This Day in History: The Visigoths Sack Rome

Last year on this date, we commemorated the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, which began on August 24, 1572.  Today, we go back another 1,162 years to the Visigoth’s sack of Rome on August 24, 410.

The Goths were one of the Germanic tribes of northern Europe that had been fighting with Rome intermittently since the 3rd Century.  Around 376 AD, the Hun invasion pushed the Therving Goths, who would become known as the Visigoths, into the Eastern Roman Empire where, after losing faith in the corrupt Roman governor, they rampaged up and down Illyricum (the Balkans) and in 378 trounced a Roman army at Adrianople (Hadrianopolis).  In 382, Emperor Theodosius I negotiated a treaty with the Visigoths in which they were given land in Dacia (Romania) and became “foederati,” semi-autonomous residents of the empire.  The foederati were largely self-governing, but owed a feudal obligation to the emperor to fight for him if called upon.

Around 391, a Visigoth warrior named Alaric enters the historical record.  Alaric and 20,000 Visigoths fought for Theodosius in the latter’s struggle with Eugenius, whom the Frankish general Arbogast was trying to stand up as emperor in the West. Theodosius and Alaric were eventually victorious at the Battle of Frigidus in 394, but the Visigoths had been placed in the vanguard of an assault on a fortified position and were badly mauled, sustaining some 10,000 casualties.  Alaric believed that Theodosius had intentionally sacrificed the Visigoths in an optional Roman civil war, just to weaken the tribe.  He resigned from the service of Theodosius and got himself made King of the Visigoths. 

Theodosius died less than a year after the Battle of Frigidus, leaving one son, Honorius, as Western Emperor and another son, Arcadius, as Eastern emperor.  Both were young and ineffective, the real powers being the Vandal general Stilicho in the West, and the Gaulish consul Rufinus in the East. 

In 395, Alaric led the Visigoths in an attack on Greece, sacking the port of Athens, then crossing into the Peloponnese to capture Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta.  There he was trapped by a combined Western and Eastern force under Stilicho, but Arcadius mysteriously withdrew his forces, allowing Alaric to escape. 

In 401, Alaric invaded Italy and laid siege to Milan, trapping Honorius there, but Stilicho broke the siege and then smashed Alaric’s army at the Battle of Pollentia in 402.  The following year, Stilicho again defeated Alaric, this time at Verona.  Following this defeat, Alaric return to Illyricum, and he and Stilicho became allies for several years.

Despite being the most able and effective general in the Western empire (or maybe because of that fact) Stilicho was executed in 408, apparently on Honorius’ orders.  At the same time, Honorius ordered the murder of thousands of wives and children of Gothic Foederati, causing some 30,000 of the Goths to join Alaric who, upon hearing that his long-time nemesis Stilicho was out of the picture, immediately marched on Rome.  Alaric laid siege to Rome in September 408.  Honorius’ capital was in Ravenna, not Rome, and he sent no forces to relieve the siege.

Faced with starvation and disease, the Roman Senate sent envoys to Alaric asking under what terms the siege could be lifted.  Alaric demanded all the gold and silver, household goods, and barbarian slaves in the city. One envoy asked what would be left to the citizens of Rome. Alaric replied, "Their lives." The city of seven hills managed to come up with 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper, and, in December 208, Alaric lifted the siege. 

But Alaric came back in 409, this time demanding a huge swathe of territory, 150 by 200 miles long, between the Danube and northern Italy.  He settled for propping up a rival Western Roman emperor in Rome.  Eleven months later, however, Alaric tired of his puppet emperor, who was not furthering his aims, and again laid siege to Rome. 

At last he was successful.  According to legend, slaves opened the gates during the night and allowed the Visigoths in.   On August 24, 410, Alaric at last rode through the streets of Rome.  It was the first time in 800 years that Rome had been captured by a hostile foreign force.

By all historical accounts, the sack wrought relatively little destruction on the city.  Christian churches were spared and protection was granted to anyone, Christian or pagan, who took refuge therein.  Vessels of gold and silver found in a private dwelling were spared because they purportedly "belonged to St. Peter.”

But there was damage.  The Gardens of Sallust were destroyed, and the Basilicas Aemilia and Julia in the Roman Forum were burned.  The Mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian (the latter is now the Castel Sant'Angelo) were looted and the ashes scattered.

Alaric died from fever just months after taking Rome.  Honorius died 13 years later; his most notable “achievement” was failing to prevent the sack of Rome.

The Visigoths were one of the kingdoms prefigured by the horns of the fourth beast in Daniel 7:7 (also in Revelation 13:1), the ten tribes that inherited the territory of the Roman Empire.  And the Visigoths were not one of the horns that was uprooted by the Little Horn (Dan. 7:8), but went on to establish a long-lasting kingdom in what is now Spain.