Fall of the Western Empire

400 to 476
Rome — versus — Visigoths, Huns, Vandals

Visigoths, 400-408 , Huns, 435-454
Vandals, 456-472 , End of the Empire, 472-500

The Western Empire did not fall due to a particular series of battles, against a specific enemy, but to the exhaustion of a century spent battling a host of enemies. The foremost enemies of the Western Empire were Germanic tribes including Visigoths in Spain, Vandals in Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy, Franks in France, and Saxons in Britain. A complete summary of the battles related to the rise of these kingdoms in the former territories of the Western Kingdom is given in other sections, whereas only those battles most directly related to the fall of the Western Empire in Italy are given here. The Huns were another important enemy of Rome, but unlike their German counterparts, they did not found a lasting kingdom in territory formerly under the dominion of the Western Empire. Several Hunnish battles are mentioned in this collection, but much Hun activity is better described as rampage than battle and detailed information of interest to historians is somewhat scanty.

By the fifth century, much of the power in the Western Empire was in the hands of generals rather than the Emperors. The most important of these, during the final years of the Western Empire, were Stilicho (395-408), who fought the Visigoths, Aetius (425-454), who fought the Huns, and Ricimer (456-472) who fought the Vandals. Two of these three were German by birth, and the third, Aetius, spent much time in his youth as a hostage in both the Visigoth and Hunnic Kingdoms. The armies they led were largely German and Aetius even used Hunnic mercenaries in several of his campaigns. The point of course, is that the final contests within the Roman Empire were not simply Roman against German, but something more complicated. They are more aptly described as wars between young, rising powers, and an established, but increasingly infirm power. And the older power did not so much lose battles as just wither away.

Stilicho, Alaric and the Visigoths : 400 to 408

The Visigoths, under Alaric, were the first Germans to invade Italy. For several years they were held at bay by Stilicho, a Vandal by birth who had risen to the leadership of the Western Empire. The Emperor himself was young, weak and jealous. When accusations were made against Stilicho, Honorius had him killed, and when the Visigoths returned to Italy there was no army to meet them. They sacked Rome, and then headed across the Alps, were they settled first in Southern France, and then eventually, in Spain. The Roman government recognized the Kingdom of the Visigoths in 418 when it requested their help in driving the Vandals out of Spain. By 450, the Visigoths were allies of Rome, particularly in their campaign against the Huns.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Verona (Alaric ) Romans victory
Fought June of 402 by Visigoths, under Alaric, and a Roman force led by Stilicho. Alaric was defeated and withdrew from Italy.
Battle of Pollentia (Alaric ) Romans victory
Fought March 29, 403, between the Goths, under Alaric, and the Romans, under Stilicho. Stilicho attacked the Gothic camp while they were celebrating the festival of Easter, and owing to the surprise, the charge of the Roman cavalry threw them into confusion. They were, however, soon rallied by Alaric, and the Romans driven off with heavy loss, but Stilicho advancing at the head of the legionaries, forced his way into the camp, and drove out the Goths with enormous slaughter. Alaric's wife was among the captives.
Siege of Florence (Alaric ) Romans victory
This city was besieged in 406, by the German invaders under Radagaisus, and was almost on the verge of starvation, when the approach of Stilicho at the head of a large Roman army, encouraged the defenders to further resistance. The besiegers, in fact, now became the besieged, for Stilicho surrounded their camp, and starved the Germans into surrender.
Siege of Rome (Fritigern ) Goths victory
The city was besieged in 408 by the Goths, under Alaric, and after being brought to the verge of starvation and losing many thousands from famine, the Romans capitulated, but retained their freedom on payment of a heavy ransom, whereupon Alaric retired northward in 409. In the course of the year, however, Alaric seized Ostia, the port of Rome, and summoned the city to surrender. In the absence of the Emperor Honorius, the populace forced the authorities to yield; and Alaric, after deposing Honorius, and bestowing the purple on Attains, withdrew his troops. In 410, during the month of August, Alaric for the third time appeared before the walls, and on the night of the 24th the Salarian gate was opened to the besiegers by some sympathisers within the city, and Rome was given over to pillage and massacre, in which thousands perished.

