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4. Alaric |
Civilization crumbles as a barbarian tide rolls over the west

Alaric is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 116, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Alaric’s sack of Rome is only the beginning. Soon scores of cities are destroyed, while roads and farms revert to wilderness as the world seems to be coming to an end

Alaric - Civilization crumbles as a barbarian tide rolls over the west

Alaric - Civilization crumbles as a barbarian tide rolls over the west
They came in marauding bands and in great swarms, speaking tongues that grated on Roman and Greek ears. They were seemingly indifferent to the human pain and cultural carnage they inflicted, and intent only on destruction. They represented a range of many distinct tribes, those depicted above being early Franks who attacked Gaul from the north. But the effect of their depredations was similar, and the people of the empire called them all “barbarians” (aliens) and saw them as inferior. They were certainly not inferior in battle. (From an engraving in Francois Guizot’s History of France, late-nineteenth century.)

Theodosius the Great was dead. The wealth, grandeur and plenty that six or seven centuries of civilization had created in the “eternal” empire now lay within tantalizing reach of the barbarians. At the empire’s heart gleamed the greatest jewel of all, the city of Rome, with its priceless artworks, its dazzling furnishings, its stockpiles of gold–and of course, its beautiful women.

In the coming two centuries, most of this grandeur was destined for destruction, not only at Rome, but throughout the western empire. Countless towns, even whole cities, would be looted and burned, their populations slaughtered or driven into the countryside to starve. Great buildings, temples, monuments, amphitheaters, baths and luxurious homes would be stripped of everything of conceivable value. Vast tracts of what had once been lush farmland would lapse back into wilderness. Aqueducts would be demolished and the water supply cut off.

Bridges would collapse and roads fall into disrepair, hampering the distribution of food. Famine would spread, and with it disease. Schools would close, libraries disappear. Illiteracy would become the rule, making both the recording of current events and communication at a distance extremely difficult. Finally, the great city of Rome itself would be three times sacked and five times taken by assault. Eventually, it would become a sort of ghost town, its population reduced from the one million of Theodosius’s time to about thirty thousand inhabitants sharing with foxes, wild dogs, rats and wolves what was left of its magnificent buildings.

“For hundreds of years,” wrote the twentieth-century statesman and historian Winston Churchill (History of the English-Speaking Peoples, London, 1956), “there had been order and law, respect for property and a widening culture. All had vanished. The buildings, such as they were, were of wood, not stone. . . . Barbarism ruled in its rags, without even the stern military principles that had animated and preserved the Germanic tribes. The confusion and conflict of petty ruffians sometimes called kings racked the land. We wake from an awful, and it might have seemed, endless nightmare to a scene of utter prostration.”

“If the entire ocean had poured over the fields of Gaul,” reports one account of this prostration, the Song of God’s Providence, “more people would have survived the vast waters. For the flocks are gone, the seeds of the fruits are gone, and there is no place for vines or olive trees. Destructive fire and rain have even taken away the buildings on the farms, while it is still more saddening that some of them stand empty.”1

“In village, villa, crossroads, district, field, down every roadway and at every turning,” runs a sixth-century account in verse, “death, grief, destruction and arson are revealed. In one great conflagration, Gaul is burning. Why tell the death roll of a falling world? Why count how many unto death are hurled when you may see your own day hurrying near?”

“Brigands fell upon travelers and merchants on the edge of the woods and at the fords across rivers,” writes the French historian Prosper Boissonnade (Life and Work in Medieval Europe, translated by Eileen Powers, New York, 1927). “Armed bands prowled about the country, and journeys became perilous expeditions undertaken only with caravans and armed escorts. The ports declined, the seas were so infested with pirates that maritime trade became as uncertain as land commerce. The great transport companies had for the most part broken up, and the shipbuilders were ruined.”

“The human pain which accompanied and followed the fall of the western Roman Empire is beyond even the figures of astronomy to calculate,” comments the historian Stewart Irvin Oost (Galla Placidia Augusta, Chicago, 1968). “Every kind of suffering that man is capable of inflicting on his fellows, from wounded pride to loss of livelihood, to witnessing the tortured death agonies of those one loves, became a relatively common experience of life.”

In letter after letter, Jerome bewailed the fate of the commonwealth. “I shudder when I think of the catastrophes,” he laments. “How many of God’s matrons and virgins, virtuous and noble ladies, have been the sport of these brutes. . . . The Roman world is falling. . . . The whole country between the Alps and the Pyrenees, between the Rhine and the ocean, has been laid waste by the hordes.” What struck him hardest, however, was the unthinkable ultimate: the fall of the city of Rome itself. “The bright light of all the world was put out . . . the Roman Empire was decapitated . . . the whole world perished in one city. . . . As the common saying goes, I forgot my own name.”

This event, the first fall of Rome, was in fact more terrible as a precedent than as an occurrence, for the subsequent sacks of the city were infinitely worse. Moreover, it was perhaps rendered less fearful because it was accomplished by a man trained by the Romans themselves. He was known as Alaric, though this was probably not his actual name, but a title derived from the Germanic alla reikus, meaning “everyone’s ruler.”

As he looked toward the city in that fateful year 410, Alaric knew that between his barbarian horde and that coveted goal stood only two obstacles. One was inconsequential: the emperor Honorius, just sixteen years old, an easy target for a quick kill. But the other was formidable indeed: the senior general of the Roman army, Stilicho, Vandal on his father’s side and Roman on his mother’s. Honorius, installed as augustus of the west in 395 following upon his father’s death, was fated like other hapless juvenile emperors to be a mere puppet whose strings were pulled by bureaucrats and ambitious military strongmen at Rome, Milan and Ravenna. To the barbarians, he seemed little more than an annoyance.

