Following on from Dave's comments on the sack of Rome in 410 A.D:
410 the Visigoths take Rome, ending the Empire!? Why were so many uncivilized groups ( can you list them?) attacking Europe at this time? And really when you look at it Rome was uncivilized too!?? What say you?
The empire was far from finished in 410 A.D., although it was teetering on the brink of fragmentation. The Western Roman seat of government by this point was in Ravenna, having been already moved from Rome to Milan by the third century so it was closer to the main army commands of the western half of the empire. The eastern capital was in Constantinople. Therefore, the sacking of Rome was more a symbolic loss than a material setback; the emperor Honorius was safe behind the colossal defences at Ravenna.
To understand why the Visigoths sacked Rome, we must go back a generation to 374 A.D., when two large groups of Goths appeared at the Roman frontier on the Danube, seeking sanctuary. They were fleeing from the Huns, who appeared on the Great Steppes around the middle of the fourth century. They drove the Germanic peoples such as the Goths, Vandals and Suebians to the west, where they clashed with the client states the Romans had set up along their borders after centuries of hard fighting.
One group of Goths was admitted; the other was forced to remain on the other side of the river to avoid a huge group of barbarians being present on Roman soil. Nevertheless, the other group made it across, which forced the Romans to move the legitimate refugees away to avoid the two groups combining. The Romans were cruel, giving the Goths pitiful rations and forcing them to sell their children into slavery for further food and clothing. Having had enough, they rebelled, slaughtering the local Roman forces, and then combining their groups into a formidable force. With Roman forces spread thin (most of the eastern army was off fighting the Persians), the empire took its time to respond. The eastern Emperor, Valens, sent for aid from his western colleague, Gratian. The plan was to bring together the cream of both halves of the empire's armies and utterly crush the Goths, with the Romans being fearful that a successful and unrepelled invasion of their land would encourage others to follow suit.
By 376 A.D., Valens had brought the bulk of the eastern empire’s field forces with him from the eastern frontier and awaited western Roman forces to join him in due course. His senior army commanders counselled to wait for Gratian, who was by this point only a couple of weeks march away. Valens’ inner circle of sycophants urged him to go for glory and defeat the Goths without help from the west. The eastern Roman army thus deployed and faced off against the Goths on the outskirts of Adrianople, where the Goths took up position on a gentle slope, with their camp (and families) behind them. Crucially, most of their mounted troops were away watering their horses as both armies formed up. The Goths, either playing for time or in genuine hopes of a negotiated peace, offered parley. The Roman soldiers stood on the plains for nearly ten hours, with no food or water, under a blistering hot sun, whilst the Goths lit fires that poured smoke downwind onto the waiting Roman forces.
Whilst peace talks went on, a Roman unit advanced and engaged the Goths, forcing the whole army to join the battle. It is unclear whether this was because of a mistake or a genuine order from the Roman command. Nevertheless, battle was joined, and the Romans quickly pushed the Goths back, with victory seeming likely. Suddenly the Gothic cavalry appeared, on freshly watered mounts and slammed straight into the left wing of the Roman army. The Romans collapsed into a general rout, with their soldiers massacred where they stood as they were too jammed together to even draw their swords. The emperor escaped, but was cornered in a barn, where the pursuing Goths, unaware of the prize they had, set fire to the building, and killed him. Valens joined the small group of Roman emperors who died on the field of battle.
The Gothic victory was decisive, and it took the Romans a further four years to eventually cobble together enough forces to bring about a peace that settled the Goths within the borders of the empire. Whereas previous tribes had been dispersed across the empire after making peace, the Goth's position of strength enabled them to insist that they stick together as a cohesive political and military entity, which would have serious ramifications in the generations to come. The Goths eventually split into sub-groups, namely a western element named the Visigoths (western Goths) and a further wave of invaders, the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) who stayed closer to the Danube (for now).
The Visigoths, under the leadership of Alaric by the end of the fourth century, took up arms on behalf of the Roman empire in a civil war, forming the elite vanguard of the forces of the eastern empire. Tired of being used as sword fodder, the Visigoths rebelled, with Alaric demanding Roman military titles and lands for his followers. The western emperor was now the young Honorius, whose rule was in fact directed through a quasi-regent, the half-Vandal, half-Roman generalissimo Stilicho. Stilicho was faced with numerous ongoing crises: the invasion of another group of Goths under Radagaisus; Alaric’s Visigoths marauding which was stopped only after two costly battles in northern Italy; the collapse of the Rhine frontier under the weight of the Vandals, Alans and Suebians fleeing the Huns; the ongoing collapse of Roman rule in Britain and a rival emperor(s) being elevated there; a rebellion in Africa; an unruly army elite unhappy with the recruitment of barbarian soldiers to fill the ranks; the loss of key recruiting grounds in Illyria (the Balkans) to the eastern empire.
Stilicho hatched upon a novel idea, to integrate the defeated elements of Radagaisus’ forces into his own, plus an alliance with Alaric to build a force capable of defeating the other enemies of the state. He persuaded a reluctant Honorius to agree to pay Alaric to go to Gaul, with Roman military title, to quell the invasions and rebellions there, but only after Alaric and Stilicho reconquered Illyria for the western empire from the east, who were in the process of elevating their own new emperor after the death of Arcadius (Honorius’ brother). Rumours swirled that Stilicho wished for his own son, Eucherius, to become the eastern emperor, rather than Arcadius’ own son, which was enough for Honorius to have Stilicho arrested and executed, along with his wife and son. The payment to Alaric was not sent, and a general pogrom of Stilicho’s supporters and barbarian recruits (plus their families) followed. Thousands of barbarian refugees fled, receiving sanctuary from an enraged Alaric.
