ON A HOT AUGUST DAY IN 410, the unthinkable happened. A large force of Goths entered Rome by the Salarian Gate and for three days helped themselves to the city’s wealth. The sources, without being specific, speak clearly of rape and pillage. There was, of course, much loot to be had, and the Goths had a field day. By the time they left, they had cleaned out many of the rich senatorial houses as well as all the temples, and had taken ancient Jewish treasures that had resided in Rome since the destruction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem over three hundred years before. They also left with treasure of another sort: Galla Placidia, sister of the reigning western emperor Honorius. And arson too had been on the agenda – the area around the Salarian gate and the old Senate building had been among the casualties.

The Roman world was shaken to its foundations. After centuries as mistress of the known world, the great imperial capital had been subjected to a smash-and-grab raid of epic proportions. In the Holy Land, St Jerome, an émigré from Rome, put it succinctly: ‘In one city, the whole world perished.’ Pagan reactions were more pointed: ‘If Rome hasn’t been saved by its guardian deities, it’s because they are no longer there; for as long as they were present, they preserved the City.’1 The adoption of Christianity, in other words, had led to this devastation. But the immediate emotional reaction to any great event is rarely the best indicator of its real significance. Reconstructing the causes, and especially the true importance, of the sack of Rome is a detective story of great complexity. It will take us back in time over the best part of two decades before that fateful summer day, and forward again for another. Geographically, the story ranges from the Caucasus Mountains in the east to the Iberian Peninsula in the west. What emerges is that, while the sack of Rome might have seemed fatefully symbolic at the time, in itself it did no fundamental harm to the Empire’s capacity to fight back.

All Chaos on the Western Front

NO SINGLE SOURCE lays out for us in one clear sequence everything leading up to this momentous event, let alone explores their underlying cause. In part, this is testimony to its complexity. The sack of Rome was the end product of an interaction between multiple protagonists that no contemporary historian – none, at least, whose work has survived – was able to understand in its entirety. There is also a more specific reason why the event presents us with so many difficulties. Much of the history of the period AD 407–25 was covered in a lengthy work by a well informed contemporary writer, Olympiodorus of Thebes, whose writings we briefly dipped into earlier. Originating in Egypt, and of impeccable classical education, he found employment in the Foreign Office of the eastern Empire, conducting a series of diplomatic missions, most notably to the Huns, accompanied for more than twenty years by his pet parrot who could ‘dance, sing, call its owner’s name, and do many other tricks’. Olympiodorus wrote in Greek, not Latin, and his style was less rhetorical and dramatic than was popular at the time – for which fault he apologized to his readers. This was a bonus for the modern reader, of course: his history is less overblown and more straightforwardly informative than, for instance, Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the Gothic war in the Balkans. Unfortunately, though, Olympiodorus’ history does not survive in full. Some four hundred years later one Photius, a Byzantine bibliophile and (briefly) Patriarch of Constantinople, produced a long work – theBibliotheca – which summarized the contents of his library; luckily for us, Olympiodorus’ history was one of the volumes. From Photius’ brief description, we can also tell that, much nearer to the time, the work was heavily drawn upon by two other writers, the Church historian Sozomen in the mid-fifth century and the pagan historian Zosimus in the early sixth. Both were interested in the sack of Rome and wrote out large, more or less intact chunks of the first part of Olympiodorus’ history, down to the year 410. For our purposes, this is clearly a good thing, but both abridged and reworked the text for their own purposes, and in so doing introduced mistakes. In particular, Zosimus, trying to join as seamlessly as possible the work of his two main sources Olympiodorus and Eunapius, which slightly overlapped at the early fifth century, omitted some key events and garbled others.2

AFTER THE APPEARANCE of our Gothic asylum seekers on the Danube in 376, relative calm returned to Rome’s European frontiers for the best part of a generation. The peace was shattered again, however, between 405 and 408, when four major incursions overturned frontier security all the way from the Rhine to the Carpathian Mountains. The Carpathians form the east wing of the central European mountain chain which also includes the Alps. They start and finish on the River Danube, running about 1,300 kilometres from the Slovak capital Bratislava in the west to Orsova in the east, describing a huge east-facing arc (map 7). They are generally lower than the Alps, with only a few summits over 2,500 metres, and no permanent glaciers or snowfields. Their width varies dramatically between about 10 and 350 kilometres, and their western, narrower end is penetrated by many more passes than the eastern slopes facing out towards the Great Eurasian Steppe. The Carpathians have always functioned as a defining feature of European geography, separating eastern and central Europe on the one hand, and north and south on the other. Their significance is also historical, and the organization of the later Roman Empire reflected this. The Danube region east of Orsova, the Lower Danube, belonged to Thrace and was administered from the east, whereas the Middle Danube, west and south of the mountains, protected the passes into Italy and was always part of the west. To understand the various invasions of the early fifth century, we must situate the action against this Carpathian backdrop.


In 405/6, a pagan Gothic king by the name of Radagaisus led a large force across the Alps into Italy. Because of Zosimus’ garbling of Olympiodorus’ history, our knowledge of this attack is patchy. Most glaringly, Zosimus reports that Radagaisus was defeated beyond the frontier, when he was actually captured at Fiesole and executed outside Florence. Zosimus also says – without giving any dates – that Radagaisus gathered under him a mass of Celtic and Germanic peoples from beyond the Rhine and Danube; this suggests that he led a multiracial force from what is now southern Germany, Austria and Bohemia.3 All the other sources insist, however, that Radagaisus was a leader primarily of Goths. As Zosimus’ reworking nowhere mentions the slightly later Rhine crossing of 406, which, as we shall see in a moment, was indeed multiracial, it seems that, in making his join between Eunapius and Olympiodorus, he jumbled up Radagaisus’ invasion of Italy in 405/6 with the Rhine crossing of 406.4 One key point emerges immediately. Back in 376, the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi had crossed the Lower Danube from east of the Carpathian Mountains into Thrace. Thirty years later, the action moved a step further west. The fact that Radagaisus’ invasion fell upon Italy, without passing through the Balkans, indicates that he invaded the Empire from somewhere on the Great Hungarian Plain west of the Carpathians (map 7). Judging by finds of coin hoards, his invasion route passed through southeastern Noricum and western Pannonia; it also generated a stream of panic-stricken refugees who preceded him over the Alps.5

Radagaisus met his end on 23 August 406. Four months later, on 31 December, a mixed force crossed the Rhine into Gaul. The three largest groupings were Vandals, Alans and Suevi – the Vandals in two separate political units, the Hasdings and the Silings. Likethat of Radagaisus, this second assault on the Empire also originated west of the Carpathian Mountains. In winter 401/2, the Vandals had raided the Roman province of Raetia, which places them, immediately before the Rhine crossing, somewhere in the Middle or Upper Danube region (map 7). For most of the fourth century they had lived further away from the Roman frontier, more to the north-east, but still west of the Carpathians, in what is now Slovakia and southern Poland.6 The identity of the Suevi is more problematic. The term is often used of an old Germanic confederation of the early imperial period, but between about AD 150 and the Rhine crossing itself it is no longer found in the Roman sources. Its reappearance probably indicates that some of the Marcomanni and Quadi (and possibly also Alamanni), who had formed part of that early Roman confederation and had been settled in the Middle Danube region since that time, were participants in the attack. Quadi, at least, are specifically mentioned in one source as taking part in the crossing of 406, and in the fifth century ‘Suevi’ came back into use as a general term for Germanic people who continued to live around the Danube bend and the fringes of the Great Hungarian Plain – presumably the descendants of other Marcomanni and Quadi who had not participated in the Rhine crossing.7 Both Vandals and Suevi, therefore, originated west of the Carpathians, as did other, smaller groups mentioned only by St Jerome: particularly Sarmatians and ‘hostile Pannonians’ (hostes Pannonii).8 As with the events of 377–82, disaffected elements among the Roman population played some part in the action (see p. 173).

The history of the Alans, Iranian-speaking nomads exploiting the dry steppe lands east of the River Don, is more complicated. As late as roughly 370, they had lived over 3,500 kilometres away from the Rhine. The first population group to feel the force of the increasing power of the Huns, some Alans quickly fell under their domination. But the Alans were organized into numerous autonomous subgroups, of which several remained independent of the Huns after 376, and many moved long distances west (both under their own steam and in company with Huns) in the generation after the Tervingi and Greuthungi initially crossed the Danube. Already in 377, a mixed force of Huns and Alans joined the Goths south of the Danube, their arrival forcing the Romans to abandon their defence of the Haemus Mountains. In 378, the emperor Gratian had ‘unexpectedly’ encountered more Alans at Castra Martis in Dacia Ripensis, west of the Carpathians, which delayed still further his march to join Valens. In the early 380s, Zosimus records, the same emperor recruited a particularly large force of Alans into the western Roman army.9 Thus, while the Alans originated east of the Don, many of them quickly moved west of the Carpathians under the impact of Hunnic power. While they proceeded in different directions, then, the attacks of Radagaisus in 405/6 and the Rhine crossing in 406 both originated in the same broad region of Germanic Europe.

The third major invasion of this decade involved a Hunnic leader by the name of Uldin, and happened further east. Previously a Roman ally, in 408 he changed allegiances. Crossing the Danube with a force of Huns and Sciri, he seized Castra Martis and, addressing some plainly confused Roman ambassadors, he made some extravagant claims: ‘He [pointed] to the sun, and [declared] that it would be easy for him, if he so desired, to subjugate every region of the earth that is enlightened by that luminary.’ Precisely where we should place Uldin before this invasion is unclear. In 400, he had defeated a Roman rebel, who then fled north of the Danube through Thrace, which might place him north of the lower Danube (map 7). In 406, however, he had provided military aid to the Romans, in Italy, then two years later seized a major Roman base in Dacia Ripensis, west of Orsova. These later glimpses of him suggest that we should actually place him just west of the Carpathians, perhaps in the Banat or Oltenia. The arrogance of Uldin’s claims has led some to view him as the leader of a massive force. But what happened next tells us otherwise. Many of his followers were won over from their allegiance by east Roman diplomacy; the Roman army then killed or captured many of the others as they ran back hell for leather towards the Danube. Uldin is never heard of again, and his rhetoric sounds more like bluff than the arrogance of a major warlord. His gamble in seizing Castra Martis clearly backfired, and led directly to the destruction of his power base.10

The Burgundians, the fourth focus of our attention at this point, have gone down in history for their size, their taste in food and their hairdressing, thanks to the fifth-century Gallo-Roman poet and landowner Sidonius, who at one point had to share his house with some of them:

Why . . . do you [an obscure senator by the name of Catullinus] bid me compose a song dedicated to Venus . . . placed as I am among long-haired hordes, having to endure Germanic speech, praising often with a wry face the song of the gluttonous Burgundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair? . . . You don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions discharged upon you at early morn from ten breakfasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn . . . by a crowd of giants.11

In the fourth century, the domain of the Burgundians lay to the east of the Alamanni, well outside Roman territory, between the Upper Rhine and the Upper Danube, just on the other side of an old Roman frontier line abandoned in the third century (map 7). By 411 they had moved about 250 kilometres to the north-west, and now straddled the Rhine in the region of Mainz and Coblenz, at points both inside and outside the Roman province of Lower Germania. This shifting of their centre of operations hardly compares with the wholesale incursions into Roman territory described above, but the Burgundians must nonetheless be considered alongside their more adventurous peers. Something was afoot at this time in Germania west of the Carpathians.12 After an uneventful couple of decades, the barbarians were on the move again.

To grasp the significance of all this, we need some idea of the numbers involved. Sources for this period being what they are, we have no reliable figures, and some historians would argue that it is pointless even to raise the issue. In my view, however, there are a few pointers, direct and indirect, that between them suggest at least an order of magnitude. An important starting-point is the fact that both the attack of Radagaisus and the Rhine invasion involved mixed population groups: women, children and other noncombatants, as well as fighting men. The constituent elements of these migrant groups is not something that our Roman sources tend to dwell upon: their interest was always firmly focused on the men, those responsible for any military or political threat that a migrant force might pose to the Roman state. All the same, women and children are mentioned just about enough to confirm their presence in both groups. The wives and children of some of the followers of Radagaisus, who eventually found themselves drafted into the Roman army, were, we are told by Zosimus, quartered as hostages in a number of Italian cities.13 For the Vandals, the Alans and the Suevi we have no evidence contemporary with their first moves across the Rhine; but another group of Alans, operating in Gaul with some Goths in the early 410s, certainly had their families in tow.14 And when the main force of Vandals and Alans moved on to North Africa in the 420s (see Chapter 6), they certainly moved in large mixed groups of men, women and children. It is possible to argue that wives had been picked up en route, but I see no good reason to doubt that they had been present since 406. As in 376, whole communities were on the march.

As to the actual numbers, Uldin’s force – to judge by the fact that they seized only the one town and were then easily dispersed – perhaps wasn’t very large. Nonetheless, disposing of all the Sciri captured on his defeat posed the Constantinopolitan authorities a huge administrative headache, so that we must be talking of several thousand individuals.15 Radagaisus’ force of Goths, and the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, however, could each put much more substantial military forces into the field. To fight Radagaisus in 406, the western Empire was forced to mobilize thirty numeri (regiments) – on paper, at least 15,000 men16 – as well as call upon allies such as the Alan auxiliaries under Sarus and the Huns of Uldin (making their last appearance in Roman colours before seizing Castra Martis in 408). On Radagaisus’ defeat, 12,000 of his warriors were drafted into the Roman army, which still left enough over for the bottom to fall out of the slave market when the remaining prisoners were sold off. All of this suggests that Radagaisus’ force originally consisted of 20,000-plus fighting men. The proportion of combatants to noncombatants is generally reckoned at something like 1:4–5, so that his total number of followers may have been heading towards the 100,000 mark.17

For the Vandals, Alans and Suevi who crossed the Rhine, the best indication comes from about two decades later, when the Vandals and Alans together are said to have numbered a maximum of 80,000, implying that they could field a military force of 15–20,000.18 This followed very heavy losses inflicted especially on the Siling Vandals and Alans, and makes no allowance at all for the Suevi, so that the original force that crossed the Rhine probably numbered more like 30,000 warriors – again, therefore, around 100,000 people in total. For the Burgundians, two sources offer us the figure of 80,000, but Jerome thought it a total figure for the entire population (suggesting a military force of perhaps about 15,000), while the Spanish chronicler Orosius says this was the size of their army.19 As with many of the figures for the groups involved in the invasions, none of this is very convincing, but they do suggest – in each case – military forces of at least 20,000-plus, and total populations nearing 100,000. Such a scale is more than enough to explain how the immigrants were able to force their way across the Roman frontier in the first place. Late Roman military reorganization operated with substantial numbers of garrison troops stationed in a sequence of watch-towers and larger installations along the border: in the case of the Danube and Rhine, right on or adjacent to the river line. But these forces were designed to counter only endemic small-scale raiding; larger incursions, even of a few thousand warriors, were the job of the ‘comitatensian’ troops (seeGlossary, comitatenses) stationed behind the frontier. Tens of thousands of barbarians, even if many were noncombatants, were well beyond the competence of border troops.