But Flavius Stilicho was another matter. A resolute believer in the Roman Empire and Roman virtue, Stilicho would fight brilliantly and valiantly to save the boy whose guardian he had been appointed by Theodosius. He had risen quickly and fiercely in the Roman army, defeating Radagaisus, king of the Goths, on an Italian battlefield in 405, but the cost of that victory was great. To defend Italy, Stilicho had had to strip Gaul of Roman troops, which opened the way in the following year for a ravening barbarian horde to pour through Rome’s most prosperous western provinces, leaving smoldering ruin in its wake. Britain, likewise undefended, had fallen prey to the ferocious Saxons, and an avalanche of frantic British refugees had streamed across the channel to Armorica. So many were they that Armorica would become known as Brittany, and for centuries to come would speak a British tongue.

Alaric, the man destined to live in history for seizing and despoiling the greatest city in the ancient world, unconquered for precisely eight hundred years,2 was, curiously enough, a friend and devoted admirer of Stilicho. He had even followed Stilicho’s career path, volunteering for the officer cadre of the Roman army. Born about 370 into a noble family of Visigoths (western Goths), Alaric was probably Arian in religion, and began his military career as a member of the Gothic federates, tribesmen whom the Roman Empire tried to keep peaceful with grants of territory and payments of tribute money. Hot-tempered but quick and capable, he became a tribal chieftain at twenty-four, then underwent training at a Constantinople military academy set up by Theodosius to teach promising Goth leaders how to be Romans. However, where Stilicho subscribed unreservedly to the Roman ideal, Alaric came to quite different conclusions. He observed that, whatever its pomp and grandeur, the empire had become flabby and vulnerable, its leaders largely focused on fulfilling their personal ambitions.

Nevertheless, Alaric at first aspired to advancement in the service of Rome. Tireless and ambitious, he served as a commander under Theodosius at the Battle of the River Frigidus (see Chapter 3), where his immediate superior was the redoubtable Stilicho himself. Theodosius’s battle plan there required the sacrifice of some of his best Gothic troops, a sacrifice he did not adequately acknowledge. Alaric did not forget this omission.

But a worse disillusionment was still to come for this Visigoth officer. The River Frigidus was Theodosius’s last battle. Now the boy Honorius took over the west, and his older brother Arcadius, eighteen, reigned in the east. Scholarly opinion of them is hardly flattering. Historian Henri Daniel-Rops (The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs, Garden City, N.Y., 1962) not atypically describes Honorius as “a little booby of only eleven,” and Arcadius as “a puny adolescent of halting speech and dull wits.” In conferring office and honors, the young emperors and their bureaucratic managers casually bypassed Alaric, an oversight upon which history would now turn. His notorious temper aflame, Alaric resolved to move things forward on his own. If the Romans would not recognize him, others would. He would rebel.

Many of the federates were more than ready to join him. They too had grievances. The empire was becoming increasingly delinquent, for example, in its promised subsidy payments. Alaric drew these men together. History does not record his challenge to them, but it can be easily imagined. The empire was no longer what it had once been, but much of its wealth and luxuries, some of the greatest riches of humanity, remained–theirs for the taking. The Romans were soft and decadent, but they, the German peoples, the so-called barbarians, were strong. They could fight, and by fighting they could win. What was their alternative? To die miserably in Rome-imposed destitution? His hearers would have cheered and loudly renounced all remaining allegiance to the emperor. Now they had a king of their own, a king named Alaric. It was 395. Rome had fifteen years left to remain unconquered.

The first assault of Alaric’s men was on the eastern capital Constantinople, where the city’s newly built walls proved too much for them. But then, why bother with Constantinople? Why not head west? Why not loot, burn and lay waste the whole countryside, then move on to Rome? Only the boy Honorius, the “booby,” and of course, Stilicho, stood in their way. So they regrouped and moved through Greece, spreading devastation as they went.

When they encountered Stilicho’s legions from Italy, which stopped them cold, they fled north along the Adriatic into Illyricum, long the breeding ground of Rome’s best soldiers. The Illyrians too now denounced the empire and declared for King Alaric of the Visigoths. But Stilicho was following Alaric, cornered him in Illyricum, and was about to wipe out his army when an order to desist arrived from Arcadius (the teenager of the “dull wits”) in Constantinople. Stilicho had intruded upon eastern territory, Arcadius declared, and must immediately withdraw. The veteran general reluctantly obeyed, and Alaric escaped.

Next year, Alaric struck south again. Athens bought him off with a large bribe, but Corinth, Sparta and a host of other cities were left in ruins, the populace butchered or enslaved. Again Stilicho arrived from Italy, surrounded Alaric’s force, and prepared to move in for the kill. Again the orders came from Constantinople, presumably from Arcadius: Get out of the east. Again Stilicho obeyed, and again Alaric escaped. He moved back into the eastern empire, safe from his old friend and nemesis. There he diligently worked to convert his mob into something of an army, brokering his support between Honorius and Arcadius, playing the imperial brothers against each other, so that each rewarded him with generous gifts of Roman arms, and his arsenal grew. In effect, write historians Stephen Williams and Gerald Friell (Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994), Alaric had become a “third power” within the empire, whose loyalty and services must be bid for.

By 408, he was ready to move against Rome itself, and so his invigorated forces invaded Italy and cut a swath through the north, stealing or destroying everything in their path. Arriving at the gates of Rome, however, Alaric stopped short and did not attack, knowing that a direct frontal assault was risky. Instead, he established a blockade that cut off the flow of food and goods to the city. He knew that Stilicho must still be confronted.

That canny general had been very hard at work. Brilliant strategist that he was, he had blocked another barbarian invasion on the Rhine, contained a revolt in Britain, then sped to North Africa and quashed a rebellion there. Then, before going to the relief of Rome, he reported to Honorius at Ravenna, 235 miles northeast on the Adriatic coast, where the young western emperor maintained his court. Now occurred one of those astounding events that from time to time, incomprehensibly, punctuate history and pivotally determine its course. Stilicho found himself facing an arrest order from Honorius, who had been persuaded by his courtiers that his general was planning an insurrection.

