sackers of Rome

I’ve been watching lots of videos lately about ancient history, especially about the sack of Rome. Yes it’s a kick; I want to share it.

There were several sackings of Rome in the early 400s AD, performed by Visigoths and later by Vandals, among others.

Well of course these things are more complicated than the story that’s usually presented, which runs: Rome got corrupt and lazy, so bloodthirsty pagan Germans with horned hats swept down from the North and pillaged and burned and killed everything and everyone that was good, and that was the end of Rome.  But little of this story is even remotely accurate.

They were Germanic peoples all right, Goths and Vandals, but they didn’t sweep down. The Visigoths were a group of people speaking a Gothic (germanic) language, who had been pushed West from what is now the region of Bulgaria. How they got to Bulgaria is a matter of some speculation, but one story is they had migrated down from somewhere around Denmark, hundreds of years before. Why—nobody knows. But at this time, they were being pushed by the Huns, who themselves were on the move West.

The interactions of these peoples with the Romans are very well documented, because the Romans wrote like crazy and somehow a lot of that writing was preserved.

Rome itself by this time wasn’t what it had been — there was corruption for sure, but corruption was always part and parcel with Rome. The Empire had been split in two in the previous century, with most of the money going to Constantinople, along with everybody who was anybody. The emperor of Rome in the early 400s, Honarius, was put on the throne at the age of ten by his dad, who was the emperor in Constantinople. He was utterly inept and contemptible, both by descriptions of his time and in modern evaluations. So there’s your corruption. Both Roman empires had turned to hiring mercenary armies to fight their battles. (Earlier Romans would have regarded this as the worst corruption, of course.) These armies included Visigoths and Vandals.

The old Roman religions were in decline: Christianity had the generation before become the official religion of the empire, by the edict of emperor Constantine. The old Roman practices, as well as those of many other religions, were still tolerated in Rome. Visigoths had for generations been in the employ of the Roman empire, as soldiers, workers, slaves. Tens of thousands lived in and around the empire, many thought of themselves as Romans. Some had even risen to high positions. Everybody wanted to be a Roman.

The Visigoths didn’t come in to burn the place at all. A Visigoth army had been hired to fight in a battle for Rome, and they lost ten thousand men in it — they had been used as sword-fodder. They won, but the Eastern emperor wouldn’t grant their king Alaric the administrative position and wealth he expected in return. Alaric and his men meant to get their pay and official status they thought they deserved.

The Visigoths were Christians. This important point is never depicted in the usual stories, for good reason. They were not what we now call Orthodox or Catholic. They were followers of a preacher named Arius, whose doctrine was different enough from the others to cause trouble. Shortly after Constantine had made Christianity legal in the empire, the church had declared Arian christianity heretical.

So Alaric tried to attack the Eastern empire, but was turned back by one of his own, a Roman general named Stilicho, himself from a Visigoth family.

Stilicho was the one general who successfully contained the Visigoths on several occasions. He regarded himself as a faithful Roman, and had been appointed Honarius’ mentor. He probably could have stopped the Visigoths, but the emperors were simply incapable of grasping the situation, and they stopped him instead.

A few years later Alaric led the Visigoths to attack the Western Empire. They wanted money. They marched through Greece, always giving the choice of money or sacking. Most towns got sacked. That just meant robbed — not burnt or destroyed. Alaric gave specific orders not to kill townspeople who did not resist. He was after all a Christian.

The Visigoths then moved into Italy in several campaigns. After the first campaign, the emperor moved from Rome to Ravenna, which was better defended — the emperor was himself never in direct danger from the invaders. Alaric offered to desist in return for a large amount of gold. The empire, by Stilicho’s advice, at first agreed, but then changed their minds. (The empire repeatedly broke treaties and promises made with the Visigoths.)The western Roman court and population became violently anti-Gothic. Honarius had his childhood mentor Stilicho, the only general who could possibly defend Rome, assassinated, along with his family. Thousands of ethnically Gothic families, including those of their own remaining Visigoth soldiers, were slaughtered. Naturally, the Roman Visigoth soldiers defected en masse to Alaric. Besides being nasty, this was utter stupidity tactically — the emperor could have prevented it, but instead he took part in it.

Alaric entered Rome without much resistance several times, and took most everything they had — but he mostly spared their lives. Writers at the time remarked on this: compared to how the Romans usually dealt with peoples they had conquered, the Visigoths were very nice.

Alaric didn’t live long after. He got the money, but never the titles he wanted. Later the Visigoths were granted land in the far Western Roman Empire, around what is now Toulouse, surrounded by the kingdoms various other Germanic tribes.

One of the other tribes was the Vandals. Even less is known of their culture or history. But they too had come through the East, from around Poland, around the same time as the Visigoths for probably similar reasons, and that they too were Arian Christians. They had moved into what is now France and later into Spain. (The name of the region Andalusia comes from the Arabic term "Wandal" for these people).

The Vandals got to Rome not from the North, but from Africa.

