Historic Tales A Window Open To Europe
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The Downfall Of Rome
Theodosius, the great and noble emperor who succeeded Valens, pacified
and made quiet subjects of the Goths. He died in 395, and before the
year ended the Gothic nation was again in arms. At the first sound of
the trumpet the warriors, who had been forced to a life of labor,
deserted their fields and flocked to the standards of war. The barriers
of the empire were down. Across the frozen surface of the Danube flocked
savage tribesmen from the northern forests, and joined the Gothic hosts.
Under the leadership of an able commander, the famous Alaric, the
barbarians swept from their fields and poured downward upon Greece, in
search of an easier road to fortune than the toilsome one of industry.
Many centuries had passed since the Persians invaded Greece, and the men
of Marathon and Thermopylae were no more. Men had been posted to defend
the world-famous pass, but, instead of fighting to the death, like
Leonidas and his Spartans of old, they retired without a blow, and left
Greece to the mercy of the Goth.
Instantly a deluge of barbarians spread right and left, and the whole
country was ravaged. Thebes alone resisted. Athens admitted Alaric
within its gates, and saved itself by giving the barbarian chief a bath
and a banquet. The other famous cities had lost their walls, and
Corinth, Argos, and Sparta yielded without defence to the Goths. The
wealth of the cities and the produce of the country were ravaged without
stint, villages and towns were committed to the flames, thousands of the
inhabitants were borne off to slavery, and for years afterwards the
track of the Goths could be traced in ruin throughout the land.
By a fortunate chance Rome possessed at that epoch a great general, the
famous Stilicho, whose military genius has rarely been surpassed. He had
before him a mighty task, the forcing back of the high tide of barbarian
overflow, but he did it well while he lived. His death brought ruin on
Rome. Stilicho hastened to Greece and quickly drove the Goths from the
Peloponnesus. But jealousy between Constantinople and Rome tied his
hands, he was recalled to Italy, and the weak emperor of the East
rewarded the Gothic general for his destructive raid by making him
master-general of Illyricum.
Alaric, fired by ambition, used his new power in forcing the cities of
his dominion to supply the Goths with the weapons of war. Then, Greece
and the country to the north having been devastated, he turned his arms
against Italy, and about 400 A.D. appeared at the foot of the Julian
Alps, the first invader who had threatened Italy since the days of
Hannibal, six hundred years before.
There were at that time two rulers of the Roman empire,--Arcadius,
emperor of the East, and Honorius, emperor of the West. The latter, a
coward himself, had a brave man to command his armies,--Stilicho, who
had driven the Goths from Greece. But Italy, though it had a general,
was destitute of an army. To meet the invading foe, Stilicho was forced
to empty the forts on the Rhine, and even to send to England for the
legion that guarded the Caledonian wall. With the army thus raised he
met the Gothic host at Pollentia, and defeated them with frightful
slaughter, recovering from their camp many of the spoils of Greece.
Another battle was fought at Verona, and the Goths were again defeated.
They were now forced to retire from Italy, Stilicho and the emperor
entered Rome, and that capital saw its last great triumph, and gloried
in a revival of its magnificent ancient games.
In these games the cruel combat of gladiators was shown for the last
time to the blood-thirsty populace of Rome. The edict of Constantine had
failed to stop these frightful sports. The appeal of a Christian poet
was equally without effect. A more decisive action was necessary, and it
came. In the midst of these bloody contests an Asiatic monk, named
Telemachus, rushed into the arena and attempted to separate the
gladiators. He paid for his rashness with his life, being stoned to
death by the furious spectators, with whose pleasure he had dared to
interfere. But his death had its effect. The fury of the people was
followed by shame. Telemachus was looked upon as a martyr, and the
gladiatorial shows came to an end, the emperor abolishing forever the
spectacle of human slaughter and human cruelty in the amphitheatre of
Rome triumphed too soon. Its ovation to victory was the expiring gleam
in its long career of glory and dominion. Its downfall was at hand.