The charge, however ill based, was not without plausible explanation. Although Stilicho’s loyalty to Theodosius’s family had been unfailing, notes historian John M. Flynn (Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire, Edmonton, 1983), he nevertheless had shunned imperial titles, preferring to remain close to his power base, his troops. This independence made him an object of suspicion, seemingly untrustworthy. The general now took refuge in a church, claiming sanctuary, which the imperial troops respected. But when an imperial emissary assured Stilicho his life would be spared, he left the church and surrendered–whereupon this official had him beheaded with an ax. At Rome, his adversary Alaric could now inform his wildly cheering army that they need not defeat Stilicho. Rome had done it for them.

To call Alaric’s troops an “army” is misleading, however. The historian Oost describes his Germanic hordes as “ill-disciplined barbarian bands, which with wives and children, bag and baggage, were whole tribes on the move rather than armies.” Such an assemblage now squatted patiently outside Rome. Alaric had, in the words of the historian Edward Gibbon, “encompassed the walls, commanded the twelve principal gates, intercepted all communication with the adjacent country, and vigilantly guarded the navigation on the Tiber, from which the Romans derived the surest and most plentiful supply of provisions.”

Sheltered for years against the grim realities of life in the vulnerable frontier provinces, the comfortable Roman gentry had acquired the lofty confidence that is born of ignorance. Inside the now isolated city, the Romans were at first shocked, then indignant. A clot of crude barbarians, threatening the most important city in the world, the very capital of civilization? Surely there was some mistake. The stinking rabble milling outside would soon wander off and return to their filthy huts or caves or wherever it might be they had come from.

But as the days wore on, the citizens became increasingly alarmed. And hungry. The stinking rabble did not wander off. How could this be happening? And then a seeming answer to that question swept through the city’s rumor mills. Obviously, thought conspiratorially minded Romans, this must be the evil work of Serena, widow of Stilicho and niece of the emperor Theodosius. Had not her late husband, a barbarian himself, made various alliances with this same Alaric over the years? Even now, it was whispered, Serena was in secret communication with this Goth, plotting to have the gates opened so that he and his vile companions could come in. It all seemed perfectly obvious. No unwashed barbarian could have established such a blockade by himself. Therefore he must have had inside help. The solution was equally obvious: Get Serena out of the picture and the plot would fail, and with it the siege.

The Senate listened with great interest to this paranoid tale, for which no evidence was offered either then or since. Unable to come up with any other course of action, however, the senators seized the opportunity of doing at least something. Without holding a trial or seeking any substantiation for the wild claims against her, they ordered Serena executed by strangulation.

If Roman citizens then breathed a sigh of relief, the respite was brief. To their consternation, the murder of the innocent Serena had no effect whatever on Alaric’s barbarians; the blockade continued. The daily allotment of food for each citizen was cut in half, then reduced to a third. With poor nutrition, and ultimately starvation, came illness. Soon an alarming number of deaths was being reported. Because no one could go outside the walls to bury the dead, the bodies began piling up. They rotted and stank. Disease spread. As hunger grew more acute, there were even reports of cannibalism, of mothers devouring their deceased children. At last two city officials were appointed to attempt negotiations with the barbarian enemy. Arrangements were carefully made and the two men walked out, no doubt apprehensively, to parley with this barbarian commander.

Although their kinsmen were starving and dying, the envoys were supremely aware of the fact that they were Romans, and this unwashed Alaric was not. The Roman people, they confidently assured Alaric, were fully prepared to engage in warfare if they had to, and if they did, they would certainly succeed. They had excellent weapons, extensive experience and superior knowledge. Despite these obvious advantages, however, they were willing to overlook all the recent unpleasantness in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and would therefore reluctantly agree to “moderate” terms for peace.

At this, Alaric laughed out loud. “Thick grass is easier mowed than thin,” said he, repeating a proverb he had learned as a child at work in the fields. Terms? They wanted terms? “Deliver to me all the gold that your city contains, all the silver, all the moveable property that I may find there; and moreover all your slaves of barbarian origin. Otherwise the siege goes on.”

The two Roman negotiators were shocked. “But if you take all these things, what do you leave to the citizens?” they asked. Alaric, in full command of the situation, replied firmly: “Your lives.”

Back through the gates went the chagrined ambassadors to report Alaric’s impossible demands to the senators, who, reeling at the thought of Rome being subject to these sorts of indignities by such people, cast around desperately for some alternative. This time, the pagan historian Zosimus records, another explanation for their terrible predicament was mooted. They suddenly “perceived how they were now abandoned . . . in consequence of having deserted the religion of their forefathers.”

Yes indeed, they agreed, it was undeniable that Rome had for centuries been immune from this kind of trouble–until, that is, it abandoned its faithful gods and took up with the Christian one. This being the case, a return to the old religion was called for. The ancient rites so foolishly discarded should be dusted off and performed again. Rejected gods could be placated.

According to pagan chroniclers, the prefect of the city sought the advice of Innocent I, bishop of Rome, who in distress and perplexity agreed that under the circumstances they could employ the old incantations, but only if they did so in secret. However, historian Oost finds implausible the suggestion that the Christian leader would agree to any such thing. “If the fourth century was not an age of freethinkers, the fifth was even less so; the cynical Rome of the Renaissance papacy was many centuries in the future. That the bishop of Rome should thus risk damning his own soul to hell forever in accordance with the strict injunctions of his religion, not to mention the souls of the participants in such sacrifices, is absolutely beyond belief.”

In any case, ceremonies performed in secret did not satisfy the pagan priests. They declared that the result they sought–fire and lightning boiling down from heaven and consuming the barbarians outside the gates–could be achieved only if the rites were performed in full view of the senators and the populace, with due ceremony and spectacle. But then they discovered they could not round up enough Romans who were willing to turn away from Christian worship. The proposed reversion to public paganism had to be abandoned, and a new delegation limped dispiritedly out through the gates to reach some agreement–almost any agreement–with Alaric.

