Invasions of Rome (4th and 5th centuries ce)

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Invasions of Rome (4th and 5th centuries ce)

Major Figures


Constantine the Great (ca. 280–337) is credited with being the first Christian emperor of Rome. He removed restrictions against Christians in the Empire, convened the Council of Nicaea to settle issues of Christian doctrine, and relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople—a city formerly called Byzantium, and today known as Istanbul.

A Divided Empire

Constantine was born in the Balkans in what is now Serbia, around 280. In the years following Constantine’s birth, Emperor Diocletian enacted many reforms to keep the Roman Empire from collapsing. One such reform was to divide the Empire in half and appoint a co-emperor in the West, while Diocletian ruled in the East. The two emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, then appointed junior emperors to succeed them.

Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus, had distinguished himself in battle and risen in importance in Roman society. He left Constantine’s mother (an innkeeper’s daughter) to marry the daughter or stepdaughter of Maximian and was then appointed junior emperor. Constantine benefited from his father’s position; when Diocletian and Maximian retired in 305, Constantius Chlorus became Emperor of the West. He died a year later while campaigning in Britain with his son, and his legions proclaimed Constantine the new junior emperor.

Constantine Wages Civil War

Political intrigues and murder followed, as no fewer than six would-be emperors claimed the throne, including Constantine. Maximian returned from retirement to ally with Constantine, who divorced his first wife to marry Maximian’s daughter Fausta. This made Constantine a brother-in-law to his widowed stepmother. In a few years, when Maximian turned against him, Constantine had the former emperor strangled. He then entered into a civil war with Maximian’s son, Maxentius.

The Battle of Milvian Bridge

Constantine and Maxentius met with their troops at the Milvian Bridge of Rome in 312. The bridge, built two hundred years earlier, spanned the Tiber River and is now called the Ponte Milvio.

Constantine told the historian Eusebius that he saw a vision the day before the battle: a cross appeared on the sun with the words in hoc signo vinces (“in this sign shall you conquer”). Knowing the cross was a Christian symbol, he had his men draw another Christian symbol, the labarum, on their shields. His troops were victorious, and Maxentius drowned in the Tiber.

Constantine as a Champion of Christianity

Constantine co-ruled the Empire for ten years with a man named Licinius, but they eventually fought each other for ultimate control. In two brief years of truce, however, much was accomplished. Licinius and Constantine agreed on the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity and returning property taken from congregations. On the day the Edict was proclaimed, Licinius married Constantine’s half-sister.

Both the Roman Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches consider Helena, the mother of Constantine, to be a saint. This innkeeper’s daughter is believed to have found the True Cross of Christ and to have had great influence in her son’s life. The historical record shows that Constantine himself was ambiguous about Christianity. He respected it, defended it, and facilitated debate and discussion over its principals. However, he did not allow himself to be baptized until he was on his deathbed.

Political Actions

Civil conflicts broke out between the two emperors until Constantine beat Licinius decisively in 323. He spared Licinius’s life for his sister’s sake, but then changed his mind and had Licinius executed the following year. After Licinius’s death, Constantine ruled as the only emperor and eventually moved the seat of the government to Byzantium.

Constantine furthered Diocletian’s separation of the powers of the military from the civilian government. With the army, Constantine is credited with creating a central force called the comitatensis, to be held in reserve within the Empire (rather than on the frontier). He also increased the number of barbarian soldiers in the army, a practice that would continue after him. In the early fourth century, the army included half a million men and was highly mobile. New laws bound sons of veterans to army service, much like other laws that forced farmers, shipbuilders, and workers to stay with their occupations for life and made their jobs hereditary.

Constantine financed his ventures—including the building of his new city Constantinople—through taxes, custom duties, and by plundering pagan temples. A new gold coin, the solidus, was introduced, and it remained the standard unit of exchange for centuries.

Absolute Power

Many of Constantine’s actions seem at odds with his reputation as a supporter of Christianity. In 325, he convened the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and took sides as issues were discussed. The Arian controversy was rejected and the Nicean Creed adopted as a statement of official Christian beliefs. In the following year, Constantine had his oldest son executed for unknown reasons. His eleven-year-old nephew was also killed. Iin the following year, Constantine’s wife Fausta was deliberately drowned.

Constantine died in May 337, having profoundly affected the lives of all in the Roman Empire. In his reign, power shifted from West to East; now favored, Christianity would soon become the state religion. In keeping with the violence of his personal life, however, many of his relatives were lynched by the army when Constantine died, leaving only three sons and two nephews alive.


Alatheus was a leader of the Greuthungi, a Gothic tribe, and the guardian of the young king of that tribe. In 378 ce Alatheus led his cavalry and soldiers to aid the Tervingi during the Battle of Adrianople.

Alatheus’s People

The Greuthungi inhabited a territory located north of the Tervingi, another Gothic tribe. The Greuthungi became known as the Ostrogoths in the fifth century ce . Where the tribe actually originated and lived is unknown.

