My extended review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire continues, and we have now reached part 5 of Chapter 31 where we see Gaul and Spain fall to the barbarians in the aftermath of the sack of Rome.
The sack of Rome by Alaric was dramatic and important, but what happened in the immediate aftermath is important too.
Alaric had been joined in his invasion of Italy by his cousin Adolphus. It was he who took over leadership of the Goths as they were poised in southern Italy ready to cross the Mediterranean to Sicily and then onto Africa. He was not interested in Alaric’s African adventure and quickly concluded a peace treaty with the Romans and set off to Gaul to found a kingdom.
The treaty was a pretty unequal one. The Goths had an army of 100,000 so could pretty much do as they pleased. The only card in the hand of Honorius was legitimacy. That was important, but it couldn’t stop the Goths from doing pretty much whatever they wanted.
Adolphus was cut from much the same cloth as Alaric. He was good looking, astute and above all successful. One of the spoils of Rome had been a truly remarkable piece of booty. The Goths had captured the daughter of the great Theodosius -the last man to rule the entire empire – and the half sister of Honorius. This was dynastic dynamite. By marrying her, Adolphus could conceivably end up as a reasonably legitimate claimant to the throne of Rome in the event of Honorius dying without offspring. As Honorius showed no offspring producing capabilities this was a very real possibility. So marry Placidia was exactly what Adolphus did.
Interestingly contemporary sources report that Placidia was a willing partner. This seems a bit unlikely, but on the other hand in the world in which she lived he would have been just about the most powerful single individual around. That might have made him quite attractive. And I suppose a dashing and handsome prince might be considered to be a bit of a catch, especially to someone brought up in the cloistered world of the Roman court.
Placidia certainly played along with a very elaborate marriage ceremony where her barbarian lover dressed as a Roman and showered her with gifts. The music was provided in person by the multi-talented Attalus, who had only recently been playing the role of the Goths’ puppet emperor in Rome. He really was an all round entertainer.
Adolphus proceeded to carve out an independent Visigothic kingdom in southern Gaul centred on Narbonne. He posed as a Roman general restoring the rule of his nominal patron. But Honorius as the official emperor in Ravenna had no serious influence over the behaviour of the Visigothic monarch. It was Adolphus who had the troops. He also had the gold. The treasury of the Visigoths was packed full of the loot of Rome and Italy, so he must have been the richest leader west of Constantinople. With Placidia by his side, he even had an empress. The Visigothic kingdom would outlast the Roman Empire in the west and go on to have a significant role in the region for the next couple of centuries in the complex politics of post-Roman Gaul.
Italy meanwhile, was slowly recovering from the shock of being overrun by the Goths. The Honorius regime briefly broke with its track record of stupidity and incompetence and took some effectual measures to help the economy recover and restore normality. Taxes were drastically reduced, and what was collected was devoted to restoring the postal system. Edicts issued pardons to cover offences committed during the crisis, to prevent the courts wasting time on settling accounts. The Romans were encouraged to repair their battered buildings. In the countryside unoccupied farms were rented out to tenants on favourable terms with protections built in place so they wouldn’t risk being sued should the previous owners show up once they had made a go of it. All in all, a very wise set of measures. It seems likely that for once Honorious was listening to good advice. It would be nice to think that he was maturing into in a reasonable emperor at last. But there is nothing to support this idea other than wishful thinking.
One man who came out of the crisis with a an enhanced reputation was Count Heraklion of Carthage. His support for Ravenna in the darkest hours of Alaric’s attacks on Rome had to a large extent saved the day. In particular by making sure the grain supply didn’t fall into enemy hands he had at least prevented famine in Italy. He proceeded to throw this away by attempting to secure the throne for himself once the Goths were out of the way. His mission was a pitiful failure and he ended up fleeing back to Carthage. Once there the locals worked out which way the wind was blowing and handed him over to the officials of Honorius. He was executed and his fortune handed to an up and coming general called Constantius – of whom more later.
There was another example of uncharacteristic imperial wisdom shortly after this incident. With the government in Italy otherwise engaged, the rebel emperor Constantine III was able to command the theoretical loyalty of a big chunk of the empire in Spain, Gaul and Britain. But although his authority was wide it wasn’t particularly deep. Often in amounted to no more than a local agreement with a barbarian leader to a share of the spoils. Britain, the province that had raised him to prominence was perfectly entitled to feel somewhat let down by him. He was off on the continent pursuing his personal career and they still had to contend with Pictish tribal invasions and Saxon pirate raids. Britain was now so far outside the imperial sphere that the sensible thing to do was to grant them independence in the hope that it would weaken the position of Constantine. This worked a treat and the island cheerfully received the official recognition of the status quo from Honorius and withdrew support from Constantine. The British took to organising their own defences under the form of a loose coalition of city states based around the civic centres that had grown up under the empire. The date of this last communication from Honorius to Britain was 410 – the year that Alaric sacked Rome. This is often used as the date for the end of the Roman occupation of the island. In reality Roman power had ended much earlier. Roman culture would last a little longer, so it was still possible that the resources of Britain could have been recruited to defend the empire.
They didn’t in the end, but might have done had circumstances turned out differently. Similar out of the box thinking went into the setting up of provincial assemblies to allow a large degree of self government in Gaul. Gibbon notes that the time to do this would probably have been during the reign of Trajan at the height of Roman power. It might well have developed into a system of local government capable of organising local defences against the barbarians. I think it may well have been something that the more recent emperor Julian had in mind with his fondness for Gaul. But in the reign of Honorius it was a dismal flop. The provinces were already overrun by barbarians. The offer of more say in the running of your own affairs came as a poor substitute for actual troops to protect your life and your property. But as I say, in other circumstances this more flexible approach might have paid dividends.
But these minor initiatives do not really save the woeful record of failure of the reign of Honorius who lived another 13 years after the sack of Rome. The swamps of Ravenna protected his life from the inroads of barbarians and the challenges of the numerous aspirants who no doubt felt they could hardly do a worse job. But they couldn’t defend his reputation. Honorius was the emperor on whose watch the power of Rome in the west suffered its greatest decline. His actions and inactions set up the conditions that would lead to its extinction.