August 28: The Fall of the Western Empire

Prophets of doom are almost always around us, but in the past several years it seems that more and more are coming out of the woodwork. Predictions of the coming end of America, and perhaps even the end of the world, are gradually becoming less the realm of the haggard homeless men with cardboard signs and more the realm of water cooler conversations in the office.

We have a fascination with the idea of civilizational collapse. And as we squint forward into the hazy future wondering about our own, we often turn backwards to see what parallels we can draw from the fall of the great civilizations of the past. And no collapse is more commonly brought up in such discussions than the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Of course, the fall of Rome is a complicated thing, that takes place over a remarkably long period of time. And today, August 28, is a day which is connected to a truly shocking number of events in that gradual collapse. So let’s turn back the clock.

August 28, 410 AD

As the morning sun gradually rises today, a thick haze of smoke catches the light over the city of Rome, turning the sky a dull red. Fires still smolder in several places around the old Roman Forum, and figures crawl like ants through the streets, using buckets to attempt to quench the flames. Others tentatively step out of their doorways, looking this way and that. Gradually, they begin to gather in streets and ransacked market squares, talking in hushed tones. The mood in the city is somber, even depressed. For the first time in nearly 800 years, the eternal city, the spiritual heart of the Roman empire, has been violated by a foreign conqueror.

Some miles outside Rome, heading south along the Appian Way, marches a column of fair-skinned and fair-haired warriors led by a tall and proud man on horseback. His name is Alaric. He and his men, carrying the spoils of the sacked city in carts and on muleback, intend to rendezvous with a fleet of ships in the south, sail across to Sicily, and establish a new kingdom for themselves, turning their back on Rome for good.

But who are these men, and what led them to the point of sacking the city of Rome? To find out, we have to turn the clock back a little further.

In the late 4th and early 5th centuries, the eastern borders of Rome are continually flooded by tribes of what the Romans call barbarians–a word they borrowed from the Greeks, and which somewhat ironically would once have been applied to them as well. To the Greeks, all foreigners who could not speak Greek were called “barbaroi,” due to the perception that their languages sounded like mere babbling, “bar bar bar bar,” much as we might say “blah blah blah.” The Romans have the same essential perspective, and use the word “barbari” for outsider tribes who have not been Romanized and thus civilized either through conquest or annexation. The barbarians arriving at the Eastern borders of Rome are mostly Germanic in origin, and they are in many cases refugees, fleeing from the expansion and conquest of other tribes farther to the east–chief among them, the Huns.

One such group of Germanic refugees arrived on the banks of the Danube River in the summer of 376, requesting permission to cross and settle their people in Roman territory. They were a tribe of Goths called the Therving, led by their king Fritigern, and they were in desperate straits, having been forced to flee their homeland due to the Hunnic advance. The Eastern Roman Emperor, Valens, negotiated by proxy with the Goths, agreeing to allow them asylum in the Empire as long as they were willing to convert to Christianity and to serve in the Roman military. By all accounts, the Goths readily accepted the terms, and were ferried across the Danube to a Roman military camp, where they were to be held until arrangements could be made regarding land for them to settle. In the meantime, they were starving, so Emperor Valens ordered stores of food to be sent to the refugee camp for their relief.

The food, however, never reached its intended recipients. Corrupt local officials, when the food stores arrived, chose to ignore the needs of the refugees and instead sell the food to local markets in order to line their pockets. These same officials made arrangements to further take advantage of the situation. They offered the starving refugees food–dog meat, specifically–but only if they were willing to pay. Not in coin, of which the refugees had little or none, but in a far more terrible currency. Their children. One child for one dog. The children would then be shipped to the central regions of the Empire to serve as slaves, where their exotically light skin and fair hair would fetch a high price. Many of the Therving goths, forced to choose between selling their children into slavery or all starving together, chose the former.

These and other horrific mistreatments at the hands of the Romans would lead the Goths under Fritigern to rise in rebellion, and eventually, at the battle of Adrianople, the Emperor Valens himself would pay the price for their mistreatment with his life. Afterwards, the new Emperor Theodosius attempted to make things right by giving the Goths land to settle and a degree of political independence as foederati, allies of the Roman state who would serve in the military. But the treatment of the Goths at Roman hands would not improve as the years went on. They were mocked constantly for their unusual appearance, particularly their typically muscular build with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, which one writer contemptuously said made them look like insects. They were derided for their barbaric customs of wearing animal skins for ornamentation. And their tendency towards fair hair, which would have been extremely unusual in most inner provinces of the Roman empire, led to an association of brutish stupidity with blondeness which, unfortunately, we still preserve today in so-called “blonde jokes.”

