The End of the Roman Empire II

The Invasion of Italy

Stilicho, by his treaty with Alaric in Greece, had bought himself time to deal with other enemies – notably some north African rebels. Alaric, for his part, had obtained an excellent springboard for attack on Italy. In addition, Illyricum contained mines and arsenals from which his troops could be supplied. His offensive in the year AD 400 was well planned and had been preceded by negotiations with Ostrogothic settlers north of the Alps. As Alaric advanced round the Adriatic his allies descended from the mountains. But Stilicho was able to deflect this pincer movement, which was perhaps mistimed, and by prompt action compelled the northern enemies to retire before he confronted Alaric.

Like other barbarians, the Goths found difficulty in penetrating fortifications. Even so, the Emperor Honorius, placing little reliance on his fortress of Asta (Asti), abandoned the area of Milan and took up residence in Ravenna, where the marshes provided additional security. Stilicho, after a campaign of much manoeuvring and a fierce battle at Pollentia, inflicted a final defeat on Alaric near Verona in 403, thus securing the return of the Gothic commander and his army to Illyricum. In the following year, the Ostrogoths again attacked from the north, and on this occasion Stilicho defeated them decisively, sold many of the survivors into slavery and enrolled others in his own army.

In 407, another military usurper emerged from Britain, while the activities of Vandals and other barbarians in Gaul occupied Stilicho’s attention. Alaric, alive to his opportunity, supported by fresh Danubian allies, led his people round to Noricum (Austria), north of the Alps, and received from the Emperor that territory, with a substantial payment in gold, as the price of quiescence at a difficult moment. The Emperor was closely connected by marriage with Stilicho, who virtually controlled the Western Empire during these years. But the great general suddenly fell from power, and Honorius foolishly had him executed.

There was now no commander in the West capable of placing any restraint upon Alaric, who at once asked for more gold and more land. When these were refused, he invaded Italy and marched on Rome. He raised the siege of the city when the Emperor temporized, but soon renewed it when negotiations broke down. He was thus enabled to impose an emperor of his own choosing in Rome, but quickly became disappointed with his choice and impatiently deposed the puppet. Further attempts to negotiate with Honorius at Ravenna proved fruitless, and after a third siege Alaric’s men were surreptitiously admitted to Rome by some Gothic slaves within the walls. The Gothic army plundered the city for three days, but did comparatively little damage. With Stilicho gone, the sea was open to Alaric, and he aimed at North Africa. Unfortunately for his purpose, the fleet which he had assembled at Rhegium was destroyed by a storm, and he himself died soon after (410). He was buried in a river bed to ensure that his last resting place should not be disturbed.

The Gothic capture of Rome hardly amounted to a “sack”. There was certainly enough booty left to reward the efforts of Gaiseric’s Vandal raiders when they arrived by sea and captured the city in 455. Gaiseric carried away the Jewish temple treasures which Titus had appropriated four centuries earlier. Ships, as the Vandals well understood, were useful for the transport of moveables. The Vandal king also made prisoner the two daughters of the Emperor Valentinian III, one of whom he married to his son. The other, apparently not required, was sent home.

Imaginative illustrations of Rome’s barbarian invaders easily leave the impression that they swept into the Empire with irresistible verve in a series of cavalry charges. Consideration of the foregoing facts, however, suggests a different view. Stilicho and Alaric, in their wars, were extremely cautious, frequently preferring manoeuvre and negotiated peace to pitched battle and bloody victory. Alaric, like Stilicho, was one of Theodosius’ old officers, and his outlook on warfare was that of a professional soldier. Moreover, the people over whom he ruled, though they invaded Italy, as the legions of rebellious Roman generals had often done in the past, were not invaders of the Empire. They were simply a dissatisfied immigrant community, asserting what they considered their rights as members of the Roman world.