THESE VAST POPULATION displacements also show up in the archaeological evidence. Two geographically extensive material cultural systems dominated the southern regions of central and eastern Europe in the third and fourth centuries AD: the Cernjachov and Przeworsk (map 7). The Przeworsk was one of the old Germanic or Germanicdominated cultures of central Europe, with a continuous history of development which, by about AD 400, stretched back well over half a millennium. In the fourth century, it covered what is now central and southern Poland, parts of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The Cernjachov system was a much more recent phenomenon, dating to the third century AD. By the later fourth, it had spread through what is now Wallachia, Moldavia and the southern Ukraine, from the Carpathians to the River Don. Old-style archaeology used to equate these kinds of culture with individual ‘peoples’, but they are much better understood as systems incorporating many separate population groups and political units. What created the boundaries of these cultural areas were not the political frontiers of a particular people, but the geographical limits within which population groups interacted with sufficient intensity to make some or all of the remains of their physical culture – pottery, metalwork, building styles, burial goods and so on – look very similar. The Cernjachov system was dominated by the military power of the Goths, but included other Germanic immigrants to the northern Black Sea region, together with indigenous Dacians of the Carpathian region and Iranian-speaking Sarmatians. The area it covered was subdivided into a number of separate kingdoms (see Chapter 3).

Given its much lengthier history, the Przeworsk area may have been culturally more unified, with a higher percentage of Germanic-speakers, but they were no more a political entity than were the Cernjachov areas. The Vandals were to be found within the Przeworsk confines, but also a number of other groups whose populations also interacted with those of the Cernjachov system, for many aspects of their material cultures, not least glass, were very similar. The main discernible difference between the two lay in the fact that Cernjachov populations rarely buried weapons with their dead, while Przeworsk populations did so regularly.

Both of these systems vanished in the late Roman period. A certain amount of controversy surrounds the date of the Cernjachov collapse, but all working on the problem agree that it had disappeared by about 450;20 likewise, although it continued for longer in the north, the Przeworsk culture in southern Poland had disappeared by c.420. From the Ukraine in the east to Hungary in the west, traditional – in the Przeworsk case, very long-established – patterns of material remains thus disappeared between about AD 375 and 430.

When cultures were equated with peoples, it was natural to see ‘culture collapse’, as this phenomenon has come to be known, as reflecting mass migration: a given culture disappeared from an area with the people who generated it. And given that Vandals and Goths, traditionally equated with the Przeworsk and Cernjachov cultures, were appearing as immigrants in the Roman world at the same moment as the two cultures disappeared, this seemed logical enough. But since cultures actually reflect the interaction of mixed populations, culture collapse cannot be so easily explained. Iron Age Germanic cultures such as the Przeworsk and Cernjachov are identified on the basis of the continued development over time of particular items: especially pottery types – notably, fine wares – and metalwork of various kinds, such as weapons and personal ornaments. When we say that a culture has ended, what we mean is that a demonstrable continuity of development in these characteristic items ceases in the archaeological record. Whether the disappearance of these items means that an area’s entire population had disappeared as well is debatable. Recently, some have argued that the characteristic items used to identify the Przeworsk and Cernjachov systems were all quite expensive, produced only for a relatively small military elite. Their disappearance need mean no more, theoretically, than that these consumers had moved on, leaving a substantial peasant population behind. Since this supposed peasantry used the kind of rough pottery that is impossible to date, and did not have metal ornaments, its persistence would be archaeologically invisible. The argument fits in with other attempts, the written and archaeological evidence notwithstanding, to argue that the migrations into the Roman Empire of the later fourth and early fifth centuries constituted a relatively small-scale phenomenon.

Even accepting that culture collapse doesn’t have to mean the total disappearance of an existing population, I don’t find this conclusion convincing. When you put Radagaisus, the Rhine crossing, Uldin and the Burgundians in their proper chronological and geographical relationship, it becomes clear that the years 405–10 saw a huge population displacement out of Germania west of the Carpathians. We are not able, and surely never will be, to put an absolute figure on the combined movements, or to reckon the migrants as a percentage of the total population of the areas affected. At the very least, though, culture collapse shows that these population movements were significant enough to transform the material culture of central Europe, where they originated. Written sources too, while far from complete, confirm that these migrations were not undertaken merely by a tiny social elite – unlike, for instance, the case of the Norman Conquest when, after 1066, only about 2,000 immigrant families moved in to take control of all the landed assets of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Radagaisus’ force, for instance, included two categories of fighter, not just his elite warriors. This important piece of evidence is entirely consistent with more general indications that Gothic groups of the era were always composed of two grades of fighting men: the ‘best’ (the freemen) and the rest (the freed).21 Moreover, as we saw in Chapter 3, fourth-century Germanic society, while certainly hierarchic, was not yet dominated by the kind of very small feudal elite that would dominate the post-Carolingian society.

Some thirty years after the Tervingi and Greuthungi crossed the Lower Danube, then, a second crisis unfolded. Roman frontier security, this time west rather than east of the Carpathians, was breached on no fewer than three occasions within a short time. The four main invasions – Radagaisus’, the Rhine crossings, Uldin’s, and the Burgundians’ – hit the Roman frontier at different points. Radagaisus moved south and west into Italy; the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, as well as the Burgundians, slammed west into the Rhine frontier and across it, while Uldin moved south. These movements, originating from broadly the same region, add up to a massive convulsion along Rome’s European frontiers. Tens of thousands of warriors, which means well over a hundred thousand people all told – just possibly a few hundred thousand – were on the move.

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Hun

IF THE SCALE AND geographical concentration of the crisis of 405–8 can’t be picked up easily from the ancient sources, its causes are even harder to reconstruct. Fragmentary at best, at this point the written sources practically dry up. One, written over a hundred years later, records that it was food shortages that drove the Vandals out of central Europe, but this is unconvincing. They had lived there for hundreds of years, and the period around AD 400 was one of European climatic optimum, with sunny, warm summers. Uldin’s boast (see p. 196) might indicate that his motive was conquest pure and simple; but, then again, the ease with which he was crushed suggests that he was not nearly powerful enough to make a conqueror.

In my view, the crisis of 405–8 must be seen as a rerun of 376, with the further movements of nomadic Huns as the trigger. This has been suggested many times before, but, in the absence of explicit confirmation, has never achieved consensus.22 It is precisely at this point that it becomes important to realize that Huns in large numbers had not themselves been directly involved in the action of 376.23 As late as 395, twenty years after the Goths crossed the Danube, most of the Huns were still well to the east. In that year they launched a massive raid into Roman territory, but via the Caucasus, not over the Danube (map 7). This has sometimes been explained as a cunning plan by Danube-based Hunnic groups to outflank the Roman defences, but both men and horses would have been exhausted by the inevitable 2,000-kilometre trek around the northern coast of the Black Sea before they could even launch their assault. The direction of the attack makes it clear that, as late as 395, the Huns were still centred much further to the east, perhaps on the Volga Steppe; and, in at least partial confirmation of the point, for a decade or more after 376 Goths continued to provide Rome’s main opposition north of the Lower Danube, as we saw in Chapter 4.24

But by the 420s large numbers of Huns were established in central Europe, occupying the Great Hungarian Plain west of the Carpathian Mountains. This point is well documented. In 427, for instance, the Romans expelled them from Pannonia, the richest Roman province south of the Middle Danube (map 7).25 And in 432, when a Roman general needed their help, he travelled ‘through Pannonia’ to reach them, his route showing that they had remained west of the Carpathians even after the expulsion.26 By the early 440s, likewise, Hunnic royal tombs were to be found on the opposite bank of the Danube from the city of Margus – again, firmly west of the Carpathians, as was Attila’s main base in the 440s.27 Sometime between 395 and 425, then, the main body of the Huns made a 1,700-kilometre trek westwards from north of the Caucasus to the Great Hungarian Plain.

Whether it was precisely during 405–8 that the Huns made this move is less certain, but we do have a few tantalizing hints that this may have been the case. For example, in 412/13 Olympiodorus and his parrot visited them on an embassy. Part of the journey involved a horrendous sea voyage, during which their ship put in at Athens. Since Olympiodorus worked for the eastern Empire, he must have started from Constantinople. And since his route to the Huns passed via Athens, he was presumably looking to sail through the Aegean and up the Adriatic, probably to Aquileia at its head. This points to the Middle Danube Plain as the home of Olympiodorus’ Huns by the early 410s, since the port of Aquileia had long existed to service this region (map 7).28

Confirmation that something very serious was afoot in central Europe round about the year 410 is provided by other, more indirect evidence. At this time the eastern imperial authorities in Constantinople perceived a substantial stepping-up of the threat facing their Balkan territories. In January 412, a programme was put in place to strengthen the Danubian fleets.29 One year later, Constantinople, vulnerable to attack through the Balkans from the north, was provided with new defences. It was at this point that the city acquired its famous landwalls: the formidable triple belt of fortifications much of which still stands in modern Istanbul.30 These walls were powerful enough to keep the city safe for a millennium, and no attacker managed to take it from its landward side until 1453, 1,040 years after their construction, when Turkish cannon blasted a hole through them, near the modern Topkapi coach station. Both of these defensive measures have sometimes been taken as a response to Uldin’s attacks of 408/9, but in that case they would be strangely postdated, and Uldin had anyway suffered a crushing defeat. I find it very tempting, therefore, to associate them with the closer proximity of the main Hunnic threat.

The evidence is not all that we would like it to be. But, as already noted, it is certain that by 420, and quite probably by 410, the Huns had moved from the Caucasus, where they were in about 395, to the Great Hungarian Plain. Given that their arrival on the outer fringes of Europe in 376 had triggered the appearance of the Goths on the banks of the Danube, it is inevitable that a second Hunnic advance into the heart of Europe would have had similarly dramatic knock-on effects.31 There is also the fact that we have no serious alternative to fall back on. General Roman policy towards immigrants had not changed. All the groups of 405–8 were resisted; none of them was licensed to enter imperial territory. Moreover, Roman frontier security had been reasserted successfully since 376 (and many of the immigrants of 405–8, as we shall see, were about to die). The Rhine crossing of December 406 occurred long enough after Radagaisus’ catastrophic defeat – he had been executed in August that year – for us to suppose that news of it would have filtered back across the frontier, yet still the next wave of immigrants came. Again, all of this suggests that the events of 405–8 were motivated from the barbarian side of the frontier, and were not dependent upon changing perceptions of imperial policy or imperial strength.

The story takes some piecing together, but the pieces do fit. The key points are these. The intrusion of the Huns into Europe was a two-stage process, part one (the occupation of land north of the Black Sea) triggering the crisis of 376, part two (the occupation of the Great Hungarian Plain) causing, and being preceded by, the displacements from that plain into the Roman world of Radagaisus, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, Uldin and the Burgundians. All these groups came from the region that was to be the heartland of Hunnic power for the next fifty years, just before Huns in large numbers are documented occupying it. This cannot be coincidence. Like the Goths in 376, many of the inhabitants of Germania west of the Carpathians voted with their feet between 405 and 408: the dangers inherent in trying to make a new life on Roman soil were less threatening than the notion of life under Hunnic domination. Where the crisis of 376 reflected the appearance of the Huns on the far eastern fringes of Europe, beyond the Carpathians, that of 405–8 was caused by their transfer to the very heart of Europe.

THE FIRST STEP, remote as it might seem, on the road to the sack of Rome in 410 was taken far off on the northern shores of the Black Sea. The further advances of the Huns threw Germania west of the Carpathians into crisis, and the major knock-on effect observed by the Romans was large-scale armed immigration into their Empire. For the eastern Empire, the new proximity of the Huns generated a heightened anxiety which betrayed itself in new and far-reaching defensive measures. But it was the western Empire that bore the brunt of the fall-out both immediately and in the longer term. The collision of the invaders with the central Roman authorities and local Roman elites would have momentous repercussions.

Pillage and Usurpation

THE IMMEDIATE EFFECTS of these population displacements were exactly what you would expect. None of the refugees entered the Empire by agreement; all behaved as enemies and were treated as such. The Goths of Radagaisus at first met little opposition, but when they reached Florence, matters came to a head. They had blockaded the city and reduced it virtually to the point of capitulation, when a huge Roman relief force, commanded by Stilicho, generalissimo of the western Empire, arrived just in the nick of time. Stilicho ruled the west at this point, in the name of the emperor Honorius, infant son of Theodosius I. He had mobilized for this counterattack an enormous force: thirty regiments from the field army of Italy, together with a contingent probably from the Rhine frontier,32supplemented by Alan and Hunnic auxiliaries.33 The delay incurred in mobilizing so many men explains why Radagaisus had enjoyed a free hand in northern Italy for six months or more. But when the Roman response eventually came, it was brilliantly successful. Radagaisus was forced to retreat with his army up to the heights of Fiesole, and there blockaded. The Gothic king eventually abandoned the scene and tried to escape, but was captured and executed. Some of his followers were dispersed, many of them being sold into slavery, as mentioned earlier;34 while at some point in the action his higher-status warriors were brought over by Stilicho into the Roman army. We hear about this only in a brief snippet from Olympiodorus’ history as preserved by Photius, and it’s not clear when it happened. It could have been part of the mopping-up operation, but – perhaps more likely – it may have represented a considerable diplomatic coup, drastically cutting away Radagaisus’ support and ruining his chances of standing up to Stilicho’s army. Either way, Stilicho had faced down the first of the challenges posed by the crisis of 405–8.