This time, the Roman envoys were humbler, and protracted negotiation persuaded Alaric to moderate his demand a little. He would free the city, he said, if it delivered to him five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, four thousand silken tunics, three thousand hides dyed with scarlet and three thousand pounds of pepper. It was “a strange catalogue of the things which were objects of desire to a nation emerging from barbarism,” observes an amused Gibbon. “The pepper suggests the conjecture that the Gothic appetite had already lost some of its original keenness in the fervent southern lands; and the numbers of the special articles of luxury prompt the guess (it is nothing more) that the nobles and officers of this great nation-army may have been about three thousand, the extra one thousand silken garments perhaps representing the wives and daughters who accompanied some of the great chiefs.”

The Romans quickly began gathering the required tribute, collecting property from the citizenry and a portion of the recorded wealth of each senator.

When even that was not enough, they scavenged jewels and precious metals from such idols and images as still stood within the city, and even melted down some statues of the deities. Zosimus was appalled at these indignities to the pagan gods. “This was in fact nothing less than to deprive of life and energy, by diminishing the honor done to them, those statues which had been erected in the midst of solemn religious rites,” he laments.

After calling off the blockade, Alaric entered negotiations about his future role in the empire. The Senate was ready to grant him a favorable military alliance, but the inexperienced emperor Honorius, safely distant at Ravenna and typically possessed of a less than realistic estimate of his own judgment, flatly refused, even after the Senate dispatched delegates to explain the gravity of the situation.

For one thing, they informed the emperor, many slaves had escaped from Rome during the confusion, and together with an even larger number of barbarians were throwing up barricades along the roads to Rome, seizing for themselves the emergency supplies sent to resupply the city. Actually, when Alaric learned of this, he dealt forcefully with the interlopers and ended their robbery. Barbarian he might be, but his own honor was at stake, after all, in the matter of his deal with the city of Rome.

Honorius, who was devoting more and more of his royal time to raising fancy poultry as pets, refused to be bothered anymore about the activities of some petty barbarian chieftain. There would be no further negotiations with Alaric, he ordered. So Alaric tightened the screws again by reimposing his blockade. More ambassadors went back and forth; more tentative deals were struck. Alaric said he would withdraw in exchange for a yearly payment of gold and provisions, and the grant of a broad swath of territory in the provinces of Noricum, Istria, Venetia and Dalmatia, where his men and their families could live independently, as allies of Rome.

Honorius had now come under the influence of one Jovius, his chief counselor, a conniver clearly intent upon his own interests. Although Alaric seemingly never demanded a command position in the Roman army as part of any alliance, Jovius told Honorius that he had, and the emperor responded to Jovius in writing: “Military command is mine alone to bestow, and I hold it unfitting that such offices as you name should ever be held by Alaric or any of his race.” For whatever reason, the maneuvering Jovius took the letter and read it to Alaric, who angrily broke off talks and vowed revenge.

After further posturing and saber rattling on both sides, Alaric, although he clearly held the upper hand, moved once again to negotiate peace. He sent an envoy to the emperor saying that he would settle for Noricum alone, and would not insist on the other provinces. He even dropped his demand for gold, saying that he sought only reasonable supplies for his soldiers.

Jovius, apparently seeing some advantage for himself in Alaric’s concessions, persuaded Honorius to reject even this, and once more the exasperated Alaric laid siege to Rome. This time, the desperate Romans, no longer willing to defer to their emperor’s whimsical decisions, decided they must act on their own. Renouncing all ties to Honorius, they named a new augustus, Priscus Attalus, onetime prefect of Rome, who also had the endorsement (and followed the orders) of Alaric.

The perpetually scheming Jovius, however, contrived somehow to drive a wedge between the new emperor and Alaric. His patience at an end, the Visigoth leader thereupon publicly demoted his puppet Attalus. He stripped him of crown and purple robe, and dispatched these symbolic items to Honorius–a gesture the obtuse young ruler misinterpreted as full recognition of his own imperial authority. Again he refused to negotiate.

Alaric therefore amassed his forces for a full assault on the city. At midnight on August 24, 410, he sent his warriors forward to smash down the Salarian Gate–or in the version of events recorded by Procopius, to walk through the gate unimpeded after it was opened from within by conspirators. The terrible breach of the venerable city’s sanctity was then announced to the inhabitants by a fearsome trumpet blast.

“Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome,” Gibbon writes, “the imperial city, which had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of the world, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.”

The sack of the city lasted at least three days, and according to some accounts as many as twelve, but it was not uncontrolled. While Alaric’s men eagerly began grabbing everything of value, their leader ordered them not to kill except in self-defense, not to pillage the churches, and not to rape the women. At his command, the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul were recognized as places of refuge for any harried Romans who managed to get inside. Visigoths, after all, were by way of being Christians themselves.

The fifth-century Christian historian Paulus Orosius (History Against the Pagans, New York, 1936) tells the story of an elderly woman whose door was forced open by a Gothic captain, and of the delight that spread across the barbarian’s face when he spied the gleaming silver and golden vessels arrayed inside, all cleaned up and ready for the taking. The woman, however, was an altar server, and she lectured him sternly: “These are the consecrated vessels belonging to St. Peter; if you presume to touch them, the sacrilegious deed will remain on your conscience.”

When Alaric was informed of the treasure trove, he ordered the sacred objects to be returned to the church. Orosius describes what happened next: “A numerous detachment of Goths, marching in order of battle through the principal streets, protected with glittering arms the long train of their devout companions, who bore aloft on their heads the sacred vessels of gold and silver, and the martial shouts of the barbarians were mingled with the sound of religious psalmody. From all the adjacent houses, a crowd of Christians hastened to join this edifying procession. . . .”

War being what it is, however, some women reportedly were raped despite Alaric’s orders, and some such victims killed themselves in shame. Residents who fought back were killed forthwith, and others were slaughtered even though they did not resist. One senator was slain, but apparently just one. Some of the killing, according to current accounts, was done by slaves, gratefully seizing their chance to turn against hated masters. One way and another, bodies of men, women and children lay unburied on the streets.