With his forces again swollen, Alaric demanded what was due to him but found the mood had changed in Ravenna and his attempts to extort the western empire were getting nowhere as he sacked a few obscure towns in northern Italy. Realising the remaining regular Roman army in Italy was effectively leaderless and too small to challenge him, he marched on Rome, laying siege and cutting off the vital grain supplies. The citizens scraped together a mighty ransom, melting down pagan statues and the loot of 600 years of conquest to pay him off. Honorius, safe in Ravenna, feigned to negotiate and Alaric withdrew, only to be enraged again as Honorius tried to sneak in 6,000 troops to garrison the city, which were intercepted and destroyed. Alaric began a second siege, which became unbearable for the citizens, as they were already reduced to starvation. They threw open the gates to Alaric and his Visigoths. What followed was a modest sacking by any standard; the Visigoths largely respected those seeking sanctuary in the Christian churches and declined to do much harm upon the population, seeking mainly whatever gold and silver remained, plus damaging some of the more elegant Roman public buildings.
The damage to the empire in material terms was negligible; the city of Rome held no military value and was in fact a drain on public resources by way of the dole of free bread and wine to many of its citizens. However, whilst the political centre of the west was now Ravenna, the spiritual centre remained Rome and the news of its sacking reverberated throughout the world known to the Romans. Roman strength was now seriously questioned by all, encouraging further waves of invaders, including the dreaded Huns. The western Romans briefly recovered; first under the general Constantius, who finally subjugated the Visigoths and settled them in Gaul in 418 A.D., but not before smashing into submission the Vandal/Alan/Suebian coalition which had made its way to Spain. Civil war followed Constantius’ death, with the victor, Flavius Aetius, taking up another quasi-regency role over the rule of Honorius’ young son Valentinian, who succeeded his father upon his death.
Aetius held the empire together for another generation with the skilful use of diplomacy (rebuilding links with the eastern empire, keeping the Visigoths and Huns as close ‘frenemies’) and military power. The remaining Vandals slipped from Spain into Africa, taking for them the prize of Carthage which supplied much of the grain to the city of Rome. Aetius moved to repel them, but before his combined armada of western and eastern forces could set sail, the Huns invaded the eastern empire in 443 A.D., forcing the recall of their forces from the expedition. Aetius made terms with the Vandals, who set themselves up in Carthage as purveyors of grain and piracy across the western Mediterranean.
The Huns, long the allies of Aetius, ran out of gold to extort from the eastern empire and turned their sights on the west. Their leader, Attila, used the pretext of an offer of marriage from Valentinian’s sister, Honoria, to claim as his dowry half of the western empire and invaded Gaul. Aetius, in his finest hour, and the last moment of glory for western Roman arms, pulled together a credible force of Roman troops from Gaul and Italy, plus a sizeable contingent of Alani allies. He also managed to persuade the Visigoths to put aside their differences with Rome to come to the collective defence of Gaul against the common foe. The Hunnic coalitions of Huns, Ostrogoths and others met with the Romano-Gothic alliance at the Catalaunian plains east of Orleans in the summer of 451 A.D., where they fought desperately for two days before the Hunnic forces broke and retreated to their camp. The Visigoth king lay dead, killed in battle, and Aetius seemingly had Attila at his mercy. Inexplicably to many, he let Attila escape and dispersed his own forces. Aetius was probably mindful that the threat of the Huns was the only thing keeping the Visigoths in line; removing that threat might mean losing Gaul to an entirely different set of barbarians.
Attila renewed his offensive the following year, invading Italy and reducing many of its cities to rubble. The Visigoths were not interested in a collective defence of Italy, so this left Aetius with his reduced Roman forces to shadow Attila, but he was too weak to offer battle. Legend has it that as Attila approached Rome itself, the Pope performed a miracle inducing him to leave Italy. This just so happened to coincide with an eastern empire offensive into the Danuban heartlands of the Hunnic empire, forcing Attila to retreat to defend his base territories. Attila died the following year, as did Aetius the next, killed by an ungrateful emperor Valentinian who tired of Aetius’ dominance and with no further use for him now that the main threats were seemingly nullified.
Valentinian himself was murdered in 455 A.D. by a usurper, which led to a rapid collapse of Roman political order in the west, including a brutal and sustained sack of Rome by the Vandals. A series of emperors were propped up by barbarian military strongmen, who now commanded the largely barbarian western army. The eastern empire made one last throw of the dice to save their western cousins, installing the capable eastern general Anthemius as western emperor with the primary goal of reclaiming North Africa from the Vandals, as the revenue recaptured would allow the western Romans to rebuild their economy. The combined Roman fleet was intercepted at Cape Bon in 468 A.D. by the Vandal fleet, now a veteran naval force, and in a combination of bad luck (poor winds) and unimaginative planning on the part of the Romans (sailing straight to Carthage rather than a safe undefended port), the Roman force was annihilated. As the ships sank, so did the last hopes of western Roman resurgence.
The final competing emperors, Romulus Augustulus and Julius Nepos died in exile, with the barbarian army commander Odoacer overthrowing the regime in 476 A.D. He declared there was no further need for an emperor of the west, ruling Italy and the remaining slither of Roman territory in southern Gaul as a viceroy of the eastern empire, but as a king in all but name. He sent the imperial regalia to Constantinople (to prevent anybody else from using it), where it stayed until it was looted and lost in the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century. Rome had finally fallen.
"There is no course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end."