Capital Collapse: The Falls of Rome

This is the story of the turbulent fifth century, and the many falls of Rome. But, was it really the end of the almighty Roman Empire?

Sep 6, 2022By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
thomas cole destruction battle sarcophagus
Thomas Cole, Destruction (From the Course of Empire), New York Gallery of Fine Arts (1833-36); with detail from so-called Battle Sarcophagus, ca. 190 CE, Dallas Museum of Art


The fifth century was a period of intense pressure for the Roman Empire. Things were especially traumatic in the empire’s west. The empire that had once stretched from the Atlantic coast of Spain in the west to the sands of Syria in the east had been decisively divided by the emperor Theodosius the Great in 395CE, the two halves now ruled separately. In the west, peripheral territories gradually began to break away from Roman control. Britain was one of the first. In the early fifth century, the island was suffering repeated raids, including by Picts and Saxons. Facing the dual pressures of internal political turmoil and constant raids, the empire could not defend its territories; by 410, Roman control of Britain had come to an end. But what of the imperial heart? Rome, the once magnificent caput mundi was compelled to confront its own destiny in the turbulent decades of the fifth century. Having stood inviolable for centuries, immune to all except to the ravages of the internecine conflicts of the Romans themselves, the city was sacked several times before its final fall. This is the story of the falls of Rome.


1. A City Sacked: The Falls of Rome in Roman History

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Paul Jospeh Jamin, Brennus and His Share of the Spoils, (1893), now in private collection


Rome’s turbulent fifth century was the first time for several centuries that the imperial capital was threatened by war. Over the course of its history, it was more common to find fellow Roman’s marching on the city. This included Caesar crossing the Rubicon and plunging the Republic into its death throes, through to the emperors Vespasian and Septimius Severus respectively emerging victorious from bloody civil wars against rivals for the imperial throne. Despite crushing the Roman armies at Cannae, even Hannibal – one of Rome’s most formidable foes – had never taken the city during the Second Punic War. However, the fear of the city being sacked by barbarians from beyond the Roman frontier did pervade the Roman psyche. This was the legacy of Brennus and the Gauls.


Early in the 5th century BCE, this chieftain of the Senones had defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia (ca. 390 BCE). Just north of Rome, Brennus’ victory opened up the way to Rome. Unlike Hannibal several centuries later, Brennus would not let his enemy off the hook. The Gauls marched south quickly and occupied almost the entire city, except the Capitoline Hill, the most sacred of Rome’s seven summits. Livy’s history records the legend that the Roman defenders, led by Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, were alerted to the Gallic attack on the Capitoline by the honking of the geese sacred to Juno. Driven back, the Gauls instead besieged the Capitoline, reducing the Romans to a pitiful state. Brennus and his soldiers were eventually bought off, and the Romans offered to pay the Gauls one thousand pounds of gold. Their enemies in the future would not be so lenient…


2. Urban Usurpation: Constantinople and Rome Replaced

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Detail of the vestibule mosaic from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (10th century). Constantine is shown depicting the city of Constantinople to the enthroned Mary and Christ.


Although Rome remained the ideological and symbolic capital in the fifth century, by this time it had already been eclipsed as the most important city in the empire. The reforms of Diocletian and the Tetrarchy had divided the empire in the late third century, and new bases of imperial power had emerged. These had allowed the tetrarchs to mobilize against threats more efficiently, which was vital in addressing the instability that had crippled the empire in the third century.

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The move away from Rome was consolidated in 337 with Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople, which took place on 11th May 330 CE. Significantly more promising as a strategic center than Rome, the former city of Byzantium also gave the emperor a blank canvas on which to impose a new ideology, free of the strictures and associations of Roman tradition. Although many of the structures that adorned Constantinople were distinctly Roman in character – included the Baths of Zeuxippos, the Hippodrome for chariot racing, and even a Forum of Constantine – it was clear that the relationship between emperor and traditional imperial capital had changed decisively. There was a new center, and a new chapter in the history of the empire.


