5 – Barbarian Migration & Invasion
As I mentioned earlier, the split in the empire made the western part more vulnerable to attacks; a particular point of weakness was the northern Danube-Rhine border. During the 4th Century AD, a significant number of Goths began to settle near the border. Initially, at least, they only wanted to become part of the empire and had no interest in attacking Rome. Their primary concern was getting away from the marauding Huns who were laying waste to northern Europe.
Eventually, the Romans allowed Visigoth tribe members to cross into Roman territory, but its governors treated the new arrivals like animals. According to one ancient source, the Romans forced the Goths to put their children into slavery in exchange for dog meat. The irate Goths quickly became fed up with this vile treatment and rose up against their enemy. The Eastern Emperor Valens was defeated at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD in an event historians claim was the beginning of the end for the Western Empire.
The Romans negotiated a rushed peace treaty, but it was far too late to save their empire. The Goths were promised land in the Balkans, and when it wasn’t forthcoming, they rose up against Rome yet again. The Goths were led by a man called Alaric who once served in the Roman army as a commander. When the Western emperor delayed his response to the initial demands of the Goths, Alaric asked for more. He wanted recognition as citizens of Rome and extra grain for his people. When this was rejected, Alaric took his well-organized army across the Alps and attacked Rome in 410 AD.
The incompetent Honorius was emperor at this time and lived in a villa in Ravenna. When Alaric arrived outside the city, he bided his time until Roman supplies ran low. Then he launched his attack and sacked the city over a three-day period. Alaric left the city with 13 tons of silver and two tons of gold.
Although he died soon afterward, Rome was just waiting to be sacked once again. More Germanic tribes such as the Saxons and Vandals were able to quickly take Roman territories such as Spain, North Africa, and Britain. Attila the Hun was one of many barbarians to damage the empire, and he invaded Italy in the 450s AD. By 475 AD, only Italy remained as part of the Western Roman Empire. The sad decline was neatly summed up by the events of the final day of the empire. A barbarian named Odovacar was able to walk into Rome unopposed in 476 AD, and he dethroned Romulus Augustus. He contacted Zeno, the emperor of the East, and explained that he would not accept the title of ‘emperor.’ To make things clear, Odovacar even brought the traditional clothing of Roman Emperors with him to Constantinople.