The triumphant Goths also burned a palace and a number of other buildings, especially in the area around the Salarian Gate where they had entered. They lined up captives in the streets, demanding ransom from their families, and hauling off into slavery those who could not pay–and some who did. But so little food remained within the walls of the long-besieged city that the victors did not stay long. They filled their sacks and wagons with gold, silver, silk, and precious gems, along with any vases and artwork that they had not trampled or smashed. Then they headed south.3

When the self-absorbed emperor Honorius received word of Rome’s fate, it is said, he became distressed only because at first he misunderstood the message. As the probably fictitious story goes, Honorius at first thought the couriers were trying to tell him that some evil had befallen one of his prize roosters, a bird he called Roma, and was relieved to hear that the news concerned only a catastrophe to the city of that name.

Though Alaric had conquered and pillaged the greatest city in the ancient world, he did not have long to enjoy this celebrity. His apparent plan was to move his forces south to take Sicily, and then to carry the campaign into North Africa, with its rich stores of grain. His ultimate goal was never in doubt, observes historian H. V. Livermore (The Origins of Spain and Portugal, London, 1971). He wanted to rule the empire, but God, fate, happenstance or plain bad luck had another plan for Alaric.

Soon after his final victory at Rome, he was stricken by fever, and died after a brief illness. The sixth-century Gothic historian Jordanes (History of the Goths) recounts the probably fanciful story of his burial. Roman slaves were put to work diverting the course of the little river Busentinus, says Jordanes, and building a royal sepulchre upon the exposed riverbed. Carefully arranged inside, with Alaric’s body, were many of the treasures looted from Rome. Then the river was restored to its former course, and the secret location of the king’s tomb concealed forever by drowning every slave who worked on it.

But Alaric’s effect upon history was not confined to the physical conquest and sack of Rome. Far more devastating was his destruction of a myth. “The psychological blow to the empire was enormous,” says Eerdman’s Handbook. To the people of that day, writes historian Peter Brown in Augustine of Hippo (London, 1967), the fall of the city was “inconceivable.” For twenty or more generations, Rome had stood immovable, imperishable, unassailable and unconquerable, in every mind whether civilized or barbarian. Her fall was akin in the general assumptions of the western peoples to the fall of the sun or moon. The inconceivable had occurred. The only certainty was that there were no more certainties.

In the ensuing years, all across the western empire, catastrophe followed catastrophe in the form of barbarian victories. The towns and cities were hit first because they promised the most loot and slaves. The fifth-century account of the priest and scholar Salvian (A Treatise on the Government of God, translated by Eva Sanford, New York, 1930) describes the appalling fate of beautiful Trier, where Athanasius had first been exiled (see chapter 1), and which Salvian calls “the greatest city of Gaul, three times destroyed by successive captures.” He writes:

Those who escaped death in the capture did not survive the ruin that followed. Some died lingering deaths from deep wounds. Others were burned by the enemy’s fires, and suffered tortures after the flames were extinguished. Some perished of hunger, others of nakedness, some wasting away, others paralyzed with cold, and so all alike, by diverse deaths, hastened to the common goal. Worse than this, other cities suffered from the destruction of this single town. There lay about the torn and naked bodies of both sexes, a sight that I myself endured. These were a pollution to the eyes of the city as they lay there, lacerated by birds and dogs. The stench of the dead brought pestilence on the living; death breathed out death. Thus, even those who had escaped the destruction of the city suffered the evils that sprang from the fate of the rest.

Priscus, a civil servant and historian, provided a vivid description of the fate of Nis, Yugoslavia: “We found the city deserted, as though it had been sacked; only a few sick persons lay in the churches. We halted a short distance from the river, in an open space, for all the ground adjacent to the bank was full of the bones of men slain in the war.” St. Jerome writes: “The once noble city of Mogumtiacum [Mainz, Germany] has been captured and destroyed. In its church, many thousands have been massacred. The people of Vangium [Worms, Germany], after standing a long siege, have been extirpated. . . . Tournai, Spires and Strasbourg have fallen to Germany, while the provinces of Aquitaine, of the Nine Nations, of Lyon and Narbonne are with the exception of a few cities one universal scene of desolation.”

Historian Prosper Boissonnade lists nineteen abandoned cities in the Danube provinces. Some (like Bude of the future Budapest, Vindobona, which would become Vienna, and Juvavum, which would become Salzburg) would subsequently be reoccupied and resume life. Some would never recover. He says the Huns alone destroyed seventy towns and cities in Illyricum. To this list he adds Cologne, Utrecht, Mainz, Worms, and Aix-la-Chapelle in the Rhine Valley. In Britain, London, York, Colchester, Norwich and Bath were “transformed into heaps of ruins” by the Saxon hordes. In Sicily, the Vandals wrought so much damage to Palermo, Syracuse and Catania that they remained desolate even by the end of the sixth century.

Identifying thirteen cities in northern Italy that were left a “total or partial ruin,” Boissonnade concludes: “Within the crumbling walls of these ghostly towns, and in their half-deserted streets, a few artisans still vegetated, all that was left of the flourishing crafts of the past. Ploughed fields and gardens occupied the greater part of the open spaces, destitute of houses and inhabitants. . . . The west fell back again into the elementary economic life of primitive peoples.”

Viewing the devastation in Britain, the monk Gildas observes that while the great buildings and massive fortifications of the Roman era were still standing, “there is no living creature inside them except the wild beasts and the birds that have made their lairs there.” Life in the cities, he notes, “is no longer possible.” Many cities, observes historian Edith Ennen (The Medieval Town, Amsterdam, 1979), “shrank to the level of walled military encampments, which were now cut off from their surrounding territories.”

Population plunged in both country and city. Boissonnade estimates that the Gallic lands, which probably numbered thirty million in the second century, were now down to about a third of that number. In the year 536 alone, famine claimed fifty thousand peasants in Italy, and plague wiped out one third to one half of the population of Wales and Ireland. In Auvergne, in the year 571, three hundred persons died of plague in one church, on one Sunday. At Rome, one pope recorded, he had seen eighty people lying on a street in the throes of death. Some took refuge in drink, and writes Salvian, died in drunken debauchery. In the city of Mainz, “all the people reveled together. . . . Men too feeble to live proved mighty in their cups. Too weak to walk, they were strong in drinking, stumbling along like nimble dancers.”

