Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Downfall of Rome

Theodosius, the great and noble emperor who succeeded Valens, pacified and made quiet subjects of the Goths. He died in 395, and before the year ended the Gothic nation was again in arms. At the first sound of the trumpet the warriors, who had been forced to a life of labor, deserted their fields and flocked to the standards of war. The barriers of the empire were down. Across the frozen surface of the Danube flocked savage tribesmen from the northern forests, and joined the Gothic hosts. Under the leadership of an able commander, the famous Alaric, the barbarians swept from their fields and poured downward upon Greece, in search of an easier road to fortune than the toilsome one of industry.

Many centuries had passed since the Persians invaded Greece, and the men of Marathon and Thermopylæ were no more. Men had been posted to defend the world-famous pass, but, instead of fighting to the death, like Leonidas and his Spartans of old, they retired without a blow, and left Greece to the mercy of the Goth.

Instantly a deluge of barbarians spread right and left, and the whole country was ravaged. Thebes alone resisted. Athens admitted Alaric within its gates, and saved itself by giving the barbarian chief a bath and a banquet. The other famous cities had lost their walls, and Corinth, Argos, and Sparta yielded without defence to the Goths. The wealth of the cities and the produce of the country were ravaged without stint, villages and towns were committed to the flames, thousands of the inhabitants were borne off to slavery, and for years afterwards the track of the Goths could be traced in ruin throughout the land.

By a fortunate chance Rome possessed at that epoch a great general, the famous Stilicho, whose military genius has rarely been surpassed. He had before him a mighty task, the forcing back of the high tide of barbarian overflow, but he did it well while he lived. His death brought ruin on Rome. Stilicho hastened to Greece and quickly drove the Goths from the Peloponnesus. But jealousy between Constantinople and Rome tied his hands, he was recalled to Italy, and the weak emperor of the East rewarded the Gothic general for his destructive raid by making him master-general of Illyricum.

Alaric, fired by ambition, used his new power in forcing the cities of his dominion to supply the Goths with the weapons of war. Then, Greece and the country to the north having been devastated, he turned his arms against Italy, and about 400 A.D. appeared at the foot of the Julian Alps, the first invader who had threatened Italy since the days of Hannibal, six hundred years before.

There were at that time two rulers of the Roman empire,—Arcadius, emperor of the East, and Honorius, emperor of the West. The latter, a coward himself, had a brave man to command his armies,—Stilicho, who had driven the Goths from Greece. But Italy, though it had a general, was destitute of an army. To meet the invading foe, Stilicho was forced to empty the forts on the Rhine, and even to send to England for the legion that guarded the Caledonian wall. With the army thus raised he met the Gothic host at Pollentia, and defeated them with frightful slaughter, recovering from their camp many of the spoils of Greece. Another battle was fought at Verona, and the Goths were again defeated. They were now forced to retire from Italy, Stilicho and the emperor entered Rome, and that capital saw its last great triumph, and gloried in a revival of its magnificent ancient games.

In these games the cruel combat of gladiators was shown for the last time to the blood-thirsty populace of Rome. The edict of Constantine had failed to stop these frightful sports. The appeal of a Christian poet was equally without effect. A more decisive action was necessary, and it came. In the midst of these bloody contests an Asiatic monk, named Telemachus, rushed into the arena and attempted to separate the gladiators. He paid for his rashness with his life, being stoned to death by the furious spectators, with whose pleasure he had dared to interfere. But his death had its effect. The fury of the people was followed by shame. Telemachus was looked upon as a martyr, and the gladiatorial shows came to an end, the emperor abolishing forever the spectacle of human slaughter and human cruelty in the amphitheatre of Rome.

Rome triumphed too soon. Its ovation to victory was the expiring gleam in its long career of glory and dominion. Its downfall was at hand. Fight as it might in Italy, the gateways of the empire lay open in the north, and through them still poured barbarian hordes. The myriads of the Huns, rushing in a devouring wave from the borders of China, made a mighty stir in the forest region of the Baltic and the Danube. In the year 406 a vast host of Germans, known by the names of Vandals, Burgundians, and Suevi, under a leader named Rhodogast, or Radagaisus, crossed the Danube and made its way unopposed to Italy. Multitudes of Goths joined them, till the army numbered not less than two hundred thousand fighting men.

As the flood of barbarians rushed southward through Italy, many cities were pillaged or destroyed, and the city of Florence sustained its first recorded siege. Alaric and his Goths were Christians. Radagaisus and his Germans were half savage pagans. Florence, which had dared oppose them, was threatened with utter ruin. It was to be reduced to stones and ashes, and its noblest senators were to be sacrificed on the altars of the German gods. The Florentines, thus threatened, fought bravely, but they were reduced to the last extremity before deliverance came.

Stilicho had not been idle during this destructive raid. By calling troops from the frontiers, by arming slaves, and by enlisting barbarian allies, he was at length able to take the field. He led the last  army of Rome, and dared not expose it to the wild valor of the savage foe. On the contrary, he surrounded their camp with strong lines which defied their efforts to break through, and waited till starvation should force them to surrender.

Florence was relieved. The besiegers were in their turn besieged. Their bravest warriors were slain in efforts to break the Roman lines. Radagaisus surrendered to Stilicho, and was instantly executed. Such of his followers as had not been swept away by famine and disease were sold as slaves. The great host disappeared, and Stilicho a second time won the proud title of Deliverer of Italy.

But the whole army of Radagaisus was not destroyed. Half of it had remained in the north. These were forced by Stilicho to retreat from Italy. But Gaul lay open to their fury. That great and rich section of the empire was invaded and frightfully ravaged, and its conquerors never afterwards left its fertile fields. The empire of Rome ceased to exist in the countries beyond the Alps, those great regions which had been won by the arms of Marius and Cæsar.