In dealing with the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, however, he was much less effective. If he had transferred part of the Gallic army to Italy to help defeat Radagaisus, this would help to explain why the attack on Gaul, from a non-Roman point of view, was that much more successful. As we know, trouble had been brewing for some time before December 406 in the nexus of lands between the Upper Rhine and Upper Danube. Fragments of a contemporary history written by one Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, preserved in the sixth-century History of Gregory of Tours along with other texts, indicate that the Vandals had been stirring things up on the frontiers of the province of Raetia as early as the winter of 401/2; but if this took the form of an attempt to cross into the Empire, it was certainly repulsed. The Vandals are next encountered trying a quite different tack. By the summer or autumn of 406, the Hasding Vandals had moved some 250 kilometres further north, trying their luck against the Franks of the Middle Rhine. According to the Frigeridus fragments, they took a terrible beating until Alan reinforcements saved the day. This fighting is not dated, but it presumably took place just before the alliance of Hasding and Siling Vandals, together with Alans and Suevi, broke across the Rhine on 31 December 406. The fact that they crossed near Mainz (map 8) confirms that, having tried their luck in the south these groups then shifted their point of attack northwards, circling round, it would seem, the main territories of the Alamanni, and hence coming into conflict with Franks.

The Rhine invasion cannot be reconstructed in detail: all we have is an outline trail of destruction (map 8). It started where the invaders crossed the river, with the sacking of Mainz, then spread west and north to the large centres in the hinterland of the Rhine frontier – Triers and Rheims – before moving further afield to Tournai, Arras and Amiens. The invaders then turned south and east, drifting through the vicinity of Paris, Orléans and Tours to Bordeaux and the Narbonnaise. All of this took the best part of two years, and our most vivid evidence is provided by some Christian Gallic poets who drew a variety of moral lessons from the disaster and, while doing so, gave us a pretty good picture of the action. The most famous, Orientus, produced a terrific one-liner, quoted in all the best histories: ‘All Gaul was filled with the smoke of a single funeral pyre.’35 Writing to his wife, another poet, Prosper of Aquitaine, pondered on the idea that they were seeing the collapse of ‘the frame of the fragile world’ (laboured though this passage may be, it was following the norms of the genre in listing one by one the conventional categories of Roman society):


He who once turned the soil with a hundred ploughs, now labours to have just a pair of oxen; the man who often rode through splendid cities in his carriages now is sick and travels to the deserted countryside wearily and on foot. The merchant who used to cleave the seas with ten lofty ships now embarks on a tiny skiff, and is his own helmsman. Neither country nor city is as it was; everything rushes headlong to its end.

Then, rather more animatedly: ‘With sword, plague, starvation, chains, cold and heat – in a thousand ways – a single death snatches off wretched humankind’.36

After ransacking Roman Gaul, in 409, this bunch of Vandals, Alans and Suevi forced their way over the Pyrenees into Spain, where they wreaked yet more damage. Such was their mastery of the peninsula by 411, the Spanish chronicler Hydatius tells us, that:

[they] apportioned to themselves by lot areas of the provinces for settlement: the [Hasding] Vandals took possession of Gallaecia, and the Sueves that part of Gallaecia which [is] situated on the very western edge of the Ocean. The Alans were allotted the provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginensis, and the Siling Vandals Baetica [map 9]. The Spaniards in the cities and forts who had survived the disasters surrendered themselves to servitude under the barbarians, who held sway throughout the provinces.37

The trail of devastation was finally halted by the seizure and distribution among themselves of one of the most prosperous areas of the western Empire. On the basis of a mid-sixth-century Byzantine source, the historian Procopius, the settlement has sometimes been seen as organized by the central Roman authorities in Italy.38 But Procopius was writing far from these events in both time and space, while the Spanish chronicler Orosius, writing within five years or so, is explicit that the settlement was completely unauthorized.39His account must be preferred. By 411, after four years of living hand to mouth, the Rhine invaders had had enough of their rootless existence. Rather than looting their way across Roman Europe for ever, they needed to find, and settle, revenue-producing territories that would support them in the longer term. Hydatius (who was also bishop of a small town just inside the borders of what is now Galicia in north-western Spain) isn’t too clear on what exactly happened, but it’s a fair guess that the Vandals, Alans and Suevi diverted the tax revenues of their allotted provinces, which normally went to the Roman state, to their own coffers.40 Fire, rape and pillage in Gaul was thus followed by the forced annexation of Spain, but this is only the beginning of the catalogue of disasters that followed the breakdown of frontier security in the western Empire.

WHILE THE VANDALS, Alans and Suevi were rampaging through Gaul and Spain, the instability of the western Empire was exacerbated by a new problem. Just before the emperor Honorius’ seventh consulship in 407:

the troops in Britain mutinied and enthroned Marcus, obeying him as emperor there, but when he would not accede to their demands, they killed him and brought forward Gratian, to whom they gave a purple robe, a crown and a bodyguard, just like an emperor. Becoming displeased with him also, after four months they deposed and killed him, and made Constantine his successor. After appointing Justinianus and Nebiogastes as generals in Gaul, he left Britain and crossed to the continent. Arriving at Boulogne . . . he stayed there a few days and, having won over all the troops of Gaul and Aquitaine to his side, became master of the whole of Gaul up to the Alps.41


Of all the Roman provinces, Britain, as we saw in Chapter 3, was the province most prone to revolts during the late Empire. Not that they had any particular separatist leanings, but the Roman civilian and military establishment there often felt left out of the loop in the distribution of favour and patronage, and occasionally rebelled in search of a better deal. So we are not necessarily looking for any specific motivation for this latest sequence of revolts, which apparently began in the autumn of 406 – a little before the Vandals, Alan and Suevi crossed the Rhine. On the other hand, the two phenomena share a suspicious chronological proximity, and I suspect that there was certainly one link between them, and probably two.

First, such rebellions as there had been in Britain didn’t usually last long, rarely spreading across the Channel to the much larger political and military establishments on the Rhine frontier. The fate of the first two British usurpers in 406/7 was pretty much par for the course: they were nonentities whose bids for power failed at the first hurdle. The third – normally known as Constantine III – was a very different proposition. Not only did he manage to avoid being lynched just twenty minutes after his enthronement, but he quickly extended his sway over Gaul as far as the Alps, winning over the Roman army of the Rhine. By the time he shifted his power-base to Boulogne, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi were already across the frontier, and the central Roman authorities in Italy – Stilicho ruling in the name of Honorius – had so far failed to act.

What we see here is another instance of a classic Roman pattern. Thoroughly Italocentric as it was, Stilicho’s regime failed to come quickly enough to the assistance of Gaul in its hour of need, and Constantine III, shifting his banner to Gaul in spring 407, offered the chance of an effective response to the impending disaster. Once Constantine had established himself south of the Channel, troops under his command fought a number of sharp engagements against the Vandals and their cronies.42 This presumably explains the invaders’ itinerary. As the Roman response to their incursions in the northern Rhine region became more coherent, the invaders switched their attentions south towards Aquitaine and the Pyrenees. Orosius tells us that Constantine made treaties with some of the more stable Germanic clients of the Rhine frontier region – the Alamanni, Franks and Burgundians – both to secure his own position and to ensure that the Gallic provinces wouldn’t be troubled by more invasions.43 He won support in Gaul, therefore, by supplying a focus for Roman resistance to the barbarian invaders, which the central authorities in Italy were conspicuously failing to deliver. The need for such a response may even have been what triggered the British usurpations. Although the first revolt took place a little before the Vandals and their friends crossed the Rhine, trouble had been brewing for some time, as we’ve seen; even if the hammer blow didn’t fall until 31 December 406, there can have been no doubt in Roman military circles on the Rhine that a major crisis was developing. This, I suspect, prompted the unrest against Stilicho’s rule, of which Constantine III would be the prime beneficiary.

Alaric’s Goths

TWO-THIRDS OF our cast have now assembled. To this already volatile mixture we need to add a third element: the Goths of Alaric, into whose hands Rome would eventually fall. To understand these Goths and their part in the action, we must cast our eyes back over the twenty-odd years that had passed since the emperor Theodosius I had finally returned peace to the Balkans, four years after the battle of Hadrianople.

Alaric’s Goths were the direct descendants of the Tervingi and Greuthungi who had negotiated the compromise peace of 382 with Theodosius.44 Their relations with the Roman state, as you might expect of such a shotgun wedding (see Chapter 4), were subject to periodic strains. Instances of partial and full-scale revolt reflected continuing distrust on both sides. The imperial authorities, for their part, did what they could – up to a point – to build trust. When a Gothic soldier was lynched by a mob in Constantinople, substantial financial penalties were imposed on the city. Likewise, when a Roman garrison stationed at Tomi, on the Lower Danube frontier, turned on a Gothic military contingent quartered alongside it, the Roman officer in charge was cashiered. Theodosius was clearly anxious not to allow moments of friction to spark off a major revolt, and we know too that he would from time to time entertain the Goths’ leaders at lavish banquets.

Nonetheless, the Goths, or some of them, clearly suspected that the Roman state was still looking to dismantle the licensed semi-autonomy that they had extracted by force of arms between 376 and 382. In particular, the peace of 382 had stipulated that large Gothic contingents would be liable for military service when called upon by the Empire. Theodosius did this twice, when confronting western usurpers: first Magnus Maximus in 387/8, then Eugenius in 392/3. On each occasion, some of the Goths preferred to revolt, or at least desert, rather than fight in a Roman civil war. The reason for this was straightforward. The Roman state tolerated the Goths’ semi-autonomy only because the prevailing military balance of power made it do so. Time-honoured policies had been suspended, but only in the case of these particular immigrants, and only because of their victories over Valens and Theodosius. Fighting in any Roman civil war would necessarily cost the Goths casualties, and should their military manpower be eroded too far, there would be nothing to prevent the Roman state from enforcing its usual asylum-seeker policy. In selling the peace treaty to the Senate of Constantinople in January 383, as we have seen, Themistius was already looking forward to the Goths losing their semi-independent status.

A large amount of fuel was heaped on the fires of Gothic suspicion during the second of these campaigns, against the usurper Eugenius. Theodosius had been trying to rule the entire Empire from Constantinople, with the predictable result that disaffected elements in the west threw up their own candidate for ruler. At the crucial battle of the River Frigidus, on the fringes of Italy, the Goths found themselves in the front line during the first, inconclusive, day of battle and suffered heavy casualties. One report, clearly exaggerating, says that 10,000 Goths died. Its author, the Christian Orosius, even said the battle produced two Roman victories: one over Eugenius, and a second over the Goths because they had suffered such heavy losses.45 When the emperor Theodosius died in early 395, therefore, the Goths were ripe for revolt, ready to rewrite the terms of the agreement of 382 to secure a greater degree of security. And in raising the banner of rebellion they appointed for themselves an overall leader, for the firsttime since the suppression of Fritigern and Alatheus and Saphrax – in direct contravention of the treaty. Their choice fell upon Alaric, who had made a name for himself in an earlier, smaller revolt after the Maximus campaign. As to how, precisely, the Goths wished to rewrite the peace deal, our hostile Roman sources are not very informative. One thing the Goths wanted, in any new deal, was that the Romans recognize their right to a leader by granting him official status as a fully fledged Roman general (magister militum). Whether there were further conditions attached – in particular, that the office of general should come with full military salaries for his followers – is unclear but perfectly possible.46 The Goths had had enough of their half-baked political autonomy within the Roman state, ground-breaking though it had been when instituted a quarter of a century earlier.

There’s another crucial thing about Alaric’s Goths. In 376, the Goths had come to the Danube in two separate groups, the Tervingi and Greuthungi, each with their own leaderships. They cooperated well enough during the subsequent war, but some jostling for position went on all the same. On the eve of Hadrianople, Fritigern tried to sell himself to Valens as the single recognized leader of all the Goths. Then, two years later, the two groups parted company again, moving off in different directions. What happened next is disputed. Some argue that the Tervingi and Greuthungi made separate treaties with Rome. My own view is that the treaty of 382 applied to both. Whichever option you go for doesn’t change the bigger point – which follows. In the course of Alaric’s reign the old distinction between Tervingi and Greuthungi disappeared for ever, and the two forces became one.47 The process that we have observed in Germania beyond the Roman frontier between the first and the fourth centuries – the growth of larger and more coherent political groupings – had now spread to Roman territory, and was becoming a force to be reckoned with. The reasons behind the unification of the Goths were very simple, and explained why they were already cooperating during the war of 376–82. By operating as one much larger group, they acquired safety in numbers and the chance to negotiate a better deal, thus increasing their chances of a better future in a Roman world that was far from reconciled to their presence.

The revolt of Alaric’s Goths in early 395 was thus a momentous event. A new force was on the loose, seeking to avenge their losses at the River Frigidus and to rewrite the peace treaty of thirteen years earlier. These issues did not prove easy to resolve. The united Goths were too powerful to be quickly despatched. In 395, and again in 397, they were confronted by a substantial Roman army, but actual fighting was limited, probably because the forces were too evenly matched for either side to risk engaging with the enemy.48 At the same time, old attitudes died hard, and no Roman politician was about to rush into granting the Goths new terms. Frustrated in his desire for a political deal, Alaric set his men loose. Once more, it was the provincial population of the Balkans that suffered. The revolt first broke out in Thrace in the north-east, but between 395 and 397 the Goths worked their way all the way south to Athens, then west and north up the Adriatic coast as far as Epirus, cheerfully pillaging as they went, while all the time putting out feelers for a new political deal.

Court politics in Constantinople were highly volatile during these years. Theodosius’ older son, the eastern emperor Arcadius, though twenty years old in 397 never actively ruled, but was always surrounded by a swarm of ambitious politicians seeking power through his favour. By 397, currently the most powerful of these courtiers, the eunuch Chamberlain Eutropius, was ready to negotiate. He made Alaric a Roman general and granted the Goths the better terms and extra guarantees they required. He allowed them to settle in Dacia and Macedonia, and probably arranged for local produce, levied as tax in kind, to be diverted to their subsistence. Eutropius’ fate is highly instructive. Eunuchs were generally figures of ridicule in the Roman world, portrayed as immoral and greedy: just the sort to go soft on barbarians demanding money with menaces. As both a eunuch and a Goth appeaser, Eutropius’ position was vulnerable, and was brilliantly exploited by his opponents. He was duly toppled in the summer of 399.49 His successors tore up the agreement with Alaric and refused to negotiate further.

