The Fall of Rome is the historic catastrophe of Western civilisation. It ushered in an era when, as Petrarch put it in the 14th century, even the eyes of talented men ‘were surrounded by shadows and dense fog’. These new Dark Ages reversed the standard medieval metaphor in which the light of Christianity had banished the shadows of the pagan era, and set the scene for Petrarch’s own project, a renaissance of classical culture. He blamed the barbarians, not only the hairy, trouser-clad tribes of the north – the Goths, Vandals and Franks who repeatedly attacked the Roman frontier – but also earlier Roman emperors such as Trajan and Septimius Severus, who hailed from Spain and Africa. By the 18th century, however, Edward Gibbon and others had concluded that the problem was the Romans themselves, and their loss of faith in the enlightened civic values that had once made Rome great.
A different response would be that the Roman Empire didn’t fall in the fifth century, or even decline, but simply sloughed off its failing Western provinces. This restructuring allowed Roman emperors to refocus their attention and resources on the more lucrative Eastern territories they ruled from the new and improved capital of Constantinople, founded on the ancient city of Byzantium. There they survived, and mostly thrived, until they succumbed to the Ottoman sultan in 1453 (a point that Gibbon conceded, stretching his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to six long volumes).
The West still matters to some, however, and historians have continued to bicker over the causes of the fall: over-extension, class struggle, natural disaster, or perhaps the emancipation of women? In 1984, the German scholar Alexander Demandt carefully catalogued the 210 explanations so far proposed. There have been many more since: climate change and disease are particularly high on the 21st-century academic agenda; the best discussion of them is Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome (2017). The barbarians, meanwhile, have made a distinct comeback, since Peter Heather made a spirited case for their share of responsibility in The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005).
Douglas Boin proposes another topical solution, blaming neither barbarians nor Romans but the relationship between them. One of the most important questions facing Rome in this era was ‘whether foreigners would have a fair shot at becoming Romans’, and the authorities flunked it, refusing to grant citizenship to immigrants and refugees, who eventually fought back. Our guide to this landscape is just such a ‘talented immigrant … denied citizenship by an unjust empire’, a Goth named Alaric who led the sack of Rome in 410 ce, the first since the Gauls attacked the city eight hundred years earlier.
It’s a nice idea, and Boin finds room amid his soldiers and sackings for imperial women, provincial clerics and Persian architects in a ‘multicultural, multiracial, multi-ethnic’ late antiquity (though the absence of a single map is a great disservice to readers). Goths first appear in Roman reports in the early second century ce, when they were little more than a name, distant barbarians based around the Black Sea. They came into focus in the third century, as reports accumulated of Gothic attacks on Roman interests in the Balkans and Anatolia, part of a wider pattern of skirmishing on the empire’s northern frontier. Rome’s troubles in this period already included a failing economy, an expanding Persian empire, plague and an institutionalised state of civil war that saw them grind through more than 25 emperors in fifty years.
In the 280s, Diocletian, the last of these warlords, divided the Roman state into Eastern and Western administrations, with separate co-emperors, and established new Western capitals closer to the border, at Trier and Milan. This ushered in an era of relative peace, characterised by gentle decline at Rome and new opportunities for barbarians. In the fourth century, Gothic immigrants flocked to the imperial cities, with more than thirty thousand settling in Rome alone. Tens of thousands more joined the Roman army, which offered a good wage and the opportunity to learn a trade, as well as land, farming equipment and tax breaks on discharge. Others entered Roman service involuntarily: enslaved Goths were found in large numbers throughout the empire.
The Goths who remained north-east of the border along the Rhine and Danube faced a new threat. Nomadic herders from Central Asia, known to the Romans as Huns, were moving west, and by the 370s they had begun to encroach on Gothic lands to the north and west of the Black Sea. Caught between the invading Huns and the Roman frontier, many Goths sought refuge to the south.
It’s easy to find modern parallels for the plight of the Goths, and Boin does so with relish. Roman boats patrolled the broad and dangerous Danube, turning back refugee craft; when asylum seekers were permitted to cross they often faced brutal mistreatment. In one notorious incident in 376, a very large group of Goths came down to the Danube – hundreds of thousands according to one source – and begged the Emperor Valens for some land within his empire. In return, they promised to submit to him and provide soldiers for the army. When Valens finally agreed, they were permitted to cross in whatever boats, rafts and hollow tree-trunks they could commandeer, and many drowned en route. The survivors were admitted into a series of holding camps on the Roman side, where corrupt officials reportedly forced them to sell their children into slavery in exchange for dog-meat to avoid starvation.