Fight as it might in Italy, the gate-ways of the empire lay open in the
north, and through them still poured barbarian hordes. The myriads of
the Huns, rushing in a devouring wave from the borders of China, made a
mighty stir in the forest region of the Baltic and the Danube. In the
year 406 a vast host of Germans, known by the names of Vandals,
Burgundians, and Suevi, under a leader named Rhodogast, or Radagaisus,
crossed the Danube and made its way unopposed to Italy. Multitudes of
Goths joined them, till the army numbered not less than two hundred
thousand fighting men.
As the flood of barbarians rushed southward through Italy, many cities
were pillaged or destroyed, and the city of Florence sustained its first
recorded siege. Alaric and his Goths were Christians. Radagaisus and his
Germans were half-savage pagans. Florence, which had dared oppose them,
was threatened with utter ruin. It was to be reduced to stones and
ashes, and its noblest senators were to be sacrificed on the altars of
the German gods. The Florentines, thus threatened, fought bravely, but
they were reduced to the last extremity before deliverance came.
Stilicho had not been idle during this destructive raid. By calling
troops from the frontiers, by arming slaves, and by enlisting barbarian
allies, he was at length able to take the field. He led the last army
of Rome, and dared not expose it to the wild valor of the savage foe. On
the contrary, he surrounded their camp with strong lines which defied
their efforts to break through, and waited till starvation should force
them to surrender.
Florence was relieved. The besiegers were in their turn besieged. Their
bravest warriors were slain in efforts to break the Roman lines.
Radagaisus surrendered to Stilicho, and was instantly executed. Such of
his followers as had not been swept away by famine and disease were sold
as slaves. The great host disappeared, and Stilicho a second time won
the proud title of Deliverer of Italy.
But the whole army of Radagaisus was not destroyed. Half of it had
remained in the north. These were forced by Stilicho to retreat from
Italy. But Gaul lay open to their fury. That great and rich section of
the empire was invaded and frightfully ravaged, and its conquerors never
afterwards left its fertile fields. The empire of Rome ceased to exist
in the countries beyond the Alps, those great regions which had been won
by the arms of Marius and Caesar.
And now the time had come for Rome to destroy itself. The mind of the
emperor was poisoned against Stilicho, the sole remaining bulwark of his
power. He had sought to tie the hands of Alaric with gifts of power and
gold, and was accused of treason by his enemies. The weak Honorius gave
way, and Stilicho was slain. His friends shared his fate, and the
cowardly imbecile who ruled Rome cut down the only safeguard of his
The result was what might have been foreseen. In a few months after the
death of Stilicho, Alaric was again in Italy, exasperated by the bad
faith of the court, which had promised and not performed. There was no
army and no general to meet him. City after city was pillaged. Avoiding
the strong walls of Ravenna, behind which the emperor lay secure, he
marched on Rome, led his army under the stately arches, adorned with the
spoils of countless victories, and pitched his tents beneath the walls
of the imperial city.
Six hundred and nineteen years had passed since a foreign foe had gazed
upon those proud walls, within which lay the richest and most splendid
city of the world, peopled by a population of more than a million souls.
But Rome was no longer the city which had defied the hosts of Hannibal,
and had sold at auction, for a fair price, the very ground on which the
great Carthaginian had pitched his tent. Alaric was not a Hannibal, but
much less were the Romans of his day the Romans of the past.
Instead of striking for the honor of Rome, they lay and starved within
their walls until thousands had died in houses and streets. No army came
to their relief, and in despair the senate sent delegates to treat with
the king of the Goths.
"We are resolved to maintain the dignity of Rome, either in peace or
war," said the envoys, with a show of pride and valor. "If you will not
yield us honorable terms, you may sound your trumpets and prepare to
fight with myriads of men used to arms and with the courage of despair."
"The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed," answered Alaric, with a
loud and insulting laugh.
He then named the terms on which he would retreat,--all the gold and
silver in the city; all the rich and precious movables; all the
slaves who were of barbarian origin.