Over the next two years Constantinople saw frequent regime change, but no eastern politician was prepared to talk to Alaric; granting the Goths the kind of terms they might accept would be political suicide. In the year 400, a political coup was staged in Constantinople against Gainas, a Roman general of Gothic origins who was one of several contenders for power after Eutropius’ fall. The prominence of Gainas – and other generals of non-Roman origin like him – follows on from the reorganization of the army in the late Roman period. Unlike the early Roman period when only Roman citizens were recruited into the legions, anyone could serve in the politically important field armies (comitatenses) of the later Empire. There was nothing to stop able individuals of non-Roman origin from rising through comitatensian ranks to acquire political prominence. As a result, from the early- to mid-fourth century onwards, a series of generals of barbarian origin figure in accounts of court politics. Occasionally, such men had, or were suspected of having, designs on the purple itself. Silvanus, of Frankish origins, was one case in point: one of our historians, Ammianus Marcellinus, participated in an assassination mission to remove him. Much more often, however, ‘barbarian’ generals jostled with civilian politicians to wield influence behind the throne. But, whatever hostile sources may say, there is no evidence that these generals were anything other than entirely loyal to the Empire. Some of those labelled ‘barbarian’ were classically educated second-generation immigrants – as fully Roman, in other words, as anybody else.

A dominant figure in Constantinople in autumn 399, Gainas was ousted by some of his erstwhile allies early in the next year. He was, it seems, a first-generation Gothic immigrant, and hence an easy target for anti-barbarian propaganda, but particularly so at a time when Alaric’s Goths were rampaging through the Balkans. There is no evidence, however, that he had the slightest intention of making common cause with them. In the violent coup that broke his hold on power, Gainas managed to get out of Constantinople alive, but several thousand Goths, including many women and children who lived in the city as part of the east Roman military establishment, were massacred. In the aftermath, Alaric’s Goths faced no direct military threat from the east Roman armies, but they were now excluded from Constantinopolitan politics, and soon lost all hope of obtaining a new agreement. To try to break the deadlock, in the autumn of 401 Alaric took his followers to Italy and attempted over the next twelve months to extract a deal from Stilicho, effective ruler of the western Empire, instead. Again, Alaric tried intimidation, but Stilicho was no more forthcoming than the successors of Eutropius had been in the east. Cut off from the established sources of supply available to them in the Balkans, the Goths could not maintain their Italian adventure indefinitely.50 In the autumn/winter of 402/3, two drawn battles later, they retreated back over the Dinaric Alps to their old haunts in Dacia and Macedonia.

Alaric had had no choice. And he had now to think again about how to get one half or other of the Empire round the negotiating table. The Goths re-established themselves in the same areas of the Balkans they had occupied between 397 and 401 – reactivating, one presumes, the sources of supply that had sustained them then. And here they remained for over three years. Stuck in a political wasteland, they found themselves caught, literally and metaphorically, between the eastern and western halves of the Empire, waiting for someone to give them a call. Late in 406, an approach eventually came – much to Alaric’s amazement, I suspect – from Stilicho in Italy. Just four years earlier, the western regent-ruler had moved might and main to keep Alaric and his Goths at arm’s length. Now, here he was courting them for an alliance. Even more peculiar, Stilicho made his approach to Alaric after the defeat of Radagaisus, when, as we have seen, the Rhine frontier was already showing clear signs of the turmoil that would boil over on to Roman territory. But what Stilicho proposed was an alliance in which he and Alaric would both fight Constantinople, not deal with the problems on the Rhine. To understand Stilicho’s seemingly bizarre behaviour, and how its unforeseen consequences led to the sack of Rome, we need to take a closer look at the western generalissimo and his position in the great scheme of things.

Stilicho and Alaric

FLAVIUS STILICHO is a figure about whom opinion – ancient and modern – is heavily divided. He was a particularly successful product of the late Roman career path that saw non-Romans – such as Gainas – rise through the military to political prominence. The son of a Roman cavalry officer of Vandal origins and a Roman mother, he enjoyed a distinguished military career at the court of Theodosius I in Constantinople, holding a series of prestigious staff appointments in the 380s and early 390s. In 393, he accompanied his emperor west on the campaign against the usurper Eugenius, and in its aftermath was appointed senior general (comes et magister utriusque militiae praesentalis) in command of the western Empire’s armed forces. Early in 395, Theodosius died unexpectedly in Milan at the age of forty-nine, having apparently appointed Stilicho guardian to his younger son Honorius, who had also come west. At least, that’s what Stilicho reported about a deathbed conversation he had had with the emperor, and there was no one there to deny it. Theodosius’ older son, Arcadius, was left to govern the east from Constantinople. Born in September 384, Honorius was less than ten years old on his father’s death, and so the reins of power fell naturally into Stilicho’s hands.

The general’s career had thus far been entirely eastern in focus, but now he found himself undisputed ruler of the west. A clear sign of his need to build bridges to every wielder of power and influence is his careful courting of the old Roman Senate. In May 395, he passed a law rehabilitating all those who had held office under the usurper Eugenius – a huge gesture in that direction.51 Sometime after 395, our old friend Symmachus – enjoying an Indian summer, to judge from his correspondence – suddenly found himself amongst those being courted.52 Perhaps two-thirds of his surviving letters were written between 395 and his death in 402, and these late letters show him as a man with considerable clout. For one thing, he was able to rescue his son-in-law Nicomachus Flavianus from the consequences of having served as Urban Prefect under Eugenius, securing a political rehabilitation which culminated in his becoming Urban Prefect once again in 399–400 under Honorius and Stilicho, and with his landed fortune protected.53While not holding formal office, Symmachus also operated in the public sphere, in 397 playing a material role, as we shall see, in getting the Senate to declare Gildo, the commander in North Africa who would revolt against Stilicho in favour of Constantinople, a public enemy.

For more than a decade, as a result of this careful political courting, Stilicho held on to power: no mean feat, given the vicissitudes that fortune put in his way. Some were self-generated. The real truth about Theodosius’ deathbed wishes will never be known. But shortly after his death, Stilicho claimed that the dying emperor had ordered that he be guardian of both of his children. As the poet Claudian, Stilicho’s resident spin-doctor in Rome, put it to the Senate: ‘Then was the power of Rome entrusted to your care, Stilicho; in your hands was placed the governance of the world. The brothers’ twin majesty and the armies of both royal courts were given into your charge.’54 Everything suggests – at least as regards Arcadius – that this was a lie, conveniently authorizing Stilicho to seek power in his native east, in addition to the power he already held in the west, where he had only recently taken up residence. He proceeded to act on the claim. The underlying aim of his two interventions on eastern territory, in 395 and 397, against Alaric’s revolting Goths was to establish his credentials as the saviour – and hence natural ruler – of the east. These ambitions were firmly resisted by his peers in Constantinople. As we have seen, they were busy fighting among themselves for control of the inactive Arcadius, and the last thing any of them wanted was to see Stilicho riding over the horizon to their rescue. Not surprisingly, they now kept him at bay by throwing as many grenades in his direction as they could lay their hands on.

The most dangerous of these detonated in autumn 397, when the aforementioned military commander in Africa, Gildo, was induced to transfer his allegiance to Constantinople. This was a huge threat to Stilicho, because African grain was used to feed the city of Rome. Any disruption to the supply would quickly undermine his political position. In the event, he dealt with the crisis brilliantly, sending Gildo’s brother Mascezel to North Africa. Gildo had been responsible for the death of his children, so Mascezel had grudges to burn off. The revolt was over by July 398, and Africa had returned to its traditional western allegiance before that year’s harvest was in. Stilicho also weathered Alaric’s invasion of Italy in 401/2 – which, though the Constantinopolitan authorities probably didn’t authorize it, as has sometimes been thought, they certainly did nothing to discourage. Then, just three years later, came Radagaisus and his Gothic horde. Yet again, Stilicho coped – comfortably enough, in the end. Throughout all this, there were many components to his power – central and regional military establishments, the Senate of Rome and the imperial bureaucracy, to mention just three. But one thing was key: his relationship with Theodosius’ son Honorius. To keep a firm grip on the emperor, as Honorius grew into adolescence, in 398 Stilicho married him to his daughter Maria. This added some extra security to the general’s position, but relations with Honorius were bound to need some finessing as the young emperor matured.

Up to August 406, Stilicho walked this tightrope pretty well. He had failed to unite east and west, but Honorius remained firmly under his thumb. Africa had been induced to resume its western allegiance, and two Gothic assaults on Italy had been dealt with successfully. Then, in the aftermath of the defeat of Radagaisus occurred the most mysterious episode in Stilicho’s career. At this point, things were already going wrong in the north. The first of the British usurpations had broken out; there was fighting east of the Rhine, and every indication that it would spill over on to Roman territory (though no inkling in any quarter of the scale of the forthcoming Rhine crossing or the form it would take). However, as we have seen, instead of moving north with every trained soldier he could muster, Stilicho picked a new fight with his counterparts in Constantinople. His aim in reopening hostilities at the tail end of 406 was much more limited than in 395/6. He demanded the return of the dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia (the eastern half of the prefecture of Illyricum, which had been transferred to the administrative control of Constantinople in the reign of Theodosius. Then, threatening war if the east resisted, he sought a military alliance with Alaric’s Goths.

It is possible, of course, that Stilicho simply suffered a catastrophic failure of judgement, obsessed on the one hand with his eastern ambitions and, on the other, underestimating the crisis in the north. But even though he probably did fail to grasp the speed with which crisis was about to become disaster, I don’t believe he lost the plot so completely. And I am not alone in this. The critical point here is that Stilicho was no longer trying to win power in Constantinople. His much more restricted aim – regaining Dacia and Macedonia in east Illyricum – suggests that there was some more specific issue, rather than pure vainglory, at stake. The mountains and upland basins of east Illyricum were a traditional recruiting ground for the Roman military (a bit like the Scottish Highlands for the British army). It has been suggested, therefore, that his apparently bizarre ambition to control east Illyricum in late 406 was linked to the unfolding crisis on the Rhine. Stilicho desperately needed military manpower, so winning back east Illyricum might have been a cunning plan to secure a vital recruiting ground. But it takes time to turn recruits into soldiers, and time was something that Stilicho conspicuously lacked. There was, however, one fully trained and experienced – even battle-hardened – military force already available in east Illyricum: the Goths of Alaric.

To understand why fighting Constantinople over east Illyricum might have something to do with winning Alaric’s support against the broader northern threat, we also need to take account of the Gothic agenda. As Alaric had shown repeatedly since 395, he was perfectly willing to forge a military alliance with the Roman state, but the price had to be right, and the perceived deficiencies of the peace of 382 substantially rectified. As we know, this meant full recognition for their overall leader and a designated revenue-producing district legitimately earmarked for their support. (This is what they had got from Eutropius in 397, and they would continue to want it in the later 400s.) The only problem for Stilicho and Alaric was deciding precisely where the Goths should be established. In 406, their brief Italian job aside, they had been occupying Dacia and Macedonia since 397. But east Illyricum, contrary to established tradition, was currently part of the eastern Empire. Stilicho thus faced a dilemma. He could move the Goths from the territories they had occupied for the best part of a decade into lands that he controlled. This would give him the right to grant them the fully legal settlement they required, but would necessarily involve huge disruption, both for the Goths, and – perhaps more importantly from Stilicho’s point of view – for the Roman landowners of any western territory into which the Goths might move. Alternatively, he could legitimize their control of the territories they already held, which would involve browbeating Constantinople into transferring east Illyricum back into his hands. The latter was his eventual choice, and was, on reflection, the simplest means of getting the Goths on side. Seen in this light, Stilicho’s policies look far from crazy.

An alliance with Alaric’s supergroup would give him the military manpower he needed to deal with the mayhem that was about to unfold in the north, and with little disruption to western territories. If all this involved a spat with Constantinople, then so be it.55

The Fall of Stilicho and After

AS PART OF Stilicho’s deal with Alaric, it was agreed that, for the assault on the eastern Empire, the Goths would be reinforced by a substantial contingent from the Roman army of Italy. I imagine he supposed that a display of his military resources, rather than a set-piece assault on Constantinople, would be sufficient to make the east hand back the disputed dioceses. To this end, Alaric moved his forces into Epirus (modern Albania), within what was still the formally west Roman territory of west Illyricum, and waited for Stilicho’s troops to arrive from across the Adriatic. Since it was impossible to mount large-scale campaigns in the Balkans in winter, the assault was presumably planned for the following summer, in 407. However, any plans were wrecked by the speed with which events unfolded in Britain and Gaul. By May/June 407, when a major Balkans campaign might again be contemplated, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi had crossed the Rhine and spread out through Gaul. Even worse, Constantine III was already across the Channel and had rallied to his banner much of the military establishment of Gaul. To move a large portion of the army of Italy across the Adriatic in these circumstances was impossible. Rather than reinforcing Alaric in Epirus, therefore, Stilicho’s only move in 407 was to send one of his generals, a Goth by the name of Sarus, to Gaul to try and snuff out Constantine’s usurpation before it gathered momentum. The attempt failed.

By the beginning of 408, Stilicho’s position was precarious. Constantine and the barbarians were manoeuvring in different parts of Gaul, and that entire province, together with Britain, had fallen out of central control. North Africa and Spain were still on side, but Alaric was getting restive in Epirus. His Goths had now been sitting there for a year, waiting for the legions to arrive, and the Gallic situation was still much too critical for anything to be about to happen. There was also another factor at work. Alaric’s hold over his own men was by no means unassailable, and the rank and file had to be kept happy. Was Stilicho really going to deliver on his promises?