Gothic refugees finally joined together to revolt against their unwelcoming hosts. In 378 they defeated the imperial troops who came to put them down, killing Valens himself along with two-thirds of the Eastern Roman army. It was a victory on the scale of Hannibal’s at Cannae six hundred years earlier, and the Romans learned their lesson. When another Gothic federation requested permission to enter the empire a decade later, they were instructed to cross at night, allowing Roman boats to surround and sink them, selling the survivors into slavery. Prejudice against foreigners increased within the empire too, especially from Christians. The poet Prudentius explained that ‘what is Roman and what is barbarian are as different from each other as the four-footed creature is distinct from the two-footed or the dumb from the speaking.’ Assimilation was enforced: in 399 the Western emperor banned trousers and boots from the streets of Rome.
This is the world in which Alaric grew up. The evidence for his life is fragmentary and unreliable, and Boin responds with creativity. His Alaric was born around 370 in the Danube delta, in what is now Romania. Boin describes an idyllic childhood in a land of farming and fishing villages, where homes were dug out of the ground for protection against the harsh elements and a boy’s classroom was the great outdoors. We don’t in fact know where Alaric grew up or even on which side of the border: he may well have crossed the Danube as an infant in the great escape of 376.
Alaric appears in contemporary Roman sources for the first time in the early 390s, when he is said to have caused trouble in Thrace and prevented the Eastern emperor, Theodosius, from crossing the River Maritza. Boin suggests he was engaged in opportunistic highway robbery; it seems more probable that he was involved in another major Gothic revolt taking place in the Balkans, and that the trouble he caused – the report doesn’t go into further details – was not holding up the emperor’s coach but confining his army to the Bosphorus. By 394 Alaric was serving in that Roman army, fighting for Theodosius at the foot of the Alps against the Western usurper Eugenius, under a Gothic commander named Gainas. Barbarians had been appointed to senior posts in the army and the imperial administration for a generation by this point, but for the most part Gothic soldiers were expendable. Theodosius, a devout Christian who banned pagan rites and animal sacrifice within his empire, happily sacrificed thousands of Gothic soldiers for his victory, before impaling his rival’s head on a stick and touring Italian towns with it.
Alaric survived, but parted company with the Roman army, apparently after his request for promotion was turned down, and set off for Constantinople with a band of supporters. It’s reasonable to assume they weren’t happy with the way they had been treated by the Romans, and Boin suggests that Alaric had visions of storming the imperial palace. In the event, however, he waited patiently outside the walls for a contact at court to negotiate a financial arrangement. The plan fell apart when his ally was murdered by his old general Gainas, now high up in the imperial administration. Boin is baffled as to why Gainas kills ‘an open-minded Roman ready to support the Gothic cause’; he doesn’t like to entertain the possibility that for Gainas, and for Alaric too, trying to make the best of the opportunities on offer in a hostile world, their principal cause is themselves.
After this disappointment, Alaric marauded around Greece for a couple of years until he finally made a deal with Theodosius’ son Arcadius, who was now the Eastern emperor. His men received funds and land, and Alaric himself was awarded overall military command in the Balkans, a crucial bulwark between warring emperors in Anatolia and Italy. This may seem surprising, but it was in Arcadius’ interest to keep charismatic barbarians on side, or at least where he could see them, and Alaric was becoming the darling of discontented Goths across the empire.
Dropped from imperial service in 401 (the circumstances are murky), Alaric’s immediate reaction was to invade Italy, where he was beaten back by Stilicho, a man of Vandal descent who had become the most powerful commander in the Western Empire, and had married Theodosius’ niece Serena. Roman imperial games in this era were played out not only through barbarians but increasingly by them, and shortly afterwards Alaric became embroiled in a plot of Stilicho’s against Arcadius. When Stilicho was murdered by the Western emperor Honorius’ agents in 408, Alaric attacked Rome.
According to Boin, this was his ‘last and perhaps most effective weapon for gaining the attention of a government that refused to make him a full partner or his people full citizens’. As Boin admits in an endnote, academics have traditionally taken the view that after Caracalla conferred citizenship on all free-born residents of the Roman Empire in 212 ce, the category itself became irrelevant. Caracalla’s legislation was not prospective, however, and Boin makes the case that citizenship was of some rhetorical importance at least in the late fourth century. More problematic is his assumption that Alaric shares this concern, since there is no record of Alaric showing any interest at all in such matters.
