Rome finally fell in AD 410, when it was captured and sacked by Alaric the Goth. It really was its own fault. When Theodosius died in 395 he left his empire to his two young children: Arcadius in the east, aged all of 18, and Honorius in the west, at Rome, aged eleven. Of the two, Honorius is slightly the more important as he was the one whose capital, Rome was actually sacked; but nevertheless despite this, more by luck than good judgement he actually reigned for twenty eight years, dying in his bed in 423 at the age of thirty nine.
Not that Rome was his capital. Rome had long been an irrelevance, placed inconveniently half way down Italy, while all the excitement was taking place on the frontiers, in Germany and in the Balkans. The capital had in effect long been at Milan, but in 402 Milan itself was threatened by the Goths and so Honorius moved the capital to the coast, to Ravenna, which had long been the seat of the Roman fleet, but which was surrounded by marshes and bogs which made it, he thought, somewhat safer.
The outstanding figure of the time was the half-Vandal general Stilicho, who Gibbon called the last of the great Roman generals. Stilicho was the offspring of a Vandal father but a Roman mother: one wonders whether history might not have been different if the roles had been reversed and he had had a Roman father and a Vandal mother: would he then have been proclaimed Emperor in place of Honorius? As it was, Theodosius made him Honorius’ guardian, and he served him loyally, spending half his time fighting off the barbarians and the other half of his time vying with the Emperor of the East, Arcadius in Constantinople, or rather the various protectors who were manipulating Arcadius, first the general Rufinus assassinated in 395, then the eunuch Eutropius, (assassinated 399) and then his ambitious wife Eudoxia, (died 404).
The Goths meanwhile were growing in strength: as barbarians they had all the barbarian virtues and all the barbarian vices. They just loved fighting – fighting was the sign of all manliness and all virtue. But they loved fighting each other more, and they could rarely actually concentrate on fighting the Romans. However they were dominated by a remarkable chief called Alaric, who managed to get them into some sort of order and some sort of unity. In 402 he led them down to Italy, as a result of which Honorius fled from Milan to Ravenna. However Alaric was then defeated by Stilicho at the Battle of Pollentia, and for 10 years Stilicho and Alaric squared off to each other; for the most part Stilicho succeeded in keeping Alaric at bay. They had previously been comrades in Theodosius’ army and probably knew each other well.
But then the Roman Empire demonstrated how far it had fallen into the instability of barbarism by getting rid of Stilicho. Honorius was persuaded that he was unreliable, and Stilicho was arrested and executed, and Rome lost its one competent general, and its one semi-competent statesman. Had Stilicho lived he could probably have strung Alaric along, but Alaric grew frustrated and in 410 he besieged Rome, someone inside opened the gates to him and Rome, inviolate for 800 years, was finally sacked.
The sack lasted for three days; the churches were spared, for Alaric was after all a Christian, but the loot was enormous. Honorius however was safe in Ravenna: the story goes that when the news of the fall of Rome arrived, he was playing with his pet cockerels, one of whom was called Rome. When the news was brought to him that Rome had fallen, he exclaimed: ‘How can that be, I was playing with Rome just a moment ago?’ It was explained to him that the Rome that had fallen was a place, the base of the empire of which he was the titular head. The story is probably fiction, but nevertheless it is a story that deserves to be true.
Honorius died in AD 423, having been emperor of the Western Roman Empire for twenty-eight years. The Western Roman empire lingered on until 476 when finally the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus was deposed and the Germans who had for long been the real masters of Italy finally proclaimed themselves as the rulers of the peninsula, with their headquarters in Ravenna, which is still dominated by the churches that they built and enlarged.
The real story of the early fifth century is not what was happening in Rome, but what was happening in the rest of the Roman Empire. This was the time of the great folk wandering – Volkerwanderung in German. The Germanic tribes who had for so long been threatening to establish themselves in the fertile land of Gaul now broke out completely and spread not only down into Gaul but also down into Spain and Italy and even down into Northern Africa.
Thus the year 410 and the sack of Rome by Alaric really marks the end of the Roman Empire. True a nominal version of the Roman Empire lasted in Italy for a further sixty years, while in Constantinople the Eastern Roman Empire would survive for a further thousand years. But during the fifth century France, Spain, North Africa, far off Britannia and eventually even Italy itself became firmly barbarian: the Western Roman Empire was at an end.
On to the Dark Age