North Africa at the time was very fertile, a Roman colony providing most of the grain for both empires. They too had disputes with various surrounding peoples, and were getting insufficient help from the empires. So the North African governor invited the Vandals from Spain to come and fight their enemies. The Vandals accepted, and the whole population, some hundred thousand, pulled up roots, sailed to northern Africa and started to march across it. Then the governor announced he didn’t need them any more. The Vandals were displeased. So they proceeded East across North Africa, conquering the whole place for themselves.

The Vandals were maybe not so nice as the Visigoths. Particularly, they disapproved of paganism (because they were Christians) and of the emerging Catholicism (because they were a different kind of Christian). So they were rough on the priests in Africa — but many Christians in North Africa were of their own brand (Arius having been a preacher in Alexandria in Egypt), and the Vandals were welcomed by them as liberators.

The Eastern Roman Emperor sent a big fleet to attack the Vandals in Africa, but the Vandal king Genseric beat them (in a tricky way—check it out). He then decided to attack Rome. There was little resistance; there was little left to steal. But Romans still had adherents to the old Roman religion and to the emerging Catholicism, and the Arian Vandals disapproved of both. They destroyed temples of both kinds, and killed priests.

These are the Vandals that gave us the word ‘vandalism’, for mindless destruction. But the real Vandals weren’t bent on destruction generally: they did it because of their religion, because they were a certain brand of Christian. They are remembered as destroyers not because they destroyed a lot, but because they destroyed Catholic things. The Catholics ultimately prevailed — we got the story of the Vandals through the victors. (Ding!)

The Vandals didn’t fare well after Genseric died. The Eastern empire finally conquered them. The other Christian branches had already branded Arian teachings as heretical. Over the next few centuries all the Arian adherents either converted or were wiped out, along with obvious traces of Vandal and Gothic culture. But maybe more significantly, I think, these people themselves wanted to be Romans — even though Rome was in decline, even though it wasn’t their heritage exactly — Roman was the thing to be, and Latin was the language to speak. After just a few generations nobody even remembered being or speaking anything else.

Their legacy is in the forms of some place names, a Germanic genetic influence in North Africa, Spain and Italy, and a good story no matter who tells it. But I think many of them would be disappointed that they aren’t remembered as great Romans.

P.S. And there weren’t any horned helmets, not among the Goths nor the Vandals nor the Vikings later. Many Visigoth helmets have been found, nary a one with horns. The Roman writers didn’t mention any horns. Horns are a stupid idea on a helmet, whose purpose is to deflect a sword. The horned helmet was a romantic invention of the 19th century — it was unheard of before.

Rome, which at its height had over a million inhabitants, had already lost a large fraction of them by the time of these sackings.  But by 500 AD or so, it was depopulated, and stayed that way for nearly a thousand years.  Various people conquered what was left of Italy — the Eastern empire had other things to worry about.  A hundred years after Aleric’s sack, Ostrogoths cut off the Roman viaducts, making it impossible for large populations to live there, and then the Lombards (another germanic tribe) took over northern Italy, including Ravenna where the Western emperors had been residing — this cut Italy completely off from the Eastern empire.  The Lombards remained in power for a couple hundred years (hence the Italian province of Lombardy), until Charlemagne took most of Italy in 774.  This was hailed as a Christian re-conquering, but Charlemagne was a Frank — another germanic tribe.  (He was just on better terms with the Pope.)  And a few hundred years later, around 1100, Normans (Vikings essentially) took Sicily and much of Southern Italy from the remaining Lombard hands.  And then, just when Italians thought it couldn’t get any worse, they were wrong: the plague.  But after a couple hundred years of even worse, came the Renaissance!  And with the Renaissance came new wealth, and with wealth came incessant wars between Italian cities, and repeated invasions by the French, and then by the Turks (the first invaders who weren’t of germanic origin).  In the late 1700s, Napoleon (who himself was not known to be of german heritage).

Everybody wanted to be a Roman, but for the Romans, life was tough.

P.P.S: Another historical inaccuracy that is ingrained into Western culture is the idea that Rome was a powerful state all this time. It was not.

Rome had some religious influence in Western Europe, but any power came only from the various Germanic states (primarily, Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom) that cooperated with it. The military and economic power of the time belonged only to the Byzantine empire in Constantinople, who simply allowed the Western church to continue.

Rome’s big break came at the expense of Constantinople, which was sacked in 1204 by the side-tracked Fourth Crusade (whose commanders consisted mostly of Catholic Franks), at the behest of their Venetian backers. Everything of value in the city was … relocated … throughout Europe, but mostly to Venice and Rome. Most of the citizens were forced to move out of the city — many moved to Rome.

This was basically the end of the Byzantine empire, and the beginning of the ascendancy of the Roman Catholic church.

It was also one of the primary factors that gave rise to the Renaissance, a cultural re-potting that flowered vigorously.

Y.A.P.S: In the Acropolis Museum of Athens, I was again reminded of Aleric. His people were some of the first despoilers of the Parthenon, after their sack of Athens. Again, it wasn’t just hatred of culture or beauty that drove them: it was religious zeal. They didn’t like the pictures of pagan gods that decorated the Parthenon, and went about rectifying the situation. They weren’t very persistent though, so there are still some bits to look at, and there was still enough for others later pilliage pilfer or explode.