And now the time had come for Rome to destroy itself. The mind of the emperor was poisoned against Stilicho, the sole remaining bulwark of his power. He had sought to tie the hands of Alaric with gifts of power and gold, and was accused of treason by his enemies. The weak Honorius gave way, and Stilicho was slain. His friends shared his fate, and the cowardly imbecile who ruled Rome cut down the only safeguard of his throne.

The result was what might have been foreseen. In a few months after the death of Stilicho, Alaric was again in Italy, exasperated by the bad faith of the court, which had promised and not performed. There was no army and no general to meet him. City after city was pillaged. Avoiding the strong walls of Ravenna, behind which the emperor lay secure, he marched on Rome, led his army under the stately arches, adorned with the spoils of countless victories, and pitched his tents beneath the walls of the imperial city.

Six hundred and nineteen years had passed since a foreign foe had gazed upon those proud walls, within which lay the richest and most splendid city of the world, peopled by a population of more than a million souls. But Rome was no longer the city which had defied the hosts of Hannibal, and had sold at auction, for a fair price, the very ground on which the great Carthaginian had pitched his tent. Alaric was not a Hannibal, but much less were the Romans of his day the Romans of the past.

Instead of striking for the honor of Rome, they lay and starved within their walls until thousands had died in houses and streets. No army came to their relief, and in despair the senate sent delegates to treat with the king of the Goths.

"We are resolved to maintain the dignity of Rome, either in peace or war," said the envoys, with a show of pride and valor. "If you will not yield us honorable terms, you may sound your trumpets and prepare to fight with myriads of men used to arms and with the courage of despair."

"The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed," answered Alaric, with a loud and insulting laugh.

He then named the terms on which he would retreat,—all  the gold and silver in the city; all  the rich and precious movables; all  the slaves who were of barbarian origin.

"If such are your demands," asked the envoys, now reduced to suppliant tones, "what do you intend to leave us?"

"Your lives," said Alaric, in haughty tones. The envoys retired, trembling with fear.

But Alaric moderated his demands, and was bought off by the payment of five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, four thousand robes of silk, three thousand pieces of scarlet cloth, and three thousand pounds of pepper, then a costly and favorite spice. The gates were opened, the hungry multitude was fed, and the Gothic army marched away, but it left Rome poor.

What followed is too long to tell. Alaric treated for peace with the ministers of the emperor. But he met with such bad faith and so many insults that exasperation overcame all his desire for peace, and once more the army of the Goths marched upon Rome.

The crime and folly of the court of Honorius at Ravenna had at last brought about the ruin of the imperial city. The senate resolved on defence; but there were traitors within the walls. At midnight the Salarian Gate was silently opened, and a chosen band of barbarians entered the streets. The tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet aroused the sleeping citizens to the fact that all was lost. Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, and eight hundred years after its capture by the Gauls, it had again become the prey of barbarians, and the imperial mistress of the world was delivered to the fury of the German and Gothic hordes.

Alaric, while permitting his followers to plunder at discretion, bade them to spare the lives of the unresisting; but thousands of Romans were slain, and the forty thousand slaves who had joined his ranks revenged themselves on their former masters with pitiless rage. Conflagration added to the horrors, and fire spread far over the captured city. The Goths held Rome only for six days, but in that time depleted it frightfully of its wealth. The costly furniture, the massive plate, the robes of silk and purple, were piled without stint into their wagons, and numerous works of art were wantonly destroyed.

But Alaric and many of, his followers were Christians, and the treasures of the Church escaped. A Christian Goth broke into the dwelling of an aged woman, and demanded all the gold and silver she possessed. To his astonishment, she showed him a hoard of massive plate, of the most curious workmanship. As he looked at it with wonder and delight, she solemnly said,—

"These are the consecrated vessels belonging to St Peter. If you presume to touch them, your conscience must answer for the sacrilege. For me, I dare not keep what I am not able to defend,"

The Goth, struck with awe by her words, sent word to Alaric of what he had found, and received an order that all this consecrated treasure should be transported without damage to St, Peter's Church. A remarkable spectacle, never before seen in a captured city, followed. From the Quirinal Hill to the distant Vatican marched a long train of devout Goths, bearing on their heads the sacred vessels of gold and silver, and guarded on each side by a detachment of their armed companions, while the martial shouts of the barbarians mingled with the hymns of devotees. A crowd of Christians flocked from the houses to join the procession, and through its sheltering aid to a multitude of the fugitives escaped to the secure retreat of the Vatican.

Not satisfied with plundering the city, the conquerors ended by selling its citizens, save those who could ransom themselves, for slaves. Many of these were redeemed by the benevolent, but as a result of the taking of Rome hosts of indigent fugitives were scattered through the empire, from Italy to Syria.

From this time forward the Western Empire of Rome was the prey of barbarians. In 451 the Huns under Attila invaded Gaul, besieged Orleans, and were defeated at Châlons in the last great victory of Rome. In the following year Attila invaded Italy, and Rome was only saved form the worst of horrors by a large ransom. Three years afterwards, in 455, an army of Vandals, who had invaded Africa, sailed to Italy, and Rome again was again taken and sacked. For fourteen days and nights the pillage continued, and when it ended Rome was stripped bare of treasure; the Christian churches, which had been spared by the Goths, being mercilessly plundered by these heathen conquerors.

A few years more and the Western Empire of Rome came to an end. In the year 476 or 479, Augustulus, the last emperor, was forced to resign, and Odoacer, a barbarian chief, assumed the title of King of Italy. As for the Eastern Empire, it maintained a half-life for nearly a thousand years after, Constantinople being finally taken by the Turks, and made the capital of Turkey, in 1453.