The Fate of Roman Britain

In considering these years, when chaos engulfed the centre of the Empire, we may understandably feel curiosity as to the fate of Britain, situated at the circumference. In AD 410, answering a request for military aid against barbarian invaders, Honorius advised the Roman community of Britain to arrange for its own defence. Like other parts of the Empire, Britain was under attack, and the attackers were no longer merely the Picts (Painted-men). They were Germanic tribes from Frisia and the mouth of the Rhine. The term “Saxon” at first denoted a particular tribe; later, it was applied with little discrimination to Germanic peoples who inhabited the regions around the mouth of the Rhine and the North Sea coast.

At the end of the third century, Constantius, father of Constantine the Great, after eliminating Carausius and his successor, improved a chain of forts, which Carausius and other commanders had established, to defend the “Saxon Shore” – ie, the south and east coasts of Britain and the Channel coast of Gaul. The idea of such a defence may indeed have originated with Carausius. The Saxon-shore forts were much bigger than earlier Roman forts in Britain, and they relied upon massive masonry, not merely stone-faced earthworks. Imposing ruins are still visible and nine British forts are listed in the Notitia Dignitatum. Ammianus Marcellinus mentions that these defences were placed under the command of a “Count of the Saxon Shore” (Comes litoris Saxonici), while in the north, the Wall was the responsibility of the “Duke” (dux) of Britain who had his headquarters at York. In the time of Diocletian and Constantine, dux, that general term for a leader or guide, had become the specific title of an officer in charge of frontier defence. It was later applied to the chiefs of barbarian tribal groupings too small to qualify for rule by kings. Similarly, comes, meaning literally a “companion”, had denoted membership of the emperor’s staff. Under Constantine, it became a title for high-ranking officers and officials.

In 367, Saxons, acting in collusion with Scots (who came originally from Ireland) and Picts, overran Britain. Like other barbarians, they failed to capture the strongly fortified towns, but damage done to a previously flourishing rural community was severe, and the Duke of Britain and the Count of the Saxon Shore were both killed. The situation was restored by the valiant Roman general Theodosius (father of the Emperor Theodosius the Great), who drove out the barbarians, rebuilt fortifications, and established a valuable line of signal stations on the Yorkshire coast to give advance warning of sea-borne attack.

After two imperial pretenders, Magnus Maximus (385) and the upstart Flavius Claudius Constantinus (407) had drafted troops away from the island in support of their southward adventures, Britain was again left virtually undefended, though in the intervening period (395) Stilicho had done something to reorganize garrison forces. After Honorius’ negative reaction in 410, we can rely on little but archaeological evidence for our knowledge of Roman military administration in the island.

To this obscure epoch must be assigned the exploits of the legendary King Arthur – in so far as they have any real historical basis. A Romano-British chief named Artorius perhaps resisted the Saxon invaders. Gildas, the Celtic monk, writing in Latin in the sixth century, records a great British victory in the Wessex area in about AD 500, and Nennius, a ninth-century chronicler, associates this victory with the name of Arthur, which he gives as that of a victorious general, not a king.

Aetius surveys the Catalaunian fields. Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443.

The Defeat of the Huns

In AD 446, Roman Britain made its last known appeal for imperial help to Flavius Aëtius, the commander-in-chief (Patrician) of the Emperor Valentinian III, grandson of the great Theodosius. But Aëtius was already heavily engaged against other barbarians – who were soon to include the Huns. It was, of course, inevitable that the Huns, whose westward progress had precipitated the migration of other peoples, should sooner or later appear in their own persons. The reputation of the Huns is well known. Their cruelty was often without malice, and their malice was too terrible to contemplate. Nevertheless, in their early contacts with the Roman world, they had sometimes been enrolled in the imperial service, and Stilicho had been served by a very faithful Hunnish bodyguard.

