The Last Days of Rome: How A Great Empire Fell With Barely a Whimper

The Last Days of Rome: How A Great Empire Fell With Barely a Whimper

By Patrick Lynch
The Last Days of Rome: How A Great Empire Fell With Barely a Whimper

Unlike the valiant last stand by Constantine XI in Constantinople which marked the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Roman Empire in the West did not fall after a notable battle. Indeed, it is perhaps ironic that one of the greatest empires in history surrendered rather meekly without much of a struggle. Although the end of the empire is said to have occurred when Odoacer marched into Rome and deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus on September 4, 476, the end was nigh for quite some time.

A Fragmented Empire

Although Diocletian managed to bring the disastrous Third Century Crisis to an end by taking control in 284, the Empire was fundamentally weakened. Aside from widespread economic strife throughout the Empire in the fourth century, the tribes of Germany significantly increased their populations and became more of a threat.

By 376, an enormous influx of barbarians from across the Danube threatened the Eastern part of the Empire, and the Romans suffered a disastrous defeat at Adrianople in 378 when Emperor Valens died with most of his army. By the end of the fourth century, Emperor Theodosius was reliant on barbarian warlords who lacked discipline and loyalty. It was the equivalent of allowing wolves into the chicken coop.

To make matters worse, Theodosius had to contend with the usurper Magnus Maximus who declared himself Emperor of the West in 383. Theodosius finally defeated his enemy in 388 but with heavy losses on both sides that only served to weaken the Empire. When he died in 395, his sons Honorius and Arcadius became emperors. Both were incompetent and little more than puppet rulers.

A depiction of Alaric. Live Science

Sack of Rome

Much like the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 was the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire, the Sack of Rome in 410 can be seen as the start of the Western Empire’s last days. The King of the Visigoths, Alaric, first attempted to invade Italy in 401 but was repelled by Stilicho at Pollentia the following year. When Emperor Honorius ordered a massacre of Goths serving in the Roman military, some 30,000 of them defected to Alaric in 408.

He laid siege to Rome that year and forced its citizens to pay a sizeable tribute to prevent them from starving to death. Alaric did not want to destroy the Empire; he just wanted a recognized position within its borders. After another siege in 409, he tried to negotiate with Honorius the following year. The influence of an enemy Goth during negotiations angered Alaric, so he laid siege to Rome once again. This time, he succeeded in breaking through and sacked the city.

Oddly enough, there was relatively little destruction during the three-day sacking of Rome. Alaric invited barbarian slaves to join his army, and a large proportion was happy to do so. He had no intention of remaining in Rome and decided to sail to Africa. However, his ships were battered by storms, and he died of fever. Although Alaric did not remain in Rome to conquer it, the sacking of the city was an indication of just how weak the Empire in the West was. The countdown to its demise began in earnest.