John Bagnell Bury's

The Invasion of Europe
by the Barbarians

Lecture 6

The Visigoths in Italy and Gaul

The Sack of Rome—Death of Alaric—Ataulf and Galla Placidia—Wallia and the Settlement in Gaul


The Sack of Rome

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 proffered terms, but took no measures for defending Italy against the menace of a Gothic invasion.

[92] I will not enter into a detailed narrative of the events of the two following years, 408-410—the three sieges of Rome by the Goths, the intrigues of the Roman ministers, the elevation and discrownment of Alaric's Emperor Attalus. I will only emphasise the points which bear upon the purpose and policy of Alaric. He still 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.

Alaric acted promptly. In the early autumn of A.D. 408 he 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 well founded. The Senate was helpless and stricken with fear. The Visigothic host hindered provisions from coming up the Tiber from Portus, [93] 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 pagan senators of Rome attributed the cruel disaster which had come upon them to the wrath of the gods at the abandonment of the old religion. The blockade, continued a few days longer, would force them to accept Alaric's cruel terms. The only hope lay in reconciling the angry deities, if perchance they might save the city. Encouraging news arrived at this mpment that in the Umbrian town of Narnia, to which Alaric had laid siege on his march, sacrifices had been performed, and that miraculous fire and thunder had frightened the Goths into abandoning the siege. The general opinion was that the same means should be tried at Rome. The prefect of the city, Pompeianus, thought it well that the Christians should [94] share in the responsibility for such a violation of the laws, and he laid the matter before the Pope, Innocent I. The Pope is said to have "considered the safety of the city more important than his own opinion", and to have consented to the secret performance of the necessary rites. But the priests said that the rites would not avail unless they were celebrated publicly on the Capitol in the presence of the Senate, and in the Forum. Then the half-heartedness of the Roman pagans of that day was revealed. No one could be found with the courage to perform the ceremonies in public.

After this futile interlude, nothing remained but, in a chastened and humble spirit, to send another embassy to Alaric and seek to move his compassion. After prolonged negotiations he granted tolerable terms. He would depart, without entering the city, on receiving 5000 pounds of gold (about 225,000), 30,000 of silver, 4000 silk tunics, 3000 scarlet-dyed skins, and 3000 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 [95] 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 at Ariminum, he had a personal interview with Honorius a few miles [96] from Ravenna (July A.D. 410). At this juncture the Visigoth Saras 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. [97] A rich booty and numerous captives, among whom was the Emperor's sister, Galla Placidia, were taken.

Death of Alaric

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.

The interest of Alaric's career perhaps consists in this: he belongs to the same class of leaders as those forgotten chieftains who led the Goths from the shores of the Baltic to the shores of the Euxine, and then to Dacia. The migration which he heads is through [98] the provinces of the Empire; we can follow his folk and their wagons, in the full light of day; and the anomaly of seeing within the lands of civilisation a movement such as we associate with the wilds and forests of Central Europe has lent a particular fascination to the career of Alaric. He was a Christian, he had held office in the imperial service; but we feel that he ought to have been a pagan, and that he was unsuited for posts in the Roman army. He was more competent perhaps to lead a migration than to found a settlement; and he was unequal to coping with the circumstances in which he was placed, though they were exceptionally favourable. He belonged in temper and capacity to an older order of things; he was born out of his due time; but though he failed in his undertaking, he drew upon himself the regard of the whole world.

Ataulf and Galla Placida

In his Italian expedition Alaric had been assisted and supported by his brother-in-law, Ataulf. The Goths elected him their king on Alaric's death, and on him it devolved to find an expedient to deliver his fold from the impasse into which Alaric had led them. The new king was different from the old in character and ideas. He at first had less reverence for Roman civilisation than Alaric; he was more devoted to the ways and manners of his own people. But he changed. We are fortunate enough to possess a remarkable testimony as to his ideals. It is preserved by Orosius, a Spaniard, who was a contemporary and who completed his work Against the Pagans about 418; and Orosius derived it directly from a citizen of Narbo [99] Martius who had been on terms of intimacy with the Gothic king. This person heard Ataulf say that at one time he had aspired to abolish the Roman name, to turn Romania into Gothia, to make himself a Gothic Emperor. But experience taught him that the Goths were by themselves too lawless and unteachable to be the successors of the Romans, and so he changed his mind: he formed the idea of using Gothic vigour to restore the Roman name, and of being handed down to posterity as the restitutor orbis Romani. Thus from having been anti-Roman à outrance, and cherishing dreams which would not have tempted even Alaric, Ataulf became a convert to Rome.

Of his doings in Italy during the thirteen or fourteen months which elapsed between Alaric's death and the entry of Ataulf into Gaul we hear almost nothing. It is hardly probable that he visited Rome and plundered it again; but Etruria was laid waste by him.