The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus claimed that the Greuthungi were ruled by a warlike and feared king, Ermanaric. This ruler committed suicide when his land was overrun by the Huns and Alans around 370 ce , and the new king, Vithimir, was killed in battle. The king’s son, Videric, was too young to lead, so care of the tribe was left to the chieftains Alatheus and Saphrax. These two regents led the Greuthungi west to the Dneister River in today’s Moldava, probably to escape the Huns.

Alliance with the Tervingi

The Tervingi, also pushed out of their homeland, asked permission of Rome to cross the Danube into the Empire. The Greuthungi arrived a few months later and also petitioned to cross. The Tervingi were allowed into the Empire, but the Greuthungi were not—the reason is not known. The Greuthungi under Alatheus, however, crossed in boats without permission and made camps out of sight of the Roman forts.

The Battle of Ad Salices

The Tervingi, badly treated by the Romans near the Danube, revolted and terrorized the Roman province of Haemimont for nearly two years. Alatheus and Saphrax allied with the Tervingi, whose leader was Fritigern. In the late summer of 377, the first substantial fighting between Roman soldiers and the Goths took place, probably in modern Romania, at Ad Salices (Latin for “the Willows”).

The Roman force was jointly commanded by Richomeres, a general deployed by Gratian, the Roman Emperor of the West, and two generals sent by Emperor Valens of the East. The fighting was fierce, but neither side won a clear victory. The Goths retreated to the mountains for the winter. Other skirmishes followed, but the historical record depends largely on Ammianus’s account. The whereabouts of Alatheus and his followers are not mentioned often.

Later Battles

The Goths delivered a stunning defeat to Rome at the Battle of Adrianople the following year. Alatheus and Saphrax led both the Greuthungi and a unit of Alans in that battle. Although they had been out foraging for food, they returned to camp just as the battle began. They immediately charged into the Roman left flank and joined in annihilating the enemy.

Only one historian, Jordanes, offers more information about Alatheus. As he wrote in the sixth century, his account may not be reliable. Jordanes reported that several years later, under the reign of Theodosius, Alatheus—still acting with Saphrax—rode to Pannonia (Hungary) with part of the Gothic force, while Fritigern of the Tervingi led the rest of the troops to other areas.


Theodosius the Great (346–395 ce ) became Roman Emperor of the East in 379, just after an unexpected and—to the Romans—terrifying military loss in the Battle of Adrianople. During his fifteen-year reign, he restored stability, making peace with the Goths and allowing them to settle in Thrace. Theodosius also actively promoted Christianity in the Empire.

Early Career

Born in Spain in January 346, Theodosius was named for his father, a general in the Roman army. The younger Theodosius also found success in the army, defending Rome’s frontier along the Danube River in the Balkans. By age thirty, Theodosius had risen to dux Moesiae (military commander of the province of Moesia) when his family fell out of political favor. His father was executed, and Theodosius returned to Spain.

Back in his home country, Theodosius married and his first son, Arcadius, was born. Far away, the Emperor Valens died during the Battle of Adrianople, the worst defeat the Empire had ever suffered. The Western Emperor, Gratian—who had likely ordered the death of the elder Theodosius—summoned the younger Theodosius back to the Balkans to deal with the crisis. Gothic tribes were rampaging through the province of Haemimont (eastern Bulgaria). It took two years, but Theodosius and his armies were eventually able to restore Roman rule.

Emperor Theodosius

History does not give us many details, but somehow Theodosius became Emperor of the East in 379. He raised new troops to replace those lost at Adrianople and fought the Goths in several provinces: Thrace (western Bulgaria), Macedonia, Thessaly (Greece), and Pannonia (Hungary). Not until the following year was Theodosius able to visit Constantinople (Istanbul), his imperial capital.

With little help from Gratian, Theodosius negotiated for peace with the Goths. In October 382, Theodosius granted them lands in Thrace and allowed them to keep their tribal leaders. Over the next decade, many Goths served in Theodosius’s legions.

Actions as Emperor

After becoming Emperor, Theodosius underwent baptism in 380. He then expelled the Arian bishop of Constantinople (Arians believed that Jesus was a lesser deity than God Himself) and installed his own candidate who would uphold the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.

While revolt in Arabia and possible war with Persia faced Theodosius in the east, a general named Magnus Maximus seized control in Britain, Spain, and Gaul. Maximus proclaimed himself Emperor, and Gratian’s own troops defected to Maximus. Gratian was assassinated in 383.

Five years later, Maximus invaded Italy. Theodosius’s position was fairly strong; he commanded strong forces and had signed a treaty with Persia. Theodosius confronted Maximus in Pannonia, fighting two battles to defeat him. After Maximus died, Theodosius traveled to Rome and pardoned many of Maximus’s followers and troops, thus enhancing his own popularity and strength. Theodosius married Galla, the sister of both the late Western Emperor Gratian and his successor, Valentinian II.