Throughout most of western Europe, and in North Africa, food production shriveled. The barbarians, writes Boissonnade, “set fire to the harvest, cut down the fruit trees, tore up the vines, pillaged barns and cellars, drove away before them troops of captives and domestic animals, and sowed desolation and death all round them,” leaving few people to work the land. Thus dikes and drainage systems were not maintained, productive land returned to swamp, and once-rich districts became wilderness.

The devastation, being indiscriminate, did entirely miss some few districts. Sir Samuel Dill, classics scholar and pro-chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast, uses the letters of Sidonius, bishop of Auvergne, to show that the invasions scarcely affected Sidonius or his neighbors. Similarly, Boissonnade notes that some local officials who escaped the onslaught set themselves up as “chiefs”–Churchill’s “petty ruffians”–who oppressed the local population, heaped up fruits of their rapine, filled their harems with girls, their stables with horses, their kennels with hounds, divided their leisure between banqueting and the chase, dog fights and violent exercise.

As the western empire crumbled, the death throes of its expiring court became increasingly bizarre. Central roles, for example, would be played by two women of royal birth: one who fell deeply in love with a Visigoth chieftain, and one who offered herself as one of the many brides of the dreaded Attila the Hun.

Among the captives carried off by Alaric’s men after the sacking of Rome was a twenty-two-year-old woman of imperial parentage. It is unlikely she was treated as an ordinary prisoner, of course, but few could have predicted the extraordinary fate that awaited her. From the status of royal captive, she would rise to rule the expiring western empire–and do it better than any of the men who succeeded one another in and out of power during her time.

Galla Placidia, the only daughter of the emperor Theodosius I to survive infancy, and the half sister of rooster-raiser Honorius, was born in 388, raised in privilege, and instructed in Christianity. Her mother, the empress Galla, died when Placidia was a child; her father soon followed. At the age of seven, the orphan was sent off to Rome to be raised by Serena–the same Serena, Stilicho’s wife, who was to be murdered by the Senate (with Placidia assenting, for reasons that remain unclear) in its vain attempt to forestall Alaric’s advance on the city.

Among those attracted to Placidia as she was carried away from Rome was Alaric’s brother-in-law, Athaulf, who would assume command of the Goths after Alaric’s death. A man as decisive and ambitious as his brother-in-law, he decided to marry her. Placidia and Athaulf were wed in a splendid ceremony in Gaul in 414. Athaulf, hoping to reach an alliance with Rome, may have arranged the marriage largely for political reasons. Nevertheless, Placidia reportedly gave every appearance of true love for her Visigoth chief, and he appears to have returned her affection, despite the circumstances of their meeting and the disparities in their backgrounds.

Theirs was indeed a storybook romance, though a brief one. The pampered Roman princess seems to have enjoyed her new life among the wandering Goths, and to have made good-natured attempts to Romanize Athaulf–perhaps even to win him over from Arianism to orthodox Christianity. “There seems little doubt,” writes Oost, “that it was she who led the way, convinced of a union of Visigoth and Roman, of civilization and barbarism, as a key to the future welfare of both people.” And so it would be, although “long centuries . . . were to elapse before the union of two cultures which the royal pair had dimly envisioned was to become a reality.”

Athaulf and Placidia had a baby boy, naming him Theodosius in honor of Placidia’s father, but the child died in infancy. Then, before the marriage was two years old, Athaulf was mortally wounded by a disgruntled servant while inspecting horses in his stable. With her husband dead, Placidia’s fairy-tale life came to an abrupt end. She found herself once again an outsider and a captive, and her husband’s successor enjoyed letting her know it. This was Singeric, a bitter foe of Athaulf, who forced Placidia to walk on foot in front of his horse with the common prisoners. But Singeric’s vindictiveness was not confined to Placidia; it extended to everyone around him. After a reign of seven days, he was murdered by an irritated warrior named Wallia, who proceeded to sell Placidia to her brother Honorius for six hundred thousand measures of grain. Thus she wound up back in Rome.

In 417, under pressure from Honorius, Placidia reluctantly married Constantius, a Roman general whom she considered both ugly and more uncouth than any Visigoth. She knew her own future depended upon the ascent of her new husband, however, and therefore persuaded Honorius to proclaim Constantius as emperor of the west in 421. Placidia was clearly the force behind him, administering the empire through him. Co-emperor Constantius III was doomed to a short reign in any event, dying of pleurisy after seven months on the throne, but by then, Placidia had borne him two children. Her son would in due course become Valentinian III. Her daughter, Honoria, would embroil herself in scandal, face charges of treason, and help provoke one of the most famous battles in history.

Early on, Placidia got along well enough with her brother Honorius. Perhaps too well–they were seen kissing each other on the lips, causing gossip about incest. But eventually they had a falling out, and Honorius accused Placidia of treason. Fearing for her life, in 423 she fled with her children and took refuge in Constantinople with the new emperor of the east. This was Theodosius II, son of the lamentable Arcadius (he of the “dull wits”), who had died in 408, at the age of thirty-one (an early demise caused by a kick from a horse in some accounts, an illness in others).

Placidia, having survived the sack of Rome, captivity, marriage to a barbarian, ransom and accusations of treason, was now to experience a new adventure: shipwreck, or near shipwreck. En route to Constantinople, her vessel was enveloped by a raging storm, so fierce that all aboard feared for their lives. Placidia prayed for deliverance to St. John the Evangelist, the New Testament apostle, believed to have died as an old man on the very coasts her ship would have skirted. (See earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, pages 19, 25 and 45.) Within a short time, the wind slacked and the sea calmed. Placidia vowed to erect a church in honor of St. John, and would later do so. The Church of St. John the Divine in Ravenna was one of a number of ecclesiastical and other public buildings she would construct during her forthcoming reign.