Ataulf crossed the Alps early in A.D. 412, perhaps by the pass of Mont Genèvre, to play a leading part in the troubled politics of Gaul, taking with him his captive Galla Placidia and the deposed Emperor Attalus. The Goths were then involved for some time in hostile operations against a pretender named Jovinus in south-eastern Gaul; here they acted successfully in support of Honorius, and for a moment the authority of that Emperor was supreme in Gaul.

Ataulf then moved westward and established himself in Narbonensis and Aquitania. He took Narbonne, Toulouse, and Bordeaux, and determined to give himself a new status by allying himself in marriage to the Theodosian house. Negotiations with Ravenna were doubtless carried on during his military [100] operations, but he now persuaded Placidia, against the will of her brother, to give him her hand. The nuptials were celebrated in Roman form (in January, A.D. 414) at Narbonne, in the house of a leading citizen. We are told that, arrayed in Roman dress, Placidia sat in the place of honour, the Gothic king at her side, he too dressed as a Roman. We know all too little of the personality of this lady, who was to play a considerable part in history for thirty years. She was now perhaps in her twenty-sixth year, but she may have been younger. Her personal attractiveness is shown by the passion she inspired in Constantius, and the strength of her character by various incidents of her life—such as her defiance of her brother's wishes in uniting herself to the Goth—in which she displayed marked independence. She was in later years to become the ruler of the west.

The friendly advances which were now made to Honorius by the barbarian who had forced himself upon him as a brother-in-law were rejected. Ataulf then resorted to the policy of Alaric. He caused the old tyrant Attalus to be again invested with the purple. Constantius, the Master of Soldiers, went forth for a second time to Arles to suppress the usurper and settle accounts with the Goths. He prevented all ships from reaching the coast of Septimania, as the territory of Narbonensis was now commonly called. The Goths were thus deprived of the provisions which reached Narbonne by sea, and their position became difficult. Ataulf led them southward to Barcelona, probably hoping to establish himself in Tarraconensis (early in A.D. 415). But before they left Gaul, the Goths laid waste southern Aquitania and set Bordeaux on fire. Attalus was left behind [101] and abandoned to his fate, as he was no longer of any use to the Goths. Indeed his elevation had been a mistake. He had no adherents in Gaul, no money, no army, no one to support him except the barbarians themselves. He escaped from Gaul in a ship, but was captured and delivered alive to Constantius.

At Barcelona a son was born to Ataulf and Placidia. They named him Theodosius after his grandfather, and the philo-Roman feelings of Ataulf were confirmed. The death of the child soon after birth was a heavy blow: the body was buried, in a silver coffin, near the city. Ataulf did not long survive him. He was slain by the private vengeance of a servant (September A.D. 415).

Wallia and the Settlement in Gaul

After a short intervening reign Wallia was elected king; and Wallia is an important person in the history of the Visigoths, for it was he who succeeded in marking out the limits of their new kingdom in Gaul.

But in order to understand the position of Wallia and his people we must retrace nearly ten years and follow the fortunes of that torrent of barbarians which had poured into Gaul at the end of the year A.D. 406. You remember the names of the four peoples which participated in the invasion: the two Vandal peoples, the Asdings and the Silings, and their allies, the Sueves and the Alans. Crossing the Rhine near the point where the Main joins it, their first exploit was to plunder Mayence and massacre many of the inhabitants, who had sought refuge in a church. Then advancing through Germania Prima they entered Belgica, and following the road to Treves they sacked [102] and set fire to that imperial city. Still continuing their westward path, they crossed the Meuse and the Aisne, and wrought their will on Reims. From here they seem to have turned northward. Amiens, Arras, and Tournay were their prey: they reached Terouanne, not far from the sea, due east of Boulogne, but Boulogne itself they did not venture to attack. After this diversion to the north, they pursued their course of devastation southward, crossing the Seine and the Loire into Aquitania, up to the foot of the Pyrenees. Few towns could resist them. Toulouse was one of the few, and its successful defence is said to have been due to the energy of its bishop Exuperius.

Such, so far as we can conjecture from the evidence of our meagre sources, was the general course of this invasion, but we may be sure that the barbarians broke up into several hosts and followed a wide track, dividing among them the joys of plunder and destruction. Pious verse-writers of the time, who witnessed this visitation, painted the miseries of the helpless provinces vaguely and rhetorically, but perhaps truthfully enough, in order to point a moral: uno fumavit Gallia tota rogo. The terror of fire and sword was followed by the horror of hunger in a wasted land.

In eastern Gaul, too, some famous cities suffered grievously from German foes. But the calamities of Strassburg, Speier, and Worms were perhaps not the work of the Vandals and their associates. The Burgundians seem to have taken advantage of the crisis to push down the Main, and at the expense of the Alamanni to have occupied new territory astride [103] the Rhine. And it is probably these two peoples, especially the Alamanni dislodged from their homes, who were responsible for the havoc wrought in the province of Upper Germany.

