History : Mar-Apr 2016
PILLAGE, POWER, AND POLITICS Entangling alliances and political marriages linked Roman and Visigoth fortunes leading up to, and following, the sack of Rome in 410. ATTALUS TRAITOROUS PREFECT In an attempt to usurp Honorius in 409, the Visigoths proclaimed the city prefect, Priscus Attalus, Roman emperor. To curry favor with his new allies, Attalus made Alaric master general of the armies in the west. But in 410, Attalus lost this position. Ataulphus, Alaric’s successor, kept Attalus around and took him to Gaul with him to officiate at his wedding to Galla Placidia. The Visigoths later backed Attalus again as an imperial usurper in 414. But when Wallia came to the Visigoth throne in 415, he returned Attalus to Hono rius in Ravenna where he was maimed before being sent into exile. ROME, IN A MEDIEVAL MAP. ATTALUS WAS PREFECT OF THE CITY. SCALA, FIRENZE THE GATES OF THE NORTH The Porta Nigra (Black Gate) opens into a residence of the western Roman emperor in the city of Trier, Germany. The residence was a favorite target for attacks by northern tribes throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. BRIDGEMAN/ACI stronghold, the Visigoth chieftain led his forces instead to Rome. The city shut its newly fortified gates against them, but the Visigoths managed to take the city’s harbor, Portus Augusti, at the mouth of the Tiber. Dependent on its harbor for provisions, Rome was now effectively under siege. Alaric demanded all the gold and silver in the city, as well as the release of all barbarian slaves. According to the historian Zosimus, when the Roman delegates asked Alaric what he would let them keep, he replied simply, “Your lives.” Rome Surrounded This moment of crisis highlighted just how much power Rome had lost. It had been decades since the Senate in Rome had truly represented the imperial aristocracy or had been an effective advisory body to the emperor. Its members— aristocratic landowners of extensive terrains spread throughout the provinces—had become disenfranchised under the emperor Theodosius, who had created a new and loyal civil service class. 62 MARCH/APRIL 2016 This distancing had a religious element, too. While Theodosius had Christianized the empire, pagan opposition still predominated in the Senate in Rome. Christianity had undoubtedly spread to some extent among the nobility there, but many voices still claimed that Theodosius’ conversion to Christianity would bring about his downfall. The nobility in Rome considered themselves to be guardians of the city’s glorious past and of the faith in the ancient Roman gods. It was these gods, many believed, who had made the empire great and powerful. Theodosius’ decision to impose Christianity was a betrayal, which they feared would lead to disaster. In 408, seeing themselves surrounded by Alaric’s forces, the citizens of Rome were all too aware of their isolation. They could not expect outside help from the de facto imperial capital in Ravenna. Inside the city, the situation had become intolerable. Fear and paranoia ruled the day. Christians and pagans blamed each other for what was happening. Purges were launched against anyone thought to be a barbarian sympathizer.