3. The Fall of the ‘Last Roman’: Stilicho

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Ivory diptych depicting Stilicho with his wif, Serena, and son Eucherius, ca. 395, now in Monza Cathedral


That the political landscape of the empire was changing was confirmed by the decision in AD 395 to divide the empire between east and west. This was taken by the emperor Theodosius. The last emperor of a unified empire, one of Theodosius’s most important decisions had been to promote a Vandal soldier, Stilicho, as the guardian of his son Honorius. After Theodosius’ death, the youth and ineptitude of his son ensured that Stilicho was de facto leader of the armies in the Roman west. Stilicho’s hold on power was cemented by his decision to marry his daughters to Honorius.


First, Maria was betrothed to the emperor in 398, and after her death, the burden fell to Thermantia in 408. Stilicho’s rise to power was rapid, and he attracted the jealousy and dislike of powerful enemies. Enemies of Rome also seemed to be multiplying at an alarming rate. This included Alaric, the king of the Goths, and another former ally of Theodosius. The two clashed in 396, in 397, and again in 401, when he invaded Italy. The incursion presaged the coming chaos, but Alaric was able to escape despite being bettered by Stilicho in battle each time. This would be bad news for Rome…


Further pressures emerged elsewhere in the Western Empire. First, Gildo, the commander of the Roman forces in Africa revolted in 398. His attempt to place the African provinces under the control of the Eastern Empire was quickly quashed by his own brother, Mascezel, who had been dispatched south by Stilicho. There was also unrest in Britain, where the Picts had invaded southwards. In AD 405, the Gothic king, Radagaisus, crossed the Danube and invaded the empire. Disrupting plans to reconquer Illyria from the Eastern Empire (with Alaric’s support), Stilicho was compelled to further deplete manpower from the western provinces and march against the invader. Fortunately for Stilicho, Radagaisus had divided his forces. Attacking the Gothic king directly, Stilicho caught Radagaisus’ army as it besieged Florentia. Radagaisus was executed and his army incorporated into the Roman forces or sold into slavery.


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Giorgio Vasari, Defeat of Radagaiso below Fiesole, 1563-1565, in the Palazzo Vecchio Museum


These various, incessant pressures had destabilized the Western Empire’s borders. In AD 406 another invasion across the Rhine frontier escalated tensions further; Gaul was devastated, and military revolts erupted across the northern provinces. The most serious of these was led by the general Flavius Claudius Constantinius (aka Constantine III). The Roman army mutinied at Ticinum in AD 408 and there were rumors that Stilicho was planning to make his own son emperor. Now lacking the support of the armies under his control and the political elite (who spread these rumors), Stilicho retired to Ravenna. He was arrested in August and executed. It was an ignoble end, but the ability of Stilicho to meet the threats the empire faced, and the events that followed his death in 408, have seen the general’s reputation enhanced. To some, he represented the ‘last of the Romans’.


4. Enemy at the Gates: Alaric and the Sack of Rome

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John William Waterhouse, The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius, (1883), in the Art Gallery of South Australia


In AD 410, the “eternal city” was sacked. Although emperors had marched on the city before to bring the empire to heel, this was the first time in almost 8 centuries that Rome had fallen victim to the depredations of an invasion of external foes. When he heard the news, St Jerome reputedly mourned: “the city which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” The conqueror of the caput mundi was none other than Alaric, the King of the Goths, who had twice been defeated by Stilicho but avoided capture. Alaric’s incursions into the Balkans previously had really been aimed at procuring land on which to settle his people.


The Romans, now ruled by the young emperor Honorius from the city of Ravenna (which was more easily defended than Rome) continued to reject Alaric’s appeals. The Gothic King had already marched on Rome once before in 408 and 409, putting one of the world’s largest cities (with a populace of around 800,000) under siege. The Romans were able to use diplomacy and gold to keep the Goths temporarily at bay. In one instance, the need for gold was so great that, according to the historian Zosimus, ancient statues of pagan deities were melted down, stripping the city of many vestiges of its history.


