The Fall of the Western Roman Empire: Alaric and Attila

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The Roman Empire was already effectively split into an Eastern and an Western Empire. Beset by internal strife and external pressure from migrating ‘barbarians’, the Western Empire was faced with impending doom.

Image showing Alaric the Goth entering Athens.
Alaric the Goth was by turns ally and enemy of the Roman Empire. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain

Alaric and the Sack of Rome

In the early 400s, one of the most important barbarian warlords who became enmeshed in Roman politics was a Visigoth named Alaric. At various points in his career, he had served in the Roman army, fought against Arbogast at the Battle of the Frigidus River, turned against the Romans and looted a number of major cities.

Painting showing Alaric's Goths in an oxcart collecting loot in Rome.
Alaric’s Sack of Rome was focused on looting rather than destruction. (Image: By Évariste Vital Luminais/ Public domain)

Later, he had been bought off by the Romans with huge cash bribes, been appointed the general in charge of all Roman forces in Illyricum, fought with Stilicho, invaded Italy and then threatened to attack Rome. He was bought off yet again with money and titles, again threatened to invade, and then actually blockaded Rome.

Finally, in 410 AD, Alaric and a band of Visigoths marched down into Italy, captured Rome, and for three days looted the capital. Although the damage to the city was not severe, and Alaric and the Visigoths soon departed with their plunder, the psychological effect of this blow was immense.

For the first time in over 800 years, a foreign enemy had occupied the traditional capital of the empire. The city of Rome was invested with profound symbolic significance for the Romans, and their failure to protect it made plain the reduced state of Roman power as nothing else could have.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Decimation of the Empire and Abandoning Rome

The one thing that was eminently clear, however, was the weakness of the Western Empire, and numerous barbarian tribes swiftly took advantage, migrating into Roman provinces, carving them off, and establishing their own kingdoms in what had formerly been Roman territory. The Goths founded kingdoms in parts of Gaul and invaded Spain, while the Franks and Burgundians also settled in Gaul.

To the north, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes raided Britain. The Vandals moved into Spain, and then in 429 AD, crossed over the Strait of Gibraltar and overran North Africa, traveling steadily along the coast until they captured Carthage in 439 AD.

The emperors themselves had already abandoned Rome in 402 AD, shifting the court to the northern Italian city of Ravenna, which was safer due to its being surrounded by swamps. The Western Empire was being whittled down to little more than Italy, and even parts of that were soon seized by the Visigoths.

Learn more about early Roman history before the fall.

Attila and the Battle with the Huns

As bad as things seemed, they soon got even worse in the 450s when the Huns, the ultimate barbarians, came sweeping into western Europe, leaving a path of devastation in their wake. Unusually, the various Hunnic tribes had united under a single strong leader, Attila the Hun. An unlikely coalition formed to oppose them, consisting of the Western Roman Empire and the Visigoths, joined by elements of the Franks, Burgundians, Alans, and Saxons.

In 451, they fought a bitter battle on the Catalaunian Plains in France which ended in a stalemate, but it was enough to at least temporarily stop Attila’s advance. To the coalition, this was a great victory. The invincible Huns had been halted! To the Huns and Attila, however, it was no big deal. Accordingly, the next year, the Huns went straight for Rome, intending to plunder and destroy it.

However, in a rather mysterious episode, Pope Leo I went out to meet them, and Attila and the pope ate lunch together on the banks of a river in northern Italy. At the end of this unlikely luncheon, to everyone’s astonishment, Attila announced that the Huns were going back north to Gaul. No one is quite sure what the Pope said to Attila.

Painting depicting Attila's wedding feast.
Attila’s wedding feast ended in his death, and Rome was then safe from the Huns. (Image: Mór Than/Public domain)

Attila was still a danger, but fortunately for Rome, at this point, he decided to get married. His chosen bride was a young Germanic woman of the Burgundian tribe named Ilico, and he held a huge drunken feast to celebrate his nuptials. But, at some point during the night, whether it was from too much food, too much alcohol, or too much German girl, Attila the Hun died. Europe was saved. Without his leadership, the Huns splintered into small groups and would never again pose as serious a threat.

The Vandals Sack Rome

The Western Empire was on its last legs, however. In 455 AD, the Vandals, under Gaiseric, sailed up the Tiber River and captured Rome, sacking it much more thoroughly and destructively than Alaric had done earlier that century.

Still, the Western Empire continued to limp along and there was still officially a Roman emperor, even if he no longer ruled over much. Various barbarian warlords continued to exercise great influence within Roman politics and over the emperors.

Learn more about successive waves of barbarian invaders, beginning with the assault of the Huns.

Odovacer and the Last Western Roman Emperor

The last official Roman emperor in the west was a young man with the rather pretentious name of Romulus Augustulus. He was a completely undistinguished ruler, and probably would be utterly forgotten by history except that, in 476 AD, he was deposed by yet another barbarian serving in the Roman army.

This officer, named Odovacer, then broke with precedent by declining to install a new puppet emperor, but instead simply declared himself the king of Italy. From now on, barbarian kings would control the territories which had once constituted the western half of the Roman Empire. The western section of the Roman Empire was now either gone or so transformed as to be unrecognizable.

Common Questions about the Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Q. Why was Alaric’s sack of Rome such a blow to the Roman Empire?

Although the damage to the city was not severe and Alaric and the Visigoths soon departed with their plunder, the psychological effect of Alaric’s sack of Rome was immense. The city of Rome was invested with profound symbolic significance for the Romans, and their failure to protect it made plain the reduced state of Roman power.

Q. How were the Romans able to defeat Attila’s army?

The Huns were so feared that an unlikely coalition formed to oppose them, consisting of the Western Roman Empire and the Visigoths, joined by elements of the Franks, Burgundians, Alans, and Saxons. This coalition was able to stop Attila and his Huns.

Q. How was Attila’s second direct attack on Rome thwarted?

When Attila the Hun attacked Rome, Pope Leo I went out to meet him. After a meal together, Attila declared his decision to retreat from the territories of the Roman Empire.

Q. How did the Western Roman Empire finally collapse?

In 476 AD, the nominal emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by a barbarian officer of the Roman army. This officer, named Odovacer, declined to install a new puppet emperor, and instead simply declared himself the king of Italy. From this point, the Western Roman Empire was either gone or so transformed as to be unrecognizable.

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