Worse, though, was the way the Romans used their new so-called allies in war. Once the Goths became foederati, they were regularly used as shock troops at the start of a battle, meaning that they took the vast majority of the casualties, with Roman citizen soldiery only entering the battle at the end, once the enemy was growing weary. After one such battle, at the river Frigidus in September of 394, the Goths took 10,000 casualties in order to win a battle for the Romans. And one young Gothic general was left standing on that battlefield, looking over the carnage that had been his people, struggling with the sudden certainty that he and his Goths would never be viewed as more than expendable resources. His name was Alaric.

Alaric would be declared King of the Western Goths (or Visigoths) shortly afterwards, and would rise up in rebellion against the powers of Rome first in the East and then in the West. In the process, he would fight a long war against a man who had been a mentor and friend during his time serving the Roman army, the general Stilicho. Stilicho was himself Germanic, with a Vandal father; although his mother was Roman, by classical understandings which attributed heredity primarily to the father he would have been considered fully Vandal, and the two must have had common experiences of serving an empire which never fully trusted and often despised them as a result of their ethnicity. But Stilicho remained loyal to the empire, and was one of the most powerful men in the Roman west at the time, acting as regent to the young Western Emperor Honorius.

Alaric and Stilicho met in multiple battles, and in each case Stilicho bested his old student; and yet, in each case, Alaric was able to escape unharmed, and Stilicho failed to capture him in pursuit. The Roman senate, now operating out of the new northern capital of Milan, became more and more frustrated, and soon whispers began that Stilicho was allowing Alaric to escape. After all, Stilicho was one of those foreigners too. Maybe the two were even plotting together. Rumors spread that Stilicho planned to usurp the Western Empire and put his son on the throne. And then, in response to growing tensions between the Eastern and Western Empires, Stilicho decided to make peace with Alaric, and then paid him a significant sum of money in order to enlist his military aid against other foes.

This, perhaps, was the last straw. Stilicho’s political enemies in the Roman Senate mobilized, and shortly afterwards a warrant went out for Stilicho’s arrest. He sought sanctuary in a church in Ravenna, but was lured out with promises of safety and then immediately seized and beheaded.

The sentiment towards Stilicho among the Roman population of the Empire is perhaps best shown by what happened immediately after his death. With the so-called barbarian regent dead, the Roman citizens of the West rose up in multiple cities and joyfully slaughtered every Germanic foreigner they could find–primarily the wives and children of foederati who were serving with the Roman military. These pogroms continued for days. Contemporary accounts suggest that tens of thousands were killed.

When word of these horrors began to reach the Roman military camps, there was a mass desertion of Gothic and other Germanic foederati troops. The vast majority of them went to join Alaric, clamoring for him to lead them into Italy for revenge.

Thus it was that in 408, Alaric marched into Italy unopposed and laid siege to the city of Rome for the first time. Rome was no longer the capital of the Empire; it had been Milan for many years, and had recently been shifted again to the defensible city of Ravenna. But Rome remained the spiritual heart of the empire, and to lay siege to it was to make a statement. The young emperor Honorius, with his former top general having been executed and with his military catastrophically diminished by the mass desertions of the foederati, did not have the resources to break the siege of Rome, and so was forced to try to negotiate with the Gothic king before the Roman population starved.

Alaric demanded a payment in gold, silver, and other goods, and the ability for his people to settle permanently in fertile regions of the Italian coast. He also demanded the release of Gothic slaves, and that he be granted the title of magister militum, the chief general of the Roman army–the post previously held by Stilicho, and tantamount to making Alaric the real power behind the Western imperial throne. And eventually, Honorius agreed to these terms, the payment was made, 40,000 Gothic slaves were freed, and Alaric lifted his siege of the city. But as soon as Alaric withdrew his forces, Honorius reneged on the promise of the generalship.