By the spring of 408, Alaric was sufficiently concerned to demand reassurance. Reminding Stilicho, not unreasonably, that his forces had as yet received no financial, let alone military, support, he demanded four thousand pounds of gold. Threatening war if they were not paid, they now advanced north and west to the Roman province of Noricum (modern Austria) in the Alpine foothills, conveniently placed for a move into Italy should that prove necessary. This was not the most sympathetic response to Stilicho’s predicament from a supposed ally, but Alaric had his own constituencies to satisfy – and Stilicho, remember, hadn’t shed a tear when he forced the Goths out of Italy in 401/2. The emperor and the majority of the Senate, we’re told, were ready for war with the Goths. But this would have added to the Rhine invaders and Constantine III a third formidable enemy, and Stilicho took a different view. The Senate gathered in Rome for a set-piece debate, and Stilicho argued his case. He got his way, and the Senate approved the payment of gold. Opposition wasn’t stilled, however, and a certain Lampadius has gone down in history for his judgement: ‘This isn’t peace, but a pact of servitude’ (non est ista pax sed pactio servitutis). By this stage, Stilicho had pretty much expended every last piece of his remaining political capital, but fate hadn’t yet finished with him.

On 1 May 408, the eastern emperor Arcadius, the western emperor Honorius’ elder brother, died, leaving a seven-year-old son, Theodosius II, as his heir. Again, emperor and general disagreed. Stilicho wanted to go to Constantinople to have his say in the arrangement of eastern affairs, but so did Honorius. As over the payment to Alaric, Stilicho got his way, suggesting also that Alaric should in the meantime be sent to Gaul. But the rift between emperor and general was only too apparent, and one high court bureaucrat, Olympius, originally an appointee of Stilicho, laboured to widen it. Stilicho’s will had prevailed on every issue, but the western Empire was still in a dreadful state. Constantine III had now taken up residence at Arles in southern Gaul, and was hovering over the passes into Italy. There were barbarians all over Gaul, and Alaric, having received his money, was still sitting in Noricum eyeing the eastern Alpine passes. No wonder, as the sources report, Stilicho spent the summer of 408 formulating plans but not implementing them; the whole imperial edifice was coming down around his ears. At this point, Zosimus records, Olympius played his trump card:56 ‘Stilicho – he said – was planning the journey to the east in order to plot the overthrow of the young Theodosius and the transfer of the east to his own son Eucherius.’

This message was repeated at every opportunity, and carefully disseminated among the Roman troops of the army of Italy, gathered in their main headquarters at Pavia (Ticinum). When Honorius came to review them, before sending them off on 13 August to engage with Constantine III, the troops mutinied and killed many of Stilicho’s main supporters in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. On hearing the news:

[Stilicho] assembled the leaders of all the barbarian allied troops he had with him, to hold a council about what should be done. Everyone agreed that if the emperor had been killed, which was still in doubt, all the barbarian allies should fall on the Roman soldiers at once and teach all the others a lesson, but that if the emperor were safe, even though the bureaucratic officers had been killed, only the instigators of the mutiny should be punished . . . When, however, they found that no insult had been offered to the emperor, Stilicho decided to proceed no further with punishing the soldiers but to return to Ravenna.

These barbarian troops were mainly the twelve thousand or so followers of the Gothic king Radagaisus, whom Stilicho had drafted after the former’s defeat and who formed a distinct grouping within the Italian army. Nothing suggests that there was any kind of Roman/ barbarian split in the other, regular regiments, and after Stilicho’s fall many non-Romans, individuals recruited over the years, continued to serve in them. In Ravenna, Stilicho first sought sanctuary in a church; but then he surrendered himself to certain death, not allowing his personal retainers to intervene. He was decapitated on 22 August.

So perished, after thirteen years of power, the western generalissimo. Many of his chief appointees had been killed in the mutiny at Pavia, and others were now hunted down and killed. His son Eucherius was arrested and executed, and Honorius divorced his daughter. Regime change Roman-style was – like many politicians – nasty, brutish and thorough. Olympius’ last throw against his former mentor took the form of a series of laws enacted between September and November 408, which confiscated all of Stilicho’s property and punished anyone who tried to hold on to anything that had once belonged to this ‘public brigand’.57 To my mind, like the Thane of Cawdor, nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it. He preferred to die quietly, rather than convulse what remained of the Roman state in further civil war. What’s left to us is the vignette of a loyal state servant of considerable stature; the best of our sources, Olympiodorus, for one, was highly sympathetic towards him. Although one anti-barbarian Greek historian, Eunapius, accuses him of colluding with Alaric from the early 390s onwards, there is not the slightest sign that having a Vandal father made him comport himself as anything other than a loyal Roman officer. Stilicho just had the misfortune to be in authority at the moment when the Huns overturned the balance of power on which the Empire had traditionally rested. There aren’t many individuals in history who would have been able to deal successfully, and all at the same moment, with restive emperor, Vandals, Alans and Suevi, large-scale usurpation and Gothic supergroup.58

The wisdom behind Stilicho’s policies shows up in the events that followed his death. The new regime headed by Olympius, who made himself Master of Offices (magister officiorum) – a senior bureaucratic position with wide-ranging responsibilities, not unlike head of the Civil Service – completely reversed Stilicho’s policies. War, not peace, with the Goths became the order of the day, and Alaric’s offer to exchange hostages, in return for payment and withdrawal from the fringes of Italy, was firmly rejected.

The Goths were now back in the political wilderness, worse off in some ways than before 406. At least then they had had a well established base. Now, they were in an unfamiliar territory and lacking ties to any local food-producing population. But in one important respect, Alaric’s Goths were soon to be better off. Shortly after Stilicho’s execution, the native Roman element in the army of Italy launched a series of pogroms against the families and property of the barbarian troops that he had recruited, many of them the former followers of Radagaisus. These families, who had been quartered in various Italian cities, were massacred wholesale. Outraged, the menfolk threw in their lot with Alaric, increasing his fighting force to perhaps around 30,000. Nor was this first reinforcement the end of the story. Later, when the Goths were encamped outside Rome in 409, they were joined by enough slaves to take Alaric’s force to a total of 40,000 warriors. Again, I suspect that most of these slaves were the less fortunate followers of Radagaisus, rather than ex-Roman pastry-cooks. Just three years after hordes of them had been sold into slavery, Alaric had offered them a means of ending their servitude to the Romans.59

In the autumn of 408, now in command of a Gothic supergroup larger than any yet seen, Alaric made a bold play. Gathering all his men, including those stationed in Pannonia with his brother-in-law Athaulf, he marched across the Alps and into Italy, sowing destruction far and wide as he made a beeline for Rome. He arrived outside the city in November and quickly laid siege to it, thus preventing all food supplies from entering. It soon emerged, however, that Alaric had not the slightest intention of capturing the city. What he wanted – and what he got by the end of the year – was, most obviously, booty. The Roman Senate agreed to pay him a ransom of 5,000 pounds of gold and 30,000 of silver, together with huge quantities of silks, skins and spices – particularly handy at this moment when he had a newly recruited army whose loyalty he needed to court. But as he had since 395, the Goth also pressed on with his efforts to find a modus vivendi with the Roman state; and he wanted the Senate’s help in achieving this, the main aim of his entire political career. A senatorial embassy duly approached Honorius as mediators, urging the case for a hostage swap and a military alliance. The emperor made assenting noises, so the Goths dropped the siege, withdrawing north into Tuscany.

But Honorius was either playing for time, or else unsure of what to do. Olympius’ influence was still strong enough to prevent the agreement being ratified, and so, particularly incensed by the ambush of part of his force near Pisa, Alaric returned to Rome to ram his message home. Under Gothic pressure, another senatorial embassy, this time with an escort of Goths, trotted north to Ravenna – now the political heart of the Empire – where Honorius was based. It was time to talk, they declared. This was enough to destroy Olympius’ credibility with the emperor. It simply was not possible to mobilize the Roman army in Italy and attack the Goths – the sides were too evenly matched for victory to be certain, and a head-on Roman–Gothic confrontation would have allowed Constantine III to advance over the Alps. The only alternative was to negotiate. By April 409, the man with most influence over the emperor was a former supporter of Stilicho, Jovius the Praetorian Prefect of Italy – he had previously been sent to liaise with the Goths as they waited in Epirus for the arrival of Stilicho before launching their projected joint campaign against the eastern Empire. Negotiations opened between Alaric and Jovius at Rimini, and the prospects for peace seemed good precisely because the imperial party had few bargaining chips. Constantine III was still in Arles, busy promoting his sons to the purple – a direct threat of impending dynasty change, if ever there was one. Honorius was now so scared of Constantine, indeed, that at some point early in 409, in an act of formal recognition, he sent him a purple robe. An attempt by some of Honorius’ officers to infiltrate a garrison of 6,000 men into Rome also ended in disaster, with barely a hundred getting through. Meanwhile, the troops in Ravenna were becoming restive. For Honorius, therefore, fighting just wasn’t an option. Alaric knew it, as his first demands reveal. Zosimus tells us:60 ‘Alaric demanded that a fixed amount of gold and corn be provided every year, and that he and all his followers should live in the two Venetias, Noricum and Dalmatia.’ Jovius acquiesced, and also requested that Honorius formally appoint Alaric to a senior imperial generalship (magister utriusque militiae). The agreement would make the Goths rich and their leader a figure of greatinfluence at court; it would also place a Gothic army astride the major eastern passes into Italy and close to Ravenna.

But there was a sticking-point. Honorius was ready to agree to the requests for corn and gold, but not to the generalship. He responded with an insulting letter that was read out during the negotiations. Alaric stormed out – but then, fascinatingly, changed his mind. This time he recruited some Roman bishops to serve as his ambassadors. The message they delivered was this:

Alaric did not now want office or honour, nor did he now wish to settle in the provinces previously specified, but only the two Noricums, which are on the far reaches of the Danube, are subject to continual incursions, and pay little tax to the treasury. Moreover he would be satisfied with as much corn each year as the emperor thought sufficient, and forget the gold . . . When Alaric made these fair and prudent proposals, everyone marvelled at the man’s moderation.

Gone was the putative Gothic protectorate; gone too were the payments in gold; the Goths would live quietly in a frontier province, well away from Ravenna. Alaric’s moderation may astonish, but it reveals his vision of the big picture. Currently he had the military power to take pretty much whatever he wanted, but was willing to trade it in for a stable peace agreement with the Roman state. He must have had a powerful sense of a latent strength that the Empire might at some point reassert, and that demanded a safety-first approach.

Unrest still reigned, however, at Honorius’ court. The historian Olympiodorus thought Alaric’s revised terms supremely reasonable, but they were again rejected. So Alaric returned to Rome for a third time, set up his second siege, and decided to up the stakes. At the end of 409 he persuaded the Senate to elect its own emperor, Priscus Attalus, and for a time the west had a third Augustus alongside Honorius and Constantine III. From a leading senatorial family, Attalus had been prominent in public life for over a decade. Embassies were now sent to Honorius from the Senate, threatening him with mutilation and exile; Alaric himself – appointed Attalus’ general-in-chief – proceeded to subdue most of the cities of northern Italy and to besiege Ravenna; and other forces were despatched to North Africa, which had remained loyal to Honorius. At one point Honorius was ready to flee, but in the nick of time 4,000 troops arrived from the east to make Ravenna safe, and enough money was sent from North Africa to secure the loyalty of the army of Italy. Attalus tried twice, if rather half-heartedly, to take North Africa, but he refused to employ any of Alaric’s men. The Gothic leader had had enough. Perhaps his original notion had been to set up his own tame emperor, or perhaps Attalus’ promotion had always been a bargaining counter. Be that as it may, in July 410 he deposed Attalus and reopened negotiations with Honorius, who – thanks to the influx of eastern troops and African funds – had recovered his confidence. A meeting was arranged, and Alaric moved to within 60 stadia (about 12 kilometres) of Ravenna. Rogue elements in Honorius’ military, meanwhile, were against all negotiation. As Alaric awaited Honorius, he was attacked by a small Roman force led by Sarus. Later, in the mid-410s, Sarus’ brother Sergeric was prominent enough among Alaric’s Goths to make a bid for its leadership, which, taken with Sarus’ documented hostility to Alaric and his brother-in-law Athaulf, suggests to me that he was a rival whom Alaric had defeated for the leadership of the Goths back in the 390s.61

Alaric was outraged, both at the attack, and – if I’m right – at the identity of his attacker. Giving up on the idea of negotiating with Ravenna, the Goths turned on their heels and returned to Rome a fourth time. There they mounted their third siege. No doubt by this time Rome’s suburban landladies had their old rooms waiting for them. There was a brief halt outside the walls, but then the Salarian Gate opened.62

The Sack of Rome

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, there followed one of the most civilized sacks of a city ever witnessed. Alaric’s Goths were Christian, and treated many of Rome’s holiest places with great respect. The two main basilicas of St Peter and St Paul were nominated places of sanctuary. Those who fled there were left in peace, and refugees to Africa later reported with astonishment how the Goths had even conducted certain holy ladies there, particularly one Marcella, before methodically ransacking their houses. Not that everyone, not even all the city’s nuns, fared so well, but the Christian Goths did keep their religious affiliation firmly in view. One huge silver ciborium, 2,025 pounds in weight and the gift of the emperor Constantine, was lifted from the Lateran Palace, but the liturgical vessels of St Peter’s were left in situ. Structural damage, too, was largely limited to the area of the Salarian Gate and the old Senate house. All in all, even after three days of Gothic attentions, the vast majority of the city’s monuments and buildings remained intact, even if stripped of their movable valuables.

The contrast with the last time the city had been sacked, by Celtic tribes in 390 BC, could not have been more marked. Then, as Livy tells it, the main Roman forces had found themselves tied up in a siege of the Etruscan city of Veii (modern Isola Farnese), so that a Celtic warband was able to walk straight into Rome. The few men of fighting age left there defended the capitol with the help of some geese, which provided early warning of surprise attacks, but they abandoned the rest of the town. Older patricians refused to leave, but sat outside their houses in full ceremonial robes. At first the Celts approached reverentially ‘beings who . . . seemed in their majesty of countenance and in the gravity of their expression most like to gods’. Then:

A Celt stroked the beard of one of them, Marcus Papirius, which he wore long as they all did then, at which point the Roman struck him over the head with his ivory mace, and, provoking his anger, was the first to be slain. After that, the rest were massacred where they sat and . . . there was no mercy then shown to anyone. The houses were ransacked, and after, being emptied, were set aflame.