While in Rome, Theodosius learned that the military governor of Thessalonica had been assassinated. In retaliation, he allowed the massacre of seven thousand people by the army. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (later St. Ambrose), excommunicated the Emperor over this. Theodosius was forced to bow to Ambrose, do penance, and ask forgiveness before being allowed back into the church. Ambrose is credited with influencing the Emperor’s “Theodosian Decrees,” which disbanded the Vestal Virgins and halted many vestiges of pagan practices in the Empire (including the Olympic Games).

Battle of Frigidus

Theodosius had named his general Arbogast as guardian of Valentinian II, who was fifteen or sixteen years old. In 392, the young emperor was found dead; whether he hung himself or was murdered remains an open question. Arbogast proclaimed Eugenius, a pagan scholar, as the new Western Emperor. Theodosius led an army west to confront Arbogast. His youngest son Honorius accompanied him, and several thousand Gothic troops followed him. One of the Gothic commanders was Alaric, who would later turn against Rome. Both sides used barbarian troops in the battle: Arbogast employed Franks, while Huns as well as Goths rode with Theodosius.

On September 5, 394, Theodosius and Arbogast fought in the Julian Alps at the Frigidus River (today’s Slovenia). On that first day, Theodosius lost ten thousand men in a direct, frontal attack. On the second day, a strong wind from the east blew against Arbogast. Spears and arrows hurled by Arbogast’s troops did not reach Theodosius’s soldiers, but the weapons of the Christian army flew with more force, powered by the same wind. Theodosius was victorious; Eugenius was beheaded and Arbogast committed suicide. The battle was seen by many as a clash of Christians against pagans.

After Eugenius’s death, Theodosius named his own son Honorius as Western co-Emperor, with Stilicho, a trusted general of half-Vandal heritage, as his guardian. Stilicho had fought with Theodosius at Frigidus and was married to Theodosius’s niece.

Theodosius died in Milan of congestive heart failure on January 17, 395—just after his forty-eighth birthday.


Executed in 408 ce , Stilicho served as general, ambassador, advisor, guardian, and consul to the Western Roman Empire. Although his roles within the empire are well-documented, whether he labored in order to save Rome or for the advancement of his own family is not clear.

Stilicho’s Rise to Power

Stilicho was born into a family both German and Roman: his father was of the Vandal tribe, and his mother carried Roman citizenship. Stilicho distinguished himself in the army under emperor Theodosius, and he proved himself an able diplomat as envoy to Persia around the year 384. After Stilicho raised and commanded troops during the Battle of Frigidus, Theodosius appointed him magister utriusque militae (“master of both services”), which put him in charge of both the cavalry and infantry of the Western Empire. Stilicho married Serena, who was a niece of Theodosius.

Before Theodosius died in 395, he named Stilicho the protector of his two sons. The youngest, Honorius, was only ten when he became Emperor of the West. His brother Arcadius, Emperor of the East, was probably seventeen. Throughout his life, Arcadius remained the tool of manipulative advisors such as his prefect, Rufinus.

Immediate Problems

The Empire was not strong and faced threats on several borders: Franks gathered along the Rhine, Alaric—a former ally—led Goths across the Danube, and Germanic tribes raided throughout Pannonia (Hungary).

Stilicho led an army of combined forces from the East and West to suppress the Goths, but Arcadius recalled his forces based on the advice of Rufinus. This forced Stilicho to withdraw. When the Eastern forces returned to Constantinople, however, they surrounded and killed Rufinus, probably on Stilicho’s orders.

Putting Down Revolts

Within a year, Stilicho led troops against Alaric once again, but a revolt in North Africa forced him to abandon the campaign. Grain from North Africa was vital to the West, but Gildo, the governor there, refused to send it, threatening to ship the grain to the Eastern Empire instead. Gildo had once murdered his own brother’s sons, so Stilicho sent an army under Gildo’s brother to defeat the governor. The victory was quick: Gildo’s forces put up no resistance and Gildo himself committed suicide rather than face his brother’s vengeance.

Goths Invade Italy

Stilicho was appointed consul in Rome and Honorius, the Western Emperor, married Stilicho’s daughter. Military affairs, however, demanded Stilicho’a attention. In 401, he gathered troops to travel north of the Alps and confront the Vandals and their leader Radagaisus. While this fight raged, Honorius, in Milan, became the target of Alaric and the Goths. Stilicho defeated the Vandals, then brought in troops from the Rhine frontier and Britain to battle Alaric in early 402.

On April 6 of that year, Alaric and Stilicho fought at Pollentia. Although the Romans occupied the Goths’ camp, no clear victory was won. A negotiated treaty forced Alaric out of Italy, but he returned the next year to attack Verona. Stilicho fought him once more, winning the battle but again allowing Alaric to negotiate for his life. Honorius celebrated with a triumph in Rome.

Germanic tribes under Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405. They ravaged the countryside for six months; Stilicho was forced to add Hunnic mercenaries to his small army to stop them. Gaul was invaded by Germans the following year. While Stilicho’s attention was on a power struggle with the Eastern Empire, the Roman army in Britain crowned a new “emperor” who invaded Gaul from the West.