Without his holding an official title and role in the Empire, Alaric knew his people would never be safe against further Roman retaliation. And so he laid siege to the city once again, and resumed negotiations. Things would go back and forth for several years, until finally Alaric and his personal guard would be attacked while on the road to Ravenna to meet with Honorius. Viewing this as a breach of trust by the emperor, Alaric decides that he has had enough. He returns to Rome, this time to sack it.

That was just a few days ago. Alaric’s troops managed to enter Rome through a gate that may have been opened to them by Gothic slaves still present in the city. Several key buildings in the city were burned, though the destruction was not particularly widespread, and Alaric gave strict orders that the Basilicas of Peter and Paul were to be left unharmed, along with any who took refuge in them. In fact, when he learned that some of the golden and silver items belonging to Christian churches had been taken by his troops, Alaric ordered them returned. Early sources generally agree that Alaric’s sack of Rome, by the standards of the day, was a shockingly gentle one. Nonetheless, over the three days that the Goths held the city, they looted a tremendous amount of wealth and likely killed many members of the local Roman population.

By today, Alaric and his forces are moving south, turning their gaze away from Italy to look for land to settle elsewhere. With them they have a number of Roman hostages, including the Emperor Honorius’s own sister, Galla Placidia; three years from now, she will marry Alaric’s brother Ataulf, and will become a major player in the power struggles of the collapsing Western Empire in the years to come. Alaric himself only has a few more months to live; a fever will take him in the south of Italy, and legend records that he will be buried in the bed of a river which is momentarily diverted and then allowed to flow back over his grave, ensuring that his bones will never be found or disturbed. 

The people of Rome, meanwhile, are starting the weary job of rebuilding. But the collapse of the Western Empire has, in truth, only just begun.

August 28, 430 AD

One of the most famous Christian bishops in the Western Roman Empire, St. Augustine of Hippo, passes away quietly today in the city of Hippo Regius in north Africa. His deathbed is likely attended by many of the faithful for whom his death is a source of great grief. But they cannot mourn him long. Outside the gates of the city, the campfires of countless siege camps burn, sending plumes of smoke up to stain the sky. The Vandals are besieging the city.

During Augustine’s early life, the Roman world was still a largely united one, even if the cracks were beginning to show. He was himself an African, with a North African mother probably of Berber ancestry, Monica, and a Roman father named Patricius. As young Augustine was growing up, the Empire was in broad terms a safe and well-ordered place. He was able, both for his education and to find work, to move freely around the Empire, from his hometown of Thagaste in modern Algeria to Carthage (modern day Tunis, in Tunisia), then cross the Mediterranean by ship to Rome, and later move north to Milan before finally returning to north Africa. The Western Roman Empire was still an interconnected, cosmopolitan world. But as Augustine’s life progressed, all that would change.

The life of Augustine of Hippo, incidentally, is a fascinating one, and I don’t have time to unpack it here. I highly recommend his most famous work, the Confessions, both as a fascinating look into his journey from a turbulent youth with little care for matters of faith to one of the fathers of the Christian church, and as a window into Roman culture and daily life in the waning years of the Empire. For our purposes, though, we’ll only mention this; Augustine, over the course of his life, witnessed the first clear signs that the Western Roman Empire was on a swift road to collapse. He was not present in Rome for its sack by Alaric 20 years ago, but word spread quickly throughout the empire. Many saw in this news cause for an almost existential panic and fear; some even claimed that Rome was being punished for having turned away from the old religions and embracing Christianity. Augustine would attempt to assuage such fears in some of his later writings, particularly the massive tome called The City of God, which sought to remind Christians that their allegiance was not to a political city or state, but to the New Jerusalem and to the coming kingdom of Christ–and that all merely human institutions and states, even the ancient and powerful Roman Empire, came with an expiration date.

That particular truth has become even more obvious in the years since Alaric’s Goths plundered Rome. After his death, Alaric’s people have settled and created a kingdom of their own in what will one day be southern France, and other Germanic tribes have entered into and taken possession of formerly Roman territories. One such group is the Vandals, led by their king, Geiseric.