Alaric’s initial target in the winter of 408 was not the city of Rome itself but its harbour, where he mounted a shipping blockade that caused months of food shortages. When Roman ambassadors asked what it would take to get him to open the port, his answer was not citizenship but five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, four thousand silk tunics, three thousand scarlet cloaks (no boots or trousers for him) and three thousand pounds of pepper, a delicacy imported from India to treat eye disorders as well as to season food. Alaric then negotiated with Emperor Honorius himself, but citizenship still wasn’t on the agenda: he requested another position in the imperial administration, food and ‘permission to live on Roman land’ for himself and his followers.
This is a red flag for Boin: immigrants didn’t technically need permission to settle where they liked, so the reports must misunderstand Alaric’s position. ‘More likely,’ Boin suggests, ‘Alaric requested a legally protected way of living on Roman land, the kind that would have been associated with Roman citizenship.’ He finds support for his interpretation in a sixth-century historian, Zosimus, who says that Alaric demanded land for himself and his followers in northern Italy and neighbouring areas. In enterprising spirit, Boin first glosses this as a request for ‘a home’, and then explains that ‘for a Goth to have a “home” within Rome’s borders meant having a right to live peacefully without harassment, the same as any citizen.’ It seems more likely that Alaric was asking for a land grant, a standard benefit offered to many barbarian immigrants. It is one thing to be permitted to settle anywhere in theory, but if all the good land is owned by someone else – the emperor, for example – you can’t take it for yourself, or not for long.
Alaric’s lengthy negotiations with Honorius eventually collapsed, and on 24 August 410, he and his men stormed the city. Boin reassures us that they burned and looted with discrimination: Alaric announced that anyone who sought sanctuary in a church would be spared, urged his men to refrain from shedding blood, and withdrew after three days. They headed for North Africa, but a storm stymied their attempted crossing and Alaric died in an Italian port, perhaps of malaria. His men eventually got their grant though: good land with good connections on the Bay of Biscay. This was the beginning of the western, or Visigothic Kingdom, that would later rule Spain alongside an eastern, Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy.
The Romans too picked themselves up and carried on. The Spanish historian Orosius tells us a few years later that visitors to the city would hardly have known that anything had happened. The fame of the events of 410, as Boin explains, has nothing to do with dispassionate contemporary reports or even terrified eyewitness accounts, but with prurient Church Fathers based in Asia and Africa, who viewed the sack of Rome as a disaster of biblical proportions, as reparations for the sins of the new Babylon, or as the beginning of the end of days. For Saint Jerome, writing from Syria Palaestina, ‘the whole world perished in one city.’
Like the Roman Empire, however, Rome didn’t fall: not in 410; not in 455 when the Vandals sacked it again; not in 476, when a hard-nosed emperor in Constantinople handed Rome and the rest of Italy to the barbarian client king Odoacer; and not even in 663, when the Roman Emperor Constans II himself stripped the city, although it lost much of its metal on that occasion to Byzantine armament factories. Rome grew smaller, certainly, less wealthy and less influential, but it also reinvented itself as the centre of the Catholic world.
There’s no hiding the role of contemporary history in Boin’s project: ‘This was an age of extremism, a time when moderates everywhere lost political ground and radical beliefs about religious identity, state borders and cultural exchange polluted the air, spreading unchecked across three continents.’ A story in the ancient sources that Gothic children were taken as hostages by the Romans to be brought up far away from their families is redescribed as a family-separation programme run by ‘the border patrol’. Alaric himself was ‘radicalised’ by his experience in Roman cities and at Roman hands. His attack on Rome was not only predictable but predicted: senators ‘had been privy to intelligence briefings and high-level deliberations about threats facing the empire, one of which mentioned the prospect of “terror”’. We even get a taste of the conspiracy theorist Q in Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who ‘preached about the contentious debates in the Roman Senate and reminded Christians that they were locked in a spiritual war against the forces of evil. Fed a regular dose of his vivid, apocalyptic language, many Christians came to believe that angels were fighting demons for control of their empire and that only the Emperor Theodosius deserved their unqualified support.’
It’s easy to condemn the widespread appropriation of the Greco-Roman past by the alt-right in recent years. Misunderstood Greek phrases and images of Roman statues that have been scrubbed clean of their original colours fuel online narratives of white supremacy. Correcting the mistakes has proved entirely ineffective; turning the tables may be a better idea. Boin published his book before the attack on the US Capitol, but his reading of the ancient past through the lens of contemporary trauma offers a fitting epitaph to a regime that did not fall but petered out – and a reminder that even a failed sack can be given meaning.