble reign with the murder of the preserver of the state. He himself was killed through the instrumentality of Maximus, who thereby revenged the dishonour of his wife.

The reign of Maximus did not last the year. To complete his revenge, he compelled Eudoxia, the widow of his imperial victim to become his bride; and though the empress masked her real feelings, she conspired in secret to subvert his throne. She entered into secret negotiations with Genseric, king of the Vandals, and induced that successful warrior to invade Italy. But before the dire results of this conspiracy had come to a head, Maximus was killed in a tumult of the soldiers. It was impossible, however, to stay the hand of Genseric. From June 15 to June 29 he sacked and pillaged the ancient capital, and Eudoxia was compelled to follow the Vandal on his triumphal return to Carthage.

THE vacant throne was filled by the nomination of Theodoric, king of the Goths, who supported the claims of Avitus, master-general of the imperial cavalry, to the imperial purple (455). The senate of Rome bitterly opposed the elevation of this stranger, and though Avitul might have supported his title against the votes of an unarmed assembly, he fell immediately he incurred the resentment of Count Ricimer, one of the chief commanders of the barbarian troops who formed the military defence of Italy. At a distance from his Gothic allies, he was compelled to abdicate (October 16, 456), and Majorian was raised to fill his place.

THE successor of Avitus was a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise in a degenerate age to vindicate the honour of the human species. In the ruin of the Roman world he loved his people, sympathised with their distress, and studied by judicial and effectual remedies to allay their sufferings. He reformed the most intolerable grievances of the taxes, attempted to restore and maintain the edifices of Rome, and to establish a new and healthier moral code. His military abilities and his fortune were not in proportion to his merits. An unsuccessful attempt against the Vandals to recover the lost provinces of Africa resulted in the loss of his fleet, and his return from this campaign ended his reign. He was deposed by Ricimer, and five days later died of dysentery, on August 7, 461.

At the command of Ricimer, the senate bestowed the imperial title on Libius Severus, who reigned as long as it suited his patron. The increasing difficulties, however, of the kingdom of Italy, due largely to the naval depredation of the Vandals, compelled Ricimer to seek the assistance of the emperor Leo, who had succeeded Marcian in the East in 457. Leo determined to extirpate the tyranny of the Vandals, and solemnly invested Anthemius with the diadem and purple of the West (467). He was sent in state to Rome, and the powers of the eastern empire were strenuously exerted to deliver Italy and the Mediterranean from the assaults of Genseric. But the failure of the expedition, the increasing anarchy in Gaul and Spain, and the intrigues of Ricimer, hastened the storm of destruction.

In 472, Ricimer raised the senator Olybrius to the purple and, advancing from Milan, entered and sacked Rome and murdered Anthemius (July 11, 472). Forty days after this calamitous event, the tyrant Ricimer died of a painful disease, and two months later Olybrius also died.

The emperor Leo nominated Julius Nepos to the vacant throne. After suppressing a rival in the person of Glycerius, Julius succumbed, in 475, to a furious sedition of the barbarian confederates, who, under the command of the patrician Orestes, marched from Rome to Ravenna. The troops would have made Orestes emperor, but when he declined they consented to acknowledge his son Augustulus as emperor of the West.

The ambition of the patrician might have seemed satisfied, but he soon discovered, before the end of the first year, that he must either be the slave or the victim of his barbarian mercenaries. The soldiers demanded a third part of the land of Italy. Orestes rejected the audacious demand, and his refusal was favourable to the ambition of Odoacer, a bold barbarian, who assured his fellow-soldiers that if they dared to associate under his command they might soon extort the justice that had been denied to their dutiful petition. Orestes was executed and Odoacer, resolving to abolish the useless and expensive office of emperor of the West, compelled Augustulus to be the instrument of his own disgrace.

He signified his resignation to the senate, and that assembly, still affecting the spirit of freedom and the forms of the constitution, addressed a letter to the emperor Zeno, who had succeeded Leo in the East. In this letter they solemnly disclaimed the necessity, or even the wish, for continuing any longer the imperial succession in Italy, since, in their opinion, 'the majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and protect, at the same time, both the East and the West.' The republics, they declared, might safely confide in the civil and military virtues of Odoacer, and they humbly requested that the emperor would invest him with the title of Patrician and the administration of the diocese of Italy.

So ended, in the year 476, the empire of the West, and the last Roman emperor lived out his life in the Lucullan villa on the promontory of Misenum.





Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I