She arrived in Constantinople as an exile from the west, and not a happy one. She chafed at her status, which ranked below that of her niece, Pulcheria, granddaughter of Theodosius I through Arcadius, and also below that of Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II. So she waited upon events. Her brother Honorius seemed promisingly insecure; if he were not assassinated, he might at least be deposed. In the event he was neither, but to equivalent effect died in 423, of dropsy.

But who was to succeed him? No descendant of Theodosius I was on hand in the west, and the general Castinus, whose enmity toward Placidia was well established and fierce, decided he had just the man. He advanced the case for Honorius’s former secretary, Johannes–intelligent, unassuming, moderate and not too likely to disrupt the established order. And certainly there was a need for a western authority, someone on the scene, not distracted by the far-off concerns of the east. It took weeks to get even a message to Constantinople and back. Moreover, Johannes had another backer, the Roman general Aetius, who in his boyhood had been a hostage in the camps of both the Goths and Huns, and had friends among their leaders. The choice was obvious. Johannes was named Augustus of the west and emissaries were sent east to Constantinople to obtain the eastern emperor’s blessing.

However, the choice of Johannes was seen in Constantinople as something less than obvious. There it was viewed as a blatant power grab, and Theodosius II swung into action. Granted there must be a western emperor, but he must be of imperial pedigree, not some upstart clerk. When Johannes’s envoys arrived, a few were sent home and the rest were jailed. Then the childless Theodosius named his closest male relative to the rank of caesar, second in rank only to himself. This was Placidia’s son, Valentinian, aged six. Valentinian had the right blood; he also had a remarkably determined mother.

So Johannes knew he faced a fight, and in that fight, who better to help him than the Huns? He would play the Aetius card. He sent Aetius off with a large amount of gold to confer with his old friends. Yes, they agreed, they would take his side in the looming war with Theodosius.

Events now moved swiftly. Theodosius mounted a massive expeditionary force by land and sea to depose Johannes. Placidia, accompanied by the child-emperor Valentinian (and also her daughter Honoria) met with the army at Thessalonica. At first, things went badly. The eastern fleet under general Ardaburius was caught up in a storm and wrecked; Ardaburius himself made it safely to the Italian shore and was immediately captured. Johannes treated him hospitably at Ravenna, however, and gave him the freedom of the town, hoping to keep everything as calm as possible while he waited for his allies, the Huns. But Ardaburius escaped and got out a message warning the eastern army of the Huns’ approach. The forces of the east then attacked Ravenna via a hidden route through the marshes, shown them by a cooperative shepherd, and Johannes was taken captive.

Placidia, acting on behalf of her son, showed none of the mercy toward Johannes that he had shown to Ardaburius. She ordered one of his hands cut off, had him tied backwards atop a mule and displayed in this humiliating fashion to jeering crowds at Aquileia, and then had him beheaded. Johannes had ruled slightly more than two years, from 423 to 425, during which time the record shows that he implemented a policy of tolerance for all Christian sects.

Three days after the execution, Aetius and the Huns belatedly arrived in Italy. After a few skirmishes, Placidia shrewdly sought out Aetius and offered terms. There is no doubt she would have preferred to execute Aetius as she had Johannes, but she needed him to make the indispensable pact with the Huns. Paid handsomely for their trouble, they departed. Aetius was made a count and given a military command in Gaul, a decision Placidia would live to rue. Before long, he would rise to be the chief military power in the west, and her chief rival. Meanwhile, Theodosius’s victorious troops hailed her little son as Valentinian III, and in October 425, Theodosius made it official at a ceremony in Rome, attended by the Senate and other dignitaries.

On behalf of the trembling child, his mother became supreme authority in the west in everything but title. For the sake of form, her son signed imperial decrees, but Placidia wrote them and showed him where to scrawl his name. It was she who made all appointments to important offices. Observes Gibbon: “The mother of Valentinian . . . reigned twenty-five years in the name of her son, and the character of that unworthy emperor gradually countenanced the suspicion that Placidia had enervated his youth by a dissolute education and studiously diverted his attention from every manly and honorable pursuit.” Other historians are less harsh. General Aetius took over once Valentinian became an adult, notes Oost. Even so, “we will be fairly safe in ascribing his acts before he was eighteen to his mother’s will.”

Whatever Placidia might have done or not done, however, she was ruling an empire in the throes of dissolution. Various barbarians were pressing hard upon it on all sides, its resources were shrinking, and a general malaise had spread through every level of a society top-heavy with bureaucrats who remorselessly heaped an increasing tax burden upon its citizens. Furthermore, Placidia soon discovered a pressing personal problem. Where her son had become an avenue into power, her daughter threatened to become an avenue out of it. Justa Grata Honoria was under orders from her brother Valentinian III (meaning, of course, mother Placidia) to remain unmarried–and celibate–but it did not escape Honoria’s attention that since her brother had no male heirs, any son of hers would present long-term political possibilities.

When Honoria was sixteen, a scandal erupted in the imperial household. The supposedly chaste princess had been entertaining a visitor in her bedroom, and was said by some to be pregnant, although no birth was ever recorded. Her lover, Eugenius, an administrator of the family’s properties, paid dearly for this dalliance. Having sexual relations with an unmarried princess was high treason, not just in the eyes of the angry family, but because it was spelled out clearly in Roman law. Eugenius was executed forthwith. Honoria was banished to a convent back east in Constantinople, where she languished in disgrace for the next fifteen years. For all those years she seethed, outraged and unrepentant.

Some whispered that Honoria and Eugenius had been hatching a plot against Valentinian, a charge not entirely without evidence and not unlikely. Growing up as Placidia’s daughter, she was steeped in practical politics, well aware that clever manipulation could turn events in desirable directions. In any case, she now began plotting in good earnest. These shirttail relatives of hers in Constantinople, she observed, seemed mightily impressed by the king of the Huns. He was known as Attila, and his name would come to ring down through history, but Honoria knew little about the man except that he was said to be a lusty beast with a well-populated harem.