In 390 BC, only the fortress on the Capitol survived the burning of the city; in AD 410 only the Senate house was set on fire.63

That Rome should have seen a highly civilized sack conducted by Christian Goths who respected the sanctity of St Peter’s might seem a dreadful anticlimax compared with expectations of bloodthirsty barbarians running loose in the great imperial capital. It’s much more exciting to think of the sack of Rome as the culmination of Germanic dreams of revenge – inspired by the slaughter of Varus’ legions in AD 9 – against Roman imperialism. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from a close exploration of the sequence of events between 408 and 410, however, is that Alaric did not want the sack to happen. His Goths had been outside the city on and off since late autumn 408, and, had they wanted to, could have taken it at any point in the twenty months since their arrival. Alaric could probably not have cared less about possible banner headlines in the historical press and a few dozen wagons’ worth of booty. His concerns were of a different order altogether. Since 395, he had been struggling to force the Roman state to rewrite its relationship with the Goths as it had been defined in the treaty of 382. His bottom line, as we know, was the grant of recognized status by a legitimate Roman regime. Once he had given up on Constantinople in 400/1, this had to mean the regime of Honorius in Ravenna. Besieging Rome was simply a means of pressuring Honorius and his advisers to come to a deal. But the ploy never worked. Essentially, Alaric overestimated the significance of the city to an imperial authority based in Ravenna. Rome was a potent symbol of Empire, but no longer the political centre of the Roman world. Ultimately, therefore, Honorius could ignore its fate without the Empire suffering major damage. Alaric’s letting his troops loose there for three days was an admission that his whole policy, since entering Italy in the autumn of 408, had been misconceived. It had not delivered the kind of deal with the Roman state that he was looking for. The sack of Rome was not so much a symbolic blow to the Roman Empire as an admission of Gothic failure.

But if its immediate importance was not at all what you might expect, Honorius and his advisers had not lightly abandoned Rome to the Goths, and the sack was part of a broad sequence of events of much greater historical significance. Ultimately, the events of late August 410 had their origin in the further advance of the Huns into the heart of Europe and the highly potent combination of invasion and usurpation that consequently convulsed the western Empire. For although the sack was historically insignificant, the events of which it was a part had massive significance for the stability of Roman Europe, their shock waves reverberating around the Roman world. From the Holy Land, as we’ve seen, Jerome lamented the fall of a city that for him still symbolized everything that was good and worthwhile. Elsewhere, the response was more strident. Educated non-Christians, for instance, argued that there could be no clearer sign of the illegitimacy of the new imperial religion: Rome had been sacked because its guardian gods, now rejected, had removed their protection. In North Africa, this line of thought was championed in particular by some of the upper-class refugees who fled there from Italy. And it was a challenge that St Augustine met with the full force of his intellect.

Many of his sermons can be quite closely dated, and those from the later months of the year 410 show him grappling with a series of related issues. He then took some of the most important of these ideas and put them together – with much else besides – in what became his magnum opus: The City of God. This grew into a work of twenty-two books, and was not completed until 425. The first three books, though, were published in 413, and contain Augustine’s immediate responses to the questions that the sack had led his congregation to pose, many of them triggered by the taunts of pagan detractors of Christianity.

Augustine’s immediate answer was of the straightforward yah-boo-sucks variety. This bunch of vociferous pagans just hadn’t read their history. The Roman Empire had endured many a disaster long before Christ had appeared on the earth, without blame having been laid at the door of the divine powers:64

Where were [the gods], when the consul Valerius was slain in defending the Capitol, which had been set on fire by exiles and slaves? . . . Where were they when Spurius Maelius, because he distributed free corn to the hungry people as the famine increased in severity, was accused of aiming at kingship and was slain? . . . Where were they when a fearful plague had broken out? . . . Where were they when the Roman army had for ten years fought without success and without intermission at Veii? . . . Where were they when the Gauls captured Rome, sacked it, burned it, and filled it with bodies of the slain?

A quick rereading of Livy’s History of the City of Rome had furnished Augustine with enough ammunition to make a decent counterblast to the pagans’ protests. But, possessed as he was of one of the finest minds in antiquity, he was not content to limit his response to mere on-the-spot retort. In the course of its fifteen-year gestation, The City of God would deal with a multitude of issues and themes, but its first three books already set out the central thrust of an entirely alternative view of Roman history from that perpetuated by the ideology of the Empire’s one-party state.

Christians had long been familiar with the ‘two-city’ notion. This developed out of the Book of Revelation’s vision of a new Jerusalem coming into being as the eternal dwelling-place of the righteous, after the Last Judgement at the end of the world. This heavenly Jerusalem was where the Christian really belonged, whatever city might claim his or her affiliations in this world. In these early books of The City of God, Augustine picked up this well established Christian concept and pursued it, with ruthless intellectual rigour, to some uncomfortable conclusions. Above all, Rome, whatever benefits it had to offer and despite its new Christian manifestation, was just like any other earthly city. Just because Rome’s dominion was so wide and had lasted for so many centuries, there was no reason to confuse it with the heavenly Jerusalem. To make his argument stick, Augustine again raided the stock authors of Roman history, and to telling effect. In particular, he argued, the history of Rome, when closely studied, could sustain no claim that the Empire’s unmatched success was due to any particular morality, and hence legitimacy, on its part. Borrowing from Sallust, one of the core authors of the Latin curriculum, he was able to claim that any real morality in the ancient Roman state had been attributable to the outside constraints imposed upon it by the war with Carthage, and that, when victory removed this balancing force, corruption set in.65 The whole Empire was built on nothing more than the desire to dominate: ‘This “lust for domination”66 brings great evils to vex and exhaust the whole human race. Rome was conquered by this lust when [she] triumphed over the conquest of Alba [Rome’s first victory], and to the popular acclaim of her crime she gave the name of glory.’

Augustine did not go on to claim that the entire imperial edifice was evil, or that earthly peace was a bad thing. But he urged his readers to understand that the Pax Romana was no more than an opportunity for Christians to come to God in the realization that their real loyalty was to the heavenly kingdom: ‘The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.’ In this world, citizens of the Heavenly City belong to different polities, so that even among the Goths sacking Rome there might be true friends, while some fellow Romans might be enemies.67 The Heavenly City’s citizens can owe no more than a passing loyalty to any earthly entity; they will be united in the next world:

Christ with divine authority denounces and condemns the offences of men, and their perverted lusts, and he gradually withdraws his family from all parts of a world which is failing and declining through those evils, so that he may establish a city whose titles of ‘eternal’ and ‘glorious’ are not given by meaningless flattery but by the judgement of truth.

In the sack of Rome, Augustine found the fundamental illegitimacy of all earthly cities, and raised a rallying cry to the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem to look to the life to come.68

Sixteen hundred years on, it is easy to miss the revolutionary nature of Augustine’s vision. Claims that the Roman Empire would last for ever – the image of Roma aeterna – have been shown to be hollow; the notion that its success was based upon a unique access to divine favour strikes us as ridiculous. In reading The City of God, however, we must forget all that we know from hindsight. When Augustine was writing, the Empire had lasted for centuries and had no serious rival. For as long as anyone could remember, its propaganda had been portraying it as the gods’, now God’s – the transition to Christianity had been surprisingly smooth – vehicle for civilizing humanity. Christian Bishops had been happy to propagate the idea that it was no accident that Christ and Augustus had lived at exactly the same moment. What better indicator that the Roman Empire was destined to conquer the world and bring the whole of humankind to Christianity? Everything from the emperor’s bedchamber to his treasury was sacred, and the intensely orchestrated ceremonial life of the state was devoted to the idea that God ruled humanity through a divinely guided emperor.

Augustine’s response to the sack of Rome put a huge black cross next to all of these comfortable ideas. The Empire was but one state among many in the course of world history; it was neither uniquely virtuous nor uniquely predestined to last.

The sequence of events surrounding the sack of Rome, and the response to its fall, offer us two contrasting interpretations, then, of the significance of those three days in August 410. On the one hand, both Jerome and Augustine in their different ways bear eloquent witness to a world turned upside down. On the other, we see that the city was sacked for the very prosaic reason that Alaric needed to compensate his followers for their loyalty, after his broader plans for Gothic prosperity had been thwarted. In The City of God Augustine was much too canny to commit himself on the point of whether the sack of the city, after the Goths’ Roman holiday, meant the end of the Empire. This warns us not to jump to any conclusions without taking a much closer look at the Empire’s strategic position.


IN OCTOBER AND November 417, Rutilius Claudius Namatianus made his way slowly back to Gaul. A native of Toulouse, he had been in Italy for several years: in 412 as Master of Offices at Honorius’ court – the same position that had allowed Olympius to undermine Stilicho – then, briefly, as Urban Prefect of Rome in the summer of 414. On his return to Gaul he wrote an epic poem, De Reditu Suo (On His Homecoming), describing his journey. The first book comprised 644 lines of poetry, but the manuscripts break off after just sixty-eight lines of the second, at which point Rutilius was still only somewhere off the coast of north-west Italy. Although one more page – another forty-odd lines – turned up in the late 1960s (having been used to patch up a volume in the monastery of Bobbio in the sixteenth century), we are still not sure where exactly in Gaul the journey ended.69 It was a sea voyage:

For since the Tuscan fields, the Aurelian road,

Have suffered Gothic raids with sword and fire,

Since woods have lost their homes, their bridges streams,

Better to trust with sails the uncertain sea.

The system of stables and guesthouses on the Via Aurelia, the main highway up the west coast of Italy, which had facilitated the comings and goings of official travellers such as Theophanes (see Chapter 2), had not been restored since the Goths occupied the region during 408–10. But Rutilius was far from downhearted. The poem opens with an evocation of the attractions of life in Rome undiminished by the sack:

What tedium can there be though men devote

The years of all their mortal life to Rome?

Naught tedious is that which pleases without end.

O, ten times happy – past all reckoning –

Those whose desert it was to have been born

On that propitious soil; the noble sons

Of Roman chiefs, they crown their lofty birth

With the proud name of citizens of Rome.

Nor has the sack raised in Rutilius’ mind the slightest doubt about the Empire’s destiny, its mission to civilize humankind:

Thy gifts thou spreadest wide as the sun’s rays,

As far as earth-encircling ocean heaves.

Phoebus,70 embracing all things [,] rolls for thee;

His steeds both rise and sink in thy domains . . .

Far as the habitable climes extend

Towards either pole thy valour finds its path.

Thou hast made of alien realms one fatherland;

The lawless found their gain beneath thy sway;

Sharing thy laws with them thou hast subdued,

Thou hast made a city of the once wide world.

Here are all the old ideas we met with at the height of imperial grandeur.

The poem is extraordinary. Here is Rutilius returning to Gaul a decade after the Vandals, Alans and Suevi had turned it into a single funeral pyre, and dwelling at length on the glories of Rome just seven years after the sack. But, having held high office at the court of the embattled Honorius, he could see as well as anyone the size of the task ahead. He returned to Gaul ready to roll up his sleeves:

. . . the Gallic fields demand again

Their countryman. Too sadly marred those fields

By tedious wars; but the less fair they are

The more to be compassioned. Lighter fault

To slight one’s countrymen in prosperous hours;

The public loss claims each man’s loyalty.

His faith in the Roman ideal rested on a determination to rebuild what the barbarians had laid waste, not a delusion that the history of the last decade hadn’t happened:

Let thy [Rome’s] dire woe be blotted and forgot;

Let thy contempt for suffering heal thy wounds . . .

Things that refuse to sink, still stronger rise,

And higher from the lowest depths rebound;

And, as the torch reversed new strength attains,

Thou, brighter from thy fall, to heaven aspirest!

Rome had taken much harder knocks from Carthage and the Celts. She would rise phoenix-like, strengthened and renewed by suffering.

Nor was Rutilius the only Gallo-Roman brimming with confidence in 417. His was a pagan take on history and fate, but his vision spanned the religious divide. The same year, in his Carmen de Providentia Dei (Poem on the Providence of God), a Gallic Christian poet reflected on the disasters that had afflicted Gaul in the last decade. This anonymous author stands in the same tradition as the Gallic poets we encountered earlier, and echoes many of the same themes. The passage of those few years, however, had given him a slightly different perspective:

You, who weep over overgrown fields, deserted courtyards and the crumbling terraces of your burnt out villa, shouldn’t you rather shed tears for your own losses, when you look at the desolate recesses of your heart, the beauty covered over with layers of grime, and the enemy rioting in the citadel of your imprisoned mind? If that citadel hadn’t been surrendered . . . these beauties created by the hand would still remain to bear witness to the virtue of a holy people.

The message here is much more Old Testament: God’s people were visited with destruction because they fell from righteousness. But this is a message with a flip side: ‘If any mental energy remains, let us shake off the servile yoke of sin, break the chains, and return to freedom and the glory of our native land.’ He closed with a call to arms: ‘Let us not fear, because we have collapsed in flight in a first contest, to take a stand and embark on a second battle.’

The poet meant his message to be taken spiritually, but was also aware of its political dimension. Spiritual renewal would bring victory and prosperity on earth as well as in heaven. Worldly disaster wasn’t a reminder of the essential division that must exist between the Heavenly City and any earthly state, but a call for moral reform. There is no rejection here of the Empire and its civilizing mission. The barbarians had done their worst, but this was only round one; round two would see the Empire triumph.71 In this respect, Gallo-Roman pagans and Gallo-Roman Christians were of one mind. The message could not be more different from Augustine’s.

Flavius Constantius

THE SOURCE OF this renewed confidence was an extraordinary change that had come over the western Empire in the ten years since Rome had been sacked. When we left the story at the end of August 410, prospects could hardly have looked worse. There was a Roman army in Italy, unable to move against Alaric’s Goths for fear of leaving the back door open for Constantine III, still angling to overthrow Honorius. The Vandals, Alans and Suevi had turned their attention to Spain, and were on the point of dividing its territories between them. Constantine controlled not only the British provinces but the Gallic military too, and was pushing feelers into Spain and Italy. Control of the western state had thus fragmented into the hands of two bunches of barbarians and an unusually successful usurper. Now, seven years later, much of the imperial jigsaw had been put back together, and things were looking rosy again.