Stilicho’s Downfall

Alaric, now an ally, demanded an exorbitant four thousand pounds of gold for his military help to the Empire. Stilicho used his influence to secure payment for Alaric. He likely wanted to use Alaric’s army to reclaim Gaul, but his influence was waning. The many problems of the Empire were blamed on him. As a result of his Vandal heritage, most Romans distrusted him.

Arcadius, Emperor of the East, died in 408. Honorius was convinced that Stilicho plotted to put his own son on the Eastern throne, so he had Stilicho arrested and beheaded on August 22 that same year. This single death was not enough, however: Stilicho’s son was murdered as well, his estates were confiscated, and the families of barbarian soldiers throughout the Empire were massacred. The Senate even ordered the strangulation of Stilicho’s widow.

In the wake of Stilicho’s death and the anti-German massacre that followed, thousands of angry Goths, Vandals, former Roman soldiers, and escaped slaves flocked to Alaric as he marched on Rome. Though he had fought to preserve the Empire, Stilicho’s legacy helped lead to its destruction.


Alaric, a Gothic chieftain, fought for and against the Roman Empire under Stilicho and Emperor Theodosius. He broke with the Empire completely in 408 ce to march on Rome, sacking the city two years later.

Early Life

Alaric’s early life is largely undocumented. A sixth century writer, Jordanes, constructed an aristocratic Visigoth heritage for him, but the accuracy of his work is debated. Alaric was among the many Goths who fought with Emperor Theodosius in the Battle of Frigidus in 394. His age can only be guessed.

Stilicho, guardian of Theodosius’s ten-year-old son, sent Alaric and his auxiliaries east the following year, to lands given them in 382. Alaric left angry; he felt he deserved a command or promotion for his part in the Battle of Frigidus. Soon, he led a growing group of Goths in revolt against Rome.

Battles with Stilicho

The rebels marched to Constantinople (Istanbul), capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Emperor Arcadius sent his prefect to bribe Alaric into withdrawing. Alaric and the Goths pillaged throughout Macedonia and Thessaly (Greece) until Stilicho led a combined army of troops from the Eastern and Western Empires to stop them. Arcadius ordered his troops home, however, so Stilicho returned to the west.

The Goths pushed further south into Greece. Alaric spared Athens but sacked Sparta, Corinth, and other cities. In 397, Stilicho sailed to Greece but again retreated to put down a revolt in Africa. The Eastern Emperor granted Alaric a military position in his empire: according to one account, Alaric became governor of Illyricum (Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, and Slovenian lands today).

In late 401, Alaric led his troops into Italy. History does not record the reason for this march. He besieged the city of Milan. Stilicho assembled an army the following spring, and the two met in battle at Pollentia on Easter Sunday. Stilicho captured Alaric’s wife and children along with a great deal of plunder, but the victory was not decisive. A truce followed, and Alaric agreed to leave Italy. He stayed out for only a year, however, then he and Stilicho fought again in Verona.

Change of Allegiance

Neither side won, leading historians to wonder if Stilicho truly wanted to crush Alaric. The Gothic army was strong and fierce—Stilicho may have hoped for an alliance with the Goths during their battles, and indeed, that is what happened. In 405, Alaric became an ally of Rome as Stilicho fought other invaders along the frontier. Stilicho now recognized Alaric as military governor of Illyricum.

Two years later, Alaric grew impatient with the Western Empire once more. He marched his troops to Noricum (Austria) and demanded four thousand pounds of gold as payment for his military services. Stilicho, who needed Alaric’s army to defeat an usurper in Gaul (France), convinced the Senate to pay. Unfortunately, this turned the Emperor against him. Stilicho was assassinated, and a backlash of murderous attacks on Germanic troops and families, including Goths, killed thousands in Italy.

The First Siege of Rome

The Germanic soldiers who escaped the slaughter fled to Alaric in Noricum. In the fall, Alaric marched south with up to forty thousand troops, meeting little resistance as he passed through Italy. He camped his army around Rome, blockading the Tiber.

Plague hit the city, adding to the misery of famine caused by the blockade, and corpses piled up in the streets. Devastated, Rome negotiated, promising five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, and other riches if Alaric would leave. In addition, the Emperor in Ravenna promised to negotiate for territory and hostages. Alaric agreed, accepted the treasure, and withdrew—but stayed in Italy.

The Second Siege

The Emperor did nothing. Athaulf, Alaric’s brother-in-law, joined him with more men. Alaric made further demands, which the Emperor refused. He lowered his demands and the Emperor refused again. Alaric surrounded Rome and blockaded its ports once more. The city surrendered, granted titles to Alaric and his brother, and accepted a puppet emperor, Priscus Attalus.

The Third Siege

Alaric’s faux emperor had his own agenda, so in 410 Alaric removed the pretender and journeyed to Ravenna to negotiate with the real Emperor. On the way, he was attacked by a Gothic general, Sarus, who was loyal to Rome. Alaric defeated Sarus and then returned to Rome, convinced that the Emperor was behind Sarus’s attack. Alaric entered the city on August 24 and turned his troops loose for three days to loot, rape, and burn. Among the captives taken was Galla Placidia, the Emperor’s sister, who later became the wife of Athaulf.