The boastful menaces of Attila, who became sole king of the Huns in 445, suggest something of a buffoon but, far from that, he must have been a commander of very shrewd ability. Under his rule, the Huns dominated and terrorized wide tracts of Europe and Asia, but their power collapsed after his death. Apart from Attila’s leadership, the main strength of the Huns, as of other barbarians, lay in their immense number, swollen as it was in their case by the addition of many subject peoples. They were a Mongoloid nation of hunters and shepherds from the steppes of central Asia and, as one might expect, they extensively employed the horse and the bow for warlike as well as peaceful purposes. But the trappings of their horses were of gold and their sword hilts were inlaid with gold and precious stones. Indeed, they had an insatiable appetite for gold, and were usually willing to refrain from hostilities if offered sufficient of it. Attila had inherited from his father a royal capital “city” in Pannonia (Hungary). It was built of wood but contained a stone bath-house. From this base, Attila was able to threaten the Bosphorus. The Emperor paid him gold and ceded him territory, but though the Huns had ravaged the Eastern Empire, they could not hope to prevail against the impregnable walls of Constantinople.

Meanwhile. the Western Emperor’s sister, Honoria, who for her past sins had been relegated by pious relatives to a condition of perpetual chastity, for which she had no vocation, offered herself secretly to Attila, and he would have been willing to concede her the status of concubine in return for a dowry of half the Western Empire. But these terms were rejected and Attila unleashed an attack against Gaul and Western Europe.

Aëtius, the Patrician, as commander-in-chief, now formed an alliance with his old Visigothic enemies in Gaul, and halted Attila’s advance at Orléans, The combined Imperial and Gothic forces then inflicted a bloody defeat upon the Huns in the “Catalaunian Plain”, somewhere near Châlons. This battle has been reckoned as one of the most decisive in the world’s history, but considering its violence, it decided very little. The defeated enemy was not pursued. Attila retreated to his wooden capital in Pannonia and the next year launched a major offensive into Italy. He requisitioned siege-engines with their operators, and after a three-month investment utterly destroyed Aquileia. Some fugitives escaped to the Adriatic lagoons, where their refugee settlement eventually gave rise to the city of Venice.

Attila was now met near Lake Garda by Pope Leo (the Great) who dissuaded him from marching southward against Rome. The Huns, though not Christians, tended to regard any religion with awe, and much was due to the personality of Leo, whose deterrent influence was again successfully exercised three years later when Gaiseric’s Vandals entered Rome. At the same time, Attila exacted a promise that Honoria and the treasure which constituted the moveable portion of her dowry should be surrendered to him, failing which, hostilities would be renewed. However, before the promise could be fully carried out, he died suddenly, having burst a blood vessel on his first night with a new concubine (453). Without their leader, the Huns ceased to be a serious menace and were soon annihilated, dispersed or expelled by the combined efforts of Goths and other Germanic barbarians who opposed them.

Aëtius, who defeated Attila in Gaul, was the son of a Count (comes) of Africa. In his youth, he had been a hostage among the Huns and during his sojourn among them learnt much of their customs, establishing some friendship with them. Indeed, Aëtius originally imposed his power at Ravenna with the help of Hunnish auxiliaries, and expectation that he might again need their aid explains his reluctance to pursue them after his great victory in Gaul.

Aëtius was a colourful character. History credits him, during the confused civil strife that followed Honorius’ death, with having killed one of his professional rivals in single combat. He was eventually stabbed to death by his imperial master, Valentinian, whose jealousy recalls that of Honorius for Stilicho.

The Defences of Constantinople

Although the Goths and the Huns were able to exact ever-increasing payments in gold as an inducement to spare the territories of the Eastern Empire, both Alaric and Attila realized that they had little prospect of capturing Constantinople itself, and they did not waste time and effort in the attempt. We have already drawn attention to the ideal strategic position of the city. A plan of Constantinople will show it to be built on a roughly triangular promontory: the profile of a vulture-like beak, across the landward base of which a heavily fortified wall extends from the Sea of Marmara in the south to an arm of the Bosphorus (The Golden Horn) in the north.