The barbarians remained in Gaul for more than two years; then in 409 they crossed the Pyrenees and inundated Spain. I ought to observe that the Vandals, like the Visigoths, were Christians, of the Arian creed. They had embraced this religion while they lived on Roman soil in Pannonia, and, as their dialect seems to have been very close to that of the Goths, they were able to use the scriptures of Wulfilas. It is interesting to find it mentioned that they carried with them to Spain the Liber divinae legis and consulted it as an oracle.

Accordingly, when Ataulf led his Goths to the confines of Gaul and Spain, he found Spain overrun by barbarian strangers of whom some, viz. the Vandals, were closely akin to his own people. Thus in Spain and the immediately adjacent regions of Gaul there were (A.D. 413-415) no less than five politically distinct peoples—the Asding Vandals, the Siling Vandals, the Sueves, the Alans, and the Visigoths themselves—seeking to form settlements.

In A.D. 415, when on Ataulf's death Wallia came to the throne, the idea of the Goths seems to have been to occupy the eastern provinces of Spain. But there they found themselves met by the same difficulty which they had to face in Italy, viz. want of food. The land had been overrun by the other barbarians, and the Roman fleet blockaded the ports. Hereupon Wallia resumed Alaric's idea, to cross over to Africa and take possession of the Roman granary. His project met a similar fate. Ships which he sent in [104] advance to the opposite coast were destroyed by a storm, and, whether from superstitious fear or from want of transports, he relinquished his idea, and was perforce compelled to make terms with Constantius, who was near to the Pyrenees. He received a large supply of corn, and in return Galla Placidia, Ataulf s queen, who was still with the Goths, was restored to her brother Honorius. Wallia also undertook to render military service to the Empire by clearing Spain of the other barbarians.

These other barbarians had first of all devastated Spain far and wide, and had then settled down, with the intention of occupying permanently the various provinces. The Siling Vandals, under their king Fredbal, took Baetica in the south; the Alans, under their king Addac, made their abode in Lusitania, which corresponds roughly to Portugal; the Suevians, and the Asding Vandals, whose king was Gunderic, occupied the north-western province of Gallaecia north of the Douro. The eastern provinces of Tarraconensis and Carthaginiensis, though the western portions may have been seized, and though they were doubtless constantly harried by raids, did not pass under the power of the invaders.

Wallia began operations by attacking the Silings in Baetica. Before the end of the year he had captured their king by a ruse and sent him to the Emperor. The intruders in Spain were alarmed, and their one thought was to make peace with Honorius, and obtain by formal grant the lands which they had taken by violence. They all sent embassies to Ravenna. The obvious policy of the imperial government was to sow jealousy and hostility among them by receiving favourably the proposals of some and [105] rejecting those of others. The Asdings and the Suevians appear to have been successful in obtaining the recognition of Honorius as federates, while the Silings and Alans were told that their presence on Roman soil would not be tolerated. Their subjugation by Wallia was a task of about two years. The Silings would not yield, and they were virtually exterminated. The king of the Alans was slain, and the remnant of the people who escaped the sword of the Goths fled to Gallaecia and attached themselves to the fortunes of the Asding Vandals. Gunderic thus became"King of the Vandals and Alans", and the title was always retained by his successors.

After these successful campaigns the Visigoths were recompensed by receiving a permanent home. The imperial government decided that they should be settled in a Gallic, not a Spanish, province, and Constantius recalled Wallia from Spain to Gaul. A compact was made by which the whole rich province of Aquitania Secunda, extending from the Garonne to the Loire, with parts of the adjoining provinces (Narbonensis and Novempopulana), were granted to the Goths. The two great cities on the banks of the Garonne, Bordeaux and Toulouse, were handed over to Wallia. But Narbonne and the Mediterranean coast were reserved for the Empire. As federates, the Goths had no authority over the Roman provincials, who remained under the control of the imperial administration. And the Roman proprietors retained one-third of their lands; two-thirds were resigned to the Goths. Thus, from the point of view of the Empire, south-western Gaul remained an integral part of the realm; part of the land passed into the possession of federates who acknowledged the authority [106] of Honorius; the provincials obeyed, as before, the Emperor's laws and were governed by the Emperor's officials. From the Gothic point of view, a Gothic kingdom had been established in Aquitania, for the moment confined by restraints which it would be the task of the Goths to break through, and limited territorially by boundaries which it would be their policy to overpass. Not that at this time, or for long after, they thought of renouncing their relation to the Empire as federates, but they were soon to show that they would seize any favourable opportunity to increase their power and extend their borders.

Continue to Lecture 7

[Gaul, Spain, and Africa in Transition]

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