Having captured Rome, Alaric continued south, but he died at Cosenza in Calabria that year. Athaulf became leader of the Goths. His followers diverted the river Basunto so that a grave could be dug in the riverbed to house Alaric’s body and some of his wealth; the grave has never been found.


Attila (ca. 406–453 ce ), the terrifying leader of the nomadic Huns, was called the “Scourge of God” in his day. He defeated armies of the Eastern Roman Empire, threatened the Western Roman Empire, and seized large chunks of territory, but his heirs were unable to hold on to his conquests after his death.

The Huns

Aggressive and nomadic, the Asiatic Huns herded sheep and gathered food on the march. They spent so much time on horseback that some contemporary commentators wrote that they lived on their small, fast horses. When in battle, the ferocious Huns took no prisoners. The Roman Empire first noticed them when Hunnish attacks forced Gothic tribes to seek safety and new homes in Roman territory in 376 ce The influx of Goths led to the Battle of Adrianople, a military disaster for Rome.

A series of strong rulers united the Hunnish clans and led them out of the Central Asian steppes to take lands from other tribes. Rugila (or Rua) was one such leader. Upon his death in 434, he left his kingdom to two nephews, Attila and Bleda. In the following year, with the Huns in control of the province of Pannonia, Rome signed a treaty with Attila called the Peace of Margus. In it, Rome promised a yearly tribute of seven hundred pounds of gold to the Huns—a good indication of just how much the Empire feared these mounted warriors.

War Against the East

For five years, Attila fought elsewhere and ignored the Empire. In 441, he led his troops across the Danube and plundered Roman cities in the Balkans, one after the other, making his way to Constantinople (Istanbul). A few towns tried to defend themselves, and at least one battle was fought in Thrace, but Attila triumphed over all Roman efforts. Emperor Theodosius II had built new walls around the city but was forced to negotiate with the Huns, who tripled the annual tribute and demanded six thousand pounds of gold immediately.

When the Empire complied, Attila’s forces withdrew. Shortly after this, Attila had his brother Bleda killed and became sole leader of the Huns.

Battles in the West

In 450 Attila asked to marry Honoria, the sister of the Western Emperor. She had sent her ring to Attila, beseeching him to help her avoid an unwanted marriage. Attila’s request was refused, so he allied with the Vandals and prepared for war with the Western Empire. Attila waged a bloody and destructive campaign through the Rhine Valley, crossing lands in what is now northern Germany, Belgium, and France. The Roman general Aetius, who had lived among the Huns and once been Attila’s friend, raised an army of Romans and Visigoths to meet the Huns at the Battle of Chalons in Gaul (France). Aetius was victorious, though the Visigothic king was killed.

The Huns recovered sufficiently to attack Italy itself a year later. After the city of Aquileia on the Adriatic Sea was razed to the ground, Attila led his army through other northern cities and towns. He occupied Milan and threatened Rome, but Pope Leo I and two senators journeyed north and pleaded successfully for Rome to be spared. The Pope is given credit for convincing Attila to return to Pannonia.

Death of Attila

Attila had several wives, and in 453 he took another bride. He was no longer young though, and after much feasting and drinking, he passed out on his wedding bed and died of a hemorrhage. His sons divided his empire between them. The Huns remained a nomadic people and without a strong leader to unite them, the lands they had seized soon fell into chaos.


Theodoric the Great (ca. 453–526) was king of the Ostrogoths, or “West Goths.” As the second Germanic king to rule the former Western Roman Empire (reigning from 493 until his death), Theodoric kept order and peace in Italy. After his death, the structure of the former Empire collapsed amid war, disease, and famine.

Rise to Power

The Ostrogoths were descended from the Greuthungi tribe that crossed into the West Roman Empire in the late fourth century ce Theodoric, as the son of king Theudimir, was sent as a hostage to the Eastern Empire capital of Constantinople (Istanbul). This practice was common; the presence of noble children ensured cooperation and peace between lands and usually resulted in a good education for the child and mutual understanding between different societies. After ten years at the Imperial court, Theodoric returned to Pannonia (Hungary) and his people in 471.

Theudimir died three years later and Theodoric became king. Like his father, Theodoric invaded other lands to expand his holdings, and his conquests were recognized by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno. Theodoric also waged war against Imperial provinces in the Balkans, but he sometimes allied with those provinces against other lands. In 488, Zeno commissioned Theodoric to conquer Italy, which had fallen to the German King Odovacar twelve years earlier.

Theodoric Takes Italy

Years passed before Theodoric and his people, who numbered over one hundred thousand, eradicated all of Odovacar’s supporters. The Scirian king had allies, but he was defeated in several battles in northern Italy. He retreated to Ravenna and then emerged to fight again. Theodoric concocted a secret plot with citizens who favored him over Odovacar, and on a set date, they rose up and massacred Odovacar’s troops in cities throughout the north.