Short Biography
Stilicho Roman general who fought off the Visigoths before they overran Rome. Murdered by Emperor Honorius.
Alaric the Visigoth Chieftain who led the Visogoths into northern Italy, and then besieged and sacked Rome.

Story Links
Book Links
Roman and Gothic Spain  in  The Romance of Spanish History  by  John S.C. Abbott
Three Deadly Blows  in  Helmet and Spear  by  Alfred J. Church
Emperor's Penance  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Sieges of Rome  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Invasion of the Goths  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Alaric the Visigoth in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Breaking the Frontier  in  The Story of the Middle Ages  by  Samuel B. Harding
Wanderings of the West-Goths  in  The Story of the Middle Ages  by  Samuel B. Harding
Alaric the Bold  in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/soldiers/_back.html
Alaric the Goth  in  Barbarian and Noble  by  Marion Florence Lansing
Goths Cross the Danube  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris
Downfall of Rome  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris
Armies of the North  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge
Alaric the Visogoth Besieges Rome  in  European Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Aetius, Attila and the Huns : 435 to 454

Invasion of the Huns
The Huns were an Asiatic tribe that had descended on Eastern Europe in the late fourth century. Their invasion was a crisis for the Western Empire decades before their territory was actually invaded by Huns because it caused an enormous and sudden migration of German tribes into Roman territory. German tribes had lived on the border of the Roman empire for centuries, and most were fairly civilized; many in fact, were Christians. But in the early years of the fifth century, 406 in particular, massive waves of Germans, fleeing from the interior, crossed over the western borders and ran amok, and the empire was powerless to stop them. Many of the German tribes that did not flee from the Huns submitted to them, and transformed the Huns from a tribe of marauding bandits into a empire of rampaging hordes. It was during the reign of Attila, 434-453 that virtually all of the worst depredations occurred.

The Eastern Empire suffered first. Soon after the accession of Attila, the Eastern Empire made an ignoble treaty with the Huns. They agreed to return several tribes that had fled to Constantinople for protection, to pay a large ransom for captured Romans, and also to pay a large annual tribute, all in return for peace. When a new emperor reneged on the tribute payments in 441, Attila and his hordes laid waste to all of the Balkans and even besieged Constantinople. The Eastern army that was sent to meet them in battle was wiped out, and the Huns continued their depredations for four years. By 450 Attila had made up his mind to attack the Visigoths, and set off across Europe with his hordes of followers. They sacked every town in their path before being driven back across the Rhine by a combined Roman-Visogoth army, led by Aetius and Theodoric I at Chalons. After this, Attila invaded Italy, and would have sacked Rome if not for the intervention of Pope Leo. Attila then returned to his capital in Eastern Europe and died shortly thereafter. Instead of uniting under a single leader however, his sons fought for control of the empire, and the alliance of German tribes held together by Attila quickly dissolved. At the battle of Nedao, the Germans vassals defeated their overlords and overthrew the Hunnic Empire.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Utus (Hun Invasion ) Huns victory
This engagement was actually three battles: one on the banks of the Utus, another under the walls of Marcianopolis, and the third, near Chersonesus of Thrace; Although Attila suffered enormous losses, he annihilated the Eastern Army and acquired possession of the field. From the Hellespont to Thermopylae, and the suburbs of Constantinople, he ravaged, without resistance, and without mercy, the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia.
Battle of Châlons (Hun Invasion ) Romans-Goths victory
Fought 451 between the Romans and the Visigoths under Aetius and Theodoric respectively, and the Huns under Attila. The battle was fought on an open plain, and while the right and centre of the allies withstood Attila's onslaught, the Visigoths on the left made a furious charge, in which Theodoric fell, and totally routed the right of the Huns. Attila then withdrew to his camp, having suffered heavy loss, and prepared to resist the attack of the allies on the following day. Aetius, however, did not renew the conflict, and allowed Attila to retreat unmolested.
Battle of Nedao (Ricimer's Rebellion-Bergundians ) Germans victory
Fought 454 after the death of Attila the Hun, between the Germanic tribes previously subject to the Huns, under the Ostrogoth Theodemir, and Ardaric, and the Hunnic forces under King Ellac. The sons of Attila were themselves at war with each other, and were routed. The influence of the Huns over most of German territory collapsed immediately.

