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Rome in Eclipse

An 1836 Painting Showing the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410

I have begun reading Thomas Hodgkin’s magisterial Italy and Her Invaders in the Folio Society edition, which has been retitled The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire. The first volume covers the Visigoths and the Empire as it was from the death of Julian the Apostate in AD 363 to AD 414.

We entertain a false picture of the Roman Empire during the Fifth Century. In the late Third Century, the Emperor Diocletian decided that, insofar as administration was concerned, the Empire was too big for one man to control. He decided to divvy it up into four pieces, creating the Tetrarchy.

By the reign of Julian, the four pieces consisted of Gaul (including France, England, and Spain); Italy (including Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, and North Africa); Illyricum (including Greece, Macedonia, and Ukraine); and the Orient (including Turkey, Bulgaria, Syria, and Egypt). Note that Egypt, which was the bread basket of the Empire, now shipped most of its grain to Constantinople, leaving Rome high and dry.

In fact, after Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, the city of Rome began to decline. The co-emperor ruled from either Milan or Ravenna. Both cities were closer to the Alps and the routes the Barbarians would take in attacking the Italian Peninsula.

The other “capitals” were Constantinople for the Orient; Augusta Treverorum, or Trier, for Gaul; and Thessalonika or Sirmium for Illyricum.

When I cam across this line in Hodgkin’s first volume, I realized that by this time Rome was toast:

Strange to say, during the whole preceding century, Rome had only four times seen an emperor within her walls, Constantine (312) after his victory over Maxentius, Constantius (357) four years after the overthrow of Magnentius, and Theodosius (389) after his defeat of maximus, and again (394) after his defeat of Eugenius.

Once the Barbarians started invading in numbers, Rome was just too far away from the action. Days were wasted getting to the top of the boot of Italy. So when Rome was sacked by the Barbarians, they were largely attacking a symbol rather than a seat of power.