This Attila, Honoria surmised, might very well be interested in a Roman princess–interested enough even to come to her assistance. At the age of thirty-one, she composed a letter to the Hun chieftain, and dispatched it by her eunuch, Hyacinthus. Along with the letter, which besought Attila’s help in righting the wrongs inflicted upon her, she sent her ring and a sum of money.

Whether attracted by this bold woman or sensing political advantage, Attila let it be known that he intended to wed her. He had received from her a bona fide proposal of marriage, he announced, and by the way, he expected half the western empire as her dowry. When the account of Honoria’s letter and Attila’s outrageous response reached Theodosius at Constantinople, he threw up his hands. This impertinent woman was impossibly complicating his already strained relationship with the Huns. The situation was as ridiculous as it was dangerous. Honoria may not have known it, but Theodosius had been trying for some time to arrange for Attila to be assassinated.

He proceeded to get rid of Honoria by sending her, and her eunuch, back to Valentinian, along with a stern letter suggesting that Valentinian take up Attila’s offer, and get the woman married off. Valentinian, naturally enough, did not see it that way. Honoria’s teenaged affair with the hired help had caused great embarrassment fifteen years earlier, and now this! He would get to the bottom of it. He ordered Hyacinthus interrogated under torture; when the poor wretch had told what he could tell, he was beheaded. Honoria must suffer the same fate, Valentinian decided; conspiring with the enemy was high treason, sister or no sister. But their mother, Placidia, intervened. To calm things down, Honoria was given in marriage to a thoroughly trustworthy senator named Flavius Herculanus Bassus.4

Meanwhile, however, Attila sent an envoy to Valentinian to press his claim for the hand of his princess. Told that she was already married, he persisted in repeating his demand, and finally, in 451, crossed the Rhine with a massive force and began an invasion of Gaul. He had been driven to this war, he claimed, by the denial of the dowry–half of Valentinian’s kingdom–to which he was entitled. What followed was a military confrontation regarded by many historians as a crucial determinant in the future of western Europe. This was the Battle of Chalons, fought not far from Paris, in which Placidia’s enemy Aetius decisively defeated the Huns.

With the turning back of the Huns, however, Aetius became expendable in the eyes of Valentinian III, Placidia’s now-adult son. On September 21, 454, the emperor provoked a quarrel with his general, accusing him of imperial ambitions. Then Valentinian drew his sword, and with the help of a servant, killed Aetius on the spot. Within months, Valentinian in his turn was killed by a usurper, and thus died the last direct male descendent of the great Theodosius I.

As for Placidia, she had died in her sleep in Rome some four years earlier, on November 27, 450, at the age of sixty-two. Aside from her other influences, she left a distinctive physical mark on the empire, building or restoring such churches as the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and the Church of St. Stephen at Rimini. At Ravenna she built the Church of the Holy Cross and–as promised in that long-ago storm–the Church of St. John the Divine and a mausoleum which remains a major example of late Roman architecture.

Church building, however, could not relieve the cold doubt that continued to chill Christians, many of whom saw their empire’s unfolding disasters as God’s judgment on a sinful world, in which the faithful suffered along with the backslider and the pagan. “For ten years we have been cut down by the slaughtering swords of the Vandals and the Goths,” writes Prosper of Aquitaine. “Perhaps men of more advanced years, whose wickedness was greater, have suffered what they deserved from an offended God. But what crime did innocent boys and girls commit? The honor of their dedicated virginity did not shield maidens nor did their zeal for religion protect widows. Priests were not spared the torments of their wretched flocks out of reverence for the Sacred Name. They, too, were lashed with rough whips; they were burned with fire, and they groaned with heavily fettered hands.”

Beyond the toll in human suffering lay another cost, notably the setback to human technology. This showed very clearly in the field of transportation. Julius Caesar had once covered eight hundred miles in ten days; imperial couriers could travel 360 miles in sixty hours; Roman horse and mule carts averaged four to six miles an hour. Very early in the medieval period, says Boissonnade, “this Roman road system simply ceased to exist.” Desultory efforts were made to restore it. The Frankish kingdom tried briefly to maintain some of the roads with forced labor, then gave up the attempt. The Visigoth kingdom passed regulations on minimum road widths, but these were abandoned. The Web site of the International Museum of the Horse notes it would take fourteen hundred years before humanity would equal travel time on the original Roman roads.

Harbor facilities likewise fell to pieces, partly because the formula for hydraulic cement, which sets underwater and allowed the Romans to build dock and moorage installations, was somehow lost to human capability. It is noteworthy, observes Paul J. Gans, professor of chemistry at New York University, “that the large-scale organization of society allows its inhabitants to do many things that cannot be done otherwise. It may not be the actual detailed knowledge that is lost, but the practice ceases anyway.”

Amidst the chaos and decay, however, one reality gradually became discernible. “The Christians who were to prepare for the transformation of the world were those who never allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the sense of inescapable doom,” writes historian Daniel-Rops (The Church in the Dark Ages, Paris, 1950). This was particularly evident in their bishops, who came to provide the only stability and continuity there was. Not only did they preach the Word of God and direct their clergy, they often filled administrative roles abandoned by the imperial bureaucracy, organizing food provisions, road and bridge repairs, developing methods of intercity communications, restoring dikes and establishing water supplies. They became responsible for hospitals, schools and prisons. Beggars and orphans usually depended on the bishop’s charity, often for their very survival.

“But their greatest service to the men of the fifth century,” says Daniel-Rops “was to give a meaning to their drama, and not to abandon them, lonely and distraught, on the edge of an abyss beyond which they could see no further.” For all were much aware that the supposedly indestructible empire was being destroyed before their eyes. What was not in ruins was in turmoil. And if Rome, the “Eternal City,” could fall, and its empire with it, was anything eternal?

One bishop in particular had an answer to this question, and his answer would stand as the foundation of a new Christian world, which would rise in the ashes left behind by the barbarians. Yes, he said, there was an eternal city, but it was not the City of Man, whose works perpetually rise and fall. It was the City of God, the only lasting reality. The name of this bishop was Augustine.

This is the end of the Alaric category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 116, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Alaric from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at