The Vandals, like the Goths, originally entered Roman lands due to pressures from Hunnic expansions in the east. They settled for a time in the Roman region of Hispania, establishing a kingdom for themselves there, but recently came under attack by another Germanic tribe, the Suebi, and were forced to evacuate. King Geiseric led his people, possibly along with some Gothic and Alan tribespeople as well across the Gibraltar strait and into North Africa. There, they began a war with local Roman authorities, gradually taking more and more territory. The city of Hippo Regius is the first major city that they have besieged, but it won’t be the last. Geiseric’s advance across North Africa will be relentless. A decade from now, he will be in control of the largest and most significant city in all of North Africa, Carthage. Ten years after that, his pirate fleets will control much of the western Mediterranean, and his power in the region will be such that the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III will promise a marriage alliance to Geiseric; when Valentinian III is murdered and his throne usurped, Geiseric will sack the city of Rome for the second time of the century in a punitive expedition. Accounts of the sack of the city will lead to the term Vandal becoming a byword for wanton destruction, though it is likely that some of these accounts were at least partially exaggerated. This second sack of Rome in 455 will be one from which the city never fully recovers, and the Western Empire as a whole will continue to rapidly disintegrate.

August 28, 475

The last legitimate Roman Emperor, Julius Nepos, flees today from his capital city of Ravenna and goes into exile in the province of Dalmatia, overthrown and effectively replaced by the man he had just recently named his top general.

The Eastern Roman Empire has managed to remain mostly intact as the West has fallen into shambles and been gradually divided into independent barbarian kingdoms. On several occasions, Eastern Emperors have attempted to regain some semblance of control over the disintegrating west, and the appointment of Julius Nepos a year ago was just such an attempt.

For the past few decades, the so-called Emperors of the West have been puppet rulers, and the real powers behind the throne have been Germanic military leaders. A Germanic ruler named Ricimer was the most extreme example of this, effectively controlling Italy for years from the shadows, and killing any emperor who refused to play along. After Ricimer’s death, his nephew Gundobad, the king of the Burgundians, maintained a similar role as de facto ruler of Italy, though he declared a man named Glycerius as the official emperor. Glycerius was never recognized as legitimate by the Eastern Roman Empire, however, and so Eastern Emperor Zeno sent Julius Nepos to take control. Glycerius surrendered without a fight, and Nepos took power as officially sanctioned and legitimate emperor of the West. King Gundobad returned to Burgundy, where he would proceed to be involved in some very interesting stories of his own that we don’t have time for today.

Nepos, shortly after becoming emperor, appointed as his magister militum, leader of the military, the general Orestes. Orestes, despite his Greek name, was from the region of Pannonia, near the Danube River where the Goths had crossed many years before. In the 430s, that area had been ceded to none other than Atilla the Hun, the man sometimes called the Scourge of God, whose forefathers’ conquests had driven the Germanic tribes into the Roman Empire in the first place. We don’t have time to discuss Atilla today, but Orestes had served as a member of his royal court while a young man, and acted as a liaison between Atilla and the Romans on several occasions. That was about 25 years ago. History doesn’t have much to say about what Orestes has been up to in the meantime, but clearly he is well known and considered a strong military leader if Julius Nepos sought him out to name him his military right hand man.

For Nepos, though, the appointment of Orestes turns out to have been a terrible mistake. Orestes harbors ambitions of his own, and in his position as leader of the Western Empire’s military, which is almost entirely made up of people of Germanic descent by this point, he decides to take power himself. He offers land grants in Italy to the various Germanic foederati under his command if they will help him overthrow Julius Nepos, to which they readily agree. They march on Ravenna, and Nepos flees the city and Italy, never to return.

Orestes will not take the throne himself, however, but instead declare his son Romulus as the new Western Emperor. Thus, young Romulus, at the age of 14, will become Romulus Augustus–or, as he will be remembered by history, Romulus Augustulus–the little Augustus. And while Julian Nepos was the last legitimate Western Emperor, little Augustus will be the last person to even make an attempt to claim the title… because of what will happen exactly one year later.

August 28, 476

Today, general Orestes is captured and immediately executed by the forces of Odovacar, king of the Germanic tribe known as the Thorcilingi. As we mentioned a moment ago, Orestes had promised various groups of foederati that he would give them land in Italy to settle if they helped him overthrow Julius Nepos. And then he changed his mind, breaking his promise. Furious, they banded together under Odovacar and attacked.