5. The Falls of Rome Gather Pace

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Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24th August 410, in Le musée Paul Valéry


When his negotiations with Honorius broke down for the final time in 410, Alaric decided to besiege Rome once again. Finally, on 24th August 410, Alaric’s forces entered the imperial capital through the porta Salaria (Salarian Gate) in the north of the city. How they got through the gate remains unclear; some allege treachery, while others claim desperation for food and relief prompted residents of the city to open it in desperation. Regardless, once inside the city, the Alaric’s forces subjects the city to three days of pillaging. Because the Gothic invaders were Arian Christians, they actually preserved many of the city’s holy sites. Some of the city’s ancient wonders were ransacked, however. The Mausoleums of both Augustus and Hadrian, the resting places of emperors for several centuries, were looted and ashes of the interred scattered. Riches were looted from the city, and the aristocracy paid a particularly heavy price. Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius the Great, sister of Honorius and the future mother of Valentinian III, was taken prisoner.


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Gold Solidus of Galla Placidia, struck AD 425 under authority of Valentinian III at Aquileia. The Obverse portrait is paired with a reverse depiction of Victory with a jewelled cross, via Coin Cabinet of the National Museums in Berlin


Although many atrocities were committed as part of the sack of Rome in 410, it does appear – by comparison with similar events throughout history – to have been rather moderate. The inhabitants of the city were not slaughtered en masse, for instance, while the Christian faith of the invaders also appears to have protected a number of sites and ensured that some of the larger basilicas were viewed as sanctuaries. Perhaps one of the most striking of anecdotes to have survived regarding the sack, is presented by Procopius, the great historian of the age of Justinian. He alleged that the emperor Honorius was stricken with distress upon learning that Rome had fallen. His consternation was misplaced, however. The emperor was worried about his favorite chicken, also named Rome, rather than the former imperial capital…


After the three days of pillaging, Alaric left, heading south to ravage the remainder of the peninsula for wealth. He would die later that year. Legend holds that he was buried on the bed of the Busento River in Calabria with his treasures; the unfortunate slaves who had buried him were then killed to preserve the secret for the ages…


6. A City on the Brink: Attila and the Vandals Against Rome

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Eugène Delacroix, Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts, 1843-1847, in the Palais Bourbon,


Alaric’s sack of Rome was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had been taken by invading forces, and it was clear that the military strength of the Western Roman Empire was faltering severely. In the east, the emperor Theodosius II declared three days of mourning at Constantinople. Although the Goths would fight alongside the Romans in the future, the city would come under increasing pressure over the course of the 5th century. Perhaps the most evocative threat faced by the Romans came from Attila the Hun. A leader of a confederation consisting of Huns, Ostrogoths, Alans, Bulgars and others, Atilla led his forces from Eurasia against the Romans. He threatened both the Eastern and Western Empires. Although he was unable to take either of the capitals (Constantinople and Rome), he was feared.


As he marched through northern Italy, he sacked the city of Aquileia, and his forces were only halted from progressing on toward Rome because they were stricken by disease. The Western Roman Emperor, Valentinian III, sent three envoys to gain a promise of peace from Attila. One of his envoys was Pope Leo I! Attila died in 453 on his way to re-new war against Constantinople. Having turned away from Italy, Rome was safe, for now, but the deprivations inflicted on Italy by the Huns had weakened the empire once again. The situation was becoming ever more desperate…


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Karl Pavlovich Bryullov, Sacking of Rome in 455, 1833-1836, in the Tretyakov Gallery


Later, in 455, Rome was again besieged. This time, the city was threatened by the Vandals. Led by Genseric, the Vandals had been angered by the new emperor – Petronius Maximus – and his decision to have his son marry into the Theodosian dynasty at the expense of Genseric’s son, Huneric (as had been previously agreed with the former emperor, Valentinian III). The sight of the advancing Vandal army, which had landed at Ostia, terrified the Petronius. His attempts to flee were scuppered by a Roman mob, who murdered the emperor. Pope Leo I managed to secure a promise from Genseric that the city would not be destroyed nor its people massacred if the gates were opened to the Vandals. However, the invaders looted many of the city’s treasures over the course of 14 days of pillaging and looting. The Vandals reputedly stripped the gilt bronze roof tiles from the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, which had once been the most important temples in the city.