Odovacar still did not surrender, so Theodoric laid siege to Ravenna for two and a half years. Finally, Ravenna’s bishop arranged a treaty by which both kings would share power. Theodoric agreed, entered Ravenna, and killed Odovacar with his own hands—during the banquet that celebrated their treaty. Odovacar’s remaining troops were killed as well.

Theodoric as King

Theodoric ruled over two groups: his own Ostrogoths and the Roman citizens of Italy. From a religious standpoint, the Ostrogoths were largely Arians, believing in a slightly different version of Christianity than the Romans. Over his thirty-three year reign, Theodoric managed to keep peace between factions, most of the time.

He placated the Roman citizens of Italy by carefully acting as a governor rather than as a king towards them. To restore the lands and cities devastated by war, he launched public works programs and especially beautified Ravenna, his chosen base. He settled the Ostrogoths in Italy, ruling that they be given one-third of Roman estates, but left it to a Roman senator to accomplish the turnover. Two court systems were maintained: one for the Romans, and one for the Goths. The Eastern Emperor recognized Theodoric as military governor. The Roman Senate continued to meet, but the army was now composed entirely of Goths.

Later Years

One incident stands out to mar Theodoric’s legacy. The philosopher Boethius served as one of Theodoric’s ministers. He fell out of favor, possibly because Theodoric was an Arian Christian, while Boethius, like many Romans, followed the Nicene Creed. In 523, the Eastern Emperor Justin declared Arianism illegal in his domain. Theodoric accused Boethius of conspiring with the Eastern Emperor against him and threw Boethius into prison. Boethius wrote his most famous work, the Consolation of Philosophy, while in prison. He was executed in 524. His father-in-law Symmachus, as well as other statesmen, met the same fate.

Theodoric died in 526. Although he could act with suspicion and cruelty, he is remembered chiefly for protecting Italy and sustaining its institutions for years after the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist.

Major Battles

Adrianople, 378

On August 9, 378 ce , the Goths defeated the army of the Eastern Roman Empire under Emperor Valens, inflicting the worst military loss on the Romans since the empire began. To many scholars, this battle in the province of Haemimont (modern Bulgaria) signaled the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire.

Goths Cross the Danube

Two years before the great battle, Huns—a group previously unknown to Rome—attacked and pillaged the Gothic homeland. The Huns drove a large group of Goths to the Danube River, which was the border of the Roman Empire. The Tervingi, the principal tribe of refugees, begged for permission to cross into the Empire, live peacefully, and serve as auxiliaries in the Roman army. Permission was granted, perhaps because the Emperor Valens was preparing for war against Persia; more allies and auxiliaries could only help.

Tens of thousands of the Tervingi crossed into Roman territory. Once there, local Roman officials abused the Tervingi, starving and enslaving some of them. Fritigern, a Tervingi chieftain, revolted and led his people away. He defeated the initial Roman force sent to contain them.

Alarmed, Emperor Valens made a temporary peace in Persia and sent his generals Saturninus, Trajanus, and Profuturus to stop the Goths. His nephew Gratian, Emperor of the West, sent able commanders as well. Their small successes only made Fritigern more determined to hold his people together.

Rampaging through the countryside of Haemimont, Fritigern was joined by other tribes, rebels, escaped slaves, and even Gothic soldiers who abandoned their posts with the Roman armies. The Roman commander Saturninus blocked them in mountain passes, attempting to starve the Goths, but new allies—including the Huns—helped the Tervingi move south.

The Battle Approaches

Emperor Valens left Constantinople with at least fifteen thousand troops (and perhaps twice that number) behind him by the time he reached Adrianople. His scouts reported that the Goths numbered only ten thousand, but this was a fatal error, as in fact, the Goths may have outnumbered the Roman force. Fritigern, however, sent an emissary seeking peace to Valens, asking only for land for his people.

Valens refused the offer. He had already decided not to wait for his co-emperor Gratian and the Western Roman army. A jealous man, Valens desired a quick, glorious victory, and he did not want to share it. On August 9, 378 ce , Valens marched his army out of Adrianople to meet the Goths on a nearby ridge. Both sides stalled throughout the morning. Valens may have thought better of waiting for Gratian’s troops, while Fritigern hoped the Greuthungi and Alan cavalry under Alatheus and Saphrax would return from a foraging expedition. Buying time, Fritigern offered peace once more, then set fire to the grasslands.

Rome Defeated

One band of Imperial Guards advanced without orders and engaged the Goths and battle began in earnest. Because of this mistake and the sudden arrival of the mounted Greuthungi and their allies, Roman discipline broke and the fighting was disordered. The Roman left flank was cut off and surrounded by the enemy, and most of the soldiers were killed.

After hours of fighting, Rome’s auxiliaries fled, and several generals abandoned the field. Many others died; Rome lost at least two-thirds of its army that day. Valens, after losing most of his bodyguard, sought protection with a field unit but was eventually killed. After hearing of the loss, Gratian retreated to the West and left the area to the Goths.

