When In Rome
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it also took three days to sack. The Visigoths ended their rampage on this day in 410.
At the time, Rome was little more than a very rich mausoleum. The Eastern–more stable–half of the Roman Empire was ruled from Constantinople. The Western, reeling half was now tenuously ruled from Ravenna. The Roman Empire had dispensed with Rome. Nonetheless, the former capital contained the accumulated treasures of Rome’s past glories, and the Visigoths wanted to pay their respects.
But where was the Roman army to prevent the barbarian rampage? Well, the barbarian horde was the Roman army–although flagrantly A.W.O.L. For some 20 years, the Visigoths had served the Empire fighting other barbarians, but it had not been the most gratifying experience. Under Roman command, they found themselves expendable and unappreciated–the heaviest casualties but the last to be paid. So the Visigoths decided that being Rome’s enemy would be more fulfilling and lucrative.
Led by Alaric, the Visigoths rampaged through Greece, the Balkans and then Italy. Of course, Rome was part of the itinerary, and there really was nothing to stop them. Yet, the old capital was surrounded by stout walls and should have withstood the barbarian attack. The Visigoths actually lacked the manpower to completely surround and besiege Rome; they only managed to blockade Rome’s gates. They also lacked the siege equipment to breach Rome’s walls. Yet, those walls did lack the real deterrent: anyone to man them. The Romans now were so craven that treachery prevailed. Someone opened a gate to the Visigoths. There was some Roman resistance; it lasted a day.
The Visigoths sacked the city: looting and rape were wholesale, and the slaughter–more limited–but still an enthusiastic demonstration of long-held grudges. Yet, the Visigoths did adhere to one restraint. They were Christian–albeit Arians who confused Jesus with Thor–and so spared the churches, which only recently had confiscated the wealth of the Pagan temples. Nonetheless, there still were government buildings and palaces to loot, and citizens to rob. The Visigoths also qualified as liberals; they freed slaves–a considerable segment of the Roman society.
Alaric died soon after sacking Rome. Let’s face it, his life would have been anticlimactic after that. He was succeeded by his kinsman Ataulf (yep, that’s the fifth century form of Adolf) who led the Visigoths into Spain, which they conquered and ruled until the Moors dropped by. There are some traces of the Visigothic presence in Spain today. Juan Carlos certainly is one; the family tree has Visigothic roots. And there is a region of Spain originally named Gothalonia; the Spanish now mispronounce it as Catalonia.
And in 455, the Vandals sacked Rome. They refrained from rape and slaughter, but they did rob the Churches. So, Visigoth or Vandal: guess who has the worse reputation?