The original wall of Constantine, damaged by an earthquake in AD 401, was promptly repaired by Arcadius, but during the minority of his son and successor Theodosius II, the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius demolished the old walls and built new (413). These ramparts were again ruined by an earthquake, but in the year 447 they were rebuilt in three months. Situated one mile to the west of the line traced by Constantine, Theodosius’ walls enclosed a city of double the area, and in the space between the old and the new walls the Imperial Gothic guard was stationed.

The outer face of the fortifications was protected by a broad, deep moat. An attacker who overcame this obstacle would then be confronted by a breastwork approximately equal to his own height, and some 40 feet (12m) behind this, as an inner defence, stood a chain of towers, linked by a curtain wall 26 feet (8m) high. The fourth line of defence was the main city wall itself, lying back at a further distance of 66 feet (20m), 43 feet (13m) in height, and fortified by great towers from which enfilading showers of missiles could be directed into the flanks of the assailants. Other walls of solid masonry defended the perimeter of the city where it was adjacent to the sea. These embraced the whole headland and connected with the land walls at either end. They consisted, like the land walls, of a double rampart, fortified by towers at brief intervals. The Golden Horn itself was guarded against enemy naval attack by a chain boom.

However, the walls of the capital might not have been enough to defend its inhabitants, if they had not given a high priority to naval strength. The Byzantine fleet made use mainly of light galleys (dromones in Greek), the equivalent of the liburnae used by Augustus. Clearly, with their ever-pressing need to conserve manpower, the Eastern emperors could not have afforded to develop the multireme leviathans of earlier times. The Byzantine vessels also made considerable use of sails, and they often featured several masts, which – contrary to earlier Roman and Greek practice – were not dismounted during action. From their Arab enemies of a later date, the Byzantines also adopted the triangular lateen sail.

Relying, in the tradition of Graeco-Roman civilization, on science and technique to defeat overwhelming enemy odds, the Byzantines produced a secret weapon, which for many centuries gave them a decisive advantage. This was a type of flame missile, which was used with devastating effect against enemy ships. Many combustible mixtures employed in the Middle Ages were loosely termed “Greek Fire”. The precise Byzantine compound was based on ingredients which are unknown, for it was a well-kept secret, but the characteristic of the original Greek Fire was that it ignited – or was at least not quenched – on contact with water. This suggests that quicklime was an element, and it must also be remembered that petroleum, known to the Greeks as naphtha (Persian naft), was available in surface deposits in Babylonia. The invention of Greek Fire was attributed to Callinicus, a Greek engineer from Heliopolis in Syria, who lived in the reign of the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus (668-685). Greek Fire was sometimes projected in containers in the manner of grenades, but it was also released through tubes, with which Byzantine warships were specially fitted.

Apart from the defence of Constantinople itself, the Byzantines maintained a flotilla to patrol the Danube, and behind this river frontier Justinian built a four-line system of nearly 300 fortresses and watchtowers to defend the Empire at what had for many centuries proved to be its most vulnerable point.

It should be noticed that even in Justinian’s day, when Constantinople was the focus of an expansionist strategy which emulated the era of the first Augustus and his immediate successors, war on some fronts remained defensive. While Africa was being won from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths, and southern Spain from the Visigoths, repeated military efforts in the East were necessary to hold the Sassanid Persians at bay. Inevitably, with the death of Justinian, the Byzantines, deprived of dynamic leadership, reverted to a defensive strategy, which in the centuries that followed was often barely enough to save the city itself from occupation by invading forces.

Despite Justinian’s Roman sentiments and aspirations, the army which manned his defences and fought his wars was far from being Roman in character. It was not any longer primarily an army of legionary foot soldiers, but of heavily mailed cavalry on the Persian model, and the weapons on which it chiefly relied were the lance and the bow. Even in the infantry, archers and javelin-throwers predominated. Light cavalry was supplied by Huns and Arabs. There was, of course, nothing un-Roman in using barbarian auxiliaries to combat barbarian enemies. Julius Caesar had done as much. It was simply a question of degree. Indeed, many of the gradual changes in equipment may be traced back to the second century AD.

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