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Alaric Sacks Rome

The Fall of Rome Was Actually August 24, 410 When Alaric Sacked Rome

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The Byzantine Emperor Honorius, Jean-Paul Laurens (1880).

The Byzantine Emperor Honorius, Jean-Paul Laurens (1880). Honorius became Augustus on 23 January 393, at the age of nine.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Acting on behalf of Emperor Honorius, the praetorian prefect Jovius arranged peace talks with Alaric, the Visigoth King, who demanded:
  1. 4 provinces for Gothic settlement,
  2. an annual allotment of grain, and
  3. money.
Jovius relayed these demands to Emperor Honorius, along with his recommendation to approve. Honorius characteristically rejected the demands in insulting terms, which Jovius read aloud to Alaric. The barbarian king was outraged and determined to march on Rome.

Practical concerns -- like food -- kept Alaric from immediately implementing his plan. He reduced from 4 to 2 the number of settlement provinces his Goths required. He even offered to fight for Rome. Alaric sent the Roman bishop, Innocent, to negotiate these new terms with the Emperor Honorius, in Ravenna. This time, Jovius recommended that Honorius reject the offer. Honorius concurred.

Following this refusal, Alaric marched to Rome and blockaded it for a second time at the end of 409. When the Romans yielded to him, Alaric proclaimed Priscus Attalus western Roman Emperor, with the approval of the Senate.

Alaric became Attalus' Master of the Foot, a position of power and influence. Alaric urged Attalus to capture the province of Africa because Rome depended on its grain, but Attalus was reluctant to use military force; instead, he marched with Alaric to Ravenna where Honorius agreed to split, but not cede the Western Empire. Honorius was ready to flee when the Eastern Empire sent 4000 soldiers to his aid. These reinforcements forced Attalus' retreat to Rome. There he found suffering because, since the African province supported Honorius, it had refused to send grain to rebellious Rome. (This was precisely why Alaric had urged him to capture Africa.) Alaric again urged military force against Africa, but Attalus still refused even though his people were starving.

Clearly, Attalus was a mistake. So Alaric successfully turned to Emperor Honorius to arrange for the removal of Attalus from office.

Leaving his army at Arminum, Alaric then went to Honorius to discuss the terms of his people's peace treaty with the Western Empire. While Alaric was away, an enemy of Alaric, although also a Goth in service to Rome, Sarus, attacked Alaric's men. Alaric broke off negotiations to march on Rome.

Once more Alaric surrounded the city of Rome. Once more the inhabitants of Rome came close to starvation. On August 24, 410, Alaric entered Rome through the Salarian gate. Reports suggest someone let them in -- According to Procopius, either they had infiltrated in Trojan Horse style by sending 300 men disguised as slaves as gifts for the senators or they were admitted by Proba, a rich matriarch who pitied the starving people of the city who had even resorted to cannibalism. No longer feeling merciful, Alaric let his men wreak havoc, burning the Senate house, raping and pillaging for 2-3 days, but leaving the church buildings (but not the contents) intact, before setting off for Campania and Africa.

They had to leave in a hurry because there was not enough food and because they needed to cross the sea before winter. Africa was Rome's breadbasket, so they started out for it along the Appian Way towards Capua. They plundered the city of Nola and perhaps Capua, as well, and then on to the southern tip of Italy. By the time they were ready to set sail, the weather had turned; the ships that headed out sank. When Alaric fell ill, the Goths moved inland to Consentia.

Edward Gibbon's A.D. 476 is the traditional date for the Fall of Rome, but 410 may be a better choice because on August 24, 410, Rome actually fell, losing out to a barbarian invader.

Sources:

  • AD 410 The Year That Shook Rome, by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard; Los ANgeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum (2010)
  • History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (Volume 1) (Paperback), by J. B. Bury

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