The death of Attila was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by most of the courts of Europe. It must have been like having a troublesome neighbour finally move away. But in Carthage there was one man who was sad to see him go. His alliance with Attila had been Genseric’s trump card which had prevented the long overdue reassertion of the empire’s authority over the fertile strip of northern Africa that the Vandals and their Alan allies had wrested from them.
Chalons was hardly a victory in the tradition of Rome. When you look at the Roman victory over the Dacians portrayed on Trajan’s Column you see a large professional organisation using technology to wipe out a brave but outmatched enemy. They display tactics, well drilled formations and sophisticated logistics. It is clear that the Romans are more advanced than the people they are fighting against. Three hundred years later we are in a world of tribal battles with both sides indistinguishable from each other. Individual feats of arms are important – so Thorismund the son of Theodoric becomes a hero by dint of his bravery. Men are inspired to great deeds by orations and martial music. Omens are sought and used to influence morale. It wasn’t really a Roman victory in anything other than name and certainly did not herald any kind of rebirth of Roman power in the west.
The Byzantine court during the reign of the ineffectual Arcadius in the late fourth century was run by two men. The emperor’s favourite at court was the corrupt and worldly Eutropius who ran the civil administration of the empire largely for his own benefit. The army was run by the Goth Gainas.
I am working my way through an extended review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I have reached the point at which we can start thinking of this as being a history of the Byzantine Empire. The term Byzantine to describe the Eastern Roman empire wasn’t commonly used in Gibbon’s time, though he uses that adjective often enough. It is often said that Gibbon disliked and disparaged the Byzantines, and it is from the start of Chapter 32 that the quote most often used to justify this idea comes.
In fact it is the first sentence.
Alaric died suddenly after a short fever. He was somewhere around forty years old. For all his urbane sophistication and his desire to become a Roman, he was given a truly barbarian funeral. The course of the river Busento was diverted and his body buried under its bed. Then the river was restored to its normal course and the captives who had worked on it were killed. The location of his body has remained a secret ever since. The secret of what exactly he was doing in southern Italy has remained just as obscure. Gibbon assumes that his interest in Sicily was as a stepping stone to Africa. Africa fed Rome, so if he wanted to control one he had to control the other. Maybe this marks his ambition to become in effect the ruler of the Roman world. Or maybe his reasoning was that Africa represented a defendable home for his people with the resources that they needed.
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.
Before describing the sack of the city Gibbon treats us to a portrait of the city that is about to be destroyed.
Surviving documents enabled Gibbon to paint a very full and revealing picture of just what Rome was like in the reign of Theodosius, just before the final collapse of the western empire. We have just ploughed through thirty chapters largely composed of one military disaster after another accompanied with a relentless increase in authoritarian government, religious intolerance and the rise of what was in effect a police state. So it is quite surprising to find that in Rome itself quite a lot of people were doing rather nicely, thank you.
My review of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has reached Chapter 31. If you have read the book you will recall that this is the chapter in which Rome is sacked, but the story has some involved twists and turns. It will take some hard podcasting before we get there, so let’s get started.
Here is quick recap of where the pieces are on the chess board.
The troubles in Italy and Gaul left Britain isolated. Its imperial forces had been withdrawn leaving low level garrisons to defend it from the depredations of the Picts and the seaborne Saxons. Being right at the bottom of the imperial todo list created a power vacuum in the province. There was a long tradition in Britain of providing usurpers to the throne, so it was sort of inevitable that a pretender to the purple should emerge.
While the invasion by Alaric threw Italy into a crisis, Germany was in turmoil. There was increasing pressure from the Huns in the East – Gibbon traces its origin all the way back to China, which is probably fanciful but I suppose isn’t impossible. From this emerged a new barbarian leader who rapidly became an enemy of Rome. Alaric was a Christian who understood the empire intimately. In contrast the new leader was an out and out barbarian. His name was Radagaisus and he was not just a pagan, but a sincere one who regularly sacrificed to his gods. He treated the civilised world with contempt rather than envy. It was widely believed that he had taken a vow to reduce the city of Rome to rubble and to sacrifice the senators to his heavenly supporters.