After the battle, contemporary accounts paint a picture of an empire shocked to its core. Many Roman citizens reacted with fury; Gothic auxiliaries in the Roman army were massacred, and Goths in Roman cities were also killed. For other Romans, the defeat was seen as the judgment of long-neglected gods. Not until Gratian summoned Theodosius from Spain and asked him to calm the Balkans was order restored.


The Battle of Chalons in 451 ce was a rare defeat for Attila, leader of the Huns. After terrorizing both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire for years, the Huns were turned away from Gaul by the Roman general Aetius and his combined Roman, Alanic, and Visigothic troops.

An Excuse for War

In 450, Augusta Honoria—the thirty-year-old sister of Valentinian III, the Western Roman Emperor—wrote to Attila and asked him to help her escape betrothal to a man she loathed. There is no evidence that Honoria had ever met Attila; she probably turned to him to spite her brother. Attila chose to interpret this as a marriage proposal. In a message addressed not to Valentinian but to the Eastern Roman Emperor, Attila demanded Honoria’s hand and half the Western Empire. He must have expected that his proposal would be rejected by the furious Valentinian, and it was.

Using the rebuff as a pretext to wage war, Attila assembled not only Hunnish troops but also Vandals led by their king, Gaiseric. Other Germanic allies included Gepids from Dacia under King Arderic, Ostrogoths under three chieftains, and assorted bands of Rugians, Scirians, and Heruls. As Attila rampaged west and north, Burgundians and even some Franks fought and pillaged with him along the Rhine into present-day Germany, Belgium, and France.

The Empire Confronts Attila

Whether or not Attila actually led his cavalry to Paris, he did ride to Orleans, a larger city than Paris in the fifth century, intending to attack. By this time, though, Aetius, the Empire’s military governor of Gaul (France), had assembled an army to confront Attila. The force included Alanic and Celtic tribes from Armorica (Brittany), Salian Franks, Ripuarians, and Burgundians. Much of Aetius’s strength lay in the Visigoths, led by their King Theodoric and his son Thorismud. In the summer of 451, the presence of this army under Aetius and Theodoric was enough to drive Attila from Orleans, and there was no battle.

Aetius pursued Attila to what is now the Champagne region of France, near Troyes. The exact site where Aetius and Attila battled is not known, so the battle is referred to by several names. Besides being called the Battle of Chalons, it is also known as the Battle of Troyes, of the Catalaunian Fields, or of the Mauriac Plain.

Fight for the High Ground

Attila placed his Huns in the center of a line of battle. In the afternoon, Aetius faced him. He put the Alans in the center, because he did not trust them. Aetius flanked the Alans on the left, while Theodoric and the Visigoths fought on the right side. The two sides engaged in the afternoon and kept fighting through the evening. Theodoric was killed, but Aetius was able to take the high ground of the ridge.

Fighting continued the next day as Aetius’s men overran Attila’s camp. According to one story, Attila had a funeral pyre built behind the lines, so that if capture looked likely, he could immolate himself rather than submit. Casualty figures vary and are likely unreliable. One historian (Jordanes, who wrote in the sixth century) said 165,000 men fell during the fight, but that is probably an exaggerated number.

Although the Battle of Chalons was often painted as the miraculous victory of a united Roman force against bloodthirsty barbarians, the lineup of tribes presents a more complex picture. Loyalties shifted, and both Rome and the Huns were willing to fight alongside anyone on a temporary basis to gain victory.

Aetius weakened Attila by showing that he and his Huns were not unstoppable. After the battle, Aetius sent Thorismud home to protect his claim to the Visigothic kingship, and he disbanded his Frankish allies as well. Attila retreated but pursued his claim to Honoria by invading Italy the next year.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Mounted Soldiers

For centuries, cavalry troops played only a small role in the Roman legions. At the Battle of Cannae in 216 bce , for example, only six thousand of Rome’s eighty thousand troops were on horseback. (In that battle, the soldiers dismounted to fight, only to be quickly overcome by the larger and more effective Numidian light cavalry deployed by the Carthaginian commander, Hannibal.) Julius Caesar used only about three hundred cavalry troops in each of his legions—which were composed of up to six thousand men. Caesar used cavalry for skirmishes and pursuits, but he clearly considered the mounted men unreliable.

Changes in the Empire’s Cavalry

Under Augustus Caesar in the first century ce , each Roman legion had only 120 cavalry troops. Auxiliary and mercenary cavalry units increased, though, and by the time of Trajan, just after 100 ce , two types of cavalry existed: light, quick, and deadly archers, as well as more heavily armored horsemen who fought with spears and swords. By the third century ce , Emperor Diocletian had expanded the cavalry, using it as a mobile force to support the frontier garrisons.

Outside Influences

In the fourth century ce , Huns drove Gothic tribes into the Roman Empire. Like an earlier enemy of Rome (the Sarmatians), mounted Huns sped towards their targets in a wedge formation, breaking at the last minute to dash, feint, shoot arrows, and inflict damage quickly before wheeling away. The Goths adopted some of the Hun practices, and at the Battle of Adrianople, the sudden attack of Gothic cavalry devastated Roman infantry.