Short Biography
Theodoric I Visigoth King who fought Attila the Hun at Chalons.
Aetius Last great General of the Western Empire. Defeated Attila the Hun at Chalons.
Attila the Hun Barbarian chieftain who overran and terrorized much of Europe. Defeated at the Battle of Chalons.

Story Links
Book Links
Attila the Hun  in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Fall of the Western Empire  in  The Story of the Middle Ages  by  Samuel B. Harding
Attila  in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/soldiers/_back.html
Coming of the Witch People  in  Barbarian and Noble  by  Marion Florence Lansing
Attila the Scourge of God  in  Barbarian and Noble  by  Marion Florence Lansing
King Attila  in  The Story of France  by  Mary Macgregor
Barbarians Invade the Roman Empire  in  The Story of Europe  by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Huns at Orleans  in  Historical Tales: French  by  Charles Morris
Attila the Hun is Defeated at Chalons  in  European Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Ricimer, Genseric and the Vandals : 456 to 472

The Vandals, like the Huns, rose to great prominence under a single, exceptional leader and were composed of a number of ethically unrelated tribes. Unlike the Hunnic Empire however, which collapsed upon the death of Attila, the Vandal Kingdom outlived its founder Genseric by nearly sixty years. The reign of Genseric was exceptionally long. He became King in 428 while the Vandals were still contending with the Visigoths for possession of Southern Spain, and reigned until 477, at which point his Kingdom encompassed all of North Africa, all the major Islands in the Western Mediterranean, and his sea-power rivaled that of the Eastern Empire.

Ricimer came to power shortly after the Vandals besieged Rome, arriving on the invitation of Empress Eudoxia. This invasion caused the collapsed of the government, and when a new Emperor was selected, Ricimer was appointed commander of the Western Empire (which by now included only Italy and Southern Gaul). In this position Ricimer fought several successful naval battles against the Vandals, and gained great popularity. His prestige was sufficient to permit him to depose the Emperor, and from this time until the his death, all further emperors served at his discretion. His relationship with Genseric was peculiar. Although nominally enemies, they appeared to cooperate in many schemes, and Ricimer was partly blamed for the failed expedition against Genseric in 468. In 472 Ricimer raised an army and marched on Rome to depose yet another Emperor who had displeased him. He succeeded in his endeavor but died shortly after.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Rome (Rise of Vandal Kingdom ) Vandals victory
For two weeks, a Vandal army, invited to Rome by the dethroned Empress Eudoxia, sacked the city, carrying away all valuables, killing, pillaging, and carrying away captives to be sold as slaves.
Battle of Cape Bona (Genoese versus Venetians ) Vandals victory
Fought 468, between the Roman fleet of 1,100 galleys and transports under Basiliscus, and the fleet of the Vandals under Genseric. The Romans were lying at anchor, having landed their troops, and Genseric, taking advantage of a favorable wind, sent in a fleet of fire ships, following them up by a determined attack. More than half the Roman ships were destroyed, Basiliscus escaping with difficulty.
Siege of Rome (Flemish War ) Burgundians victory
The rebel Count Ricimer, with a large army of Burgundians, Suevi and other barbarians, laid siege to Rome in 472, and after a defense of three months the besiegers entered the city by storming the Bridge of Hadrian, and sacked it.

