The sack of Rome by Alaric’s Goths

The fall of Stilicho was the signal for the Roman troops to massacre with brutal perfidy the families of the barbarian auxiliaries who were serving in Italy. The foreign soldiers, 30,000 of them, straightway marched to Noricum, joined the standard of Alaric, and urged him to descend on Italy.

The general conduct of affairs was now in the hands of Olympius, who obtained the post of Master of Offices. He was faced by two problems. What measures were to be taken in regard to Constantine, the tyrant who was reigning in Gaul? And what policy was to be adopted towards Alaric, who, from Noricum was urgently demanding satisfaction of his claims? The Goth made a definite proposal, which it would have been wise to accept. He promised to withdraw into Pannonia if a sum of money were delivered to him, and hostages interchanged. The Emperor and Olympius declined the profferred terms, but took no measures for defending Italy against the menace of a Gothic invasion.


Alaric aimed at two things. He wanted a goodly and permanent territory within the diocese of Italy or Illyricum for his people; and he wished for a high military command for himself. But the first of these two aims was now by far the more important. He did not yet think of planting Gothic settlements in the heart of the Italian peninsula, but rather in the northern parts of the Prefecture of Italy; and he hoped to establish a Visigothic kingdom dependent upon the Empire. His purpose in marching through Italy and attacking Rome was to put pressure on the imperial government to give in to his demands.

In the early autumn of A.D. 408 Alaric crossed the Julian Alps, and entered Italy for the third time. He marched rapidly and unopposed, by Cremona, Bononia, Ariminum, and the Flaminian Way, seldom tarrying to reduce cities; for this time his goal was the capital itself. The story was told that a monk appeared in his tent and warned him to abandon his design. Alaric replied that he was not acting of his own will, but was constrained by some power incessantly urging him to the occupation of Rome. At length he encamped before its walls, and hoped soon to reduce by blockade a city which had made no provision for a siege. His hopes were wll founded. The Senate was helpless and stricken with fear. The Visigothic host hindered provisions from coming up the Tiber from Portus, and the Romans were soon pressed by hunger and then by plague. The streets were full of corpses. Help had been expected from Ravenna; but, as none came, the Senate at length decided to negotiate. There was, however, a curious suspicion abroad that the besieging army was not led by Alaric himself, but by a follower of Stilicho who was masquerading as the Gothic king. In order to assure themselves on this point, the Senate chose as one of the envoys John, the chief of the imperial notaries, who was personally acquainted with Alaric. The envoys were instructed to say that the Romans were prepared to make peace, but that they were ready to fight and were not afraid of the issue. Alaric laughed at the attempt to terrify him with the armed populace of Rome, and informed them that he would only desist from the siege on the delivery of all the gold, silver, and movable property in the city, and all the barbarian slaves. “What will be left to us?” they asked. “Your lives”, was the reply.

The blockade, continued a few days longer, would force the senators to accept Alaric’s cruel terms. After prolonged negotiations he granted tolerable terms. He would depart, without  entering the city, on receiving 5000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 scarlet-dyed skins, and 3,000 pounds of pepper, and the Senate was to bring pressure to bear on the Emperor to conclude peace and alliance with the Goths. As the treasury was empty, and the contributions of the citizens fell short of the required amount of gold and silver, the ornaments were stripped from the images of the gods and some gold and silver statues were melted down to make up the ransom of the city . Before delivering the treasure to Alaric, messengers were despatched to Ravenna to obtain the Emperor’s sanction of the terms and his promise to hand over to Alaric some noble hostages and conclude a peace. Honorius agreed, and Alaric duly received  the treasures of Rome. He then withdrew his army to the southern borders of Etruria to await the fulfilment of the Emperor’s promise (December A.D. 408). The number of his followers was soon increased by the flight from Rome of a multitude of the barbarian slaves whose surrender he had formerly demanded. They flocked to his camp, and it is said that his host, thus reinforced was 40,000 strong.

At a conference which was held with one of the imperial ministers at Ariminum he asked for the provinces of Noricum, Venetia, Istria, and Dalmatia. This was a large demand. The cession of Venetia was out of the question. It would have placed the peninsula at the mercy of the Visigoths. They would have held the gates. Alaric can hardly have hoped that his whole demand would be granted. Negotiations were broken off, but presently he reduced his extravagant demand to the province of Noricum. He also required an annual supply of food, and a Roman official dignity which meant a Mastership of Soldiers. In the circumstances it would have been wise of the government of Honorius to yield; but they now felt themselves stronger; they had been gathering new forces, and Alaric’s multitudes were probably in difficulties about their food supply. Hence the terms were refused.

Alaric then marched on Rome for the second time towards the end of 409, and forced the Senate to elect a rival Emperor, Priscus Attalus, who he hoped would be more obedient to him than Honorius. But he did not find Attalus a pliant tool, and after some months he entered into negotiations with Honorius. He could now approach the Emperor with a good chance, as he thought, of concluding a satisfactory settlement. Leaving his main army a Ariminum, he had a personal interview with Honorius a few miles from Ravenna (July A.D. 410). At this juncture the Visigoth Sarus appeared upon the scene and changed the course of history. He had been a rival of Alaric and a friend of Stilicho, and had deserted his people to enter the Roman service. Hitherto he had taken no part in the struggle between the Romans and his own nation, but had maintained a watching attitude in Picenum, where he was stationed with three hundred followers. He now declared himself for Honorius, and he resolved to prevent the conclusion of peace. His motives are not clear, but, whatever they were, he attacked Alaric’s camp. Alaric suspected that he had acted not without the Emperor’s knowledge, and, enraged at such a flagrant violation of the truce, he broke off the negotiations, and marched upon Rome for the third time.

Having surrounded the city and once more reduced the inhabitants to the verge of starvation, he effected an entry at night through the Salarian Gate -doubtless by the assistance of traitors from within- on August 24, A.D. 410. This time the Gothic king was in no humour to spare the capital of the world. He allowed his followers to slay, burn, and pillage at will. The sack lasted for two or three days. It is true that some respect was shown for churches; and stories were told to show that the violence of the rapacious Goths was mitigated by veneration for Christian institutions. There is no reason to suppose that all the buildings and antiquities of the city suffered extensive damage. The palace of Sallust, in the north of the city, was burnt down, and excavations on the Aventine, in the fifth century a fashionable aristocratic quarter, have revealed many traces of the fires with which the barbarians destroyed the houses they had plundered. A rich booty and numberous captives, among whom was the Emperor’s sister, Galla Placidia, were taken.

On the third day Alaric led his triumphant host forth from the humiliated city, which it had been his fortune to devastate with fire and sword. He marched southward through Campania, took Nola and Capua, but failed to capture Naples. He did not tarry over the siege of this city, for his object was to cross over to Africa, probably for the purpose of establishing himself and his people in that rich country. Throughout their movements in Italy, the food supply had been a vital question for the Goths; and to seize Africa, the granary of Italy, whether for its own sake, or as a step to seizing Italy itself, was an obvious course. The Gothic host reached Rhegium; ships were gathered to transport it to Messina, but a storm suddenly arose and wrecked them in the straits. Without ships, Alaric was forced to retire on his footsteps, perhaps hoping to collect a fleet at Naples. But his days were numbered. He died at Consentia (Cosenza) before the end of the year (A.D. 410); his followers buried him in the Basentus, and diverted its waters into another channel, that his body might never be desecrated. It is related that the men who were employed on the work were all massacred, that the secret might not be divulged.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

Alaric in Rome

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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