7. Not with a Bang, But a Whimper: Romulus Augustulus, the Last Emperor

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Gold Solidus of Romulus Augustulus minted at Mediolanum (Milan), AD 475-476. An obverse portrait of the emperor is paired with a reverse depiction of the Victory with cross, in the British Museum


After 455, for all intents and purposes, the power of the Roman Empire in the west was broken. The ‘emperors’ who ruled from Italy were unable to exert any real control over the increasingly fractured territories that once may have been described as ‘Roman’, and the emperors were – in effect – puppets, controlled by the whims of various warlords attempting to carve out their own domains from the imperial carcass. One of the most prominent of these was Ricimer. The failure to exert control is clear from the numbers: in the twenty years after Genseric’s sack of Rome, there had been eight different emperors in the west, a situation of flux and instability reminiscent of the worst of the so-called third century crisis.


However, it wasn’t until 476 that the line of Roman Emperors in the west came to a definitive end. It is somewhat fitting that the last of the Roman rulers should be named for the first of the Roman Kings and the first of its emperors: Romulus Augustulus. Coming to power as a child, perhaps as young as 10, Romulus was stepping into a precarious position: there had been an interregnum of around two months prior to his accession, and such vacuums are usually dangerous. Worse still, Zeno, the emperor in the east, never recognized Romulus’ as emperor. It mattered little, because Odoacer was on the march. On 4th September, Odoacer captured Ravenna, and with it, the emperor. While Odoacer became the King of Italy, the imperial regalia of Romulus was dispatched to Zeno in the east, effectively symbolizing the end of the Western Roman Empire as a political entity.


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Silver half siliqua of Odoacer minted at Ravenna, AD 477. An obverse portrait of Odoacer is paired with a reverse image of his monogram within a wreath, in the Münzkabinett Berlin


Young Romulus at least survived; he was sent to live in exile at castellum Lucullanum (modern Castel dell’Ovo) in Campania. There is some thought that, perhaps, he was alive as late as the early sixth century and still ideologically important enough to figure on the peripheries of Late Antique politics. It mattered little, though. By deposing Romulus Augustulus and confining him to exile, Odoacer had ensured the end of the Western Roman empire as a political entity. An empire that had endured for centuries ended abruptly, sidled off of the stage of history and into the ignominy of exile. There had been no great crescendo, only a protracted dissolution, as the empire ended not with a bang, but a whimper.


8. The Falls of Rome and the Endurance of Empire

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A contemporary mosaic depiction of Justinian from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna


The falls of Rome were protracted affairs. A city and an empire progressively weakened over the course of the fifth century, unable to reassert control in the face of a whole host of different enemies. For the first time in centuries, the imperial capital, formerly untouchable, found itself exposed to the vicissitudes of fortune besieged and sacked by Goths and Vandals, before finally being robbed of its political power altogether, as Romulus Augustulus was shuffled south, toward exile.


However, the empire did not fall altogether in 476. From Constantinople in the east, the new capital identified by Constantine the Great as a new center of strength, the idea of Roman power persisted. The old capital in the west remained a temptation to successive emperors in the east, seduced by ideas of renovatio imperii. It would be the goal of Justinian in the sixth century to bring Rome back under the control of the Roman Empire.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK based contributing writer with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explored the representation and status of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the past with as many people as possible. Away from his research, Kieren is also interested in arts, literature, and travel.