I am working through the chapters of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire translating the majestic sweep of the original narrative into modern English. There are times when this gets tough, and this is one of them. Gibbon is a great writer and this is one of his greatest sections. I will do my best, but please bear with me here. Right, on with the story.
The death of Stilicho lead to the rise of Olympius, a religious fanatic and incompetent. 6,000 troops pointlessly dispatched on an impossible mission to relieve Rome lay dead because he had no idea how to organise, run and use an army. The exclusion of heretics and pagans deprived the regime of the services of many people who might have been extremely useful. We can get some idea of just what a bad idea this was from the career of a barbarian general called Gennerid. He was a pagan and so was theoretically excluded from any post in the army. In fact, they were willing to make him a special case given how useful he could have been. But he was not prepared to work with the court if his fellow pagans were excluded.
Mercifully Olympius fell from favour fairly quickly and the slightly more pragmatic Jovius took his place. He tolerated heretics and pagans, which may well have garnered some extra support to the regime at Ravenna. It would be nice to think it was an outbreak of common sense, but it is just as likely to have been a move forced by the rapid deterioration in the position of Honorius, who was struggling to exert his authority.
Gennerid, the general whose paganism had stopped him serving before, now came on board and rapidly showed his worth by reviving the morale of the troops on the border in Pannonia and hiring 10,000 Huns. This was all solid and useful stuff, but Gennerid was wise to stay out of Ravenna while he was doing it. Another court revolution took place which lead to the deaths of a couple of generals. The crisis continued with the instability at the top making things worse.
Alaric meanwhile was working intelligently and methodically. He attacked the food stores at Ostia on which the city of Rome depended for its food supplies. Ostia was the port at the mouth of the river Tiber custom built by Augustus. It was an impressive enough town in its own right, and also had extensive warehousing and canals built to keep the grain flowing from the empire to its capital. It was a key resource enabling Rome to exist with a population much larger than Italy itself would have been able to support. With all this infrastructure in the hands of Alaric, the city faced starvation.
The Romans had no options. They quickly came to an arrangement. A prominent citizen called Attalus was appointed as emperor. Attalus was blatantly a tool in the hands of Alaric, and the gates were opened to the Goths. Alaric was appointed as the chief of Roman military forces. A small party of troops was sent to secure Africa for the new emperor. The Gothic army now marched on Ravenna and demanded a settlement. The initial terms were moderate under the circumstances – a mutual recognition of the two emperors and a division of the provinces between them. Ravenna rejected this. This could have been courageous, but given their track record they probably simply didn’t understand how bad their position was. Attalus raised the stakes and offered Honorius his life in return for resignation. Another blow was struck to the position of Honorius when Jovius joined up with Alaric. With even his chief minister deserting Honorius, it looked very much like Alaric had pulled off a successful coup.
Honorius prepared to flee to Constantinople. Had he done so, he would have effectively conceded the Western Empire to Attalus, which in practice would have made Alaric its effective commander. But the situation changed rather surprisingly.
Some troops turned up in Ravenna. Only about 4,000 but enough to make a respectable defence. Africa under Count Heraclion resisted Attalus and sent a large sum of money through to Honorius. Grain shipments to Rome were halted. Suddenly Alaric’s control of Rome became precarious, and in fact he now faced the prospect of having responsibility for a starving city. He returned to the negotiating table and to help reach an agreement Attalus was dismissed. Negotiations were strained. Honorius seems to have harboured a grudge against Alaric. But even so agreement was close to being reached when Alaric’s forces were attacked by other Gothic warriors under the control of Sarus. This is usually portrayed as a tribal feud between different branches of the Goths. This seems to me to be a bit patronising, and I think it was more likely that Sarus saw Alaric as a direct rival. Either way, it was humiliating for the Romans’ fate to be dependent on internal politics amongst the barbarians. Previously they had exploited this kind of thing in their own interests.
Alaric broke off the fruitless negotiations and again laid siege to Rome. At least it is described as the third siege of Rome, but that probably reflects the strange human fondness for the number three. The city was hardly defended and when he arrived slaves opened the gates to him. The city was given up without a fight. The contrast with the time of Aurelian, 140 years before, is painful. At that time, the emperor was with his people in the city and made clear that whatever happened, he was there trying to avoid the worst. With the hopeless Honorius safe in Ravenna the Romans were on their own.
The Goths spent 6 days in Rome. They were rapacious but not especially murderous. The focus of their activity was stealing stuff. Only one senator was killed. Few public buildings were destroyed. But economically it was ruinous. Many lost their entire fortune. Refugees filled the rest of the empire, often reduced to begging. In fact the Goths’ probably increased the impact of their victory by concentrating on theft rather than violence. It meant that there were a lot of eye witnesses to spread the stories of what had happened in Rome.
Alaric and his followers loaded up their loot and marched to the south, destroying anything in their path.
Italy had been peaceful for centuries. It offered many opportunities for further plunder. The Goths must have enjoyed themselves. The climate of southern Italy is much nicer than that of Germany, and it offered all the benefits of civilisation. It must have seemed like a good policy to aim to take it over rather than simply ransack it. That certainly seemed to be what was on the mind of Alaric. He next looked at Sicily. This would have provided a good staging post for an attack on Africa, the control of which would give him the control of the city of Rome. Here the Goths met the first effective opposition, but it came from the weather rather than the Romans. The fleet they constructed to carry them across the narrow strip of sea to Sicily was destroyed by a storm. This would only have been a temporary setback, but the project was never completed due to the sudden death of Alaric.