The chief architect of all this was an experienced military commander by the name of Flavius Constantius.72 An Illyrian from Naissus (modern Niimgs.jpg) in the Balkans, the heart of one of Rome’s recruiting grounds, he had originally joined the east Roman army and served in many of the campaigns of Theodosius I. He had presumably, like Stilicho, first come west in the campaign against the usurper Eugenius, probably when in his mid-thirties, and, again like Stilicho, had stayed on afterwards. As we shall see, there are good reasons for taking him to have been a supporter of the old generalissimo, although he was not senior enough to find any mention in the sources while Stilicho was alive.

In public processions Constantius was downcast and sullen, a man with bulging eyes, a long neck and a broad head, who always slumped over the neck of the horse he was riding, darting glances here and there out of the corners of his eyes . . . But at banquets and parties he was so cheerful and affable that he even competed with the clowns who often played before his table.73

Hardly your charismatic hero, then. But his affability on more private occasions, Olympiodorus tells us, was a huge asset, and there is no doubting the energy with which he set about rebuilding the western Empire.

Flavius Constantius inherited Stilicho’s position as senior western general (magister militum) in 410/11. His closeness to Stilicho is suggested by the fact that he took a leading role in the retribution dished out to the chief protagonist in the plot against him. Olympius met his grisly end – he was clubbed to death – at pretty much this time. With matters at court sorted out to his satisfaction, Flavius Constantius swiftly turned to more substantial problems. Having mobilized the Italian army for war, his first target was Constantine III.

By this stage, affairs in Gaul had taken an interesting turn, which aided our man in his endeavours. Constantine had fallen out with one of his generals, Gerontius, who had gone so far as to raise his own usurper, Maximus,74 to the purple and advance on Constantine’s headquarters at Arles. When Constantius’ Italian army reached that city, therefore, it had first to defeat the forces of Gerontius. This was duly accomplished – it was enough to turn Gerontius’ remaining troops against him, and he committed suicide. The next challenge came in the form of a relief force raised by Constantine’s other leading general, Edobichus, who had recruited auxiliaries from the Franks and Alamanni to fight alongside whatever troops from the Roman army of Gaul remained under his command. Again, Constantius triumphed. To induce surrender, Constantine III was offered his life, but the promise was broken. On his way back to Honorius he was murdered, and on 18 September 411 it was only his head that arrived at Ravenna – at the top of a pole. One season’s campaigning had been enough to wrap up a usurper who, only two years before, had had Honorius fearing for his life.

This wasn’t quite the end of the usurper problem, though. In Roman politics, one usurpation tended to beget another, especially when the first had started to wobble. A mixture of ambition and fear of retribution prompted individuals who had taken part in the first revolt to try their hand at a second. In 411, it was not only Gerontius who smelt Constantine’s blood in the water, but so did a Gallic aristocrat by the name of Jovinus. His centre of operations was further north. Proclaimed emperor perhaps at Mainz in the province of Upper Germania, his military power-base was provided by still dissident elements among the Gallo-Roman military, backed up by Burgundians and Alans.75 He also gained the considerable fillip of support from Alaric’s Goths, who were now in Gaul under the leadership of his brother-in-law Athaulf. This was a powerful combination, but an artificial one, and Constantius took time to consider the situation. Instead of rushing into battle, he used his diplomatic skills to work on the cracks in Jovinus’ putative alliance and in 413 received his due reward. The Goths changed sides, and – a clear demonstration of the power of the supergroup Alaric had assembled – this left the usurper with no choice but to surrender. Executed en route to Honorius, he met the same fate as Constantine. His head duly arrived atop its pole on 30 August that year.

Concentrating so determinedly on defeating the usurpers before tackling the barbarians might seem the wrong order of priorities, and historians have often criticized it. But to combat the grave threats now facing the Empire, any leader needed to be able to deploy the full range of imperial resources: particularly, of course, on the military front. In the summer of 413, Constantius’ defeat of the usurpers finally reunited, for the first time since the autumn of 406, the major armies of the western Empire, the different British, Gallic and Spanish elements of which had been won over by Constantine III, Gerontius and Jovinus. Having put the Roman house in order, and united the once disparate parts of the army under his command, Constantius was now ready to deal with the other problems. Very sensibly, before turning them loose on the various barbarian groups at large in the western Empire, he promised a pay rise to the troops who had only yesterday been fighting for the enemy.76 Within the different regiments of Constantius’ army were many individually recruited barbarians who were quite happy fighting under Roman colours. Individual barbarians were one thing, though; masses of independent Goths, Vandals, Alans and Suevi, quite another. This newly reunited army’s first task was to bring the Goths to heel.

Athaulf ’s Goths

IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of the sack, the Goths headed south. Now that his attempt to stabilize their position within the Empire had failed, Alaric had in mind a complete change of strategy: he was now looking to relocate, lock, stock and both smoking barrels, in North Africa. But a well timed storm wrecked the fleet he was assembling, and he died shortly afterwards. In the course of 411 Athaulf moved the Goths into Gaul, where we saw him first supporting, then abandoning, the usurper of Jovinus.

A mutually acceptable blueprint for Gotho-Roman relations was yet to be established. We know there was some fighting between the Goths and Constantius’ forces around Marseille in late 413, and that the Goths afterwards established themselves at Narbonne. Here, as so often in this story, the loss of Olympiodorus’ history is a considerable handicap, but everything suggests that Athaulf was continuing to demand a much higher price for an agreement than Constantius was willing to pay. The historian Orosius reports overhearing someone telling St Jerome that:

He himself had been a very intimate friend of Athaulf at Narbonne, and . . . he had often heard what the latter, when in good spirits, health and temper [meaning after a few drinks], was accustomed to answer in reply to questions. It seems that at first he ardently desired to blot out the Roman name and make all the Roman territory a Gothic empire in fact as well as in name, so that, to use the popular expression, Gothia should take the place of Romania, and he, Athaulf, should become all that Caesar Augustus once had been. Having discovered from long experience that the Goths, because of their unbridled barbarism, were utterly incapable of obeying laws, and yet believing that the state ought not to be deprived of laws without which a state is not a state, he [Athaulf] chose to seek for himself at least the glory of restoring and increasing the renown of the Romans by the power of the Goths, wishing to be looked upon by posterity as the restorer of the Roman Empire.77

What precisely Athaulf meant by this emerges from his actions. In the train of booty that the Goths took from Rome were two human prizes: Priscus Attalus, whom Alaric had persuaded the Senate of Rome to raise to the purple and who had then been demoted again in 409/10; and the emperor Honorius’ sister, Galla Placidia. In 414, after bringing down Jovinus, Athaulf proceeded to make strategic use of both of his hostages. Having been unceremoniously dumped by Alaric as part of a putative settlement with Honorius, Attalus was restored to the purple. It was then Placidia’s turn to be exploited, in another effort at blackmail on Athaulf ’s part. In January 414, Olympiodorus tells us, the two were married,

with the advice and encouragement of Candidianus . . . at the house of Ingenuus, one of the leading citizens of [Narbonne]. There Placidia, dressed in royal raiment, sat in a hall decorated in the Roman manner, and by her side sat Athaulf, wearing a Roman general’s cloak and other Roman clothing . . . Along with other wedding gifts, Athaulf gave Placidia fifty handsome young men dressed in silk clothes, each bearing aloft two very large dishes, one full of gold, the other full of precious . . . stones, which had been carried off by the Goths at the sack of Rome. Then nuptial hymns were sung, first by Attalus, then by Rusticius and Phoebadius.78

Clearly, Athaulf was pursuing here the more ambitious of Alaric’s two peace plans – the one that included, for himself, a glittering career at the imperial court. Placidia duly fell pregnant and gave birth to a son, whom his proud parents named Theodosius. A momentous name-giving, indeed: the young Theodosius was grandson of one Roman emperor by that name, Theodosius I, and first cousin to another, the eastern emperor Theodosius II, son of Honorius’ late brother Arcadius. When you also recall that Honorius had no children at this point, and in fact never did, this was a birth redolent with potential. A king of the Goths had fathered a child with an extremely good claim to be heir apparent to the western Empire.

But Athaulf had, in fact, overreached himself. Constantius and Honorius wanted Placidia back, but minus her Gothic husband. They refused to make a deal on Athaulf ’s terms. The Goths, anyway, had one huge strategic weakness. Since 408, when they moved on Italy, they had been operating without secure sources of supply. During the glory years culminating in the sack of Rome they had taken booty aplenty; now, with typical precision, Constantius identified their Achilles’ heel. Rather than risking his army in battle, he blockaded the Goths by both land and sea. By early 415, food had run out in Narbonne and they had to retreat into Spain in search of supplies. Constantius’ strategy was also materially aided by one of those stray accidents of history: the young Theodosius died soon after birth and was buried by his grieving parents in a silver coffin in a church at Barcelona. This took one of the trump cards out of Athaulf’s hand. Constantius maintained the pressure, and in due course the Goths – or some of them – cracked. What was really standing in the way of a settlement – obviously in the air since Athaulf abandoned Jovinus in 413 – was Athaulf’s determination to become an imperial bigwig.

In the summer of 415, enough resentment built up against his policies, and their cost to the Goths in general, to prompt an internal coup, during which Athaulf was mortally wounded. After his death (announced in Constantinople on 24 September), his brother and the children of his first marriage were all butchered by Sergeric, who belonged to a noble Gothic house that had earlier competed for the leadership of the Goths formerly united by Alaric. But after only seven days Sergeric too was ousted, and power passed to a certain Wallia. Neither of these successors was a blood relation of Alaric and Athaulf. Wallia gave in to Roman pressure, and returned Placidia, now widowed and childless. In return, Constantius handed over to the Goths six hundred thousand modii of wheat. The first two steps towards a different kind of peace deal had been taken – one that envisaged a much less important political role in the Empire for the Gothic leadership.79

A Phoenix Rising?

THE THIRD STEP, as well as cementing peace with the Goths, would deal with the burning issue that was Spain. For half a decade now, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi had been enjoying the revenues of the Spanish provinces that they had allotted themselves back in 411. But now a Gotho-Roman military alliance was about to take them on. In 416, operations began. Hydatius, in his Chronicle, tells us what happened:

All of the Siling Vandals in Baetica were wiped out by King Wallia. The Alans, who were ruling over the Vandals and Sueves [Suevi], suffered such heavy losses at the hands of the Goths that, after the death of their king, Addax, the few survivors, with no thought for their own kingdom, placed themselves under the protection of Gunderic, the king of the [Hasding] Vandals, who had settled in Gallaecia.80

A succinct summary of three years’ fighting (416–18) – its import could not be clearer. Having suppressed usurpers and subdued the Goths, Constantius now made use of these very people to tackle his other major problem. And how effective the campaigning was! The Silings ceased to exist, and the Alans – who, according to Hydatius, had previously been the dominant force among the Rhine invaders (a report in tune with their rescue of the Vandals from the hands of the Franks back in the autumn of 406) – suffered such heavy losses that the remnants attached themselves to the Hasding monarchy.

At this point Constantius recalled the Goths from Spain, and in 418 proceeded to settle them in Aquitaine, allotting them lands in the Garonne valley (south-west Gaul) between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Quantities of ink have been expended on the nature and purpose of this settlement. The one piece of hard information we have, which derives from Olympiodorus,81 is that the Goths were given ‘lands to farm’. I am happy to accept this. Certainly, there is no sign in subsequent years that the Roman state was directly supporting the Goths through its tax revenues; and, in fact, the previous decade had shown exactly how vulnerable, in strategic terms, they actually were without their own sources of supply. Athaulf’s lofty ambitions had been brought low precisely because Constantius had been able to starve the Goths into insurrection against their own king. Handing them productive lands – much as under the 382 peace settlement – would have been an attractive option for both parties.

As to what happened on the ground, we can only guess. Much has been made of the fact that we hear of no complaints from dispossessed Roman landowners. One possible reason for this may be that it was public land (both imperial estates and lands belonging to public corporations such as city endowments) that was used for the Goths – hence no need for expropriation. As we shall see in the next chapter, this is the way the Roman state dealt with an analogous problem in North Africa. It is highly likely, too, that in many cases the peasants were left in situ, the Goths replacing existing landholders as recipients of rents. Whether this transfer endowed incoming Goths with full ownership rights – the right to sell on or bequeath an allotted piece of land – or only usufruct – the right to enjoy its revenues during one’s lifetime – is a question we cannot answer.82

As to why Aquitaine was chosen, many different views have been aired: everything from the Goths’ potential usefulness in dealing with separatists in north-western Gaul to countering the raids of Saxon pirates.83 To my mind, Aquitaine was the logical intersection of two imperatives. First, the Goths needed to be put somewhere, and the key issue was how far the settlement area was going to be from the west’s political centre. As we have seen, Alaric at the height of his power talked of settling them in and around Ravenna and either side of the Alpine passes. There they would have been in a position to intervene constantly at the imperial court. In his more realistic phase he was ready to surrender that vision – entirely unacceptable to the Romans – for some land ‘near the frontier’. The Garonne valley, beside the Atlantic Ocean and 1,000 kilometres from Ravenna, fitted that bill perfectly. It also had the second virtue of putting them near routes through the Pyrenees into Spain. And the job in Spain, though well begun, was only half done. Some of the survivors of the Rhine invasion remained unsubdued, and by the early 420s the Goths were back in the peninsula operating jointly again with a Roman army against the Hasding Vandals. In my view, the land settlement was envisaged as no more than one stage in an ongoing process designed to resume with the Goths returning to Spain to finish off the Vandals, Alans and Suevi.