As it had many times before when faced with a military setback, Rome adjusted. Fifty years later, in 428 ce , cavalry comprised one-seventh of the troops stationed in Italy and Gaul and nearly half of the troops in North Africa. Cavalry troops were heavily recruited from Rome’s former enemies: the Gauls, Goths, Burgundians, and Huns.

The mounted riders of Rome had no stirrups; they gripped their horses with their knees while thrusting with lances and swords. Evidence of horseshoes is found by the fourth century ce in Continental Europe (the Celts of Britain had developed horseshoes three hundred years earlier).

After the Western Empire Fell

In the middle of the sixth century ce , Justinian, Emperor of the East, sent his general Belisarius to reconquer Italy, North Africa, and other former provinces. For a brief time, the Roman Empire was restored. Belisarius relied on his expert cavalry troops, who were now heavily protected with helmets, mail shirts, and greaves. They fought with bows, shooting while controlling the horses with their knees. In a reversal of earlier policy, foot soldiers were now perceived as weak and ineffective.


Stirrups probably developed in Asia, in either India or China, as early as the first century ce Persians and Avars used them by 694 ce , but metal stirrups remained unknown in the west. Historians think that Viking traders introduced stirrups to Europe; they were in use by the ninth century ce Although they no doubt gave archers leverage and more control while shooting, mounted warriors had proven effective and deadly without stirrups for centuries.

By the eleventh century ce , cavalry soldiers wore even more protective clothing, including steel boots, gauntlets, and jointed armor. The age of the medieval knight had arrived.

Impact on World History

Network of Cities

Rome created an urbanized empire. Each province had a metropolis (“mother city”), a capital with forums, baths, temples, and often a theater. Roads connected villages, which often grew to become larger towns. Cities housed up to twenty thousand people—an unprecedented development. One million lived in Rome itself. Although problems arose—such as inflation, sanitation issues, and food shortages, for example—for centuries these new cities symbolized the efficiency and centrality of Roman administration.

Of course, the conquered and absorbed provinces frequently lost their previous cultures and mythologies. In many cases, tribal structures, dialects, and traditions were wiped out. Only a few hundred words of the language of Gaul is known, for example, and most Gallic beliefs and teachings have been lost. For centuries the Empire imposed its single language throughout the Mediterranean area, along with its preferred writings, laws, arts, and customs. Roman ideals and traditions—not Gallic, Gothic, or Scythian—still affect the world today.

Reforms Create Changes in Society

The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine solved “the crisis of the third century,” a set of severe military, civil, and economic problems that threatened to destroy the Empire. In the fourth century ce , prosperity followed these reforms. A new upper class developed: a wealthy and educated elite that lived in villas throughout the Empire. Another change wrought by Constantine, the legalization of Christianity, had an even longer-lasting impact.

Once the emperor favored Christianity, citizens from Britain to Africa and Armenia openly embraced it. The Empire was united by urbanization, the efficient systems of roads and communication, a common language (Latin), and bureaucracy. The infrastructure was in place to diffuse the religion, its gospels, and other new ideas to all parts of the Empire.

Romans and Barbarians

By the fifth century ce , many barbarians (Germanic, Frankish, Gallic, and other tribal groups) had been absorbed into the Empire. By their dress, speech, education, and wealth, they were often indistinguishable from Romans. Outsiders invaded and fought for power in violent struggles until the Western Empire began to disintegrate into smaller kingdoms. The leaders of those kingdoms, however, tried to preserve the infrastructure that Rome had built over the centuries. They realized that an efficient and prosperous economy benefited both conquerors and citizens.

After the death of Theodoric in 526, disease, famine, and poverty fell on once-prosperous lands. The organized Western Roman Empire—which had kept its citizens safe and allowed many people to rise and flourish, and which had celebrated learning and achievement—was over. Although gone from the material world, it became enshrined both as a glorious past and as the embodiment of the ideal society for the future.


Roman ideals of beauty, art, and virtue profoundly influence art and philosophy to this day. Rome’s eventual acceptance of Christianity impacted the entire world for two millennia, and Latin is the basis for many of Euope’s languages. The militarism of Rome has been the model of many conquerors throughout history.

In the shorter term, Rome united much of Europe with its language, roads, and with its Christian fervor, setting the stage for the institutions of the Middle Ages to slowly develop out of the chaos of the Western Empire’s fall.

Rome’s impact can also be measured by what has been lost. Religions, languages, art forms, mythologies, ethical codes, and teachings disappeared because of Rome. Millions of people died in Rome’s wars. Rome shaped the world people now live in, but it often did so violently.

Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1997.

Burns, Thomas S. Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Bury, J.B. History of the Later Roman Empire. New York: Dover, 1931, rev. 1958.

Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe 300–1000. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Kulikowski, Michael. Rome’s Gothic Wars. J. C. Gieben: New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nicasie, N.J. Twilight of Empire. J.C. Gieben: Amsterdam, 1998.

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Invasions of Rome (4th and 5th centuries ce)

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