The sack of Rome, considered by most historians to mark the fall of the Western Roman Empire, happened on this day, August 27th, 410AD.
It was the first time in 800 years that Rome had fallen to a foreign enemy.
The Empire had been in decline for almost two centuries, with invasions, on and off, by the visigoths dating from about 238AD.
By 410, all that was left under the control of the “legitimate” Emperor, Flavius Honorious, was most of Italy. The Imperial Court had long since left Rome, and was now based at Ravenna.
The sack of Rome took place in response to a slight. Honorious was upset that the Roman General Stilichio had done a deal with the visigoths, paying them tribute in return for peace. Stilichio, known as the “last of the great Roman Generals” was famous throughout the world for winning a series of victories over the barbarians, and forcing them to terms – but his terms offended Honorious. Unwisely, the Emperor ordered the execution of the General, and his family.
This act of cruelty was the perfect pretext for the Visigothic leader, Alaric. He had long wanted to invade Rome, and the notion that the Emperor had slighted his people by betraying a treaty gave him the pretext. He crossed into Italy with 30,000 men. The Emperor had fewer than a third of that number to oppose him.
Nonetheless, the Emperor despatched 6,000 men from his personal garrison to defend the city of Rome. Had they made it to Rome, history may have been slightly different – but they did not. Their commander decided it would be dishonourable to run around the barbarian army, without facing it in battle. They met the goths in open combat, and all but 100 were killed.
Alaric and his army proceeded to Rome, which threw open its gates. The city was sacked, the old roman temples destroyed, and thousands fled.
The Roman Empire, which had stood for 600 years, had fallen.
On this day, August 27th, 410AD.