"If such are your demands," asked the envoys, now reduced to suppliant
tones, "what do you intend to leave us?"
"Your lives," said Alaric, in haughty tones.
The envoys retired, trembling with fear.
But Alaric moderated his demands, and was bought off by the payment of
five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, four
thousand robes of silk, three thousand pieces of scarlet cloth, and
three thousand pounds of pepper, then a costly and favorite spice. The
gates were opened, the hungry multitude was fed, and the Gothic army
marched away, but it left Rome poor.
What followed is too long to tell. Alaric treated for peace with the
ministers of the emperor. But he met with such bad faith and so many
insults that exasperation overcame all his desire for peace, and once
more the army of the Goths marched upon Rome.
The crime and folly of the court of Honorius at Ravenna had at last
brought about the ruin of the imperial city. The senate resolved on
defence; but there were traitors within the walls. At midnight the
Salarian Gate was silently opened, and a chosen band of barbarians
entered the streets. The tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet aroused
the sleeping citizens to the fact that all was lost. Eleven hundred and
sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, and eight hundred years
after its capture by the Gauls, it had again become the prey of
barbarians, and the imperial mistress of the world was delivered to the
fury of the German and Gothic hordes.
Alaric, while permitting his followers to plunder at discretion, bade
them to spare the lives of the unresisting; but thousands of Romans were
slain, and the forty thousand slaves who had joined his ranks revenged
themselves on their former masters with pitiless rage. Conflagration
added to the horrors, and fire spread far over the captured city. The
Goths held Rome only for six days, but in that time depleted it
frightfully of its wealth. The costly furniture, the massive plate, the
robes of silk and purple, were piled without stint into their wagons,
and numerous works of art were wantonly destroyed.
But Alaric and many of his followers were Christians, and the treasures
of the Church escaped. A Christian Goth broke into the dwelling of an
aged woman, and demanded all the gold and silver she possessed. To his
astonishment, she showed him a hoard of massive plate, of the most
curious workmanship. As he looked at it with wonder and delight, she
"These are the consecrated vessels belonging to St. Peter. If you
presume to touch them, your conscience must answer for the sacrilege.
For me, I dare not keep what I am not able to defend."
The Goth, struck with awe by her words, sent word to Alaric of what he
had found, and received an order that all this consecrated treasure
should be transported without damage to St. Peter's Church. A remarkable
spectacle, never before seen in a captured city, followed. From the
Quirinal Hill to the distant Vatican marched a long train of devout
Goths, bearing on their heads the sacred vessels of gold and silver, and
guarded on each side by a detachment of their armed companions, while
the martial shouts of the barbarians mingled with the hymns of devotees.
A crowd of Christians flocked from the houses to join the procession,
and through its sheltering aid a multitude of fugitives escaped to the
secure retreat of the Vatican.
Not satisfied with plundering the city, the conquerors ended by selling
its citizens, save those who could ransom themselves, for slaves. Many
of these were redeemed by the benevolent, but as a result of the taking
of Rome hosts of indigent fugitives were scattered through the empire,
from Italy to Syria.
From this time forward the Western Empire of Rome was the prey of
barbarians. In 451 the Huns under Attila invaded Gaul, besieged Orleans,
and were defeated at Chalons in the last great victory of Rome. In the
following year Attila invaded Italy, and Rome was only saved from the
worst of horrors by a large ransom. Three years afterwards, in 455, an
army of Vandals, who had invaded Africa, sailed to Italy, and Rome was
again taken and sacked. For fourteen days and nights the pillage
continued, and when it ended Rome was stripped bare of treasure; the
Christian churches, which had been spared by the Goths, being
mercilessly plundered by these heathen conquerors.
A few years more and the Western Empire of Rome came to an end. In the
year 476 or 479, Augustulus, the last emperor, was forced to resign, and
Odoacer, a barbarian chief, assumed the title of King of Italy. As for
the Eastern Empire, it maintained a half-life for nearly a thousand
years after, Constantinople being finally taken by the Turks, and made
the capital of Turkey, in 1453.
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