With his father dead, young Romulus Augustulus will be helpless when Odovacar’s army arrives in Ravenna in a few days. He will abdicate the throne immediately, and Odovacar will leave him alive, exiling him to the region of Campania.

Odovacar, in his turn, will make no attempt to claim the imperial titles of the now crumbled Roman Empire. Instead, he will declare himself the king of Italy. Nonetheless, he will officially be considered a vassal of the Eastern Emperor, Zeno. Zeno will be less than thrilled, however, with Odovacar’s willingness–or rather, lack thereof–to cooperate with the Eastern Empire, and eventually will seek to remedy matters in his own way.

August 28, 489

The forces of King Odovacar of Italy suffer a severe defeat today at the hands of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths. Theodoric has been appointed by Zeno, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, to deal with the upstart Odovacar in a permanent fashion.

Theodoric’s own relationship with the Eastern Empire was always strained at best. Zeno’s request for the Ostrogothic King to go and deal with Odovacar can be read as the emperor’s attempt to kill two birds with one stone; Theodoric will no longer be in the east, where he has caused a great deal of trouble over the years, and Odovacar will be no longer a thorn in his side in the West. It’s a win for Theodoric as well; his people have been living as little better than nomads for decades, and a promise that they can settle permanently in Italy if they defeat Odovacar is appealing.

Today, Theodoric’s forces clashed with Odovacar’s at the Isonzo River, and Odovacar was routed, granting Theodoric a foothold in northern Italy. 

Three and a half years from now, after several other clashes result in the capital of Ravenna falling into Ostrogothic hands, Odovacar will sign a peace treaty with Theodoric, agreeing that the two of them can rule Italy as equal partners. Theodoric will invite Odovacar to a great banquet in Ravenna, each man attended by his top generals and right hand men. After eating and drinking, Theodoric will stand and propose a toast to Odocavar, raising his cup–and then drawing his sword, will strike the half-drunk Odovacar a massive blow that cuts cleanly through the collarbone and into his chest, killing him almost instantly. On the signal, Theodoric’s men, who have been keeping themselves alert and drinking less heavily than Odovacar’s, will immediately leap into action. Seconds later, all of Odovacar’s henchman will follow him into the afterlife, and Theodoric will be the sole ruler of Italy.

Strangely enough, even as Theodoric becomes effectively entirely independent from the Eastern Roman Empire, his rule over Italy will be marked by a revival of Roman culture. He will rebuild old Roman projects that have fallen into disrepair, such as an aqueduct in Ravenna that dates back to the days of Trajan. He will work closely alongside the Roman Senate, which he allows to continue as a significant political force in Italy. He will build close ties with the Christian church, and seek to unite a variety of former barbarian tribes into a coherent whole. He will be remembered for the phrase “an able Goth wishes to become like a Roman; only a poor Roman wishes to become a Goth.” Ironically, then, even as with his reign the Western Roman Empire has finally and absolutely ceased to exist, Theodoric plays no small part in ensuring that Roman culture will continue to be an integral part of Western Europe for centuries to come.

When people compare the current situation of America, or any nation for that matter, to Rome in the days prior to its collapse, the seeming implication is that a great disaster is coming that must be avoided at all costs. After all, the fall of Rome was a true disaster that cast the world into centuries of darkness. The so-called nobility of the medieval world were little more than brigands pretending to have the right to rule, and the peasants were poor, diseased, and spent their days farming mud a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Middle Ages were a desolate cultural wasteland, out of which humanity was only able to rise when the great Roman and Greek works of philosophy, literature, and science were rediscovered in the Renaissance. 

Of course, none of that is actually true. In believing it, we risk taking on the worst of the Roman prejudices that arguably led to their downfall in the first place–the belief that the so-called barbarians who came to dominate Europe were inherently inferior to the Romans and the Greeks. On the contrary, each of these peoples brought their own strengths to the table, and in blending these with the legacy of Rome, created rich and vibrant new cultures of their own. 

Every end is a new beginning, as they say. And so perhaps we should not fear the end; as St. Augustine would remind us, every human institution, including America, has an expiration date. The question is not whether our particular country or culture will someday come to an end, but how, when that occurs, we can take the best of our country or culture and pass it on to the generations to come.

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