The scale of Constantius’ achievement is breathtaking. Despite the fact that, in 410, the Goths were rampaging around Italy, Constantine III was in Arles threatening a total takeover of the west, and the Rhine invaders were dividing up Spain between themselves, enough of the major levers of power had remained intact for a leader of Constantius’ ability to put things back together. The armies of Gaul and, especially, Italy – the force with which Stilicho had defeated Radagaisus – still constituted a formidable fighting machine, and the great revenue-producing reservoir of North Africa remained untouched. Between 408 and 410, successive chief ministers had been unable to use the Italian army against either the Goths or Constantine III, because it couldn’t fight both enemies at once, and fighting one would have just left the door open for the other. The stalemate was broken, however, by the Goths’ departure from Italy under Athaulf. The central authorities in Ravenna had hung on just long enough for the Goths to be starved into leaving, and this had handed freedom of manoeuvre back to Constantius. One, maybe two, outside sources of support also strengthened his hand. First, the eastern Empire sent considerable help to Honorius when Alaric was ravaging Italy in 410, and other moral and financial aid surely followed, even if our sources are too thin to report it.84

Paradoxically, given that they had caused the whole mess in the first place, Constantius may also have drawn upon Hunnic support. In 409, Honorius summoned 10,000 Hunnic auxiliaries to his assistance. Since they did not arrive in time to prevent the sack of Rome, some modern historians have concluded that they never appeared.85 Whether they did or not, in the campaigning season of 411 Constantius, as we have seen, suddenly arose from his military paralysis and marched confidently into Gaul to overpower the usurpers. In part, this reflected his new-found freedom to deploy the powerful army of Italy, but an additional factor may have been the arrival, finally, of the Huns. Getting rid of the Goths from Italian soil, plus a little help from friends old and new, had been enough to tip the balance of power in Constantius’ favour. No wonder, in 417, Rutilius and his anonymous Christian counterpart were facing the future with confidence.

It is important to examine more closely, however, Constantius’ work of reconstruction. The western Empire, despite his many achievements, had not been returned to exactly pristine condition.

The Reckoning

IN ONE OBVIOUS SENSE, reconstruction wasn’t complete in 418, nor would Constantius have claimed that it was. The Silings and Alans had been put through the mincer, but the Hasding Vandals, now reinforced, and the Suevi were still at large. Apart from the potential military dangers these groups posed, their continued presence also meant that the parts of Spain they occupied remained outside direct imperial control, and hence no longer contributed revenues to the state. In fact, the period 405–18 had seen a series of tax losses that Constantius had not yet been able to remedy. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the Garonne valley produced much tax revenue after the Goths were settled there in 418.86

It is extremely difficult to reconstruct events in Roman Britain during the 410s, or even the general status of the island, but what is clear is that it had fallen outside the imperial system. As we have seen, the usurpations of 406/7 began there, and the British provinces provided Constantine III with his first power-base. Then, from the moment he moved to the continent with – it has long been suspected – most of the island’s remaining Roman military, Britain disappears from our sources, except for two brief notices in Zosimus. The first records that the British threw off Roman rule at a later point in Constantine’s usurpation but before the sack of Rome, ‘expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted’.87 The second states that Honorius, still before August 410, wrote to the cities of Britain ‘urging them to fend for themselves’. What this means has been much argued about. Zosimus sees this further British revolt as a parting of the ways with Romanness and a return to native custom. I suspect that this is another of his sixth-century misunderstandings, and that in fact the British Romans, unhappy with Constantine’s focus on Gaul and consequent inability to defend them, took matters into their own hands. Otherwise, it is hard to see why Honorius would have to write to them in 410 admitting that the state could not provide for their defence. It wasn’t so much a question, then, of getting out the woad and relearning Celtic languages as of trying to defend themselves against seaborne attack, especially at the hands of Saxon pirates. This had been a problem for well over a hundred years, and had led the Roman state to construct a range of fortifications, some of which still stand today. The extent of Saxon inroads made between 410 and 420 is another hotly contested issue. Everything suggests that the real cataclysm came a bit later, but, for present purposes, the date doesn’t really matter. Whether at the hands of Saxons or of local self-defence forces, Britain dropped out of the Roman radar from about 410, and was no longer supplying revenues to Ravenna.88

The same thing was happening at this time in Armorica (north-western Gaul). The chain of events here is harder to read, but Rutilius tells us that in 417, as he himself was journeying home, his relative Exuperantius was busy restoring order.89 It would seem, then, that Constantius’ regime hastened to reinstitute imperial order and imperial taxation in Armorica, if not in Britain. This was certainly the case in central and southern Gaul, most of which had probably paid its taxes to Constantine III throughout his usurpation. About the Rhine frontier area we have no firm information. The city of Trier lost its role as an administrative centre for the whole of Gaul at this time, when government was moved south to Arles instead. But there was no major break in Roman control of the Trier region, so that it too presumably continued to pay at least some tax to Ravenna.90

In addition to the territories lost outright to the Roman system, tax revenue was substantially down in those much larger parts of the west that had been affected by warfare or looting over the past decade. Much of Italy had been pillaged by the Goths, Spain by the survivors of the Rhine invasion, and Gaul by both. How much of these territories had been damaged is difficult to say, and agriculture could of course recover, but there is good evidence that warfare had caused serious medium-term damage. In 412, a law of the emperor Honorius instructed the Praetorian Prefect of Italy that for five years the provinces of Campania, Tuscany, Picenum, Samnium, Apulia, Calabria, Bruttium and Lucania should have their taxes reduced to one-fifth of their normal amount. The Roman state reckoned that these provinces merited such a reduction because it was from their lands that the Goths had mainly supported themselves when camping around Rome between 408 and 410. A second law, of 418, reduced Campania’s assessment to one-ninth of its previous level, and that of the other provinces to one-seventh. Few other areas will have taken such sustained damage – the product of a two-year occupation, more or less. The Vandals, Alans and Suevi seem to have come to a more ordered arrangement with the local Hispano-Romans. Nonetheless, outright losses of tax base and damage to what remained must have substantially reduced the annual income of the western Empire between 405 and 418.91

We can also detect substantial damage to two other key pillars of state. Evidence of the first shows up in another of the extraordinary sources to survive from late antiquity (mentioned earlier), the Notitia Dignitatum. This is a listing of all the civilian and military officials of the later Roman Empire, divided into its eastern and western halves. The document was kept by one of the senior bureaucrats, the primicerius notariorum (Chief Notary), part of whose job it was to issue letters of appointment. As the bureaucratic or military structure of the Empire changed, so the document was amended. The eastern half of the text records the eastern Empire as it stood about 395, at or near the death of Theodosius I. The western half, on the other hand, was kept thoroughly up to date down to 408, then partially so down to the early 420s. In particular – and this is why it concerns us here – the Notitia contains two listings of the mobile field army units (the comitatenses) of the western Empire. The first names the regiments (numeri) under their overall commanders, the Masters of Infantry and Cavalry; the second (distributio numerorum) records their regional distribution.92 Detailed analysis indicates that this second list gives us a snapshot of the western field armies as they stood at the end of the second decade of the fifth century.93

A close look at these lists, and a comparison with the eastern army lists of 395, is very revealing. First, and entirely unsurprisingly, it is clear that the western army suffered heavy losses in the wars of the early fifth century. The total number of eastern field army regiments in 395 was 157. About 420, the western army had 181, but of these as many as 97 had been raised since 395 and only 84 survived from the period before 395. During the fourth century, the field army units had been split between different emperors on a number of occasions, but everything suggests that they were of roughly the same order of magnitude in each half of the Empire. If, like the east, therefore, the western field army had numbered about 160 regiments in 395, then no fewer than 76 of them (47.5 per cent) had been destroyed in the twenty-five years between Honorius’ accession and 420. This is a massive level of attrition, representing losses of upwards of 30,000 men.94 The Roman army of the Rhine took the heaviest hit. In 420, it stood at 58 regiments; but of these only 21 were pre-395 units, the other 37 (or 64 per cent) having been created during the reign of Honorius. This makes perfect sense. The Gallic army had borne the brunt of the first Rhine crossing; then, under the control of Constantine III, it had continued the fight against the invaders down to the Pyrenees and beyond. It had also, subsequently, been caught on the wrong side of Constantius’ counterattack. No wonder it emerged in tatters, with many of its old units shredded and disbanded.95

What the Notitia has to tell us about how the losses were made good is also extremely interesting. By about 420, the numbers of western comitatensian units had recovered substantially, thanks to the 97 new regiments created since 395. Indeed, if we are right in supposing that eastern and western field armies were roughly equal in size in 395, then its total establishment had even gone up by about 20 units (12.5 per cent). Of the 97 new units, however, 62 (64 per cent) were old frontier garrison regiments regraded to fill out field army numbers. Many of them still appear in their garrison positions in parts of the Notitia that had not been updated, and hence are easy to spot. All 28 of the legiones pseudocomitatenses were regraded garrison troops, as were another 14 of the supposedly more elite legiones comitatenses, and the same is true of another 20 cavalry units in North Africa and Tingitana. Apart from the North African force, Gaul again shows the most disruption. Twenty-one of the 58 regiments of the Gallic field army in 420 were regraded garrison troops. Most of the holes in the western field army created by sustained warfare from about 405 onwards had been filled not by recruiting new top-class forces, therefore, but by reclassifying old, lower-grade ones. And of the 35 new top-class units, about a third have regimental names (Attecotti, Marcomanni, Brisigavi and so on) that derive from the names of non-Roman tribal groupings and suggest that, originally at least, they were composed of non-Roman manpower.96

From the superficially dry-as-dust Notitia Dignitatum a fascinating picture emerges. On the face of it, the western field army was a larger force than it had been twenty-five years before. The increase in size, however, masks some fundamental problems, not the least of which was that half of its old regiments had been shredded in the intervening warfare. So while the field army was larger, the total military establishment was smaller, since there is no reason to suppose that the regraded garrison troops had been replaced by new forces on the frontier. Constantius achieved great things with this force between 411 and 420, but we can only conclude that, compared with its predecessor of 395, it was a sadly diminished one. An army thrives on continuity, and losses on this scale would have considerably reduced the overall efficiency of the entire western military establishment, and particularly its Gallic arm. Discounting the regraded garrison troops, ‘real’ comitatensian numbers had shrunk by about 25 per cent between 395 and 420 (about 160 units to 120). And here, I would suggest, we can see the financial losses of the period really beginning to bite. In 420, Constantius faced more, and more urgent, military problems than Stilicho had done in 395. Ideally, he could have used a larger army, but the financial constraints imposed by diminished revenues would not allow it.

Behind the façade of Constantius’ very real successes, then, the longer-term effects of the crisis that toppled Stilicho can be clearly distinguished. And if a substantially reduced military force were not bad enough, one further problem had begun to emerge. We first get some inkling of it in Alaric’s sieges of Rome, when he was able to extract a measure of cooperation from the Senate in his designs – a generalship for himself, gold for his supporters, greater political influence for the Goths overall – even though this was against the direct wishes of Honorius and the central authorities. Attalus was content to have himself made emperor by the Goths, although he drew the line at allowing Gothic troops to win over Africa to his cause – which really would have cut the last bit of ground from beneath an independent western Empire. The same phenomenon reappeared in Gaul after 414. When Athaulf, this time, restored Attalus to the purple, some of the Gallic landowning aristocracy were ready to rally to his support. The account of Athaulf’s wedding is significant not only for where it took place, but also for the number of Gallic aristocrats willing to sing at it and to get into bed with the Gothic-based regime. Paulinus of Pella, who accepted the office of Count of the Sacred Largesse under Attalus, later put it on record that he had done so not because he had any real belief in the legitimacy or viability of the regime, but because it seemed the best path to peace.97 This was probably the motivation of many of the senators who had cooperated with Alaric, but it was no less dangerous for that.

What we’re seeing here is an early instance of the way in which outside military forces could open up pre-existing fault lines within the Roman political system. In the Hadrianople campaign (see Chapter 4), and again in the Rhine crossing at the end of 406, the Empire’s lower social orders had been willing to help or even join in with the barbarian invaders. This is not so surprising, given how little such groups had invested in a system run by and for the landowning classes, as we saw in Chapter 3. The willingness of the landowning elite to do deals with barbarians was a very different phenomenon – and much more dangerous for the Empire – but it too had its origins in the nature of the system. Given its vast size and limited bureaucratic technology, the Roman Empire could not but be a world of self-governing localities held together by a mixture of force and the political bargain that paying tax to the centre would bring protection to local landowning elites. The appearance of armed outside forces in the heart of the Roman world put that bargain under great strain. The speed with which some landowners rushed to support barbarian-sponsored regimes is not, as has sometimes been argued, a sign of lack of moral fibre among late Romans, so much as an indicator of the peculiar character of wealth when it comes in the form of land. In historical analysis, not to mention old wills, landed wealth is usually categorized in opposition to moveable goods, and that captures the essence of the problem. You cannot simply pick it up and move, as you would a sack of gold or diamonds, should conditions in your area change. If you do move on, you leave the source of your wealth, and all of your elite status, behind. Landowners have little choice, therefore, but to try to come to terms with changing conditions, and this is what was beginning to happen around Rome in 408/10 and in southern Gaul in 414/15. In fact, it didn’t get far, because Constantius reasserted central authority pretty quickly. He also seems to have been aware of the political problem, and acted swiftly to contain it.

In 418, to cap his other efforts at restoration, Constantius reconstituted an annual council of the Gallic provinces, to meet at Arles. Not only the provinces, but also individual cities in the regions close to Arles, were to send delegates selected from their upper classes to discuss matters of public and private concern, especially those pertaining to the interests of landowners (Latin, possessores). The timing is suggestively coincidental with the settlement of the Goths in the Garonne valley, and it is a fair bet that this was the main item on the agenda for the first year’s meeting. The council was clearly designed – and did indeed function – as a forum at which local rich landowners, who would have the ear of their gentry neighbours as well, could talk regularly to imperial officials. It was a conscious effort to mend the tears, or perhaps just the frayed edges, that had shown up in relations between Gallic aristocrats and the imperial centre in the decade or so after 405. The appearance of outsiders had opened up a gap between the interests of landowners and those of the central administration, which it was the job of the council to close. And there was another coincidence, in the form of the arrival at Arles of Rutilius Namatianus (see p. 233), whose slow homeward journey in the autumn and winter of 417/18 was perfectly timed to bring him to Gaul for the council’s first meeting. Well enough connected at Honorius’ court to know what was in the wind, he was exactly the kind of ex-office-holder whose presence was required there. Perhaps the assembled bigwigs were treated over dinner to a stirring rendition by this Honorian loyalist of his poem anticipating the ascent from the ashes of Rome and Gaul. Sentiments in no way inappropriate: with the west rid of usurpers, the Goths quieted, the landowners of Gaul recalled into the imperial orbit, and half of the survivors of the Rhine invasion quashed, all was set fair for the rest to receive their just deserts.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!