Ancient Rome was overrun many times, but the third sack in 455 AD spelt the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire. It occurred between 2 June and 16 June, when German tribe the Vandals entered Italy, following the murder of Emperor Valentinian III by his rival Petronius Maximus. Valentinian had promised his daughter in marriage to the Vandal King Genseric as part of a peace treaty. However, Valentinian was murdered before the pledge was fulfilled. Rome claimed that his death voided the promise. As a result, the Vandals under King Genseric invaded Italy with the intention of taking the capital of the Roman Empire.
The Vandals were now waging war against the usurping Western Roman Emperor Flavius Ancius Petronius Maximus, born circa 397 AD and who died in Rome on 31 May 455 AD. He was emperor for just two-and-a-half months after Valentinian’s demise. He had become emperor after murdering Valentinian by bribing palace officials and securing the backing of the Senate. He died after trying to flee Rome and was separated from his bodyguard. He was succeeded by Avitius.
The Romans had sent the incumbent pope Leo I (440–461 AD) – known as Leo the Great – to negotiate with the Vandals and he persuaded King Genseric not to burn Rome or kill the city’s population. Leo I was the Bishop of Rome and also the Eastern Roman Emperor. He had started his career in the military, so as well as being Bishop of Rome, he was well placed to rule as Eastern Emperor and negotiate with foreign leaders and the military.
The Vandals agreed not to kill the local population and so were allowed to enter Rome – but once there, they spent two weeks (from 2 June to 16 June 455 AD) looting wealthy homes and stripping the city of precious metals like gold and silver. They also helped themselves to any furniture they took a fancy to. The Vandals also ransacked the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, as well as the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Forum.
Women of Rome as hostages
No Romans were attacked or killed in the sacking of the city, however – but King Genseric married Valentinian’s widow and also made his son Huneric marry Valentinian’s daughter, Princess Eudocia, as promised by her late father. The Roman princess was just eight years’ old at the time of her marriage – she had been pledged as a bride to the Vandals at the age of three. They had one son Hilderic, born in the early 460s AD – but then she either escaped or was allowed to leave her husband. She went to Jerusalem where her maternal grandmother owned property and had died there in 460 AD. Her own mother and elder sister were living in Constantinople, after Leo I managed to ransom them back from the Vandals. Although some women were powerful and charted their own destiny during the empire, ultimately women born into powerful families or marrying into them became pawns of war and were bartered to secure power deals. The Roman general and local governors frequently married the daughters of local tribal leaders to secure their position of rulers of the empire.
Rome’s last Western Emperor
The empire’s last Western Emperor Romulus Augustus – known as Romulus Augustulus – fell in 476 AD as a a result of more Germanic tribes invading, this time the Ostrogoths. Romulus was known as “Romulus Augustulus” (“little Augustus”) and had come to power as a minor when his father, Orestes – the head of the military (“magister militum” or “supreme general”) – made him emperor, and more or less ruled as emperor through him.
Romulus Augustus (Image: Sailko CCL Wikipedia)
Leo I had made great efforts to prevent Rome from being sacked – and even prevented Attila the Hun from attacking Rome. But on 4 September 476 AD, the Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the statesman and military leader Odoacer, who was of Eastern German descent. He went on to become the first king of Italy and the Roman Empire became divided up.
Some historians claim that the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the end of the empire also marks the end of ancient history and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The Eastern Roman Empire later became known as the Byzantine Empire.
Why the Roman Empire fell
Whether the hordes of Germanic tribes invading were solely to blame for the fall of the Western Roman Empire is hotly debated. Some believe that the internal problems of the Roman Empire and Rome itself were partly to blame and made the city and the empire vulnerable to attack. The tax system was in disarray and not producing enough revenue, the ever-factious system of governance made Rome weak and prone to internal power coups, the military was not the great force it once had been – and Rome and the Western Empire were suffering from population explosions.
More sacks of Rome
The second sack of Rome had occurred in 387 BC, when famously the Gauls under Brennus pillaged the city, butchering its inhabitants, with his soldiers raping the women. The initial battle on the banks of the River Allia had taken place on July 18 and that date is forever considered unlucky in Rome. The Romans eventually paid off Brennus with gold.
Rome recovered, however, and went on to enjoy 800 years of success and prosperity, until the second sack of Rome in 410 AD, when the Visigoths under King Alaric attacked and gained entry to the city, after a group of slaves rebelling against their masters opened the city gates to let the barbarians in. The barbarians plundered homes, stole valuables, killed and raped – and after three days, headed home up the Appian Way, as if they had been on some sort of pillaging mini-break.
Rome continued to be sacked in the Middle Ages – notably by the Normans in 1084 under Robert Guiscard, who entered the city to rescue Pope Gregory VII, who was under siege from the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV – King of Germany, Italy, Burgundy and Bavaria. The Roman people supported him but Guiscard mounted a bloody three-day offensive in typically Norman style, involving the same rape and pillage that the Britons had suffered under William the Conqueror in 1066. Romans were butchered, sold into slavery and much of Ancient Rome was destroyed, including precious monuments. Rome burnt during Guiscard’s assault on it.
Today we see the same sort of military practices still taking place – and by leaders who claim to admire the military tactics of the Romans, the Visigoths, the Vandals and other ancient civilisations. The fight for territory and resources continues and with the same viciousness – women and children are frequently the victims, bartered over or defiled.
But as we can see from the sacks of Rome, if you let the barbarians get away with it once, they will only come back for more – and the two-week 455 AD sack of Rome is considered a major contributor to Rome’s and the Western Empire’s eventual downfall. When we visit Rome, we must not only marvel at its beauty and majesty, we have to remember that it was a territory that was hard fought for, and we are standing on some of the most atrocious battlegrounds of history. The sad thing is that the same butchery continues today.