Short Biography
Genseric Leader of Vandals. Conquered Northern Africa and Sicily. Invaded and ransacked Rome.
Ricimer Visigoth General who was master of Rome during the final years of the Empire.

Story Links
Book Links
End of the Empire of the West  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Genseric the Vandal in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Barbarians Rule in Rome  in  The Story of Europe  by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Genseric the Vandal Sacks Rome  in  European Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

The End of the Empire : 472 to 500

Once Ricimer was gone from the scene new aspirants to power began to fill the vacuum. One general, by the name of Orestes, desired to make himself Emperor and so raised an army of German foederati, to help him seize the throne. They succeeded, and Orestes installed his son Romulus Augustus to the throne of the western empire, keeping command of an army for himself. He also reneged on his promises to the foederati, so after waiting a year for satisfaction, they rose against him, lead by Odoacer, an illiterate but competent general. Orestes was slain and his son deposed. The army then declared Odoacer King of Italy instead of Western Emperor, and he settled down to ruling Italy. During the reign of Odoacer, the southern part of Gaul, which had been the last remaining part of the Western Empire outside of Italy, was lost to the Franks at the Battle of Soissons, so the title King of Italy was more apt than ever.

The Eastern Emperor was not entirely happy with the situation and encouraged the Ostrogoth king Theodoric to march upon Italy and take possession in the name of the Eastern Empire. He did so, and seventeen years after declaring himself King, Odoacer too was deposed. Under Theodoric, Italy recovered much of its former prosperity. His reign was largely peaceful, and he made alliances with the Visigoths of Spain and the Franks in Gaul. Theodoric did much to preserve the best institutions of the Roman Empire, and fostered cooperative, peaceful relationships with his German neighbors. Had subsequent Ostrogoth rulers been as competent, Rome may have risen again. Alas, such was not the case.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Soissons   Franks victory
Fought 486, and notable as the first military exploit of Clovis, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, who here defeated Syagrius, Count of Soissons, and annexed his dominions.
Battle of Isonzo (Rise of Ostrogoths ) Ostrogoths victory
Fought Aug 28, 489 between and Italic-Germanic army under Odoacer and the Ostrogoths under Theodoric. The Ostrogoths were victorious.
Siege of Ravenna   Ostrogoths victory
The Italian king Odoacer was besieged in his capital for three years by Theodoric and his army of Ostrogoths. The siege ended on Feb 2, 493 when Theodoric and Odoacer signed a treaty to co-rule Italy. Odoacer was killed by Theodoric at a banquet shortly thereafter.

Short Biography
Orestes Roman General who deposed the Emperor and put his son on the throne. Overthrown by Odoacer.
Odoacer Deposed last Roman Emperor and became King of Italy. Later overthrown by Theodoric the Ostrogoth.
Theodoric the Ostrogoth Ostrogoth king who invaded Italy and successfully formed a Gothic-Roman kingdom.

Image Links

Attila and Leo
 in Helmet and Spear

 in The Story of the Romans

Romulus Augustus giving up the Crown
 in Famous Men of Rome

A Hunnic Invasion
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

Attila and his terrible Huns
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

Thorismond lifted upon the shield
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

St. Leo halting Attila at the gates of Rome
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

A Hun Warrior
 in The Story of the Middle Ages

Goths on the March
 in The Story of the Middle Ages

Attila's Huns Plundering a Roman Villa in Gaul
 in Greatest Nations - Germany

Thorismund Crowned on the Field of Battle at Chalons
 in Greatest Nations - Germany

Christian Fugitives from the Huns
 in Greatest Nations - Rome

Attila, The Scourge of God
 in Back Matter

Attila before the Pope
 in Barbarian and Noble

Leo Interceding With Attila at the Gates of Rome.
 in European Hero Stories

Aëtius (Relief on ivory tablet found at Monza.)
 in European Hero Stories

Barbarian Slingers Ready For Warfare
 in European Hero Stories